Winner of the SAW Constable Trophy

The presumption that others would will wish to read one's scribbling reflects conceit. Unless, of course, you have been invited to do so or your writing is so good that you are doing literature a favour. I simply had the urge to scribble. At primary school, I wrote comic verse, all of which my mother scrapped when I left home. In the Navy, I scribbled to amuse the troops whilst on patrol. When invited to speak at dinners, I wrote speeches to perform. Now 'in retirement', I try to deploy my life's experience.

My long term ambition has been to write the funniest book ever written. So, on retirement from the Navy, I attended three writing courses at the Arvon Foundation, Moniack Mhor, where the first draft chapters of this masterpiece were so well received in play format that I was urged to send them to the BBC. I did. They did not reply. Some years later, having joined the Helensburgh Writers' Workshop, I won the Constable Trophy for 'Best Unpublished Novel' in the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) annual competition. The adjudicator, Katie Grant, a broadcaster, author and journalist, was effusive in her praise and clearly loved the humour. After many rejections, I found an agent who warned me that the words 'comic novel' were 'guaranteed to send a London literary agent running for the nearest fire exit.' However, he said that it had made him laugh and he would attempt what would be a difficult sell. It was. It didn't. Four years later, I have re-styled it to qualify as a 'satirical drama' under the new title of 'Penguins Don't Start Wars'. I await a further market test (April 2020). 

In the meantime, I have published three books of humorous verse: Colquhounsville-sur-Mer, Democracy for Birds and Love Songs for the Romantically Challenged and my epic memoir of the Cold War, On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service.


As Churchill said of Attlee, 'He's a modest little man with much to be modest about'.  I am not a modest little man but I do feel very humble appearing before the illustrious Edinburgh Writers Club, having watched so many of your members winning prizes at Scottish Association of Writers conferences. To quote Robert Burns in his address to the worthy citizens of Edinburgh: 'O ye who are sae guid yourself.'

I am here tonight, not as a famous Scottish writer, but as a quid pro quo for your esteemed President Olga's hugely successful visit to my own small writers' group in Helensburgh. Olga has asked me to talk both about my book 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service', which has, he said modestly, been a bestseller in its genre of military memoirs. She has also asked me to talk about my experience as a writer.

I should probably first explain that as a submarine engineer, I am very well educated in technical matters ranging from nuclear reactors to underwater warfare, but I have had no literary education and only took up serious writing in retirement.

Humour was of prime importance in my family home. My mother was always ready to laugh; my father endlessly repeated his mantra that: 'vulgarity has no part in humour'. And Grandpa Thompson had been a comedian in the old music halls in London, at the same time as Charlie Chaplin before the latter went to Hollywood.(Grandpa went to Kirkaldy - to manage a brand new cinema). I am now a graduate of Strathclyde University's Stand-Up Comedy course.

As a child, I was an avid listener to the Goon show. At primary school I wrote comic verse, all of which has been lost to literature as my ever-tidy mother threw out all my notebooks when I left home to join the Navy.

At the superb Coatbridge High School, I became an active member of the Debating Society and thus discovered the challenges of speechwriting, which is an excellent discipline for a writer because, when performing your own work to a live audience, you know immediately if your material worked. It is standard advice in all writing that you should read your work aloud.

In my teenage years, I was also heavy into the lost art of letter writing to my many pen friends, and later to my wife-to-be. Letter writing is another excellent exercise for would-be writers. It is good practice to write as if you are talking to your reader.

In my sixth year at school, I read a hilarious book called 'We Joined the Navy', written by the late John Winton who, I later discovered, was a fellow submarine engineer. This was a hilarious tale of young men joining the Navy. It was turned into a movie while I was at Dartmouth. That book became my bible. It set me up for always looking for the funny side of life in uniform - 'if you  can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.' That book gave me the career-long ambition to write my own hilarious book about life in the Navy, which I have now done.

During my 37 years in the Navy, my literary efforts were confined to writing signals (text messages), technical reports, staff papers, personnel reports (character descriptions), scripts for ship's concerts and after-dinner speeches for mess dinners. I did however manage to send the odd signal in verse. I sent this one to the Commander-in-Chief when I was Senior Engineer at Faslane and faced with major technical problems in our submarines. He was demanding that they should sail when I was explaining that they were unable to do so. 

           I’m surrounded by chaos

          My budget is spent

          I haven’t a clue

         Where the overtime went.

        The boats are all broken

        Their boilers kaput

        And you, Sir, are playing

       The role of Canute.

It was when I was sent to Kyle of Lochalsh to set up a torpedo testing range in the Sound of Raasay that the idea of writing 'Torpedoes Galore' came to mind, following the model of Sir Compton Mackenzie's 'Whisky Galore' and 'Rockets Galore'. The scenario and scope for humour were all there. It has taken me almost forty years to write but I have just finished it, and am now looking for a publisher.

