Regeneration by Pat Barker


I had to temporarily abandon my reading of Armadale after it disintegrated in my bag – rest assured, it has been repaired with lots of sellotape and will be finished soon – and after seeing the first poppies starting to be sold in London, I decided to pick up Regeneration, the first in Pat Barker’s trilogy about the psychological impact of WWI, featuring the real life figures of writers Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, as well as Dr William Rivers, who treated shell shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. I went through a huge phase of reading WWI literature a few years ago, and absolutely loved the experience, yet somehow I never got around to Regeneration, which was a real oversight. I couldn’t bear to put it down, and found myself thinking about it all day while I was at work. The characters, in particular Dr Rivers, are so vital that I almost felt as if they were alive, and the intensity of the psychological trauma suffered by both patients and doctor is brilliantly, heartrendingly drawn. The novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, but the lines blur seamlessly to create a realistic, powerful and incredibly moving exploration of the effect of war on the psyche.

The story opens with Siegfried Sassoon’s admission to the hospital in 1917, after writing his famous declaration against the war, in which he acknowledges his ‘wilful defiance of military authority’: an act tantamount to treason in the eyes of many. In order to save him from a court martial, therefore, his friend Robert Graves pulls strings to ensure that Sassoon’s sanity is called into question, and has him sent to the comfortable surroundings of Craiglockhart, where the pioneering Dr Rivers has been treating soldiers with a variety of symptoms of mental illness caused by their war experiences. Sassoon is obviously not mad; he is simply disillusioned and horrified by what he has seen. Dr Rivers knows this from the outset, and seeing the deep conflict and trauma beneath the surface of Sassoon’s aloof exterior, over a period of several weeks, the men develop a close bond as Sassoon is helped to reconcile his fervent pacifism with his sense of duty, and decide on his future path.

There are many other fascinating characters, such as Prior, a working class officer ashamed at the fact that he has broken down, and conflicted between his desire to stay alive and his desire to do his duty. There is also the tragic ‘fossilised schoolboy’ Burns, who can’t eat after a traumatic experience with the dead body of a German soldier. Many of the men struggle with feelings of shame and guilt and failure, taught as they were that real men do not feel fear, and duty must always come before self. To have found the war unbearable is to have become emasculated, feminine, weak; to no longer be a man. With sensitivity and intelligence, Pat Barker explores the ideological aspects of war and how closely attitudes towards it were (and perhaps still are) interlinked with societal expectations of accepted masculine behaviour. Of particular interest to me was how many of the men at Craiglockhart were classified as being ‘mad’ when they were simply just sad. Their experiences had revealed the horror of inhumanity to them, and shown them the vulnerability and futility of human existence in a shatteringly visceral way. However, feeling a profound sense of hopelessness or melancholy was not an approved response to war; having any emotional response at all was simply not expected nor acknowledged. A man’s job is to do his duty; his feelings about it are utterly irrelevant. Gradually it is this barbaric approach that Rivers begins to see might be the true madness around him, and he struggles with the concept that he is ‘healing’ these patients only to send them back to the battlefield, where society says they belong. For, what is madness, the novel prompts us to consider – surely it is war that is insane? And perhaps the only sane response to such insanity must be to break down emotionally, otherwise what does that say about humanity, if we can look destruction in the face and not be moved by it? This is such a fantastic and thought provoking novel, and if you haven’t read it, i highly recommend it. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequels next.

Tea or Books? is back!

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Here’s the link to our latest podcast, back after my internet-less hiatus; I hope you’ll enjoy it! This time it’s on rural vs urban novels and Sense and Sensibility vs Pride and Prejudice. You might be surprised by what we choose!

