Wednesday, April 29, 2015


The programme of events commemorating the centenary of World War 1 has triggered interest and heightened awareness of what is often referred to as “the forgotten war”, and we all wish to extend our appreciation of such momentous events. “Birdsong” (1993) is, of course, a work of fiction, but it is the product of extensive, detailed and original research. Faulks immersed himself in the time and the events that characterise it. In so doing he has been able to bring insights that seem authentic to a story line that compares and contrasts the vagaries of human nature when confronted with horror. Above all it gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to fight in the trenches.

It follows that this was an ideal choice for our book group.

The proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, outlining the author’s background. Born in Berkshire on 20th April 1953, Faulks has said that he had a very happy childhood. His mother introduced him and his elder brother to books, theatre and music at an early age. He was educated at Elstree School near Reading; Wellington College, Berkshire; and Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read English. He graduated in 1974, and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 2007.

He decided that he wanted to be a writer while still at school, and after graduating he eked out a living by teaching at a private school. Then he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph, firstly as a junior reporter and later as a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote books in his spare time and later reviewed books for the Sunday Times and The Spectator. In 1984 his first book titled “A Trick of Light” was published. In 1986 he joined the Independent as Literary Editor and he stayed with the Independent, becoming deputy editor of the Sunday paper. He left in 1991 and subsequently wrote columns for the Guardian and Evening Standard, before the success of “Birdsong” enabled him to focus his skills on writing books.

He has published 15 novels. The best known is the trilogy set in France: “The Girl at the Lion D’Or”, “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”. “Engelby” was published in 2007 to mixed reviews. It represented a departure for Faulks in terms of the near-contemporary setting and in the decision to use a first person narrator. In 2008 he was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel by Ian Fleming’s estate to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s death. “Devil May Care” became an immediate best seller.

He has been the recipient of many literary awards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a CBE for services to literature in 2002. He married in 1989 and has three children.

The proposer explained that, as part of the WW1 commemorations, he had been involved in research into members of his golf club who had died in the conflict, and that this had provoked his interest in the book. He had previously read Engleby and had listened to Faulks talking about Engleby at the Edinburgh Book Festival. However, he preferred Birdsong.

Some of our group had read Birdsong some time ago and had re-read the book in order to refresh their memory. They all found added benefit in the second reading, uncovering depth in the characters and their contemplations, and wider themes in the book.

There were differing views of the “time shifts” otherwise described as “jump cuts”. Some thought it worked brilliantly, drawing out the contrast between untroubled pre-war life, the wretchedness of war itself and the transition to post war reality, and embodying his wider themes about time and the generations.  Others thought the time shifts “a bit clunky” and “irritating”, particularly the shift to the 1970’s.

There was a general view that the first part of the book that deals with Stephen’s life in Amiens, staying with the Azaire family and having a passionate affair with his host's wife Isabelle, was a bit too long. One person was tempted to stop reading at this stage; however, all were sufficiently encouraged by the description of the steamy sex to carry on reading.

The jump from peacetime Amiens to the Western Front in 1916 was a surprise and a shock to all, with the stark contrast between the love affair in the peaceful countryside of northern France and the horrors of the Somme. This narrative technique worked well throughout the book, and was greatly appreciated by all.

It was mentioned that Faulks deliberately imitated cinematic narrative devices, “moving from unbearable close ups to a view on a long lens and a very wide shot”. This thread permeates all parts of the novel, and was particularly effective when deployed in linking time, building characters and in dealing with themes such as life and death.

Death is an ever-present theme. The scale and arbitrariness of death, and the impact on individuals and their families and comrades are topics that are especially well portrayed. The impression is given of fleeting contact with individuals, insights into their lives followed by descriptions of their deaths, sometimes casual and sometimes in graphic detail. It was suggested that the death of comrades in some way helped to secure a closer bond between those remaining and to unite them in a common cause.

The death of Michael Weir narrates the existence of chance, bad luck and timing as factors leading to death and to the resultant feelings of guilt felt by those that failed to intervene sooner. Weir is portrayed as a good man and the manner of his death was clearly intended to anger and horrify. This was cited by one of our group as a good example of the arbitrariness of death.

