Mull of Colin MacIntyre: from stage to page

The Mull Historical Society singer wrote a diary while touring with The Strokes. Now with his debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch, he is aiming to top the book charts

Colin MacIntyre: at the heart of the novel is the notion that an island life, an island community, can mirror that of a continent, or globe even. Maybe the world can in fact learn from the fabric that makes up an island

I hoped one day I would become an author, as I did a songwriter. When I say I hoped, in reality I was willing to sweat blood and tears. And now, my debut novel The Letters of Ivor Punch is published, by W&N/Orion. But how did this happen? How did I travel from musician to author; islander to apparent mainlander?

I currently live in London but I was born and raised among a family of writers and storytellers in the Hebrides, namely on the isle of Mull, and so stories were always around me growing up, alongside music, as indeed was the beauty and the fury of the Atlantic Ocean. My songwriting developed through my teenage years and then later when my music – I have released six albums to date under the guise of Mull Historical Society – started to take off, I found myself on tour a lot with time on my hands.

I remember I once performed a UK tour alongside The Strokes and was charged with writing the tour diary for Rough Trade Records, and I enjoyed it. From there, short stories started pouring out of me. These stories, and this feeling I had when I wrote, came from the same ‘place’ within me as my music. I wanted to write a novel, but I knew I needed an authentic voice, which, hopefully, I had discovered with my songwriting by then.

I was writing a lot but realised I needed to go through some of the same processes on the page. It was an attempt to self-educate myself, as I had done while crafting my songs. And so I rediscovered Orwell, and read Bukowski, which led me back to his hero, John Fante (Ask The Dust), which led me to Knut Hamsen’s Hunger, and then F Scott Fitzgerald. Along came Per Petterson (I used one of his book titles as a song, Out Stealing Horses, on my album Island), and the fantastic Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, and, possibly my favourite author, Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) – and many more along the way. (Right now I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, so I’m back to the Norwegians). I think it is the sparseness of the Scandinavian prose, of their landscapes – not unlike Scotland or indeed Ireland – that appeals; although, it’s true, we tend to get more lyrical with it.


But it is probably my late grandfather, Angus Macintyre, who was the bank manager in Tobermory, on Mull, who has provided the spark of all this; he lived with my grandmother above the bank in Tobermory and so the lines between banker and poet were not clearly drawn. He was published for most of his life and is still in print. He would write serious, melancholic, comic verses about all sorts. Possibly his most often-recited poem is Islay Cheese, which was inspired by a story in our local bible – I mean, newspaper – The Oban Times. It was reported that the isle of Islay’s cheese was having aphrodisiac powers in Italy – even with the nuns, and in the Vatican too. Everyone was at it. At least that was how my Grandfather had it! He also wrote a very funny poem about the SS Politician, which sank off the Outer Hebrides in 1941, together with its precious cargo of whisky, and inspired the film Whisky Galore. Such cargo was not to go unnoticed in those times of war; who is to say it was not the deliberate workings of the Atlantic? My uncle, Lorn Macintyre, is also an author, so it was helpful for me to see my family doing it. And, as a musician, I’ve also enjoyed collaborating with writers, including Irvine Welsh and Tony Benn.

Then about three years ago I heard a voice in my head while sitting on a flight. I wrote down what I was hearing: ‘Dear Mr Obama, There were six eggs in the chicken coop this morning, two more than yesterday and four more than the day before. It’s official: you can tell your men the recession is showing signs of recovery.’ And I was off. I wrote this voice down in the form of letters for a reason that was not immediatelly apparent to me at the time; some were written to President Obama, some to others. In these letters I suddenly morphed into an old man living on an island, a man called Ivor Punch, who turned out to be the island’s retired police sergeant. He struck a nerve. I wrote more. A whole cast of characters presented themselves around Ivor, some had secrets even his handcuffs knew nothing of. These were people from the 19th century, some from the present, some well known, such as a visiting Charles Darwin, and the Victorian-era travel writer, Isabella Bird. And then I realised they had a shared story, and a kind of uniformity, despite their differences. In Ivor’s voice, and some of my other characters, I was keen to explore a notion I have that there is a global language: this thing that I’ve experienced of people on several continents, that despite their different tongues they often speak the same language: it’s this shorthand of delivery of speech, a directness, often found in the aged and particularly prevalent in the humour and the one-word character assessments of the Celts. Often that is a swear.