In other news, I now work dangerously close to Charing Cross Road, home of London’s best loved book shops, and I have taken to ‘popping in’ to Foyles quite frequently on my way home, as it is such a pleasure to browse the shelves. I am not really one to buy new books, as I tend to just pick my books up cheaply in charity or second hand book shops, but Foyles has started to make a convert out of me. I find books in there that I would never otherwise hear of or notice, and they have a very clever knack of producing displays of related books so that people with rather niche tastes such as myself can discover new authors in the same vein as their old favourites. I love unwinding after a busy day by wandering through all of the different departments, and I like the fact that when I buy something, I am contributing to the survival of an independent book seller, which obviously completely justifies my expenditure. This week I was delighted to find the British Library Crime Classics series on special offer, so I picked up The Lake District Murder by John Bude, and Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon, largely because they had the prettiest covers, but the stories also sound brilliant, I promise! I also came across a William Maxwell novel that I haven’t yet read, The Chateau, which sounds wonderfully atmospheric, and just the sort of thing to curl up with now it’s getting colder and the nights are drawing in.

As any teacher will know, I already can’t wait for half term, and I’m very excited to be going on my first holiday since my trip to Scandinavia over Easter. I’ll be spending a few days in Lisbon, which is a city I’ve wanted to visit for years, so I’m so looking forward to exploring its streets and trying some authentic Portuguese cuisine. If anyone has any Lisbon tips, I’d love to hear them, and any recommendations for books set in Lisbon or in Portugal in general would be much appreciated!

I promise I’ll be back with a book review soon…Armadale is quite the doorstopper, so I am taking a while to wade my through it!

London Life


Sorry I disappeared for a while there. I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t have any internet in my new flat until yesterday, which meant that I spent the entire summer practically ignorant of the goings on in the world around me, which was actually rather restful, when I come to think about it. I’d love to say that I got loads of reading done, but I didn’t; I stayed in London for my holidays this year, and was so busy exploring and enjoying the city that I barely had the opportunity to sit down with a book.



I’ve moved to one of the only remaining unfashionable areas in this rapidly gentrifying part of the city; you won’t find any artisan coffee shops, flower markets, pop up vintage shops, art galleries or zinc-ceilinged New York style bars round here. The local market is filled with stuff that clearly came off the back of a truck, the only coffee you can buy is from Greggs (Brits will know what that means!) and the most exciting shopping experience can be found in the local charity shop. But I love it here because of all this; it’s real London, with real Londoners, living real lives. It might not offer many instagram-friendly photo opportunities, but actually, when you look closely, what appears to be a bit of a dump is actually an amazing receptacle of London’s history, largely unseen and unvisited because it’s completely off the beaten path.


My new neighbourhood is intrinsically linked to the water, and walking along the canal path, peering into the windows of the brightly painted houseboats and picking blackberries off the bushes that grow in a tangle along the water’s edge, are some of my favourite ways to pass an idle afternoon. The cobbled streets and weathered brickwork on the old wharf buildings by the river, along with the few remaining pubs and houses from the 17th and 18th century that crouch like elderly gentlemen between the shiny new blocks of flats, sweep me right back to Victorian London, and make me feel like I’m in a Dickens novel. I love wandering through the leaf strewn grounds of the majestic Georgian Hawksmoor churches, whose spires can be seen from miles away, and whose lofty architecture speaks of a time when this now rather down at heel spot was once home to London’s elite. And I love the searing brutalism of the midcentury high rise blocks of flats that pierce the skyline and whose sides are often decorated with some interesting examples of street art. So, you might not come here for a culinary, cultural or sartorial day out, but you’d be hard pressed to leave without having seen something beautiful or surprising, reminding you of just how diverse and ever-evolving London is.



I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of my new patch; I’ll be back soon with a book review, and Simon and I will definitely be recording a new podcast this week, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Tea or Books? Episode Three

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Simon and I had great fun recording our latest podcast, which tackles the thorny issues of new reads vs re-reads and Dorothy Whipple v. D E Stevenson. Head over to Simon’s blog to listen (and for a list of all the books we mention throughout the episode) or to our itunes page, here. As always, any comments or suggestions are more than welcome – do let us know what you think!

