Julian Barnes has said Britain is a “split country” today and accused politicians of encouraging “pettiness”.
Barnes, who won the 2011 Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, has been a patron of Freedom from Torture – a charity providing therapeutic care to torture survivors seeking protection in the UK – for 25 years.
Speaking at a literary event hosted by the charity on Thursday, Barnes said: “Britain is such a split place these days and politicians often encourage pettiness. But many voters have a broader and more generous approach to what citizenship of a free country should be to entail.”
Thursday’s event at the London Library will be hosted by comedian and actor Alexei Sayle and will feature readings from Barnes and other notable writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Elif Shafak and Inua Ellams. There will also be performances by Write to Life, the UK’s longest-running refugee writing group and the only one dedicated to torture survivors.
Many of these people will have fled countries where free speech was restricted, and some of them will have been tortured for their own writing. “The other thing to note is that those who have been tortured often – literally – lose their voice,” Barnes added. “They just can’t talk about what happened to them. But writing helps unlock what they can tell us, and we look to groups like Write to Life to get their stories across.”
The Freedom from Torture Literary Festival, which continues throughout November, also included an interactive literary auction, with prizes including: being a named character in the next Margaret Atwood or Lee Child novel; a weekend break at Tracy Chevalier’s cottage in Dorset in Tess of the d’Urbervilles; and a first edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
The money raised from the auction – which ends Thursday evening – and other contests and events will help fund the charity, which encourages its patrons to practice art for self-expression and to explain what happened to them. It runs a number of creative therapy, writing, music, and gardening courses to help people process trauma.
“As a charity issue, torture is not an easy sell and we all stand against torture,” Barnes said. “The function of the arts is to tell the truth, often, or mostly, to deaf or half-open ears, and to continue to do so.”
Barnes’ awards also include the Somerset Maugham Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Jerusalem Prize.
He said he would read poems by Edna St Vincent Millay, Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy at the literary event to tie in with the theme, A New Chapter.