“It’s such a ridiculous thing,” says Colin Bateman. We are meeting in his hometown of Bangor, Co Down, the morning after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, one of whose last acts as British monarch was to bestow city status on Bangor. “It’s clearly not a city. It just seems they give them out willy-nilly.”
Yet Bateman is clearly at home here. “I once yearned to leave,” he writes in his new book, Thunder and Lightning: A Memoir of Life on the Tough
Streets Cul-de-Sacs of Bangor, “but now I know I never will.” Bangor and Bateman are inseparable.
He’s best known as the writer of more than 30 comic crime novels: Divorcing Jack, Mystery Man, and more, as well as movies. His entry into film wasn’t smooth, however. “I got a call from this director in Hollywood about my  novel Empire State. ‘This would make a brilliant film. Bruce Willis will star.’
“But of course he’d only read the three-line coverage for it. And then he read the book – which features a serial killer who blacks up to kill. And he phoned me up again: ‘This will never be made into a movie! Hollywood will never touch this with a bargepole!’ And that was the end of my involvement with the movies for 16 years.”
And now a memoir, which came from a commission from a festival to write a true story that lasted 10 minutes, which “turned out to be part of the first chapter of the book. It’s one of those things where you think you can’t remember anything at all. And then one thing leads to another and it just keeps going.”
There is certainly no shortage of vivid memories in Thunder and Lightning, many of which will be catnip to readers of a certain age: children’s street games, Subbuteo, the excitement of punk music to a small-town boy.
On the brutality of corporal punishment in schools, he writes: ‘It affects me to this day. I still like getting caned’
And for a teenager there in the 1970s – Bateman was born in 1962 – the Troubles were always present, or rather, both present and absent. Terrorists didn’t usually bother to bomb places like Bangor, which “used to be a destination, and then planes were invented”.
No: in Bangor, the Troubles were a story on the news. “We were on the fringes of what was going on.” (When a bird sh**s on my head during our interview, he hands me his napkin to clean up and comments, “Another example of the kind of thing we had to deal with during the Troubles.”)
Bateman always has a quip to hand, and his very funny memoir often reads like a sequence of well-detonated punchlines. But the story of his life also opens unexpected emotional pathways, including the deaths of his parents.
Some of the comedy is dark indeed. On the brutality of corporal punishment in schools, he writes: “It affects me to this day. I still like getting caned.” Even his mother’s death is irresistible: she read Tess of the D’Urbervilles on her deathbed “in one sitting (she kind of had to)”. Is there anything he wouldn’t joke about?
‘I loved stories about the writers who wrote SF and pulp fiction, and they got 30 cents a word, so the more they wrote the more they got. I thought that was brilliant!’
“Sometimes things just get thrown in your lap. When I was writing it, I only discovered that my mother had lived in High Street, and the house she lived in is now a beauty salon called Breathe. [So I wrote] “which she’s no longer able to do.” That’s the joy of doing it. From day one with all of my books, there’s no planning goes into them.”
Also, “I wrote it really quickly. I write everything quickly. When I was growing up, I loved stories about the writers who wrote SF and pulp fiction, and they got 30 cents a word, so the more they wrote the more they got. I thought that was brilliant! So I’ve got no airs and graces about it.”
Another reason to write the book was that “there’s so much social history that never gets recorded. Great stories that are passed from person to person but never get written down, so they disappear. So it’s a capsule of small-town life.”
This touches on one of the most interesting parts of Thunder and Lightning: Bateman’s time as a journalist on the local newspaper, the Co Down Spectator. It was “the paper of record in a way that so-called papers of record rarely are – because bigger papers have to be selective, whereas the Speccy reported everything.” For people found guilty in court, “the true punishment wasn’t whatever fine or occasional custodial sentence was handed out, but the shame of having your sins described in the local paper”.
I mention that Bateman hasn’t published a novel in some time – his most recent one was six years ago. “Maybe I’d written myself out a bit,” he says. “And also, I’ve never been a huge best-seller. I’ve had maybe two books that have done really well.” How well? “Divorcing Jack would be 150,000. Mystery Man would be over 100,000. But the others… I wouldn’t even ask what my sales figures are these days. Too depressing.”
In 2019 he wrote on Twitter that he had written a new novel, but “all I need now is a drink and a publisher”. No publisher? Really? “Well, once you step away, and there’s a big turnover of editors… suddenly I didn’t know anybody at my publishing company. I got so frustrated with the book that I serialised it on Facebook. I gave it away.”
Bateman’s early influences were writers such as Robert B Parker. “Not a lot of description, a lot of dialogue – funny dialogue. That was what got me started. It doesn’t have to be Ulysses or an American classic. There were no literary influences from here growing up. So it was Woody Allen, and M*A*S*H and things like that.”
There are a lot more literary influences in Northern Ireland now, though. “A lot of short story writers. And crime fiction is huge. I think there are 40 or 50 published crime writers [here]. But there’s probably only one or two in Northern Ireland that are making a decent living from it. And the publishing industry is making more money than ever, so something’s not quite right.”
Turning to non-fiction carries risks though, especially when writing about the place where you still live. Will anyone be upset by how they’re portrayed?
‘The ultimate ambition was not even to get one book published, it was just to finish writing one book. The road to hell is paved with first chapters’
“I changed some of the names. One of the families I mentioned, I was quite worried about putting the stories in. Their dad was a bit of a martinet. And then I met the son at a party a few weeks ago and I told him what I’d put in and that I’d changed the name. And he just said, ‘You shouldn’t have changed it, he was a c**t!’”
A running joke in the book is how he dreams as a young man of writing “the Great American Novel” but never gets around to it. Would the young Colin be happy with how things have turned out?
“Oh god, yeah. I mean the ultimate ambition was not even to get one book published, it was just to finish writing one book. The road to hell is paved with first chapters. And Divorcing Jack took two years to get published. When it’s happening, you’re not really aware of it. But if I could disassociate myself from it and look back, yeah,” he concludes. “It’s exactly what I would have dreamt of.”
Thunder and Lightning: A Memoir of Life on the Tough
Streets Cul-de-Sacs of Bangor is published by Merrion Press.