By Paul Evans
In retrospect, I’m not sure if I was more upset by the news of his terminal illness than of his actual passing; such is the way of memory (mine at least).
I first become aware of the Storyteller as I came of age. The canvass of my life was nothing more than a tentative sketch, my heart yet to be hardened. News of his first tale came not from the Masters, but spread enthusiastically among those peers whose opinions I respected.
I chose to ignore their recommendation. Stories had no place in the itinerary of my newfound independence. Shunning the wisdom of the town’s elders, I somewhat rebelliously severed my schooling in pursuit of an apprenticeship. A sea vessel transported me willingly from the shores of my birth (I later discovered that the Storyteller’s father had also been a mariner). I returned skilled, confident and cynical.
Second contact was no more successful. By this time his work was more prolific and the Ode Mongers provided more variety. I listened to the word-shell in the hope that his account would envelop me. It didn’t. His tale was too fanciful for my indoctrinated taste. My clumsy literary diet demanded overt anchorages to my world. Instead, he told of vast mobile communes, men forged of clay and metal, spears with limitless range and other impossibilities.
As is often the way, it was in my third – unplanned – entanglement with his efforts that I suddenly and profoundly bonded with this distant stranger. Duty required that I remain at sea longer than originally planned. I sought loan of a yarn and – deemed the best of a mediocre collection – opted for another of the Storyteller’s tales. It was as extravagant as I recalled, but the prose of one of his characters (Bascule) seized my imagination, and was the catalyst to my acceptance of the unified tale.
Returning to his inaugural piece, I followed the tale at any opportunity. I sought time. Inspired by the coast of his Highland roots, the story led me more than the first. Each exposure to his humour and ideas fuelled my desire for more. Whilst this could be said of other Storytellers, it was his darkness, a sinister undertone to much of his work, which truly touched my soul. It was if he had access to my most secret thoughts and emotions and broadcast them.
As foolish as it felt, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was telling tales for me alone; that no one else truly understood or appreciated his ideas as much as me. Nonsense of course.
Alternatively, he wrote of the present, and his vision of tomorrow. All told of strong female leads and desirable opulence. By now, my affection for his saga was deep-rooted. Rather than dismissing his notions, I recognised his vision in extrapolating to the infinite.
Our skill at emulating nature is unique. The very boats that sustained me at sea were unnatural. Carriages bore more people than a single horse. Birds fly. I am now certain that a flying construct can carry a man. And if one man, then why not ten? Or a hundred? And instead of merely alighting in a nest, was it not possible to touch the holes in the night sky?
Such capability would surely manifest itself in battle. How could one fight a flying machine? As ever, he predicted a logical response: machines that would hurl enormous arrows with unerring accuracy.
He foretold of the ability to talk to another across great distances as if they were stood nearby; and of monsters from afar who manipulated entire lands for their own ends.
Despite numerous references to the adventure of war, he was a man of peace. His objection to actual conflict in his lifetime was no secret. He appreciated innovative contraptions, a fast horse, good company, often with the smoking of herbs, and the (usually voluminous) intake of the delicious local ambrosia and curried foodstuffs.
A ubiquitous link to the present was an unwavering foundation: enduring humanity. Love, greed, recognisable – sometimes pantomime – villains and crowd-pleasing revenge prevailed. I remain undecided whether to rejoice that we might prevail as species, or despair that we may never be rid of self-destructive tendencies.
Learning of an audience, I travelled north on the road of bones, and was not disappointed. I was able to personally invite him onboard my vessel; an offer he later refused in a letter – which I still possess – littered with good humour. I was to meet him only once more; four years before his premature departure.
Routine compresses memories. He told and we listened with equal satisfaction … until he broadcast his pending death. Trademark dark humour ran like treacle. The sense of loss was immediate and emotional. To my shame I thought first of the imminent vacuum in my life, before his illness and the grief of his family and friends. I suspect he would have understood.
Two moons later he was gone. My wife sympathetically broke the news with a generous dram. The grief was suppressed by preparation. He needed no other motivation to hang on: he married, rekindled his love for riding fast, and finished his last (ironic) story.
Now I am a Storyteller. Transparent by his standard and character, this does him no justice. But his memory will endure in the hearts of all that he touched.
Iain (M) Banks 1954 – 2013. Thank you.