Putting the past through a grinder


Glenn Patterson’s latest novel delves into the history of his native Belfast, before the trendy Titanic Quarter, before even the Harland and Wolff shipyard, to create a surreal alternative history of the city

GLENN PATTERSON has always been a man for extravagant book titles – Fat Lad; Black Night at Big Thunder Mountain; Lapsed Protestant – but this time the Belfast writer has outdone even himself. His new novel is called The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. Which is, believe it or not, the name of an actual historical pub.

A keen reader of anything related to his native city’s past, Patterson stumbled across the grandly-named tavern in a lecture given by the Rev Narcissus Batt to the Belfast Working Men’s Club in the spring of 1875. “He mentioned an inn that he remembered from his childhood on the north of Belfast Lough.” Then a chance encounter with an architecture PhD student in, of all places, a bar introduced Patterson to the 19th-century Belfast architect John Millar, who was incorporating design features into Presbyterian churches that were unique in European architecture of the period. Connections began to fire in Patterson’s head. Millar’s churches. The aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. The radical Belfast Presbyterian spirit.

The idea of travelling back in time, which is implicit in the idea of a mill that turns old people into young ones, is a bizarre, almost sci-fi notion, which also (as Dickens fans will have spotted) crops up in the novel A Tale of Two Cities. “Dickens refers to ‘the fabulous mill for grinding old people young’, as though it’s a story that was well-known at that time,” Patterson says.

Another element in this rich historical mix fascinated Patterson. At the same time as Millar was designing his churches, plans were afoot to modernise Belfast’s ramshackle, highly tidal docks by the creation of a wide new channel. “They dredged up the silt and consolidated the land. And the by-product of all that was the Queen’s Island, which became the Harland and Wolff shipyard – what’s now the Titanic Quarter. I thought, if I start the novel in the 1890s with an elderly man looking back, he’s in an interesting position. He’s thinking back to a time when none of that existed. The shipyards didn’t exist. It’s also a time when nobody knows what’s coming. The Big Ship.”

The Mill for Grinding Old People Young opens on Christmas Eve, 1897. At the house of Gilbert Rice, an 85-year-old industrialist, there is consternation: that new-fangled gadget, the telephone, is ringing. The old man is invited to a lecture inspired by HG Wells’s hugely popular novel The Time Machine; the experience triggers a flood of memories from his youth as he begins to tell the story of the novel.

The reader discovers the city of the 1830s in the impulsive company of the teenaged Gilbert, whose sternly biblical grandfather has secured him a job at the Ballast Office. We find him sleeping off hangovers on a quiet shelf in a back-room, rowing a distinguished Victorian engineer along the Lagan (despite the fact that he has never rowed a boat in his life), and falling in love with a feisty Polish refugee.

For Patterson, who grew up about three miles from Belfast city centre, researching the book was a voyage of discovery. “When I was young I used to see seagulls around where we lived,” he recalls. “And I’d think, What are seagulls doing in Belfast? Because Belfast had turned its back on the port. What I knew as a child was, you got the bus in and shopped. I didn’t go near the river, and although my dad had worked in the shipyards, I hadn’t been there. So I didn’t have a sense of the importance of the river.

“But in a sense, everything that happened in Belfast’s entire history has revolved around what happens on the waterfront. The city begins at the confluence of two rivers, a place where you can ford from west to east. The shipyards defined it for a number of years, and now we’re reclaiming the waterfront and redefining ourselves as Titanic town.”

In this novel Patterson has managed to combine references to the two big anniversaries of 2012, Dickens’s and Titanic’s – and, what’s more, to find a new angle on the whole story. Pretty smart, eh? He laughs.

“I wish I was that smart. At times, when you’re writing anything it can seem like an act of folly. And I had no notion that the book was going to appear in the spring of 2012. I was rather hoping I’d have it finished a couple of years ago, to be honest.”

Although this is his first “real” historical novel, several of Patterson’s books take backward glances into the past. The International is set just before the start of the Troubles; Burning Your Own is set in 1969. He has also just co-written the script of the BBC film Good Vibrations, the story of the impresario Terri Hooley and the Belfast punk scene, which is due for release later this year.

“I’m interested in the way accounts of the past harden, and versions of the past gain credence even when it is at least debatable – where the records are sketchy,” he says. Writing a historical novel is a licence to peer into those gaps in the records, and speculate.

“Apart from those few events that have been recorded, people are also getting on with the business of filling up their lives – with meetings for coffee, with love affairs, with the buying of cravats.”

Gilbert Rice’s Belfast will be a surprise and a delight to many readers: a mixum-gatherum, multi-layered city in which Catholic and Protestant, working class and aristocracy, pagan and Presbyterian are all – as it were – in the same rickety boat, negotiating the tricky sandbanks of the Lagan.

“It’s my experience of the Belfast that I live in and grew up in,” says Patterson. “Even at its most polarised there were always individuals – always currents – that gave the lie to the polarising and reductiveness. And but for that, God knows, you would give up.”

There are many striking moments in Patterson’s meandering, almost Dickensian narrative. One of the most striking of all, however, is the moment when Gilbert realises that many of the movers and shakers in the Belfast of 1830 are people who were actively involved in the United Irishmen’s rising of 1798. “As he says, they weren’t all hanged. They didn’t all go into exile, or die in the rising itself. Time has passed. There has been an accommodation within themselves, and with each other.

“I’m interested in that because of where we are at the moment in the North. In the aftermath of any great upheaval, the simple passage of time dictates that – however strong your feelings are – there’ll always come a moment when that’s in the past. When it belongs to another time. I didn’t want it to be a message in the book. God forbid. But, yeah. Time keeps going. It’s a vanity to imagine that we are the last word. We’re not.”

The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, by Glenn Patterson, is published by Faber & Faber

In search  of Belfast

ONE OF THE joys of The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is the way in which “real” characters make fleeting appearances in the book, often unrecognised by the people they meet. The poet Keats turns up, as does Wolfe Tone. Gilbert’s best friend, meanwhile, is the architect John Millar.

A major source for Patterson’s historical research was Marcus Patton’s Central Belfast: A Historical Gazetteer. “Just as I was coming to the end of my book,” he says, “Marcus sent me an email. I saw the subject line – ‘John Millar’ – and I was terrified it was going to contain something which would undo what I’d just written. But actually he was sending me something about where Millar fetched up later in life. Which was in New Zealand, designing lamp standards.”

As for the mischievous message the youthful architect inscribes on a piece of slate and inserts into a pillar in the Third Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street, it still exists today. “The pillar was split open during the Blitz and the piece of slate is on display in Church House,” Patterson says. “If anyone cares to go down and ask them, they’ll show you. It’s in their library.”

For any visitor to Belfast who can bear to tear themselves away from the trendy Titanic Quarter, it would be well worth the walk. “Posterity know ye that I a son of dust . . .” Millar begins, going on to denounce the pair of “quack” architects who “so mutilated my designs as to nearly make me disown them”.

As the authentic voice of a 19-year-old from 1830, it would make the hairs rise on the back of even the most hardened 21st-century neck.