A few years ago Patrick Gale gave a reading in Weston-Super-Mare in the West Country. Walking around, it struck him that that it was a peculiar town – full of institutions like drug rehabilitation centres and old people’s homes.
“I thought it would be an odd place to grow up in,” he says, on the phone from his home in Cornwall.
Patrick’s own early childhood could be considered a little strange.
“At one time, both my father and grandfather were prison governors on the Isle of Wight – which used to house three prisons,” he says. “We moved every four years, so it was hard to look outside the family for friendships knowing you would be uprooted again. That was odd, but imagine if your parents ran an old people’s home?”
The thought stayed with him. And, deciding to set his new novel in Weston-Super-Mare, he invented a boy called Eustace, whose parents had a rather rackety marriage.
“I wanted Eustace to pursue some practice that would enable his mother to have an affair,” he says. “And at the back of my mind came this idea of writing a tribute to JP Hartley’s Go Between. Then I decided that Eustace could have cello lessons.”
Showing extraordinary promise, Eustace is given special treatment by his cello teacher and is enabled to attend a specialist holiday course at a music school. These scenes are so lovingly conveyed; the musical details so clearly authentic, and the serious concentration of the young musicians so convincingly told, that it comes as no surprise to hear that Patrick attended such a course and was once set to become a professional cellist.
“As soon as the cello idea came to me, the novel let rip in my mind, because all the memories came flooding back; and not least one of my extraordinary cello teachers
, Jane Cowan, on whom Jean Curwen in the book is based.
“I realised the novel I was writing was a little like Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield in that it’s the story of a child who becomes obsessed with a very disciplined art form which requires sacrifice, and unwittingly, in pursuit of it learns resilience and strength to cope with the vicissitudes of adult life as well.”
Patrick’s musical education started aged 7, at a Church of England choir school in Winchester.
“One of the great blessings of that, was that not only were we singing for hours every day, which I loved, but I was taught two instruments by teachers who were incredible musicians. I really did think, when I grow up I’m going to be a cellist.”
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-teens that he realised that of all the young people distorting their lives to pursue excellence, only two percent make a career of it.
“The rest are doomed to fail,” says Patrick. “That’s when I woke up and thought, I could just do this for pleasure.”
Throughout this time Patrick had been writing; it came as naturally to him as reading, but it didn’t occur to him that this was something he could pursue as a career. His upbringing had taught him that whatever you did for a living had to involve hard work.
“I went from wanting to be a cellist to wanting to be an actor,” he says, “And I worked hard at that. I submitted to my parents and read English at Oxford University, but all the time I was there I was acting. I applied to go to drama school after Oxford, and nearly went, but one of my brothers was killed in a car crash when I was in the middle of my audition period, and I lost my way rather.”
Patrick wrote his first novel whilst he was applying for an equity card.
“I had a job as a singing waiter in a restaurant that was open all night long. My shifts lasted from 6.00 pm until 6.00 am, and nobody would come in until breakfast time. So, I amused myself by writing.”
That novel, along with the nine that followed did well enough, with a loyal, mostly gay, readership, but it wasn’t until a good editor helped him to include some personal details that he wrote a book he was especially proud of. And that was Rough Music, published in 2000.
“She said, ‘Stop trying to entertain.’ She said, ‘Your tone is funny, your books will always make people laugh, but it would be much better if you could make them cry as well.”
Since then, doing just that, his success has grown. I first came across him in 2003, when, reviewing A Sweet Obscurity – a book glued together by music – I wrote that I was so immersed in the story that I turned down an invitation to the pub and subsequently dreamed about a principal character.
Of his nineteen novels, two have secured a Costa shortlisting, and one, Notes From An Exhibition, became a Richard and Judy bestseller. I adored that book, but this latest one rates amongst my all-time favourite books.
The novel begins and ends with a burgeoning love affair. In his fifties, Eustace has fallen in love with Theo, whom he’s met on line. Before the two men can meet face to face, Eustace must undergo radioactive iodine treatment.
“Two friends of mine had this treatment, and the idea of having to spend 24 to 48 hours in a lead-lined room into which you can take nothing that you can’t leave behind grabbed me as an invitation for metaphor. It’s perfect for the adult Eustace.”
Patrick has written many screenplays over the years, but never had anything made, so the screening of his television drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, shown as part of BBC’s Queer Britannia was an enormous pleasure for the author. And it’s led to more screenwriting work.
“I’m adapting my last novel, A Place Called Winter, for the BBC; writing a feature film based on an amazing Rose Tremain short story, and I’m adapting an Edith Wharton novel. It’s a different skill, and yet not. There’s the same focus on character and dialogue, but there’s very little space to tell your story. And if there’s a big budget a lot of people are looking over your shoulder going, ‘what are you doing?’ When you’re writing a novel, nobody cares.”
Patrick hasn’t an ambition.
“I have such a wonderful life,” he says. “I am so personally happy.”
That life includes music, as, indeed, it always has. Arriving in London in his early twenties, Patrick joined the London Philharmonic Chorus.
“We were amateur singers performing with professional orchestras and conductors. And when I moved to Cornwall I carried on singing at an amazing classical music festival which was, again, a mixture of professional musicians and an amateur choir.”
He has since taken up the cello again, and once, playing as an extra cellist with a string quartet, used a score marked by the late great Jacqueline Du Pre. How important is music to him?
“It’s absolutely important,” he says. “I can’t separate it from the rest. I write to music. I always have music playing. I have music in my head. When I’m walking the dogs a very specific piece will be going round in my head, and it is often a piece I’m learning in orchestra. Music is a wonderful counterbalance to writing because writing is so solitary.
“The trinity in my life is writing, music making and gardening. Sometimes you have to put the manuscript down and do something else. When you’re doing something mindless like dead heading roses for an hour, your head is picking over a plot or character point. When you come back to your work, as if by magic, the problem has solved itself.”
Take Nothing With You. Tinder Press: €16.99. Kindle: €11.18.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 6th October, 2018.
© Sue Leonard. 2018.