March is Reading Ireland month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. Being half-Irish (my mum was from Belfast) and thus eligible for an Irish passport should the UK go totally to the dogs, I couldn’t not join in, especially after my post about Irish actor James Ellis’s later schooldays last week (see here).
The book I chose to read this time? Last year, I was lucky enough to win a book in Cathy’s Reading Ireland draw, a signed copy no less – so it had to be that…
Gull by Glenn Patterson
For many, the DMC-12, known as the DeLorean, is known as the distinctive gull-winged car that takes Marty McFly Back to the future. Most of us won’t have seen one in the flesh (unless you went to see McBusted who used one as a prop in their Back to the Future-themed tour – I took my daughter, so qualify in that respect!).
The car was built in a new factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland in the mid 1970s, however the first cars to roll off the line didn’t happen until 1981. By then, demand slumped and the DeLorean Motor Company went into receivership in 1982 having produced just 9000 cars. DeLorean had borrowed huge amounts of money from the British Government to get the factory going having inflated ideas of how many cars they could sell.
It’s an amazing story and Patterson’s novel tells the fictionalised story of the DMC 12 from its conception through to end of production. At times you do have to pinch yourself and remember that this is a novel and not non-fiction, although Patterson does say at the outset:
I made this all up, apart from the bits you just couldn’t
The author fictionalises the story by telling it through the eyes of two of DMC’s employees, Randall – his right hand man who will run the factory, and Liz – a protestant working class mother who is delighted to get a job there.
it’s Randall we meet first as a rookie journalist assigned to the motoring pages of an American newspaper. It’s 1972 and he’s at the Chicago Auto Show for the launch of the 1973 Chevrolet Vega – a car with 300 improvements on the 1972 model. It’s designer is John DeLorean. The new model is unveiled with much fanfare and DeLorean takes questions; Randall finds his hand raised:
He cleared his throat. ‘It’s not so much a question so much as an observation. I hear what you say about looking to the future, but the only thing that looks different to me from last year is the depth of the bumper.’
A tumbleweed moment. However, Delorean invites him up to see all the 300 improvements defusing the tension. Randall’s inability to write gushingly about the car earns him a transfer to the property pages, but DeLorean remembers the young man who saw through the bullshit offering him a job with his fledgling motor company.
There was a long way to go before ground was broken in Dunmurry though. Randall was literally in the room to get a deal signed to build the factory in Puerto Rico, when DeLorean rings from Ireland (Eire) to say Puerto Rico’s cancelled. That didn’t work out either, but it turned out that the British Government really wanted to encourage job creation in Northern Ireland.
Randall is in a difficult personal situation too. His marriage has broken up and he doesn’t see his daughter enough as it is – now he is expected to go and live in N.I. for a year or more. But DeLorean trusts him to do the job and to do it well, so off he goes.
Once the factory is built, they start to put the assembly lines in and they start hiring. This is where Liz joins the plot. She is delighted to get a job on the assembly line, not the only woman but still one of few. However, she’s used to men – being married to one and having sons. She’s not so used to her husband being jealous of her having the better job though.
Liz is protestant and comes into the factory via one gate. Her immediate co-workers fitting the seats on the line are catholic and enter the site through a different gate. Inside, everyone works happily together despite the Troubles outside.
However, politics and religion do come to a head when the IRA Hunger strikers start dying – the Catholics walk out when the first, Bobby Sands, dies in 1981. Management’s first reaction is to fire the lot of them – but to lose two thirds of the workforce would be disastrous when they’re behind schedule on production. Randall has it explained to him and negotiates brief stoppages instead.
Liz feels a ilttle sorry for Randall, but is also attracted to this quiet American fixer. They begin a friendship, meeting in Belfast’s botanical gardens regularly, and you keep wondering if they’ll ever take it to the next step.
DeLorean himself is a mercurial presence throughout the book. He is always charming, always immaculate, always with a very short attention span, always moving on to the next deal, always leaving a trail of clearing up in his path which is left to the (presumably) fictional Randall.
The DeLoreans fly in for the car’s official launch though – the car is meant to be driven off the line through the doors to a big fanfare but the brakes jammed – but Randall manages to keep DeLorean keeps talking while they can arrange to push the car instead!
Don Lander, who had met up with the DeLoreans in London the night before, got out of the car last and least noticed. ‘Well I got to the bottom of the choice of launch date,’ he told Randall. ‘Seems Sonja thought this was the most auspicious day.’
Randall looked at him blankly.
‘Christina’s palm-reader,’ Don said. ‘And there I was thinking it was the interior designer.’
Shades of Ronald Reagan and Nancy!
The story of the DeLorean and his car is fascinating and slightly surreal in its own right, but the different lives of Randall and Liz, both slightly troubled souls trying to do their best gives a real human element to the tale and elicits our sympathy for both.
DeLorean meanwhile would fall foul of an FBI entrapment plot, agreeing to trafick cocaine to raise the funds he was so desperate for to keep his dream alive. In Patterson’s book, there is a little boy quality about his profound belief that people would want his cars – even when they turned out to be heavy (due to stainless steel skins) and thus slow for a two-seater sports coupé, and that the build quality coming out of the inexperienced workers in the Dunmurry factory wasn’t quite there at the start.
The cars aren’t ugly ducklings, although they need extra space to raise the doors, when raised they are certainly gull-like, if not quite swans. Another entrepreneur bought the company name and all the unassembled parts at liquidation and is successfully keeping around 6000 of the 9000 produced still on the road, which is something.
I really enjoyed this story (8.5/10). You can read Cathy’s review from last year here, but I’m going to give the last word to Liz:
‘You know what I’ll tell them if they give me an interview? That it’s the first thing that’s made me smile in this bloody country for years.’
Source: Prize! – thank you Cathy.
Glenn Patterson, Gull (Head of Zeus, 2016) now in paperback, 336 pages.