Memories of my friend Iain Banks

Martin Belk

He was one of the most cherished writers of his generation. After a sudden illness, he passed away earlier this month. A close friend remembers their lunches together in cities across Europe.

WHEN Iain Banks found out he was dying, he wrote one last novel. It’s what writers do when they face adversity: they write. It’s what fans do, too. After announcing his illness, Iain, his partner Adele and I set up a website. Over 15,000 tributes and letters flooded in to Iain told me the site was a “huge success”, which struck me as strange at the time. Now, as I process the news of his sudden death, I feel I must write, too. Iain and I would meet every few months in cities across Europe, always for food. These are some memories of those afternoons, starting with the last time we met:

22 APRIL, 2013

Iain Banks and Martin Belk in the early days of their friendship

Iain and Adele invited me to their home for lunch. I say “Iain”, but soon after we met, almost exactly three years ago, he became “Banksie”. It was a nickname he coined himself – he supplied autographed books to a writing programme I run in a Scottish prison and, since most of the boys are from Glasgow, we’d switch to an exaggerated Scots dialect from time to time. Thus, between us, he was “Banksie”.

Adele, a savvy Glaswegian who founded Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn film festival, sent me a text in advance. She asked me to bring “interesting juices”, which consisted of “apply things, ginger things and iced teas”. Because of his illness, Banksie wasn’t allowed any of his favourite treats and certainly no alcohol.

As I made my way up to their white stone house, Banksie appeared in an aqua-blue Oxford cloth shirt. He was thinner than I remembered, but not dramatically so. He gave me a big hug and we sat on his purple sofa. Although it was a typically misty, overcast April day in Scotland, natural light filled the room. Banksie had kindly written a quote for the sleeve of my first book, which I’d recently finished, and I handed him a copy, along with a history book I’d edited on the Scottish Enlightenment. I felt a little silly – as if he wanted to spend his precious time reading them now. These things, last things, are always awkward.

We went through to the dining room. A giant lazy Susan was in the middle of the table, filled with plates of smoked salmon, fresh lemon slices, salads and pastries. As the cheeses spun my way, I was drawn to a hunk of French bleu. I hesitated. It sounds odd, but I felt bad taking food from a dying man.

We spoke about his situation: “I’m still working through the responses on the website. There are so many. It’s amazing,” he said. When I originally proposed the idea, he thought there wouldn’t be much interest, because he wasn’t “a singer, soap star, reality TV phenomenon or 18-years-old.” Au contraire.

As we finished lunch, I asked him how he decided where to take a character in his novels. “Well,” he said, sitting upright, “You just allow them to go where they need to go. They tell you where they need to go.”

Although she was in the middle of Banksie’s health struggle and simultaneously setting up a film festival, Adele conducted the ceremonies with remarkable poise. Of all my meetings with Banksie, this was by far the quietest and also the shortest.

We tried to organise another rendezvous in London a few weeks later, but it didn’t work out. I figured he had a few months more; that there would still be time. But as he hugged me when I left, I realised we’d had our last lunch.

29 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Adele arranged for us to meet at J Sheekey’s seafood place. I was thrilled: oysters have held a literary allure for me ever since I read Isadora Duncan’s line about surviving in Paris on a diet of “oysters and champagne”. J Sheekey’s interior reminded me of old-school New York City; wooden walls, brass fixtures and black and white tiled floors, like the Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar. Banksie talked about how he loved walking around Covent Garden. Adele loved the restaurant, saying it was one of the only places in London you can go and be left in peace to read or write. Although everyone in the room seemed to know who he was, they left us to our conversation and fruits de mer. We talked about literary history and Banksie’s hatred of mobile phones.

My partner, who was working on a photojournalism book about the resurgence of facial hair, joined us. Banksie sported a fine beard, which had recently faded whiter. As we left, he took his place in fashion history, posing for a portrait for the book.

Banksie had been at a raucous party the night before - I didn't ask the details. We had a rule: no shop talk.

19 AUGUST, 2011

It was the middle of the book festival and it was cold. Despite the fact Banksie and I both lived in Scotland, it felt strange to be meeting in the UK. We had taken refuge from the chaos in a café on George Street that served tapas. We discussed the sold-out talk he was about to give alongside Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, and how he doesn’t like all the pomp and ceremony associated with “these things”. Banksie never failed to serve up a full portion of genuine. “The thing about Salmond,” said Banksie, “is that he reads everything.” Sure enough, as we approached the entrance to the venue, we were joined by the First Minister, clutching Banksie’s latest novel, filled with bookmarks and post-it notes.

26 JUNE, 2011

A hot Sunday in Paris. We met at the Bar du Marché on the intersection of Rue de Buci and Rue de Seine. We took a table indoors to avoid the cigarette smoke outside. Both Banksie and Adele were in jovial form. He reached for the wine list. They had been at a raucous party the night before – I didn’t ask the details. It was something we avoided: no shop talk. We were just there to celebrate the most beautiful day in Paris so far that year. We discussed how, a day earlier, I’d been with a group of scholars from Edinburgh to study an original copy of the Auld Alliance document from 1295. We ate for three hours and were all in fine spirits; our au revoirs took another half hour. As Adele finally stood up to leave, Banksie said, “I am really enjoying myself, I think I’ll stay a while longer.” We left him with his nose in the wine list, grinning like the Cheshire cat.

9 JUNE, 2010

We ate breakfast in our hotel on Rybná, in the oldest part of the city, during the Prague Writers’ Festival. Banksie and Adele were sitting at a row of chrome and glass tables. We ate from a large buffet of yogurts, cheeses, croissants and coffees. We’d met there every morning during the festival. Adele and I teased Iain when he had to “work”, chatting to reporters, while I attempted to answer the waiters in Czech, “Rád bych omeletu prosím.”

The theme of the festival was “Heresy and Rebellion”. Iain’s inclusion was appropriate, given that he had turned down an OBE on the grounds that he didn’t “concede to being a British subject,” and once cut up his passport and posted it to Tony Blair. I took an immediate liking to him. He had an uncanny way of making you feel special. Our friendship was just getting started.

Martin Belk is the author of Pretty Broken Punks: lipstick, leather jeans, a death of New York. Iain Banks’ final novel, The Quarry, is out now, published by Little, Brown Book Group

Martin Belk

Iain Banks photographed by Jonathan Price for the 100 Beards, 100 Days project