Hazel McHaffie



I’m having to eat a large slice of humble pie this week. It all started when I watched the BBC 1 drama, Birdsong, shown the weekend before last, and jumped to far too many conclusions.

It’s almost unheard of for me to read a novel for a second time, but that’s what I’ve felt compelled to do with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Strange really to think that it’s taken eighteen years to dramatise this book which received such critical acclaim in 1994. But at least it was shown in a prime time slot at the weekend when it did finally get an airing.

Although it’s come in for its fair share of criticism, I personally enjoyed the film, but nevertheless had a sense of disquiet (as I usually do in these circumstances) about the extent to which the drama differed from the book. How would the author feel seeing his careful creation thus distorted? It’s ages since I read the book, so I couldn’t be sure, but my sense was that the main male protagonist seemed too weak, both as a potential lover and as a military officer; the romance seemed implausibly fast-paced; the response to the child Françoise too chaotic.

However, I still had my paperback – too good to give away – so I decided to check it out for myself while the film was still fresh in my mind. There is inevitably a degree of licence taken, but to my amazement, the BBC version followed the book much more closely than I remembered, and indeed more so than adaptations usually do.

The story has two main elements: the First World War and a romance. In the book the two are compartmentalised; in the film they’re interwoven to excellent effect.

Stephen Wraysford is 20 when he goes to France to learn more about the textile trade. Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, he seemed a bit of a wimp, a pretty boy who did a lot of staring in a gormless kind of way. And not exactly gifted in the communication stakes either. Surely not the kind of fella who the beautiful and mature Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) would fall for. But, there it is in black and white. He’s

‘a tall figure with hands thrust into his pockets, his eyes patient and intent, the angle of his body that of a youthful indifference cultivated by willpower and necessity. It was a face which in turn most people treated cautiously, unsure whether its ambivalent expressions would resolve themselves into passion or acquiescence.’

He does indeed do a lot of ‘staring‘, his ‘face expressionless’. I apologise for doubting the scriptwriter (Abi Morgan), director (Philip Martin) and the actor.

So, what of the precipitate pursuit of the lovely but very dignified Isabelle? In the film they’ve hardly got past the coy looks and one touch of ankles before he’s romping in the red room with her, all caution, all decorum, thrown to the winds. Given the discrepancy in their ages and backgrounds, their relative positions, and the protocol of the times, surely not, I thought. But lo and behold, it’s all there, early in the book – ‘the uncontrollable fury of his desire, fully reciprocated by Isabelle‘. Indeed Isabelle is even more abandoned in the written account of their dealings.

The story of the child Françoise coming to terms with a father who is hugely damaged by the war is admittedly very different in the book, but the film version neatly gets over the omission of a chunk of the narrative that centres on Wraysford’s granddaughter. And the essential truth of the account is neither lost nor distorted by the adaptation. So hats off again to the script writer.

Then there’s the war story. Tall order to capture that, but has it been true to Faulk’s narrative? Wraysford on screen seems initially to be far too timid and fearful to command the respect of his men in the trenches or on no-man’s-land. Surely he’d have had to appear more assertive. But no. A sergeant major says of him: ‘he seemed forgetful and distant … as though he was not all there’ He has a ‘blank, remote expression’, a great ‘void in his soul’. Redmayne took this on board faithfully.

And behind that glazed look beats a failing heart. A scared and haunted man, ill-suited to the task of taking his troops into battle. On the night before a major offensive he explains in a letter:

I am frightened of dying. I have seen what shells can do. I am scared of lying wounded all day in a shellhole. Isabelle, I am terribly frightened I shall die alone with no one to touch me. But I have to show an example. I have to go over [the top] first in the morning. Be with me, Isabelle, be with me in spirit. Help me to lead them into what awaits us.’

The depiction of the war itself in the book is even more horrific than the film version and that was graphic enough. Faulks captures the mood and the mounting tension brilliantly. The feelings of the men facing almost certain death in the Somme attack are evident in a series of poignant letters home, full of false reassurances. Then a moving tense and sleepless night of waiting, dreading.

