IT’S 24 years since Glenn Patterson’s incandescent debut, Burning Your Own, blazed off the page, its promise verified by his follow-up, Fat Lad.
Both novels were rooted in Patterson’s native city, Belfast, depicting its troubling and troubled society in scenes 20 years apart. They had the immediacy of a cigarette burn to the eyes. “He lives in Belfast” we’re told on the flap of his latest – eighth – novel. Ditto, Belfast lives irrepressibly in him.
The city, now quieter, sees itself differently. The retina-burn of Belfast on Patterson’s vision remains a keen stimulus, but his field of vision has deepened. The firebrand, twentysomething novelist is these days less urgent, though no less focused, and now in his fifties he’s looking back to the era when Belfast grew into a city born from the sump of industrial 19th century boom. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young — the name of a tavern of the period — might be a metaphor for the surge of Victorian energy which brought Belfast into bloom.
Sir Gilbert Rice, a 19th-century manufacturer and philanthropist, is the eye of the story’s telling. His diligent journal, and later his memoir of orphaned childhood and early manhood, are the sources that compel us back in time, from Christmas Eve 1897, when, aged 85, he makes the entry that opens the novel: “There is only the hiss of the lamp for company, the scratch of my nib, and somewhere across this great, perplexing city, bells chiming the midnight hour.”
Rice has had dinner at his club, returning circuitously to his home by way of the stations of his past: Royal Avenue, the Grand Opera House, Sailortown, the docks where he’d first been employed, and then the shipyard of Harland and Wolff looming through mist. Rice’s description of that carriage ride is piquantly valedictory. Cue Christmas morning.
“I awoke … at ten after two, drenched in sweat, yet shivering … I began to feel a little better (till that stab of pain just now) … I must, in the time that is left to me, be my own physician.” Suddenly, his words appear to dissolve across eight decades: “My mother, a slip of a girl, died on the evening of the day that I was born … In the spring of 1817 my father himself succumbed to the typhus … I was not quite four years old.’
Gilbert’s guardian is his great-uncle, whom he calls “grandfather”, a governor of the Poorhouse, with a gentrified home of his own amid the grandeur of Donegall Place, in the city’s designated centre. The memoir tells frankly of Gilbert’s boyhood explorations among narrow streets where the town (as then it was) had the prevailing “air of a gold-rush camp”. There he chances upon a girl, squatting, urinating. Mesmerised, he returns several days later, hoping to find her. “Would that all my obsessions had been so innocuous,” he writes.
Gilbert goes to work in the Belfast Port Authority’s Ballast Office; he is far from the model employee, preferring Belfast’s nocturnal attractions: the playhouse, the dance halls, public houses. Ordinary lives hold a fascination, and Gilbert empathises with them, being conscious, from the vantage point of his work of the politics and self- interest of the wealthy in this “town so consumed by the desire to make and spend money”.
Then love diverts him. He meets a Polish woman, Maria, who works in the tavern of the title. Maria, and the young architect, John Millar, Rice’s boyhood friend, cast light into Gilbert’s character, his edginess, his taste for the unconventional. Through Maria in particular we see him growing. His antennae pick up the sectarian vibrations and political undercurrents of Belfast’s factional grudges. Through his grandfather the memoir casts its gaze towards the previous century with its 1798 radical uprising by the largely Presbyterian United Irishmen.
Memoirs rarely have plots, and though there’s a drama to sweat the conclusion into a panic, it is the unfolding of the love story and the changing diorama of the town, in its constant thrum, that is the true subject of novel.
Gilbert Rice is as complex a figure as Patterson has created. His life embodies the art of deception; he debunks stereotype; and the voice of the older Gilbert, the voice of the prose, contains all the nuance of one whose life has run the gamut from disappointment to achievement. The last dozen pages change voice and direction, framing Gilbert in others’ words. They bring completion to the story, along with a sense of documentary authenticity and pathos and a true sense of real lives lived.
• The Mill for Grinding Old People Young
by Glenn Patterson
Faber, 260pp, £12.99