My fourth candidate for “A Date With . . .” is Scottish writer Tom Benson. Tom writes across several genres and is also a founder member and administrator for the Independent Author’s Support and Discussion group (IASD) which brings writers together to help each other with everything from blurb writing to discussing the relative merits of different marketing strategies. I began by asking him about growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s, mentioning my mental image of the city as grey stone tenements and ship building.
“Your mental image is accurate and it’s how I remember the Eastend of the city where I spent my formative years. In 1960 our family moved west to a spacious apartment in a sprawling council estate. In the mid-60s from our secondary school we could see the hulk of the ‘Q4’ in Clydebank several miles away. When launched, the Q4 was named Queen Elizabeth II.
Work hard – play hard, was the maxim. I remember adults fighting in the street; both men and women. The reputation of a ‘hard’ city is well-deserved, but so too is the accolade of being one of the friendliest cities.To this day, for me, Glasgow has always been a city of extremes. I return to visit my mother, but none of the three siblings who have brought up families there. Occasionally on a visit to Scotland with my wife we’ll visit Glasgow but we do so as tourists.”
Tom signed-up for a career in the British army at 17. I asked if he would do the same today, knowing what modern warfare entails.
“I was the oldest child of six living in a household where ‘conflict’ was a way of life, involving my parents or my siblings. I was the quietest and most industrious. My parents could not have afforded me to go into further education so I joined the workforce (in an office) at fifteen. There was no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ in my life.
Thousands of families are living now as we did back in the 1950’s and 1960s.
I’ve often wondered what my options would be if I were a teenager there now. I believe I would still sign-up, and sadly for the same reasons. There is no evolution for certain families, merely a life-cycle.”
Tom’s army career included a stint in Belfast in the 1970s at a time when the ‘troubles’ were at their height. I mentioned to Tom that I was there for a brief visit on business in 1970 and was shocked at the invective unleashed by a couple of male by-standers when an Army Land Rover patrol passed. When the men discovered I was English, from Coventry, they asked how I would feel if the Army was patrolling Coventry’s streets. I asked Tom how it felt to be on the other side of that situation – patrolling the streets of a British city and being spat at – and worse.
“I served on the streets of East Belfast in 1973. Our unit was the first non-infantry to perform the role of Internal Security there. We trained for months in Germany, but it was surreal to walk along British streets during day or night; with a loaded rifle. None of us were eager to do the task, but we’d taken taken an oath and signed up – it was our job.
I recall my first foot patrol. My thoughts went from anxious to professional in less than one minute. During our four-month tour, we were stoned (and not in a good way), spat at, and shot at among other things. On occasion we remained closer to a suspect device to steer sometimes ungrateful civilians to safety. You learn about yourself when you don’t retaliate against a teenager spitting at you, and when we were shot at, we responded by running towards the location of the suspect.
Juxtaposed to the negativity, there were many who accepted us, offering hospitality and friendship.”
Tom’s army life feeds into much of his writing. As well as the recently published 5 volume first person account of a man’s army experiences (which he insists is not entirely autobiographical), there is a series featuring a former soldier leading a small group determined to eliminate criminal gangs operating in present day Glasgow. I wondered if that is something he would have liked to do.
“Having survived bullying at school, I fought back on the first occasion in my military career. It was at that time I grew to despise injustice and criminality. On more than one occasion I involved myself in a scuffle to help others (male and female), because I refused to witness a person being beaten. I write about vengeance and summary justice, but I don’t believe I would wish to live on the edge. Notably, my characters have little in the way of a ‘normal’ lifestyle and have no dependents.”
One of the genre’s that Tom writes is erotica. In my ‘devil’s advocate’ role I asked did he think such ‘literature’ encourages the kind of attitude towards women exemplified by recent revelations from politics and show-business.
“I started writing erotica because there was so much badly written material in the genre. One particular book which has since gone on to be an international success is a woefully inaccurate tale of a relationship which involves sadomasochism. I was bitterly disappointed in the lack of knowledge shown by the author. (Aside: I wonder what book and movie series Tom could possibly talking about?)
My decision to tackle the genre was vindicated when my first attempt, an anthology of erotica short stories, was well received. I followed this with a novel, and then a series of novellas.
I have always held girls and women in high regard, and this is reflected in my writing.
My female characters are never downtrodden, and in many cases are equal to, or stronger than the males.
