My earliest literary influences originated under the pens of DC Thomson cartoonists. Long before going to school I remember trying to decipher the lettering that went with the exploits of Desperate Dan and Oor Wullie, quickly moving on to my brother’s Commando books and occasionally sneaking a peek at what my sisters Liz and Maria were reading. My mother said comics would “rot their brains” but dad encouraged it all with a wry smile. My brother Hugh used to stand at the door of the bedroom in the light from the landing, to read for hours after we had been sent to bed. I quickly realised that learning for yourself was that important.
It was the era of watching the night sky above Drumchapel for signs of Laika and Yuri Gagarin, instantly linking Baikonur with Cape Canaveral in every child’s imagination; of cramming two dozen kids into an exclusive television-owning neighbour’s living room, to view The Lone Ranger and Six Five Special. All the kids on my street were hooked on popular culture – who knew that in a few years it would be the Beatles we were all talking about, or Mick Jagger strutting his stuff on Ready, Steady, Go?
Things changed so fast in that era: I was reading Biggles in the Baltic the evening when, in the memorable words of Anthony Burgess: “The stain of the corpse was left on the living room hearth-rug.” I rushed downstairs to switch on the telly for Bonanza and got the interlude card. Switching over in annoyance I saw a solemn woman pianist performing in front of an orchestra. We all loved Kennedy in my family. I was just ten but the news was staggering - a good friend had just been murdered.
We watched the first episode of Dr Who the following day. Somehow it never worked for me – though the imminence of Space travel, time warps and aliens were a given. Later that evening my thirteen year old sister Elizabeth cried when she heard Millicent Martin singing the title melody of That Was the Week That Was, dripping with the saddest irony.
Central to my social education were larger than life garrulous Irish / Scottish parents and Grandparents as well as three intensely amicable, quick minded siblings. My mother Molly had to engage with everyone she met, find out everything about them and then tell them everything of conceivable interest about herself. If she had lived beyond ’98 she would have spent half her day on Facebook. There was an argument at every meal time but we had been thoroughly indoctrinated by our Grandma Lizzie: “Never let the Sun go down on your anger.”
Telly pre-figured from the early sixties onward in every cultural sphere. It was what opened the good morning conversation every day with my compulsive viewing school friends Chris K and Martin P as soon as we arrived: “Did you see . . . ?”
By the time I stopped in horror again in front of the tube, this time at fourteen seeing US jets napalm bombing a Vietnamese village, my sympathies had already tuned to those poor people, never the hard invective of an American President with an eight o’clock shadow. In ’68 Walter Kronkite elaborating upon the visible fear of stunned GI’s desperately engaged in the streets of Hue, set a perspective upon the intimate reality of warfare and the meaning of “cosmic escalation” for the first time ever for hundreds of millions of viewers at home. The politicians just couldn’t keep on lying.
Around the time I was listening to Pete Townshend wryly knocking out Legal Matter on Radio Caroline, my brother made me listen instead to Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home. Despite seven years between us that connection was always vital for me as a kid. My turn to grab his attention came in my late teens when I got Hughie to spend an evening listening to Pink Floyd and Santana.
From my early teens my brother made me aware of Hemingway and Tolstoy, Golding and the “Angry Young Men”. He gave me an anthology of Steinbeck’s short stories including Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, which worked for me better than anything I have ever read before or since. Steinbeck’s work is touched by simple compassion for the individual behind the action. I imagine this is the highest art for any writer – to be able to show the truth within the fiction.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading works by Herman Hesse; Musuji Ibuse; Arthur Koestler; Len Deighton; John Le Carre; Arthur C Clarke; Larry McMurtry; Michael Connelly; as well as classics from Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy amongst others, all predictable - nothing heavy. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the more popular journalistic historians and autobiographies as well: Stephen Ambrose; Cornelius Ryan; Adam Zamoyski; Sebastian Faulks, RV Jones.
I vaguely remember a drunken conversation in my early twenties with an old school friend David L, who was generally reckoned to be a genius by everyone in our year group. He studied Literature at University. He was discussing Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano with two or three other people who had also read the novel. They were debating whether the principal themes were about alcoholism or depression; sexual frustration; thwarted career ambitions, racial animosity or whatever. It felt like we had all read a different book (tribute the author). I finally interrupted to say emphatically: “No, I think it’s about guilt! Misguided loyalty and uncontrolled rage, resulting in guilt. That’s the burden of anyone who goes to war. They can never forget what they’ve done.”
My dad had told me this when he handed me back the copy of Len Deighton’s Bomber I had lent him, saying: “I can’t read this.” He went on to say there was never a day that passed he did not regret what he had done; never a night when he did not re-live the vicious burden of warfare in his nightmares. Jim and his brother Billy influenced me more than anyone with their brilliant, humorous stories. They in turn would probably agree they had been influenced most in their formative years by their remarkable mother Hannah.