Britain is a ‘bifurcated place nowadays’, says Julian Barnes

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Julian Barnes has said Britain is a “bifurcated place nowadays” and accused politicians of encouraging “mean-spiritedness”.

Barnes, who won the Booker prize in 2011 with The Sense of an Ending, has been a patron of Freedom from Torture – a charity which provides therapeutic care to survivors of torture who seek protection in the UK – for 25 years.

Speaking before a literary event hosted by the charity on Thursday, Barnes said: “Britain is such a bifurcated place nowadays, and politicians often encourage mean-spiritedness. But many of the electorate take a broader and more generous approach towards what being a citizen of a free country should entail.”

Thursday’s event at the London Library will be hosted by the comedian and actor Alexei Sayle and features readings from Barnes as well as other notable writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Elif Shafak and Inua Ellams. There will also be performances from Write to Life, which is the UK’s longest-running refugee writing group and the only one specifically for survivors of torture.

Many of these people will have fled countries with curbs on freedom of expression, 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 voices,” Barnes added. “They simply cannot speak of what has happened to them. But writing helps unlock what they can tell us, and we look to groups like Write to Life to communicate their stories.”

Freedom from Torture’s literary festival, which has been running throughout November, has also included an interactive literary auction, with prizes including: becoming a named character in the next Margaret Atwood or Lee Child novel; a weekend away in Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset cottage in Tess of the d’Urbervilles country; and a first edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Cash raised by the auction – which ends on Thursday night – and other competitions and events will help fund the charity, which encourages its clients to practise the arts for self-expression and to explain what has happened to them. It runs a number of creative therapy courses, writing, music and gardening to help people process trauma.

“As a charitable issue, torture is not an easy sell and we are all revolted by torture,” said Barnes. “The function of the arts is to tell the truth, often, or especially, to deaf or half-open ears, and to go on doing so.”

Barnes’s honours also include the Somerset Maugham award, the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize and the Jerusalem prize.

He said he would be reading poems by Edna St Vincent Millay, Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy at the literary event to fit in with its theme, A New Chapter.