Most of the reviews (and private messages) I’ve received on my erotica are from female readers, and all of it has been positive. I now mentor a fellow erotica author.
In my opinion, nothing will sway a man’s judgement concerning women’s sexual appetites. Men will believe what they choose. Women, like men, have varying attitudes regarding sex. Most people have fantasies, and when somebody chooses to read erotica the content is obvious which makes it a conscious choice.
My personal affliction in erotica writing is that I insist on there being a story.”
IASD grew out of a website operated by fellow writer Paul Ruddock. After Paul reviewed one of Tom’s novels the pair discovered both were ex-Servicemen. Tom takes up the story:
“Camaraderie survives long after we leave the uniform. It doesn’t matter which service, or cap badge, male or female – the brotherhood/sisterhood continues.
Paul’s wish was to expand on what he’d started. Apart from minor changes in title the IASD grew rapidly when it became a group on Facebook. I offered my services — supporting Paul as an admin was the way forward. Ian D Moore (another ex-Serviceman) joined the group a few months later and he too became an admin.
Paul donated his original blog to the group a few months later, in October 2015. I’m not an expert, but I commenced rebuilding what is now the IASD blog/website. The group at the time numbered about 150 members and agreement was sought at every stage as I developed the site.
We have several members who are more adept than I am technically and I’m never too proud to ask for help or advice. We increased the admin team and brought on board a couple of members who have helped make the group successful.
The membership spiralled to 400+ at one stage, but many were freeloaders using us as a marketing tool, so over a period of time they ‘disappeared’. We in admin are all immensely proud of our members and their willingness to help the group live up to its name.”
This last sentiment reflects what he has found across the independently published writer community since starting what he describes as his “writing journey”.
“It is one of the few areas of ‘Civvy Street’ where I’ve seen a large group of people willingly offering support to their peers. From the outset, when I’ve seen inferior writing, but an author with potential, I’ve offered help and advice. I’m not an expert, but sometimes an offer of help is enough to show somebody they’re on the right track.”
Tom retired only recently from his second career, so his writing and the creation/development of IASD were all undertaken alongside a full-time job.
“I first tried creative writing in the mid-nineties. I toyed with my military memoirs and short stories. When my brilliant ideas were converted from thought to written word, my material was awful. I cut down on writing to read more, and I bought magazines and text books on writing.
I started writing seriously around 2007. I was a retail manager and to relax one day I wrote a poem. I was commuting for over two hours a day and wrote verse during every train journey and every lunch break. One day I converted a poem to a short story.
Over the next few years I stepped down to deputy, then reduced my hours, and finally moved to the local branch. At each stage I gained time to write. Evenings and days-off were filled with writing.
I am dedicated, whether it be the promise to help somebody else, or to meet a personal target.
Since retiring last November I’ve redecorated three rooms in our house and started on four writing projects. I’ve also read and reviewed twenty books.
My aims now include to continue cycling regularly, and learn to bake; though not while cycling.
I’m already underway with the publication of my novels in paperback.”
Tom is well organised in both the place and time of his craft:
“We don’t have a large house, but we have three bedrooms. When our son left home for university in 2000, we kept his bedroom available for his occasional visits. The room he’d used for his computer and studying became my ‘study’. As recently as last summer I performed an extensive makeover. I now have a modern, bright room, complete with a Mac which was a retirement gift to myself.
My window is large and I’ve fitted a Venetian blind which allows maximum daylight. The desk at which I write is in the middle of the room and end-on to the window. I’ve found ‘freedom’ in this position because for a few years I had my desk against a wall.
I prefer to write early, but it depends how long my morning cycle ride takes. I rarely watch TV, except for news or natural history programmes, so I write a lot in the evenings. I’m disciplined about regular breaks – including a full hour lunch-break.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilbur Smith, Jeffrey Archer and Lee Child are top of his list of authors he’d like to share a pint or a meal with:
“I’d hope to discover to what extent they allowed the story to be diverted by the characters and how wide their stories veered from the original plan. I’d also be keen to learn how much time was spent planning as opposed to writing.”
I thanked Tom for being so frank with his answers to my questions. I hope you enjoyed the encounter as much as I did.
Tom’s latest release, Amsterdam Calling, is now available in paperback. Ten Days in Panama will be released in paperback in the spring, part of his plan to publish all of his novels as paperback, including the five-part, fact-based fiction tale, A Life of Choice, during 2018. You can find a lot more about Tom, and his books, by following these links: