A Review of 'Writing the First World War: Pat Barker and Michael Morpurgo'


One word. Captivating.

Michael Morpurgo, Pat Barker, Durham Cathedral. What’s not to like?

As part of Durham Book Festival 2016, some wonderful person (I’m forever grateful to whoever that person may be) had the marvellous idea of inviting Michael Morpurgo (author of ‘War Horse’, ‘Private Peaceful’ and ‘The Butterfly Lion’ – just to name a few!) and Pat Barker (writer of ‘Regeneration’ and ‘Toby’s Room’ – again, just to name a few) to discuss the place of war within their writing, and the place of war within fictional texts in a general sense.

Beginning with an enquiry into Barker and Morpurgo’s personal connections to WW1, the talk started well. Elegantly led by Caroline Beck, the authors discussed the ways in which they felt attached to this horrific, and calamitous historic event. Both authors noted an aura of silence when trying to connect with WW1. This was interesting - Barker reflected on her grandfather’s silence about his wounds when he returned from war, and Morpurgo considered a general sense of social distaste when it came to talking about war.

The poetry of war was another subject of discussion, Morpurgo declaring that the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, had a much more profound impact on himself as young man than the celebrated works of Shakespeare, for example. It’s the rawness, relatability, and terrifying realness of war poetry in which holds its power. Survivors of war become the representatives of the people who haven’t come back, and Barker said that this idea has become a basis for a lot of her work. The Ode of Remembrance states that; ‘they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old...’, but what happens to those that are left? Another interesting avenue of thought.

War is an incredibly emotional event, and this was picked up by both authors. Barker discussed the importance of anger and frustration within writing, and mentioned a battlefield tour in which she had visited the grave of a soldier shot for cowardice. Initially, the words on the grave were concealed, by a beautiful red rose, climbing across the white stone. The flower was actually hiding two words (which were commissioned by the family) – ‘good riddance’. The silence in the cathedral following this short story was immense. A powerful moment. Contrastingly, Morpurgo raised the importance of tenderness, and love. He said that although he chooses to write about war, he is personally far more interested in peace. War Horse is the perfect book to consider when thinking about ideas of love, compassion and tenderness in a time and place where such emotions seem so unreachable.

A particular statement of the evening that has remained with me since last Friday, is  about how much we have learnt as a race since WW1. Morpurgo questioned how far we’d actually come, referencing the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and Barker suggested we’d essentially gone backwards as we watch the continuing horrors unfolding in the world with a lazy and unpathetic eye. When discussing the concept of remembrance, Barker said something incredibly profound. When you visit small villages and towns, you often come across war memorials. The section with the names of those who fought in WW1 is often carefully designed, and fills the monument. You often find that when the names of the dead from WW2 come to be added, a separate war memorial is built, or the names are added, untidily underneath. This demonstrates the entrenched belief of the British people that WW1 was truly the ‘war to end all wars’. The state however, may have had different ideas right from the beginning. Even today, at the National War Memorial there are 16 blank slabs, ready to have the names of the fallen carved into them. Food for thought for sure.

When asked about which book they were ‘fondest’ of, Barker replied ‘Toby’s room’, citing the powerful nature of Tonks’ portraits, which held a large amount of inspiration for the book. Morpurgo professed he loved them all, like children, and really enjoyed writing his latest book (The Fox and the Ghost King) which he then jovially promoted to the audience, easing the heavier atmosphere that hung in the air for most of the talk.

‘Fiction is based entirely on conflict’, Barker concluded. This is an incredibly succinct way to summarise the very basis of literature as an art form. Both authors and compere were fantastic, creating an interesting and thought-provoking evening which has certainly had a strong impact on myself as an historian, writer, and human being.

Afterwards I got to meet both authors, who were both really friendly and engaging. I even got a selfie with Michael Morpurgo himself!

What a way to spend a Friday night - a huge thank you must go to Durham Book Festival for organising such a brilliant evening – that’s certainly a talk I won’t forget anytime soon!