A Perfectly Good Man, Patrick Gale

Pendeen

Modest Carlsson, a sinister misfit, has settled into a remote former mining community by the sea. Here at last, he has discovered a landscape that moves him.

This bleak West Cornwall fastness seemingly flung onto a narrow shelf between forbidding rocky high ground and no less savage coast, this community with the ravaged landscape of abandoned mine works at its heart, roused him as no bluebell wood or picture postcard village ever had. He would always prefer buildings to grass but here he had at last found a landscape that confirmed something in his heart. It spoke of death and danger, of failed ventures and a reassuring lack of glory.

Patrick Gale’s novel centres on Barnaby Johnson, a much-loved parish priest living with his family in Pendeen, near Land’s End in Cornwall. It begins with a shocking event. On the day of a local festival, Barnaby is called to the home of twenty-year old Lenny, who is wheelchair bound after a rugby accident. Lenny no longer wants to live. He drinks poison that kills him before paramedics arrive. When a shattered Barnaby is asked at the inquest how he helped Lenny in his final moments, he answers, ‘By prayer. He asked me to pray for him.’

Already a campaign of vilification has begun against the ‘Vicar of death’ as he is dubbed in the press. The suicide escalates tensions in Barnaby’s family and sets in motion a series of consequences for him and those he loves.

We follow significant events in Barnaby’s life, from his own perspective and from that of his family. We grow intimate with the inner lives of its members, and the shifting loyalties and polarities within the family dynamic. Barnaby’s struggles with his faith make him feel like a fraud and a hypocrite. His wife Dorothy, the capable Cornish farmer’s daughter, has a series of miscarriages which erode the physical intimacy between them. Their adopted son Jim, who chooses to return to his original name ‘Phuc’, repays their good intentions with hateful behaviour and tests their capacity to love. Carrie, their only flesh and blood child, is frequently overlooked and gets caught up as the intermediary between her brother and parents.

And then there is Modest Carlsson, an evil man, parading as a good one, concealing his former prison sentence for rape and paedophilia. Modest is fascinated by Barnaby’s ‘vulnerability’ and his ‘innocent certainty’, which are so removed from the haughtiness and posturing of other priestly men. His openness and grace never seem to waver; Modest, with an appetite for weakness, follows Barnaby to Pendeen and stalks him in the hope of finding fault with him.

Families are a recurring theme in Gale’s books; he is fascinated by the ways in which they deviate from the ideal. It seems to him that every family contains damage, and often that damage has been done out of love, and for the best possible reasons. Barnaby’s dedication to his priestly duties and his desire to be a ‘perfectly good man’ bring about unhappiness in others and himself. Throughout the book, good deeds produce a shadow, echoing the quote by Thomas À Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, which is featured in the opening of the book:

All perfection in this life hath some imperfection bound up with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some darkness.

Gale conceived of this book as a companion to an earlier novel, Notes from an Exhibition (2002), about the difficulty of growing up with a mother who is driven by her artistic genius and her bipolar disorder. In A Perfectly Good Man (2012) the difficulty lies with the father, Barnaby, who is driven by religious convictions and his need to be good. These obsessions for both characters are a curse and a blessing for all concerned.

Finding himself wondering about what had happened to Morwenna in Notes from an Exhibition, Gale resurrected her in A Perfectly Good Man and she becomes part of its bitter sweet ending.

I don’t do sequels but I do occasionally bring a character back, if only to answer unanswered questions about them or to satisfy myself in some way.

The book (as with Notes from an Exhibition) is structured to provide multiple perspectives from each of the characters. Every chapter features a self-contained narrative from a different viewpoint, moving back and forth in time, giving the reader a fuller sense of the characters as people. This makes the reader an all-knowing witness, privy to certain secrets and knowledge that not all the characters possess. And slowly, the pieces of the story begin to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Gale makes this as seamless as possible.

Describing how he approached this difficult structure, he says he did not set out with ‘issues’ in mind:

I start with the characters. The plot grows out of the juxtaposition of those characters, because that’s how real life happens. The family is the starting point: any family will have its tensions and secrets, and that’s what gives it a narrative energy.

