Iain Banks's clear-eyed unsentimentality is the reason I feel duty-bound to say The Quarry is a stinker

The Quarry comes across as something of a "greatest hits" - I wanted, desperately, for the book to be a final majestic flourish - his rightly deserved swan song. But it isn't. It's a stinker.

The Quarry
Iain Banks
Little Brown, 336pp, £18.99

I come to bury Iain Banks, not to praise him. I wanted, desperately, to like The Quarry, hoped it would be a final majestic flourish to a career that encompassed both space operas and cosy domestic dramas – but it isn’t. Without his name on the cover, it would barely be read at all.

Banks was diagnosed in April with terminal cancer and he died on 9 June, days before The Quarry was released. It is his 29th book – he wrote 14 science-fiction volumes (as Iain M Banks) and 14 literary ones – and probably his worst, although I can muster little enthusiasm for 2002’s Dead Air or 2007’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale (I didn’t even attempt 2012’s Stonemouth). The cover blurb promises “a virtuoso performance whose soaring riffs on the inexhaustible marvel of human perception . . . will stand among Iain Banks’s greatest work”. The cover blurb is lying.

Most gallingly, there is probably a good book inside The Quarry trying to get out. The damp, bleak, setting and the motif of death in the family echoes The Crow Road, the best of Banks’s non-supernatural output, while the naive teenage protagonist, Kit, reminds one of The Wasp Factory’s tortured Frank Cauldhame. Mix in the hatred of religion found in Whit, the hatred of capitalism found in The Business, add a dash of the computer-game references of Complicity, and this had the potential to build triumphantly on themes Banks had explored before. (The puns and word games of previous books can sometimes feel a little forced here, though: at one point, a character says “ate viola”, instead of “et voilà”. I know the person is supposed to be a hideous yuppy but come on, no one’s that much of a monster.)

The Quarry feels like nothing so much as a “greatest hits” and the borrowings don’t just come from the Banks back catalogue: the whole plot seems strangely reminiscent of the film Peter’s Friends. A group who studied together at Bewford University two decades earlier are reunited in a crumbling house, in constant jeopardy of falling down because of the explosions from the quarry next door.

They want to find a videotape they made together back then, which threatens to ruin their futures if it gets out. Alison, who now works for Google, angrily impresses the importance of this task on Kit by taking side swipes at some of the other house guests: “Look, Kit . . . I’m not running a couple of homes for pensioners stinking of urine, I’m not writing about films nobody watches in magazines nobody reads; I’m on course to have the kind of power that can buy and sell the sort of politician Paul dreams of being.”

At this point, Banks might as well have thrown in a thunderclap and a maniacal laugh. What is Alison’s plan to control the puny minds of the world’s sheeple? Sit in a hollowed-out volcano and fiddle with the search algorithm to make Justin Bieber videos marginally harder to find?

There are also problems with the narrator. We are given to understand that Kit is somewhere on the autistic spectrum by his repeated digressions on how many steps it takes to circumnavigate the garden, or the spectacle of him reciting a piece of film criticism from 20 years ago that he can remember word for word. Kit acknowledges that other people can find him irritating: unfortunately, I did, too.

The book’s dark heart is Kit’s dying father, Guy. It’s curious to think that Banks started The Quarry before his cancer diagnosis, because Guy’s rage and pain are only too believable, as is the honest – but rarely spoken – observation that living with a dying person can be as upsetting and stressful as mourning their death.

Having only months to live doesn’t transform a person into a white-robed, beatific angel, it just makes everyone else feel guilty for noticing their flaws.

And Guy has more than a few minor blemishes. He is selfish, leering and bitter: he swears at Kit, calls him useless, and bitches at his son even as he’s wiping his arse for him. “I am waiting for him to die,” writes Kit. “Apart from anything else, my knowing he doesn’t have very much longer to live helps make it easier to ignore the insults and curses and the general unpleasantness that him being in this state leads to.” Guy eventually exits the novel after telling all his friends that they’re failures, and the world is doomed.

That’s the kind of clear-eyed unsentimentality I expect from Iain Banks; and it’s the reason I feel duty-bound to say this book is a stinker. The Banks I admired would never have wanted the sympathy vote.

Bright light: the late Iain Banks in 2008. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain