Michael A. Gordon
Edinburgh: "Writing is in our blood.
It's carved into our streets and sprayed onto our shutters."
A Write of passAge
It was circa 1984. I was sitting in my English class at Broughton High School, minding my own business, when something really unusual happened. The norm was for teachers to tell me to ‘wake up boy!’ and that I would ‘never amount to anything’. I was incredibly inattentive, a daydreamer, bored, unengaged, distracted (I’m sure there’s probably a disorder for this now). We were doing metaphors and similies and we had been asked to write a short story. I can’t remember the brief, but I recall mine was about a lily pond. I described the way the reeds moved like belly-dancers, the way a dragonfly skimmed across the water leaving ripples in its wake. I don’t remember much else. But when class finished, our teacher, Mr MacMillan, held me back and sat me down. He handed me my jotter containing the story and asked me what had inspired me. “I dunno, sir?” I just closed my eyes, saw the picture and then used the words I know to describe it in as interesting a way as I could.” He then asked me if I had ever read Steinbeck?
“John Steinbeck. We’re going to be reading his book Of Mice and Men soon.
“No sir, I haven’t.”
“You’re writing reminds me of his style. The way you describe things. I think you have a natural talent for this.”
Wait. What? I have a talent? Other than drawing shitty space comics? That can’t be right. Are you sure you’ve not mixed up the stories? You must have mistaken it for Gavin Lindsay’s or someone else. Nope. Sure enough, it was my story.
“Stick in!’ he said.
And that stuck with me. More than anything that happened to me in twelve years of schooling. That splinter of support, that I could be worth something. I have never forgotten those kind words.
I knew I had to write something! But how would this happen? Write on what? About what? I really wanted to write a time travel adventure, but I’d need to spend years in the library learning about all the places in history to get it all correct. I simply wasn’t ready. I tried on many occasions to flex my creative muscles. I bought a typewriter at the age of twenty-four and made it as far as page eight of a spy shoot-em-up in the snow. I impressed myself with my use of language, still seemingly having what Mr MacMillan saw. However, the novel still eluded me. Once more, I was distracted.
A musical distraction
I had always been a BIG music fan and my creativity was now pulling me in that direction. I bought a bass guitar and failed miserably at learning to play it properly. Another time perhaps. Then I bought an electric guitar and started playing rhythm in a band. There I met four of my friends for life. Keith, John and Craig(s). Craig (wee) has gone on to be the most underrated unsigned musician of his generation, Keith now lives in Aberdeen working in oil and gas, other Craig (Big) makes spectacles (of himself) and John is a graphic designer who still plays with Wee Craig in a Scottish AC/DC tribute band called ‘The Volts’ as well as Craig's awesome Batallion of Flies. After several line up switches, time out and some new contacts, I found myself as the lead singer for Imperial Racing Club. We had modest success, releasing two self-funded singles and an album. One of the singles, My World entered the rock charts at No.9! John Peel opened his show with us once! We had lots of excellent support slots and played some festivals but eventually, the saturation of the market took its toll. Too many bands in a time when taking a chance on bands was already in decline and, I guess, we just weren’t novel enough. Novel. Hmm. There’s that word again.
Work and discipline
My working life started off in a colour print shop in Edinburgh. George Stewart and Co Ltd., now defunct (even the building is gone) for a time taught me some discipline. This back in the days when qualifications weren’t a prerequisite. My interview went like this:
Bill White: “Right, son, sit down. Tell me, can you use a pen?”
Bill White: “Can you start on Monday?”
I gave it eleven or so years before I couldn’t advance any higher. Ambition had now set in and by this time I also had my first son, Sean, to support. I moved on to be a senior graphic designer with Scottish Widows, the Edinburgh-based life assurance and pension firm. There, more discipline arrived but it still wasn’t enough for me. I left to start my own business after ten years. My very first client ended up being the one that changed my life. A little known software tech company called FNZ. They had recently acquired their first client in the U.K. and it was a monster. Standard Life! They were in the process of building them an adviser investment platform and I was hired to do the user interface designs. Eventually, I gave up my business to work for them full-time as we started to become renowned and pull in more major clients. Quickly we attracted the likes of AXA, J.P. Morgan, Aviva, Santander and Friends Life. The company’s success, led by its CEO Adrian Durham, has gone on to become one of the great fintech success stories of the past twenty years. They now power a large portion of the world’s investment platforms and are worth in the region of GBP 2 billion as we speak. I was given a real chance to shine and grow here. My boss, Chris, is my one true mentor but otherwise, we were pretty much left to just invent what a financial interface was. I now had the ability and the drive to create something from nothing.
