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  1. Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works. Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl. Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is. This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone. And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction. Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself. There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis. So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next. *****
  2. Most of us know the bare bones of the De Lorean story - a fantastical sports car with gull-wing doors, manufactured on the Peace Line in Belfast, running into financial difficulties and ending in scandal in a hotel room in the States. Glenn Patterson sets out to fill in the details; adding context, factual information and personal stories. The story as told by Glenn Patterson is, if anything, even more incredible than the sketchy details that most of us know. For a start, we meet John De Lorean himself. His public persona - the slick salesman with the looks of a statesman - is there. But we also get to see him as a motor man with a long and credible history in General Motors. We see him as a man who wants to break free of the mediocrity of mainstream motor manufacturing - wanting to set up a revolutionary company making a revolutionary car - a car bringing gold standard safety to a modest family budget. We see him through the eyes of Edmund Randall, a journalist recruited to turn De Lorean's vision into a reality. For most of us, De Lorean and Northern Ireland are inextricably linked. Therefore it's a bit of a surprise to find that the factory's location was almost an afterthought - previous negotiations with other states and nations having come to naught. At this point, dare we say it, the story feels like it is drifting. But once the decision is taken to locate in Dunmurry (not actually Belfast - more an unlovely dormitory town still just within the reaches of the red buses), the novel really takes off. We follow two story lines in particular - Randall's experiences as a sort of boss (his role is never defined) of a new-start motor works, and Liz and her co-workers on the shop floor. Both are learning more about themselves, about Northern Ireland, and about industrial relations than they could ever have imagined. The story of the De Lorean factory is one of public subsidy, given in the belief that peace would come to Northern Ireland through the prosperity of its workers. A man from overseas offering highly paid, highly skilled work was like a gift from god, even if the jobs were subsidised at more than 100%. It offered vindication to Roy Mason - and then Humphrey Atkins - that the paramilitaries would be defeated in battle and the war would be won on economics. History shows how wrong-headed this thinking was. Even from the earliest days, the Dunmurry plant had separate gates for the two halves of the workforce and had to contend with the tensions created by the hunger strike. What follows will be familiar to anyone who worked in the public sector (or publicly subsidised private sector) of Northern Ireland. Staff happy to get on with co-workers from the other side, willing to pretend to be aloof from the sectarian politics whilst actually having their entire world-view formed through the lens of their own tradition. Keeping to safe conversations, pretending to be involved only under duress... But in the case of the De Lorean Motor Company, there is also a genuine sense of family spirit - a sense of showing a sceptical world just what they were all capable of. For a brief while, there was a burning flame of ambition, workers trusting in management and making personal plans for self-development and future comfort. In this way, the workers on the shop floor are a concentration of the spirit of hope and adventure that was emerging in wider Northern Ireland society. Yet for all the broadening horizons of Ulster Man, we felt for Randall whose life seemed to have shrunk to the short pathway between house and factory. He never belonged and even what became his weekly Sunday outing was limited and fearful. One of the brilliant cameo roles created in Gull is that of Jennings, the NIO civil servant trying to stage manage the relations between the Americans and the Government. He is a genius at serving many masters, speaks in perfect mandarin understatement and, frankly, works damned hard to keep the thing on the rails despite appearing completely effortless. Anyone who has ever had dealings with the NIO will recognise the character - maverick yet conventional; obedient yet autonomous. Gull is a really compelling read, grounded clearly in time and space. It may be a fictionalisation, but it feels authentic. It switches effortlessly from an American voice for the Randall scenes to Norn Irn for Liz's scenes. The politics is there, but it is nuanced and set in context. In a beautiful example, he takes some of the workforce to train in the United States - they all happily celebrate their Irishness by singing Danny Boy, even though half of the company would never have dreamed of signing up for such singing back home. If there is a criticism, it is that the prelude feels slightly too long, the finish feels somewhat sudden. But I guess that's how it really was. And it has made me feel a whole lot more sympathy towards John De Lorean. ****0
  3. Glenn Patterson is described on the back cover by Will Self as "Northern Ireland's Prose Laureate". That's a bold claim, especially since Patterson is almost unknown outside of Northern Ireland (and probably not that well known within it), but he is one of a handful of Northern writers who have something significant to say. The Mill For Grinding Old People Young is basically a history lesson for Belfast. Narrated in 1897 by an old man, Gilbert Rice, looking back at his youth, we find ourselves in Belfast pretty much as the Industrial Revolution arrives. If you love Belfast, it will be a treat to visit familiar streets and see them in such a different context. And it may be shocking to realise how little of that history we ever knew. For example, we find Castle Place dominated by (who would have thought it) a Castle. The castle of the Chichesters, no less, one of whom (Lord Donegall) gave his name to so many of the streets. Instead of the City Hall, we have the White Linen Hall - hence Linenhall Street and the Linenhall Library. Ormeau is the country seat of the Chichesters; Ballymacarrett is a separate and rural settlement across the river; the docks were tidal sludge; Shankhill had an H, Glengormley was all farms, and Belfast was 100% Protestant. Almost... The story, such as it is, concerns plans and schemes to upgrade the harbour and docks. Plus, Gilbert discovers what's inside his trousers as he falls for a serving maid at the wonderfully named inn: The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The story is told in Gilbert's voice, a pastiche Victorian language. Gilbert is great fun - a young man of a well heeled family, many of whom died of typhoid, living with his grandfather in a grand house on Donegall Place with gardens leading down to Fountain Street (now build over by large retail stores). Gilbert is trying out the world for size, unsure exactly whether to be a squire or a larrikin, stepping blithely into dangerous places... Gilbert is not really bad, he's just terribly innocent. The story, though, is secondary to the history lesson. The novel as a whole is, perhaps, an urban counterpoint to William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry - written at the time this novel is set. Broadly, it works well and paints a picture of a place that is on the move, an engine of commerce with more in common with London, Liverpool, Glasgow and mainland Europe than with its agricultural hinterland. It has inspired me to Google maps, pictures (sadly there seem to be no pictures of the Castle), and imagine myself treading the same streets all those years ago. Pat Catney used to run history talks at The Kitchen Bar - before it, too, became history. I always regretted not going. I guess this novel is full of what I missed. ****0
