Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Legend of St Ernan's Blues



When I completed work on the first Inspector Starrett mystery  – The Dust of Death – I immediately (quite literally the following morning) started writing the 2nd in the series - Family Life. Although I had the idea for the three books right from the get go, I didn’t start work on the 3rd title for several years. Starrett is a very enjoyable character to write but I had to wait for the right time in order to make it work. Time had to pass on and off the page; things had to happen, things which I had no say in, but yet, things I had to pay attention to. On top of which, in the meantime I had other writing pleasures to attend to.  Like the Castlemartin stories, the 10th Kennedy and the 1st McCusker.  

I had the opening scene of the 3rd Starrett in my mind's eye for ages.  A young novice priest would be found slumped over in a chair while a pot of potatoes still boiled on the nearby stove. There wouldn't be any noticeable marks about his body that pointed to the reason for his demise. Starrett and his team would be called in to investigate. There was a wee bit of an Agatha Christie vibe to it, although maybe the original title - with a nod to Paul Simon's beautiful lyric - Hello Darkness My Old Friend, was a bigger clue to my themes.  I did like the Agatha Christie approach where she would have the majority of the suspects in the one space; you know, like a train, or a boat or a library. I thought my mystery would be better suited to a retirement home for priests. I took time out from writing and spent quite a bit of time "getting to know" the 11 members of clergy, working out their backstory, their foibles, if you will, and making them individuals.

Now I needed a house, a believable house.  
I’m always discovering that fact is stranger than fiction - much stranger - that real locations are always infinitely more interesting than fictional ones. Take for instance the case in point: St Ernan’s House on St Ernan’s Island, located a stone’s throw from Donegal Town.  I was intrigued by the island and the house from the first time I encountered them.  I believe Catherine and I may have stayed in the house when it was a guest house, and I admit that might even have been my imagination.  But either way, bit by bit, I discovered the history of the Island. The story about how the causeway was built is true; the fireplace coming from the burnt out Eske Castle and the original antique pen nibs addressed to then owner, John Hamilton, being found in the house, are both true and have been included in attempts to try and make fiction read as fact. The four master writers that Starrett discovers amongst the St Ernan’s residents in the house are nods back to the original 4 master writers who were based in the nearby Donegal Town Castle and endeavouring to write the history of Ireland.

Now I had my house, a lone house on a small island, an island, and I also had my title: St Ernan's Blues. 

When I was doing research for St Ernan’s Blues I was intrigued by both the house and the island. I tried several times to fix up a visit to go and examine the Island and, if I was very lucky, the house.  The owner was very polite; the times weren’t convenient, “maybe check in again in a few months,” he said. I did and (equally politely) a few more times after that. Eventually he agreed I could come over and Catherine dropped me off by the front door and she and her father Gerry and our two nephews, Oisin and Darragh, went off for a drive around the grid lock that is Donegal Town, promising to return to pick me up. The owner was very generous with his time and showed me around the wonderful historic house.  I was always conscious I was encroaching on his time and tried really hard to do the swiftest version of the tour, while keeping my wish for an investigative walk around the island to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the owner was at all times very hospitable, but I believe by the time Catherine returned to pick me up, his sigh of relief was definitely visible.  He walked me out to the car and as we were saying our goodbyes, he though he recognised someone in the car. 

“Is that Gerry McGinley?” he asked.

“It is indeed,” I replied.

“How do you know Gerry,” he asked, as he quickly walked over to the car.

“He’s my father-in-law,” I replied.

“Sure you should have told me that,” he said, as he opened the car door and started shaking Gerry’s hand furiously. 

You see my father-in-law was a well loved legend in Donegal; very sadly he has since passed. The owner knew him and everything changed immediately. As he chatted away to Gerry he invited me to have an explorative dander around the island, “and go and look around the house again if you want to” and when I returned they were still chatting away ten to the dozen. 

From their chat I got a sense of the old Donegal, of how people dealt with each other; of how when people know you are connected to people they know and respect, they are prepared to offer you the same genuine hospitality friends of theirs would recieve in return, were the situation ever reversed.  

