Cornwall has been home to many artists, authors and other creative types for hundreds of years. From those born here to those more recently attracted to Cornwall’s wild moors and shores, the place has influenced them all. Amongst their number is the renowned author Patrick Gale, who, since arriving in this part of the British Isles, has explored a lot of what Cornwall has to offer as writer Jane Pugh found out.
Patrick Gale’s novels are evocative and transforming and so is his way of life. Patrick, now 51, lives with his husband, Aidan, on the very last farm in England, a short muddy distance from Land’s End. Aidan is a cattle farmer and so whilst the farmhouse is a solid and pretty affair, the aroma from the farm yard is best described as ripe.
“He’s one of those people who exude positivity and smiles all the time”
Patrick has got the plumber over this morning. The pipes, fitted in the late 1960s, are grumbling following a fierce storm the night before. The whistling kettle takes an age to boil and his two sleek and silky dogs sleepily curl up on their own twin armchairs. Patrick Gale is a very happy man and it’s not because he’s a critically admired and popular novelist or because he lives in a beautiful if wind-battered setting, he is just one of those people who, regardless of their circumstances, exudes positivity and smiles all the time.
It’s impossible to imagine him in a temper or a sulk and his boyish good looks reinforce the impression. His novels (seventeen to date) are not always so cheerful, several are set in Cornwall and are packed with characters that avoid or even sabotage opportunities they have for contentment. I asked him to talk about why. ‘If I wasn’t a novelist I would be something useful like a psychotherapist, I am obsessed with characters and the characters I create begin as damaged and then go through a process of healing.’
Whilst Patrick’s books are serious and thoughtful they never fail to engage as we, the reader, follow the stories of ordinary people who are having a tough time at the start but finish their journey with a greater understanding of themselves. ‘I would say my characters are normal people who are good and nice and then I event something horrible to happen to them,’ he jokes. Indeed, Patrick the man seems to feel guilty and blessed in equal measures.
When I question this, Patrick explains that as he grew up (he is the youngest of four), his mum was the type of woman who failed to see reading as a valid activity and much preferred seeing her youngest outside in the fresh air so he never felt as if reading and writing were valid activities. Patrick went on to study English at New College Oxford and had to justify flopping about on the couch, ploughing through his reading list.
Indeed, this is reflected in almost all of Patrick’s books, which convey the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and questions that occupy the minds of his characters. They are people of words not actions, on saying that, he is currently working on a new novel about a farmer in Canada so perhaps that is about to change. Furthermore, Patrick doesn’t feel very talented; difficult to believe considering he was spotted at eight years old by his music teacher for a considerable gift for music.
He quickly earned a scholarship at the Winchester School where he studied singing and took up two musical instruments. At university, he was desperate to be an actor and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Hugh Grant. ‘I was a singing waiter because I really wanted to get my Equity Card. I only ever wrote for myself, for fun, in fact, I was compelled to write. Then I decided to put in my first novel to the Betty Trask Award. I was being cheeky because the award was for romantic novels and I entered my book ‘The Aerodynamics of Pork’ which was all about gay love. I was poor and the prize money was substantial.
At the same time, a friend showed her literary agent boss my manuscript, he invited me for lunch and explained that he only read it because he liked the title but a year later he found a publisher.’ Patrick was only twenty-two when his first novel was published and has written ever since. ‘Writing my first few novels was like serving an apprenticeship. In those days, a publisher supported that. These days, if a new novelist doesn’t sell well, they’ll be dumped by the publisher after their second book.’
Patrick is remarkably ego-free, uncompetitive and generous and, to dispel popular myths, writing doesn’t come easy for any novelist. Patrick grafts. He thoroughly researches each of his books, writes copious notes and sits down to write for several hours every morning. I ask him how his life in Cornwall impacts on his work, ‘Cornwall is beautiful but, being one of the two poorest counties in England, it is also deprived. People sacrifice and struggle which gives me lots of ideas for stories.’
Whilst he enthusiastically expresses how much he loves Cornwall and feels that ‘at last, I really feel I belong here’, he also explains ‘Where-ever I lived, I would write about that place.’ He has been criticized for not writing exclusively about gay experiences but says ‘that would be too boring and limiting. I was surprised and delighted to find out that outside cities like Brighton, London and Manchester, West Cornwall has a very high influx of gay and lesbian people, one of the highest in the country but whilst I always include a gay character in my books, I write about the world around me, the world that I see.’
The world in Patrick’s immediate surrounds is entirely rural; huge skies and undulating landscapes, too lonely for some but not Patrick, he smiles contentedly saying that ‘whilst I sometimes miss the melting-pot diversity of cities like London, the isolation suits me.’ He expands; ‘I feel very in tune with the landscape. I’m rooted in Cornwall and I feel particularly rooted through music. The Penzance area has amazing orchestras!’ There’s sheet music in Patrick’s sitting-room-cum-kitchen, and perched against its stand is a beautiful cello.
Patrick is concerned and involved with issues that gay men and women face. This year, he opened the Gay Pride gathering in Truro and states ‘that I want to do something positive, suicide attempts are going up amongst 16 to 25 year olds, and, having grown up in Winchester, I know how hard it can be to be young and gay and living in the country.’
Earlier, I mentioned that Patrick writes for several hours every morning. It’s amazing he’s got the time. Not only is he involved in the West Cornwall music scene, he has for many years been a key member of Endelienta. This small but highly active and successful organisation based in the tiny North Cornwall hamlet of St. Endellion, organises two music festivals per year, one at Easter and one during the summer, attracting musical brilliance from around in the country with musicians playing in hall and church venues, packed with Cornish audiences.
This October, they launched a literary festival with writers such as Cornish based novelist, Philip Marsden and award-winning children’s writer, Chris Higgins. Music and writing being Patrick’s life-long passions, he has immersed himself in the task of producing three festivals per year and finds himself doing everything from booking performances to pouring wine during the interval.
“If I spend all my time writing, I feel bad that I’m not busy with my other commitments”
There is only one disadvantage to all of Patrick’s activities, whether they be societal, musical or literary, is that they steal away time from Patrick’s writing. He does feel guilty about this but argues with himself that ‘if I spend all my time writing, I feel bad that I’m not busy with my other commitments.’ As Patrick shares this with me, he nods his head towards an attractively constructed, wooden cabin where he writes his novels. I’m dying to have a look inside but the atmosphere of privacy and sanctuary surrounding the cabin forces me to keep a respectful distance.
Patrick explains that he starts all his books in longhand, scribbling away with paper and pen. I think about how many other writers do the same but I always wonder if it’s because they can’t touch type rather than for creative reasons. I put this to Patrick, ‘Oh, I can touch type! In fact, I’m a very fast typist!’ He counters cheerfully. ‘When I was very young and in need of a job, I did a Pitman’s typing course. I got work as a temp and I was the only Brook Street boy in the typing pool! Of course, if I mention this to young people today, they have no idea what a typing pool is – or even a type writer!’
Being a touch-typist myself, I am seriously impressed. Patrick insists he’s not clever but he sets the bar high; musician, festival organiser, novelist loved by both critics and readers and touch typist. Is there nothing the boy can’t do? When I ask Patrick if he helps Aidan on the farm he pauses for a minute. ‘When we first came here, I was Aidan’s farmhand and helped harvest the cauliflowers on a daily basis. These days, I leave the farming to Aidan.’ He appears to be perfectly happy about this.
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