Article published on May 5, 2015.
Hearing him speak at the Hexham Book Festival in late April, I was not surprised to discover that Patrick Gale engages an audience as compellingly as he does his readers. He spoke eloquently, and at times passionately, about the genesis of his latest novel, A Place Called Winter [a Recommended Read in nb84]. (It was referred to as his seventeenth novel but, although it is actually his nineteenth, Patrick very graciously didn’t correct the chairperson!) His father was a prison governor and, as governors are routinely moved every five years, Patrick’s childhood was spent in a succession of very large houses. These provided lots of rooms, corridors and space for him and his elder brothers to play in, without disturbing the adults. Whilst this was a delight for the children, for his mother the excessive space meant too many rooms to furnish fully! A highlight of the boys’ dressing-up box was a pair of bear-skin gloves, complete with large claws, which had belonged to his great-grandfather, “Cowboy Grandpa”, who “lived in a log cabin” and, it was claimed, had killed the bear.
Growing up, Patrick gradually became aware that, as well as featuring as a rather exotic figure in his childhood, references to his great-grandfather always seemed to be cloaked in mystery. Exact details were unknown to him but clearly had something to do with his maternal grandmother who, following the death of her mother, had had a rather sad childhood, having been raised by a succession of nannies, amid a crowd of aunts and uncles. When he finally inherited a collection of letters between his mother and grandmother, as well as Granny’s unfinished memoir, some of the mystery was solved, but lots of questions remained unanswered. Fascination with this story led him, in this latest novel, to combine fact with fiction to create his main character, Harry Cane. This enabled him to tell a credible story to explain why his great-grandfather might have abandoned his wife, and the daughter he loved, to emigrate to Canada, and why the reasons for his departure were shrouded in mystery. He shared with the audience the fact that “Cowboy Grandpa” did in fact return to England in 1953 and, as a toothless, rather shattered old man, made contact with his daughter. However, she didn’t want him in her life and managed to find the money to send him back to Canada where he died, two years later, in a Salvation Army hostel. In all his research when he was in Canada, Patrick was unable to discover where his great-grandfather had been buried but, on his next visit to Canada, he is going to try again.
He spoke very movingly about how he feels that, having grown up “in the shadow of institutions” – the prisons, his own time at boarding school and visits to a sibling who, following a major breakdown, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital – he is very familiar with the effects that institutionalisation can have on people. It is certainly clear from his writing that his use of his own experiences and observations, combined with extensive research, is what lent convincing authenticity to his portrayal of Harry’s experiences of psychiatric treatment in Canada.
When discussing some of the themes which shape this novel he talked about power and gender, love and loss, emotional truth and integrity, forgiveness and redemption and a celebration of the sexless friendships which can exist between men and women. He spoke very evocatively about what conditions were like for those, mainly men, who emigrated to the newly opened Saskatchewan prairies, and just how harsh, threatening and dangerous life was for them. He pointed out that in emigrating to Canada in order to escape the threat of a prison sentence of seven years hard labour, Harry in effect sentenced himself to a life of hard labour in starting to farm 160 acres of virgin land, mostly by hand. However, the major difference was that Harry was in control of his own destiny, living a life which enabled him to find himself. Patrick made us laugh when he pointed out that emigration enabled many families to solve the problem of disposing of embarrassing relatives, and that for those who were homosexual, banishment to a predominantly male environment was akin to being sent to a “gay heaven”! For independent women there were also many opportunities for the sort of feminist freedom which would have been impossible in Edwardian Britain.
Although there are always gay characters in his novels, Patrick doesn’t regard himself as a “gay writer”. In fact, as he pointed out, his first novel was turned down by a gay publishing house because it was “too cheerful”. His aim, greatly influenced by Iris Murdoch’s writing, is to ensure that his gay characters are always represented as being in the mainstream of society, and not set apart. As well as this reference to another author’s influence on his writing, he also spoke of the influence of Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster when he was writing this book and said how much he had enjoyed the luxury of being able to re-read the latter’s novels as part of his preparation.
One of the questions asked was whether this had been a harder novel for him to write because he was creating some characters based on family members. He felt that it hadn’t because he found that, as it is normal for him to become emotionally involved with his characters, any initial discomfort was very quickly overcome. He went on to say that getting his characters out of his system is always a long process for him, and that repeatedly talking about them at literary events feels central to exorcising their ghosts! I have to say that I felt very pleased to feel part of a process which was giving something back to someone who had so openly given his audience so much of himself during this fascinating, illuminating and enjoyable talk.
When asked whether the bearskin gloves still exist, Patrick explained that some time ago they suffered the same fate as his mother’s musquash coat – both were surrendered in a “fur amnesty”!
During his talk Patrick mentioned that this novel had gone through the process of five drafts and, as I had read that he still writes by hand, with a fountain pen, using Montblanc’s Toffee Brown ink, when I got my book signed I asked him how many of his drafts were hand-written. He explained that he writes the first two by hand: subsequent ones are typed, but he continues to use his pen to make amendments. I think that there is something about his obvious enjoyment of this part of the process of writing which comes through in the immaculate attention to detail which makes his stories so credible, moving and enjoyable to read, and which has made, for me, A Place Called Winter his best: the most moving and haunting yet. Harry Cane’s story will live in my memory for a long time, and Patrick will remain high on my list of authors whose next novel is always eagerly anticipated.
Linda Hepworth, April 2015
A Place Called Winter was a Recommended Read in newbooks84 and we had some FREE* copies. So we’ve asked some of the recipients for their feedback and will publish it in the next issue of newbooks, out in early July.
For more on Patrick see http://galewarning.org/
FREE*? The books are completely free, all we ask is that you cover our p&p costs.