Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Big Man by William McIlvanney (Canongate Books 1985)

Dan felt a liberating affection for his father. Poor, old, hard, honest bastard. Having lashed himself to his principles to survive, he couldn’t be blamed for not being able to move, though the times did. Dan’s love of his mother, never compromised, came back to him. He wished he could speak to them now to reassure them that he wasn’t lost entirely to the past they had believed in, that he hadn’t quite forsaken what they stood for, that he, too, had his pride. It wouldn’t have been an elaborate speech – they never were in his parents’ house. It would have been something gruffly cryptic, in a code they would have understood, something like: ‘Don’t panic, Feyther. Mither, Ah’m still me.’

But he had to admit to himself that his pride, if it was still there, was in a funny place. His parents’ pride had been like a medal they could wear, one they had earned. His own was something he felt was still with him but he couldn’t have pointed to it. The explicitness of their experience had bestowed on them a kind of brute heroism. His experience had been different, still was. If their lives had been as clear-cut as trench-warfare, his was as confusing as espionage, a labyrinth of double-agents.

What did you trust these days? You couldn’t vaguely trust the historical future in which his parents had believed. Part of it was already here and it was unrecognisable as what had been foretold. Better material conditions hadn’t created solidarity but fragmentation. Working-class parvenus were at least as selfish as any other kind. You couldn’t simply vote Labour and trust that Socialism would triumph. The innocence of his parents’ early belief in the purity of Socialism couldn’t be transplanted to the time that followed Socialism’s exercising of power, however spasmodic. In power, Socialism had found it hard to recognise itself, had become neurotic with expediency, had forgotten that it had never merely been a policy but a policy growing from a faith founded in experience. Lose the faith that had been justly earned from the lives of generations of people and Socialism was merely words and words were infinitely flexible. You couldn’t trust the modern generation of those who had formerly been the source at which Socialism had reaffirmed its faith. All around they were reaching private settlements with their society’s materialism in terms that contained no clauses to safeguard others of their own who might be less fortunate.

If you were honest, you couldn’t even trust yourself. He had often enough expressed his contempt for people he had known who, coming from his own background, had succeeded academically or in business and had turned their backs on where they came from. He had heard them at parties and in pubs preaching the worthlessness of their own heritage and he had despised them. But he also knew that you couldn’t trust yourself not to be like them until you had been to a place where the temptations were real, where you too had the opportunity to make a purely private enterprise of your life and the rewards were sufficient to put such principles as you had to the test. He had never been to such a place.

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