Glenn Patterson: Alternative Ulster

Glenn Patterson breaks the mould of Irish fiction by treating his native Belfast as a place and not an issue. Clare Dwyer Hogg meets a refugee from identity politics
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There is the sound of someone leaping down the last step of the hotel stairs. Glenn Patterson has jumped into reception. He is full of apologies, even though only a little late: plane delayed, only just arrived, barely time to put his bags in his room. He is crackling with energy, a walking bolt of electricity in the London hotel's dignified surroundings. It's OK that he was late: the visitors' book was highly entertaining, with a curious compliment from a Californian: "If it wasn't that this hotel was in London I wouldn't know I was in England."

There is the sound of someone leaping down the last step of the hotel stairs. Glenn Patterson has jumped into reception. He is full of apologies, even though only a little late: plane delayed, only just arrived, barely time to put his bags in his room. He is crackling with energy, a walking bolt of electricity in the London hotel's dignified surroundings. It's OK that he was late: the visitors' book was highly entertaining, with a curious compliment from a Californian: "If it wasn't that this hotel was in London I wouldn't know I was in England."

We go in search of a café with strong black coffee, even though Patterson doesn't look as if he needs any more energy. He's here on a flying visit - interview this afternoon, reading tonight, back home to Belfast next morning. "Not many book readings these days," he says in passing. "People used to ask how many Waterstone's you'd done, but after a while reading to four people, I thought, nah..."

He's looking forward to this reading, though. The book is That Which Was (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). The plot follows a Presbyterian minister and a man who thinks his memory has been wiped by MI5 because he killed people in the 1970s. Fantastical? Not compared with some of the urban myths flying around Patterson's native Northern Ireland.

That Which Was is a phrase from the Bible. It's fitting because of the religious nature of the main character, and better, Patterson feels, than the working title for the book, "Punishment". "Already I was a bit worried about having a Presbyterian minister as the central character," he says, "and then I imagined people walking into a shop, seeing a book that said things on the cover about Belfast, and was called 'Punishment'. It would, literally, be like having 300 pages of punishment."

He laughs, looking out of the window, fingers playing rapidly with the handle of his coffee cup. "Actually, there's a good story about that title. I always have this thought that I'll do work in the house, then I spend a couple of weeks looking at whatever needs done, until we have to get someone in to do it." This time, he got someone in to do the tiling, but then "spent two and a half days, while the bathroom was being done, talking to the tiler".

He shakes his head. "At the end of the time he was there, I was reduced to just flicking through files. It was then I discovered a quotation in the Book of Judges that contained 'that which was'. For a minute I couldn't see anything on either side of those three words - and it was because of the tiler. Every time I look at the cover, I think: 250 quid. That's how much it cost me." He tilts his head back to laugh. "People do occasionally ask you: 'Where do you get your ideas from', and you want to say something like, 'Well, I buy them.' "

People also ask Patterson a lot about what are euphemistically known as the Troubles. Five of his six novels are set in, or include characters from, Belfast, the city of his birth. Black Night at Big Thunder Mountain, the book not set in Belfast, is set in EuroDisney: his publisher had intimated that it was a pity he didn't write something not located in the north of Ireland. "Funnily enough, it was the least well received," Patterson says.

It's just a fact that he knows the geography and psychology of Belfast intimately. But that has dogged as well as blessed him. "I was doing a radio interview recently, and the interviewer was asking me about Belfast," he says. "He said to me: 'Well, I suppose that's all you know.' Thanks!" He's laughing, but it looks as though that chafes. "I wouldn't want anyone to read the novels simply because they're set in Northern Ireland," he continues. "The fact that I live there and write out of there, obviously that's the background - but the first thing it has to be is a novel."

Besides, Patterson does know about more than just Belfast. He left the city to go to university and stayed away for longer than he expected, when the creative-writing degree at the University of East Anglia turned into an MA. It was the course run by the late Malcolm Bradbury, which welcomed Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan through its doors, now a famous seedbed for aspiring authors; then, not so.

Patterson's first novel, Burning Your Own, was published when he was 26 and living in Manchester. Then he went to Cork for a tenure as writer-in-residence at University College Cork. It was for the money, at the start. He was running out of it, and knew there he had at least eight months to go on his second book. But that's where he met Ali, who is now his wife and the reason he never went back to Manchester.

