Glenn Patterson at CQAF
The quintessential Belfast writer brings 'humour, precision and delicacy' to Polish Cultural Week
The last time I saw Glenn Patterson read in public was in St Anne's Cathedral on April 14, 2012, at the premiere of Philip Hammond's extraordinary masterpiece, Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic.
Hammond had asked Patterson to contribute five literary meditations, short pieces of writing inspired by the disaster itself and the people caught up in it. On the night, Patterson's readings – which he delivered from the pulpit – provided an important counterpoint to the music, both punctuating the requiem and channelling it through the imagined stories of the victims.
That was a suitably sombre occasion. Tonight, however, at the ornate old Assembly Rooms on the corner of North Street in Belfast, is a very different sort of event. For this Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival gig, Patterson, clad in a stripy t-shirt, is in buoyant form.
His new novel – titled The Mill for Grinding Old People Young – has been chosen to represent Belfast in the One City One Book initiative, designed to celebrate contemporary writing in Northern Ireland. This means lots of workshops, readings and walking tours around town, many of them featuring Patterson himself, and from the moment he walks on to the stage, it's clear he is energised and excited by it all.
Tonight's event is also part of Polish Cultural Week, and Poland – the country and its people – forms a recurring theme throughout the evening. Patterson remarks,
'If you want to know Europe, you have to know Poland.'
Patterson begins with a reading from his book of journalistic essays, Lapsed Protestant, in which he describes an unusual summer train journey he took across Europe, some years ago, in the company of 106 other European writers.
In it, he recalls watching the scenes of disorder unfold at Drumcree on a television set in a hotel room in Minsk. He contrasts the experience of crossing the vast plains of central Europe with this argument over a small portion of land in Northern Ireland.
It's a useful illustration of a point that Patterson makes later. 'For a long time,' he says, 'we have only looked at ourselves in relation to ourselves, and we need to open that up; to realise that we are part of other currents of European history.' In many ways, argues Patterson, 'we are walking terminals for history'.
Those unexpected wider connections come to the fore in the novel too. Set largely in 1830s Belfast, it's the story of Gilbert Rice, who is drawn into a love affair with Maria, a Polish exile from Russian persecution.
Patterson reads an extract from the book, describing an early encounter between Gilbert and Maria, in the kitchen of the protagonist's home in Donegall Place. It's an intense, erotically-charged exchange.
Patterson reads his own work with humour, precision and delicacy, and without pomposity and pretension. You feel comfortable in his company; there is a sense that you are in knowledgeable hands.
The evening concludes with a question and answer session, chaired by Radio Ulster presenter Marie Louise Muir, which provides some useful insights into Patterson's method and practice as a writer. But Patterson, with his warm, confident yet self-deprecating manner, is such a natural raconteur that he really doesn't need anyone else up there beside him. He could run the whole show on his own.
Find other One City One Book readings, events and workshops in CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide.