In recent years Glenn Patterson has become Northern Ireland’s laureate, the chronicler of ordinary life in the shadow of the Troubles. He drew on his youth in 1970s Belfast in his last novel, The Rest Just Follows, and the screenplay for Good Vibrations, the true story of Terri Hooley’s record shop (and record label, home to the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’). Patterson’s writing asks how normal are normal lives when they exist within the civil war that surrounds them. In Gull, Patterson depicts working life in early 1980s Belfast when the charismatic John DeLorean brings the production of his sports car to a Belfast factory, a decision which turns into a disaster comparable to Northern Ireland’s other famous construction project, the Titanic.
Gull opens in Chicago as Edmund Randall, Vietnam-veteran and reluctant journalist for a car magazine, meets DeLorean. Randall accidentally offends him and, a year later, DeLorean offers him the job of opening his factory in Belfast. When he arrives in Belfast IRA prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike, the police carry machine-guns, “East Berlin without the laughs.” From these beginnings Randall begins to build something that promises a new future for Northern Ireland, as DeLorean tells his workers: “You haven’t just made cars this year, you’ve made history.” DeLorean does not only bring jobs to Belfast, he brings an optimism that attracts Liz (the novel’s central female character) who applies for a job because “it’s the first thing that’s made me smile in this bloody country for years.” The DeLorean factory offers the possibility that these works can build their own futures, futures that do not have to be dictated by the sectarian conflict around them, though that promise is soon ended as the Catholic and Protestant employees enter and leave through different gates.
Gull is more than the fictionalisation of social history, there is a comic affection that brings the characters into focus (like Roddy Doyle, Patterson is so entwined with the spirit of his city that the vitality and rhythm of his dialogue feels like eavesdropping). Patterson celebrates the humanity that survives in the background of historical events, the relationships and ambitions of characters, such as Liz, who follow their own, humbler vision of a better life to that DeLorean promises.
Throughout Gull, DeLorean remains an enigma, is he a visionary or a con-man? DeLorean is seen in glimpses, either on one end of a phone call with Randall or briefly making a speech, but a civil servant (acting on behalf of Margaret Thatcher’s government) sums him up: “Your Mr DeLorean is a very hard man to defend sometimes… but I am far from alone in thinking that factory down there is its own best argument.” However, the money eventually runs out, the factory closes, Randall flies back to New York, John DeLorean is set up for cocaine smuggling and the workers, in Belfast, are left to “hug our little destiny again” (to quote Seamus Heaney).
Any Cop?: Another slice of Northern Irish history told with Glenn Patterson’s typical humour, imaginative sympathy and generosity.