My dad was a short man with a short fuse. Mostly affable, he could explode into violent rage at the smallest of provocations. As a child I witnessed him throw stuff in the air, hurl stuff to the floor, bang his fist on tables, and lash out at whichever unlucky sentient got in the way: the dog, my sister, me. I can see now that he was a grown man having toddler, temper tantrums. If it sounds funny in the telling it wasn’t in the living, it was scary, embarrassing, and often painful. (He once hit me for sitting at the dining table wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. It hadn’t been a rule before that day and there was no mention of it being one afterwards. Who knew what was different that day?)
Another short man with a temper who can transform “a completely familiar and secure happening…instantly into something foreign and frightening” is Tam Docherty, the titular hero of William McIlvanney’s novel. Docherty won the Whitbread (now Costa) Novel Award in 1975, which is how it came to be on my to-read list. Hubby duly bought it for me as a Christmas stocking-filler but after reading a quote on the back cover it went straight to the bottom of the unread-books pile by my bed. Growing up on a Council Estate, if it’s taught me anything it’s that “a poor community but one which is wealthy in pride, dignity and zest for life” is something that exists nowhere except in trite platitudes rolled out by born elites.
Still, Docherty found its way to the top of the pile eventually. Opening in 1903 in a Scottish pit town, Tam and family live on “High Street…a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.” And there you have a flavour of McIlvanney’s style: sharp, insightful, and using phonetic spelling to good effect to render Scottish dialect.
In spite of my reluctance it was actually very easy to engage with this family drama. Although the more I read, the more Tam seemed less a character and more a caricature of a “wee man” always ready with his fists, turning “a casual evening into a family manifesto”, exhibiting that “pride, dignity and zest for life” that I’d found so objectionable in the cover quote.
It was only when I’d finished and given the book time to percolate through my brain that I came to see the character/caricature dichotomy as the whole point. All the main characters are ciphers because Docherty is at heart a socio-political argument.
Let’s cut to the chase. What is the answer to grinding poverty?
Religion? It preaches eternity in paradise as recompense for a life of servitude, which works for Tam’s father, Old Conn: “By accepting his troubles, he was able to extract daily from their bitterness, as by an age-old, secret process, the dram of comfort that made his living worthwhile.”
Humanism? Tam rejects God for man i.e. his neighbours and fellow miners: “The only thing we’ve goat is wan anither…whit we make ourselves is whit we are.”
Education? Tam’s youngest son, Conn, shows early academic promise. But Conn finds the school system, “its denial of the worth of his father and their family, the falsity of its judgement, its rarefied terminology,” as irrelevant to him as religion is to Tam.
Capitalism? Tam’s second son, Angus, sets himself against Tam by moving to a pit where he can “contract to get so much coal oot for so much money. An’…pay the squad that works wi’ me.”
Communism? Tam’s eldest, Mick, advocates revolution to overthrow the system: “we hiv tae batter onybody that gets in our road out of existence”.
(Given the philosophical sparring that takes place throughout, it’s notable that gender issues aren’t addressed at all. The two main female characters, Tam’s wife, Jenny, and his daughter Kathleen, essentially exist only as value barometers, passive interpreters of the mens’ worth. Devoted to Tam, Jenny believes that the “truths about a man” are “fragile…secreted like ancient gold under layers of error and misunderstanding” and that “she alone would have the faith to find them…the love to understand their meaning”. And Kathleen rationalises her husband Jack’s opposition to her father because “if there had been no Tam Docherties, Jack Daly would never have needed to face what he’d become.” We value Tam because they do.)
Of Tam’s three sons, it is that Conn stays closest to his father’s human-centred spirit: “Ah don’t want tae smash folk. Ah jist want them tae…gi’e us room tae leeve.” Conn is impressed by Angus’ home even as he goes there to pit himself against him; his fist fight with his physically stronger brother ends in stalemate. Shortly afterwards Conn can’t find the words to refute Mick’s ‘icy certainty’, and that argument ends likewise. The stalemates are symbolic: the novel offers no easy answers and that is no bad thing.
If there is conclusion perhaps it comes through Tam’s son-in-law, Jack. With no belief, no hope, and a pay-packet “as heavy as bird-seed,” Jack takes to drinking and beating Kathleen. No excuses for that, mind, but something to take away: it’s not which raft you cling to that’s important so much as having a raft of any sort at all.
Rating: ** Worth reading