Setting

Patrick Gale has lived in Cornwall since the late eighties and frequently uses it as a setting for his novels. The sense of place has a powerful influence on his writing; in this case he wanted Pendeen to have as strong a presence as one of the characters. This is not the sunny, picturesque Cornish tourist destination most people know, it is another country altogether, hard bitten, and poor. We see Cornwall’s different landscapes though the eyes of a friend of Barnaby’s. Barnaby picks him up in his car and Paul expresses delight as they pass the spectacular St Michael’s Mount and the lovely town of Penzance. But he becomes quiet once they move ‘away from the soft delights of the bay’, and head inland up through moorlands and towards the mining country of the northeast.

The seemingly haphazard scattering of terraces, bungalows and mine buildings always looked grimmer when the sun was in and that day an oppressive lid of cloud was bearing down over it all.

Talking to Mariella Frostrup Gale says

…it’s important for the characters to feel grounded in the place you’re describing because I think just description isn’t enough, it has to be emotionally coloured, and that’s what makes it register with the reader as being real. So I usually have at least one character in every book who is native to the place where the book is set and has been formed by it…in A Perfectly Good Man, Dorothy is very much a local woman, she’s been raised there as a child, she’s a farmer’s daughter, so she’s almost grown up out of this granite tough landscape and been formed by it.

He constantly asks himself why he is describing the landscape: is the character he is writing about affected by the landscape, or not?

A great deal of Pendeen is seen through the eyes of the outsider Modest Carlsson who is usually impervious to landscape. He had always thought himself lacking and flawed by his failure to love trees and flowers, rivers and animals. Yet he loves the mining community in which he now lives. As the quote featured above suggests, what appeals to him is the way it speaks of ‘death, danger’, of ‘failed ventures’. He relishes stories heard in the pubs about mining accidents, wrecked ships and drownings, especially as most came about due to a degree of human error. Modest enjoys human weakness. He seeks it out. And after years of dogged perseverance, he eventually discovers it in Barnaby.

Background

Patrick Gale often takes emotional truths from his own life and turns them into fiction. In this novel, he drew on his father’s deep religious belief, ‘profound but discreetly expressed’ and also the precious copy of Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ that he always carried; it had been a gift from a soldier who served under him in the Second World War. In A Perfectly Good Man, it becomes the tiny red holy book that is always in Barnaby’s pocket.

Gale comes from a family of priests, from his great, great grandfather to his grandfather. His own father broke with tradition and became a prison governor but there was a religious element in the way he used his role to guide social reform, believing that prison was a place to prepare men to become more highly skilled and morally better people.

Patrick was the youngest child of four children and spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison. The family were all readers and every room of the house was full of books. He devoured them and would also spend his pocket money on a Puffin Club book every week. His parents ensured he attended a Church of England choir school, where he was immersed in a rich culture from an early age.

When he was ten, one of his beloved siblings suffered a complete breakdown and made the first of several suicide attempts. Gale believes this was the point at which he stopped being a boy and became an observer and a potential novelist.

He recalled being pulled out of boarding school for the day to visit his sibling, who was in the first of a number of terrible psychiatric hospitals. No explanation was given to young Patrick. This experience is evoked in Notes from an Exhibition in which a son visits his mother in hospital after her breakdown. The boy notices the difference in his mother’s eyes, and her face which looks ‘pale and uncooked’ without her makeup. He registers how slowness and placidity have replaced her ‘sharp’, ‘crackling, rather frightening’ personality. Now she is ‘frightening in a different way, as though her mechanism was winding down and no one else had noticed or thought to turn the key.’

Gale told the writer Stephen Fry that as the youngest child he had been seized by the desire to mend the brokenness in his sibling. He would be taken out of school at regular intervals for further visits, and as his sibling refused to talk to their parents, Gale acted as confidante and intermediary.

In response to this story, Fry suggested that as a novelist, Gale makes broken families in order to bring them back together. Gale agreed. Although his novels frequently deal with crises, there is a stronger emphasis on reconciliation and recovery. Slowly, the consequences of damaging actions are digested, shifts occur, and a semblance of order is restored. As Fry observes, ‘there is a real sense of a shining spirit in your books and a kindness and a healing quality that comes through.’

During the difficult time of his sibling’s illness, music became a life raft for young Patrick. He was a promising musician and his cello gave him a sense of release; in a way it became a confidante. Until the age of seventeen he aspired to become a professional musician, until a piano teacher took him aside and told him it was okay to do it for fun. But music has remained a significant part of his life. It is his constant companion and a vehicle for exploring his emotions. He finds it helps his writing to associate a particular novel with a piece of music which becomes its emotional world for him. And whenever his writing is interrupted, the music can give him access to the book’s feeling tone when he returns. He does not usually share this music with his readers, although he has included a selection of very beautiful cello pieces from his website here.

