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Patrick Gale & Aidan Hicks

andrew potter
Although gay and lesbian characters figure prominently in all but one of his twelve novels, Patrick Gale (born January 31, 1962) does not write the traditional coming-out or escape from oppressive environment narratives. Rather, he draws on his own varied background and experience to explore gay men and lesbians in complex, often dysfunctional, family units set within the three worlds he finds most meaningful--London, Winchester, and Cornwall, the worlds he experienced most personally.

In 2008, he married his partner of seven years, artist Aidan Hicks, and they live on a sprawling farm near Cornwall (Land's End). They raise beef cattle for the open market and winter cauliflowers (broccoli) for Sainsbury’s. His current ambition is to perfect the art of reversing a tractor and trailer around a corner. One night during the Perth Festival, while all his friends were all sipping bubbly in a private home in Freemantle, Patrick rushed up to them and said, panic-stricken, “the most terrible thing has happened!” “Oh no. What?” they all squealed. “ I have lost my wedding ring!” Only recently wedded, Patrick had suddenly noticed it had disappeared and the beads of sweat on his forehead were evidence of his concern. “Aidan will kill me” he said. So, while they were all enjoying another night of free-flowing wine and party food, Patrick was back at the hotel, in his underwear, frantically searching at the bottom of the hotel pool for that gold band of wedded bliss with the hotel staff. He eventually found it and joined his friends later in the night, looking a little water-logged but still as happy as ever!

Gale was born on January 31, 1962 on the Isle of Wight. Before reaching adulthood, he was minded by a murderer in Wormwood Scrubs Prison where his father was administrator, had discovered music at Pilgrim's School in Winchester, attended Winchester College School where his writing ability was recognized and encouraged, and studied English at New College, Oxford. He had hoped to become an actor, but this ambition was not to be realized except in the ways in which he immerses himself in the characters he creates.

Between 1979 and 1985, he worked as a waiter, a cook, a temporary typist, a singer with the London Philharmonic Choir, a house sitter in France, a musician, a ghostwriter of encyclopedia entries, and a bone-sorter for an archaeological team. He describes writing as both "an addiction and a livelihood."

He now lives in and sets most of his works in Cornwall, an area he has loved since he performed in a music festival there when he was ten.

The famous sentence that opens Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina--"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--could easily stand as the epigraph to Gale's novels, because he is fascinated with the dynamics, dysfunctions, and fluid emotions within the contemporary family unit. Relationships outside the family involving friends, lovers, teachers, and acquaintances are equally fraught with difficulties and dangers. Absent fathers, missing mothers, hostile siblings, and abandoned children, cut off from loving nurture, protective parents, and supportive brothers and sisters, populate his novels.

Totally unknown to his family, the father in Gale's debut novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork (1986), is a serial murderer of London astrologers who finally hangs himself in his jail cell. In Facing the Tank (1988), an established art historian becomes pregnant by a Cardinal who abandons her, and an elderly mother discovers that she enjoys playing dead so she can frighten her son. The Cat Sanctuary (1990) provides the reader two sisters who have been abused throughout childhood by their father, the one through physical beatings, the other through sexual molestation.

A mother in A Sweet Obscurity (2003) leaves a letter utterly renouncing her daughters, and another while drunk fellates her nine-year-old son. Sophie in Friendly Fire (2005), abandoned as a baby, never discovers anything about her biological parents, and Eli/Edward in The Facts of Life (1995) loses his parents in the Holocaust. Notes from an Exhibition (2007), Gale's most recent novel, probes deeply into the destructive effects a mother's manic depression has on husband, children, and her creative work.

From these examples, two conclusions may be reached: the novels offer a surfeit of oppressions, shocks, and disappointments, especially through unexpected deaths and suicides, but protagonists find ways to escape into normal lives, freed from guilt, vocational angst, emotional paralysis, and existential dread. They find creative surges, genuine love, and affirmation of self. The couples in Facing the Tank, for instance, flee their town in wonderfully comic marriages.

Gale's early novels were welcomed as genuinely talented comic works that skillfully mixed gay and straight characters in a world replete with eccentric characters, comic revelations, and well-earned laughter. Ease (1986), for example, follows Domina Tey, a successful playwright, through her mid-life crisis. Blocked as a writer, she leaves her posh home, rents a room in a run-down Bayswater boarding house, and waits for inspiration to emerge from what she can glean from the other boarders' lives. Her episodic encounters with the mortician, tart, Orthodox monk, gay Frenchman, a very territorial dachshund, and others give her a burst of creativity.

Though he seems more comfortable with tighter, dramatic developments, Gale exploits the episodic structure with increasing deftness in Facing the Tank, Little Bits of Baby (1989), and Friendly Fire.

Gale knows more about multiple plotting than most Elizabethan dramatists and builds most of his novels by creatively contrasting London and Cornwall, past and present, parallel affairs, two people in love with the same person, or sometimes by simply alternating chapters between characters.

