Glenn Patterson

A Tilt of the Head

Maeve Mulrennan

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“Every work of fiction is an invitation to think again, a tilt of the head”

Glenn Patterson is known for his novels, non-fiction and plays. His novels often blur the line between history and fiction, the what-was and the what-could-have-been. In an interview he has stated that ‘novels aren’t answers; novels are just questions. They’re trying to find new ways to ask questions’. [Interview with Claire Burgess, Nashville Review 1 August 2010].

His latest move, Gull, unpacks the enigmatic and often cult-like John DeLorean and his quest to create the DMC-12 car in Patterson’s hometown of Belfast. The book takes place at an intersection and intertwining of politics and commerce in Northern Ireland. John Delorean is a new type of hero, in a place that is used to having heroes. Delorean's narrative is now added to this back catalogue of Tales of heroes: from folk traditions to contemporary political heroes such as Bobby Sands and other prisoners in Long Kesh. Gull is narrated by DeLorean’s right-hand-man, an outsider, he is seeing this all in one layer, minus the years of conflict that have added complexity. He's neutral in the political sense, but a loyal devotee of DeLorean. Speaking to Glenn Patterson, it was unavoidable that the real history of events blurred with his novel. Asked about DeLorean’s role in Northern Irish history, Patterson states; “My sense is that a lot of people, from government officials to DeLorean workers wanted to believe that John DeLorean was a hero, riding in if not to save the city exactly then at least to plant a standard: ‘this is what this place could be’. I actually have a good deal of sympathy with Roy Mason, the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who helped broker the deal that brought the factory to Belfast. He genuinely believed that jobs – equal opportunities jobs – were the necessary prerequisite for bringing the violence in Northern Ireland to an end.”

Gull also portrays the point of view of a worker in the factory, and through this, the sensitivities of a mixed workforce is explored. The common desire to create this car brings people together, not in a utopian or naive way, but in a realistic way that by its presence, shows how sectarianism in Northern Ireland divided workers and often came before workers’ rights. Through his research, Patterson found evidence of the Delorean factory as a neutral space: “The factory was in many ways ahead of its time in its attempt to create a non-sectarian workplace – no flags, no emblems, none of the other stuff that it is harder by the year (thank goodness) to imagine was once accepted as normal in Northern Ireland shop floors. Some of course would say that was simply a way of getting more and bigger government grants, but that’s the thing with DeLorean, those who have already made up their minds will find reason to doubt or impugn its achievements.”

This neutrality is threatened in the book a couple of times, and it is in these places that the hierarchy between staff and management is also challenged. Although used to writing about loaded historical contexts in previous work, the complexity of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s was surely a challenging one?  “In the book I have management encourage workers to think of it as the Independent State of DeLoreland,” Patterson states, “but that independence dissolved the moment they left the factory and were in Belfast again. Even their choice of gate as they went home was dictated by that, one, dubbed the ‘Protestant’ gate leading to Seymour Hill, the other, ‘Catholic’ gate, to Twinbrook, where Bobby Sands had been living until his imprisonment. The Hunger Strikes began in the spring of 1981, the only full year of production at the factory. The two stories ran side by side and both are ‘true’ representations of that time.”

Gull joins an impressive collection of artworks made with Delorean in mind: Neon Neon's Stainless Style, Duncan Campbell's Make It New John and Sean Lynch's DeLorean Report, and most recently, Cyril Hatt's 2015 'Delorean Print Project'.

The story of the car is essentially the story of an enigmatic leader, peoples' belief in him, and what a person will do to make a dream a reality.  Why is this story still important, what does it mean for us now? “I have to be honest here and say – as I acknowledge at the end of the book – that I had no particular interest in DeLorean until a producer friend asked me a few years back to consider writing a short play for Radio 4. Somewhere in the middle of writing that play I thought this – the factory, the nearly 9000 cars it managed to produce – was one of greatest engineering achievements in Belfast’s history and yet when it was mentioned it seemed more often than not to invite ridicule.”

Gull utilises jazz music to explore the character of John DeLorean and also to reveal emotions. Patterson successfully manages to write about another art form that rings true to both jazz aficionados and those ignorant of its rich history and depth. The addition moves the book away from the dangerous territory of re-writing a familiar story and closer to the creation of a space where characters can be explored and critiqued. Patterson says of this element of the novel; “John DeLorean played clarinet in a high-school dance band. It was one of those discoveries that gave me, I thought, an insight into the man, or a way to approach him that wasn’t through all the headlines his subsequent career generated. I wanted my narrator, Randall, to be similarly surprised, and disarmed, by the revelation. DeLorean offers to educate him, but Randall, stumbling upon Knight’s Record Library on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue decides to educate himself.”

The book also mentions a homemade Jazz Mixtape at one point, with the choice of music and what is then done with it showing how one character feels about another. Emotion is mostly left unexpressed by language in the novel; rather it is through things which are not said, or manifest in an object; a car, a mixtape. Patterson agrees, “I always think it is better to have characters reveal their emotions through their actions. It hadn’t occurred to me until I started answering this question, but it’s possible that part of what Randall is doing, making a mixtape for DeLorean, is saying ‘I want to be you’. No sooner has he given it to him, though, than DeLorean pulls one of those stunts that make it hard for Randall to even want to be in the same room as him.”

In Sean Lynch's body of work The Delorean Report, writer Kevin Barry recalls a conversation he had with the artist about the myths, narratives and contradictory narratives that create residue around a time in history: ‘What happens’, says Sean Lynch, ‘is you get all this internet yickety-yak that builds up around a story, reams upon reams of it, but it never adds any real detail. It does the opposite, it flattens everything out. The least you can do is go back to the original sources and materials and try to understand the complexities.’ 

Patterson agrees: “There is no point in simply retelling the same story. Actually there is every reason legally to make sure you do not retell the same story. Even just for yourself as a writer, if you can’t see anything new there is precious little point in beginning. Every work of fiction is an invitation to think again, a tilt of the head: try looking at it this way. There are plenty of DeLorean stories already. Many of them contradict one another. The worst of them contradict themselves. Too many versions is like too few: it allows the writer of fiction room to speculate. I wanted to be true to what I understood the spirit of the factory in particular to be. For the rest, I came up with a version that made sense to me.”


Above DeLorean workforce. Photo: Belfast Old Photos.

Gull (Head of Zeus) is Glenn Patterson’s tenth novel. He has also published three books of non-fiction and co-wrote the film Good Vibrations. He lives in Belfast.