The Century's Chronicler: Pat Barker

Posted on: 26 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Nobel Prize winning novelist Pat Barker talks to 50connect.

Best-selling author Pat Barker first came to the public eye with the publication of Union Street in 1983, but she is probably best known as the author of the Regeneration trilogy about shell shocked First World War veterans. The last book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, won the booker prize in 1995.

So what sparked her fascination with the First World War?

 "Well," she says, in a well spoken voice, "I suppose it was family history that drew me to it. My grandfather fought in the war and so did my step-father." she adds. "Not that they talked a lot about it of course."

Pat, 59, remembers her grandfather fondly who, along with her grandmother, brought her up in the North East of England.

"My grandfather had worked in a slaughter house before the war so he was by no means a squeamish man by any stretch of the imagination. He never expressed any regrets about killing men in France. He did over calves though. He would never have veal in the house, he said, 'If you've ever slaughtered a calf you'd never eat a mouthful of veal in your entire life.'"

He never showed anything like shock or despair about the war.

It is evident from the way that she talks, that her grandfather had a profound effect upon her life and influenced her latter interest in the Great War.

She continues, "Towards the end of his life my grandfather had cancer. He thought that the hemorrhage was the bayonet wound that he received during the war and that it had started to bleed again. It all stems from a kind of survivor's guilt that made him think that the war had got him in the end."

In the Regeneration series of books, Pat deals with the issue of men who were severely disturbed by the war and the medical efforts that were made at the time to help them.

Did the war affect her grandfather I wondered? "The war must have had some effect on him, but he never showed anything like shock or despair about it." she said. Like many war veterans, Pat's grandfather must have blocked out what he'd seen and experienced in the trenches and tried to forget about it.

Pat comments, "A lot of research has found that the people who talk about a trauma immediately after they have suffered it do markedly less well than those who either don't talk about it at all, or wait a while before coming to terms with it. Distraction and denial are actually quite effective ways of coming to terms with trauma."

No one can blame the numerous veterans, like Pat's grandfather, who did block out all of their experiences from the war in an attempt to regain some normality to their lives. After all, the horror of the war itself was not the only thing that these young men had to contend with once the conflict had ended. British society was transformed between the years 1914-18.

"The classes were brought together in the trenches," enthuses Pat, "not that I'm saying they experienced the same things. The men had a far worse time than the officers in many respects, although the officers were more likely to be wounded. I think the war drove a wedge between the generations because it was the old men sending the young men to war. Basically I think the young men were very alienated from almost everybody else in society after the First World War." she adds.

Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, along with Sebastian Faulk's Bird Song, stand out as some of the best contemporary fiction about the horrors of the First World War.

However, Pat has not always written about that particular time period. Her earlier works, Union Street and Blow Your House Down, recount the tales of working class lives in the industrial heartlands of the North East.

The central characters in much of her earlier work were women, leading many critics to describe her as a feminist writer. "I think any kind of pigeon holing is limiting to begin with" she says with a grain of irritation to her voice, "What really annoys me is that because I was writing about working class women it was considered feminist, but when I started writing about middle class men that wasn't, when really I was just writing stories."

Despite been pigeon-holed as a feminist writer, Pat must have been relieved to be published at all. She began writing when she was twenty-six but did not get anything published until she was thirty-nine. How did she survive the set backs?

"I just wrote the next sentence," she says, laughing hysterically. "It stands you in good stead later on in your career because if you get a lousy review, its nothing in comparison to what it felt like to be sending signals to Mars and not getting any response."

The Jamie Bulger case did influence me slightly.

Pat's latest book, Border Crossing, tells the story of a young man who killed an elderly woman when he was a child, but has now been released with a new identity. Set in present day Newcastle, was it easier to write Border Crossing than a book steeped in history?

"I think the easiest thing about writing history is that all the important events and decisions are all decided for you. The hard thing with writing history is not to get bogged down in research and to try not to spill all the information out onto the page like you're writing a history essay," she says.

So what made her write about a child killer?

"Well the Jamie Bulger case influenced me slightly, but I was a young woman in the North East when Mary Bell killed those two little boys. That was also woven through the background of the book," she adds.

For someone who is constantly working on a new story or novel, Pat still finds time to indulge in her hobbies.

"I keep tropical fish, which is very nice when they are thriving but horrible when they are diying." she adds, "when they die they take weeks and weeks to go, they're like opera singers."

She has spent much of her life writing about Britain's past, so I was curious to to see what Pat believed is the best thing about Britain.

She says, "The best thing about Britain is the fact that we are still, to a far greater extent than other countries, open to the mistakes and follies of our past and open to learning from them."

Regeneration - Pat BarkerBy Dale Lovell


You can buy the Regeneration trilogy from all good bookshops or online at Amazon.

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