Colin MacIntyre was standing in the doorway outside Oran Mor when he came up with the idea of calling himself The Mull Historical Society, the name he has gone under for all musical ventures bar two albums over the last two decades. Since reclaiming himself as Mull Historical Society once more, there have been three new records, including last year’s Bernard Butler-produced Wakelines album.
For MacIntyre to have his first stage play, The Origins of Ivor Punch, on at the venue where he made such a momentous decision feels poetically fitting. Presented as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint, the phenomenally successful lunchtime theatre strand which has become a Glasgow West End fixture, the play is inspired by the Mull-born writer’s fantastical debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch, which won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2015. All of which makes it something of a homecoming of sorts.
“I’d sent out all my demos under my own name, but then I wrote the song Mull Historical Society and liked the name,” MacIntyre says, “and that was where I found my musical identity. I was studying in Glasgow, and I started going to A Play, A Pie and A Pint, and I met David MacLennan a couple of times, sitting with Liz Lochhead and a couple of other writers. I always knew I was keen to write, and David was really kind to me.”
Writing was something already rooted MacIntyre’s family long before Ivor Punch made an appearance.
“My uncle was a novelist, and my grand-father was a poet as well as a bank manager. I realised when I started writing The Origins of Ivor Punch how big an influence on me my grand-father had been, just in terms of the things he’d say. My other grand-father was a plumber, and they used to joke that they did the same job. One was keeping the island afloat, the other was stopping it from sinking.”
The Origins of Ivor Punch is a roaring tale that puts the ageing island police sergeant of the play’s title at the centre of a yarn that dovetails between centuries, and which at various points features a headless horseman doing battle with Charles Darwin and pioneering Victorian travel writer Isabella Bird and her sister, Henrietta. Set on an island not a million miles from Mull, it also gets to the bottom of how the words, ‘GOD IS LOVE’ ended up being daubed in giant letters on a nearby cliff-face. The story begins with Ivor writing a letter to the then U.S. president, Barack Obama.
“I’ve always written short stories, ever since the early days of being on tour,” says MacIntyre. “So when I wrote that first ever letter from Ivor Punch to President Obama, that seemed to hit home about some of the things I was interested in. Being an islander and coming from a small country has always been important to me, and having this man from Mull writing to the most important man in the world points to everything being part of a much bigger picture.”
In this sense, the expansiveness of Ivor Punch recalls the absurdity of Flann O’Brien by way of the delirious localism of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ seminal radio play. Condensing the sprawl of the novel into an hour-long play has been quite a challenge.
“I’ve had to learn to be selective about what from the novel goes into the play,” says MacIntyre. He points to his song, The Ballad of Ivor Punch, written after the novel, and which “attempted to condense 80,000 words into three minutes, but Stuart Hepburn, who’s directing it, said it was a great snapshot of the book.”
Since The Letters of Ivor Punch, MacIntyre has published two more books. A memoir, Hometown Tales: The Boy in the Bubble, and a children’s story, The Humdrum Drum, both appeared last year.
MacIntyre may be living in London these days, but his birthplace is clearly still in him as much as it is in his songs, his novel and now his play.
“I’m never far from Mull,” he says. “I always have good times when I go back, and Glasgow definitely feels like my second home. Glasgow was where my music got going, and where I found part of my musical identity, as well as getting to know other musics through the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub and Snow Patrol.”
Beyond The Origins of Ivor Punch, MacIntyre’s renaissance man status runs on apace, first with a Mull Historical Society gig in London accompanied by Butler and a string section. There is also the idea of doing a musical, something MacIntyre’s narrative-driven songs naturally lend themselves to. He has also begun writing the first of what he envisages as a series of crime novels featuring the young Sergeant Punch as their hero.
“The eccentrics I grew up around have been a big influence,” he says. “There’s a succinctness to the way a lot of older people says things.”
MacIntyre attributes this interest to his father, acclaimed BBC political reporter Kenny Macintyre.
“He was influenced by these people as well,” says MacIntyre. “He’d interview all these people and send tapes to Radio Highland. He’d be interviewing Thatcher, but these voices were just as important.”
Whatever happens next with the mercurial fictional life of Ivor Punch, MacIntyre is clearly following in a family tradition.
“There are so many good line I grew up with,” he says. “I’ve got to use them.”
The Origins of Ivor Punch, Oran Mor, Glasgow, April 29-May 4; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 7-11. Mull Historical Society and Bernard Butler play the Bush Hall, London, May 23.
Colin MacIntyre’s musical ambitions grew out of Love Sick Zombies, a covers band he formed in Mull while a schoolboy. His first album as Mull Historical Society, Loss, was released in 2001. This was followed by Us (2003) and This is Hope (2004). His next two albums, The Water (2008), which featured a poem written and performed by Tony Benn, and Island (20090 were released under MacIntyre’s own name, before he reclaimed the Mull Historical Society name in 2012 for City Awakenings, then for Dear Satellite in 2016 before his most recent album, Wakelines, produced by Bernard Butler, was released in 2018.