Journalist Damian Barr arrives to a busy crowd in the George Street Spark Theatre to discuss his debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here (chaired by fellow Scottish writer, Richard Holloway). Most audience members will know him from his newspaper articles and breakout memoir, Maggie and Me, and the coming-of-age themes in that autobiography are very much part of his foray into fiction.
He begins by discussing the interconnectedness of human history and it’s this idea that permeates much of the talk today. You Will Be Safe Here is a fictional account of Willem, a South African boy sent to a camp that his mother was told would turn ‘boys into men’. The story is very much based on truth, though, of Raymond Buys who was killed in a camp just like this, and who Barr wrote about in an article for The Guardian. And those camps in turn, Barr notes, are entirely related to the Nazi concentration camps, the British camps of the Boer War – even the illegal immigrant camps in present day USA.
The Boer War forms the basis of further discussion as Barr and Holloway discuss our collective ignorance towards it, particularly in relation to society’s omnipresent reminders of the First and Second World Wars.
As well as conflict on a national and political scale, the novel is also very much concerned with homophobia and toxic masculinity, particularly in its second half, the author tells us. What began as a research project of passion (without a novel in mind) eventually began to take shape and form a fictional narrative in Barr’s mind. In a fascinating section of today’s talk, he naturally showcases his storytelling abilities as he recounts a terrifying research visit to the camp near Johannesburg where Raymond was killed, reminding the audience of the magnitude and horror of this very real situation.
Barr also reads two extracts – the first a diary entry from the novel’s opening and the second an intimate, atmospheric scene from later in the story. The language is gentle, neatly descriptive and, as Holloway suggests, ‘elegant’, narrated in present tense which brings an immediacy and directness to the story of Willem. The closing audience question and answer session brings up new and interesting areas for discussion, including the motivations of Raymond Buys’s mother, modern day iterations of the institutions examined in the novel, and Emily Hobhouse – a figure not many of the audience seem aware of but who Barr implores us to research.
Damian Barr is a captivating speaker for the hour. He is articulate and insightful and he provides us with an engaging insight into both the important historical context of his new novel as well as the creation of a fictional set of characters who are intriguing and sensitively captured.