When Ron Butlin crossed the final T and dotted the last I of his critically acclaimed The Sound of My Voice, he was convinced that he had finished with the story of Morris Magellan. Now, more than 30 years later, and much to his creator’s surprise, Morris has reappeared for a new series of misadventures in So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours.
Ron Butlin is an award-winning poet, novelist, librettist and children’s author. He was Edinburgh Makar from 2008 to 2014. Set in the days leading up to the first Covid lockdown, his latest novel took him on a journey back to his childhood home in the Scottish Borders for the first time in many years.
“I was brought up in a small village outside Lockerbie,” explains the affable author. “So small that even people in Lockerbie haven’t heard of it. When I started writing the novel, I found myself back in that village, which I haven’t really been in for any length of time after I was about 12, so it was quite surprising finding myself there.”
Ron moved to Dumfries and then, having left school at 16, “I think it was probably a mutual decision. I think the teachers were quite glad to see the of me back too,” he hitchhiked to London where he worked in various jobs including a life-drawing model and writing lyrics for a pop band. “It was the late 1960s,” he laughs, “And I stayed there for over two or three years. In fact, I’m not very sure how I lived, but it was very easy to get jobs then and so I just took a job when I needed the money.”
The song-writing career didn’t work out but Ron did discover a passion for poetry and writing during those years. That led him to university and then a period living and working all over the world. Now he lives in Edinburgh with his wife and fellow writer Regi Claire who is an important sounding board for his own work.
In fact, it was Regi rather than Ron who realised early on that the new novel he was working on was a return to the story of Morris Magellan. “It didn’t occur to me that I was returning to it at all when I began this book,” he explains, “but my wife Regi was reading the first few chapters. We usually crit each other’s work – we trust each other. Ron believed that he was writing an entirely fresh story but Regi said: “that’s Morris!”
“I didn’t believe her but the next morning I sat down and thought, ‘blow me, she’s right!’ and it gave me a way in which was great.
“I needed to be shown what I was doing, it was a bit like humming the music and finding out what it was. Except for once someone else was able to point. what I was doing rather than me having to blunder about myself!”
All My Lives and All of Them Are Yours
Anyone familiar with the hapless Morris will know most of his years have been lived under the spectre of alcoholism. The biscuit executive is now 70 and has made the decision to leave his old life behind to embark on an exciting new commission to write a string quartet.
He heads to his childhood home determined to ditch the drink and start afresh but his every move seems thwarted. Ron tells his story in a series of darkly humorous incidents and also switches between third person and second person narratives as he flits between the past and present day. “I trust the words and I trust my imagination,” says the writer, “I began to write it in the third person and suddenly these bits from the past came up and they were all in the second.
“I just let them carry on, as is if they are memories, but they’re not conscious memories. The way I see it, there is something inside each one of us, the main thing in the universe that’s totally on our side. God or conscience or whatever it is but it’s trying its best to help us and by and large, we don’t really listen very often.”
So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours is available now, Birlinn, £12.