The prose and cons of peaking in the 1960s for Belfast musician John McCullough

A Belfast musician has drawn on over 20 years of experience living and working in West Africa for his debut novel.

ohn McCullough spent five years on A Virtuous Killer, which follows a nurse who tries to rescue her sister, one of a group of young women kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Her novel is inspired by real-life events, including the 2014 abduction of 257 Nigerian schoolgirls in Chibok. The kidnapping prompted the Twitter campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, championed by influencers like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

A Virtuous Killer is set in Northern Nigeria and Lake Chad where terrorism and political corruption are commonplace.

“The great temptation, of course, would have been for my first novel to be set in Northern Ireland,” says John.

“But as it wasn’t and I felt very convinced of the issues involved, I had to do a lot of research.

At the same time, because it’s my debut novel, you’re learning your craft as you go.

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John with members of Swift at London’s Southbank, 2022

John wanted to make sure the content was as authentic as possible.

“I felt a responsibility,” she says. “But writing, if you like, the thriller, I thought I could maybe get into the heads of some of these dangerous people, both on the political side and on the terrorist side, as well as making readers feel perhaps closer to the characters and we feel it a little more because we have a tendency, especially if it’s something that’s not in our immediate vicinity, to read it as a news report and move on to the next thing.

Working on different continents hadn’t been on John’s agenda. As an 18-year-old he was “distracted by music” during his matriculation studies, playing in both the Belfast Youth Orchestra and Queen’s, supporting visiting bands.

He then moved to London to study, meeting up with friends in Belfast and forming Swift, a jazz-fusion band who won the title of Young Jazz Musicians of London in 1977. John interrupted his career with the British Council and he devoted himself to music professionally.

At the age of 29, he rejoined the British Council, working in international development and cultural relations in London, Nepal, Cape Verde and Mali, among other countries.

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John with members of Swift at London’s Southbank, 1977

Despite returning to Northern Ireland in 1997, he continued to travel in a health consultancy business. Between 2008 and 2013 he worked as Regional Director Africa for Nutrition International, a Canadian NGO. Based in Senegal, he has regularly visited Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya. He subsequently worked as regional director for Asia before returning to the UK in 2016.

“The main thing was Africa for me, I just felt a great affinity for Africa,” he explains.

“Before even visiting Nigeria, I had lived in West and North Africa for eight years, working in different countries. But Nigeria got me by the throat.

“The troubles we had in the Troubles, if you magnify them, not 10 times, but about 100 times, even 1,000 times (there). And the amazing thing is that Nigerians are still resilient, they just get on with things basically, like we did during the Troubles.

Over 15 years, John made 65 visits to Nigeria.

“When you try it and experience people’s resilience despite all of that, it really makes you want to do something or at least it did for me. And try to actually make people more aware of that,” she says.

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John McCullough with Lionel Ross, his editor at i2i Publishing

“It ruins your life,” she continues on the impact of the kidnapping. “Someone comes and takes your daughter or your wife, your husband, your father, you are forced to sell your house or whatever and basically put yourself into poverty to get your family back because there is no way the security forces can Help you.”

Music is something he continued to enjoy as he worked around the world, says the 68-year-old.

“The first six years that I was in Senegal, I played very regularly with American musicians and Senegalese musicians, doing a mix of African music, but also jazzy stuff,” he says.

“Then I went to Egypt and for about two years I played with (Egyptian drummer) Yehya Khalil. He paid attention to the expatriates who came to Cairo. We were used to seeing big crowds.”

However, some of the regional assignments meant he could commit to nothing. Retiring at 63, he was “turned on” to pursue music and writing.

“There was a great level of satisfaction in doing both. The book was really planned and it’s been a solid kind of five years, but the last couple of years has also been the Swift album.

“The big satisfaction for me was showing myself and proving myself and maybe proving to others that in your 60s don’t think of it as ‘I’m retiring now.’

“If you have the mindset and can stay fit and healthy, it can be a wonderful time to get creative.”

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John worked on his debut novel for five years before publication

John finds himself in the unusual position of releasing an album and a novel in the same week, with his first published work of fiction coinciding with the resurgence of his band Swift, who last played together in 1979.

He recalls how they came together after a fateful evening listening to Radio Ulster’s Jazz World with Linley Hamilton on BBC Sounds.

“I emailed him telling him a little bit about Swift and how we came from Northern Ireland and played in the late 70s and won an award and did all these things,” explains John, who now lives in Chester.

“Within five minutes of sending the email Friday night, he replied, asking for my phone number.”

A conversation started, and the following week Linley had Swift on the air, then every other week.

“I had to reach out to these guys I hadn’t talked to, some of them for 40 years,” John explains.

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Swift performing circa 1977 at the Riverside Arts Centre, Hammersmith

“We decided if this guy is so excited, why don’t we try to make that album that we never got around to.

“Fortunately, Laurie, the guitarist, spent a lot of time in those later years developing a recording proficiency. We were able to use Zoom to communicate and record remotely, both with each other and with guests, including Linley who played on the album and other musicians to produce it.

The group produced In Another Lifetime which came out the same week as A Virtuous Killer.

“If you have some financial security, then it’s a wonderful opportunity to give (free) rein to your creativity,” John says of his post-retirement life.

“Some go golfing two or three times a week or go to a vacation home and enjoy themselves (retirement). Fair play for them; if they have worked hard all their lives, good luck to them.

“I felt this was what I wanted to do because I was prevented from doing it due to lack of time and the need to make a living.”

In Another Lifetime is available from download sites and as a CD at swift6.bandcamp.com. A Virtuous Killer, i2i Publishing, is available in bookstores, on Amazon and Kindle

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