ON CELTIC MYTHOLOGY
My love affair with Celtic mythology started purely by accident. I was seven or eight at the time and my friends and I were exploring a derelict house, the stable block of an old baronial mansion. Boys can’t resist empty houses, and we combed through it for hidden caches of treasure, dead bodies and secret passages. All I found in the loft was a very old book entitled Celtic Myths.
I thought – being from near Glasgow – that it must be about football and was about to throw it away when it fell open at a page with a line-drawing of a Kelpie – a Celtic sea monster. There were plenty other interesting characters. Leprechauns. Bogrim, warrior women, dark goddesses. I was hooked right away and have been ever since.
Born in a top-floor Glasgow tenement (now demolished, so I was born in a patch of sky) I came to Dumbarton on the banks of the river Clyde when I was almost three. From grey city streets to the edge of the wilderness was like being transplanted in the jungle. From a very early age I explored all the hills and valleys, learned to catch trout in the streams, find birds nests, snare rabbits. I developed an abiding love of wildlife – from both a zoological and gastronomic point of view.
Dumbarton was a great place to grow up in. Surrounded by hills and valleys, we have the River Leven running through it, draining out of Loch Lomond a few miles away, we have the Clyde flowing past it, and we have a castle on a big rock which was ever handy for adventure and danger.
I was a precocious reader at an early age and I devoured adventure stories and science fiction. RL Stevenson, HG Wells, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Jack London, RM Ballantyne, the lot. I also got the Wizard, the only paper for boys that was all text. It took me a week to read and re-read it and it was a heady collection of myth, magic and adventure from the Terrible Taless of Trailer Black to The Eyes of Jonas Hyde and The Treasure Map.
When we were young, my brothers and I would explore our territory, armed with bows and arrows and spears, throwing arrows and the regulation sheath-knife, but the Murroch Valley was the western limit of our exploration, that being the furthest distance we could travel and make it back in time for dinner. Charlotte Donnelly raised no fools. She also brooked no lateness for dinner, so we rarely risked that. Not without an exercise book stuffed down the back of our shorts.
So, the far side of the Murroch Valley remained unknown territory. A blank space on our mental map. What was on the far side, we didn’t know – and didn’t find out until much later. So our imaginations ran to the colourful and exotic.
I had two younger brothers who, from their bunk beds, would invariably ask me to make up a story at bedtime. So I invented the Mythic World of The Far Side Of The Valley. All initial capitals in our minds.
It was a wonderful place. It had, at various stages, Dragons and Dinosaurs. Pirates and Pixies, ghosts, ghouls, headhunters. And hidden treasure which we always found and brought back to our gang hut. In some ways, I’ve been writing about the other side of the valley ever since. The Book of Ways Trilogy is no exception.
My father was a strict, stern and somewhat humourless man who was convinced I was a dreamer who would amount to little in life. I took more after my uncle Patrick, my mother’s brother who was a harum-scarum chancer if ever there was one, who taught me all about poaching and hunting and fishing. My father didn’t approve of Patrick in the least. Especially since, at the age of four, he had asked me what had happened one particular day and I simply repeated what Pat had told me (through gritted teeth).
“Uncle Pat hit his fucking thumb with a fucking hammer.”
I could smell scorched hair and flesh.
A devout Catholic, my father warned me several times a week that I would end up in “the bad fire”. Having been badly scalded at the age of four, I knew what burning was all about, and to have someone undergo that for all eternity just for a simple mistake was, in my young opinion, pretty damned unfair. God and myself were not on the best of terms. He couldn’t be the all-loving, all protective, all-forgiving, fair-handed kind of guy they all prayed to when he could let a kid get scalded and then send him to purgatory for a venial sin or to hell for eternity for something more serious like (I imagined) stealing apples.
The only get-out clause was dinned into us at school. If some infidel demanded (under pain of death) that we deny our faith, then we would be forgiven all sins if we refused, and guaranteed a place in paradise. What a get out of jail card! I was so convinced I was going to end up in the bad fire that I spent a lot of time waiting for this infidel to make such a demand at which I would staunchly refuse, be despatched (probably by a scimitar) and get straight to heaven, by-passing all the uncomfortable nonsense. It never happened. So, a hot time awaits.
