A while ago my friend Patrick Gale, who I met at a reading a million years ago, when I was a tiny newbie and he was a glamorous experienced well-known writer, mentioned an ancestor of his, Harry, who had had to go to Canada at the start of the 20th century, and it wasn't clear why, or who had made him. Nothing gets us going like a family mystery, and his mother's Cowboy Grandpa, who fought Indians, built log cabins, slaughtered bears with his bear hands and so on, was a perfect one. Plains Cree garments and bearskin mittens in the dressing up box backed up the tales. And many years later, Patrick came across a little handwritten memoir, from which he hoped he might learn why his grandmother had been brought up by aunts and uncles after her own mother's death, and why his great grandfather was never spoken of.Well, he found out all sorts of things: that Harry and his brother had married two sisters, that his great-grandmother had been in love with another man at the time of the wedding; that some family members were rather controlling. A fortune was inherited but money ran short, the baby was born, and then Harry was obliged - but why? - to head out to the wild wastes of Canada. And why without his wife or child? And why, after his wife's premature death, was their daughter not sent to join him, nor even encouraged to keep in touch with him? And when Harry visited the UK in the fifties, why was no bond kindled? Why, as an old man, did he return alone to Canada?
What novelist could resist? What Patrick did with this half-formed tale was to find out all the facts - he took a long research trip to Canada and found Harry's homestead, still a working farm, near the town of Winter, now a ghost town. But what he really needed was the emotional heart of the story - the why. The one he found was simple, completely believable and utterly tragic. If Harry were gay, everything falls into place: the secrecy, the shame, the bloody old-fashioned Englishness of it all.
Harry at the time of his marriage, and
below, in 1953, with Patrick's mother,
grandmother and sister
As somebody once said, 'There'd be no skeletons in closets if we didn't put them there.' Patrick takes out the skeleton of his great grandfather and gives him, in A Place called Winter, a terrifying and profoundly sympathetic story which makes the modern person gasp with gratitude that we don't live then, while having to acknowledge that actually, across our modern world, there are many places where things are no better now at all. Patrick calls it a cross between Maurice and Brokeback Mountain - but like all of Patrick's novels it has a complex and understanding web of human relationships, and alongside the love story, three very different women help Harry to really learn who and what he is as a man. I hugely recommend taking a look for yourselves. You could start with the two excerpts below.
From Jermyn Street Harry wandered down through St James’s to the park and then up on to the Strand. He went into a chemist’s shop and bought a small bottle of laudanum and, because it looked alarming on its own, a packet of blackcurrant pastilles in a pretty tin. He leant against a shopfront, uncorked the bottle and sniffed the contents, which smelled of alcohol and cinnamon, then remembered the stuff had to be taken in water. There was a Lyon’s corner shop nearby, so he went in there and asked for a pot of tea and a glass of water to go with it. Experimentally he added just the recommended number of drops to the water and knocked them back.
It tasted bitter, rather unpleasant, but it was only right that death should. Given time and the right space in which to do it – a quiet corner of a park, perhaps – he could imagine tipping in the whole bottle and gulping it down. How much worse would it taste? And did it matter, since he’d be dying by then?
A current of warmth began to surge through him to the top of his head, and suddenly everything seemed to slow down, the bustle of horses and buses in the street, the chatter of people and clatter of china and cutlery at the tables around him. It seemed as though all the joints in his body relaxed, every ache, even the memory of how an ache felt, lifted away. He could quite easily have lain his head on the table before him and fallen asleep.
Then he noticed a crowd on the pavement opposite. They were milling around the window displays of a place that clearly had been a shop but now, instead of a shopkeeper’s name, announced CANADIAN EMIGRATION in large letters. Curious, doing his best not to slur his words, he paid for the tea, left the laudanum bottle behind, merely smiling at the nippy who called after him holding it up, and crossed the Strand for a closer look.
It took him a while to press through the crowd. There was a model of a farm – a pretty wooden house with a veranda and gingham curtains – surrounded by an ingeniously simulated field of golden wheat, and above it an announcement he could not quite believe, of free land. One hundred and sixty acres could be had, it said, for nothing but three years’ partial residency on them and what sounded like minimal work. He read all he could of both window displays – the second had a similar announcement above a model train encircling a placid herd of identical cows – then pushed inside, queued to speak to a clerk and was sent away with a brightly coloured leaflet about homesteading in the Last Best West. It gave advice about shipping lines that sailed to Halifax from Liverpool and a list of outfitters who could equip him for the adventure. One of these was at the other end of the Strand, near the Savoy, as was an agency for the shipping lines.
The outfitter, already used to such enquiries, handed him a list that was remarkably like those he and Jack had to tick off when packing for school. Dress suit, he read. Best tweed suit. Tennis suit. One cloth suit of ‘leather suiting’ and extra trousers for same. Three suits hard in wear. Cord trousers two pair. Ulster coat. Pea jacket. Mackintosh. Dressing gown (useful as extra warm garment in extremis).
