Stephen McGinty: A lesson in life and death

Armstrong's death was somewhat overshadowed by that of Margaret Thatcher, writes Stephen McGinty. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Armstrong's death was somewhat overshadowed by that of Margaret Thatcher, writes Stephen McGinty. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Share this article
Have your say

LAST week, while researching The Scotsman’s Review of 2013, I made a disturbing and shameful discovery.

While chronicling each of the 12 months, I always think it’s important to sprinkle in a few of the most prominent deaths and although many are recalled from memory, such as Margaret Thatcher, Iain Banks and Nelson Mandela, there are always a few I’ve forgotten or missed, so I printed out Wikipedia’s list of prominent deaths (I know, I know: but it’s often a good place to start) and so there I was, sipping a cup of coffee and flicking through the pages when I saw, listed in March: “Campbell Armstrong, author, 69.” I don’t know when my default expletive for unpleasant surprises coarsened from “sh*t” to “oh f***” but those were the words that came out of my mouth. You see, I considered Campbell a friend, but what does it say about me that almost nine months have passed and I’m only now learning of his death?

I’d actually been thinking about him a few days earlier. At this time of year, we’re instinctively drawn to take stock, to calculate the additions and subtractions of the past year, to weigh up the good and the bad and ponder what we planned to do but didn’t actually get around to. I’ve never been one for sending Christmas cards but in years past I’ve taken an hour or so to phone up those people I haven’t seen in the past year but would have liked to and Campbell, who lived in Ireland, was often on that list. We last spoke in May, 2011, when I asked Campbell to write a short piece on the Queen’s visit to Ireland.

It is a morbid tradition that on the eve of the New Year we look back at those we have lost: it’s just so sad and so strange to now include Campbell on the list.

When I think of him, the first thing that comes to mind is his voice. He was softly spoken with a mild mid-Atlantic twang that drifted across his vowels like fog, a remainder of 20 years spent in America, most of it in the dry heat of Arizona and Sedona, a “new age” Mecca of crystals and healing that sat uncomfortably with the fiercely rational mind of a philosophy graduate.

When I was writing my first book, This Turbulent Priest, a daunting 500-page biography of Cardinal Thomas Winning, he invited me over to the country house he shared with his second wife, Rebecca, in County Offaly. He had bought this 20-room mansion in 1991 while drunk or at least hungover and without first telling Rebecca. There was a grand room of panelled wood, painted white, with bookshelves on which were stacked his many novels and their foreign editions. The room had a grand piano and large windows overlooking a paddock on which Rebecca’s horses trotted past.

Upstairs were long creaking corridors with multiple, expansive bedrooms. The idea was that the visit would serve as a writer’s retreat. The couple generously provided bed and board and the plan was that I would spend all the hours I could cranking out page after page after page. As he showed me to my room, Campbell said the house was haunted by a servant girl. I think he was joking, but with Campbell you never quite knew.

For a week or so, we worked at opposite ends of a long corridor. I had brought a big bag of research material and sat at my Compaq Pressario laptop dutifully piecing together the bricks of fact that collectively built up a life while he was rattling out a new detective novel. Each day at 1pm we would meet in the kitchen for lunch and I’d ask how his morning toil had gone. The dialogue went as follows:

“Pretty good. There has just been a car crash and Lou Perlman is chasing an armed robber. How about you?”

“Tom Winning is about to head to the Gregorian University in Rome but he’s worried about his Latin.”

Campbell’s office was always wrapped in a blizzard of paper, books and notepads. Yet his copy was scrupulously clean, a handy hangover from when he worked as a publisher in London, where he rewrote the first novel of at least one thriller writer, now a household name, and rewrote the original English translation of Henri Charriere’s memoir Papillion, which became a huge best-seller.

His biggest success was the thriller, Jig, about an Irish assassin. Published in 1987, it was a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, introduced his most popular character, Frank Pagan, a Special Branch officer, and earned him a huge advance for his next few novels, Mambo, Mazurka and Agents of Darkness. At one point, such was his popularity in Britain that WH Smith had a bay in each store labelled: “Campbell Armstrong”. Yet although among the best-written thrillers on the market, his books never quite made it, in terms of sales, into the same rank as James Patterson and Tom Clancy.

Before the success of Jig, he published a number of novels, but his biggest seller at the time was the novelisation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which his agent secured him in 1981 at a time of financial peril and which he told me he wrote in ten days fuelled by cocaine. He said the scene in the movie where Indiana Jones’ plane flies across an old faded map of the world was the most fiddly part to write. “I had to invent the journey. It was a real pain.” Later, he sued George Lucas in a bid to secure a share of the worldwide sales but it was a battle he didn’t win.

In the kitchen was a poster for And They Used to Star in the Movies, a play which Campbell had written in 1973 about the washed-up careers of Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Goofy and Donald Duck who meet up in an LA bar to lament their fate. At the time it was first staged, Harold Pinter wrote a letter of congratulations and offered to have it staged at the Royal Court but Disney claimed infringement of copyright and blocked any other productions. A few years after my extended stay, my wife and I flew over to Dublin to have lunch with Campbell and watch a new staging of the play with which he was exceedingly pleased.

Yet perhaps the book about which he received the finest reviews was not a thriller nor his quartet of Glasgow crime novels, which I still think are too little known, but a memoir he wrote in 2000, All That Really Matters. When he met his first wife, Eileen, the only daughter of an orthodox Jewish family from the Gorbals, she had a scar on her stomach, the result of a Caesarean when she was 17. The baby girl was put up for adoption. Although Campbell and Eileen divorced, they remained on good terms, bound together by their three sons.

When Eileen, who had remained in Arizona, revealed she was dying of cancer, Campbell flew over to be with her. At the same time, Eileen’s daughter, Barbara, now 40, began to search for her birth mother. She too had terminal cancer.

The story of how they were reunited just in time is interwoven with Campbell’s journey to sobriety from the grip of drink and drugs to form a true story that moved people around the world. All That Really Matters became a popular Book of the Week on Radio 4, read by Brian Cox. As Campbell said: “I wrote it as a testimony to the character of these women, and to their strength, and also to give some kind of hope to people who suffer from cancer. It’s a book about love and the human will, about adoption and illness, about the importance of family and blood-ties.”

The same disease would claim Campbell on 1 March. I now regret not calling him last Christmas. He was a good man and great company. He also taught me one important lesson about writing. You have to actually write: research and making notes was one thing but unless you had actual pages at the end of the day that didn’t exist in the morning, you weren’t actually working. As Campbell said: “Everything else is pencil sharpening.”

So if there is a lesson to be learned from my regret, it is that if you’re planning to make a call but haven’t quite got round to it, why not pick up the phone today? Next year may be too late.