Thursday, 24 May 2012

Bertie Auld and a bit of toilet humour

The launch of The Road to Lisbon took place in Glasgow last night. It was an enjoyable evening with a star turn by the legendary Bertie Auld (above right). At 74, the Lion remains evangelical in spreading his love for Celtic.

Bertie’s storytelling abilities now almost match the memory of his towering football talent. He is the ultimate raconteur but there is pathos as well as comedy.

He ended with a fantastic tale of accompanying Jinky – then in the throes of his battle with Motor Neurone – to visit Alfredo di Stefano in Madrid. The tale began in Viewpark, wound its way through Madrid and ended up in an airport toilet, where a giggling Jinky – who by then had started to lose power in his arms - insisted Bertie help him relieve himself.

As a reluctant Bertie did so, another traveller entered the toilet and stared at the scene in horror.

“It’s alright big man, we’re friends,” said Bertie.
“Aye, you’d bloody need to be!” quipped the man.

The audience erupted, but it was also a poignant tale of an enduring friendship.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

How to co-write a novel without killing each other

I should point out that I’ve known Martin more or less all of his life (I am six years older than him, although I don’t look it!)

Our families were and are still close friends, ever since we lived across the back from each other in the west of Glasgow.

Martin has already written a book, ‘The Zen of Naka,’ which is an extremely engaging biography of former Celt Shunsuke Nakamura. It’s a great read, and not your average football book, often describing some of the cultural contexts of the beautiful game, which are particularly contrasting when it came to a player from Japan plying his trade in Western Europe.

Anyway, I told Martin that I had written a screenplay about the Lisbon experience. It was basically an idea I’ve had for ten years or so, the idea of creating a road movie about a bunch of pals who travel from Glasgow to Lisbon to see the game.

I always thought it had dramatic potential – the physical journey reflecting an inner journey, etc., and I’ve lost count of how many versions I’ve written!

Anyway, back in 2009 I had dragged it up to a not-too-terrible standard, and Martin asked if he could read it. He really liked it and it helped fulminate an idea inside his head.

A while later he handed me a few A4 sheets, written in the first-person of Jock Stein. To say I was impressed by the standard of writing would be an understatement. In fact, I was completely blown away.

‘He’s going to do something similar to David Peace’s The Damned United,’ I thought. ‘But in the voice of Jock Stein (one of the most interesting and impressive human beings ever to have managed in football). What a brilliant idea.’

Little did I know that Martin wanted me to be involved! And so, on a dreich January afternoon in a deserted pub in Glasgow’s West End, Martin gave me a proposition: to co-write a novel charting the Lisbon experience, one half narrated by Jock, the other by Frank (which was the name of the lead man in my screenplay at that time).

I was very excited by the idea, if a little anxious as to whether I could match the standard of his initial Jock efforts.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The day a team died

HOW seismic were events in Lisbon on May 25, 1967?

For Celtic FC, It remains their crowning glory, an achievement that has echoed through the generations. But what were the implications of the defeat for the mighty Inter Milan? Did it bring the catennacio system crashing down, as has so often been claimed?

Well, if Herrera’s Inter were the embodiment of the defensive system that had begun to take hold throughout Europe then, yes, the impact of Celtic’s victory was colossal. Helenio Herrera’s legendary Inter were never the same again.Within a week of defeat in Lisbon, Inter had surrendered their Serie A title – claimed in three of the four preceding seasons – after a last-day defeat to minnows Mantova meant the title headed west to Turin and Juventus.

In little over 12 months, Herrera had departed the Nerazzurri, humbled by his failure to breathe life into an ageing team and helpless at halting their slide to fifth place in the championship.
Sandro Mazzola, Inter’s iconic striker, reflected plaintively on that afternoon in Lisbon in later years.

"It all finished there. That week signalled the end of that great team, and was the worst time of my career. We lost everything: the European Cup, the Championship, the Italian Cup.

“Up to the match against Celtic, we thought we were unbeatable. As soon as that complex was destroyed, we were suddenly in the nightmare of not being up to winning, and the fear from Lisbon went with us to Mantova. Celtic ended up costing us two trophies, really, and it all went downhill from there." 

In 1972, Inter achieved a revenge of sorts when they denied Celtic a third European Cup final appearance by winning a penalty shoot-out in Glasgow after two 0-0 draw. “Even then I spent the whole night battering my scalp off Billy McNeill’s chin, with him winning every single header,” added Mazzola. “And nobody except me wanted to take a penalty.”

