I’m delighted to host a piece from a fellow Scottish writer, David Ross, whose latest novel, The Man Who Loved Islands is out now. This is David’s third published novel and I was intrigued to learn about the background to his books.
The Man Who Loved Islands marks the end (perhaps) of a Trilogy of stories spanning from 1982 right up to the present day. The three books are all fundamentally about ordinary people chasing their dreams, sometimes legitimately and sometimes not. In 1982 – when The Last Days of Disco was set – I was about to turn eighteen. I experienced a mix of emotions that are hopefully represented by the two principal characters in that book (Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller). Those remembered emotions are the catalyst for my books.
During the writing process, it was essential for me to reconnect with the times, the vibes and the memories to stage the plots authentically in a way that the reader could identify with. This isn’t just about pure nostalgia for the sake of it; it’s about creating a believable context where the reader can empathise with the characters, by having some personal perspective on the factors that are shaping their stories.
Music places a major part in that process for me, and I’ve written at length previously about the impact that it has on my writing. For this piece, I thought I’d share where the idea for The Man Who Loved Islands came from.
When I was a around six years old, there were three television programmes I was obsessed with.
The first was a truly bizarre American programme called ‘H.R Pufnstuf’. My entrepreneurial father had swapped our budgie and its cage for a loan of a colour TV to watch the 1970 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy. Such an experience was virtually unheard of in early 70s Glasgow, and in any case, he hated the bird. An opportunity to get rid of it as part of a bizarre pre-Bosman style transfer deal was too good to miss. It was called Joey – the budgie, not the telly – and his failed attempts to get it to talk were the justification for its permanent ‘early bath’. I missed Joey; well for about the first five minutes of a match apparently being played in some footballing technicolor Oz.
But the real bonus, beyond that unforgettable game, was in subsequently watching Mayor H.R.Pufnstuf and the other residents of Living Island try to help young Jimmy (played by English child actor Jack Wild) who had been shipwrecked and led to their remote island, escape the clutches of Witchiepoo. She wants to steal Jimmy’s talking flute (yes, you read that correctly…) to add to her collection of magical objects.
Now ‘H.R.Pufnstuf’ has come under fire for claims that it contained hidden recreational drug references. For example, H.R. was thought to be an abbreviation for ‘hand rolled’, while ‘Pufnstuf’ was inexplicably thought to mean ‘Puffing Stuff.’
I ask you…is there no innocence left? Don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself:
The second was black and white re-runs of ‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’. This was a French children’s programme based on the Daniel Defoe novel. It was horrendously dubbed but, for me, it was compulsive viewing in the mid-70s. It had memorable theme music and the opening titles are as familiar to me now as they were then. Perhaps you recall it too:
Both programmes are, in different ways, about solitude and the complex and contradictory nature of that; the loneliness and the opportunity that it fosters. In The Man Who Loved Islands, Gary Cassidy craves this solitude but for reasons that he doesn’t, or cant, fully understand. The book is essentially about regrets and fears and the irrational logic that solitude must surely be the only answer. But as Joe Strummer once said: ‘Without people, you’re nothing.’ That, ultimately, is the book’s central message.
The third was a series of Laurel & Hardy films, and especially, ‘The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case’ which ran at the minors in the local Cinema when I was young. The Laurel & Hardy films were (are) timeless and they too represent the naïve, but ultimately fruitless ambition displayed by Bobby and Joey who are also fans as they set out after their goals. In The Man Who Loved Islands, the films also play a part in reminding them of the depth of their friendship when in later life, that seems irreparably broken.
The theme tune of Robinson Crusoe certainly took me back! And the themes of all three books are ones which I’m sure will strike a chord (sorry, couldn’t resist the poor pun!) with many other readers too. Thanks to David for this interesting guest post and all the very best with your new novel.