Barker, Pat: Regeneration

Oh we do like to be the seaside, at least a select few of us gathered by the beach at Portobello as perhaps “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” had led to the absence of many of our number. (Maybe they were just on holiday? Ed.) An absent member had sent his comments, and regretted having not read it sooner on the grounds that it might be too sentimental. His opinion was very positive. Meanwhile, the survivors prepared to go ‘over the top’ as WW1 beckoned, again.

The proposer introduced ‘Regeneration’ with a short biography of Pat Barker, significantly mentioning her Yorkshire, working class upbringing by her grandparents, how she used to stick her fingers in her grandfathers bayonet wound, and of her later liaison and marriage to David Barker, a zoologist and neurologist. From such experience was the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy formed. Some of us had read all three novels, some only the first book. Rather than introduce spoilers we concentrated on the first book, although it was suggested that the subsequent novels would re-order emphasis on the major and minor themes in the first book. (Indeed, this proved to be the case as your humble scribe subsequently read parts 2 and 3 which clarified many of the themes in part 1. However, this is not recorded.)

Rivers, Yealland, Sassoon, Owen and Graves are real – the patients are fictitious but based on real cases from a book written subsequently by Rivers. (One of us had circulated an interesting article about Rivers work in the period.) It appears that the novelist has made exemplary use of this and several other historical sources, e.g. in that Sassoon really did amend ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. However, she has invented the persona of Rivers, through his reactions to events, his coming round in part to Sassoon’s ideas and possible repressed homosexuality. He does say at some point “the war must be fought to a finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations”. Indeed the book is quite subtle in that there is no overt pro- or anti-war case.

In the context of the book, Rivers is quite at odds in his theories of breakdown and conflict of shell-shock arising from combat and prolonged exposure.  Some of the arguments that pass through his head sound convincing, while others seem suspect. Believing that “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” were more likely to cause men to break down than “the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors” that his patients themselves used to explain their condition, he muses that this must also explain the prevalence of “hysterical disorders” in women in peacetime. 

Billy Prior, on the other hand, is thought to be socially and sexually ambiguous, an officer yet an outsider because of his background.  We discussed whether his perception of the officer class was viable. He assumed a certain snobbery and smugness in their attitude. However, he still made firm relationships, with Rivers and with Owen for example.

The proposer then noted that Barker had said “there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas”.  Although it has been said that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW1, the implication was that this was about universal rather than WW1-specific truths. Could we avoid a discussion of Serbian politics from 1900? (See ‘The Sleepwalkers’). Time would tell, but it is accurate to record that conversations would often diverge from the text, especially when branching outwards from Sassoon’s declaration that opens the book, “not protesting against the conduct of the war but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men at being sacrificed”. The majority of our group made the point that Sassoon was young and naive, and such a declaration was foolish and would have no effect on such ‘conduct’. A minority view suggested that perhaps naivety brings clarity – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings etc. Does age bring wisdom or atrophy? Is there degeneration rather than ‘regeneration of the grey cells’? Well, if Wiki is to be believed the average age of commanding officers fell from 50 to 28 as the war progressed, and men of over 35 were barred from commanding battalions. However, this blog is getting off the point, echoing the discussion! Pass the port, Nigel.

So this novel is not just about WW1, but also about the need and justification for war, the effects on the combatants, consideration of societal change, of the emancipation of women, the breaking down of class barriers, of changing attitudes to heterosexuality and homosexuality, and of the attitude of the state. The title emanates from the experiment done on River’s friend Head in earlier times, when he deliberately severed a nerve in Head’s hand with the purpose of charting its gradual regeneration. From this we can compare and contrast the treatments to the mental trauma given by Rivers and Yealland, and how Rivers has to even question his own humane approach. He is torn between guilt in treatment and the stated aim to rehabilitate and send the men back to the front, and possible beneficial results (extreme in Yealland’s case).

