Our big night at the BAFTAs - Good Vibrations writer Glenn Patterson
WHILE BELFAST WRITER GLENN PATTERSON IS PLAYING DOWN HIS CHANCES OF WINNING AN AWARD FOR GOOD VIBRATIONS, HE AND WIFE ALI FITZGIBBON TELL UNA BRANKIN HOW THEY'LL ENJOY THEIR RED CARPET MOMENT
Glenn Patterson's office is so cold I can't feel my toes when I leave it, even with two pairs of socks and my suede boots on. It's an attic space in the Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast, where he supervises the Creative Writing courses, with a tired sofa under one of the eaves and a whiteboard with his daughter's quirky scribblings on one of the mostly unadorned walls.
It's almost as nippy inside as it is outside, and the easterly winds and an oncoming cold have made the 53-year-old's pale eyes even icier, and put red rims around them.
He is in grander accommodation this weekend in London for the BAFTAs, as a nominee with co-writer Colin Carberry in the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category for Good Vibrations, the uplifting story of music fanatic and Undertones producer Terri Hooley, who opened a record store in Belfast during the height of the Troubles.
U2's Bono loved the joyous film, claiming it had made punk rockers out of his two young sons, and rave reviews by distinguished film critics helped make it an unexpected smash hit.
Named after Hooley's famous Belfast record store, Good Vibrations had its world premiere during the Belfast Film Festival in 2012, before going on general release early last year. Film critic Mark Kermode of the BBC and The Observer named it his film of the year. It's also been nominated for an NME award for Best Music Film, and the soundtrack was Rough Trade's Compilation Album of the Year 2013.
Glenn is blasé about his chances of beating the four other writers, directors and producers up for the award, where the winner will be announced at a star-studded ceremony in London tomorrow night.
"I don't want to sound falsely modest, but I think it's unlikely," he says, sniffling. "I've won literary prizes before – I was a GPA Book Award nominee when the prize was £100,000 – I think John McGahern won it live on The Late Late Show with Pat Kenny. I was met in Dublin and told I didn't win and given a thousand Irish punts. I was very happy with that. If I'd won I wouldn't have applied for the job at University College Cork, where I met my wife Ali."
According to Ali, her husband will be very well turned out for the BAFTAs, having two suits to choose from. Dapper at the best of times, today he's in a camel-coloured coat with matching suede boots, gingham shirt, jeans and a fringed scarf with an elaborate print. In another life he might have been a bit of a dandy and he looks vaguely Nordic, with his straight blond hair, washed-blue eyes and angular bone structure. Beyond Northern Ireland, however, he can only trace his lineage to Scotland but agrees jokingly there could be a bit of Viking blood in there.
He thinks we have met before but the closest I've ever been to him was probably on the other side of the woods bordering Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy, where he grew up. Although slightly older, when he wasn't reading comics or books in the local library, he'd be running through the same thicket of redwood trees my schoolfriends and I used to visit for a stroll – and the odd smoke at breaktimes.
With his co-writer credit on the Good Vibrations screenplay, he's probably the most rock-and-roll of Queen's University's academic staff. He became writer-in-residence there in 1994, after his stint in the same role in Cork, and began to teach the university's MA in creative writing in 1997. His novels capture the spirit – positive and negative, good and bad – of Northern Ireland, with an authentic narrative that never judges. His first book, Burning Your Own, was published in 1988, when he was 27. Since then he has published a novel every three or four years and has drawn high praise from literary critics and writers including Wil Self, who calls him "Northern Ireland's prose laureate", and Colm Toibin, who describes him as "one of the best contemporary Irish novelists".
The son of a shipyard welder, Glenn left Belfast after Methodist College to escape a possessive younger girlfriend and study for a degree and then an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, also the springboard for authors including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. He spent the Eighties in England as a member of the Socialist Worker's Student Party and still veers to the left politically.
As he writes in Lapsed Protestant, his collection of journalistic articles: "If we were all to look out for each others' rights we might at last begin to get somewhere; to a position, say, where residents insisted on the loyal orders' right to march, only for the loyal orders to insist on the residents' right not to be inconvenienced by unwanted parades. Of course, there might be a few heated exchanges as the parties disputed which should bow to the other's generosity, but finally, I am sure, they would allow one another the right peaceably to disagree."
He moved to Manchester to write his second novel, Fat Lad, which was published in 1992, and met his wife the following year when he moved to the Republic to take up a writer-in-residence post at University College Cork "for the money, at the start" .
