Last night at the Durham Art Gallery we were treated to a spellbinding reading by novelist Pat Barker from her new work, Toby’s Room (to be published in August 2012). The reading took place amongst two linked exhibitions which have been jointly curated by the Gallery (which is based on the top floor of the Durham Light Infantry Museum) and the Centre for Medical Humanities, and have been supported by Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. One of the exhibitions, About Face, contains works by the artist-surgeon Henry Tonks, who appears as a character in Pat’s novel. Pat chose two readings from the book which vividly portrayed the effects of disfiguring facial injuries on the lives and social interactions of the young soldiers who were the subjects of Tonks’ extraordinary pastel paintings. The writer held us spellbound as she took us on a night out in London with one of her characters, Kit Neville, and his friend Paul Tarrant. Neville, who has a hole in the middle of his face, has borrowed a Rupert Brook mask for the evening. Explaining his choice of mask to Tarrant, Neville quips, ‘Very popular, apparently. The Rupert Brook….You’ve got to admit he was absolutely stunning.’ We followed the pair from their first drinking bout in the Rose and Crown pub (Neville slurping whiskies through a straw beneath his mask) to the Café Royal. Here, his anger at the covert looks and looking’s away of his fellow diners make Neville so frustrated that he begins to ‘roar’ like a ‘wounded bull with the full force of his lungs behind it.’ Once his roaring attracts the attention of the room, he removes the mask to blank shock all around the room. There was also blank shock and tension wound to a tight pitch in the gallery as we listened, which was released as Pat read on to where Neville collapses first into tears and then laughter as Tarrant leads him despairing from the Café.
It was an extraordinary privilege to be present at this reading delivered in the presence of the pictures of the real victims of such injuries during the First World War. It is an experience I will never forget. For anyone who is within striking distance of Durham between now and the 24th June, I would recommend a visit. Full details of the exhibition and associated events are on the CMH and DLI websites.