Birdsong - Open resources | open.conted.ox.ac.uk (beta)
Birdsong - Open resources | open.conted.ox.ac.uk (beta)
‘By the spring of 1992 I had most of the pieces in place, while
the major theme of the novel had emerged naturally from
what I had read. It was this: how far can you go? What are the
limits of humanity? I had always been intrigued by the fact that
at no point during the needless extermination of 10 million
men did one of them say: enough, we cannot go on and still
call ourselves human.
In fact, the French army mutinied in 1917, but although the
problem was widespread, it amounted to no more than a
refusal to attack; some German machine gunners on July 1,
1916, did desist, appalled by what they did. But the big
thematic question remained, and the answer seemed to be
that there were no limits to which men could not be driven’,
‘I sat despondently, with half a dozen trippers, on a sort
of punt, wondering if I would ever manage to write this
book. Then I saw a rat on the canal bank, which was
held up with wooden boards or ‘revetting’ as the
trenchbuilders called it.
Along the edge was decomposing vegetation – and I
was there, a hot afternoon in 1910, the pressure of a
woman’s leg against her lover’s in the boat, the war
foreshadowed in the humid, rotting waterways’.
‘Stephen felt hot and thickheaded from the wine. He was
repelled by the water-gardens: their hectic abundance seemed
to him close to the vegetable fertility of death. The brown
waters were murky and shot through with the scurrying of rats
from the banks where the earth had been dug out of trenches
and held back by elaborate wooden boarding.
Heavy flies hung over the water, beneath the tress, dipping
into the rotting tops of cabbages, asparagus and artichokes
that had been left unpicked in their reckless prodigality. What
was held to be a place of natural beauty was a stagnation of
living tissue which could not be saved from decay’.
‘The chilly hostile building offered little comfort; it was a
memento mori on an institutional scale. Its limited success
was in giving dignity through stone and lapidary inscription
to the trite occurrence of death. The pretence was made
through memorial that the blink of light between two
eternities of darkness could be saved and held out of time,
though in the bowed heads of the people who prayed
there was only submission.
So many dead, he thought, only waiting for another eyelid’s
flicker before this generation joins them. The difference
between living and dying was not one of quality, only of
He sat down on a chair and held his face in his hands. He
saw a picture in his mind of a terrible piling up of the
It came from his contemplation of the church, but it had
its own clarity: the row on row, the deep rotting earth
hollowed out to hold them, while the efforts of the
living, with all their works and wars and great buildings,
were no more than the beat of a wing against the weight
‘“All right”, Jack said, “Get me off this thing”.
Evans pulled the wooden support away and helped roll Jack
over. They crawled back until they saw lamplight. Weir was
half-standing in the low tunnel. He clutched his ear, then
gestured to them to lean against the side walls. He began to
mouth an explanation but before he could finish there was a
roar in the tunnel and a huge ball of earth and rock blew past
It took four men with it, their heads and limbs blown away and
mixed with the rushing soil. Jack, Weir and Evans were
flattened against the side wall by the blast and escaped the
path of the debris...
Jack saw part of Turner’s face and hair still attached to a piece
of skull rolling to a halt where the tunnel narrowed into the
section he had been digging. There was an arm with a
corporal’s stripes on it near his feet, but most of the men’s
bodies had been blown into the moist earth.
Weir said, “Get out before another one goes”.
Back towards the trench someone had already got a fresh
lamp down into the darkness.
Jack took Evan’s shoulder. “Come on, boy. Come on now”.
‘”All right. I’ll tell you something.” Stephen belw out a trail of
cigarette smoke. “I’m curiosu to see what’s going to happen.
There are your sewer rats in their holes three feet wide crawling
underground. There are my men going mad under shells. We
hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the
men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing
my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could
see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes.
This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be
degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be
taken; I want to know. I believe that it has barely started. I
believe that far worse things than we have seen will be
authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys and men
like my Tipper and your Firebrace.
There is no depth to which they can’t be driven.
