Thursday, January 04, 2007

Lapsed Protestant – Glenn Patterson

I’ve read a couple of Glenn Patterson novels since getting married four and a bit year’s ago. Number 5 was passed across from my wife’s bedside table, while That Which Was was a present. Both books capture the spirit, good and bad, of Northern Ireland with an authentic narrative that neither glorifies or condemns.

His latest publication, Lapsed Protestant, must have sneaked into our house via Amazon. This time it’s not fiction. Instead it’s a selection of Patterson’s writings over the years in local, national and international papers, magazines and journals.

It’s very autobiographical. By the time you have finished the very carefully ordered chapters, you have built up quite a picture of Patterson’s childhood, his motivations to write, his reasons for leaving Belfast, and his rationale to return. His loves, regrets and football obsession! But you also learn about Northern Ireland.

Over a period of perhaps fifteen years, Patterson has continued to write boldly, telling stories and critiquing situations as he sees them. With short chapters it reads like a series of blog entries. (Though maybe that’s unfair. Maybe blogs read like a series of short chapters written by one author for a myriad of different publications!)

One article “It could be anyone” from the Autumn 2005 Irish Pages, (though it’s website hasn’t been updated for a year or two) takes its title from the National Lottery’s old slogan “It could be you”. Patterson starts off with a précis of Jorge Luis Borges’ story about The Lottery in Babylon, where everyone ends up part of the lottery, like it or not, run by The Company. The downside is that as well as winners, there are a smaller number of losers who get a fine or a prison sentence.

The article goes on to journey through the small matter of £26.5 million that walked out of a bank vault that I was in as a school child, the forensic cleanup after the appalling murder of Robert McCartney at the now defunct Magennis’s bar. There are many Companies operating in Northern Ireland ... and you’ll need to read the book to see where Patterson’s takes his argument.

One particular passage early on in the book resonates with a recent post on this blog asking how do we explore the new century, in a world where my rights seem to override other people’s rights:

“It seems to me, however, that where rights are concerned we must apply ourselves not to the most obviously defensible (i.e. our own), but the least: the rights of people wholly unlike us and with whom we are least likely to agree.

If we were all to look out for each others rights we might at last begin to get somewhere; to a position, say, where residents insisted on the loyal orders’ right to march only for the loyal orders to insist on the residents’ right not to be inconvenienced by unwanted parades.

Of course, there might be a few heated exchanges as the parties disputed which should bow to the other’s generosity, but finally, I am sure, they would allow one another the right peaceably to disagree.”

It’s a fine collection of writings. Funny in places, deadly serious in others. And it’s a great advert for Patterson’s fiction. Read this, and it’s likely you’ll be back for more.


Brabazon said...

I've been meaning to get this book for a while, and reading this post has spurred me into finally ordering it on Amazon. I've been an admirer of Patterson's ever since I saw a programme he made for the old BeebNI programme '29 Bedford Street' about 10 or 12 years ago... I had it on video at the time, but then got burgled and my VCR was nicked with the tape still in it... The tape also had a recording of Jeff Buckley performing on the Late Show, and 'Harpya', a bizarre Belgian animation. If anyone has it, I'd like it back, please... :)

John Self said...

I haven't read any of Patterson's books, though both Number 5 and That Which Was tempted me (but clearly not enough). My only experiences of him are:

1. Seeing him do a reading from what was then the work-in-progress The International in 1996 at Waterstone's in Royal Avenue along with his friend Robert McLiam Wilson, who was promoting Eureka Street. McLiam Wilson went on to be listed as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, when we were assured that his next novel Extremists would be published in 2004. Three years on we're still waiting.

2. In 1997 I entered the Belfast Telegraph Brian Moore Short Story Competition in which the overall judge was Glenn Patterson. I came fourth, thus narrowly missing a cash prize. I had entered the same story the previous year, when the judge was Maeve Binchy, and wasn't placed. Good man Glenn.