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glasses, staring emptily towards the front door. Were they wondering what was outside? Or were they just scared that whatever was out there would one day force its way in.”
Perhaps unwittingly he had already taken on the persona of Inspector Rebus, his badly-bitten-by-life Edinburgh detective whose career has lurched from injury by chair legs, bruising from pessimism and battering through failed relationships. This year, Rebus is celebrating 20 years of exposure; two decades that have planted Ian Rankin in the top handful of the world’s best crime writers.
“We’re just not the same person, never were,” he says above the ambient drone of lunchtime conversation in Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar. It’s one of Ian’s preferred anchorages – and Rebus’s sanctuary.
“I enjoy being inside his skin when I’m writing the books, but it’s always quite nice to finish and jump back into my own skin again. Most folk think he’s real and I’m not. Most folk who come into this bar looking for Rebus are disappointed when they find me – I’m not as interesting and as complex as him.”
Although it would seem he quickly got into his stride with pub culture description – “standing there with his head bent under the weight of a cigarette” – Ian had absorbed drinking references from an early age.
He says: “In the house, my dad was drinking Tennents Lager – those cans with the dolly birds on – and McEwans Pale Ale. He worked in a grocer’s shop where they sold beer and spirits so there were always interesting drinks coming back home.
“From the age of 16 and 17 we used to get served in pubs in and around Cowdenbeath (in Fife). I was a slow learner; it started off with Tartan Special, then Newcastle Brown Ale – there weren’t any real ales around. In fact, Newcastle Brown in bottles was peculiarly luxuriant – the colour and the idea of it being in a bottle. It was terribly exotic in Fife, I can tell you.
“A friend at school, Steve Parkes, wanted to be a brewer. We laughed at the idea that someone could go to university and learn to make beer, but right enough, he went to Heriot-Watt. He lives in America now, in Vermont. He introduced me to real ale, introduced me to the flavours and the style of it.
“Him going to the States coincided with the rise of the micro-brewery there. He worked for one in California; they poached him from somewhere in England. Now he’s trying to win Americans over to dark beer, British-style beer.”
As we chat, Ian is drinking the multi award-winning Deuchars IPA, brewed within malt-wafting distance by Caledonian Brewery (Inveralmond Independence is my choice – another fine Scottish ale, brewed in Perth).
“Deuchars IPA is my favourite beer,” he says. “If they didn’t serve it, I wouldn’t come. It’s Rebus’s favourite, too. I just like the flavour, it’s nice and light and you can drink a few pints without getting staggered – and it’s from a small, local brewery.
“Wherever I go around the world – and I go around the world a lot – I go looking for the local beer. So, if I’m in Seattle it’s Red Hook or a local micro in California – it’s the same if I’m in Germany or Eastern Europe.
“If you go to Canada everybody thinks they have to drink Labatts or something like that. When I go to Spain I drink San Miguel – I love it, but its about the only time I ever drink it.”
Since Rankin and Rebus drink in the same pub, enjoy similar company – of sorts – and share a sense of humour that ranges from the bleak to the droll, it’s tempting to think of them as one and the same. That, however, is ceding to laziness and a lack of understanding of the fictional character.
“Rebus drinks more than I do,” says Ian. “He’s in the pub most nights and I’m not – partly because I’ve got a young family and you can’t just do that.
“Because Rebus is a single man – he’s divorced – he can act out his bachelor fantasies; staying up all night listening to loud music; sleeping on the chair in his clothes and drinking far too much, which is why a lot of blokes like him. Sensible married men like him; he gets to have all the vices.
“A lot of women like him – it’s split 50-50 between male and female fans – because he’s complex and he’s difficult and he needs some work done on him. A lot of women think they’re just the one to knock him into shape, whereas blokes like him for all these faults and they just don’t want him to change.”
Rebus makes his first entrance in The Oxford Bar in Mortal Causes. Until then, he has propped up fictitious bars, though overheard conversations provide the author with rich inspiration, alternative ideas and real-life dialogue.
