Last year, Damian Barr lived in terror, worried that he would die. He wasn’t sick; he didn’t face danger; but he couldn’t bear the thought that his debut novel might not see the light of day.
“I’ve not told anyone that,” he says, as we chat in a Dublin hotel. “But I became so anxious that I was going to die without finishing the book, that I would email copies of it to people I knew would get it, with instructions on how to finish it. It felt that important. “He laughs. “I even stopped going out on my bicycle. Isn’t that deranged? Isn’t that totally unhinged?”
Perhaps so – but having read You Will Be Safe Here, I can empathise with his sentiment. A book set in South Africa, it teaches you things that history left out, and leaves you angry, yet profoundly moved. It’s so well-conceived, structured, and written, that you want to thrust it at everyone, and insist that they read it.
Damian starts his tale in 1901 – where, at the height of the second Boer War, Sarah van der Watt and her son, Fred, are forced from their farm to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp, on the British promise that its for their own safety.
Move on a century to 2010, when Willem, at 16, is sent to New dawn Safari Training Camp – a place for misfits which promises to make men out of boys. It’s a harrowing tale, showing, all too clearly, that the actions of the Colonial British still have repercussions today.
The middle section, starting in 1976 shows Willem’s grandmother, Rayna, and mother Irma, struggling with the limited choices life has left them with. Damian links the two parts, by showing, through a museum visit in the 1990’s, how historical events were viewed.
“I was in that museum on the site of Bloemfontein, and you ask people, ‘did you have family there’, and the stories and the artefacts come out. I’m Scottish, but I was there with my husband who is English, and people wouldn’t shake his hand. And this is over 100 years later.”
We talk about Brexit, and the resurgence, in England, of the idea of empire.
“There’s a collective delusion about empire right now,” he says. “People are retreating to a brilliant past that was never brilliant. This is ignoring history and is, partly, why I wanted to write the book.”
It all started with a picture in the newspaper of Raymond Buys – a 15-year-old South African boy who died in 2011 from the horrific treatment he’d received at a, privately run, paramilitary training camp.
“He looked exactly like this boy I went to school with who was from South Africa but came to Scotland for a year. I thought, who was this boy, and what kind of mother sends her son to a place like that? What kind of person runs such a place, and what kind of country could something like this happen in?”
He spoke to people involved in the trial and spent time with the boy’s mother and her boyfriend, but soon it became clear that he was never going to get a satisfactory answer.
“The mother’s not going to be able to tell me because she feels so guilty and bad about what happened, and the man who ran it isn’t going to tell me, either. What’s so scary is that he believes he is doing good by toughening these boys up for a life in a violent country.”
At the time, Damian was busy promoting Maggie and Me – his remarkable memoir about growing up gay in Thatcher’s Britain – and with his now famous literary salon.
“I didn’t think I needed to write a novel; I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement about it. But I realised to tell the story of Raymond Buys the way I wanted to; I was going to have to make it up.”
It’s been a long process. Damian spent less than a month in South Africa, but he’s lived there in his head for five years, reading about it, listening to their music, and watching soap operas and YouTube.
“And I’ve been having nightmares about what I’ve learned.”
The novel starts slowly – as the reader lives, with the characters through the reality of Britain’s Burnt Earth policy, and the sheer horror of the concentration camps – but the action speeds up for the final section, and that is quite deliberate.
“I wanted there to be a sense of events propelling you forwards.
“Tayari Jones, who wrote An American Marriage said you should write about people and their stories, not stories and their people, and that’s important to me. We make events like the Boer War into big things, but people experience them day to day and in many small ways. Neighbours are still potentially annoying or lovely, your children are still going to whine, and you still think about what you’re going to cook for dinner. The characters are individuals making choices; good ones and bad ones, and history has limited those choices.”
There are similarities with Maggie and Me. Both show teenage boys struggling to come to terms with who they are; both have moments of pain and poignancy, but this is, by necessity, a much darker, much angrier book.
“I had to allow myself to sit with sadness and resist the temptation to make it funny where it wasn’t.”
It’s a stunning achievement; And the reviews bear this out.
“I was delighted when it got a very good review in The Spectator, but the journalist who wrote it tweeted to say there were hundreds of negative comments under her review, saying, ‘but the British were doing good there.’ She had never before been attacked for writing a review.”
Damian lives in Brighton, but he edited part of the novel in Hydra, where he was staying with his good friends, Polly Samson and David Gilmour. I remark on his wonderful capacity for friendship, asking if it’s best feature.
“It’s a life-saving feature,” he quips.
He was, famously, very close to Diana Athill, the famous writer and editor who died earlier this year at 101.
“We’re unlikely friends. Different classes, different ages, different everything but we had the same politics and the same optimism. We used to go for outings, I’d push her in her wheelchair; she’d behave, badly, in art galleries; people would tut at her pronouncements, and we’d become so hysterical with laughter that we’d have to run out of the exhibition.
“She was my first reader. She said, ‘look I might die, and I want you to share this with me.’ I miss her,” he says. “I loved her so much. People say, irritatingly, that she had a good innings and she absolutely did, but I’d quite liked her to be here forever, actually. And I wasn’t prepared for her death, and I didn’t think it was all right.”
He has two ideas for a second novel, but isn’t sure yet, whether he’s sufficiently interested in either of them to commit up to five years.
“I’m also interested in non-fiction. I might write another memoir, or maybe I’ll write some essays. It’s an amazing, golden age in Irish essay writing with Sinead Gleeson and people like that. I feel there are lots of opportunities.”
Meanwhile, there are two upcoming television series to look forwards to. Maggie and Me has been taken up by the writers of Call the Midwife, and there’s news on his Literary Salon, too.
“It’s coming to the BBC in the Autumn,” he says. “It’s great. They will be a Scottish focus, but we’ll have guests from all around the world. I’m very excited.”
You Will Be Safe Here. Bloomsbury: €15.99 Kindle: €5.84.
Published in The Irish Examiner, on 24th August 2019.
© Sue J Leonard. 2019.