  4. Glenn Patterson is a long-established Belfast novelist whose works tend to focus on mundane lives with a backdrop of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide. Often these references are subtle, almost incidental. The Rest Just Follows starts out in much the same way – Craig Robinson is a young Grammar School boy. Maxine Neill failed the 11 Plus. StJohn Nimmo is a new boy at the Grammar School with a fondness of cigarettes. All three seem to have dysfunctional families. But unlike some of Patterson’s other novels, the details seem confused and hazy. Patterson has always had a thing where timelines blur a bit and we can switch from the present to the past in the course of a single sentence. But this has always been made navigable through clear and distinctive storylines and a single uniting theme. The Rest Just Follows lacks the clarity of storylines and doesn’t seem to have a central focus, meaning the opaque timelines just confuse things even more. The narrative moves, almost without notice, from school to university to work to parenthood to adulthood. There are some signposts of passing time – movements in the political process, known atrocities, social and physical change in the built environment. But the known events are often fictionalised, making it unclear as to exactly how much time has elapsed – and hence how old the characters are. Some of the details are plain wrong – the first civil partnership ceremony in fact took place in 2005 rather than the late 1980s/early 1990s that would fit with the novel’s sequencing – which make them unreliable as markers of time. The narrative is also disconcerting as it moves from the generic backdrop of the The Troubles to some very specific events and specific people. We see the formation of the Women’s Coalition, for example; and we meet a thinly disguised Jim Gray. Some of the other details seem close but not quite a match for real events. Craig, for example, is approached by a unionist political group – was this supposed to be U3W or something else? As well as the blurring of fiction and fact, the blurring of timelines, there is a fuzziness of purpose. In Patterson’s previous novels, there has been a clear story at play. Sometimes that was an individual moving from point A to point B; in Number 5 it was the story of a house; in The International it was the human story behind a known atrocity. This just feels like there is not enough to tie the characters together – not enough to make them interesting. All the brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends means the focus shifts too much for the reader to remain really engaged. It is all a bit too slippery. It’s a shame for such a consistently good writer to have produced a novel that is so disappointing. It feels like an attempt to recreate Fat Lad, Patterson’s Belfast classic, but without the sense of immediacy or concentration. Patterson is apparently working on novel Number 10 right now; I hope it sees a return to form. ***00
  5. "A vicar in Belfast counsels a disturbed man about a crime." But this is no ordinary vicar. He's young and "with it." That's as far as I got before giving up. I didn't like this. It takes a writer of uncommon quality for me to get beyond the lack of punctuation, and Patterson didn't write with enough quality for me to get around that fundamental problem of the lack of grammar. He simply isn't good enough. And the title annoyed me too. Can't god sue him for copyright theft? There's a great novel waiting to be written about the troubles, but this isn't it.
  6. Glenn Patterson, for those who haven't come across him, is a giant in the world of contemporary Northern Ireland fiction. So was one of the principle characters in The Third Party - known only as Ike (short for icon). Now the world of contemporary Northern Ireland fiction is not very populous, and its main players are Patterson himself, Robert McLiam Wilson, David Park and Bernard MacLaverty. Inevitably one will try to find elements of these writers in Ike, and I suspect Ike is an amalgam of at least three of them. Anyway, Ike is a leading Northern Ireland writer attending a conference on Conflict Writing in Hiroshima. He appears to be something of a guest of honour and has collected a small entourage of groupies around him. Meanwhile, the unnamed narrator, a sales rep for a plastics firm from Northern Ireland is staying at the same hotel whilst trying to sell a new concept in food wrapping. Inevitably, for this is the world of the novel, the narrator and Ike bump into one another and so, on his last full day in Japan, the narrator is asked to join Ike and his groupies for breakfast. The odd couple in Japan in not a new concept, and neither is the foreigner adrift in Japan. The novel this seemed most closely to resemble was In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murukami. It shares the same level of lurid detail - the clinical, clean, neon-lit world of sleaze and drudgery. It shares the feeling of anonymity and drift of the foreigner abroad, cut off from all grounding in reality, family and responsibility. And like In The Miso Soup, a growing sense of menace starts to develop. In the case of The Third Party it develops quite late - the novel is short (168 pages) and it is only in the last third that things really start to seem not quite right. It is subtley done, but it does make the first two thirds of the novel seem like a rather inconsequential meander through the Hiroshima scenery. Perhaps the narrator's fascination with the A-Bomb Museum seems a bit strange, but it is a strange place and the narrator does seem to have time on his hands to fill. This is a very strange novel, and quite atypical of Patterson, but there is much to commend it. Patterson has rediscovered his touch in letting paragraphs, sentences even, flick back and forth between times, viewpoints, ideas. Patterson's main characters are complex and have contradictions between their positive and negative qualities. Patterson again writes around Northern Ireland - it pops up every now and then - but whilst focusing on people rather than politics. Glenn Patterson is a class act and perhaps this novel is not quite up there with The International or Fat Dad as his finest work, it puts plenty of other writers to shame. That's why I am sorry to see the novel published by Blackstaff Press, which will ensure it is hardly seen outside Ireland. But on a positive note, Patterson's early novels are being re-released by Blackstaff which will at least allow Irish audiences to marvel at one of their unsung heroes. With thanks to John Self for providing me with my copy of The Third Party. ****0
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