Harry Parker, author, on his great grandfather’s paint box.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
HP I don’t really know when it was first given to me, but I always knew it was great grandfather’s paint box. I started drawing and painting when I was very young. I’m from a military family and we were stationed in Gibraltar when I was about five years old. I’m not sure that the school there was very good, so I drew and painted the planes and the ships that went past. Because I enjoyed it, I did it more and more and then my grandmother gave me her father’s paint box. I suppose it has an added significance because he was a soldier and served in the First and Second World Wars. I don’t remember him because he died when I was about two years old, but I can remember my grandmother taking me into his room and showing me his sketches. There was one of a stone cross, surrounded by splintered trees that were cut off at knee height. I’ve always used the paint set and I still use it now. It’s become more and more battered. It was interesting when you asked me to choose an object because I’ve recently written a book that’s told from the point of view of objects. When I was writing the book I tried to find objects that reflected the theme they were talking about, so a handbag was chosen to reflect the scene where the mother sees her injured son.
GB I felt quite tenderly towards all the objects in the book. Is that something that you feel in real life?
HP Well actually when you asked me to choose an object, I thought that I’m not really someone to cherish things. If we have too much clobber around the house I’m the first one to go to the tip or the charity shop. There’s that saying about only keeping objects that give you joy – and there are a few things I’d never give away, but having being injured and now being a father, objects just seem to be less important somehow.
GB So do you think that your paint box holds memories of your great grandfather in some way?
HP He served in some of the really terrible First World War battles and then he was evacuated at Dunkirk. He was in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. There was one point when he broke his ankle and spent time at Osbourne on the Isle of Wight where lots of injured soldiers recuperated. His whole regiment was decimated during this time. The book mentions luck in war and there are those fractions of seconds in which things happen that make such a difference. In the book, I try to reflect that feeling of wanting to be in the action – it’s something to do with being a professional. You want to do your job properly. And there’s also something about being with your mates and not wanting to be taken out of the team. My great grandfather might have been carrying that paint box as he was evacuated by one of the big Naval destroyers at Dunkirk. We place all this meaning onto an object. But it would be junk to the next person. When I wrote the book, it didn’t feel like it was an odd thing to do to tell the story from the point of view of objects. When you’re soldiering, all these things that you have, like your body armour and your helmet, keep you alive when you’re fighting and when you deploy you pack everything you’re going to have for the next six months. The more battered it gets, and the more your body armour starts to smell of your own sweat, the less likely you are to swap it for something new. To lose it would be like losing a part of yourself. So it seemed very natural to use objects to describe that feeling.
GB The objects all have this innocence. It makes the story seem more objective.
HP When I first started writing about my experiences I really wanted to stay away from politics. That was another reason for telling it from the point of view of objects. There have been a lot of comments about Afghanistan, about how the kit was crap. I wanted to tell a good story and I would never have told my story if I hadn’t been able to find a creative way of doing it. But as soon as you start telling the story you realise that you have this different perspective according to where things are positioned. The hospital objects were particularly interesting. When you’re in a hospital bed and you’ve got pipes and wires coming out of you, it’s very disorientating but those things are keeping you alive. Then the prosthetics become part of you, so they come alive in a way and they give you your proportions back. I did have to research a lot of the book in hindsight which was interesting. The objects don’t really have character because as soon as they do, I think that the story loses some of its power. But some of them have different tones. The bone saw is clinical for instance. There are days when I’d finish writing and feel as though I’d slightly been through the mill. The bone saw was one of those days.
GB That must also be quite hard for people close to you to read?
HP I suppose it reimagines something that really happened. The book is fictional but it is something that happened to me; my second leg was amputated later and my mum and dad would have been waiting outside while I was completely unconscious.
GB Some people find beauty in mystery, but you did such detailed research for the book. Do you think you find more beauty in things the more you know about them?
HP Yes, definitely. In the chapter with the bullet, I researched how a small objects travels through the air and the friction of the bullet heating up. The more I researched the bullet, the more interesting it was. And there’s also a Persian rug, which I used because it’s in a chapter where people sit on it to discuss culture. The way these objects move around the world from where they’re made to where they end up is fascinating – the way the tiny knots of the rug are woven together is amazing.
GB So do you think you find more beauty in minutiae or in things on a more global scale?
HP I’m not very good at flying, so now I buy a New Scientist at the airport. I’ll read about general relativity or quantum mechanics when flying. I’ll think, when I’m reading it, that I’m really getting it this time and then when I finish the article it’s gone. I like that it makes me feel insignificant while I’m flying, thinking about how black holes are formed or how the brain works.
GB When you’re in a war zone, does beauty seem like something frivolous, or something worth living for, or is it just not something you think about?
HP I’ve always been a visual person. I went to art school, so just because you’re in a war zone, it doesn’t mean that beauty disappears. You might be very busy fighting and miss a wonderful sunset but the fighting takes up 0.1 per cent of the time and the rest of the time is the other stuff you do in war. It was amazing how terrible things can happen on a beautiful day. I find it interesting that when we imagine the First World War, it’s in black and white and it’s pissing with rain. It’s easy to look back and romanticise these conflicts we’ve been in. I could never draw and paint when I was out patrolling but I would get back to camp and sketch something I’d seen during the day. You work hard but then you try to appreciate that there are chinks of beauty in all the crap that’s going on.
GB Were you unusual in being that creative in the army?
HP It’s surprising how many soldiers are creative. Soldiering is a creative thing in some ways. They call it the art of war. You’re coming up with solutions to problems and soldiers are often creative people because they have to come up with the best way of attacking the enemy. often you find out people have left the army and become painters. Looking at the First World War, it was a conscripted army so you had a very broad cross section of society, so there were all those wonderful poets as well as people from all walks of life. Nowadays, it’s a volunteer army and if you’re really into art it’s less likely you’ll become a soldier, but for me it never felt like something strange. My grandmother told me that my her father would never really talk about his experiences in the wars and we get the impression that most people never did, but the poetry and paintings that came out of the First World War shows how some people had to make sense of it by being creative. Afghanistan is a very different conflict and it hasn’t affected our whole society so people want to know about it. I suppose I wanted to make sense of my time in a conflict zone.
As soon as I started to write it was really important for me to try to understand the enemy. War is so dehumanizing and coming back to it as a writer, you’re creating characters and instantly making them human again. You want them to be interesting and believable so you have to feel some compassion, because their reasons for fighting are probably not that different to our own.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
HP When I’ve painted or drawn in the past, my only aim has been to try to make people see something different about the world; to say, “I’ve never thought about it like that before.” I think beautiful things make you stop and think differently about the world, even if they’re savagely beautiful.