Glasgow in 1967 - a city in flux

One of the sub-themes in Tim’s narrative is that of flux, specifically the changes that affected working-class people during the post-war years.
One significant change was in housing, and this is discussed in the early part of the novel. The old Victorian slums were being demolished and replaced by outlying housing schemes or, in the case of the Gorbals, modern high-rise developments. This process was actually well underway by 1967, and the old Gorbals was by then a rapidly diminishing reality that was about to disappear forever.
This change provoked strong views at the time. Many people, notably activists in the Labour Party, were instrumental in making it come about. While their motivations were noble – to end the misery of overcrowded slum living, sadly much of the housing that replaced the old tenements was inadequate, and has all either been demolished, such as the notorious damp-ridded Hutcheson C flats which were inhabited for less than 30 years, or is earmarked for demolition. It is fashionable to knock the competence of the city fathers who drove this process; certainly in the case of the outlying schemes they were guilty of wildly over-optimistic socialist idealism, supposing that they could create brand-new, instantly functioning communities from scratch, but perhaps the scale of the problem they faced was simply too huge, and the monies realistically available to them inadequate. And remember what they were striving to replace: slums in which people, often youngsters, died from entirely preventable diseases due to poor sanitation and squalid living conditions. This in the middle of the twentieth century, with space exploration in full flow, was considered, quite rightly, as unacceptable. It is easy to be nostalgic for poverty, much harder to live amid it.
Yet the process was a controversial one. Some people, like Tim’s friend Mark, who still had to endure Gorbals living, couldn’t wait to get out. The promise of a spacious, clean apartment with an inside bathroom was too much to resist. Yet others, such as Tim (somewhat hypocritically considering he had moved out of the Gorbals a year before into such an apartment in nearby Toryglen) mourned the end to the vibrant, colourful Gorbals character, with its warmth, humour and strong sense of community spirit.
This debate has become something of a cliché in my hometown, but the impact of the slum clearances changed Glasgow forever, and it is worth considering what was lost, as well as what was gained. I was born in 1972, therefore more or less at the moment ‘old’ Glasgow – a place of smog and shipbuilding, shillings and half crowns, slums and steamies, trams and razor gangs, fish teas and dance halls – died. Yet the idea of that place, passed on by my parents’ generation, casts a long shadow. It lives on in the sharp patter of Glasgow’s inhabitants, which is in a way a memorial for a lost world; my generation possesses a strange, sentimental nostalgia for something we never really knew.
As Tim tells Mark on page 13: ‘Understand this. An entire era is about to end, auld Glasgow is about to slip over the horizon. And something precious will be lost forever.’

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Writing Tim's narrative

I HAD a few abortive starts to the novel, in which I tried to come at the project from a radical angle, but neither did I just want to regurgitate the screenplay…

I guess I didn’t want to tire of the same characters and situations, but also writing prose is really quite different from screenwriting. The two don’t necessarily lend themselves to each other.

Therefore I really evolved a host of new characters out of the screenplay, and it seemed to work really well. Lots of people ask me what it’s like co-writing a novel, but to be honest it went incredibly smoothly, and there wasn’t any conflict between Martin and me.

In fact, you could argue that it was half as difficult as writing a novel by yourself, in that I only had to write half a book!

The fact is that the narratives were distinct; Jock and his men are preparing for the match while Tim and his pals are on the road, so, as I already said, there wasn’t that much scope for overlap. Having a co-author meant that we could bounce ideas off one another, and, just as importantly, edit each other’s text.

The fact that we are both experienced editors (we work in newspapers) meant that this was meat and drink to us, and it meant that any submission was liable to be of a cleaner, better structured standard than usual.

The fact is that if you have a clear, shared vision, and you are naturally respectful towards folk, the process needn’t be a difficult one, and it wasn’t.

In terms of that vision, as we are from Celtic-supporting families, we both understood at quite a profound emotional level what Lisbon actually represented. That’s a matter for later blogs (and the book itself!) but suffice to say that we were both writing on the same emotional pitch.

I should also mention Mark ‘Stan’ Stanton, who is an agent with Jenny Brown. Stan told us that he ‘loved’ our initial offerings, and obviously he went on to sell the book to Birlinn.

In fact, Stan had given initial encouragement not long after Martin had come up with the idea, and even before I had come on board.

I also have to mention Pete Burns at Birlinn, who, like Stan, saw the merit of the idea, and it’s been a pleasure working with him. Clearly Stan and Pete have excellent taste!

Charles McGarry