Then to Queen's University in Belfast, where he still teaches the MA in creative writing. "I think the important thing for me was to realise you could go away and it didn't mean you stayed away; and you could come back and it didn't mean you had to stay," he says. This is the voice of experience, not of Smallville. It's this voice that keeps coming back to the fact that he writes novels first and writes Belfast second.

Glenn Patterson the author is experiencing the scrutiny of his identity in a public arena. But that is indicative of what Glenn Patterson the citizen would experience on a day-to-day basis: labels, pigeonholes, the demand to fit into one "community" (Protestant or Catholic). Patterson objects to the word "community" in this context. He objects to it vehemently.

"I really dislike the term 'the two communities'," he says. "It's just a lie. What does it mean, 'the Protestant community'? What does it mean to me? I was born Protestant and I went to a Presbyterian church, but what 'the two communities' connotes is that, if you know what the religion of birth is, you can know their politics. And it's just not the thing that defines me or most people."

In the context of a busy London café, his words blend and fit perfectly; within the surrounds of Belfast, with the weight of history bearing down on them, they will be as sharp as you can get. There is a hint of temerity behind this belief. "I'm interested in the multiplication of identity rather than the reduction," he says. "Rather than boiling it down to killing somebody. Which is, in the end, what it is - just to make sure they know who they've got."

No coincidence, then, that one of the things he keeps returning to is "community". His previous book, Number 5, delved into the relationships in one Belfast street, and one house in particular, from the 1930s to the Millennium. That Which Was is focused on the workings of a church, which at any one time will house both the liberal and the staunch - a microcosm of the street outside.

Patterson has long since abandoned the church-going and the beliefs founded in his youth. "They mean nothing to me now," he says. But the idea of the community within a church still has a hold on him somewhere. "A while ago, my parents went away for six weeks, so my brothers and I took it in turn to bring my grandmother to church," he says. "I turned up in a suit and tie, and there were all these people there that I'd gone to school with, in their casuals. Church had got casual. I was still wearing the church uniform of the last time I'd been there."

The expedition with his grandmother was the genesis of That Which Was. And so Patterson roamed the city, attending services, seeing how church worked now, more auditor than prodigal son. On his travels he met an assistant minister who helped him with his research; they would meet for coffee. "Belfast has cafés now, you know," he says in a wry aside, only in the way that one Belfast-knowing person can to another, "and this guy would be leaning out the window, talking to people as they went by. I realised in a way that what I don't have, or missed in the city after having moved away, is that sense of community... I hadn't realised before, that's what actually makes a sense of belonging."

And yet that sense of belonging can be humdrum and painful. The detail in That Which Was includes a Gary Larson "Far Side" calendar that hangs on the wall of the minister's study - a few days in arrears - a small but striking example. There's everyday life, an attempt by good people to be a little more zany, and a political atmosphere that craves resolution but has not yet got it. "In a way, the novel emerges out of that blanket of things not being accounted for," Patterson explains. "There is, on one hand, a desire to close the door, and yet things are still unresolved."

He's talking about the novel, but there's something here about Glenn Patterson and the city of his birth. He can never really close the door. Maybe the compliment he would value most, like the words of the Californian who stayed in his hotel before him, is that if it weren't for the fact that his novels are set in Belfast, you would never know you were reading about Northern Ireland.

Biography: Glenn Patterson

Glenn Patterson was born in Belfast in 1961. He left, aged 21, to study for an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and had published his first book, Burning Your Own, by the time he was 26. He moved to Manchester to write his second novel, Fat Lad, which was published in 1992. One year later, he was appointed writer-in-residence at University College Cork, and lived there until he became writer-in-residence at Queen's University Belfast in 1994. Black Night at Big Thunder Mountain was published in 1995, and (with some radio presenting for RTE's Black Box in between) he began to teach the university's MA in creative writing in 1997, which he continues to do. His fourth book, The International, came out in 1999; Number Five was published last year. That Which Was - published this month by Hamish Hamilton - is his latest novel. Patterson lives in east Belfast with his wife, Ali, his daughter, Jessica, and two cats.

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