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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
More Tea Vicar?
by Stephen Douds
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In Northern Ireland the past is always with us. This trivial, even trite, observation was given a breath of life in February when the Chair of the Policing Board, Prof. Desmond Rea, suggested that a commission be set up to deal with Northern Ireland's violent past. He also suggested an amnesty for those involved in more than 30 years of violence, as part of a move to "reconcile the losses of the past and embrace the future". The publication last week of Glenn Patterson's new novel, within days of the Saville Inquiry concluding its gathering of evidence in Derry, and as legal action continues to force publication of the Corey report into allegations of security force collusion in eight of the most controversial killings of the Troubles, heralds a contribution prescient almost to the point of psychic.v
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Indeed that word psychic - was used by Carlo Gebler when he launched the book in Belfast: he summarized the novel as dealing with a lot of the "psychic debris" that lingers on in this community long after peace has broken out. The Cregagh Road in East Belfast (close to where Patterson now lives) is the setting for the apparently simple story of two men with a past. One is the Rev. Ken Avery, 30something Presbyterian minister, former bank-clerk, married with one child, a pregnant wife, and a red Orion (the car's rather stiff rear-view mirror assumes an absurdly large importance late in the novel.) The other is Larry who wanders into Avery's church one Sunday morning, smelling of drink, and lodges himself in Avery's life with his claim that M15 tampered with his brain in order to remove memories of a 1970s atrocity. The trouble for Avery, as a man who feels a keen responsibility towards truth and justice, is that Larry cannot remember much about the killings. Without hesitation or caution, indeed with a degree of recklessness, Avery throws himself into finding out what happened to Larry and whether there is likely to be any truth in his allegations. Thus is the collision between Avery's personal life and his professional life set up; his second child and Christmas on the way as he tries to solve the mystery of Larry's claims.
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The tension between one man with a steady past and waiting for a brighter familial future, and another man with little family detail and a confused past keeps the novel moving at a fair lick. Patterson has caught well the dull minutiae of church life; dwindling congregations, strong opinions on how things should be done the way they have always been done and the well-meaning kindness of old, church-going people towards their clerics. 'It's like being stoned to death with cotton wool' one priest once observed.
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Patterson's knack of capturing a changing or near-changing Belfast is again evident in this book, situated as it is in the last months of 2000 with Bill Clinton due to arrive for a second time and the Odyssey due to open. His knack of dropping in knowing detail such as the daily lunchtime radio phone-in programme with a presenter "rumoured to have been head of Belfast's drugs squad in a former life" relaxes the reader into the novel, sending out a re-assuring message that the author knows the Belfast he is writing about.
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The exploration of the long-term legacy and personal cost of having being caught up in the Troubles, Gebler's 'psychic debris', takes the novel into potentially fertile territory. With the remembering industry growing apace, Patterson has raised important questions about the notion of false and lapsed memory and whether in fact knowing more about the past will actually facilitate a better, happier future. But for this reviewer at least the hero at the heart of this novel, Rev Ken Avery, was an unconvincing character, just too much of an all-round, spot-on, trendy good guy. The dust jacket trumpets this Fr. Ted feel to Avery's personality with reminders that he is a Velvet Underground fan, a student of stand-up comedy who can't quite get used to being 'Reverend'. Yet after establishing such an unusually avant-garde personality (and would that there more real-life ministers and priests in Belfast with such eclectic interests!) he is given a straight mystery to solve and the inevitable personal 'issues' of marital misunderstanding and congregational nervousness to work through. As he does so he lapses back into a familiar, do-gooding, thoroughly nice minister, with little of the edge promised in the early chapters.
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Recently a journalist remarked that the one Issue likely to face Northern Ireland for at least another decade, more so than any of the other conflict areas of the world he had reported from, was how to deal with the past. In Africa and the former Yugoslavia, where he had worked for nearly ten years, once the killing was over everyone agreed to put it in the past. In Northern Ireland he saw a community embarking on a process of looking into that past with who knows what results. Even if Glenn Patterson has created an unpersuasive relationship at the heart of That Which Was he has tapped into a much larger question that will be around for a very, very long time.
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