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris


Gillespie and I is one of those books that draws you in from the very beginning, with a story that immediately promises intrigue and suspense. In 1930s London, elderly Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir of the artist Ned Gillespie, who she knew for a short while in the 1880s, when living in Glasgow. Harriet reveals that Ned was a greatly tragic figure, who was compelled to destroy all of his works before killing himself a few years after Harriet first became acquainted with him. She is adamant that she wants to return Ned to the position of prominence that he deserves, to resurrect his ‘forgotten genius’, by telling his story, but it is clear from the mention of ‘the trial’ and ‘white-slavery business’, that Harriet quickly dismisses as unimportant before launching into her narrative, that there is far more to Ned’s story than a tortured artistic temperament, and far more to Harriet than the persona of a harmless octogenarian she attempts to project.

In 1888, Harriet Baxter is a wealthy spinster in her mid thirties who is intelligent and cultured, but somewhat lonely. The aunt she used to spend her days caring for has recently died, and so Harriet, who has family connections in Scotland, decides to leave London behind for a while and go to Glasgow to enjoy the summer exhibition. As chance would have it, practically as soon as she steps off the train, she finds herself assisting a woman who has fainted on the street. Harriet’s lectures in First Aid come in useful when it transpires that the woman’s dentures have become stuck in her throat, and when the woman recovers after Harriet’s ministrations, she declares that she must come and have tea with her and her family by way of thanks. Harriet dutifully goes, having few friends in Glasgow, and finds herself in the home of Ned Gillespie, a young artist she had admired recently at a show in London who is now showing his work at the summer exhibition. The woman she has saved is, coincidentally, Ned’s mother, and the somewhat ramshackle house and studio is shared by Ned, his wife Annie and their two daughters Sybil and Rose, as well as Ned’s wayward siblings, Fred and Mabel. Over the course of the next few weeks, Harriet finds herself increasingly drawn into the Gillespie’s world, becoming a confidante of Annie and the elder Mrs Gillespie, and an advisor on artistic matters to Ned. However, all is not rosy; as Harriet insinuates, something is very wrong with the Gillespie’s elder daughter, Sybil, whose behaviour is highly disturbing, and Ned’s obsession with his work seems to be driving him away from his family. Harriet, convinced that Ned is a genius, will do anything to help the Gillespies, but as summer moves into autumn and Harriet’s short stay seems to be becoming indefinite, a shocking event occurs that shatters their carefree circle, and none of their lives will be the same again.

The narrative moves between the 1880s and 1930s, and the state of mind of the now elderly Harriet allows for light to be gradually shed on the course of events taking place in the past. Harriet projects herself as an innocent, but her barbed comments, pointed silences and clear prejudice towards particular members of the family make it very clear to the reader that Harriet is not necessarily someone to be trusted. However, whether Harriet is just a lonely woman, to be pitied for her obsession with Ned and his family, or a manipulative and disturbing character, capable of all manner of evil, is left tantalisingly open to interpretation. Did Harriet orchestrate the events she narrates, or was she just an innocent bystander? And what really did take her to Glasgow in the first place? Whim or design? As events build to a crescendo, the tension becomes all consuming, and I couldn’t bear to put the book down. I was a little disappointed by the ending, I must admit; the story was so compelling and I wanted an ending that had me gasping, but it just sort of fizzled out with no real conclusion. I appreciate that Harris probably wanted readers to come to their own interpretations, but I would have preferred a tighter ending that offered more concrete answers. Unlike The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which uses a similar narrative technique, I didn’t think there were enough overt clues in the narrative to allow the reader to come to a clear interpretation of events. As such, I felt quite unsatisfied as I closed the pages, despite having been highly entertained throughout. Even so, I would strongly recommend Gillespie and I; it is a truly absorbing novel, with a wonderful cast of characters that are brought vividly to life, and it certainly left me rather haunted by its events. Jane Harris is one to watch!