In Primary 7 I was fortunate enough to fail my 11+ exam and be sent the following year to our local high school (a ‘Comprehensive’ for readers outside of Ulster). The place was named Gransha Boys High (GBH for short), and it carried a glowering reputation of facilitating having one’s head periodically flushed down the toilet, and of other random outbreaks of petty violence. My years at the school were, however, formative and a blessing in the main. Beyond the slightly uncouth ethos of the place (stray dogs would regularly roam the corridors during class time, and there was a designated area – ‘The Rocket’ – for a multitude of underaged smokers to congregate), the standard of teaching could be phenomenal. My standout memories are of Mr Robert Martin reading from Heaney and Owen, and showing us art from Colin Middleton, and of Mrs Kate Brown giving us every possible encouragement about our own written work. The school also punched way above its weight in terms of getting local writers to engage with us as pupils.
Among those who walked the grey cell-block-like unplastered brick corridors of Gransha was a young writer named Glenn Patterson. He had come to speak to a classroom packed with boys reeking of Embassy Filters and Brut 33 about creative writing. He cut a slim figure at the front of the room, but everyone’s attention was captured by the fairly nonchalant way in which he perched a brick in his right hand, just above his shoulder (a pose not unknown to some of my classmates during the July holidays). He had also distributed a photocopied handout with a piece by another author which I remember began with the lines ‘Belfast is built on sleech…’ (by a Ciaran Carson, I believe). Over the next 40 minutes an abnormally silent room listened with rapt attention as the author talked about where to find inspiration for writing, using the brick as a means of showing us how the most mundane items in the world can serve as an impetus for creating something worthwhile. I was completely hooked by his approach, by his insistence that writing was not something away on a far horizon, but right here; that it was something which could articulate our seemingly flat world in transformative ways. Off the back of that one morning session I quietly averred that I would keep trying to write, even if my work never saw the light of day. I also hotfooted it to my local Eason store and bought a pocket notebook, which Patterson had recommended as a place to jot down ideas as they landed in the mind, as well as a copy of his novel Fat Lad.
The guy with the brick has gone on inspiring me in the 25 years since in his other writings, but chiefly in the continued resonances that his morning in GBH carried. As a preacher and pastor I am called to ‘see’ – to see the components of a Scripture passage for what they are and for how they apply, and to see the circumstances of the people for whom I am called to care. The brick image is relevant here, urging as it does that the obvious and ordinary not be overlooked, that it is in taken-for-granted things that real insight can lie. This is true of the exegesis of an ancient text, and of counsel to the souls of people facing the most contemporary issues of our own age. In the quarter century since that seminar with Glenn Patterson I have rejoiced in my continued reading of literature, and have continued to stammer my way towards writing poetry. It is that element of ‘seeing’, however, that has come back to me over and over again – that sense that there is no absence of inspiration, of vitality, nor of material on which to set the soul soaring. If a brick can open one’s mind what can a world of beauty, and diverse humanity do? All I am called to do as preacher, pastor, poet, is to see what is already there and to transpose it into a key that can be felt and seen and sung by those I encounter. I’m deeply grateful for the guy with the brick, for the providence that brought him into the unlikely surroundings of Gransha Boys High, and for his tremendous combination of earthy speech and deep thought about witnessing and creatively remaking our world.