Glenn Patterson has sometimes been dubbed ‘Northern Ireland’s prose laureate’, and in this novel it’s not hard to see why. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young takes us back to Belfast in the 1820s, a city in which ‘all things great and small came down to the tide’, and that tide seems to be turning. Belfast’s fifty thousand citizens are disenfranchised, ruled over by conservative Lord Donegall and his son the Earl of Belfast, and the call for reform and greater independence threatens to bubble up into rebellion at any moment. Patterson shows us a city brimming with industrial energy and charged with political undercurrents, all seen through the eyes of Gilbert Rice, a young man also on the brink of great changes whose fortunes become intermingled with the city around him.
Patterson eschews some of the more experimental forms that distinguished previous works like Fat Lad and Number 5, settling instead for the sturdy familiarity of the bildungsroman, a first-person narration in which we’re taken from Gilbert’s cradle to grave, then a little bit beyond. Its hero, an orphan who has grown up under the stern eye of his teetotaller great-uncle, is from the first torn between a stern moral code and a fascination with the seamier side of life, of which plenty is on offer in the city of Belfast. Patterson excels at capturing the texture of the times in meticulously observed period detail, as well as a plot whose attention to the streets and topography of its setting might allow the reader to draw a map of the city were they so inclined.
The novel nicely captures some of the confused passions and sudden transformations of adolescence. One moment Gilbert is tumbling down Cave Hill during the larks of an Easter Monday egg-and-spoon-race with his friends, the next he is falling violently in love with a politically radical Polish barmaid. Maria, who works at the inn that gives the book its rather cumbersome title, is a straight-talking, cigarette-smoking exile and would-be revolutionary, in possession of a pair of striking blue eyes and a worldly air that prove irresistible to the young Gilbert. Gilbert’s infatuation with Maria allows Patterson to draw parallels between the complex and troubled histories of Poland and Ireland, but also to suggest Belfast’s reputation at that time as a beacon of ‘reason’: ‘The Rights of Man was its holy book’, Gilbert insists. It’s not reason but passion that proves to be Gilbert’s master, however, as frustrated romantic ambition turns into political zeal and an ill-fated plot to rid Belfast of the man who he believes stands in its way to progress…
The pace of Patterson’s novel sometimes sags under the weight of its historical detail, but the pleasures of his intricately crafted and sepia-toned writing carries its own reward. Like the city that gave it birth, its tone is overwhelmingly nostalgic: this year, the centenary of the Belfast-built Titanic‘s sinking, has seen Belfast especially busy celebrating its heritage. Patterson, whose writing has often tried to recuperate narratives of the city that have been obscured by the Troubles, perhaps seeks to emphasise a harmonious past with which a more harmonious post-Agreement modern-day Belfast might positively identify. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is a historical education, as well as an immersive experience, in what Gilbert calls, ‘this great perplexing city’.