Writing Process

Gale says he usually writes his first draft with no audience in mind, to see whether there is a story that interests him. He makes several rewrites and at this point he thinks about his potential readers in terms of ‘what I want them to feel or believe at any given point, how I can hold their attention, how I can extend their sympathies…’

He finds that writing gets harder with each book. Although the technique has become fairly straightforward, his inner critic seems to have become more powerful. Gale has always struggled with a lack of belief in himself; he names his inner critic after a particularly spiteful little girl he knew at primary school. She leans over his shoulder and says, ‘nobody is going to read this, it’s really boring.’

He writes in ink so he is flexible about where he works, outdoors or indoors, and he is fortunate to live in a stunning part of the world, on his husband’s farm (the last one before Land’s End). If he gets stuck, he can always relieve the tension by working about the farm or in the garden.

I like to see my thought processes in case I need to retrace them and I relish the total portability of pen and notepad. A bottle of Mont Blanc Toffee Brown lasts a lot longer than the charge on any battery!

Gale now has a dedicated writing space built on the proceeds of Notes from an Exhibition, which was highly successful, thanks to its appearance on an influential television book club in the UK (Richard and Judy) where he found a whole new audience.

I have a view into the most eccentric part of our jungly garden, which is always busy with birds and overhead is a beautiful rounded ceiling, like an upturned rowing boat.

On the rare days when we’ve not much wind off the sea, I can slide back the window so that my desk appears to be standing in a bed of monkhood flowering gingers and when the weather turns brutal, I can turn my back on the view, light the wood burner and curl up in an extra large armchair where, yes, I frequently fall asleep while “thinking”. I’m a lucky, lucky man.

Music: Trelawny, Fisherman’s Friends

In A Perfectly Good Man, Barnaby and his family join a train load of Cornish miners and parishioners travelling to London to march in protest over the proposed closure of the local tin mine at Geevor. On the train and during the march, they sing Trelawny, the unofficial national anthem of Cornwall.

Also known as ‘The Song of the Western Men’, it is a patriotic song about the Duke of Monmouth’s failed rebellion against James II in 1688, after which Bishop Jonathan Trelawny was imprisoned in the Tower of London by the King. It tells of a march to London to free him, ‘King James’s men shall understand/What Cornish lads can do!’ Yet the Cornish lads only got as far as Bristol before Trelawny was tried and acquitted. The song is sung at rugby matches, pubs and especially on St Piran’s Day, the national day of Cornwall.

This version is sung by the Fisherman’s Friends, a male a cappella folk group. For more than twenty-five years they have performed songs for charity in their native Port Isaac (the village featured in the Doc Martin television series). In 2019 they starred in the film Fisherman’s Friends, inspired by the story of how they were signed by Universal Records and had a top ten hit.

Notes

Pendeen is on the Penwith peninsula, the most westerly part of England, which some call the ‘real Cornwall’. It was the last area in which Cornish was spoken as a language within a community. The land contains large concentrations of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Celtic archaeological remains and there are a number of extraordinary ancient monuments to see. Its forty miles of continuous cliffs punctuated by fine sandy beaches have inspired so many writers and artists including DH Lawrence, Barbara Hepworth, Virginia Woolf, JMW Turner, Thomas Hardy, John le Carre.

I read A Perfectly Good Man before I came to Cornwall and was fascinated by Gale’s description of this far-flung community. As is often the case, the real place was quite different to how I’d imagined it. I tended to see Pendeen on sunny days, so it seemed less forbidding and bleak, when it has the most spectacular jewel coloured sea as its backdrop. Since the decline of its mining and fishing industries, farming and tourism have become the mainstay of the area. Many miners emigrated to Australia where they found work in the Adelaide minefields. Nuala, the Australian mother of Lenny in A Perfectly Good Man, recognises surnames familiar from Adelaide on the gravestones at Pendeen.

A number of critical scenes in the novel take place in two churches. Barnaby conducts services in both and holds a deep affection for the ‘barnlike expanse’ of Pendeen and the ‘mossy tranquility’ of Morvah, in another parish a mile away. I agree with Modest Carlsson that that the Morvah church is easier to love, being older and more intimate.

