I was one of two pupils from my primary school class who passed the 11 plus and went to St Malachy’s college in Belfast. My biggest passion at school was football. My mother always worried about me getting into bad company but at school I was in good company. I had great friends, and we were all interested in things. One friend loved opera; he played me Caruso and infected me with his love of music. Another loved books. We had a skiffle group – I played the tea chest. We spent most of the time laughing. My friends could make me laugh till I was sliding down the wall.
We lived in a big Victorian house on the Antrim Road. After the war my father brought my grandmother, grandfather and my great aunt to live with us, so I was brought up around old people. And I loved it, drifting off to sleep listening to them talk. There was a bookcase with a glass front, but it was mostly religious books. I wasn’t as interested in books then. I liked comics – The Wizard, Roy of the Rovers. I did read Just William and Biggles. Then one day, when I was about 16, my friend gave me my first grown-up novel and I made the leap from Biggles to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I was knocked out by it.
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I was 12 when the big bad thing happened. My father died of cancer. That really upset the household to say the least. I felt his absence in every way. I never got to have an adult conversation with him. But the grannies and grandas and aunts were some kind of substitute. And across the street the other side of the family, the MacLavertys, including my aunt Sissy, who was known for making three types of bread a day – wheaten, gingerbread and soda bread. That was a great house I could go over to 10 times a day. So gradually the pain of my father’s death faded. But for many years I dreamt of him coming back.
At 16 I started to write very bad poems. We had an English teacher who introduced us to Gerard Manley Hopkins, this cool priest who wrote really rock poems. I started putting down words. I thought they were good and thank God nobody told me they were terrible. Then I discovered the stories of Michael McLaverty and he became a kind of hero of mine. Gradually the poems stopped and the paragraphs started.
Your feelings about being Catholic are different when your life depends on it
In terms of religion, at 16 I still had a straight-forward belief. And terror. The whole ethos of hell and damnation, and suffering for all eternity. I believed it all until about my mid-twenties. Now I’d tell my 16-year-old self: don’t believe a word of it. Take what is good out of religion. Stained-glass windows. Great music. Goodness and kindness. The anti-racism, churches with people of every colour in them, all over the world. But… it doesn’t exist.
Your relationship with religion is complicated in Northern Ireland. Your feelings about being Catholic are different when your life depends on it. You start chatting to someone in a pub and a whole dance begins. You have to work out what side that person is on because damage can be done. You do it throughconversation – are they interested in Gaelic football or rugby? What football team do they support? It’s all done politely. But if you get it wrong you might get a kicking or even a bullet in your head.
We were six years into the Troubles, the worst years in terms of murders, when we decided to leave. I was married with children by then, training to be a teacher. There was so much death. I remember seeing a man hiding behind a wall – I’d never seen a human being shaking with fear like that. Friends of mine saw a bomb being planted on the porch of the pub they were in and there was panic as everyone rushed to get out. Then there was a day when Catholics had to go to school but Protestants didn’t, and my daughter was seen with her school bag on. And she came in and said to me, “Daddy, what’s a Fenian?” They had shouted “you Fenian bastard” at her. So I applied to be a teacher in Edinburgh and we left.
My novels seem to have chimed with the political mood in the North of Ireland. The first was Lamb [written in 1980] which was a very dark novel. Cal was an equally dark novel which had a little hope in it at the end. Grace Notes was written when the ceasefires came along and it had two endings, one depressing and one uplifting. Then there was peace coming and I wrote The Anatomy School, which is comedic. It ends with the boy riding through Shaftesbury Square and he knows he’s going to do something, and he’s just lost his virginity and it’s wow, we’re away. That would be a good one to give the 16-year-old Bernard.
I write a lot from a female point of view. Maybe it’s that upbringing I had among the aunts and grannies. I was surrounded by women’s voices and women’s ways. And I have a wife and three daughters. That’s given me an insight into women’s lives, from young babies to old ladies. I could sit and tell you about many men I know who are fascinating and brilliant but women… they have that extra thing. Maybe it’s a softness, a tenderness, a compassion.
If I could go back to any moment in my life, it would be when I was 16 and I went on a camping holiday with my friends in Cushendall. We pitched a tent on the hill, overlooking the sea. We slept in bags. There were so many of us squashed together that at three in the morning we’d say, right, when are we going to turn? The first night the rain came down so hard we woke up to see our sausage rolls floating down the hill. The man at the local cinema let us in to dry out and made us a pot of soup. He showed us into a big room where he stored a lot of old cinema seat cushions. We put them all together, about 48, in a big circle and made the biggest bed in the world. We slept in it for a week. A great week. We could go into the town for a dance. And there were girls there, coming in and out of the dances. We swam in the sea. We laughed. And we talked into the night, every night. All of these things came together, making a kind of joy.