Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Gritty Side of Life

In a previous post I mentioned that Dashiell Hammett had a problem with drink. So did Raymond Chandler. In 1932 he was fired from his job with an oil company because of his alcoholism. That was when he set out to be the writer he always wanted to be. He wanted to write about American life. Not the cosy version beloved of romance writers, but the real, tension-riddled version that turned everyday existence into unhappiness. He found his voice in crime novels and his most famous creation: Philip Marlowe. Marlowe did for Chandler what Sam Spade did for Hammett. Both writers found their voice writing about the gritty, seamy side of life they knew to be more real than any cosy romance. In writing about their world as they saw it, they were true to themselves.

Why do I tell you this? Am I about to admit to being an alcoholic? No, certainly not. I keep my taste for a decent wine strictly under control. One glass with a meal and that’s it.  But I do have a taste for writing about the grittier side of life. The problem is that I live in a place where a lot of decent, law abiding elderly people live in relative comfort. For most of them, serious crime means putting recyclable waste into their ordinary dustbins. So I have to draw upon previous experiences in order to find harsh backgrounds for my stories.

In 1968 I finished my air traffic control basic training and I was posted to Belfast Airport. As a very junior controller on the bottom step of the pay ladder, I lived in a very downbeat part of the city: rows of back-to-back red-brick terraces. Coronation Street without the charm. Within a year that part of Belfast would erupt into violence. I was later posted to a radar station in glorious countryside thirty miles south of Belfast, within sight of the Mourne Mountains. Even there I saw the effects of the Northern Irish troubles at first hand. I saw an otherwise beautiful countryside brought to its knees. I looked out from my own home and saw bombs explode. I saw buildings torn apart. Buy me a pint of beer and I’ll tell you the tale of how I was once mistaken for an IRA brigade leader. Amongst the seemingly endless catalogue of atrocities, I experienced the same fear all decent Irish people felt. And that is a gritty way of life I can now write about.

Why? Why write about something most people want to forget? Well, I write about it because most English people don’t understand what it was like. How could they? They read the odd newspaper article about it, but that doesn’t have the same effect as becoming emotionally tangled with the lives of characters from a novel. Even a well-researched article will not delve deep enough into the intimacies of people’s lives. So I tell it as I once saw it and I create a gritty world of tension and fear just as Chandler did so many years ago.

If you want to know how I saw things back in those violent times, try reading The Gallows on Warlock Hill. In that story I created a character who was, on the surface, a wicked girl. Over the course of the novel I aimed to show that, deep down, she wasn’t bad at all. She was simply a victim of her circumstances. And, therein, lay the universal truth I wanted to portray: so many Irish people who lived through those terrible days were victims, not criminals. Gallows is now available for download from Amazon and you can try the opening chapter free on But I should warn you: it is every bit as gritty as any Hammett or Chandler novel.

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