Alan Sharp is an accomplished man of letters, a big noise in

Hollywood. But, as TOM SHIELDS finds, you can take the scriptwriter out

of Greenock, but you can't take Greenock out of the scriptwriter

I'm a talented writer. Not

one who ploughs an esoteric

furrow but a mainstream

writer. I just sit down and

get on with the tale

AS A successful man of letters, Alan Sharp is doubly exposed to the

standard Scottish reaction to the boy who has done good. There is no

doubt someone somewhere who will say: ''Alan Sharp? Ah kent baith his


Sharp -- author of a great Scottish novel, A Green Tree in Gedde, and

a top honcho Hollywood scriptwriter -- is the seed of Peter Craig, a

Dundee communist, and the son of Joe Sharp, a Greenock salvationist. It

is, as Sharp says, a genetic web overlaid with a cultural web which he

is unpicking to this day.

But first we fast-forward from an Alyth nursing home where in 1934 a

Dundee lass is giving birth to her second illegitimate child to a

masterclass at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1992. Sharp is telling his

wee tales to an enraptured audience of mainly young film buffs. Like how

he was called before a studio boss to discuss an African adventure

script which Sharp has begun with a scene where two homosexual Scottish

slave traders are playing badminton on the banks of the Limpopo. The

studio boss just loves Sharp's writing, but could he not make his

characters a bit more cardboard?

Like when he was working with Peter Fonda and couldn't understand a

word the guy was saying until he caught up on the marijuana gap.

Sharp has an easy way with the earnest questions. A young lady takes

Sharp to task on the fact that he professes an anti-violence stance yet

his film Ulzana's Raid showed full-frontal Apache torture and mutilation

while the film The Searchers portrayed the same horror just in John

Wayne's face. ''I guess that's because it was a far better movie,'' says

Sharp. ''The Searchers was the apogee of the gear.''

As a skilled writer of dialogue, how did Sharp cope with writing so

many westerns? ''Well, you just have to get them off their horses and

get them talking.''

Sharp's first western, Billy Two Hats, is shown after the discussion.

It features Gregory Peck as a Scottish character who teams up with a

half-breed Indian. As the two find themselves surrounded by baddies,

Peck has such lines as ''We made a right midden of that'' and ''If your

auntie had a moustache, she'd be your uncle''. You can take the

sceenwriter out of Greenock but you can't take Greenock out of the


Or, as a young buff puts it, Sharp remains ''remarkably untainted by

Hollywood''. Sharp replies that this is because he was already

well-tainted by Scotland before he went.

While Sharp was back in Scotland for the Edinburgh Film Festival

retrospective of his work, he also completed the first draft of a script

for a film about Rob Roy which Peter Broughan of Bronco Films, Glasgow,

is trying to process through the movie machine. ''Rob Roy,'' says Sharp,

''was just a footnote in Scottish history but he was mixed up with some

heavy dudes.'' He then goes on to summarise a story of political and

economic chicanery in early eighteenth century Scotland involving the

dukes of Montrose and Argyll. As Sharp tells it Rob Roy was a pretty

decent guy whose misfortunes led him into ''outlawry and thievage''.

But in the film process much of this background detail has inevitably

to be lost in favour of action. Fortunately, there was plenty as Rob Roy

escapes from this foe by plunging off his horse into a Highland river or

leaps from a castle turret on to a convenient tree. What we have here is

great potential for a Highland western.

During this return to Scotland, Sharp has spoken so much that when he

is interviewed he says he feels he is playing a worn-out record. It is a

record with many interesting tracks as he fluently addresses such issues

as politics, football, sex, drugs, literature and everything.

Ask him his views of the state of the Scottish nation after the April

general election and his answer begins in Washington DC where the USA is

run by a handful of vested interests and lobbyists within the Parkway

belt, where the exercise of politics is not governance but the retention

of power in a country where 98% of incumbents are re-elected.

Then look at the British system. A televised parliament which ''is

Monty Python before our very eyes''. He says: ''My belief is that before

you can move towards anything like direct democracy you have to work

with smaller constituencies. You cannae do it with 250 million people.

