‘This is a historical novel in the way that Roddy Doyle’s Last Roundup novels are historical’ – The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson

A historical novel set in Belfast has a unique potency. As William Faulkner pointed out: the past is not dead, it is not even past. In Belfast, the sectarian conflicts and political violence are as unchanging over the centuries as the street names. In The Mill for Grinding Old People Young Glenn Patterson names every street his characters walk along (to the extent that, at times, this novel could be handed out at George Best Airport for anyone planning to walk around central Belfast) and the naming of the streets forces the reader (at any rate, those who know the city) to overlay their own mental map of contemporary Belfast onto the city of 1831. It is a strikingly familiar place, on the cusp of industrialisation but with the memory of the failed 1798 Rising against British rule still fresh (with the relatives of the executed leaders to be seen walking around the city). While the city is building the foundations of future prosperity, as ever, the possibility of violence driving back the peace process/industrial growth (delete as appropriate) is present.

Gilbert Rice, an orphan who lives with his grandfather (in an odd twist their fictional home is a few metres from the branch of Waterstone’s in contemporary Belfast, one of the many instances where the insistence on such precise location is distracting), works atBelfastport. There is popular support for developing the port but the city’s MP, elected by 12 men, opposes it. It is an age of Revolution, across Europe Poland are resisting Russian rule and falling in love with an exiled Polish aristocrat (working as a barmaid in a tavern) Gilbert’s thoughts turn to social change. He buys a gun, plans a murder and prepares for his own execution: “A hush would descend, broken only by the wail of a child. I would not blink, or flinch”.

In The Mill for Grinding Old People Young Patterson looks at the Irish fondness for martyrdom, “while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” as a later generation of revolutionary leader said, but finds that Gilbert Rice has a much greater capacity for democracy and creating the architecture of a new society. This is a historical novel in the way that Roddy Doyle’s Last Roundup novels are historical, a fully realised character walks through a historical moment, investigating the origins and consequences of that moment.

Like Seamus Heaney, Glenn Patterson’s value as a writer has been overshadowed by the easy identification of him as the chronicler of a political situation (admittedly I have just done that). Glenn Patterson has published works based on personal and family history before, Number 5 and Once Upon A Hill: Love in Troubled Times. As a writer his subject has been the impact political events have on individual lives, but he takes a pride in the survival of domestic contentment and The Mill for Grinding Old People Young develops that sense that the steady lives of the historically unrecorded will endure and, eventually, conquer:

“There were different orders of silence. Maybe the soonest way to mend the wounds of that time was to say as close to nothing as possible.”

Heaney has written something similar, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’, and Patterson too writes convincingly of personal responsibilities, the choices made that impact on generations that will be born in later centuries.

Any Cop?: Will Self has called Glenn Patterson “Northern Ireland’s prose laureate” and he has written the best novel about the Troubles (it’s called The International). More than anything he is the only novelist to emerge fromNorthern Ireland since the 1970s whose breadth of work merits being placed alongside that remarkable generation of poets.Northern Ireland has been redeemed by its writers.

James Doyle

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