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Having previously published nine novels and a memoir, this is Glenn Patterson’s second collection of journalistic musings, originally published in such disparate entities as The Guardian, The Economist, British Airways High Life, various literary journals, or occasionally adapted from lectures.

Naturally for a Belfast writer, the preoccupations of the collection tend to be art and culture, the twisted course of Northern Irish politics, and, most successfully, the space where these subjects meet. There are special opportunities here for the Northern Irish, but most readers will find plenty to enjoy as they flick through these journalistic postcards from the past 10 years.

The pieces are short – rarely more than a few pages, except where the seriousness of the subject matter seems to warrant a lengthier passage – and the volume lends itself to being dipped in and out of. Amid humorous observations of meeting a stranger on the Luas, or becoming vegetarian, Patterson blends anecdote with pithy political points to good effect.

On hearing a reading at a writing class: “Of course in today’s world where everything is recorded or uploaded or tweeted and re-tweeted such once-and-once-only occurrences are increasingly rare. There is as never before a pressure to publish. Which is the point at which the question of improvement becomes unavoidable. Every piece of writing can be made better.”

The reader wonders if this collection is borne of that need to graft, observe and catalogue that Patterson displays throughout his work.

One of the major recurring themes is Northern Ireland’s place in the world, as seen from the perspective of someone who was not only born and raised there, but has made a life in Belfast, with the wife, children, and friends who populate Patterson’s non-fiction, grounding the work in a way that is unapologetically local, presenting the six counties as a lived-in nation, far removed from the slogans and rhetoric we are more used to hearing about the North.

Patterson refers twice to Colm Toibin’s observation of the riots which followed Bloody Sunday, in which the British Embassy in Dublin was burnt to the ground: “a turning away from the North by people in the South in the aftermath, a sense that you either followed your rage to its logical conclusion – ever greater retaliatory violence – or you focused your energies elsewhere: Europe, for instance.”

Well, yes – but I can also hear the Northern Irish Catholic response, “Right, but fourteen civilians were shot dead by British soldiers – is the burning of a building really such an overreaction?” Of course not. People in the South simply didn’t want to get involved in a civil war, but it might look different when it happens on your doorstep.

Similarly, a recent piece for The Guardian, originally published in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, strikes me as a little disingenuous.

“So we had people who believe in the political unity of the island of Ireland supporting the political partition of the island of Britain, while people who supported the continuing partition of Ireland tramped the streets in the defence of the unity of Britain.”

Well, yes, of course we did – the point being, as both sides knew well, that the possibility of Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic would have been greatly bolstered by Scottish independence. Don’t let’s pretend this was about the unity of nations, it was, for Scottish nationalists and Irish republicans, about getting out from under English rule.

The finest moments happen when the personal and the political collide.

On European integration: “Actually, if they were to rebrand the European Union as the Easyjet Union and offer mini-weekend-break membership, I am certain that Britain would be transformed overnight into a nation of EU enthusiasts.”

On his beloved teenage band the Undertones: “In 1979 there was one song in particular that caught the imagination: the follow-up to the follow-up to ‘Teenage Kicks’, ‘Jimmy Jimmy’. So popular was the song [in Ethiopia] that… it spawned something of a youth movement, kids who were known as Jimmy-Jimmys. And here’s the thing, they had no idea where this record – as redolent of the time and place of its gestation as any of those early Seamus Heaney poems – was coming to them from.”

On memory and identity: “A person with my name once broke the aerials off two parked cars while making his way home, drunk, from a university party… Yet another saw his own father stagger in from work, two hours late, and collapse into the same chair, crying over the woman whose body he had picked out of the rubble of the red Lion Bar on the Ormeau Road, bombed one November 1971 rush-hour by the IRA.”

The message, if there is one, comes from a writing class Patterson hosts despite the added security in place due to a state visit by David Cameron.

He brings a brick to class – not without some panic that the security forces may doubt his motives – and asks his students what they see. The results are surprisingly varied as the brick inspires all the students to think creatively. “Any time you think you have nothing to write about, I said, remember this brick.”

With so much history happening around him, Patterson will never be stuck for words, and that benefits all of us.

Here’s Me Here by Glenn Patterson (New Island, June 2015)

Jarlath Gregory

Jarlath Gregory is a writer from County Armagh, now living in Dublin. He's the author of Snapshots (Dublin, Sitric Books, 2001); G. A. A. Y: One Hundred Ways to Love a Beautiful Loser (Sitric Books, 2005);...

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