Ali's father, Ger Fitzgibbon, was a senior lecturer in the department of English but Ali had finished her course by 1993. Instead of meeting Love Story-style on campus, the arty Cork girl and the sociable "out every night" Belfast boy met in McCurtain's bar in the city. It was a serendipitous meeting, in more ways than one – the pub is named after the former republican mayor of Cork who was shot dead at 36 in front of his wife and children by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The killing caused widespread public outrage and Michael Collins later ordered his personal assassination squad to hunt down and kill RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who had ordered the attack. He was fatally shot with MacCurtain's revolver while leaving a Presbyterian church in Lisburn in August 1920, sparking a pogrom against the Catholic residents of the town – which included Glenn Patterson's grandmother. He tells her story in his 2009 memoir, Once Upon A Hill.
"She was in a mixed marriage and she was burned out of Lisburn," he explains, acknowledging the different religious backgrounds of himself and his wife, and the string of coincidences in his writing life. "I spent a lot of time as a child listening to stories like that. I loved hearing stories at home, but storytelling and writing is different. As Colm Toibin says, storytelling is oral; novel writing is literary.
"But reading is the best qualification for writing. Early exposure to the arts in all forms. I wasn't overly encouraged as a child. I just read a lot, especially comics like Commando, Richie Rich and Casper The Friendly Ghost, as well as CS Lewis, Enid Blyton and football books. It's a good habit to get into. Finaghy Library was great – and my kids love going to the library."
The youngest of four brothers, he's the only writer in his parents' family.
"The only creative one I can think of is my Uncle David – he was in a minstrel band in the 1940s. He died recently and Dad said 'I knew it would come out in the family somewhere'."
He is currently at work on a screenplay set during the plague in Venice in the 1630s, and a novel set in the DeLorean motor plant in the early 1980s. A related screenplay has already been commissioned, and his ninth novel, The Rest Just Follows, a coming-of-age story set in Belfast, goes on the bookshelves next week.
"It's just a book I've wanted to write for quite a while – it follows a group of characters over a period of 40 years," he shrugs, fidgeting with a Falmer badge he has taken off a shirt or something. "No, my characters don't come from the great unconscious – they come from the soup, like all characters. I keep my targets small when I'm writing. I'm not going to make the mistake of having grand ideas about work."
Good Vibrations co-writer Colin Carberry is a former student of Glenn's, having been in his class of 1995 – "he's a writer who just happened to be a student at the time", as his former tutor describes him.
I wonder if anyone can be actually be taught how to write creatively, though – aren't writers born?
"Are artists born? Are musicians born?" he asks, prickling.
Well, yes you could argue they are, I venture ...
"Artists go the art college, musicians go to music school," he counters. "Everyone can get better."
So what do you do when you're faced with a student who cannot write to publishable standard?
"Well, you can't say to anyone you can't write in a university context," he says, eyebrows raised. "You can give grades – and they might be able to deduce from my grade that they'd be better concentrating their energies elsewhere, let's say."
Thank God he ends off that sentence with a smile. I had read in a previous interview that Glenn is "fantastic" company but he's extremely busy with a huge list of to-dos before the BAFTAs and the shutters have come down often on those icy eyes and he seems restless and distracted.
An avid music fan, I suspect he'd rather be home playing the guitar – he took it up at 48 – or choosing which suit he'll wear to the BAFTAS.
The Rest Just Follows is published by Faber & Faber on February 20
...And life as the wife of a writer
Ali Fitzgibbon has spent all morning frantically filling in an arts funding application which has a 4pm deadline, but graciously takes time out for an interview in support of her husband and the upcoming Belfast Children's Festival, of which she is the director. She's a fine-featured delicate beauty in vintage-looking clothes, the type of woman who would be described as "fragrant" by a pretentious observer, with her wide dark fringe, pale skin, round soulful eyes and a pretty mouth she has daubed with ruby red matte lipstick.
She's very different physically to her rangy, fair-haired husband but is undoubtedly his soulmate.
"It wasn't love at first sight but we definitely fell in love within hours, and have been ever since," she says of their first meeting in Cork in 1993. "I came to Belfast with him when he went back and I suppose we've never really been apart since, except for work things."