But why was Ivor writing to President Obama? In my songwriting I have always been drawn to the notion of community, possibly because I come from a small, isolated one, and have enjoyed focusing in on micro issues which I hope then tell a bigger, more universal, story; one to which we can all relate. My own home, the isle of Mull, was tragically affected directly by the Lockerbie bombing: we lost one of our sons on the plane, and this loss moved me and I had always wanted to write about it. I transferred that loss to Ivor, and staged his first letter to Obama at the time of the international furroe that accompanied the (eventual) release of the alleged Libyan bomber of the plane. And so Ivor writes because a man fell out of the sky, and he hopes the President can tell him why. Really, in a way Ivor is falling too. My novel also celebrates the local athlete as hero within the community, because it is one of those heroes who has been killed.

This connection of my island to a world event allowed me to explore the theme of global community versus island community: I realise at the heart of the novel is the notion that an island life, an island community, can mirror that of a continent, or globe even. In that maybe the world can in fact learn from the fabric that makes up an island. I felt by pitting these two leaders together (one, the enforcer of the island’s laws, the other, keeper of the free world) then this idea of Island/Global could be explored even more. The novel is trying to explore the idea of equality and shared experience: and so between the front and back covers I have tried to present a world where, in Ivor’s estimation, the President of Sodastream is on an equal billing to the President of America; but then we also discover that no one can breach the higher laws of the island’s fishermen, with their singular eyebrows and maps of the seas confined within their heads.

But in my mind Ivor is not the novel’s central character, the island is. And it is run a close second by the Atlantic Ocean: an expanse of sea which as we know separates the two countries most affected by the bombing. And so this expanse became a character and provides a symmetry of sorts, because two of the island’s sons leave the island, one to London, the other to the east coast of America; both are destinations which have also attracted myself; they go in search of themselves, to escape the past, but really they can’t; there is still a part of them that remains on the island like the sheep’s coat caught on the barbed wire fence. And so we discover the island travels. As it says better than I ever could on the back of my book, ‘sometimes you have to leave home to know what home is’. And I have.

There is also a parallel to be drawn within the novel of the comparisons between an island economy (possibly sparked due to my grandfather being Mull’s bank manager) and a global economy: and so a character loosely based on Sir Fred Goodwin arrives on the island with his family in an attempt to escape the shame of the news headlines about the global banking ‘theft’ to which he is wedded, only to become embroiled in a scandal of underwear theft on the island: there is a knicker knocker on the loose...

The myths and folklore of an island or small community are integral; and so there is also an element of the supernatural within the novel: when I was a child on Mull we were led to believe there was a Headless Horseman riding the peat bogs; and so I brought him to life within my book. Much of the Hebrides still have strong faith (Mull, less so), which was particularly strong in the 19th Century: and so a certain Mr Darwin is then cast among this strong island Kirk, and comes face to face with said horseman; this clash of science versus religion was too good to refuse. This could be the island’s revenge.

So now I have a published novel in the world; and it occurs to me that my album titles to date – Loss; Us; This Is Hope; The Water; Island; City Awakenings – make up much of the ingredients of the novel. And one of my MHS songs, Treescavengers – about the men of Mull who often help themselves to fir trees from the island’s forestry estates each Christmas – is retold and explored more intensely in Out Stealing Firs, my novel’s opening chapter. (And, in my capacity as a musician, I’m actually a character in my own book).

So maybe this journey of musician to novelist has been shorter than I imagined. Just as the island is always closer than I realise. Even when on the tube in London, I am always an islander. To paraphrase Bob Dylan in his excellent Chronicles, Vol 1, ‘creativity comes from some form of motion, even just one foot in front of the other’; and leaving an island will do that to you too. And the process of writing has been much the same as songwriting: the melodies and voices won’t leave me alone. Just as well. I read somewhere (from a much more experienced author than me; it might have been Paul Auster) that writing a novel is like casting a net over thousands of little details or observations; mine were fished from the Atlantic ocean. And now you can read my catch.

Fact meets fiction: click here for some of the real isle of Mull locations and images which have inspired my debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch.

Listen to The Ballad of Ivor Punch by Mull Historical Society, as well as two exclusive chapters from the audiobook.

Vote for Colin for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award

Colin MacIntyre is an award-winning musician who has made two Top 20 albums, and four Top 40 albums, and records under the name Mull Historical Society. He has been voted Scotland’s Top Creative Talent and has toured with The Strokes, Elbow and REM. He is the co-author of a Radio 4 Afternoon Play, Zero Degrees of Separation, and has collaborated with Tony Benn and Irvine Welsh, among others. His newest musical project is INK, an electro art-pop collaboration. The Letters of Ivor Punch is his debut novel.