Ian says: “The reason I introduced The Oxford Bar into the books was that the last year I was at university the guy I shared a flat with was a part-time barman here and he said to me one night, ‘I’m going for a couple of pints, why don’t you come?’
“Until then, I had been drinking in typical student pubs in the city centre. As soon as I walked in I felt like I was walking into a private club; it’s small, everybody knows everybody else, and back then in the mid-Eighties, a lot of cops drank in here.
“It was at the time I was thinking about writing the first Inspector Rebus novel, so the idea of coming into a pub and talking to cops face to face was great. Plus, because I felt the Oxford Bar was tucked away and you can’t really find it unless you’re looking for it – you don’t get much passing trade – it was part of that secret Edinburgh that I was going to write about in the books, so I felt it was right for Rebus.
“I’ve used real characters, not just from The Oxford Bar, but the Royal Oak which is a wee pub off The Bridges. I’ve used that a few times. It has live folk music and I’ve had Rebus go there once or twice. It’s similar to The Oxford Bar, there are no bells or whistles, and it’s very, very small; a friendly, local bar.
“You have to have good pubs to drink good beer in. I’m very particular about the kind of pubs I go into – I never go into pubs that have doormen, for example, that’s a rule of thumb. There’s a reason why they’ve got doormen; they’re expecting trouble. And I’m not keen on pubs that have juke boxes and pool tables. When I come into a pub I come for the conversation, for the company, or to listen into other people’s conversations – I use them all the time for realism, it’s what people say, so it makes the dialogue realistic. Sometimes it might be a good joke so you put it in the book.”
Despite him retiring in his latest book published in September, celebrating Rebus’s significant anniversary is turning out to be fun. Ian has been tasting several casks of Highland Park whisky (20-year-old, of course) from the Orkneys, which is being blended and specially bottled for charity. Caledonian Brewery has also announced a limited-edition Rebus IPA which will coincide with the Edinburgh Literary Festival (part of the huge International Festival).
“The head brewer and I have agreed on a mystery ingredient,” he says. “For the month of August when you buy Deuchars IPA over the counter it’ll be Rebus IPA with the mystery ingredient. It’s a nice idea. It’s part of the experience and such an obvious tie-in with Rebus drinking IPA throughout the series.
“And, it’s part of why people come to find Rebus’s Edinburgh. There’s actually a Rebus walking tour during the Festival – they either start or finish at The Oxford Bar. Then there’s a literary bus tour which comes right along Young Street past the Oxford; it doesn’t stop, just goes straight past.
“It sounds like a responsible tour. The proper Rebus tour wouldn’t be responsible; you’d be hammering all the way along, stopping every half-mile for another hammering.
“When we lived in France (he and his wife spent six years there while he consolidated himself as an author), I’d come back here to do some research and sometimes come in (The Oxford Bar) at 11am and still be here at 11pm and never gone outside. The clientele keeps changing, you’re chatting then watching horse racing one minute, quiz shows the next, you have something to eat, come back into the back room. You can spend the whole day here.”
Tempting as it was to filter the Highland Park down into a flavour profile that he himself could wallow in he stuck to the brief and constructed the dram that would define his craggy detective.
He says: “We had a tasting of five or six single casks of 20-year-old whisky. They all tasted different, it was really interesting. I thought he would like it a lot more pungent with a heftier kick than I would. In the past he’s drunk Laphroaig and he’s drunk Lagavulin, so he’d go for something hefty, whereas I’d go for something more subtle, a wee bit more restrained. The one I went for was probably not the one I’d have chosen for myself – I had to be in character to make sense of it. The whole point of it is it’s Rebus’s, not mine. It’s never going to be for sale – there are about 130 bottles, numbered and signed and we’ll use them for auction prizes at charity dinners.”
The latest Rebus novel – Exit Music is out in September 2007 – is the first that has had to take the smoking ban in public places into account, though it means his curmugeonly manner may even step up a notch.