She sounds vaguely English – there's no real trace of the typically sing-song Cork lilt left in her voice but neither has she the flat south Belfast delivery of her husband. We meet in the draughty higgedly-piggedly Bookfinders cafe and second-hand book shop on University Road, across the road from Glenn's office in the Heaney Centre. I ask her about a Twitter post I think is from her, describing her husband as "the best looking writer in Northern Ireland".
She's immediately puzzled. "No ... that wasn't me, but yes, he is the best looking writer in Northern Ireland– isn't that right, Mary?"
"Oh, without a doubt," calls the proprietor from the counter.
"Not only in Northern Ireland – he's the best looking writer in the entire world to me," she adds. "I'm married to him!"
It turns out the Twitter post was written by someone from a Catalan theatre group, Sienta La Cabeza, who will create an eccentric fantasy beauty salon on-stage at the Belfast Children's Festival, which kicks off next month. Glenn will later tell me how hard his wife works constantly to secure funding for the festival, and it's obvious how deeply committed she is to it.
The glamour of the BAFTAs will be in stark contrast to the daily grind for the Young At Art company director, and she's looking forward to dressing up.
"Glenn's more fashion-conscious than me – wait till you see him – but I have a a divine black and lilac silk dress by local designer Ruedi Maguire," she says over a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich. "It's longer at the back and cut-away at the front. Everything and almost everyone involved in the film Good Vibrations was from Northern Ireland and I think it's very important to wear something by a local designer on the red carpet. I'm hoping to borrow some jewellery from a local designer, too."
Glenn and Ali have two daughters, Jessica (12), a writer-in-the-making who "consumes books", and Miranda (8), a budding artist and film-maker.
"I'm saying to them 'But you have to go and qualify as a surgeon or something first!'." she says like a true Irish mammy. "But I suppose you can't really dictate – it's important for them to have strong sense of the range of possibilities in life."
As a child and daughter of an academic, Ali (short for Alison) was encouraged to study ballet, drama and piano but never wanted to perform.
"All these shows like The Voice and The X Factor put all the emphasis on performance but the industry is much wider than that," she emphasises. " There's a huge, invisible skillbase required around it. I was always more into design and producing."
With a degree in English, Italian and Drama under her belt, Ali followed Glenn to Belfast in the mid-Nineties and worked in PR and for the Replay Theatre and the Graffiti Theatre companies before setting up her Young At Arts company.
"With Glenn and I, both our lives revolve around deadlines," she says. "I was away at a festival last weekend and he's away a lot, too. It has its merits – he was in the house when the kids were very small and he can be there if they're sick. He needs his own space and that's fine. We both work in creative fields but not in the same world, which is good. Writing novels can be isolating, but you're putting yourself onto the pages and then the work is out there for all to see. That can be tough."
There will be no panto – Ali hates it – in the Children's Festival, which which has attracted vibrant acts and artists from all over the world for the last 16 years. Highlights include A Mano (By Hand), a very unusual puppetry theatre production which tells a love story, set in recessionary times, through clay figures, and the Swedish Bartolomeo company's dance production in Belfast's CastleCourt shopping centre.
"A shopping centre is a much more democratic space than an arts venue," says Ali. "Arts should be part of growing up for everyone equally. If money were no object, I'd have productions running all year round, not just for a couple of weeks. Northern Ireland has far less arts funding available than the rest of the UK – I don't know why.
"But for these eight days in March at least, Belfast will be home to one of the largest programmes of arts and creativity for children in the UK and Ireland. Artists are travelling from all over the country and across Europe to be with us and the doors of our city's galleries and theatres are open to all kids, their families and teachers. We're lucky to have good private sponsors to bridge the gap with the Arts Council funding."
More time off would be her personal option if the money came rolling in. The BAFTA nod – and possible win for Glenn and co-writer Colin Carberry – could make this possible, but the couple aren't getting carried away with the surrounding hype.
"Glenn's not a self-promoter – it has been up to me to push him along the way," she admits. "I'm really proud of him. The whole experience of Glenn working on the film for that length of time [seven years], to the nomination, has been great. There has been a really good feeling about the film and level of recognition – and no back-biting or backlash, which is wonderful."
She greets her husband with a grin and a kiss when he joins us in Bookfinders. They'll make a striking pair on the red carpet in London, where they'll be rubbing shoulders with Helen Mirren and Julia Roberts, and doing us proud back home. Let's hope they'll find everything they wish for.
The Belfast Children's Festival runs from March 7-14. For details, visit belfastchildrensfestival.com or tel: 028 9024 3042