My new partner Sarah and I had been living in Edinburgh but we eventually decided to move to the Scottish Borders to a sleepy little town called Earlston. There we found ourselves, after a long hard struggle, with a twin boy and girl called William and Lucy. With a great career and a new family, everything seemed complete. Or did it? There’s still something I hadn’t done! I know I COULD write a book, but can I ACTUALLY do it?
A novel approach
My bus commute to Edinburgh was a three-hour round-trip. I have a laptop in my bag. Okay, let’s give this a whirl! But what to write about? I’m sure there was something I always wanted to write about. Something about time travel was it? And then we went on holiday to Croatia. At the time there was a lot of sabre-rattling between Russia and the West. Air spaces were being breached, troops were building up on the Ukrainian border and there was a general feeling of unease. Then a thought struck me. As a parent of five-year-old kids, what on Earth would we do if a war broke out and we were stuck here? How would we react? What would we do? Where would we go?
When we returned from holiday I hopped on the bus to work and pulled out my laptop. Right here we go! I’m going to do it this time. I have years of knowledge, drive, commitment. I’m all set. Three months later, without even telling my wife I was working on it, I finished the four hundred page adventure story Mark Elder - Dawn of the Robokaze. It follows the fortunes of a family trapped in Croatia by the outbreak of World War Three, who have to make their way back to blighty avoiding fallout zones and the advancing Russian forces. Along the way, they meet some hilarious characters which really helped me develop the art of creating personas. I found I was able to quickly craft the timeline, having a good understanding of where I wanted it to go and adding suspense and intrigue in the most convenient places and the story unfolded. At times, it was as revelationary for me as it was for the characters or the reader.
By the time they reach Monte Carlo, what started out as a bizarre travel documentary turns into a spy thriller. Mark meets an old school chum who reveals a great secret. Russia is not behind the war. There are dark forces at work. His friend gives him a disk containing vital information and is soon bumped off by the bad guys, leaving Mark and his family and new chums to deliver the disk safely into the hands of British Intelligence with the baddies snapping at their heels. I had heaps of research to do into the bargain and I utterly enjoyed the whole experience. I now had the writing bug.
“It’s shite being Scottish”
Growing up in Edinburgh, we had cultural diversity in spades, but only in the Scottish setting. Later, I would see all the diversity I could ever imagine as we moved to the far east, but for now, this cultural melting-pot would have to do.
Being born there is almost like a ‘write’ of passage. Writing is in our blood. It’s carved into the streets, scraped into our walls and sprayed onto our shutters. Everywhere you go, someone has something to say. Other writers have moved there, lived there and died there. There’s something about those cobbled streets, the gothic spires, the directness of the place, the diversity, the hope and the hopelessness. It creates something. A knowing, an understanding. It’s a place of great thought and musing. Like we’re trying to work something out, something that will ultimately say, “This is Edinburgh. This is life.”
From Walter Scott to Ian Rankin or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Irvine Welsh. From those that came here and were inspired, all have thrived. J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. Robert Louis Stevenson, J.M. Barrie, Muriel Spark and Ian Banks. Ian Fleming even had James Bond schooled here, just across the road from my old school.
Escaping writers is not easy in Edinburgh. They’re everywhere! Another now-well-established author, crime writer Doug Johnstone, used to sit behind me bashing his drums with Imperial Racing Club. In fact, you can hear him on our singles Big Day Out and My World. Even backstage at an IRC gig once, we were sitting having a beer awaiting our call to the stage when in walked our drummer Chris’s mate, ‘Irv’. Everyone went quiet and giddy as this lovely man was introduced to us all. I had no idea who he was! I almost asked him what he did for a living. After a good half-hour conversation, I observed my good buddy Craig’s body language and it dawned on me that this was SOMEBODY. Craig loves a celebrity and always hoovers in to speak to them. No autographs, just chat and to work out how they did what they’ve done. As time progressed, the penny started to drop that this was, in fact, Irvine Welsh! I had never seen a picture of him!! I was very pleased not to have put my entire foot in my mouth and tried to hide the penny-dropping moment as much as possible. I don’t think he spotted. I would hate to have offended such a literary genius. Not that he would have been offended. He is such a lovely, down-to-earth man.
Grabbing life by the davinas
Then, in 2016, an opportunity arose. We were given the chance to move to Hong Kong to work with a new FNZ client. We did it. We took the kids, the dogs, half of our stuff and moved! Nothing like a leap of faith to invigorate the senses. Money worries filtered away and we relaxed into life in the sun, a large house with a live-in helper, a HUGE inflatable pool, cigars and a jacuzzi on the roof. We basically ticked all of life’s boxes in a couple of months. And that’s the thing about box-ticking. Once they’re ticked, that’s it. You’ve got to find new priorities. My next objective wasn’t set. I knew I wanted to write more, but what?
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