Past perfect: Patterson recreates Belfast of 1830s because ‘people don’t change’

The Mill for Grinding Old People Young

Glenn Patterson

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Interview Sue Leonard

Researching Belfast, Glenn Patterson learned of a pub that flourished in the early 19th century. It was The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. It was a gift.

“My second daughter had just been born. That night, I remember, I was holding her in the dark in front of her Moses basket, rocking her; trying to get her back to sleep. I was saying, ‘The Mill for Grinding Old People Young,’ repeating it, over and over again. And I got this moment of clarity. I could see my entire novel. Of course, it goes. By the next morning, it had gone. You spend the next couple of years trying to write yourself back to that moment of clarity,” he says. Patterson’s brilliant company; friendly and funny; born in 1961, he is 50, but with his long, lean figure, sandy hair, and extraordinarily pale blue eyes, he looks two decades younger.

Patterson set his novel in the 1830s, when there were plans to expand the port to allow bigger ships. “Modern Belfast flows from that act,” he says. “The Titanic Port, where formerly there were shipyards, would not have existed had it not been for that moment. And my lifetime, and my parents’, and grandparents’ life times, have been defined by Belfast of the shipyards. My father worked there as a welder.

“Now, the yards were being cleared for the Titanic Quarter and a whole rebranding was taking place. I was driving through there every day, thinking none of this existed when my character was young. It was marshland.”

Gilbert Rice, narrator of The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, was present at the time of the legislation. Aged 85 in 1897, when the novel opens, the old man looks back on his life, and on the love affair that nearly changed everything.

At 17, Gilbert plans to assassinate Lord Donegall, the Earl who is blocking the act allowing port development. Anxious to be remembered for something significant, and to impress Maria, the Polish barmaid he adores, he doesn’t see the foolishness of the plan.

“He’s 17. At 17 you do something stupid for reasons that seem, at that point in your life, absolutely right. He had to believe it was not absurd and he had to believe he could do it. But I was keen that he would know, the moment he went through with it, that it was the stupidest thing he had done in his life.

“I love the connections people make, and the traffic of ideas and people. So I like the idea of this woman leaving Poland at the end of the 1830s. Love is one of the best communicators of ideas. People will follow the person they’ve fallen in love with, even if it’s unrequited,” he says.

When Patterson was 17, he, too, was led by love.

“I think a lot of people are, though we ascribe grand motives to things. After school, I didn’t take up my place at university. I stayed in Belfast a couple of years and worked in a bookshop. My girlfriend was younger than me, and she said if I went to university I was chucked.

“I left Belfast in the early ’80s and went to the University of East Anglia; that was to get away from that girlfriend, because the situation was destructive,” he says. He took his primary degree, then studied created writing under Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter.

“I spent the ’80s in England and was a member of the socialist worker’s student party,” he says. “England was polarised around Thatcher; there was almost civil war around the Nottingham coalfields. That was interesting. I felt, maybe, if I wrote about the Belfast troubles, it would now make sense to readers in England.”

Belfast, and The Troubles, have informed all of Patterson’s writing. There are now eight novels, a memoir, and a collection of journalism. He believes that people don’t change. It’s why he set the new novel in the early 19th century; when some of those active in the 1798 rebellion were still around.

“I have memories of Dublin 30 years ago,” he says. “It’s changed, but the memories and the present can coexist. Now, we have phones and recorders and green tea and lattes, and 30 years ago, perhaps, we’d have been drinking pints. But we’d still have the same conversation; the same concerns. That knowledge is helpful when you write about the past. People don’t change.”

The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is a mesmerising novel. Told in wondrous prose, it gives the reader a picture of the city and the people who inhabited it. (A wonderful testament to the time, it’s also a tender love story).

When the lovers part, Maria says, “The world is too good that we will not meet again somewhere in it.” It’s a phrase Gilbert repeats to himself when he’s 85. And one that Patterson has been carrying in his head, for the past 12 years.

“In 2000, I was on a train going round Europe with a load of writers. We ended up in Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, which has been a Soviet port for many years. Even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was an important naval base. It was intimidating.

“A couple of us went out to lunch with a woman who owned a cafe there. And she said to me, ‘the world is too good that we will not meet again somewhere in it’. I thought, that’s not going to happen, but at the same time I thought it the most beautiful sentiment I had ever heard. And I always knew, when I started the novel, that it was the line to which the novel is working towards,” he says.

Patterson adores writing fiction. His ambition is to carry on doing it for another 24 years.

“I love the way fiction opens up possibilities, and increases the number of ways you have of looking at something,” he says.

Patterson’s married to Ali Fitzgibbon, whose father, Ger, recently retired from University College Cork. Ger was a senior lecturer in the department of English, and chair of the board of drama and theatre studies. Glenn and Ali met in 1993, when he was writer-in-residence in UCC.

They have two daughters, aged ten and six. The eldest shows signs that she has inherited the writer gene.

“She talks about playing games. I’ll arrive home and she says she has a new game. She talks about a cast of characters, and she has worked out the names, the ages, and where they all live. She has created this internal world, and is inhabiting it. That’s exactly how it is for me when I’m writing a novel.

“The best part is when the novel has taken over and you have this cast of characters. You think, ‘what would Gilbert do now’?” Patterson says.

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