Great novels can be written anywhere – even, it seems – in a housing estate in Mullingar.
For that’s the location that Scottish crime writer Tony Black chose when he went looking for somewhere quite where he could get away from it all, to make sense of the “woolly mess of words” that were to become his latest book, His Father’s Son, which was released last Thursday.
“I lived opposite that big hospital in Mullingar, in the estate where the man hung the banner from his apartment,” he says, momentarily stuck to remember the names of St Loman’s Hospital and Lakepoint.
And, surprising as it might seem, he is delighted that Mullingar is where he ended up.
“It is a small town, but it had everything I wanted on my doorstep – plus that great bookshop on the main drag with the coffee shop behind,” he says, referring to Days Bazaar.
It was also handy for access to Galway, where he needed to carry out much of his research; and, of course, just up the road from Dublin, and when he was “stuck”, he used go for walks along the canal line.
It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar territory either, as Tony, although born in Australia to Scottish parents, spent three years of his childhood living in Ireland when his father got the offer of a job with Digital in Galway.
His Father’s Son starts in Australia, but Marti, the seven-year-old hero, has his world turned upside down when he finds himself landed in 1960s Ireland, the place of his parents’ birth. He finds himself in an Irish village, attending a Catholic school; and having to carve out for himself a place in this new world.
Much like Tony, who admits draws strongly on his own memories and impressions and experiences from his move to Ireland – although it was more recent than the period in which the book is set.
“My publisher is saying that the book is semi-autobiographical, but it is a novel,” he laughs.
“A lot of the stuff Marti experiences is stuff I experienced when I came to Ireland, and a lot of the stuff that Joey – his father – experienced working in Australia, is what my parents experienced, so there’s quite a lot of everybody’s back story in it,” he says.
As a seven-year-old boy, Tony didn’t mind at all leaving Australia and coming to Ireland – although the circumstances were much happier than those which saw Marti travel here.
“It was a big adventure, and I loved Galway, and as soon as I got there, I fitted in. I can still remember my first day at school there, and kids asking me were there wars in Australia.”
He still remembers too – and recites with a perfect ‘blas’ that time-worn entreaty that all Irish schoolchildren must learn... ”An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?”.
Although there is a measure of bleakness to the portrayal of Marti’s new life in Galway, and in his experiences in a school where corporal punishment was still the norm and Catholicism dominated the curriculum, Tony is adamant that in fact he loved Galway, and his three years in school here.
“If I look back, I loved my time in the school; it was harsh, and today we’re horrified at that, but you can’t look back that way: it was a different world.”
At the same time as the cane was being used here, kids in Scotland were being belted with leathers, he points out.
“I remember at one stage we – a friend and I – broke into the school and stole our teacher’s canes. In fact, we stole every cane from every teacher, and threw them into the Corrib.
“We thought we’d get in terrible trouble, but they never mentioned it, which I think speaks volumes.”
There was no happy ending though; the school didn’t have a sudden change of heart on corporal punishment: the next day, there was a whole batch of new canes in.
From real life too comes one of the many comedic moments in the book, when he finds himself “forced” to go to confession – despite the fact that his parents had made clear that they wanted him exempt from religious instruction. When his mother went in to remind the school, the principal told her the teacher responsible had been receiving a slagging from his colleagues ever since, telling him he should be working out on the Missions.
In some senses, the book makes for uncomfortable reading: taken as read is the keenness for drink among the Irish, but alongside that, there is a great kindness to be found in the nature of many of the characters, and it is a fond take on this country.
The story is gripping, and while some of the use of the Irish ‘accent’ jars a little, that accent is used, nonetheless, to vocalise some great lines and it’s a witty and amusing read.
The portions told from Marti’s perspective are excellent: this truly is life through the eyes of a young child, not fully understanding the world around him, innocently trying to keep everyone happy, but accidentally ending up in trouble, and innocently.
It’s clear both from the book and in conversation that Tony likes this country and the Irish.
“I was happy as Larry there,” he says of those three years spent here.
“The Scots and the Irish are pretty much identical. Although I think you get better weather!”
Now a full-time writer, and since December, father to a young son, Conner, Tony lives in Scotland, but travels regularly to Australia.
He is currently working on his new book, The Last Tiger, due out next year, and telling the story this time of a Lithuanian family who set off for New York, but end up in Tasmania.