Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Sure. I’m John Mayer. I was an Advocate in the Supreme Courts of Scotland until I retired in 2013. I’d written books before I started to write fiction. These were non-fiction and legal books for use in universities and courts. I was a specialist in international child abduction and I’m glad to say I’ve helped return many, many children to the places from where they were stolen. I was also legal counsel to Greenpeace International. I even had responsibility for one of the ships for a short time.
I’ve lived in very violent places and posh places and now live quietly on a tiny Greek island where I go fishing from my boat, eat and drink with Greek friends (mostly rogues) and write my series called The Parliament House Books.
I’m married to a wonderful wife who helps promote my books. We have one son (36) who lives and works in New York City.
Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, I saw shootings, stabbings and houses being burned out while people slept in them. Violence was in the very air we breathed. But Glasgow produced some great characters in those days. There was The Duke who controlled all the illegal gambling in the East End of the City. Tucker Queen who was a ‘civilian’. Because of his unusual delivery technique, he was often hired to send messages among gang members. Tucker’s speciality was rats. Big black, river ones he’d catch down at the dockside of the river Clyde. He’d tie messages to their tails and, in the middle of the night, slip them through the letter box of the addressee to be found in the morning. It was a very effective technique which I guess just made people angrier. Big Bill Broonzy was so-called after the black American blues singer – for two reasons. Firstly because he was a big guy and his name really was William Brown; which we pronounced ‘Broon’. But secondly, because he kept a shop in Glasgow’s High Street called the ‘Soul Agent’. He was the sole importer (via his brother who worked on ships going to and from America) of soul records; which he sold from old shoe boxes he got from the store next door. I made something of a name for myself when in 1967 I changed my name to John after John Lennon. Don’t ask me what my birth name was; I have never uttered it from that day to this.
Growing up in a war zone wasn’t the whole story to where I lived. Contrary to where I practised law in Parliament House, most people in my old neighbourhood could be trusted. Also, we knew how to have fun – something that doesn’t exist in Parliament House. For instance, we ‘invented’ our own styles of dress. In the summer of ’66 we all wore white cotton jackets; the kind worn by waiters and ice cream salesmen. I had a pair of red velvet bellbottom trousers which I wore with my white jacket. It was a very successful combo for attracting girls – I can tell you!
When the weather turned colder, we took to wearing long knotted white scarves. The knots were really bows and the idea was that your girlfriend could wear it along with you. Years later, in New York City, I told Malcolm McLaren about all of that. He was managing the Sex Pistols at the time. He later sought out such gangs in New York and made the hit record ‘Skip They Do The Double Dutch’ which was about street kids inventing their own pastimes instead of gang fighting.
Oh, I mustn’t leave out a big influence on me. My High School Teacher of English Language and Literature was a wonderful man called Danny Thomson. When inspectors would come to check on standards, he would ask me to read aloud to the class. His nods of satisfaction when I surprised the inspectors left a deep impression on me that I had a real way with words. He left to become a script writer. We were amazed because such an occupation was so very exotic.
Decades later, in my first year as an Advocate in Parliament House I thought of him after my first appearance in the highest court in Scotland. I was leaving Parliament House when an old Macer (the one who carries the golden Mace representing Her Majesty The Queen) came running down a corridor after me. Running is absolutely forbidden in Parliament House but there he was; running and calling my name. I stopped and waited for him. He said “Mr Mayer. I’ve just come from the Judges’ Robing Rooms. They sent me to tell you that they were very impressed with your old fashioned way of pleading and to say that they think you have a real talent for persuasion.” I walked home reciting my legal argument to the judges and imagined Danny Thomson walking beside me. I was very proud that day to be an Advocate.
What was your favourite book from childhood?
Oh, that would have to be Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’. I didn’t read children’s books and Cherry Orchard was the first book I ever read. I was 14 when I read it. I thought it would teach me about Russia because we’d gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was fascinated by all things Russian. We’d been told by our teacher that the world would be coming to an end. When it didn’t I wanted to know why not. I know this sounds incredible, but it’s true.
What type of books did you read as a teenager?
From about 14 I got into Animal Farm and read J. D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ about 10 times. I’d never been taken on a holiday so books were the only way I learned about far-away places with strange sounding names.
At school, which book you studied was your favourite?
I walked out of school when I was 14 because they weren’t teaching me enough. I used to cycle 9 miles every day to and from (18 miles a day) a big library in Glasgow for a whole year until I was 15 and able to get a job. I remember starting at the letter ‘Z’ and reading backwards from Zoology to Astronomy. I got help from a kind Librarian who made sure I read basic maths and science books. I had a strange childhood. In fact, I’ve had a very unusual life pattern; but at least it’s all been of my own choosing.
What is your favourite classic book?
Easy. Homer’s Iliad – followed closely by Homer’s Odyssey. We don’t know if Homer even existed, but it’s likely he did. He must have spent his entire life learning how to relay about 15,000 couplets to audiences. I could read ‘The Iliad – subtitled The Rage of Achilles – every month and never tire of it.
What would you consider to be one of the best books you’ve read over the last 5 years?
That would be Coveney and Highfield’s ‘The Arrow of Time’. I love learning and this book was brilliantly written in a way that non-astronomers could understand. I must confess I read only very carefully selected fiction books. I mostly stick to non-fiction for my own enjoyment.
What book do you think you should read but never get around to?
Oh, I think Beowolf lies at the back of my mind but never seems to get selected. I’ll read it one day.
What do you consider to be your favourite book?
Definitely Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. Although it’s fictional, it’s taught in many law schools around the world to demonstrate what can happen to a society when the rule of law is usurped. It’s a haunting tale of a normal guy called ‘Josef K’ being treated unjustly by a corrupt judicial system which is secret and operates in a random way: so that for instance, no-one knows where the court room will be the next time it convenes and it’s a crime to miss your court hearing. I titled my first novel ‘the Trial’ and dedicated it to Franz Kafka. There are no votes in law and order, but there soon would be if law and order broke down.
Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?
I’ve closed many books that have been hyped but which I found uninteresting.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was rubbish to me. It was chock full of words which had fallen out of the English language and had been retrieved as an attempt at authenticity. That attempt failed. The movie was much better.
Most of the Sir Walter Scott books in the Waverley Novels series are completely impenetrable nowadays. The language of that time is nowadays opaque and the pre-TV world of spending a whole page describing what’s on a mantelpiece just doesn’t hold the modern reader.
I also don’t like books with a political leaning. If I detect a political message in a book, I close it. I don’t have time to read political lectures from other people; however they’re disguised.
If you were stranded on a desert Island, which two books would you want to have with you?
Well, as a lawyer, I’d argue that my first one be the complete works of Shakespeare. My second would be The Life of Albert Einstein. I could of course, remember my own series The Parliament House Books; so I’d have them in my head.
Kindle or Book?
Oh Kindle every time. They’re getting better and better. Soon we’ll be feeling the sensation of paper when reading Kindle.
The first three books in The Parliament House Series are available now.