The group also liked the way that the vivid description of the death of Jack Firebrace was linked to the death of his eight year old son, whose passing some two years earlier had stripped Jack of his feeling of invincibility and his reason for living. We felt that deep emotional feelings, and their influence on the struggle for survival, were especially well explored.

The group admired Faulks’ descriptive powers in relation to the scale and nature of death.
bodies were starting to pile and clog the progress”; “explosives can reduce men to particles so small that only the wind carried them - men simply go missing”.

Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, on visiting a cemetery near Bapaume in the Somme, felt that “on every surface of every column as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone”.

One of our company particularly liked Stephen speaking to Gray regarding the attack on Beaumont Hammel  I looked in your eyes and there was perfect blankness”, and following the attack as darkness fell the movement of the wounded was described as “It was like a resurrection in a cemetery 12 miles long”.

The group discussed the death rates of officers and men in both WW1 and WW2 and considered the reasons for the differences. While this conversation was interesting, the complexity of the topic threatened to divert us from considering the novel and it was parked for the time being.

It was suggested that at the time of writing “Birdsong” there was relatively little interest in WW1 and perhaps this silence related to the shock or trauma suffered by those who fought and survived. The reluctance on the part of veterans to share their experiences could be attributed to an overwhelming desire to forget or to conceal the trauma for reasons of self-preservation. Those at home might also not have wanted to hear about these experiences. We were reminded of Weir’s efforts to tell his father the truth about the front which were met with complete, almost hostile indifference.

Most of the group agreed that the strongest and most memorable sections in the book for them were those concerning the 1st day of the Somme offensive and those describing the underground warfare. The seduction of Isabelle in Amiens was also admired, but the reasons for the end of the affair remained a bit of a mystery.

There were mixed views on the sections dealing with the 1970’s. Some considered them a bit contrived, particularly the coded diaries, while others thought them well structured and entirely appropriate given their purpose to suggest that time heals, that hope arises out of despair and that life goes on.

It was pointed out that ironically the book’s title “Birdsong” is meant to represent the indifference of the natural world to the behaviour of humans. One felt that, Faulks, as an English graduate, was sometimes too self-conscious and contrived in his use of imagery to reinforce his themes, an example being his overly repetitive use of the imagery of birds from the title onwards. On the other hand, this might be Faulks' way of re-enforcing the idea that life goes on in some shape or form despite the horrors of human actions.

Everyone admired Faulks' skilful characterisation throughout the novel. Particular mention was made of the complex character of Stephen Wraysford, and the portraits of Azaire, Gray and Jack Firebrace. There was a view that the male characters were stronger than the female. Some found the character of Isabelle unconvincing. It was suggested that this might relate to the mystery associated with her behaviour. Various theories were put forward for the ending of her affair with Stephen, including one suggestion that she had decided that Stephen was not good father material, but none of these gained the confidence of the group and we were left to speculate. It was also suggested that the subject of the novel naturally places greater emphasis on the male characters, and that this was likely to result in these characters being more fully developed.

The group was surprised to learn that Faulks had written the book in only 6 months. It was his fourth novel and by far the most successful. He described the book’s success as the “locomotion” of his career. The book has sold more than 2 million copies in the UK and 3 million worldwide. Initially Faulks had difficulty finding a publisher in the USA, but it was eventually published by Random House and has done well. Perhaps surprisingly sales in Germany have been good, while sales in France have been poor. Faulks has commented that the French were surprised to hear that any other nationalities were involved in WW1!

It was the unanimous view of the group that “Birdsong” is a great modern novel, and we look forward to reading more of Sebastian Faulks’ work.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

26/2/2015 "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction" by Sue Townsend.

But the truth was, dear diary, I remembered Animal Farm as being a book simply about animals on a farm
No, the Monthly Book Group had not met to give their informed criticism of George Orwell’s classic; rather the book was “Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction” (2004) and the quote in question came from Adrian himself attending the Leicester and Rutland Creative Writing Group (aka Readers’ Club) in the bookshop run by Mr Calton-Hayes. Although arguably missing the metaphor in Animal Farm, the LRCWG did spot the resemblance between Tony Blair and Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte to be well ahead of her time.