I kicked off my retirement by using the money I was given for preparing myself for a return to the human race with four Arvon courses:

        Writing a Novel     (the tutor, a lady, thought my writing was too 'mannish')

       Writing for TV Comedy    (fancied this but have taken it no further)

       Writing for Radio Drama    (writing dialogue seems to be my forte)

       Writing for Children   (definitely not my genre)

I was also taken on by an after-dinner speaker agency, which proved to be lucrative but was, I felt, poor gearing in terms of effort to reward. Writing a thirty-minute entertaining speech and then performing it in front of a live audience was highly stressful, a demanding creative writing exercise, and a lot of hard work for a one-off event. So, I decided to concentrate on publishable work on the principle of 'Write Once, Read Many'.

Then, out of the blue, I was invited to write a poem to commemorate Helensburgh's bicentenary. This I performed at the bicentenary lunch in the town hall and received a standing ovation. That success persuaded me to self-publish a book of comic verse on local subjects, which I called 'Colquhounsville-sur-Mer'. That sold about 600 copies. I was pleased with that as I heard on the BBC that Maya Angelou had sold only a handful of her first collection. The origin of the title is that the town of Helensburgh was a new town built on land owned by Sir James Colquhoun of Luss whose wife was Lady Helen Sutherland, granddaughter of the Duke of Sutherland. The town, Helensburgh, was named after her.

Encouraged by the success of that book, I then published 'Democracy for Birds', which I launched in the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick. This too was a success and was covered on BBC Radio Scotland's book programme, 'Cover Stories', presented by Richard Holloway, who interviewed me live in the parrot house of Edinburgh Zoo, probably a literary first. There Richard asked me to do a live recording of 'Doves of War', a poem about the pigeons used in the First World War when radio was in its infancy. They were used to carry enemy sighting reports back to base. 

My third book, 'Love Songs for the Romantically Challenged', I produced in response to my late wife's accusation that I was unromantic. Alas, Kate lost her battle with breast cancer just after I had 1000 copies printed and I lost all interest in marketing it. I gave all but 100 copies to the Cancer Research shop. Earlier this year, one of the ladies in my writers group informed me that it was selling for £50 on Amazon!

In retirement, I also joined the Helensburgh Writers Workshop, at which I benefitted from three unanimous observations:

      1. My sentences were too complex.

      2. I used too many adjectives.

      3. My humour was enjoyed by all.

As the Club is affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers, I then set about harvesting critiques by entering as many of the SAW competitions as possible, even where I had no real interest, such as the Woman's Short Story Competition. At my first SAW Conference, I failed to win or even be mentioned in any writing competition, but I did win first prize in the competition to design a logo for the SAW, which now appears in all its literature.

For my first attempt at a women's short story, I received the following critique from the adjudicator, the wonderful Shirley Blair, Commissioning Editor for 'The People's Friend': 'I'm not sure which women's magazine this story is aimed at - not one I've ever worked on.'  In my second attempt, for which Shirley was also the Adjudicator, she wrote: 'This author can clearly write, and plus points for being creative and breaking away from the cliched misconception of the "women's mag" story. With more consideration, this would be a remarkable story.' The story was about a downtrodden minister's wife in a remote West Highland parish. On the strength of Shirley's critique, I have built my novel, 'Torpedoes Galore', around that short story.

After several years of trying, I eventually won the SAW's Constable Trophy for Best Unpublished Novel (see above) with a naval comedy called ‘Panic Attack’. The adjudicator, journalist and author, Katy Grant, gave it a hugely positive critique, with comments such as: 'Comedies set amongst submarines in the Cold War are, in my experience, unlikely winners of literary prizes, but I found this one irresistible. It comprised an originally absurd plot, some lively writing, some real style and it made me laugh.' I was euphoric. I really thought that I had finally made it as a writer. In reality, I was barely in the starting blocks for being published. So I wrote this hymn (tune: What a Friend  We Have in Jesus):

       Jesus wants me for an author

        I am going to write a book.

        In the apostolic order

        It will come in after Luke.

       I shall write a brand-new gospel.

       It will be a holy writ.

       But I'll have to find an agent

       Or they will not publish it!

While still at that SAW conference and still euphoric over my success, I sought advice on publishing it from Al Guthrie, the Edinburgh-based literary agent and crime writer, who very generously gave me lots of sobering advice, such as: 'Humour and politics. Yep, Eric, you can pick 'em! Is there a market for satirical romps or did they go out of fashion a couple of decades ago? Is there a writer you can pinpoint who's come to prominence in this area in the last three or four years?' And that's the point; publishers are only interested in what will sell and make a profit. It does not matter how good your writing is. If there is no market, publishers will not be interested. (Self-publishing becomes the only option).

Undeterred, I sent the manuscript to a London literary agent who replied: 'Comic novel are the two words guaranteed to send a literary agent running for the nearest fire exit. So, I sat down to read your manuscript with a deep sense of futility. Then I began to laugh. I would be delighted to take it to market.' I was so thrilled that I framed his email and hung it on my office wall. Alas, when he took it to market, it failed to hook a publisher. So, I was back to square one. 

