Glenn Patterson - Professional Writer, Amateur Genealogist

Glenn Patterson dicusses finding a voice for his new memoir Once Upon a Hill

As the famous maxim goes, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’. In his new book  Once Upon a Hill Glenn Patterson draws on his own and his familiy's history in the town of Lisburn to demonstrate the truth of Hegel's words.

As a memoir, Once Upon a Hill represents something of a departure for Patterson, but it is a literary form that has become increasingly popular among writers - Patricia Craig’s Asking for Trouble, a memoir of her expulsion from school as a teenager, and John McGahren’s self-explanatory Memoir are arguably the best known examples of this trend in Irish writing.

Once Upon a Hill is a story of Patterson's paternal grandparents, Jack and Kate, and their difficult love and life in Lisburn during ‘troubled times’. The idea for Once Upon a Hill did not come overnight - ‘I had long wanted to write a book about my grandparents’- but Patterson struggled to find the appropriate form to fit the story. As a novelist, he initially tried to fictionalise the tale ‘but I couldn’t think of a way to create characters that wouldn’t be Jack and Kate … it seemed to belong to them so completely’ – it was then that he decided to write the story as non-fiction.

The advantage of memoir as a form, for Patterson, is that it allows writers ‘to ask questions you can’t do with novels’. Although his fiction has often dwelt on the violence of ‘the Troubles’, he has not previously been able to examine the context and repercussions of an act of violence in the detail with which, in Once Upon a Hill, he explores the sectarian riots that engulfed Lisburn in 1920.

Patterson also sees memoir writing as offering an important opportunity for novelists to experiment with new styles and forms: ‘you always have to extend yourself as a writer’. Although he published a collection of journalism, 2006’s Lapsed Protestant, Once Upon a Hill is Patterson’s first venture into full-length non-fiction, and it was not always a comfortable experience – ‘it is a very difficult thing to write autobiographically’.

The question of voice in different styles of writing has long interested the writer. Reflecting on his time as an MA student in Creative Writing at East Anglia, Patterson recalls how he planned to fund his literary career by writing Mills and Boon novels, only to discover that even racy books require specific writing skills, and that ‘it really is quite difficult to break into another voice, another way of writing.’

In Once Upon a Hill it was a question of ‘finding the version of me that was going to tell this story’ - eventually he settled on a garrulous, excitable voice that ‘sounds like me when I’m drunk … is me after a few drinks, when you get going. There is a wee bit of running off at the mouth’.

He was thirty-one, she thirty. The marriage certificate gives their ages as thirty and twenty-five respectively. It gives my grandmother’s name as Kathleen. It does not explain (OK, so I am being rhetorical here, it was never going to explain) why a man who may already have been carrying inside him the seed of Exclusive-Brethren re-birth should have chosen a Church of Ireland church for his wedding (some Exclusives you feel would have as soon he had jumped the broom as walked the aisle), or for that matter why his bride should not have wanted the ceremony to be conducted in her own church, which was St. Patrick’s on Chapel Hill, which was Catholic.

Researching and writing Once Upon a Hill was, in part, an exercise in amateur detective work, and Patterson spent many hours sifting through archives in Lisburn, Belfast and Dublin: ‘I researched and then wrote, researched and then wrote, researched and then wrote’. 

He seems to have been drawn to the research process itself: ‘I was as much interested in how you find things out as the things I was finding out’ and this passion for the how of writing memoir is a dominant feature of the book.

One Wednesday afternoon with an hour on my hands and these questions more insistent than usual – with an hour on my hands, the questions more insistent and with a car parking space suddenly having presented itself as I drove along the street in question – I wandered into the Ulster Historical Foundation on College Square East in Belfast and on a whim tapped the name Eleanor Patterson (not Spence as I had hitherto) into their database of civil and religious marriages. I found my great-grandmother eighth on a list of the marriages … My first thought was of my Uncle David. (My second of the parking meter on College Square East, in case you thought I had floated out of the Ulster Historical Foundation without you noticing.)

If memoirs allow novelists to explore different questions, then surely Patterson envisages more writers turning to non-fiction. Well not quite, somewhat sheepishly he confesses to seldom reading non-fiction but, nevertheless, he is excited by the prospect of some writer’s memoirs, especially Janice Galloway (‘I want to see what she does with it’) and Martin Amis (‘I’d read his shopping lists, if he left them lying around’).

The burgeoning interest in memoirs might signify a desire shared by writers and their public to draw parallels between the past and the present - a particularly popular pastime in Northern Ireland - but Patterson counsels against the possibility of learning from history. ‘Books aren’t answers. What books do is they pose questions. They lay something out for us to ponder’.

It may not have a direct message for the present generation, but with its unique mosaic of documentary evidence, historical detail and Patterson’s giddy, jovial voice Once Upon a Hill engagingly shows how Northern Irish history repeats itself, and that is something that we all should take time out to ponder. 

Peter Geoghegan