Away the Crow Road

Remembering Iain Banks, an intensely political writer.

The title of Iain Banks’s 1992 novel The Crow Road comes from a Glasgow expression: its hero tries to work out if his uncle Rory has merely vanished temporarily, or if he has gone “away the Crow Road”. It is a book preoccupied with death right from its showstopping first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (They forgot to remove her pacemaker before cremating her.) It is also, for my money, the best of Banks’s novels: warm, funny, dark and intoxicatingly imaginative.

Like many of the best sciencefiction writers, Banks – who died on 9 June from gall bladder cancer at the age of 59 – was intensely political. Unlike many of his peers, however, he dared to imagine utopias as well as dystopias. In his “Culture” series, he imagined a universe of superabundance, patrolled by infinitely wise artificial intelligences. There were no laws, no money and no death, unless you were tired of life. The recurrent question was: how would such a liberal, socialist society respond when it encountered others that didn’t share its values?

In Banks’s vision, the Culture developed a special taskforce to carry out “secular evangelism”, benignly meddling in the affairs of other, less evolved civilisations. The highbrow citizens of the Culture never had to get their hands dirty.

In real life, sadly, intervening in another society is neither that simple nor that innately benevolent. In 2004, Banks tore up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair to protest against the Iraq war (handily, this also allowed him to get out of foreign book tours). It was the culmination of three years of politicisation; unfortunately, this did not make for better art. Dead Air (2002) seems desperate to say something about 9/11 but never manages it; then it took Banks an unprecedented five years before his next book, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is marred by a multi-page slab of diatribe from the protagonist along these lines: “The US is a great country full of great people . . . It’s just their propensity as a whole for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the utmost depravity that I object to.” It carries on in this vein for several pages, and although it might have made a bearable newspaper op-ed, it doesn’t really belong in a novel about a family that invented a board game.

So, what will remain of Iain Banks? His science fiction, undoubtedly, for its scope and humour. And his three best literary works: The Bridge (1986), a multi-stranded hallucinatory narrative; Walking on Glass (1985), which is – and I use the technical literary term here – bonkers, albeit in a good way; and my own favourite, The Crow Road. This last book showed that even when Banks wasn’t in fantastical mode, telling a story set among spaceships or never-ending bridges, even when he was writing about the mundane, he could still make his subject feel magical.

Iain Banks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.