Mull inspiration for musician Colin MacIntyre’s novel

Colin Macintyre. Picture:  Dan Massie
Colin Macintyre. Picture: Dan Massie
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WHAT is it with musician writers and sick bags? First Nick Cave finesses a whole book from initial jottings on airline barf bags, then Colin MacIntyre has his literary eureka moment on a flight, reaches for the sick bag and pens what, unbeknownst to him or any living soul at the time, were to be the first words of his debut novel, The Letters Of Ivor Punch.

Until now, MacIntyre has been best known as a musician, recording under his own name and that of his chart-bothering alias, Mull Historical Society. But he hails from a family of writers and journalists – his late father, Kenny MacIntyre, was BBC Scotland’s much respected political correspondent in the 1990s; his grandfather, Angus, was bank manager in Tobermory by day, poet by night; and his uncle Lorn is also a published author – so it’s a family trade of sorts.

MacIntyre first started writing short stories about ten years ago, while he was out on tour. More recently, he joined a writers group in London and ended up collaborating on a Radio 4 play, Zero Degrees Of Separation, about the links in environments and cultures between the writers’ respective homes – Cardiff, London and Mull. The most recent MHS album, City Awakenings, was inspired by the three cities which MacIntyre has called home – London, Glasgow and New York – and a sense of place is key to his work.

His native Mull infuses The Letters Of Ivor Punch. Set on an unnamed island, which just happens to resemble Mull in location and environment, the book follows the somewhat interlocking fortunes of an ensemble of characters across generations, all stemming from a letter to Barack Obama scribbled on finest airline parchment.

“I’d been working on it quite secretly – I hadn’t even told my wife I was writing this thing,” says MacIntyre. “There’s been a few manuscripts hidden under the bed over the years that should definitely stay there, so when I started this one it almost helped to say nothing about it.”

For MacIntyre, finding the voice of Ivor Punch, said keen letter writer, was the key. “It was the first time I had something that felt like it came from the same place as my music, like I wasn’t trying to sound like anyone else,” he says. “Now I’m talking it out I realise it was quite a similar process to coming up with the Mull Historical name and thinking ‘that’s the identity’.”

MacIntyre actually wrote most of the novel either at home in London or on the east coast of America – “seeing the Atlantic from both sides and getting to know it a bit better on the other side,” he notes. “Sometimes being away from the place you grow up makes it stronger in the imagination.”

MacIntyre still has plenty of family on Mull and returns every year for the Highland Games, where his father’s triple jump record still stands. He made a couple of loose recce trips while writing the novel and, a few years back, he recorded the album Island in Tobermory’s An Tobar arts centre, in what had once been his old school classroom. But he says, as a rule of thumb, “I’ve always tried to keep a slight distance. I know where a lot of my inspirations come from, whether it’s people around me or people I grew up with, but you twist them into pop songs.”

MacIntyre’s songs have often developed like stories anyway – Barcode Bypass, his debut single as Mull Historical Society, was a poignant study of the owner of a small local shop gradually giving up the ghost against 
the inexorable reach of a supermarket chain. Hardly a traditional pop song subject but one which captured the imagination of fans and writer sufficiently to merit a sequel, The Supermarket Strikes Back, a few years later.

MacIntyre’s novel also takes snapshots of some colourful characters and revisits their exploits and travails across subsequent chapters, placing real people – including the 19th century explorer Isabella Bird and her sister Henrietta, who lived on Mull – in fictional situations with fictional characters. MacIntyre even makes a brief cameo himself when members of the original Mull Historical Society – now rechristened the Mull Historical and Archaeological Society in fiction and reality – discuss their namesake pop star.

Keen-eyed fans will also spot some of his song lyrics and other connections scattered through the text. The MHS track Treescavengers was inspired by the old island practice of foraging firs to use as Christmas trees, which is in turn referred to in the book.

Perpetuating this spirit of cross-pollination, MacIntyre has written a song called The Ballad Of Ivor Punch, which he plans to record for the audio book edition. “Ivor has a verbal tic, he says ‘and f***’ almost as a full stop. So it took me a while to get something to rhyme with that. Production-wise, it’s quite a raucous thing, it makes me think a bit of Instant Karma, a bit like Arcade Fire as well.”

The next MHS album is already written along similar stylistic lines, but before he gets around to releasing that, MacIntyre is promoting a Best Of compilation and embarking on a tour to celebrate 15 years since the release of his debut album Loss, revisiting a lot of the venues he played around that time, including MacGochans pub in Tobermory, where he played his first ever MHS show.

MacIntyre has also been working intermittently on an electronic music project called INK, which he originally posted online anonymously before being smoked out as its creator. “I wanted it to be a blank page but somehow whenever I take my eye off INK it starts to do things.” That’s yet another album, called A Certain Kind Of You, recorded and ready to go. MacIntyre is quite the creative juggler.

“I don’t have to be one thing, as long as what you do feels real,” he says. “In my mind, these things are all linked. Quite a lot of births and new things…” Literal births, it transpires – MacIntyre is also father to two girls. “That’s one of the reasons I never told my wife I was writing a novel, because I just didn’t want to tell her there was another thing that I was doing,” he says. “Being a dad is obviously the biggest thing in my life but I think it’s actually been good for me creatively as well – just that thing of not being so focused on what you’re doing yourself.”

His daughters are now aged three and four and are already flexing their A&R muscles. “Kids can always pick out the catchy songs – kids and grandmothers. My gran’s still telling me to ‘cut out the twiddly bits’ as she puts it, so with each album I’m getting closer to realising my potential, according to my gran.” n

The Letters Of Ivor Punch is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 May, and launched at Tackle & Books, Tobermory on Thursday. The Best of Mull Historical Society/Colin MacIntyre is released by Xtra Mile Recordings on 27 April. Mull Historical Society plays MacGochans, Tobermory, on Thursday as part of the Mull Music Festival, King Tut’s, Glasgow, on Friday, and PJ Molloys, Dunfermline, on Saturday