You cannae do it with 50 million people but you can wi five million


Which brings us to Scotland. ''Units have to be smaller to permit a

more direct democratic process. Scotland was an ideal example. Here was

a country, the only country on the planet that could have its

independence if it wanted without having to fight for it. They will not

send tanks up here. They will do all kinds of other things. And if they

don't send tanks, you will not have to find terrorists to fight them.

You will not have a government that has been born out of warfare and

that's a big plus.''

Sharp takes a pragmatic view of Scotland's historical relationship

with England. ''The Scots are a very interesting mob in as much as they

made a very interesting deal with the English. A sane deal. It had a lot

of problems to it but the alternative was to have these bastards come up

here and kick your arse every 25 years.'' And, he says, the English have

been pretty fair in the sense that they have said: ''Send us your best

and brightest and we'll use them. And they've done it and rewarded them

by making them prime ministers and the rest.

''The relationship the Scots have to the English is a symbiotic one

and giving it up is psychologically very difficult because it's going to

take away your excuse.

''With the English there we can say if it wisnae for them bastards . .

. and I've been watching Scottish fitba long enough to understand the

Scottish psyche and my own. All the Scots need is an excuse.''

And when it comes to excuses after a Tory general election win, the

Scots have a double whammy. We can blame both the English and the

Scottish Labour leaders in whom the voters placed their trust. ''My

question is, did the Scots actually believe they were Scottish? Did they

actually believe all this stuff they say about themselves? A man's a man

for a' that. The rank is but the guinea stamp. Or was it all just a

performance, a fiction with which we maintain ourselves? We all tell

ourselves wee stories like we're good in bed or could have been a good

midfield player. We usually take care not to put ourselves in a

situation where we get called on it.''

If Scotland was too feart to grasp some form of devolution through the

ballot box, perhaps it might be just as well to go further down the road

of Tory victories, with the hardships involved, to reach some other kind

of political solution. It is difficult to make big alterations in a

system just by changing where you hold your parliament.

In global as well as Scottish terms, Sharp is a believer in apocalypse

soon: ''I am a New Ageist. I believe big shit is coming down in a

millennial kinda sense. The truth will set you free but first it will

make you fucking miserable. We are looking at hard times all around.''

This seems as good a point as any to change the subject to the

relatively cheerful subject of the state of Scottish football. Again

Sharp approaches this from a historical perspective.

He loves the game but in the 1974 World Cup in Germany experienced a

pain that was totally disproportionate to any grown man's expectation.

''I was sickened and yet they played well that year. You'd love to have

a Scottish team like that today. By the time Argentina came I was cured.

''I converted to may the best team win. If it was my team that was a

bonus. My problem was that there were getting less and less good games

of football in World Cups I've been to. The last one was a fucking

travesty. The final was a game I would have walked out of if it had been

at Cappielow.''

Sharp would settle for a Scottish team which doesn't win the World Cup

but will ''play characteristically well in an over-ornate style, an

embellished way of playing the game which is not efficient but is awfy

nice to watch. More than entertaining, aesthetically brave. To play the

backheel when it would better to kill the ball and push it to the side.

Or hit the through ball that leaves the defender like a quadraplegic. If

they ever played a whole game like that it would be incredible, but I'm

looking even for a 25-minute spell in the middle. OK if they then say we

were only kidding, you can beat us now.''

Before we enter into more personal territories such as life, love,

sex, drugs, drink, and literature it is useful to have a quick resume of

the life of Alan Sharp.

So, meanwhile, back at the nursing home in Alyth in 1934 where Ethel

Foot has given birth to a son. It is not certain whether the father,

Peter Craig, back in Dundee even knows about the situation.

The baby is adopted at six weeks by Joe and Meg Sharp, working-class

Salvation Army people from the Wee Dublin area of Greenock. If Alan

Sharp took in his socialism at birth, it was his Greenock upbringing

that gave him his way with words.

''Joe Sharp was a profoundly religious man, a Christian man with all

the limitations that brings. With a bit more education I'm sure he would

have become a minister. The Salvation Army was a more cheerful

fundamentalism than, for instance, the Wee Frees.''