You see their faces when they go into rest and you think they
will take no more, that something in them will say, enough, no
one can do this. But one day’s sleep, hot food and wine in their
bellies and they will do more. I think they will do ten times
more before it’s finished and I’m eager to know how much. If I
didn’t have that curiosity I would walk into enemy lines and let
myself be killed. I would blow my own head off with one of
“You’re mad”, said Weir, “Don’t you just want it to be over?”
“Yes of course I do. But now that we have come this far I want
to know what it means.”’
‘At first he thought the war could be fought and
concluded swiftly in a traditional way.
Then he watched the machine gunners pouring bullets
into the lines of advancing German infantry as though
there was no longer any value accorded to a mere
He saw half his platoon die under the shells of the
enemy’s opening bombardment. He grew used to the
sight and smell of torn human flesh. He watched the
men harden to the mechanical slaughter. There
seemed to him a great breach of nature which no one
had the power to stop.
He could protest or he could go with it. He tuned
himself to killing. He tried to be fearless in the hope
that it would comfort the other men, whose dazed and
uncomprehending faces he saw through the blood and
the noise. If this was to be permitted, reported glossed
over, then at what level of activity, he wondered, could
He came to believe that much worse was to come; that
there would be annihilation on a scale the men
themselves had not yet dreamed of.’
‘Price began to speed the process.
He hurried from one unanswered name to the next. Byrne,
Hunt, Jones, Tipper, Wood, Leslie, Barnes, Studd,
Richardson, Savile, Thompson, Hodgson, Birkenshaw,
Llewellyn, Francis, Arkwright, Duncan, Shea, Simons,
Anderson, Blum, Fairbrother.
Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places
of their forebears, the villages and towns where the
telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds
would be drawn, where low moans would come in the
afternoon behind closed doors;
and the places that had borne them, which would be like
nunneries, like dead towns, without their life or purpose,
without the sound of fathers and their children, without
young men at the factories or in the fields, with no
husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the
inns, with the children who would have been born, who
would have grown and worked or painted, even governed,
left ungenerated in their fathers’ shattered flesh that lay in
stinking shell holes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their
homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh,
on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast
their crawling green indifference.
Of 800 men in the battalion who had gone over the
parapet, 155 answered their names.’
‘Elizabeth walked up the steps that led to it. A man in a blue
jacket was sweeping in the large space enclosed by the pillars.
As she came up to the arch Elizabeth saw with a start that it
was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone.
There were names on it.
Every grain of the surface had been carved with British
names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her
ankles to the height of the great arch itself; 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...
“Who are these, these...?” She gestured with her hand.
“These?” the man with the brush sounded surprised. “The lost”.
“Men who died in this battle?”
“No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the
She looked at the vault above her head and then around in
panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky
had been papered in footnotes.
When she could speak again, she said, “From the whole war?”
The man shook his head. “Just these fields.”...
“Nobody told me.” She ran her fingers with their red=painted
nails back through her thick dark hair.”My god, nobody told me”.
‘Gray stood up and came round the desk.
"Think of the words on that memorial, Wraysford. Think of
those stinking towns and foul bloody villages whose
names will be turned into some bogus glory by fat-arsed
historians who have sat in London.
We were there. As our punishment for God knows what,
we were there, and our men died in each of those
disgusting places. I hate their names. I hate the sound of
them and the thought of them, which is why I will not
bring myself to remind you. But listen."
He put his face close to Stephen's.
"There are four words they will chisel beneath them at
the bottom. Four words that people will look at one day.
When they read the other words they will want to be
sick. When they read these, they will bow their heads,
just a little. 'Final advance and pursuit.'
Don't tell me you don't want to put your name to those
‘Stephen felt his mind become extraordinarily clear. It was
filled with pictures of the normal world, the world inhabited
by women, where people moved in peace and made love
and drank, and there were children and commerce and
The hideous, cramped world of earth and sweat and death
was not the only reality; it was a confining illusion, a thin
prison from which he would burst forth at any moment...
His thirst and fatigue were forgotten; he was alive with a
passion for the world, for the stars and trees, and the people
who moved and lived in it’
“He threw up the conkers into the air in his great
In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow,
which erupted from the branches with an explosive
bang of its wings, then rose up above him towards the
sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long,
grating waves towards the earth, to be heard by those