Amidst the devastation of Ypres

At the station they all went for a coffee together. The cafe was a long narrow room with dingy lino on the floor. A phlegmatic looking woman stood behind a counter flanked by glass shelves lined with curly sandwiches. One of the nurses tried out her French; the woman replied in English with a look of dull contempt. Elinor got her coffee and croissants and was walking carefully back to the table when the door burst open and the room filled with soldiers.  Instantly they took possession of the place, laughing and joking and punching each other playfully in the chest. They were ushered to the tables, where they caught the eye of the little waitress and flirted with her, winking, nudging, egging each other on. So much prime male beef, so much muscle under their uniforms, thighs like tree trunks lolling apart, so much fresh sweat, so many open red-lipped mouths. The whole world belonged to them because they were on their way to die.

Pat Barker has, for a long time, been one of the British contemporary writers I most admire. I first came across her work when, as a teacher in Japan, I managed to persuade a student to buy me a load of books from New York (where he was travelling on business). It was there that I first read the Regeneration trilogy which had won the Booker Prize in 1995. Having read it 10 years ago it remains up there near the top of my absolute best books. How can I describe it? Devastatingly powerful is a start. Reading the trilogy sparked my interest in Siegfried Sassoon and his fellow war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. I also see it as the roots to my interest in the early 20th century in general, especially the inter-war period of the 20s and 30s (we danced all night…).

I am currently reading Life Class which, like the Regeneration trilogy, is set in the Great War. Her ability to recreate that period is quite incredible, not least through her knack of blending factual characters with fictional ones to masterful effect.

7 thoughts on “Amidst the devastation of Ypres

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  1. Have you read Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves (great friend of Sassoon)? Excellent WW1 memoir. I have loads of literature from this period and a lot of Brooke 1st/early editions. Bit of a groupie I’m afraid… so beautiful.

  2. Wow. Didn’t know you taught in Japan (or if I knew, I forgot). You got around quite a bit! Massachusetts, Japan — any other adventurous youthful experiences like that? 🙂

  3. Have you read “The Great Silence” by Juliet Nicolson? Fascinating history book about the years 1918 – 1920 but as readable as a novel. Just finished it – those years fascinate me too and I’d strongly recommend it.

  4. Birdy – start with ‘Regeneration’ which won the Booker, is a masterpiece.

    RO – thanks for the recommendation, have just borrowed from the library. Sounds like we have a similar interest in this genre.

    Justin – growing up in Africa and the Middle East 🙂

    Mancais – as above, try Regeneration first.

    Daphne – thanks for that recommendation, will add it to the list!

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