Novels about the city of Belfast have a tendency to be set during the Troubles. It is too ingrained in the very fabric of life here to be otherwise. Glenn Patterson’s novel The International does something different.
In January 1967, the inaugural meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association too place in The International Hotel in Belfast and started a chain of events that would lead Northern Ireland into years of war and pain.
Glenn Patterson sets his novel the day before this momentous meeting, to a time before everything in the city changed and explores one day in the life of the International Hotel.
If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in the International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before teatime.
So begins this bittersweet, funny and sharply observed novel, as Danny Hamilton our narrator looks back at a time when no one could have known what was about to blast through their city and their lives. Danny is one of three barmen in the Blue Bar of The International Hotel, working seamlessly alongside Hugh and Jamsie and a host of other characters.
Danny is happy in his line of work. An ‘unfortunate incident’ where his mother, father and entire school found out that he was gay has derailed his education, but he has found his place pouring pints, regaling customers and, of course, pursuing his romantic and sexual inclinations.
The exotic and mysterious nature of hotel life is captured here in all its glory. The reader follows Danny down corridors to wedding parties, cocktail bars and kitchens packed full of lovely detail and perfectly sketched characters. There is The Master, manager of the hotel, always popping up when you least expect him. No-neck Jurd (real name Gerard) and other drunken regular rubs shoulders with Ted Connolly, a once famous football star, now better known for his butter adverts on TV.
Danny loves The International because it gives him anonymity – it becomes for him a place where he can be whoever he really is, and whoever he really wants to be. It accepts him in a way his parents cannot.
It was this lingering opulent quality I had fallen in love with. Forget the cinema – or picture palace, as my parents still sometimes referred to it – in a hotel you could act out the fantasy yourself.
Danny is a romantic at heart, imbuing The International and its eccentric clientele with a mystery and elegance that may or may not be there. He is a natural watcher and a natural outsider – bisexual, with no real religion one way or the other, and for him, the world of the hotel is the perfect backdrop for all the possibilities of life.
Throughout the day in question, he falls in love twice – once with Stanley, a failed puppeteer and a second time with Ingrid, who is stalking the hotel on the day that her ex-boyfriend is to be married there. Both are unsuitable prospective partners, but Danny’s sexuality is worn loosely and without judgment, in a way that he will never be able to recapture again.
The International is at heart, a story of lost innocence. As Danny walks to work, he comes across a shop fire, which has brought crowds out to watch the fire brigades and survey the damage. That this kind of incident will become a daily occurrence is unimaginable and marks the lost innocence of a city that is about to be engulfed in bloodshed and war.
The inhabitants of the city are about the be changed forever and Danny looks back on himself with a nostalgia, remembering a boy who didn’t realise what – and who – he was about to lose forever.
People pass through your life and away and all you are left with are lip-rings and butts and a number, if you are lucky, scrawled on a beer mat. Remnants. I hardly had to strain at all for the tears I blinked back
This is a day packed with small incident; a busy day, and the kind of normal day that Danny has always taken for granted. It is a day that will only seem momentous in hindsight.
However, these ordinary days are numbered and the telltale signs are there if you know where to look. Danny has only secured his job because a previous barman was shot dead but this is not an event that the bar men of The International talk about, let alone heed as a warning of events to come.
Late in the evening as their shift nears its end, Jamsie and Danny have an out of character altercation – a microcosm of the world they are about to experience.
‘No, hold on a minute, you said “you Prods”.’
Jamsie was trying not to hear me. I suppose I ought to have twigged then that he was annoyed at with himself, but it wasn’t something I saw every day. He turned, taking me by surprise, so that my nose almost collided with his Adan’s apple.
‘I said I was joking.’
Hugh was watching us now. He sensed trouble, but he was too far away and too tied up to intervene.
‘I forgot we’re none of us anything,’ Jamsie said. ‘We’re International barmen.’
The International is a book where not much happens, but everything happens. All of life is depicted here in its drunken, sad and glorious fashion. Patterson has a keen ear for dialect and a wonderfully descriptive turn of phrase. A paraffin heater gives a room ‘the air of a thwarted picnic’ while cigarette smoke in the air is ‘a passable seahorse’.
When fellow barman Jamsie secures a date with a nurse he has been pursuing, his smug reaction is summed up to perfection.
If a hard-on was to have put on a now tie and a smile, it would have passed for Jamsie’s twin just then
In her essay on The International (included in this edition), Anne Enright notes that ‘by returning to the moment before the blast, this novel insists that things might have been otherwise. It gives the city its humanity back’. The International is filled to bursting with humanity and reinforces the idea that Belfast – as a place and as a people – existed long before the Troubles began and deserves to be remembered as such.
The International Hotel was torn down in 1999 and replaced with a modern building that now houses a bank.
This novel is a love-song to a city that still exists, but can never go back to the way it was.
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