Flannel shirts twelve. White shirts two. Flannel pyjamas four. Winter and summer drawers – four pair apiece. Four vests. Twenty-four pair socks. Six collars. A cholera belt. An India rubber bath. Portmanteau for cabin. White cravats and cuffs. Cardigan. Two jerseys (Guernsey knit for endurance). Twelve pocket handkerchiefs. Six Turkish towels. Waterproof sheet (large and of best quality). Pair large blankets. Rug. Six pair dress gloves. Three pair hedging and ditching gloves. Two pair Canada mittens. A housewife with buttons, needles etc. including saddlery needles and waxed thread. One pair boots. One pair high boots. Dress shoes. Unnailed shoes. Slippers. Ambulance braces. Helmet of Jaeger wool.
He had absolutely no idea how Canadian mittens might differ from the English variety and was faintly alarmed at the prospect of a cholera belt, whatever that might be, but reading the list evoked the adventure pleasantly even before it was under way.
As summer turned to glorious autumn, Harry bought himself a gun and learnt to shoot rabbit and duck, which Jørgensen showed him how to prepare for the kitchen, and his wife and Annie how to cook. He had worried that Jørgensen might renege on their handshake and ask him to move on with the coming of winter, not wanting an extra mouth to feed when there was less for a hired hand to do about the place, but his fears were groundless. Jørgensen still made good use of him every day. Until the snows came, there remained ditches to keep clear, fences to mend, and winter supplies to collect and store. And once snow lay thick around the place – shoulder deep or more where it blew into drifts – the animals still had to be fed and bedded in the barns, and ice melted for them so that they could drink. There was dung to be forked from the barns before it froze like rock, and logs to be piled for the kitchen stove. And of course there was always snow to shovel, snow of a texture and depth he would not have thought possible. As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze. Just once Harry lingered outside as a blizzard got under way, amazed at the scale and savagery of it, but was furiously dragged indoors by Jørgensen and given a lecture about losing fingers and toes to frostbite and the impossibility of getting a doctor out until spring.
As winter progressed, he came to understand the hunger with which Goody had eyed his meagre library when she first saw it. He had soon read everything he had with him, rereading much of it, and fell to trading books with the Jørgensens. With so little choice of entertainment and such long nights amid the stupefying silence and snow, far from any neighbours, the usual demarcations of books for women and books for men, books for children and books for their elders became irrelevant before the imperative of diversion. He read Jane Austen, which he had never thought to do before, and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Black Beauty as well as Jack London, Fennimore Cooper and Hans Christian Andersen. He even found himself, just like his employers, slowly turning the pages of the latest Eaton’s catalogue, which displayed everything from wooden house kits (up to eight bedrooms large) to cream separators, from guns to underwear, the latter modelled by coyly simpering women. (Men’s underwear, he noted, was listed but unmodelled, the men in the catalogues rarely appearing in anything less than evening dress.)
Winter had come on them suddenly, whereas spring arrived by slow, unconvincing degrees, far later than he’d have expected. What Jørgensen called chinooks, warm winds from the western mountains, arrived and began to shrink the snow into patches of dirty ice rather than melting the lot overnight the way warmer weather would have done at home. A thaw was announced with loud cracks around the place before it turned all Harry’s laboriously cleared ditches to so many little canals. With the spring melt came a flurry of unexpected visitors, as neighbouring households emerged from the long freeze like so many bears, hungry for news and less familiar faces and other people’s baking. Mrs Jørgensen cursed these visitors, who often arrived at the least convenient moment, when she had her hands full of chores or nothing but leftovers to set before them, but she welcomed them, too, being as hungry for faces and talk as anyone else.
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962, raised in Winchester, where he studied at the Pilgrims choir school and Winchester College; he then read English at New College Oxford. He lives on his husband’s farm near Land’s End and is a keen gardener and cellist. He is a director of the Charles Causley Trust and the Cornish arts and spirituality charity, Endelienta. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is secretary of the Penzance Orchestral Society.
He has written fifteen novels, including the bestselling Rough Music and Notes from an Exhibition. His fourteenth novel, A Perfectly Good Man, won a Green Carnation award and was a favourite recommendation among Guardian readers in the paper’s end of year round-up.. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, is a Radio 2 Book Club selection. He is currently writing an original, gay-themed, part-historical drama for BBC1 called Man in an Orange Shirt, and adapting Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for BBC2.
I loved Notes from an Exhibition and have a copy of A Perfectly Good Man waiting to be read - and as my family also has Canadian members it will definitely be one that several of us will want. Thank you for this introduction and review - and for the excerpts.
Wonderful - looking forward to reading this. What a gift to have such an interesting (and handsome) ancestor. Reminds me of that great Shaw quote - if you can't get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
Sold to me, thank you, Louisa. I haven't read him before but this one I will look forward to.
i feel really wonderful to read this article this is very nice article
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