‘Eight hours before the revised time of attack the guns went quiet, preserving shells for the morning.

It was night-time, but no man slept…

Towards four, the lowest time of the night, there was a mortal quiet along the line. No one spoke. There was for once no sound of birds …

Gray, urgent, sour-breathed at the head of the communication trench. ‘The attack will be at seven thirty.’

The platoon commanders were stricken, disbelieving. “In daylight? In daylight?” The men’s faces cowed and haunted when they were told.’

The account of what Stephen Wraysford sees and feels in no-man’s-land when they do eventually go over the top, when they reach the wire, makes heart-stopping reading. The ‘unlivable reality’ as that ‘ragged suicidal line … trudged towards the pattering death of mounted guns’ while all around them ‘packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground‘. I won’t spoil the effect of the chapter by reproducing parts of it here. You have to build up to it to appreciate the description fully. How anyone returned sane after what they had seen is a mystery.

‘They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away … they had seen the worst and they had survived … they had locked up in their hearts the horror of what they had seen.’ In ‘their sad faces was the burden of their unwanted knowledge. They ‘did not feel hardened or strengthened’ but ‘impoverished and demeaned.’

Stephen himself carries out an act utterly unimaginable except in the First World War trenches – included in sanitised form in the film. And goes on to develop a murderous rage against the people who killed the men he loved; much more poignantly comprehensible in the book. Indeed the rationale for much of what was done needs the slower exploration of the written prose to unravel and explain it.

The bomb blasts and terrible wounds we saw on our screens, too, are multiplied several times in the written word, with its body parts in extraordinary places. Incredibly powerful writing.

‘”Of course,” the lieutenant said with a sigh, “the war has provided all of us with daily lessons in anatomy. I could write a paper on the major organs of the British private soldier. Liver in section. Bowel, extent of when eviscerated. The powdery bone of the average English subaltern.”‘

‘… his head was cut away in section, so that the smooth skin and handsome face remained on one side, but on the other were the ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping onto his scorched uniform.’

‘… there was a roar in the tunnel and a huge ball of earth and rock blew past them. It took four men with it, their heads and limbs blown away and mixed with the rushing soil. … Jack saw part of Turner’s face and hair still attached to a piece of skull rolling to a halt where the tunnel narrowed where he had been digging. There was an arm with a corporal’s stripe on it near his feet, but most of the men’s bodies had been blown into the moist earth.’

After witnessing this carnage in the tunnel, following over six hours of digging forty-five feet underground in pitch darkness with ‘several hundred thousand tons of France above his face‘, Jack Firebrace (brilliantly acted by Joseph Mawie) drags himself over to the dugout, burdened by the knowledge of his own mistake which had led to these deaths. There he is given a letter from his wife but with masterly understatement Faulks writes

‘He folded it away inside his pocket. He could not bring his mind to bear on the distant world her handwriting suggested. He was afraid he would not understand her letter, that she would be telling him something important his mind was too tired to register.’

Firebrace is one of the miners who digs underground tunnels under enemy lines. I hadn’t appreciated their role in the war before. In the book his inner thoughts and conflicts provide vivid insights beyond the scope of any BBC drama, as he worries about his son John back at home suffering, possibly dying, from diphtheria; about his own court martial and probable death; his personal responsibility for interpreting the sounds of enemy action; his need not to form too close a friendship with men who will be blown to smithereens in front of him.

I think I felt the accumulating horror more deeply knowing that my own uncle was one of those whose ‘shattered flesh’ was left to lie in ‘stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil,’ in that very place in France where Stephen Wraysford fought for king and country. Thiepval memorialUncle Harold’s name is chiselled into that memorial in Thiepval to the unfound, ‘the lost’ – newly cleaned up to preserve it for posterity. I can only hope my grandmother never heard a true account of ‘the hellish perversion’ he must have experienced. Her heart could not have withstood Faulk’s description of the carnage. It moved me to tears on his behalf, and he died before even my mother was born.

So, all in all, contemplating the atrocities of war, the sacrifices these men – boys really – and their families made, and facing up to my own misconceptions, I’ve had a humbling week.

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