The proposer gave a short summary of Sue Townsend’s eventful life from 1946 to 2014, a bestselling novelist since 1982 when she commenced her Adrian Mole series. She had left school at 15 years of age, married at 18, a single parent at 23 with three children. Previous to her writing career, she had experienced several low-paid jobs in her native Leicester and this experience shone through in her writing. She was also an award-winning playwright and had amassed several other honorary degrees and prizes.

Discussing the book, the attendees had all enjoyed it, most reading it for the first time. It was ‘laugh out loud’ funny with a cast of British eccentrics, a number of running plots and gags, most notably the deployment of Adrian’s son Glenn and mate Robbie to Iraq to deal with the WMD, and Adrian’s (Kipling’s) amorous adventures with Pandora (continued), Marigold and Daisy (French Fancy) Flowers. (Yes, really, the other sister is Poppy.) One of us commented on feeling pathos; at how poor AM couldn’t get on whereas Pandora sailed through all her exams. Another seemed to identify with Adrian’s experience of credit cards, as he opened one after another to pay for the one before, commenting on the early 2000s financial irresponsibility and willingness of banks to back a bad risk. Of course this book was written in 2004, but we suspect Sue T. had a good idea of what was coming later in the decade. 

Another running gag deals with Adrian’s letters to Latesun Ltd., asking Mr. Blair to confirm the existence of WMD so AM could recover his £57.10 Cyprus holiday deposit. As the book progresses Adrian mirrors the British public in questioning the validity of the Iragi invasion. Alas, Mr. Blair never writes to confirm that the WMD are targeted at Cyprus. The group wondered at Adrian’s naivety (playing the ‘daft laddie’) in writing to Blair, Beckham, Jordan, Arsene Wenger, Tim Henman et al. to offer advice. Well, Tim, you never did win Wimbledon. You should have listened.  Some celebrities seemed to be less than keen to contribute to AMs forthcoming book on ‘Celebrity and Madness’.

What is enduring in life? Taking the series as a whole, one reader was unhappy that Adrian’s character doesn’t develop, and he is still naive at 35. This isn’t plausible. Overall, the group felt that ST had captured the early 2000s mood in Adrian’s aspirations to better himself, notably in renting the less than exclusive property in Rat Wharf. (The clue is in the name.) Equally, he bought all sorts of unnecessary and overpriced accoutrements to improve the decor. One unwelcome neighbour at Rat Wharf was the aggressive Gielgud the Swan; this led to some classic comedy of misunderstanding with the Council’s Neighbourhood Conflict Unit as a series of letters were exchanged about AMs troublesome neighbour, Mr. Swan.

Fairly early in the evening, however, the conversation veered from the book itself towards the elephant in the room that was the existence or not of the weapons of mass destruction. Some asserted that it was obvious at the time that such didn’t exist. Was the Iraq invasion a cynical attempt to protect oil reserves, a reaction to the Twin Towers attacks, or an example of US cowboy culture? To what extent were the public wise after the event?  There was much discussion about the merits of the democratic process and the truism that it cannot be imposed but has to evolve from within. There was ensuing debate about the role of women in UK and world politics and society, science and religions, and to what extent aggression is a male trait. Where is Charlotte Bronte when you need a Middle East Envoy? Somehow we revisited Dresden in the Second World War; was this truly a war crime? We diverted and digressed and talked of the parliamentary and committee systems. Do MPs work hard? Are they paid enough? (Historical note: this preceded the revelations about Rifkind and Straw in February 2015.). These notes are not coherent; neither was the discussion!

At the end, we returned to the book. We loved some of Sue’s turns of phrase; we laughed, we cried. She captured the gradual realisation that the pretext for invasion was wrong. Who was the targeted audience? We felt that it appeals to any age and demographic. We talked of the advantages of the diary format that allows inconsistency, showing how public opinion is influenced by the popular press and politicians. Nevertheless, after the humour and pathos, the book ends on a serious note.

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
(Siegfried Sassoon, Survivors)

 Finally, Adrian thinks to write an autobiography. Happy people don’t keep a diary.