REVIEW: Stratford Literary Festival, Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale

Peter Buckroyd reviews Patrick Gale, Take Nothing With You, United Reformed Church, 2nd May

In a wonderfully refreshing conversation with Meg Sanders, novelist Patrick Gale hit several modern literary critical theories firmly on the head. Not that he probably meant to; he was just talking openly and winningly about his writing and himself. ‘I can’t quite believe I’m making a living by doing something which is so much fun,’ he said.

Once literary work is completed, many students are told, it is finished and nothing more to do with its author. Nonsense. When he was creating the audio readings of his novels Gale felt strong urges to rewrite them. Many, he thought, on reacquainting himself with their details, were underwritten and he found it very hard to resist the urge to ‘improve’ them. He also said that making the audiobooks ‘I really connected with the characters’. Novels, students are told are literary constructs which have nothing more to do with their author once they are finished. Nonsense. Gale finds that his characters live on in his head, not as constructs but as real people. So much so that in the Tinder Press edition of his latest novel, Take Nothing With You, he has written a ’spin off short story’ which brings the reader up to date on one of the characters. He also said that after he had finished a novel he found himself worrying about the characters. Nothing more to do with the author? Rubbish. Some students are told that a writer’s biography has no relevance to the artefact itself. Gale was a cellist. His central character Eustace is a cellist. Gale had several teachers. He has put them in the novel often with little attempt to disguise them. For him the reality of the reader’s experience is enhanced by the biographical material. Literary works are unique and separate from all other works. Not so here. Gale invited splendid local professional cellist Matthew Forbes to play for us some of the pieces that Eustace plays in the novel and his expression showed delight in hearing them. The differences between Gale, Forbes and Eustace were deliberately blurred in this talk. Fiction made real for the audience.

Gale was funny, too. He said that his mother thought that all mothers in his novels were her and that it was not until after her death that he really wrote about her and that it would take five novels to get her out of his writing system. And passionate – about the burning need for the restoration of literacy programmes in prisons because of the close link between illiteracy and crime. And about the need for children to experience failure and to deal with it. But Gale didn’t preach. As perhaps the best contemporary novelist writing about gay characters he only mentioned ‘gay’ twice in his talk. As a writer known for his openness in writing about sex he said little about it except to make some amusing comments that there was, of course, sex.

I have read nearly all of Gale’s novels. I left this talk eager to read Take Nothing With You and eager when it comes out to buy the book about Charles Causley which he is writing at the moment, ‘a story where sex is suppressed’. I went to the talk to hear one of my favourite contemporary novelists. I left delighted to have heard one of my favourite people.