Thursday, 17 January 2008

If You'll Excuse An Expression I Use.... 17/1/08

“So many books!” exclaimed Ilona Ritter, in the 1964 musical “She Loves Me” ,and I know exactly what she meant. Since I was a small child I have been a voracious reader, and given that I have previously touched on other creative forms, such as art and television, I thought it was high time that I mentioned literature.

Armistead Maupin, Emily Bronte, David Leavitt, Charles Dickens, Anne Rice (a somewhat guilty pleasure), Dirk Bogarde and even Enid Blyton have all made an impression on me at various times in my life,but for this weeks column I am going to look at one author in particular whose work I have admired for most of my adult life.

It was back in the late eighties that I picked up a copy of “Kansas In August” by Patrick Gale. It can hardly come as a shock that I was immediately taken by the tale of, English teacher, Hilary a young man with a penchant for tap dancing and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals who longs to be the next Fred Astaire. Instead Hilary finds himself marking essays in his evenings as he listens to the LP of “The King And I”. Life for Hilary isn’t without it’s complications though, such as finding an abandoned baby and unknowingly sharing a lover with his sister, not to mention the little girl downstairs thinking he is something akin to the second coming! This slim volume really captured my imagination, as I was drawn into the world of Hilary and his sister Henrietta. It’s no surprise that some twenty years on I am still reading, and enjoying, the novels of Patrick Gale.

So, following “Kansas In August”, it wasn’t long before I explored his previous novels “Ease”, the story of, Domina Tey a middle aged writer who escapes her life for a little adventure, and “The Aerodynamics Of Pork”. The latter tells of the sexual awakening of Seth a young violinist about to start at music college, running in parallel with the story of Mo a lesbian policewoman in London until their stories collide. Like “Kansas” both novels are quite brief and can be read in one or two sittings. With supporting casts of quirky and entertaining characters these novels are largely light hearted but also often have the capacity to move.

With these early novels Gale was often categorized as an up and coming gay writer, but it’s probably unfair to describe his books as gay novels. Sure, gay characters appear in his stories but more often than not in the same way that “Coronation Street” features them. Sometimes they may just be minor characters, or sometimes at the forefront of the action but I feel that it’s the characters themselves that drive the plot rather than issues such as sexuality etc.

Whilst “Aerodynamics” was the first of several of Gale’s novels to feature a Cornish setting, his next “Facing The Tank” took us to the fictional setting of Barrowcester (pronounced Brewster), which has oft been mentioned in his later work, for the first time. Possibly the most richly comic of all his novels, it tells of American academic Evan Kirby as he goes to the cathedral town to study angels and demons. The people he meets during his research are almost modern day Dickensian characters, including a young gay man who has to “come out” to his parents and reveal that he is actually straight and the elderly mother of a bishop with a taste for hash brownies. The novel unfolds in to what is almost a, very English, “Tales Of the City” before taking a peculiarly supernatural twist as it reaches it’s conclusion.

Of his next few books I confess that “The Cat Sanctuary” and “Tree Surgery For Beginners” didn’t quite grab me on the first reading, however 1995 saw the publication of a novel that literally blew me away. “The Facts Of Life” is a family saga telling of Edward Pepper, a German Jew who manages to escape the Nazis to settle in the UK, eventually falling in love and marrying Sally, the doctor who nurses him through TB. The highs and lows of their relationship are explored, as Pepper becomes a respected composer, but it is only a matter of time before tragedy knocks at their door. Many years later the story moves to the lives of Pepper’s grandson and granddaughter, and Pepper’s own prejudices as he struggles to relate to the complications of their modern lives. I don’t want to give too much away about the novel as I would much rather you read it, I would however say that, even though Gale’s humour is still evident, “The Facts Of Life” remains one of the most poignant novels I have read to date. On more than one occasion I was moved to tears (kind of embarrassing when I was on the bus!) and it’s exploration of the family dynamic provides much that we can all relate to.

It’s curious, but I think that as I, and my literary needs, have matured as a reader Gale has matured as a writer. The caricature-like individuals that populate his early work have faded into the background as very real, very human people take their place. More than ever I never quite know what to expect from his books but I always know they will be a satisfying experience. This has been borne out by his books of the new millennium. Although all of his fiction stands alone it’s not unusual for characters and locations from earlier novels to re-appear and “Rough Music” in particular draws on elements from “The Aerodynamics Of Pork”. Touted as his most autobiographical novel to date, it contains the humour and heartbreak which characterize his best work, touching on difficult issues in the process. However, as with the gay aspect, in my opinion, it’s most definitely the, characters that drive the plot rather than heavy issues.. Seemingly ordinary people with, perhaps, extraordinary things going on beneath the surface. “Rough Music” is a book which I thoroughly enjoyed, and received much praise from the critics, as did “A Sweet Obscurity” and “Friendly Fire” which followed. Now with his latest novel, “Notes From An Exhibition”, Patrick is poised to take on a whole new audience.

Yes, “Notes From An Exhibition” has been selected for Richard and Judy’s Book Club 2008, so it’s probable that many people who really couldn’t tell the difference between the aerodynamics of pork and little bits of baby will now become aware of Patrick Gale’s fiction.

The novel tells the story of the late Rachel Kelly, a Cornwall based bi-polar artist, her Quaker husband and her family. Going back and forth in time and focusing on different family members in different chapters the novel slowly unravels it’s mysteries whilst subtly creating new ones. Who is Rachel and where did she come from? How did her son Petroc die? Will Morwenna ever return from her wanderings and what prevents Hedley from returning to London after Rachel’s funeral? It really is a wonderful frustrating jigsaw of a book which, even though it doesn’t quite reveal all of it’s secrets, ends in such a hopeful way that it doesn’t matter. After completing the novel it’s characters haunted me for days to the point where I felt compelled to contact Patrick via Facebook and share my thoughts.

So some twenty years ago I read of Hilary Metcalfe, cycle riding, tap dancing, musical loving English teacher who was corny as Kansas in August and high as a flag on the fourth of July. You could certainly do a lot worse than try out this story for yourself. Indeed, I hope that my little meanderings on Patrick Gale inspire some of you to pick up a book, and I am sure that the Richard and Judy effect is going to have a big impact . Perhaps a film or TV adaptation will even come to fruition too. Over the years he has had many projects in development even “Kansas In August” commissioned by the Really Useful Picture Group at one point! Actually though, and apologies to Patrick here, I must confess that I might prefer him to stay one of own secret passions rather than the next big thing!

So finally, on more than one occasion I have wondered what might happen in the future to the characters in the novels I have read and I am sure you have too. How did Ebenezer Scrooge adapt to his new, kinder, temperament? Did the Famous Five’s George grow up to be a radical lesbian? What happened to “Tales of the City’s” Mouse and Mary Ann (read “Michael Tolliver Lives” and you get the answer to that one!) Well in my brief, Facebook, correspondence with Patrick I had a little treat as he teasingly suggested what Hilary might be up to now. However, whilst I urge you to explore his work, that forever remains my secret!

Happy reading


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