Michael Morpurgo and Pat Barker are two of Britain’s foremost writers on the First World War. Durham Book Festival brought them together in conversation for the first time, to discuss how they began writing about the War and why their historical novels continue to effect a new generation of readers. Laura McKenzie listened in.
The hour the Durham Book Festival audience spent in the company of Pat Barker and Michael Morpurgo was marked by echoes: the echoes of the speakers’ voices as they reverberated throughout the darkened knave of Durham Cathedral; and the persistent echoes of what chair Caroline Beck called the ‘unfinished business’ of the First World War.
Paradoxically, before they began writing about the war both Barker and Morpurgo’s connection with it was delineated by voicelessness. None of Morpurgo’s surviving family fought at the front, so he heard no first hand accounts outside of the war poetry he loved (Shakespeare held little interest for him, he admitted, compared to the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen). Barker’s grandfather had been bayoneted at the Somme, but never spoke of it. She would watch him change his clothes after work and regard the ancient scar with fascination. ‘What I had in my background,’ she tells us, was ‘a mysterious wound and silence.’
For Barker, it was evident that this unspeakability was only broken at the end of veterans’ lives, ‘when their grip on the present had begun to loosen.’ Morpurgo’s experience was similar: poetry remained his only way in to the subjective experience of war until he struck up a conversation with an octogenarian in a Devon pub. After a brazen opening gambit –‘So you were in the war?’ – his interlocutor spoke about the trenches, unprompted, for the next hour and a half. To the audience, it seemed Morpurgo was describing an act of confession. Without this encounter, he felt, this man’s story would have remained unheard.
But silence, they agreed, is a great arena for writers to open up explore. It is the unknown, unnamed dead, whose stories have left no echoes, which draws both writers to the war imaginatively. Unlike the war poets, who invariably belonged to the officer class, these anonymous men are ‘lost in history somewhere.’ After finding a letter in an Ypres museum informing a soldier’s mother that he had been shot at dawn, Morpurgo felt compelled to investigate further. The private (‘who had no reason to dislike a German’) had been court marshalled for not going forward after returning to the front having been treated for shell shock. The trial lasted twenty minutes, during which his officer called him a ‘worthless man.’ ‘I knew there was no justice there,’ Morpurgo adds; ‘it moves me, touches me; angers me.’
One of the reasons I write about the war is because I’m far more interested in peace
– Michael Morpurgo
Indeed, his anger is palpable, as is Barker’s. Fiction is based entirely on conflict, she tells us; imaginatively, it is a necessary state. In reality, however, there is a sense that as a global society we should be avoiding the mistakes of the past. While the First World War was ‘a long time ago,’ Morpurgo is not sure ‘we’ve learnt much’. The damaged veterans and wounded souls that populate their books have contributed to the success of their writing because those characters are still relevant today. They echo though time, demonstrating how war wrecks lives. ‘In an important respect’, Barker adds, ‘we’ve moved backwards.’ On countless village war memorials the names of the men who fell in the Second World War are inscribed beneath those of the First, crammed together tightly, jostling for space. At the national war memorial, however, stark blank slates await the names of the dead of wars that haven’t been fought yet. At least the men of the 1914-18, Barker says, believed they were fighting the war to end all wars. Today such illusions have been shattered. And as war babies who were both born in 1943 (‘a good vintage,’ Morpurgo asserts) it is their generation who feel the guilt, as Elizabeth Bowen puts it, of having ‘muffed the catch.’
It is perhaps this sense of guilt that drives them to continually revisit the war in their books. While the echoes of the First World War persist in their writing and beyond, it is clear that they resonate for both authors at a far more personal level. Barker wryly attributes the success of her novels to the fact that young people will always read about young people being failed by the older generation. As for Morpurgo, ‘one of the reasons I write about the war is because I’m far more interested in peace.’ I, for one, left Durham Cathedral thinking of the blank slates of the national war memorial, silently awaiting the next litany of dead.