How Gordon Anthony became author despite blindness

Novelist Gordon Anthony lost his eyesight then unleashed his imagination on a series of novels about Roman Britain. Picture: Jane Barlow
Novelist Gordon Anthony lost his eyesight then unleashed his imagination on a series of novels about Roman Britain. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Author Gordon Anthony sits at his computer and bashes out line after line of his latest story, another volume in a series of meticulously researched historical novels which have received wide critical acclaim.

The words flow as he types away, weaving his complex story, twisting the fortunes of his characters into new, thrilling, unexpected directions.

It’s a complex job researching and writing a historical novel. And yet, strangely, the screen in front of Gordon is not even switched on.

“There’s no need,” Gordon says with a shrug, whose debut novel, In the Shadow of the Wall, was published in 2010 and instantly received a four-star review from The Scotsman. “What’s the point? I can’t see the screen anyway.

“If I have problems with the computer, the first thing the family do is come through and switch on the screen.”

An incurable genetic condition stole Gordon’s eyesight around ten years ago, leaving him almost totally blind. It brought a sudden end to his career in banking, but worse, it destroyed his hopes of seeing his children grow up and has left him almost entirely dependent on others.

Which makes his remarkable record of eight books written in ten years – a labour-intensive process that involves using a special audio programme on his computer to read back every word, comma, full stop, quotation mark that he writes – all the more impressive.

Today, he is busy on the fourth novel in his popular Calgacus series based in Roman Britain, an era that could pose many writers with a nightmare research challenge, never mind someone handicapped by being unable to see his hand in front of his face.

“It’s not easy,” he says with a nod. “In fact, it’s very slow and ponderous. But I remind myself that it could be worse. And this helps stop me thinking about the fact that I can’t see.”

Gordon has known since he was a teenager that the rare genetic blip passed down through his father’s side of the family could strike. His biggest hope was that its unpredictable nature might mean his vision was only slightly affected – unfortunately that was not to be.

Eventually it left him almost totally blind.

“There are a lot of things I miss, my kids are adults now, I speak to my daughter Sarah every day but I’ve not seen her since she was 12 years old and she’s 18 now,” he reflects. “I went to her school prom but I couldn’t see her in her prom dress. And my boys, Kevin, 22 and Philip, who’s 20, were still young when I lost my sight, now they’re men.

“Then there are the small things like not being able to watch a television programme that I’d like because it hasn’t got audio description and it’s virtually impossible to know what’s going on.

“And I miss going to bookshops and just browsing through the books.”

Instead he’s writing them – novels which are packed with minute detail and vivid description of an ancient age that many sighted authors would find a challenge to accurately recreate on the page.

So how does he do it? “With a great deal of difficulty and a lot of help,” he says with a laugh. “I was fortunate in that I could see before, I had always read books and had a good memory. So my research for my books has built up over 40 years of reading and studying.

“I’ve always had an interest in history. Ever since I learned how to read, I was fascinated with the Roman Britain period of history in particular. I wanted to learn how the world got to be the way it is and what set us on our path.

“A lot of it is in my head. And if I go somewhere for research, I find guides who can describe to me in detail what I can’t see.”

His eyesight deteriorated in his youth, but what had been a slight fuzzy annoyance that he lived with for years rapidly disintegrated around ten years ago as his retina cells died and his vision faded.

“It was a minor inconvenience for around 30 years and then suddenly ‘bang’,” he adds.

“All of a sudden it was getting worse and worse.”

He was working at the Bank of Scotland’s head office at the time, involved in sorting through the legalities of the UK’s complex tax system. As his vision collapsed and other unrelated health issues cropped up, it became clear he could no longer carry on.

Father-of-three Gordon, 56, quit work in 2008 just before the global financial collapse, and focussed his energies on keeping himself as busy as he could without any vision.

“My doctor said to me ‘You will need to do something, you can’t do nothing at all’ and I thought I’d always wanted to write a book. It was a case of finding something I could do and making the most of it,” he adds.

He already had ideas for historical novels floating around in his head. Armed with a computer programme that could read what he wrote back to him, a Kindle to download the works of Roman writers in audio form and decades of knowledge in his head, he set about writing.

“There are people who lose their sight who do more remarkable things,” he says with a shrug. “They go skiing and play football or even leave home without a sighted guide to take them places.

“But equally I know some people who lose their sight and do nothing. They think losing their sight is the end of the world and they can’t do anything.”

He wrote his first book, In the Shadow of the Wall, in which young Pictish warrior Brude sets out to challenge Roman invaders, and published it himself. Remarkably for a book that does not have the benefits of a marketing and advertising campaign, it sold remarkably well and Amazon reviews are almost entirely five star.

Its success inspired him to create a new character, Calgarus, the central figure in a trio of books, with a fourth on the go now and more planned.

In between travelling back in time to Roman Britain, he’s also penned a string of detective novels – Constantine Investigates – set in ancient Central Scotland and based around the idea that it was once home to King Arthur’s Camelot.

“They are just spoof murder mysteries and a bit of fun for me to write with all sorts of bad jokes.

“They are a niche market and they have sold really well in America.”

Later this month Gordon, who lives with wife Alaine, 46, in Eliburn, Livingston, will tell his remarkable story of how he has coped with going blind to becoming an international author at a talk at McDonald Road Library. He hopes it will be a chance to encourage people with disabilities like his to seek out fresh adventures and to raise awareness of the work of the RNIB.

“There’s a lot I miss,” he reflects. “I used to play badminton with my kids when they were younger, now I’d love to have a game with the boys. And silly things like being able to brush my teeth and being confident that I’ve not got toothpaste everywhere.

“I miss being independent and being able to go somewhere alone – I can get lost in my own house.

“It can be scary. Losing my sight has been massively life changing,” he adds.

“The key is to find something you can do and make the most of it.”

• Gordon Anthony will be speaking at McDonald Road Library on March 18 at 6pm. Go to www.gordonanthony.net for details of tickets.

WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?

HE has lost his sight, but Gordon Anthony’s most popular books bring to vivid life an episode in British life which most would find hard to imagine.

The Romans arrived in AD43 to turn part of the country into a province. They stayed for around 350 years, during which time they built roads, introduced farming methods, created trade links and constructed walls and forts.

But while they dominated vast swathes of the southern three-quarters of Britain, their rule was not without resistance from Ancient Britons.

Roman legions made their way into Scotland in AD71 and later constructed Antonine’s Wall from the Firth of Forth to Old Kirkpatrick on the north of the River Clyde.

Several forts and fortlets were constructed, including a fort at Cramond and another at Inveresk.

Castle Greg near West Calder is said to be one of the best examples of Roman earthworks in the country.

And while centuries have passed since they occupied Britain, Roman artefacts are still being found.

Archaeologists working on the site of a health centre in Musselburgh uncovered remains of a Roman fortlet and decapitated skeletons in 2010, while in 1997 a large statue of a lioness was found in the River Almond near Cramond.

It is believed to have formed part of the tomb of a Roman military commander.

Author Gordon, whose Calgacus series of novels is set in Roman Britain – World’s End, Queen of Victory and The Centurion – says it is a fascinating point in British history.

“The story of British resistance to Rome is not very well known at all.

“Most people have heard of Boudica, or Boadicea as she is often known, but that is about it. In fact, Boudica’s rebellion was only one of many and the Romans did not have things their own way at all. There were many British successes.”