Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Men Of Letters - Duncan Barrett - Author Q&A

Today I am very pleased to welcome author Duncan Barrett to the blog! 

His new book Men of Letters is out now. (AA Publishing, £8.99, softback)

Hi Duncan, please could you tell us a bit about your new book Men of Letters?

Men of Letters tells the true stories of some of the thousands of Post Office workers who went off to fight in the trenches during the First World War, in particular those who served with the organisation's own battalion the Post Office Rifles. Based on their trench diaries and the letters they wrote home from the western front, it looks at every aspect of their experiences of war, from the rituals of daily life in the trenches (in particular the importance for morale of regular mail and food packages from home) to the terrible slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele, when men saw former post office colleagues suddenly killed alongside them. These very ordinary men living through extraordinary times give us a glimpse of the war as the average tommy experienced it. 

What drew you to this topic - I understand that there is a personal link in your family to the Post Office Rifles? 

Actually, the only personal link to the POR story is that my great-great-uncle fought alongside them in the battle for High Wood in September 1916, and like many of the PORs he was killed there. But I didn’t actually realise the connection until I began researching their stories. I visited High Wood as part of my research for the book, hoping to see the land where they fought and he died. Sadly, though, the only people allowed inside these days are those who come to shoot game birds in the wood. 

Do you enjoy researching the books that you write, and how easy/difficult was it to find out about this topic in order to put your book together?

I was very lucky that there is a wealth of material on the Post Office Rifles held at the Imperial War Museum, and also at the British Postal Museum and Archive. Many of the PORs shared their own stories with each other before they died, and some of these were printed in the POR Association newsletters. I also had access to lots of the original letters they wrote to their loved ones from the front lines, which helped me to get to know them on a personal level. I found the research fascinating – although occasionally I did find it frustrating that all the people I was writing about were no longer alive. With my previous books, The Sugar Girls and GI Brides, which are both based on interviewees with living subjects, I’ve always been able to pick up the phone if I realised something was confusing me. 

Do you find the writing process addictive - is it hard to stop once you get going?

To be honest, I find that I’m always on such a tight deadline that I don’t have time to stop even if I wanted to! But certainly, you do get into the flow of writing once you’ve been doing it for a while. The first few weeks on a new book are always the hardest, trying to get back into that daily rhythm again. Then after a while it begins to get more enjoyable!

I really enjoyed your book about The Sugar Girls. How do you decide what you want to write about next? 

Generally, I find that working on one book I start to have ideas about the next one. When my partner Nuala and I were researching The Sugar Girls, we spent a lot of time interviewing old ladies in the East End, and Nuala started to think, ‘I’m getting to know all these other people’s grandmothers, but I’ve never really interviewed my own grandmother.’ When The Sugar Girls was out of the way, she spent several days talking to her grandmother Margaret, and hearing about her experiences as a GI Bride in WW2 – and that inspired us to write our next book about the GI Brides. One of the women we wrote about in that book was in the ATS during the war, and we were so fascinated by that aspect of her war experience that we decided our third book would be about women in the forces – we’re working on that now, and it should be in shops March 2015. Men of Letters was a little bit different in that the publisher approached me about writing something to do with the First World War, to tie in with the Centenary this year. I wanted it to be a story that focused on ordinary men on the front lines, and if possible using some of their own words – we eventually agreed on a book about the Post Office Rifles (a battalion of ordinary postmen and telegram boys) incorporating the letters they wrote home. 

Thank you for answering my questions Duncan!


  1. I really liked this interview.

    This is an unusual aspect of the history of World War I that I knew nothing about.

    Insightful comments on the difference between writing about folks who are still alive verses those who are not.

    1. Thanks very much for visiting and commenting Brian, much appreciated as always. I knew nothing of this either, so it's really interesting to learn more.

  2. Hi Lindsay and Duncan,

    What an excellent interview and yet another completely diverse, yet such an interesting aspect of World War I, to focus on in this Centenary year.

    I know that I have now moved on apace to World War II, however, before becoming old enough to enlist as a regular soldier, then forging a career in civvy street for himself in the Post Office, my father-in-law began his war effort as a telegram boy, here at home.

    The single story he often recounts (when you can persuade him to talk about his war experiences at all, that is), is of him needing to deliver a telegram to a policeman standing on guard duty outside of an air raid shelter in Portsmouth, just after the sirens had been sounded and the locals herded inside the shelter. The policeman accepted the telegram, but couldn't persuade my father-in-law to take shelter with the others. As he cycled away, there was a huge blast and when FIL turned around, he saw that the shelter had taken a direct hit and later learned that the policeman and many of those taking shelter, had perished!

    Duncan, stories such as this and all the great accounts you have uncovered in your research, need to be documented and preserved for the Nation, in the hope that one day, people all around the World, will come to realise the futility of war.

    Keep up the great work and thanks to you Lindsay for organising such a poignant interview.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to visit and for your comment Yvonne, what a thing to witness. Thank you for sharing it with us here. Lindsay


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