I was later, however, prepared in a way to give God a second chance. Although my motives were less than spiritually driven.
My Grandfather was a seafaring man. Not a great storyteller: he could bore for Scotland with tales of derring-do about how he changed all the lightbulbs on the SS Brecon Beacon in dry dock in Liverpool. But he did have a very interesting book, Leopard in my Lap by naturalist Michaela Denis who had the charm of David Attenborough and the blonde bombshell looks of Marilyn Monroe. It was all about Africa. It had snaps of lions and leopards, elephants and snakes and crocodiles. The works. My sort of place!
Oh, and it also had pictures of the aboriginal tribespeople. Most of them women. All with lovely skin tones and textures and all of them displaying plenty of the aforesaid. Now, being eleven and wildly interested in animals and adventure, and with burgeoning boy hormones, I really, really, really wanted to get to Africa by hook or by crook.
A passing missionary recruiter gave me the golden opportunity. Africa was crying out for missionaries and the White Fathers, of which order he was, operated exclusively in Africa!
That’s where I was going! After all, my father had made me become an altar boy, little realising the closer to the altar, the bigger the rogue. He had often said it would be a great pride to him to have a son as a priest.
I could score on all sides here. I could make him proud for once. I could get out from under. And I could get to Africa and see all the animals and those increasingly appealing young tribeswomen.
I duly signed up and got packed off to a seminary on the Scottish borders where, much to my dismay they Didn’t kit me out in a pith helmet and elephant gun or offer any hints on handling charging lions. They didn’t even talk about Africa.
But they sure prayed a lot. Hour upon hour of knee-crushing prayer. Along with cold baths and canings for infringements of rules just as strict as those at home. And as for the young nubile ladies, the only sex education we got was that, on occasion, a man conjoins with a woman, but only after a great deal of prayer and penance. This came with a warning that if we ever had any impure thoughts we should immediately say ten Hail Mary’s and then go for a long run or a cold bath. Or both.
Believe me, if I had taken that advice I would have been an Olympic distance champion, as would all the rest of them. And a saint.
So they soon sussed out that my vocation was based on a false premise and promptly kicked my sorry little agnostic ass out of there, much to our mutual relief, and my father’s everlasting disapproval.
Still, life wasn’t all bad. Now in my early teens, my friends and I could explore further. We shot rabbits and grouse with longbows and went camping. We would sometimes catch a pigeon and let it loose in the Co-op Store, which terrified all the lady assistants so much that they failed to spot us liberating cans of corned beef and beans before catching the errant bird and gaining their approval and a chocolate reward into the bargain.
Once we went in search of the Dummy Village, a clapboard decoy set up to distract German bombers. It must have been effective, for we did find unexploded bombs which we duly tried to detonate by throwing them down a steep canyon. We had seen bombs in the movies, so we knew they only went bang and might throw you backwards. Nothing to it. It wasn’t until much later, as a journalist in Ulster, that I saw real bombs explode, which were nothing like the movies. Not one bit. And they don’t just throw you backwards either.
Anyway, we brought the bomb home and proudly announced to the fact to stricken parents who called the police who called the bomb squad. The upset was that I didn’t sit down for a week, and I don’t think I breathed fresh air for two months. Fun times.
I became a local journalist at 17 and by the age of 22 had graduated to become the editor of my local paper, then moved to the Glasgow Evening Times at 25 to help set up the investigations team. I had notions of writing fiction even then, although looking over some notes and storylines from then, I can be assured that would have been the wrong move.
I joined the Sunday Mail as an investigator and campaigning journalist and won a few awards for my efforts. And this gave me the opportunity to begin to write, chiefly because I didn’t work Mondays and had nobody to play with.
To tell the truth, my first story was based on a nightmare I had. I dream a lot, always in glorious technicolour, which is like having a season pass to the cinema. The downside is that there is the occasional nightmare, and this particular one was a beauty. It was a “wake up in a sweat and go down for two large vodkas” kind of nightmare. Still shaken, I wrote down some details and forgot about it until some weeks later when I found my notes and it all came back to me. For some reason, it played about in my head and eventually formed into a storyline for a book, and nobody was more surprised than I was when a publisher thought it was worth printing.
So now, when I finish a novel, I always type THE END.
And then I go and have two large vodkas.