The writer’s former press officer recounts their warm friendship.
Iain Banks didn’t laugh – he guffawed. Alongside his hearty intellect and appetite for politics, Iain knew how to appreciate the simple pleasures of life, from food to fireworks to friendships. Giggles emanating from the spare room some years back when he was visiting turned out to be Iain reading a copy of a Calvin and Hobbes book. Small wonder that he enjoyed stories of a mischievous wee boy off on big adventures inspired by a vivid imagination.
Iain was a great friend, irrespective of the fact that he was also not one but two of the best novelists of his era: Iain Banks for his mainstream oeuvre, Iain M Banks for his SF novels. Although we first met through work – I was his book PR from 1989 to 2000 – one of the reasons we hit it off was because I’d grown up on a diet of science fiction and devoured his SF novels as keenly as the mainstream ones. Over time we became friends: he invited me to stay at his home outside Edinburgh, we took trips around Scotland with our respective partners and socialised when he was visiting London. Notoriously not a fan of hot weather, he nonetheless came out to visit when I lived for a period in Guadeloupe.
Gregarious, genuine and generous in all senses of the word, he was fun to be around and supportive through life’s challenges. When I lost my partner suddenly to cancer in 2009, Iain and his wife Adele set up a tribute website for Chris and looked after me when I came up to visit, staying in the bedroom that Iain jokingly referred to as “the Hodgson Suite”.
On one of the last occasions I saw him, in May of this year, we had lunch at a favourite restaurant in Edinburgh; he was looking remarkably buoyant for someone diagnosed with terminal cancer. I asked how he’d been feeling and he ended the short description of his ailments with a shrugged: “Oh, well. Could be worse.” “Not really,” I replied; there was a pause and then he burst into the trademark guffaw. Typical of Iain, he retained his sense of humour, even at the worst of times.
He said how privileged he felt to have enjoyed the success he did and how overwhelming the comments on a tribute site had been. With some excitement he revealed that Daniel Craig had written to him (“I got a postcard from James Bond!”) For someone who loved life so much, he seemed remarkably accepting about its end.
We reminisced about the publicity tours and the names we used to give them, including, in the days before mobile phones, the Little Anxious Faces tour, when a packed schedule meant we arrived just in time for each event. We ate more hot curries together than some have hot dinners – his first question to the bookshop staff would not be about book sales but which was the best curry house in town. Concerned that I would get bored, he used to vary the passages he read out from each book, entirely for my benefit. Ever thoughtful, Iain didn’t presume, but asked permission to dedicate his novel Inversions to me.
Iain always used to say that he was a big fan of his fans – sometimes citing one in particular who shook his hand after an event in Liverpool and left behind a small “present” to smoke later. But because even major authors tend to be recognised less often than minor soap stars, he was able to enjoy relative anonymity. He never carried an air of celebrity; on one publicity tour, a guard blocked our way to the first-class carriage and tried to direct us down the train.
As well as the novels he should have written and the curries we should have eaten, I’ll miss hearing Iain’s reaction to any number of things, from Monty Python reforming to Peter Capaldi becoming the next Doctor Who. And I’ll always miss that guffaw.
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