In The Aerodynamics of Pork, he parallels the lives of Seth Peake (whose death is mentioned in a later novel) and Maude Faith by contrasting gender, age, talent, and quest for a satisfactory same-sex relationship. (Gale wrote this novel on the back of order pads while he was working as a waiter.)

In Kansas in August, a brother and sister are in love with and having affairs with the same man, laying bare the psychological complexities of sex and love and the tensions between heterosexual and homosexual loves. Gale uses the same device in The Cat Sanctuary, Rough Music (2000), Little Bits of Baby, A Sweet Obscurity, and Friendly Fire.

With multiple plots, a provocative title, a framing epigraph from a relevant author, and a gay or lesbian character, Gale creates a novel with a reader-friendly narrator, a realistic focus, and a complex analysis of human relationships.

Between The Cat Sanctuary and The Facts of Life something changed in Gale's novels: they acquired amplitude in length and depth, which allowed a fuller, deeper exploration of characters, situations, settings and themes; also they became darker in their thematic implications, and some characters become more intentionally destructive.

The early novels had their share of darkness--the serial murders in The Aerodynamics of Pork, the pilot deliberately crashing his small plane in Ease, the violent mugging in Kansas in August, the several deaths and feral destructiveness in Facing the Tank; however, they offer hope in establishing promising relationships, escaping a dysfunctional family, and, at the very end of Little Bits of Baby, a triumphant same-sex nationally televised kiss.

There is even laughter in Facing the Tank when Fergus Gibson's mother has to be buried in a specially altered coffin because the morticians could not release her hold on the pipes she ripped from a bathroom wall or when the groom's parents meet the very wealthy, very black Jamaican parents of their son's fiancée.

Rough Music, Tree Surgery for Beginners (1998), The Facts of Life, Sweet Obscurity, Friendly Fire, and Notes from an Exhibition solidify and develop Gale's commitment to the "great tradition" of English realism. They foreground family sagas, become more concerned with the ways past impinges on present, maintain Gale's transparent style, develop powerful narrative presence, and probe more deeply the acts of charity and aggression within relationships.

The comic scenes lessen, the violent scenes acquire symbolic force, and triumphs are won at greater expense than in the early novels. The protagonists become more embedded in creative activities--a novelist, a photographer, a professional countertenor, a composer, a painter.

The Facts of Life powerfully details a young man's descent into the nightmare of AIDS infections, leading to a death that connects him to his grandparents' generation. We see his collapse through the eyes of his disapproving grandfather, a famous composer also known for his affair with a famous film star, his mother, his devoted sister, and the man loved by him and his sister.

In Friendly Fire, Sophie, an orphan, witnesses the destruction of a schoolmaster brought down by the rivalries of her two close friends. Friendly Fire is a very traditionally realized novel; however in The Facts of Life and Notes from an Exhibition, Gale plays with his narratives by rearranging the chronology, to show the reader just how powerful an impact the past has on the present.

Throughout the twelve novels and the short stories in Dangerous Pleasures (which form an excellent introduction to Gale's style, characters, and issues), Gale addresses the themes frankly and directly, delineates his characters, especially his gay men and lesbians, honestly and fully, and never veers from his narrative drive, which keeps a reader wanting to read further.

Gale is still a relatively young man, and an amazingly prolific one, so his audience should watch closely for his next ten or so novels.

Citation Information
Author: Higdon, David Leon
Entry Title: Gale, Patrick
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2008
Date Last Updated September 15, 2008
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/gale_patrick.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date January 31, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 2008 glbtq, Inc.

Further Readings:

Rough Music (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Patrick Gale
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 25, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0345442377
ISBN-13: 978-0345442376
Amazon: Rough Music

Beautifully written and deeply compassionate, Rough Music is a novel of one family at two defining points in time. Seamlessly alternating between the present day and a summer thirty years past, its twin stories unfold at a cottage along the eastern coast of England.

Will Pagett receives an unexpected gift on his fortieth birthday, two weeks at a perfect beach house in Cornwall. Seeking some distance from the married man with whom he's having an affair, he invites his aging mother and father to share his holiday, knowing the sun and sea will be a welcome change for. But the cottage and the stretch of sand before it seem somehow familiar and memories of a summer long ago begin to surface.

Thirty-two years earlier. A young married couple and their eight year-old son begin two idyllic weeks at a beach house in Cornwall. But the sudden arrival of unknown American relatives has devastating consequences, turning what was to be a moment of reconciliation into an act of betrayal that will cast a lengthy shadow.

As Patrick Gale masterfully unspools these parallel stories, we see their subtle and surprising reflections in each other and discover how the forgotten dramas of childhood are reenacted throughout our lives.

Deftly navigating the terrain between humor and tragedy, Patrick Gale has written an unforgettable novel about the lies that adults tell and the small acts of treason that children can commit. Rough Music gracefully illuminates the merciful tricks of memory and the courage with which we continue to assert our belief in love and happiness.

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