It was a trip to Weston-super-Mare that set novelist Patrick Gale on a journey that eventually led to his latest book.
“A lot of my books start with a place,” says Gale. “I had never been to Weston before and I was invited to do a reading at the library there. I arrived a bit early so had time to take a look around and it was really interesting. It is full of old people’s homes and I started to think about what it might be like to grow up in a place like that. My story is about a shy, unhappy little boy living in a residential home for the elderly that his parents run.”
Take Nothing With You is set partly in the Somerset coastal town where the central character Eustace spent his childhood in the 1970s. In the present day, Eustace, now in his fifties, is living in London, about to embark on a new relationship with a young man he has met through a dating app and has just received an unsettling health diagnosis which requires him to spend 24 hours in isolation in hospital as he undergoes radical radiotherapy treatment. During that time he reflects on his life and in particular thinks back to a significant period in his childhood when he began music lessons with a charismatic teacher who opened up a whole new world for him.
Many of Gale’s novels have an autobiographical element and he has spoken very openly about how he has mined his family’s stories for material. It is, of course, not unusual for writers to do this, but Gale is refreshingly honest about it and this latest novel is perhaps one of his most personal yet.
“There is a lot of shared history there,” he says. “Like Eustace I did a lot of music as a child – it kind of saved my life – and like him I was a cellist. Also like him I had an amazing teacher and she sent me to her teacher who ran these wonderful residential courses in her house up in Scotland.”
Music remains a passion for Gale – he is still a keen cellist, for many years he ran the St Endellion Summer Festival near his home in Cornwall and is secretary of the Penzance Orchestral Society.
“I wanted to write about music not for its own sake but to show how it can teach children resilience and how to withstand disappointment, which so often has to be faced in life,” he says. “Unlike in previous novels when I have written about music, Eustace, although he is good, is not an outstanding musician, so this is more about the benefits of amateur music making. ”
Until he was 15 Gale was set on a career as a professional musician, having studied at specialist music schools from the age of seven. “I really thought it was all I could do,” he says. “I had always written for pleasure but I never thought that would become a job. A turning point for me was when one of my music teachers said to me ‘it’s ok to do this for fun.’ That was quite liberating.” He says he is dismayed at the way in which music education has been sidelined in the curriculum and hopes that the novel demonstrates the transformative effect it can have. “Music really can change the lives of shy children or those who don’t shine academically or on the playing field – it gives you a kind of spiritual and emotional strength.”
Patrick Gale appears at Ilkley Literature Festival on September 30.
Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale
pulbished by tinder press, £18.99
yvette huddleston 4/5
It is always such a pleasure to sit down to read a Patrick Gale novel.
He is such an accomplished storyteller and he wears his skill so lightly. His writing transports the reader to a world that is so richly layered, with characters that are so authentic and relatable it makes you reluctant to leave their company. That is the mark of a novelist at the top of his game and with Take Nothing With You, he once again engages the reader with a compelling coming-of-age story of great sensitivity and insight. The narrative is split between two locations and time frames as the central character, fifty something Eustace, is booked in for cancer treatment that means he will be in isolation for 24 hours with only a cheap MP3 player for company on which his best friend Naomi, a music teacher, has recorded some favourite tracks. As he listens, he is taken back to his childhood and memories of a special period during which his life was transformed by learning to play the cello. Facing his own mortality at the very moment that he has unexpectedly fallen in love, Eustace revisits events and people that have shaped his life and made him who he is.
The novel is a celebration of the transformative power of music, the importance of friendship and how each of us has our own individual soundtrack against which our lives are played out.