Pat Barker biography

Pat Barker biography

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

As the curtain closes on the Regeneration tour, Ian Hamilton takes a look at novelist Pat Barker, writer of the original novel.

PAT BARKER began life inauspiciously.

Born out of wedlock at a time when illegitimacy was considered shameful, her literary achievements were shaped rather than hindered by the difficult circumstances into which she was introduced.

She was born in Thornaby-on-Tees to a working class family in 1943. Like a lot of wartime children, she never knew her father. Up until the age of seven, she lived with her grandparents, her mother and her stepfather - but her mother and her husband left the family home and Pat stayed. Although given the choice, she decided she would rather be brought up by her grandparents, partly because she loved them but also because she didn’t get along with her stepfather.

Her grandparents owned a fish and chip shop, which supported the family for a while. But when it stopped trading, they were forced to live on National Assistance or ‘the pancrack’ as her grandmother called it. Despite living in hardship, Pat thrived, winning a place at King James Grammar School in Knaresborough and Grangefield Grammar School in Stockton-on-Tees.

She was clearly an academic talent and went on to study International History at The London School of Economics in London, where she graduated in 1965. After completing her degree, she returned home to nurse her grandmother, whose health was now failing.

She met David Barker, a zoologist and neurologist, in one of the local pubs in 1969. Despite him being married, they fell in love and were wed in 1978 after his divorce. They had two children together and her daughter, Anna Ralph, is also a novelist. Sadly, David became ill and Pat became his full time carer up until his death in 2009, writing little before and immediately following his passing.  

Apart from this period between the publication of Life Class in 2007 and her most recent novel, Toby’s Room in 2012, Pat Barker has been writing all of her life. Her first three novels, however, failed to find a publisher as she struggled to find the earthy, working class voice that would characterise her work for the rest of her career.

She found her first success with Union Street in 1982, a novel which interweaves seven voices of working class women as they battle with poverty and violence. Like a lot of great novels, it was initially rejected by publishers – in her case for ten years. However, Pat attended a creative writing course run by the novelist, Angela Carter who was impressed by the truthfulness of her female characters and encouraged her to send it to Virago Press, a publishing house renowned for foregrounding strong female characters. They accepted it and it was closely followed by Blow Your House Down (1984) and Liza’s England (1986) which also depict the brutal lives of working-class women. For example, Blow Your House Down presents the lives of prostitutes stalked by a serial killer.

Determined to show that she was able to write about men as well as women, Pat began the Regeneration Trilogy, beginning with Regeneration in 1991. Inspired by her grandfather’s silence on the subject of the First World War – and her interest in the poets of that period - the novel explores the trauma of shell-shock by telling the story of real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon and fictional character, Billy Prior. Like a lot of her work, it blends history and fiction seamlessly.

The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) followed, likewise dealing with the after effects of trauma. Her more recent work comprises Another World (1998), Border Crossing (2001) and Double Vision (2003), which returns to her exploration of war but is set in the modern theatre of the Afghanistan conflict. Life Class (2007) returns to the setting of the First World War, focusing on the life of a Red Cross volunteer, while her most recent work Toby’s Room develops the lives of the characters from Life Class

Although her work is strongly character-driven and she says that she doesn’t set out to explore ideas, the themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery emerge over and again in her work. While her ability to concisely and powerfully present the inner and outer lives of both male and female characters is almost beyond question, her challenge to stereotypes of masculinity – insisting that we see men as individuals, struggling with societal expectations - is perhaps the most poignant issue with which she deals.      

Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.