In parallel with this, I decided that as I was getting on in years, I should write an autobiographical account of my time in nuclear submarines during the Cold War. This I called 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service' and that is my magnum opus. It hooked a London literary agency, Sheil Land Associates, at the first attempt, and they found a publisher immediately (Casemate UK). Which proves that it is very much easier to have non-fiction published. In this book, I have amalgamated my penchants for humour, poetry, philosophical thought and social observation. To my astonishment, my publishers told me that it had sold more copies than Karl Marx!

'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service'  was runner-up in the 2018 international Mountbatten Best Book awards. Currently, it has 91% 4-5 star reader reviews (out of 255) on Amazon, and similarly in Goodreads, where it is ahead of Dougal and the Magic Roundabout, written by another Eric Thompson.


            - Honesty, not pomposity

           - Self-effacing humour is preferable to mocking others

           - Write as if talking to the reader

           - Backstabbing should be avoided but where writing critically about former colleagues or friends is necessary, use false names and send  them the relevant passages beforehand. (That requires moral courage).

          - Include photographs           

          - Get security clearance if appropriate

On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service

On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, was snapped up at the first offering and published in March 2018 by Casemate (UK), the British wing of an American publisher which specialises in military history, which goes to show that it is easier to find a publisher for non-fiction than for fiction.

This book was written primarily for readers who knew nothing about life in the Submarine Service during the Cold War and not specifically for the military history market. However, the latter is a very good market and the book has sold extremely well. Indeed, Casemate regard it as one of their best sellers ever and will be bringing it out as a paperback in September (2020).

Oh joy! Oh rapture! It was voted runner-up in the Mountbatten Best Book Award in 2019, a national compettition with thirty-eight books on the short list. 

On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service

'Penguins Don't Start Wars'

'Penguins Don't Start Wars' is a work in progress. Under the working title of 'Panic Attack' , it won the Scottish Association of Writers' (SAW) Constable Trophy for best (unpublished) novel. The Adjudicator, journalist and author Katie Grant, critique said:

'Comedies set amongst submarines of the Cold War are, in my experience, unlikely winners of literary prizes, but I found this one irresistible. The story is set during the Cold War. Our submarines need a new torpedo, and Oscar Burgess, at the Admiralty Underwater Missile Establishment, designs Valhalla, a revolutionary torpedo with the brain of a Killer Whale. At the test firing in the Clyde, control over Valhalla is lost and it sinks the Brodick ferry, which is carrying a cargo of prize bulls. What's not to like!'
     'Within moments, I was smiling at the easy sense of the ridiculous, for example, the description of Harry Hawke as a besuited model from an advertisement and his wife as a 'refugee from Oxfam'; by the preposterous and quite believable situation - we're in 1975 and in the middle of a cockup both lethal and laughable - and the plausibility of the utterly absurd, for example the summoning of the Second and Third Sea Lords for high level discussions on the protocols of writing in coloured ink. There's a wealth of Naval knowledge cunningly employed in this submission.
    'I felt I was reading about a world with which the writer was effortlessly familiar. For example, at a meeting in the Office of the Secretary of State for Defence, after a vigorous exchange of views, we have Spiggot - that's Admiral Sir Rodney Spiggot, First Sea Lord - looking ready to explode because the most senior civil servant in the Ministry has mocked the Navy in front of the Secretary of State. This knowledge of the hierarchy adds buckets of authenticity, which is just what a book like this needs if it's going to work. The writer is letting us into a world which he knows well and we don't but we'd like to.
     'The writing is, at its best, crisp and sharp.
     'Doctors Oscar and Helen Burgess were Portland's odd couple. He was a theoretical physicist and she an applied hydrodynamicist. Both had avoided romance until their late forties when the Admiralty's personnel department had thrown them together in the design team for Valhalla. How Cupid finally fired his arrow remains unexplained. Rumour had it that encrypted messages had been transferred between their computers. When they became electronically interconnected, it was game over. It was generally accepted that the happy couple would one day conceive a prodigiously gifted torpedo but a son and heir was presumed to be beyond the scope of their scientific considerations.'
     'The dialogue is brisk and filled with the kinds of expressions I'm sure are heard every day in the service, e.g. 'Don't shout it all out like that. It sounds like you're drilling a squad of one-legged ballerinas.'
     'The pace was speedy and there are memorable scenes. For example: 'Harry Hawke knocked boldly on the First Sea Lord's door. He entered the inner sanctum. There he found the combined ranks of the First, Second and Third Sea Lords deployed around the coffee table in enormous green armchairs. On the table was an array of differently coloured inks, three pink gins and several sheets of paper on which the great men had clearly been practising their signatures.'
     'I enjoyed this entry very much. It comprised an originally absurd plot, some lively writing, some real style and it made me laugh. I salute the writer.'

(I have still to find a publisher).