The black bird has been with me for a long time – 50 years and more now.
I think I first saw The Maltese Falcon in around 1963.
My granddad was a big Bogart fan, and I remember long Sunday afternoons spent sitting at his feet watching movies on the tiny black and white TV that was the norm back in the UK in the early Sixties. Back then everything was Britain was still in black and white – the Beatles were about to change all that, but Bogey would stay eternally gray and eternally Sam Spade for me. Even at that early age there was something about the snappy dialogue and the larger than life character that spoke to me.
I saw the film several times before I got round to reading the book – aged around 12 so about 1970. In much the same way as the film had, the book also spoke to me, touched something in me – the stuff that dreams are made of if you like.
When I started writing for myself, back in school, my voice was heavily influenced by teenage longings – I hadn’t learned enough of the ways of the world to be confident and sparse, I wanted to be flowery and intense and intellectual.
University, then ten years of being a corporate drone quickly drummed that nonsense out of me. I developed cynicism and from that my own voice started to emerge, enough to ensure I could cope with being an adult but not yet enough to turn me into a writer.
The booze did that. Booze and nightmares and a new wife that understood me better than I did myself.
The booze is part and parcel of being brought up in a working class environment in the West of Scotland. Beer came easy to me in my late teens, a love affair I still have to this day. Whisky I had to work a little harder at, but I persevered and developed a taste for single malts that means my habit is largely curtailed by the expense. It doesn’t mean I don’t get the thirst though.
The nightmare? I’ve been having it off and on since I was a boy. It’s of a bird – a huge, black, bird. The stuff that dreams are made of.
In the nightmare I’m on the edge of a high sea cliff. I feel the wind on my face, taste salt spray, smell cut grass and flowers. I feel like if I could just give myself to the wind I could fly. Then it comes, from blue, snow covered mountains way to the north, a black speck at first, getting bigger fast. Before I know it it is on me, enfolding me in feathers. It lowers its head, almost like a dragon, and puts its beak near my ear. It whispers.
I had the dream many times, and always woke up at this point.
Then, in 1991, I heard what it said.
“Will we talk about the black bird?”
The next morning, for the first time since 1976, I wrote a story. It wasn’t a very good story, but something had been woken up, and the day after that I wrote another, a wee ghost story. It didn’t have a black bird in it, but it did have some jazz, and a sultry broad, a murder and some dancing. When that one made me 100 pounds in a ghost story competition, I was on my way.
The bird comes back and whispers to me every couple of years – I’ve come to think of it as my spirit guide. Although it terrifies me, it also reassures me in a weird kind of way. As long as it’s around, I’ll still be a writer and not just a drunk with weird ideas he can’t express.
One of the bird’s recent appeareances was a few years back, and the next morning I had an idea that fused my own history, my favorite movie and my bad habits into one coherent whole – BROKEN SIGIL, my Darkfuse novella is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s also among my favorites of all my works.
Will we talk about the black bird?