#136 Reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My work in progress, ALBERT & MARIE, is not only set in World War One but one of the main characters, Albert, becomes a tunneller in the Royal Engineers.

Faulks’ father was awarded the Military Cross and later became a solicitor and circuit judge. His brother Edward Faulks, Baron Faulks QC, a barrister, became a Conservative Government Minister and his uncle was Sir Neville Faulks, a High Court judge. He read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and participated in University Challenge, a British quiz programme. After graduating, Faulks worked as a teacher at a private school in Camden Town, and then as a journalist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. He became the first literary editor of The Independent in 1986 and deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday in 1989. In 1991 he left The Independent. He wrote for various newspapers as a freelancer for the next ten years. Following the success of Birdsong (1993), Faulks quit journalism to write full-time. He has since published eight novels, the most recent being A Possible Life (2012), Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015) and Paris Echo (2018). Faulks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993 and appointed CBE for services to literature in 2002.

My father was a motor mechanic. My sister works for a community arts project and my Uncle ran an off-licence (liquor store). I studied for a Higher National Diploma at Dorset Institute of Higher Education before it became Bournemouth University and then completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Open University while I worked at an environmental charity and as a teacher in Brazil. I’ve worked in McDonalds, as a copywriter, a project manager creating websites when they were new, working in schools with an environmental charity and taught Drama in Brazil. I have published five novels and four novellas but my talents have yet to be recognised by the Royal Society of Literature or Her Majesty the Queen.

I think the differences in our backgrounds, education and employment are reflected in the protagonists we have created in our novels. Birdsong begins in 1910 when Stephen Wraysford visits and lives with René Azaire, his wife Isabelle and their children in Amiens, France. Stephen was an orphan who was rescued by a benefactor who wanted nothing to do with him. Although Stephen’s origins were poor and misfortunate, he enjoyed the benefits of a good education and has obtained a position in the textile industry which has enabled him to travel to France on industrial research.

My character is based on a real person, my Great Uncle Albert, though my knowledge of his life is so limited that the majority of his experiences, like Faulks’ Stephen, are based on the testimonies of World War One veterans who might have been in a similar position to our characters.

Uncle Albert was a miner in County Durham who signed up with the Yorkshire Light Infantry but was soon transferred to the Royal Engineers as the demand for tunnellers increased. Albert was a pioneer, the Royal Engineers equivalent of a private, while Stephen was a lieutenant.

Both Samuel West, who narrates the audiobook of Birdsong and Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen in the BBC mini series managed to create a young character who is incredibly posh and irreversibly changed by the horrors of war.

Both Faulks and I have deliberately avoided research with secondary documents, such as historical monographs, instead focusing on veteran interviews and period primary sources. In November 1988 he went on a trip to Flanders with half a dozen old soldiers in their 90s whereas I have had to rely on interviews given my soldiers to the Imperial War Museum or memoirs written soon after the events, untarnished by the Second World War.

Faulks felt that the published version of Birdsong did not fully do justice to the experience of war: it did not provide readers with “a full appreciation of the soldiers’ physical experience; and, perhaps more importantly, a philosophical understanding of what it meant to be part of the first genocidal event of the century – the one that made the others imaginable”.

I have to admit that I found the romance at the beginning of Birdsong a little irritating as I did with Stephen’s infatuation with Isabelle throughout the book. However, His descriptions of the scenes in the tunnels and the trenches more than makes up for it.

The BBC mini-series makes good use of cross cutting so that the romantic first section is distributed more evenly through the episodes. As expected, the screenwriters have taken liberties with the book but unlike some adaptations, in this case I think they have done a good job.

Birdsong is right up there with Atonement and the Regeneration Trilogy as one of the classic war stories.

About M J Dees

M J Dees lives and works in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his wife, daughter and two cats. He has written three novels, Living with Saci, The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David, Part One, and When The Well Runs Dry. He is currently editing the fourth and writing the fifth. You can sign up for more information on his book launches at http://eepurl.com/cTnAD5 and receive a free copy of Living With Saci.
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