Writer Damian Barr arrived at Lancaster University by chance, as a penniless dropout, traumatised by a deprived and violent childhood, but he left with a degree - and the personal will to go on to build a happy and successful life.
It is difficult to parallel the teenager who found refuge visiting his closest friend, Heather, at Lancaster and just stayed, with the award-winning writer, recently described by The Financial Times as a ‘literary impresario’, who is currently promoting his widely acclaimed novel, You Will Be Safe Here. The explanation is stark, says Barr: “Lancaster was a home for me. I felt quiet and safe there and there was a sense of community. I feel enormously grateful to Lancaster for giving me that time and space.”
It also provided him with four years of weekly therapy to address the nightmares, anxiety and post-traumatic stress that crippled him as he started to his studies. “That access to free and regular therapy was as essential to me as my degree in propelling me on a trajectory towards a healthy and happy adult life, “ he states baldly. “It was not an extra or a bonus. If you have poor mental health you will have poor career outcomes.”
His shocking teenage experiences growing up in 1980s Glasgow, of hunger, homophobia, alcohol-fuelled violence and regular beatings from his mother’s partner are described in his 2013 memoir Maggie and Me (which won him The Political Humour and Satire Book of the Year at The Paddy Power Political book awards, Sunday Times Memoir of the Year and Stonewall Writer of the Year.) His only escapes then were school and the local library. He remembers arriving at Lancaster University to visit his best school friend Heather having dropped out of a journalism course at Napier University and being immediately captivated by “the shiny city on the hill’. Encouraged by Heather, he picked up the phone and called Clearing, spoke to a tutor in Lancaster’s English and Sociology departments and the secretary of Bowland College, and by the end of those calls he knew Lancaster was for him.
He couldn't even afford to have photos taken for his student ID but the secretary, assured him he could cut himself out of a family wedding photo. Discreetly, admin staff - Diane and Pam - found hardship funding for him. They also continued to ’look out’ for him during his time there, making sure he was turning up for lectures and even pointed him to counselling when it became clear that PTSD, anxiety and nightmares were getting the better of him. “I’m still in touch with Pam now, 20 years on, “ he says. “That level of care is pretty remarkable.” His own experience has made him a passionate advocate for access to psychological support for university students. He says: “Therapy for students is as important as kitchens or access to a GP.”
The job of a novelist is, in Barr’s opinion, to imagine the life of others. He says his studies in English and Sociology presented him with texts, patterns and theories about human beings which, alongside his own process of self scrutiny, prepared him for a career in journalism, and then to write his own stories. He remembers with joy the course on ‘The Gothic Thing’ which he describes as a ‘great rollicking read’, and a course by Jackie Stacey on women and film, which stimulated his thinking.
He also spent his second year as an undergraduate on a scholarship at the University of Texas, Austin thanks to a bursary, which covered his studies but not his lodgings. He ended up receiving support from an anonymous benefactor in Glasgow, who asked for nothing but a letter detailing his progress once a month. Whilst in the USA , Barr says he learned more about Shakespeare than anywhere else.
Lancaster University also provided him with an abrupt introduction to his husband - the ceramics artist, Mike Moran - with whom he now shares his life in Brighton. They ran into each other sledging on campus and he considers the meeting to have been the ‘single greatest thing’ that happened to him there. His relationship and the LGBT Society took up most of his social life although he managed to find time to play the role of Hamlet in a production of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and to take part in one or two protests in support of gay rights.
He stayed on for an extra year to complete an MA in Sociology because he needed the time. Thanks to Lancaster’s strong industry links he secured a two-week work experience at The Times which led to his first job on the newspaper’s student online publication. This proved to be his passport into a journalistic career writing for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and High Life.
His life is all about books, with fingers in multiple literary pies. He’s host of the Literary Salon at The Savoy, and fronts the BBC’s Big Scottish Book Club. He also acts as a literary judge a broadcaster, columnist, playwright and writer of short stories.
A teenaged Damian Barr could not have imagined such a life, or that Lancaster University would prove to open such a wide and welcoming door into it. Apart from the academic influence, he says many other things still stick - he’s learned to ask for help, not to be afraid not to understand, to realise that ours is not the only story or perspective, and that sometimes there is a better question to ask.
In 2020, he received his PhD by publication at his alma mater about the process and ethics of writing a memoir, and in 2017 he received an alumni award from Lancaster. Summing up Lancaster’s legacy, he said: “It has allowed me to feel more secure, more able to take up space in the world and allowed me to be successful and happy.”Back to News