“It has curtailed Rebus’s activities,” says Ian. “I couldn’t ignore it as drinking and smoking are an integral part of the books. Of course, the folks he works with are delighted – his sidekick Siobhan isn’t a smoker so he has to go outside for a fag. It also means he has to cut down on his beer because when he’s outside having a cigarette he’s not drinking.
“I think it’s great, fantastic, but it has hit a lot of the wee old-fashioned pubs, the traditional ‘howf’ where your clientele is retired gentlemen in bunnets watching the horse racing with a hauf-and-a-hauf and they liked to have a cigarette. So, if they can’t have a cigarette they don’t go, and that afternoon period is a lot quieter.
“In the long term it has got to be good for the health of the nation, but the pubs will benefit because a lot of the people who didn’t go into pubs because of the smoke will come back.”
Inevitably, we talk about Gordon Brown and his love for Raith Rovers, a football passion that Ian shares: “He’s lifelong; he used to sell programmes so he could get in for nothing. I see him there, he’s a great guy and will hopefully make a good Prime Minister.”
We talk about wine from when he and his wife lived in France: “She’d heard about this sort of commune where you could just go and work in a vineyard; you didn’t get any pay but you got all your meals. By the age of 22 I had been through the whole wine cycle; pruned the grapes, picked the grapes, trod the grapes, watched the stuff going into the bottle. Until then I had never drunk wine – my idea of wine was a screwtop bottle of Lambrusco. If you ever drink some 1982 or ’83 Cotes de Castillon it might have some of my footprints in it.”
We talk about food: “They have good pies at Raith Rovers, traditional mutton pies. They’ve started doing Findlays steak and mince pies in The Oxford, good old Scots cuisine, just get some pastry and fill it with anything. A macaroni cheese pie is the same shape as a Scotch pie, sometimes it has beans on top; all the major foodstuffs taken care of.”
In between times, he acknowledges Ox regulars and takes particular pleasure in a young couple’s booty of vinyl music (he’s a former music journalist).
And, we talk about Rebus: “He retires at the end of the new book and I haven’t thought of a life for him after that.”
The curtains have come down on our Deuchars IPA and Inveralmond Independence (“I might try that tonight”), leaving traces of froth on our glasses. I’m no detective, but I’m convinced we haven’t heard the end of Inspector Rebus nor solved the last picture puzzle.
(* A hauf-and-a-hauf is a traditional Scottish serving of a half-pint of beer and a spirit of your choice – but usually whisky.)
A BEER WITH… IAN RANKIN
Inspector John Rebus is a cryptic character. He’s complex and hung-up yet straightforward and unpretentious. He’s dour but witty and phlegmatic though intense. The clue’s in the name – Rebus is Latin for “picture puzzle” – and his creator Ian Rankin enjoys the closeness of his creation in the same way as he keeps him at arms’ length.
Rebus spends his off-duty hours in pubs and Ian takes pleasure in decent beer. It would seem they were made for each other. He was barely six years into drinking legally when he described a scene in a typical 1970s pub with the uncanny accuracy of a more mature, been-there-seen-it observer. The pub, he recognised even then, is a retreat, a haven from drudgery and a bolt hole for quiet reflection. In Knots & Crosses he writes: “Old men sat with their half-pint
IT'S ABOUT EVERY AGE GROUP
More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. We have plenty of them around the North East and the better ones are doing very well, thank you very much.
Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap.
Alastair Gilmour writes about beer and breweries and pubs and people from a variety of perspectives. Media outlets include The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne; Brewers’ Guardian, and Cheers North East.
Meet and Drink writer Alastair Gilmour regularly conducts beer events throughout the UK and internationally – tours and tastings that have included a platform suspended 30 metres above the River Tyne and a real ale festival in a Moscow nightclub – and was for several years on the judging panel of the Pilsner Urquell International Master Bartender programme. [READ MORE]
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