PATRICK GALE: AT HOME IN CORNWALL
Author Patrick Gale has called Cornwall home for more than 30 years. His love for the county often feeds his literature
Prolific author Patrick Gale has called Cornwall home for more than 30 years. His love for the county often feeds his literature, and speaking exclusively to Cornwall Life, the Notes From an Exhibition, Perfectly Good Man and Rough Music author explains that while his latest novel may be set between London and Canada, Cornish elements still whisper through the pages
Just one year after graduating from Oxford University, Patrick Gale had achieved his life dream: he was a published author. It took another year - and a spell in France, for him to move west from his Notting Hill bedsit to Cornwall but he’s stayed here ever since. Today, with a shelf full of bestsellers (his own), Gale divides his time between penning novels, walking his dogs, indulging in his love of classical music, and helping his partner out on their farm.
Gale appreciates that Cornwall’s picturesque coastline has long attracted creative types - though often as much for the reduced rent as for rural living. Artists have always been at the poorer end of the spectrum and the lovely thing about Cornwall is it’s always been very cheap,’ he begins. Obviously, if you’ve a beautiful house with a sea view the price goes up, but certainly back in the 1940s and 1950s it was a very affordable and very appealing place to live. Then, lots of artists were settling here as they could live for a year on little income compared to London.’
Combine that frantic bustle of the capital’s streets with the gorgeous, scenic views that pattern every corner of the county, and it’s little surprise that a longstanding creative community quickly emerged in Cornwall.
I love living in this sort of artists’ colony,’ says Gale. We have a lot of friends here who are painters or potters – not many writers funnily enough, my writer friends tend to live further away, but the internet helps keeps us all in touch.’
Paid just £2,500 for his debut novel, Gale posits his original move to Camelford back in 1986 as motivated by both loving Cornwall’ and as a way of saving,’ and these days being in such close proximity to Land’s End is integral his literary life.
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Life on the farm doesn’t mean Gale must rise with the cock’s crow to feed the animals though. I’m an early riser anyway,’ he laughs. I tend to get up at half six and start the day with a smile. It’s very nice having the chance to do practical work around the farm, and if a novel isn’t going well it’s like gardening on a big scale; I can go outside and get some therapeutic work on the cattle.’
The Cornish environment often jumps out from the pages of Gale’s work, notably in Notes From an Exhibition and A Perfectly Good Man. His latest novel, however, A Place Called Winter, follows his own family history, focusing on wild, untamed Canada rather than Cornwall. The book presents Gale’s great grandfather, Harry, who left his wife and daughter for a lonely, laborious life in Canada following a hushed liaison. Even though this book contains nothing of Cornwall, I found I was drawing a lot on my experience of the Cornish weather and that sense of extremity you get living out at Land’s End, walking on the cliffs. So although Harry ends up in the Prairies and as landlocked as you can get, I think there’s a similar sense of isolation.’
The novel was inspired by an inheritance of letters and documents Gale unearthed between his mother and grandmother. In the middle of all those letters I found this unfinished memoir by my grandmother which tantalised me ... I started out thinking: okay, I’m just going to tell this story because it’s fascinating and engaging, and then I realised there was actually a big hole in it - there was lots that wasn’t being said. That was when I stared injecting my own imagined version of the story into the bare bones of it.
The book is full of facts - most of the characters we meet in the English section are real people, my actual ancestors, and it only really turns into fiction at the point where Harry gets involved with an actor behind his wife’s back.”
He laughs that his grandmother would be “appalled” be his latest work. It’s funny, I think she’d really enjoy the first section,’ he allows, saying, I’ve tried to be as sensitive as I can in evoking my great, great grandmother Mrs Wells because she comes across in various photos and accounts as a hugely colourful figure who was widowed in her early forties, having given birth to 12 children. So I think grandma would have enjoyed that; but turning her dad into a secret gay man might have appalled her because she was of a different generation!
Yet I hope at the same time she’d have appreciated my attempt to show just how brave and courageous he must have been - in real life never mind in the story - just to have done what he did, to go out to the Canadian wilderness.’
Gale, Patron of the Penzance Literary Festival and Chairman of the North Cornwall Book Festival, found himself able to connect with the story of his ancestors, and find solace in the county’s relative peace and quiet.
The thing that really suits me about where I live in Land’s End is the isolation, because I’m very easily distracted. So it’s quite good for me to be writing in a beautiful place where there’s not a lot going on.’
That’s not to say the cherished author is without offers of people stopping by to visit; for Gale’s London friends, it’s the perfect writer’s retreat! They quite regularly offer to come to dog sit for us when we go on holiday,’ he smiles. I can’t imagine why! But seriously, look around you, is there anywhere more beautiful in the UK?’
When the quiet gets too much, Gale’s musical pastime comes into play. Where I live in West Cornwall we have a very lively classical music scene with orchestras and chamber music, and there’s lots going on,’ he says.
He can often be heard performing or practising the cello... that is when he’s not found tending to his plants, or admiring large-scale gardens in the county. One of the glorious things, especially about West Cornwall, is the lovely gardens you can visit, and also the wonderful nurseries you can buy plants from. That’s very much my favourite hobby after music.’
With another novel plot already coming together – I want to write a novel exploring the way amateur music making is so useful psychologically and so therapeutic’ - here’s hoping the Cornish climes continue to inspire. We don’t doubt they will.
Patrick Gale’s new book, A Place Called Winter was published on 26 March by Headline.