Militant interview with Glenn Patterson

'The poor are still poor even if they're looking at a video'

Niall Mulholland, West Belfast Militant Labour, Militant Labour, No. 230, May 1995

'British publishers have a real problem with Belfast based fiction and when they do publish they are not very good at promoting the title in Ireland. I had to go round Dublin bookshops myself selling my last novel Fat Lad.'

You don't expect a prize winning, critically acclaimed young author to have to do his own PR and distribution but Glenn Patterson, 'a socialist and atheist', knew his work, a successful, wise 'attempt to update the fictional map' of Northern Ireland would be problematic for publishing houses, far removed as it is from the usual thrillers stacked with cardboard cut-out characters.

Leather jacket clad Patterson bounded into the café for our interview and with intense nervous energy and the aid of coffee and endless cigarettes, earnestly expounded his views on literature and its relation to politics.

Inspiration comes from socialists and writers like George Orwell and Upton Sinclair and epoch making events like the Spanish Civil War. Locally John Hewitt, the Northern Irish poet and socialist, who suffered abuse and discrimination from the Stormont government, was a source for his beliefs.

Every word Glenn Patterson writes has a 'political origin' but that doesn't mean his books are turgid dogmatic tomes. His first, Burning Your Own concerns a Protestant boy in Belfast in the summer of 1969, as the Troubles are about to erupt. Like Fat Lad, set in early 1990's Belfast, the book is made up of 'community biographies' and has a number of voice.

The new novel Black Night at Big Thunder Mountain, published later this year, is probably more ambitious again. A painter decorator at the French Disney World complex goes off the rails and takes a Northern Irish construction worker and a German canteen worker hostage. It is 1991, Terry Waite has just been released in the Lebanon and a strategic Bosnian town falls to the Serbs. Disney is being built by tens of thousands of migrant workers 'like a city under construction' while Los Angeles, the captor's hometown, is in a stage of 'terminal breakdown', with the rich opting out for their own privately policed enclaves. Berlin, after the wall has come down, and an exhausted, war weary Belfast are the other cities examined and contrasted.

Patterson believes the world is in a state of flux. 'Ten years ago who would have thought the USSR would collapse as it did?' Now he predicts the long term break-up of the super rich and back breakingly poor USA. The Left, he feels, needs to address its terms of reference since the collapse of Stalinism in 1989. Society is still based upon the material benefit of the few over the many and 'the poor are still poor even if they are looking at a video as compared to listening to a radio 30 years ago.'

Ending 'poverty and providing educational and physical opportunities' for everyone are phrases Glenn feels happy with but he agrees with Tony Blair and others may use 'modernising' language to hide behind doing nothing for ordinary people once they come to power. 'Mitterand in 1981 raised expectations but you can only feel disappointment' at his failure to turn a French socialist parliamentary victory to radical change on the ground.

John Hewitt addressed all issues and 'resisted religious politics' from the 1930s to the 1980s. Glenn Patterson looks with interest at the current socialist forces in Northern Ireland.

His clever, funny, humane novels are a must for all those who like to look beyond the narrow sectarian definitions and caricatures of life as they are normally presented here.

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