One day I was on the bus home. The 16, meandering through North Glasgow. I was reading a book. And then I had to stop. I maybe even gasped. Stopped in my metaphorical tracks by something that happened in a book. Stopped by What Happened To Eric.
I was never much of a reader. I preferred atlases and the Guinness Book of Records to fiction. But in my teenage angst years I became a devotee of existentialists and the French. Gide, Camus, Sartre and then a solid period of Emile Zola. I read lots of Emile Zola. Until it got too much. It was all so scuddingly depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I love it all (I even bought a Zola I’ve not read this very day) – the end of La Bête Humaine is jaw-dropping, but I needed a new view of the world. An equally honest view but something with modern eyes.
And then one day in Byres Road, I bought The Wasp Factory.
I had a new devotion and I devoured them all. I remember the night I finished The Crow Road. I read the last 150 pages in one go and then tried to get to sleep about 2am. Hard to sleep when you’re sad. Sad because you’re not in that world any more. Sad because, with the end of the book people who were as vivid as your friends had ceased to exist.
This is what Iain Banks could do. And he could make paper airplanes.
It had never occurred to me to write. I was an engineer, not an arty type. But reading all these black and white covered books made me want to write. And during that period of pretty much only reading Iain Banks, I started to write.
Not very well and with no real outcome (my first attempt at a book got to 25k words and stalled, some of it is herein for the sharp-eyed/bored). But I stayed with the notion that I wanted to write and I eventually did finish a book. Not a great book. But my book. It may not mean a lot to the literary world at large but it means a lot to me. For that I thank Iain Banks. I thank him for making me love reading so much that I wanted to write. And because I wrote the book, I got to meet him. And lurk behind him looking sullen. Iain looked serene, like a man used to being photobombed by randoms.
Last year I was lucky enough to thank him in person. I was too bashful (and trying to not come across as a fan boy weirdo) to put it like I have here but I did tell him how the What Happened To Eric scene had been the inspiration for a lot, including parts of The Beatle Man. He was gracious enough to smile and nod (and not walk of with his finger whirling around his temple). We talked about how inspiration worked.
We were at a charity event (he was the patron) and before we went on stage we sat together in the reserved seats. The seats were marked with a sheet of A4. As we sat we picked up the paper. Iain looked at it, looked at me, smiled and started making a paper airplane. I joined in with mine. I could see his plane was going pretty well so I converted mine into an origami frog (my only paper trick). We admired each other’s work.
It struck me how “non-famous person” he was. So normal, relaxed and still enough of a child to want to make planes. He was effervescent on stage, I did my best not to embarrass myself.
When I heard of his illness I reacted like most people and, despite it being inevitable, his passing at the weekend made the house quiet. I’ll will not reflect on the death of any other writers. But I do with Iain.
He made me love to read. He made me love to write. He made me a paper airplane.