I was at a book festival in Phoenix, Arizona, when I heard the news that Kirsty Young would be leaving Desert Island Discs for a time due to a medical issue. My mind went back to my own appearance on that show several years ago and the tough choices I was forced to make. Whittling the music down to eight tracks (from an initial list of forty plus) was bad enough, but I was only allowed one book. I did what any reasonable person would do and cheated: I asked for Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Although published in twelve volumes over the course of a quarter of a century, this is essentially one very long story, beautifully structured and told. I started reading it around the time I began planning my first Inspector Rebus novel, and Powell’s sequence has been invaluable in helping me deal with a large cast of characters, ageing in (more or less) real time, some of whom reappear after a gap of several books. There were other books in the running, such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but they’re very short and not suitable for a long-term castaway.
Muriel Spark has also been in my thoughts of late. Well, all this year actually. In Edinburgh (and elsewhere) we have been celebrating the centenary of her birth. Two streets have been renamed in her memory, a sold-out commemorative evening at the Usher Hall showed that she remains popular, and Polygon have been reissuing elegant hardback editions of her novels with revelatory introductions. I was asked to write the introduction to The Hothouse by the East River, and was touched to receive a post-publication email from my old friend Allan Massie. We first met when I was trying to write a PhD thesis on Spark at the University of Edinburgh and Allan was writer-in-residence (back in the days before the now-ubiquitous creative writing courses). I would force him to comment on my poetry and short stories and he would talk to me about his love of Spark. He even gave me her address in Rome, though I was too frightened to contact her. I interviewed him about her a few months ago for a Sky TV documentary, which I hope will be shown one day. And here he is writing to me to say how much he enjoyed my introduction, saying I made more sense of the book than he ever did. Flattering, to be sure.
Dame Muriel is also on my mind because I helped the fundraising effort that led to the archive of her later papers being purchased by the National Library of Scotland. That institution held a Spark exhibition earlier this year, featuring manuscripts, first editions and personal items. I met Spark only once, on her last visit to Edinburgh. She inscribed my first edition of Jean Brodie and a photographer was on hand to catch the moment. That photo, along with the book, is a prized possession. This is a moot point, though, as we are in the process of downsizing. Now that our sons are no longer living with us, we’ve decided to move from a detached house into a three-bedroom flat. This has focused the mind wonderfully, or terrifyingly. I’ve spent my whole life to the age of fifty-eight upsizing. Books fill every room, paintings adorn each wall and I weave my way around boxes of LPs, stacks of CDs and cassette tapes, DVDs and videos. And that’s before we get to the decades’ worth of paperwork – not just manuscripts but also correspondence, Inland Revenue stuff and so on. There has been a reckoning, and it is proving cathartic.
One decided advantage is that the National Library of Scotland has requested my archive, which is to be placed alongside those of Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney and many others. I’ve had to go through every single item (lest there be something there I don’t want anyone seeing). An industrial shredder has dealt with the bank statements and tax returns. Much has gone to recycling. Some books and music have made their way to various local charities. There were many moments of poignancy along the way. I lived in France between 1990 and 1996 and kept in touch by writing letters. Many of my correspondents – Iain Banks, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Michael Dibdin, to name but four – are no longer with us. Their letters to me will be within the nineteen boxes soon to be on their way to the vaults of the same building where I did most of the work on my (never finished) thesis. Now there’s a dance to the music of time that might have pleased Anthony Powell.
That same dance swept me up during my recent trip to the USA. I attended two book festivals, both focused on crime fiction. I caught up with friends and fellow writers from the circuit, some of whom I hadn’t seen for many years. I was interviewed on stage by one of my writing heroes, the American author Lawrence Block, whose private eye Matt Scudder was an influence on my own John Rebus, and spent several sociable hours in the company of the likes of Lee Child, Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman (we crime writers are a collegiate and thirsty lot). Then there was Wendy, who approached one afternoon and reminded me quietly that we had studied for our PhDs at the same time in Edinburgh (hers was on Alexander Pope). ‘I once had to tell you,’ she said apologetically, ‘that Cencrastus literary magazine was turning down one of your short stories.’ I asked what she was doing now. She is married to a farmer in Japan. And writing crime novels, as one does. We chatted about mutual friends, writing acquaintances and old lecturers, some of whom are still – praise be – participating in life’s long dance.