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Brit Grit Alley

Brian Murphy – A Memorial by Tony Black

Brian Murphy knew how to make an entrance. Throughout the entire time I knew the wild man this fact was never in doubt. What I discovered today, it saddens me to say, was that Brian also knew how to make an exit.

During the Edinburgh Festival of 2013, I recall an unusual phone call. I’d left the city for my old home town of Ayr, a town made famous by a rowdy poet called Burns. It had been quite a few years since Ayr had seen Rabbie’s like - but the town was about to get a reminder.

‘Hello, is that Tony Black?’ said the blunt voice on the end of the line.

‘It is. And who might this be?’

‘I’m calling from the Statue Bar.’ I’ve changed the name of the establishment, to protect the blameless; though precious few of that sort frequent this place.

Ayr’s ‘Statue’ pub, a friend of mine is wont to point out, is the kind of drinker where they search you for knives on the way in - if you don’t have a knife, they give you one.

‘What do you want with me?’ I was genuinely rattled. The last person to call my home was my mother.

‘I’ve got a mad yank here that wants to speak to you,’ said the barman from the Statue. ‘Here he is …’

The yank in question was Chicago’s finest, Brian Murphy. He mumbled something about being evicted from Edinburgh, where he’d come to do a reading with Irvine Welsh at the literary festival. Lost for what to do, or where to go next, he’d tracked me down.

I tooled up and made my way in to meet him. Well, the last part’s true. And the rest requires no embellishments. When I went in, Brian was at the bar, stripped to the waist. A small crowd had formed to get a closer look at the hole in his back where a bullet had entered. The shot was fired during a drugs deal that had gone wrong. In Panama.

I have never met anyone with better stories than Brian. And the material garnered from five minutes in his company was comparable to five years with anyone else.

‘Your wife just got me kicked out of my second Scottish hotel!’ he said.

‘My wife?’

‘They threw my bags out of the window because of her.’ At this point, Brian pointed to the other end of the bar where a large bunch of roses rested in a pint glass. ‘I picked those for her at the B&B and the woman went ape-shit on me!’
I had to laugh. There was rarely another option with Brian. 

We had been corresponding for many years, but this was our first meeting. It didn’t disappoint me to discover the freewheeling wit and genius of his writing was every bit as evident in the man himself. Brian wrote unsurpassable prose, shot through with his unique sensibilities. He lived the life he wrote about and despised what he called the ‘crime tourists’ of the genre.

I discovered Brian’s work in about 2007. He published stunningly original short stories for the likes of Thug Lit and Out of the Gutter. I picked up a few for Pulp Pusher back then, regarding the work a real find. What I didn’t know at the time, along with the brilliance of his writing, was that Brian’s friendship would be the true find.

In the Statue Bar I asked him how he had come to miss his stage appearance at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. The response was more classic Brian Murphy.

After a heavy drinking session, he’d been denied entry to the stage by security. Returning to his hotel he’d continued drinking, until he passed out. A full bladder had woken him in the middle of the night, whereupon he’d risen and rushed to the bathroom.

Standing naked before what he thought was the toilet, Brian discovered he was actually in the hotel’s hallway, and already relieving himself. Unable to stop, he opened the first door he came to - a linen cupboard - and let nature take its course.

‘What did you do next?’ I said.

‘I went downstairs, where the woman on reception screamed, you’re naked!’

I laughed, prematurely it seems.

‘So she ushered me back upstairs to get a bathrobe, yeah you guessed it, from the linen cupboard.’

‘Oh …’

‘Yes, oh …’

‘So she kicked you out?’

‘No, she got the cops to do that. They gave me the choice of a hard bunk or the next train out of town.’   

A memorable exit indeed. This week’s departure by Brian was equally as unforeseen. After a very brief illness, and his hospitalisation in Manila, he checked out for good.

Like all those who knew and loved Brian, I’m still too shocked and numb to process what his loss will really mean to me. I know I’ll miss his long, rambling emails. His pitch-perfect storytelling. And his opinionated and ribald raconteuring. I’ll miss it all, but perhaps mostly, I’ll miss his words. Even though he leaves us some of those, they will never be enough, because with Brian, enough was never enough.    

There'll be more carryings on down Brit Grit Alley very soon, sorta kinda thing, like.

Tony Black is the author of  more than14 novels, most recently Bay of Martyrs. He has been nominated for seven CWA Daggers and was runner up in The Guardian's Not the Booker prize for The Last Tiger. He has written three crime series, a number of crime novellas and a collection of short stories. His most recent crime title in the DI Bob Valentine series is Her Cold Eyes.