I came away from my visit to St Ernan’s Island with the words (and melody) from a famous traditional song of the county. “Your hearts are like your mountains in the homes of Donegal,” ringing around my head and my soul and knowing that the time would never be better to start work on my book.       




Monday, May 30, 2016

American Views *


* From the front of Taxi Cabs.

I’ve always loved all things American: the Lone Ranger & Tonto, Rawhide, Bronco Lane, Wagon Train, Geronimo, Mr Dillon, JFK, Hollywood, movies, Dylan, American dollars, Elvis Presley, the stars and stripes, The Doors, all-day breakfasts (particularly hash browns) and, of course, the American classic cars.

All those wonderful Cadillacs and the other classics, now they were a joy to the eye, weren’t they? Ford Mustangs; Chevys; Chryslers; Plymouth Roadrunners; Dodge Royal American Sedans; Lincoln Continentals; Corvette Stingrays; Pontiac Firebirds and Buicks - all items of beauty and all individual flagships of a never-to-be-forgotten era.  Sadly, very sadly, the majority of American cars have now been blanded into the one-design-suits-all models - much the same bland as we seen all over Europe. Trucks are the exception; the American trucks are still as majestic, eye-catching and individual as ever, while and the classic iconic yellow school buses just keeping on rolling along the length and breadth of my favourite country.

I recently visited America for a whistle-stop book tour, stopping off in New York, Washington (Bethesda & Arlington), Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Orange, Scottsdale, New Orleans, Houston and Austin. Yes lots of trains and buses and planes.  I was out there on the road just like Donald and Hilary, trying to win support from the American people. 

It’s definitely Trump Time in the USA at the moment.

On my travels I discovered taxi drivers really are the font of all knowledge. One driver told me that Bill and Hilary openly encouraged Donald to join the competition because they felt they could easily beat him. I tried to figure out how a taxi driver from Boston would know that Bill and Hilary Jones of Merthyr Tydfil, and members of the Cilsanws Golf Club, were always taking advantage of Bill’s younger cousin, Donald Jones, out on the golf course.

New York City born and bred, Donald Trump, billionaire, property developer, bearer of gravity-defying hair, on the other hand, is, it would appear, to blame for everything, everything that is, according to my taxi driver – this time the taxi driver on the way into Seattle from the airport. So taking his lead I also laid the blame at DT’s feet for Rory McIlroy and Man United’s current poor form and on how few the numbers of people who turned up at my bookstore event in New Orleans were. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have someone to blame for whatever is upsetting you, so thank you very much Mr Trump.

The prospect of Trump becoming the next USA president seems to be the current preoccupation in the whole of America. Hilary doesn’t seem to be making a connection with the American people on the street, nor with taxi drivers for that matter. One taxi driver confidently predicted that not only would Trump become president but that, when he did, he would pin a sheriff’s badge on his own shirt and ride off into the horizon to right the American wrongs. In lieu of the real Lone Ranger, Marshall Dillion, Ty Hardin, Roddy Yates (now there would have been a great US President) or, my own person favourite, Alf Tupper, the Tough of The Track, maybe DT will have to do. If Donald sets off on such an adventure I feel it would be very important that someone remind him that there are only a limited number of silvers bullets available.

“Not a lot of people know this,” my Seattle taxi driver started off confidently, sounding like a denim-clad Michael Caine, “but candidates who are way behind in the primaries, just before they drop out of the running, apparently go to the leading candidate and “invite” them to contribute to their campaign losses in order to confirm - or maybe even “persuade” would be a better word - the candidate behind in the polls, that they will drop out and maybe even, in some cases, endorse the leading candidate.” He also reckoned that Cruz was too desperate to win, to be a good president. “Can you imagine the lengths a desperate president might go to, to win some issue while in the White House? On top of which he turned up at one of his final rallies dressed in denim jeans!”

Supposedly large numbers of government staff will resign if Trump wins the presidency and (allegedly) an even greater number of American citizens are going to emigrate into the open, welcoming, arms of Canada. That particular cab driver cautioned me with, “let’s wait and see how many actually do.”

