Lapsed Protestant

Gavin Carville reviews the new book from Glenn Patterson

In his first collection of non-fiction, the novelist Glenn Patterson sets out to cast aside simplistic interpretations of the Northern Irish conflict in favour of the unreported, the peculiar, the comical and the absurd.

Patterson has always been a staunch advocate of pluralism in a place where many make claims to single truths, where opposition to one ‘side’ is taken as endorsement of the other.

Glenn PattersonThese essays strive to highlight a multiplicity of different viewpoints which wreck any notion of the ‘two communities’ and other, equally illusory distinctions.

The pieces have previously been printed in a variety of publications over the last sixteen years. The decision not to order them chronologically means we are continually jumping back and forth through the country’s conflict and peace process which reflects the halting, stop-start character of political life in Northern Ireland.

Patterson’s main concern is to particularise experience in a place where bland generalities have had a harmful grip over the imagination for too long.

Although a collection of disparate pieces, the book can be read as a non-linear autobiography as the novelist watches his home change and develop through different periods of time. Early domestic details are recalled with great fondness and clarity, along with sixties Belfast where movement was still fluid and the conflict far from inevitable.

After his rejection of certain aspects of Protestant culture as a teenager, Patterson moved to Manchester in the early eighties, before returning home to a place brutally divided but showing signs of change and expansion.

Patterson delights in the shifting configuration of Belfast, a place where old bigotries fail to hinder the pace of geographic and cultural change. Alongside his contempt for sloganeering and peace-walls there is a civic-minded joy at the city’s public houses and famous sons, like the comedian James Young and Cregagh’s own George Best.

Over a series of pithy, accessible essays we learn of the politics of buying property, the linguistics of terror, and the commercialisation of the recent conflict.

As the book draws to a close, the focus widens to examine NI's connections and commonality with the rest of Europe. The finest pieces here, in ‘Traffic’ and ‘Homeland’, Patterson writes in awe of the democratic movements of people across the land, the mix and interplay of different nationalities, in contrast to the political gridlock of home.

He notes how this unstoppable progress can be located in Belfast, which is never settled, where nothing can be permanent, where there can only be different phases of change. In Patterson’s book the wishes of the unaligned are given expression, not that the arguments here are marginal or esoteric, they have a logic and practical value distinct from the blasé analysis which lesser commentators have indulged in.

Throughout the book Patterson questions the old orthodoxies in lucid, good-humoured prose, happily name-dropping Keanu Reeves alongside Salman Rushdie, Van Morrison next to Orhan Pamuk. Together they form a thrilling plea for a Northern Ireland ‘unlike itself’, to discover ‘the space in-between’ and the union (with a small u) that could be the tantalising result.