All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney
All the Colours of the Town
by Liam McIlvanney
Faber and Faber,
Paperback; 390 pages,
Such was the heightened state of political and religious tension in Scotland in 1975 that, when Peter McDougall’s ground-breaking drama Just Another Saturday depicted the violence and religious bigotry of a typical Orange Walk, Scottish police warned that its screening might ‘cause bloodshed on the streets’. Back then, Scots couldn’t bear to see themselves as others saw them. Thirty years on, post-Good Friday Agreement, post-disarmament, and with The Troubles concluded, the publication of Liam McIlvanney’s political thriller caused barely a whisper up a tenement close in Maryhill. It seems the world has moved on.
Beginning with a heart-stopping ‘Prologue’ in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, All the Colours of the Town unwinds slowly as Gerry Conway, feisty yet nervy Scottish Political Editor of the Tribune on Sunday, follows up a potential scoop about Peter Lyons, Minister for Justice and Scotland’s ‘First Minister-in-Waiting.’ The Tribune is barely surviving. Under new ownership in the form of Englishman Norman Rix, it is ‘bumping along at 55,000 [readers].’ Lyons is ‘a good politician. He gave good copy.’ If true, the story will change the political landscape, saving both the Tribune and Conway’s job. However, investigating the sectarian roots of his key political ally will most certainly put an end to the beneficial ‘old pals act’ between Conway and Lyons.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise and the Clash’s ‘White Riot’ provide the background to McIlvanney’s exploration of colour-coded sectarianism in which colour both joins and separates. Conway, a Catholic, visits Lyons’s fictional home town of Crosskirk; a ‘bitter town’ in Lanarkshire’s Orange heartland, on a typical Saturday in July. Arriving for the parade, Conway is suddenly aware of his difference: ‘A knot of boys at the war memorial turned to watch me pass. Old fears began to surface. How Catholic did you look? Could people tell? Was the Forester’s dark bottle-green enough to arouse suspicion?’ McIlvanney has a keen eye and ear for small town prejudice. It oozes out of Conway’s guilty pleasure as he watches the parade:
‘I like the Walk. I know you’re not supposed to. I know it’s a throwback, a discharge of hate, a line of orange pus clogging the streets of central Scotland. But I like it anyway. I like the cheap music, its belligerent jauntiness. I like the crisp gunfire of the snares. I like the band uniforms and the hats and the apocalyptic names stencilled on the Lambeg drums: Cragside Truth Defenders; Denfield Martyrs Memorial Band; Pride of Glengarnock Fifes and Drums.
For most folk, a parade’s an excuse to throw off restraint. In most parades, the participants take their cue from the bands; you think of Rio with its swirl of sequins and ostrich feathers, the bobbing phalanxes of militant Sowetans, Pamplona’s neckerchiefed riau-riau dancers. And then there’s Scotland’s Orangemen. Here they come in their Sunday suits, dark, with just a grudging flash of colour at the shoulders, step by dispassionate step, Bibles closed, umbrellas rolled. Lenten faces and tight, teetotal lips. It’s a carnival of restraint, a flaunting of continence. The music rolls past, sends out its invitation to swagger and reel. But the marchers step carefully on, unmoved, without the least roll of the hips.
All except for the drum-major, who dances enough for everyone. He takes up the shortfall, whirling and spinning, knocking himself out. All their sinful urges, all the demons of the tribe; he takes them into himself and dances them out.’
For a Glasgow man used to such scenes it seems implausible that, when he is surrounded and ridiculed by the baying, part-jovial crowd, he resolves to investigate the story. Part sensitive ‘new man’ and part journalist-in-search-of-a-story, Conway is as comfortable in Ferranti’s in the Merchant City as he is in the Avalon Bar, a ‘traditional’ pub across the street from the Mitchell Library, ‘on the corner of Kent Road and Cleveland Street.’ Through Conway, McIlvanney updates the image of the ‘mean city’ of slums and hard men: ‘[O]n sunny summer afternoons, Glasgow is Manhattan. The buildings instantly lofty, colossal. Black diagonals of shade bisect the traffic, cut across the cabs on St Vincent Street. The city looks like a photograph, black-and-white, something out of Berenice Abbott, Bleecker Street or Union Square.’ In fact, Conway’s passage through familiar Glasgow landmarks, from the Art Deco splendour of Rogano to Queen Street and Central Rail Stations, to Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens, up Argyle Street, Buchannan Street, through Bridgeton Cross, reads like a tourist guide to summer in the city.
Conway narrates the story in prose peppered with noirish broadsheet journalese: ‘The office was quiet, the monitors blind, their dark screens latent, waiting to be touched to whiteness by the nudge of a mouse, a three-fingered tap on the space bar.’ ‘I lit a Café Crème and slotted Highway 61 Revisited into the CD player. It was good driving. Late sunlight lay in stripes across the waves, like shipping waves on a map.’ The credibility of his sudden obsession with the story, and with uncovering some ‘newsy nugget’ on Lyons is questionable if we are to believe the shared history between the two men. Moreover, his naivety is implausible and inconsistent. He’s a hardened reporter, experienced at covering The Troubles in the 1990s, so it’s inconceivable that he wouldn’t know why the Saltire is depicted alongside the Ulster flag on Ulster murals. Whether in Scotland or Northern Ireland, he traverses landscapes littered with memories buried as deep as the ‘MOD munitions dump in the North Channel between Scotland and Ulster’ until it reaches a dénouement that is as swift as it is surprising.
All the Colours of the Town takes a long, convoluted route through historical allusion and clever literary aside, mistily reminiscing covenanting mythology to discover the long- acknowledged truth that European funding and shiny new politicians are but sticking plasters over the scab of a still festering sore.