Joe Sharp had a penchant for the high-blown phrase, as used in the

Salvation Army process of giving testimony and reciting homilies; the

wee tales which Sharp describes as his basic craft. But also the

aphorisms and lore of working-class Greenock. Young Alan remembers Joe

being ticked off by Meg for missing the odd corner when he was

distempering the walls. ''Och, a blind man on a galloping horse wouldn't

know the difference,'' was the reply. Sharp used the line in his western

Billy Two Hats. He has tried since to introduce it, usually

unsuccessfully, into other bits of screenwriting. It now resurfaces as

the title of his latest book, a rites of passage tale of adolescent life

in 1944 Greenock. (A Blind Man On A Galloping Horse should be published,

all going well, in autumn 1993 -- the first Alan Sharp book in 25


As a young man Sharp worked as a tradesman in the shipyards and as a

labourer in IBM. He was going nowhere slowly. At the age of 15 he quit

his apprenticeship as a joiner in the yards to be a trainee private eye

after seeing a small ad in the Greenock Telegraph. He thought he was

going to be Philip Marlowe. The job was as a debt collector. He was back

in the yards as a hole-borer within a week.

Then he discovered education and literature through the teachers'

training scheme which sent him to the yooni and gave him ideas about

literature and a realisation of his own talents as a writer. With #500

in his pocket he wanted to take his wife from Greenock to Spain where,

in the late 1950s, they could live cheaply and he could be Ernest

Hemingway and run with the bulls in Pamplona.

His wife wouldn't go. He gave her the money and left her to find a new

life in London, where in the fullness of time he became a writer. The

rest of his story is well-charted.

He takes his success as a novelist and then as a screenwriter in

Holloywood in a matter of fact way. ''I'm a talented writer. Not one

who's ploughing a bizarre and esoteric furrow but a mainstream writer. I

enjoy writing. I just sit down and get on with the tale.'' Or to be

accurate he used to stand up and get on with the tale. He had an old

stand-up desk at which he worked, hand-writing his stories and scripts

into bound ledgers. Later in life, at the grand old age of 58, he says

he prefers to sit down in a comfortable chair with his ledger in his

lap. ''It's so much easier to fall asleep that way.''

Sharp does not conform to the heavy-bevvy stereotype of your Scottish

writer. ''I was never a drinker. I drank as part of the rites of


''I might have been drunk twice in the last few years. I find women a

much bigger drug, much more stimulating. Women are the greatest drug of

all time; all things are possible.''

Sharp describes his personal relationships as chaotic. Three wives,

affairs, love children. He is amazingly frank and open about his

personal life.

After a career as a serial seducer of women, he is now what you might

call a recovering seducer. But when you're a seducer of women, he says,

you have to be a placator of women, making up for the lies that are

inevitably involved.

''I've only just broken out of that vicious spiral by the simple and

old-fashioned thing of stopping fucking around. If you stop you don't

have to placate anymore.

''I still look at women the same way but I know that it will all end

up in the same place. You can start anywhere you like and go through the

romance and the excitement and the passion, the up the close part of it.

But at the end of the day they'll be looking at you and saying 'But you

said . . . ' and you'll say 'What I really meant was . . . ' and you're

back where you were, so you might as well not start. This isn't wisdom

or anything, it's just weariness.''

He lives on the paradise island of Kawau, New Zealand, with Harriet

Hall, a black woman from Detroit. ''She's been very helpful to me. She

relentlessly called me on my lies, a bit like aversion therapy, until as

I sit here there are no more lies.''

One of his remaining addictions is spending a lot of cash on mobility

between the different strands of his life in New Zealand, Los Angeles,

London and Scotland.

He left Los Angeles for New Zealand in 1980. He didn't want to live in

Ronald Reagan's America. He wasn't ready to come back to Scotland,

didn't fancy Canada or Australia and settled on the provincial fastness

of New Zealand.

Sharp has taken to sailing in wee boats. Exposed as he was to the

seascape of Greenock as a boy and young man, he never went sailing. That

was not for the working classes.

In New Zealand it's different, a common hobby like golf is over here.

He has an iron-hulled dinghy in which he potters around the Bounty Bar

surroundings of the island.

''I've enjoyed learning something new late in life. If I have an

aspiration, apart from Scotland winning the World Cup, I would like to

sail to Greenock. It would be a long journey and I would need a boat

that would allow me to make mistakes but it can be done.''

The old man and the sea. Alan Sharp, still chasing Hemingway after all

these years.