Hilary Clinton’s campaign reminds me a lot of the Bjorn Borg approach to his legendary tennis matches with John McEnroe, where Bjorn would never ever “win” any of the marathon competitions, it was more that he would just refuse to “lose” to his superior, but temperamental, opponent. A very effective ruse in that it gained the Swede a 50% success rate in their twenty-two meetings. But, you’d have to say, hardly a presidential quality.  

While on my stateside travels, I also picked up from another American taxi driver that three USA nuclear reactors are currently leaking; that the Euro is shortly about the crash, not due to, but certainly helped by the fact that, three Italian banks and one Austrian bank, are about to fold. Warming to his “doom” subject, he also predicted that the US dollar will be devalued this autumn (a.k.a. “fall”). On the positive side, he predicted Gold and Silver and Wheat will go through the roof and become the main commodities of trade measurement again.

Yet another taxi driver put forward the theory that Trump is “happening” just because ordinary decent people have come to the conclusion that politics doesn’t work for them anymore. He cited the fact that the leader of the Republican Party (allegedly Trump’s party this time around) said he wasn’t ready yet to endorse Trump. Everyone immediately realised that the subtext was, “We haven’t done a deal yet.” Trump floored the party leaders by implying he wasn’t going to do a deal, suggesting, at this stage at least, that the guard is changing. My taxi driver reckoned that Trump has come this far because he is suggesting he’s going to change everything about politics than needs changing and, maybe more importantly, he’s not in anyone’s pocket, meaning that he won’t have any favours to return should he get into office.  The minute he starts to do deals and/or accept endorsement is the day he will lose his support. My cab driver predicted that people are going to show up at the polling booths who have never bothered to vote before. More alarmingly he claimed that people are really going to take it onto the streets if they don’t feel that their man is getting a fair crack at it. As I was exiting the cab, pondering street riots, his parting shot was, “if you don’t believe that Trump will get in, then please just watch the audiences on the Jerry Springer Show, or the Maury Show, or any of the games shows on our television. They’re the same audiences that will take Trump to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” 

“USA Literacy rates rise in the bad weather.” This snippet of wisdom was from a Russian taxi driver on the Orange airport run, “Really? How so?” I asked after I’d worked out what he was saying. “Don’t you see,” he continued after he decoded my own strong dialect, “that in the bad weather, the homeless pile into libraries and hide behind the great (as in physically big) tonnes so they’re not thrown out into the cold and damp.”

Talking about accents that reminds me, when ordering food in American restaurants it is important for me to remember that a) I have an Ulster accent and b) the subtle differences between the USA and UK version of English. I have an aversion to tomatoes and it’s so easy to get your order wrong in restaurants where they say “to-mate-toes” where as we (I) say “to-matt-oes.” So, invariably, my order arrives with the latter but no former, whatever it is… you know, “and hold the to-matt-oes, please” (where they translate what they think I’m saying with my to-matt-oes.” I’ve never been able to figure out what’s missing from my plate but as long as it’s not hash browns that are missing I’m okay. Having said that the cafeteria across the road from the Seattle book store does an amazing bean and ham broth.

My Taxi driver in Phoenix recommended that I beware of pick-pockets in New Orleans, my next city. The other cities to watch are: New York, Miami, parts of San Francisco, Oakland. But it’s interesting to note that not one American city figures in the Top Ten Cities in the world to beware of pick-pockets. While in New Orleans I tried to figure out if my lost crowd there had anything to do with the numerous graveyards I passed on the way in from the airport.

When I arrived in Austin, the taxi driver joyously advised me that just that very morning Uber and it’s 40,000 (yes 40,000 drivers, he claimed!) had been thrown out of the city by the mayor because they would not agree to their drivers been checked and fingerprinted or doing a test.  The following day it transpired that the mayor (unlike Trump) was negotiating.   

My personal prediction is that Donald Trump will become president, but the Trump University case will derail his presidency shortly thereafter.