A second-hand bookshop has been set up in the annex of Pendeen’s community centre and I couldn’t resist spending some time there. The woman in charge thinks highly of Patrick Gale. When he first moved to the area he volunteered his time teaching literacy, and she said he was a patient and gifted teacher. She mentioned there was some grumbling in the community when A Perfectly Good Man came out. One of the landlords took offence that his pub was said to be less ‘respectable’ than the other pub in Pendeen, failing to acknowledge that this was just the opinion of the character. Others in the village thought he had not quite nailed aspects of church life. She felt frustrated by this desire for absolute literalism. Although Gale takes care with his research and writes in this instance about an area he knows well, he does after all, produce works of fiction.

In an interview with Mariella Frostrup, Patrick Gale talks about the different layers of Cornwall that make it so attractive to writers. Tourism is its shiny surface. The flood of visitors who arrive in summer for family fun, sun and romance are known by the Cornish as the ‘bucket and spade brigade’. The year-round Cornwall, which is struggling financially, is rather hard done by and slightly resentful about having to rely on the tourist dollar. Beneath that lies ancient Neolithic Cornwall: its menhirs, stone circles and burial cairns that were celebrated by Daphne du Maurier and its paganism that continues to thrive. Patrick mentioned how some friends are astonished to learn his local hospital uses the services of a white witch along with the usual Anglican and Catholic priests.

Paganism was certainly alive and well in the south eastern Cornish town in which I lived. The woman who ran the local second-hand bookshop was pagan, so was the postmistress who also doubled as a celebrant for humanist burials, and the small stone circle in the cow paddock of a local farmer was well attended at Solstice.

Pendeen is a place that has witnessed tragedies and continues to experience tough times. But its community seems friendly and tight knit. At the local shops, people knew each other by name and stopped to chat. And I met a woman newly arrived from London who no longer felt lonely, so taken up was she by new friends and interest groups.

Weblinks

Galewarning is Patrick Gale’s website.

Mariella Frostrup interviews Patrick Gale here about his love of Cornwall.

Patrick Gale interviews the writer and former psychotherapist Salley Vickers, on ‘Writing, Creativity and Therapy’.

Julia Myerson’s review of A Perfectly Good Man for The Guardian.

As a child Patrick Gale sang at one of the St Endellion Music Festivals that take place in North Cornwall at Easter and in summer every year. They were part of the reason why Patrick was lured to Cornwall to live.

Patrick Gale is artistic director of North Cornwall Book Festival which he helped start in 2015.

And he is patron of Penzance LitFest.

Geevor Tin Mine is now a museum.

I walk Cornwall provide details for walk beginning at the mining relics of Geevor, then along the coast and up a river valley to Pendeen.

Visitor information about Pendeen.

Sources:

All Families Have Secrets – Patrick Gale’s Art of Fiction. Extract from a documentary directed by Alex Harding in which Patrick Gale is interviewed by Stephen Fry, BBC, 2017

Frostrup, Mariella, ‘Literary Landscapes’, Cornwall with Patrick Gale, BBC Sounds, 18 August, 2013

Gale, Patrick. A Perfectly Good Man, HarperCollins, 2012

Gale, Patrick. Galewarning Website

Gale, Patrick, Notes from an Exhibition, HarperCollins, 2007

Jones, Corinne. ‘The Place that Inspires Me: Artists on their creative hotspots’, The Guardian, 30 August, 2015

Koval, Ramona. The Book Show, ‘Interview with Patrick Gale’, Radio National, ABC, 24 February, 2010

Melia, Joe. Interview: Patrick Gale, Bristol 24/7, 4 June, 2019

Meyrick, Sarah. ‘Characters who try to be Good’, Church Times, 17 June, 2009

O’Kelly, Lisa. ‘Patrick Gale: ‘It’s true, I adore books about nuns”, The Guardian, 19 August, 2018

Richard and Judy, Summer Book Club, interview with Patrick Gale about A Perfectly Good Man, 3 August, 2012

Stafford, Jane. New Zealand Festival interview with Patrick Gale, 2015

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  1. Barbara Cail on

    Wonderful read and as well as total enjoyment I also learn so much from photos and music. Huge thanks for such a unique service by providing insights of important authors.

    Reply