In the wider context we discussed the possible effect of WW1, of war in general, as a necessary regenerating force on society. Within the book, the changing role and attitudes of the girls working in the munitions factories presage the huge changes that come after the war. There were changes too in sexual behaviour; heterosexual behaviour became more liberal, some crude forms of abortion were attempted, as in the description of the use of the coat hanger, and homosexuality was further repressed because of the concern about its effects on troop comradely spirit and morale with so many men in close proximity. Sassoon talks of how his friend was treated for soliciting, and how he subsequently had to modify his own behaviour to appear to be more normal or ‘cured’.

Barker mixes blunt and gritty working class language with poetic idioms. Perhaps the War Poets too – or at least the anti-war poets whom schools have adopted as the canon, managed something similar in combining the imagery of horror with the language of poetry. Your scribe’s favourite WC quote? – “eeh, hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue. Be cruelty to moths”

We were all rather underwhelmed by the description of River’s childhood, and especially the introduction of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Given the traumatic effect of the war on the soldiers’ speech, including mutism and stammering, and indeed Rivers own propensity to stammer it was assumed that this was making the link between his early childhood, the experience, and the subsequent sympathetic approach to such speech problems, in marked contrast to the electrodes of Yealland. There are also issues of parenthood, in particular the way that Sassoon looks on Rivers as a father figure who is much missed when he leaves Craiglockhart, as well as the role of Dodgson as a possible surrogate father.  However, one suggested this was possibly a case of research uncovering a celebrity that had got in the way. We also discussed the changing attitude to psychiatric treatment, of how a cure could better be affected by admitting and talking through a problem, rather than never talking about it, forgetting it.

What of the other central device, of bringing out the horrors of war not by direct descriptions, as was so effective in Birdsong (Faulks) that we had read earlier in the year, but by indirect description through the subsequent trauma. Most, but not all, found the book equally harrowing. On the other hand, the description of Yealland’s electroshock provided quite a lot of harrow for at least one reader, who recalled Laurence Olivier’s treatment of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Marathon Man’. (Eh? What’s the connection? Ed.)

So why does Sassoon return to fight?  Why does Prior talk of the shame of not going back? There are selfless reasons, notably the need to be loyal to your friends and comrades and for an officer at least, to be able to use experience gained to look after his men. These were motivating factors for Sassoon, which were nevertheless consistent with his declaration, or so he felt. The nature of masculinity, to be a man my son, is a recurring theme in the book and not just in the attitude to homosexuality. This certainly has changed, but not entirely, in the succeeding century.

So is war a regenerating force on a damaged or somehow deficient society? What are the beneficial effects of WW1? Even with a quorum having 40% historians, this was a tricky one to answer. Did the decision to support Belgium and France justify the killing of so many soldiers and civilians? Would Europe be a very different place in 2015 if no action had been taken, at least in this form? Was the sacrifice of allied troops necessary or in vain? If necessary and not in vain for the UK combatants, what of the sacrifice of German troops? Other than military and political changes, WW1 certainly accelerated societal change, especially with respect to class, women’s rights and education, as well as modifying sexual mores, but was it necessary? Sassoon’s point was that the war was being prolonged beyond its original purpose. To what extent would the common man be aware of the greater political picture? Others suggested that the war changed psychiatry, art and literature. Of course, one should not forget the extraordinary meeting and interplay between Sassoon, Graves and Owen, exemplified by the existence of the manuscript for ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ which has Sassoon’s annotations and suggestions. Did the war, or art as expressed by the war poets, change political thinking? What did Dylan have to say on the subject[i]? One of us noted that the French insisted afterwards that at least one ministerial appointment should be a soldier or ex-soldier. On these and other questions, the author leaves you to make up your own mind. However, it was proposed that both politicians and the media can still influence and exploit human base instincts, particularly tribal instincts, even in these days of mass communication and the internet. Other groups can also do this, of course, and there are many contemporary examples.

On one thing we all agreed; this was an excellent book. We all enjoyed it immensely and for those who had not done so, the next two books were on the ‘to do’ list.

And so to bed … suffering from WW1 literary trauma and with a need to be regenerated. Dr. Who has regenerated 12 times without addressing such deep concerns. Exterminate, exterminate….. where have I heard that before?

[i] The First World War, boys,
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.