Until the next time,



Saturday, April 16, 2016

Three Gillians & a Couple of Jeans

In one of his many classics, Paul McCartney famously asked, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Well let’s see now. DAVID BUCHANAN is from Castlemartin in Mid-Ulster; MARY SKEFFINGTON is from Bath; JEAN SIMPSON and JEAN KERR – yes that’s the two Jeans - are childhood best friends from Matlock in Derbyshire; JOHN HARRISON is from Scotland. All are in their late teens - so late, in fact, that they will soon leave them and (hopefully) their innocence behind. 

I started work on this book a long time ago, as was the case with the other two books in what has turned out to be The Castlemartin Trilogy. The first two were located in Castlemartin, a fictitious village, located about four miles away from (the very real) Magherafelt, on the shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. All three books are set in the mid-1960s. In One of Our Jeans Is Missing, however, David Buchanan, the main character, moves from Castlemartin to London and… well perhaps there’s a wee bit of: you can take the man out of Ulster but you can never take Ulster out of the man.    

David meets up with Mary, John, Jean and Jean and they start to enjoy each other, and music, and each other a bit more, and then one of them disappears. At least two of remaining quartet start to consider what might be the perfect murder.

I had the title from the get-go for this book. This isn’t always the case for me. Tanita Tikaram an artist I was managing at the time visited China for a holiday. She took her two best friends with her. Both of her friends were (in fact still are) called Gillian.  One day Tanita telephoned me from China in a panic. 

“One of our Gillians is missing,” she gushed.

I laughed. In my defence I laughed, not so much at the fact that one of her best friends was missing in a foreign land, but more at the way she had put it. 

“No PC,” Tanita pleaded, “she’s seriously missing!” 

When I set the phone down and had got D.I. Christy Kennedy, Inspector Starrett and McCusker, on the missing Gillians case, I started to think that ‘seriously missing’ - as opposed to ‘casually missing,’ or even just, ‘missing’ - would be a great title for a book, but for some reason or other when it came time to write it up in my wee ideas book I only wrote, ‘One of our Gillians is missing.’ 

Sometime later when I had the idea for this story of David Buchanan and his four fellow teenage exiles in 1960s’ London, the title presented itself to me at pretty much the same time. In fact the original working title for the book was, One of Our Gillians is Missing. Then I started to date a lady called Gillian (yet another one) for a while, and so in order to protect the three Gillians I changed the title to One of Our Jeans is Missing a.k.a. OOOJim (pronounced ‘Oh Jim!’  

Apart from being exiled from the home you grew up in, another of the main themes of the story is how music, big pieces of music, become very important as soundtracks to parts of our lives. I suppose the other important point to mention here is that we are all equally passionate about the music we dislike as we are about the music we love. A lot of the music references in the book – Dylan,  John Lee Hooker, The Spencer Davies Group, Taste and Stevie Winwood – have all had major influences in my life and, along with quite a few other artists, helped me during my move from Ulster to London in 1967. Yes, music certainly helped me deal with the potentially debilitating illness known as homesickness. Even today every time I listen to Neil Diamond’s classic, I Am… I Said, I can still recall vividly the intensity of the helplessness of the bed-sitter days. With hindsight if I had been a doctor I would have prescribed a twice weekly listening session of I Am… I Said, one or Mr Diamond’s most soulful statements.  Just to know that others had suffered and where suffering from your ailment could be a comfort.  With the benefit of that same hindsight I would probably add a thrice weekly visit from Jean Simpson into the potent healing mix. Hopefully you’ll see what I mean should you visit the pages of One Of Our Jeans Is Missing.  

This is my first title to be published by Fahrenheit Press.  I found main man Chris McVeigh refreshingly straightforward to deal with.  His view seemed to be that if he read the book and liked it (and assuming that I could spell Fahrenheit) he would publish it without any publisher interference, fuss or delay.  His only other observation was, “If you want to be treated like a delicate little snowflake we're definitely NOT the publisher for you - try Faber & Faber, they're lovely.”  That was certainly good enough for me. 
That's it until the next time. Next one soon.