I’m currently looking at novels of the last fifty years that take up the theme of soldiers shot at dawn for desertion or cowardice. What interests me is how different these are from the twenties novels that tackled the same theme.
This week I’ve been reading How Many Miles to Babylon (1974), by the Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston. I have not read any of her other books, though she is clearly a writer with a serious reputation. Her Shadows on the Skin (1977) was shortlisted for the Booker, and The Old Jest (1979) won the Whitbread prize.
I’d better warn you that in what follows I shall reveal some of the surprises that Jennifer Johnston weaves into her narrative – so if you’ve not read the novel, look out –there are spoilers ahead!
How Many Miles to Babylon begins with ‘an officer and gentleman’ who is spending his last night in what any alert reader will recognise as a condemned call. He rejects the consolation offered by a padre. Not far away, a night attack is in progress. This officer tells us, or maybe just himself, the main events of his childhood and of his brief military career.
His name is Alexander, and he has been brought up in the countryside outside Dublin, the only son of a repressed couple who hate each other. They are Protestants. His mother is controlling, neurotic and envious. His father is more easy-going but ineffective. This possessive couple keep him to themselves; he does not go to school and has no friends of his own age. Or none till he meets Jerry Crowe, a working-class Catholic boy of his own age. They bond by fighting, and by swimming naked together. His snobbish mother disapproves, and he is forbidden to see Jerry again.
When war comes in August 1914, the two lads enlist. Alex because his mother bullies him into it, and Jerry because he is out of a job and becoming a soldier is the only way of ensuring a regular income for his mother. (I am not convinced by Johnston’s implication that Alex, who had never been to school, would automatically have been selected as an officer in 1914, just because he was of ‘good’ family. They were pretty choosy in 1914, and those who had supposedly learnt leadership skills at public schools were always the likeliest candidates for a commission. Also, one exchange of dialogue implies that the author seems to think that there was conscription in England in 1914.)
Once in the Army, Alex is awkward in the role of soldier. He and an officer friend Bennett break rules, and go out riding, against regulations. Their superior, Major Glendinning, dislikes and distrusts them. He is presented as a stereotyped rigid officer, unfeeling and ruthless. While at the front, Alex’s main concern is with his relationship with Jerry. Just as his mother had banned contact with his social inferior at home, his military superiors look askance on informal contact between officers and men.
The novel is boiling with homoerotic subtext. Alex and Jerry share sensuous intimacies, for example in the scene where Jerry massages Alex’s feet with rum. The two of them seem not to realise how their relationship must look to others, such as Major Glendinning, or the disapproving N.C.O.s.
The book’s crisis comes when Jerry receives a letter from his mother, saying that his ne’er-do-well father, also a soldier, has been reported missing. Jerry asks permission from the Major to have leave to go and find out about his father. Since the unit is heading for the front and the Major dislikes Jerry, the request is scornfully refused. When the company reaches the front line, Jerry goes missing. He’s not missed for several days – didn’t they have roll-calls?
Bennett, Alex’s other friend, falls ill, and there is a discussion about whether it is influenza or shell-shock. Were the symptoms of these two ever confused? I’m intrigued. Whatever the illness, it is convenient for the plot because it removes Bennett(Alex’s only other friend) from the scene before Jerry’s return.
One night, Jerry creeps into Alex’s room. Woken from a dream, Alex recognises Jerry’s touch even before he has seen him. He gives him some of Bennett’s clothes to replace his sodden uniform, and the two snuggle together under a blanket while Jerry tells the story of how his father died by stepping on a land mine. Alex treasures the intimacy of their contact:
I thought he had gone to sleep. The beating of our hearts was like the cracking wings of swans lifting slowly from the lake, leaving disturbed water below.
An N.C.O. arrives, sees the situation and advises Alex to leave. (“It’ll do neither of yeez any good if he’s found here. You see that?”) Before this can happen, however, Sergeant Barry arrives. He is one of the book’s villains (and the villains are all very thoroughly villainous). When the Major hears about it, he is predictably suspicious about Jerry being found in Alex’s room: “He was found in the most curious circumstances. Even a short-sighted young man like you must have noticed that.” When Alex answers back with a hint of sarcasm, the vicious Major strikes him across the face with his cane. There is no doubt that he will punish Jerry as severely as he can.
A few days later, Alex is handed an order from the Major:
Private Crowe has been sentenced to death. You will command the firing squad at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.
The book’s dialogue becomes positively operatic. Alex asks the Major, “Where did you learn to be so evil?” and his commanding officer replies:
“The world taught me. The world will teach you. You will never understandme until the day you are faced with responsible decisions to make. People’s lives, people’s deaths. The crumbling world waiting for your word.”
Do real people ever speak like that, even in moments of intensity? Especially in moments of intensity?
To save Jerry the horror and indignity of the firing squad, Alex asks to be alone with him, and, in a moment of intimacy, takes his hand before he shoots him.
We finish, as we had started, in the condemned cell, with Alex not on a charge of desertion, as we might have assumed at the start of the book, but sentenced to death for murder.
Throughout this book, Jennifer Johnston’s main interest is in the intense feeling between the two young men, forever smouldering and but forever unconsummated (except by a bullet). The Great War is there to provide the background that the story needs – an uncomprehending and all-powerful opposition to their love. To intensify her effect, Johnston makes use of most of the standard clichés about the War. The conflict has no causes worth mentioning, and the only person who seems to believe in it is Alex’s bullying mother; anyone in the Army who shows sensitivity or human feeling is victimised; senior officers are brutal, and careless of the men’s welfare; deserters are executed without any consideration of extenuating circumstances; and so on.
In its treatment of executions, this book goes beyond the Losey film, King and Country (which I wrote about a few weeks ago), which was partly restrained by its source in Hodson’s novel. The Major here is quite perverse in his spitefulness.
The most interesting thing in the book is the depiction of the Alex-Jerry relationship, which is of its time. Homosexual relations had been decriminalised in most of Britain in 1967, seven years before the publication of this novel, but in Ireland this remained a love that dared not speak its name until 1993. This 1974 book was tacking a sensitive and topical issue, and doing so in a way with political resonance. The attached pair are an Irish Catholic and an apolitical Protestant with a feel for the land and a love of horses and rural Ireland. Set against them are the English establishment, personified by Alex’s cold and selfish mother, and the vicious Major. The passionate relationship is thereby defined as normal and instinctive, because it is in opposition to these clearly abnormal and unfeeling figures.
I wonder – had Michael Morpurgo read this book? Much in Private Peaceful duplicates it – the condemned-cell countdown, the rural background, the lack of interest in the actual history of the War, the caricatured villains, the unsympathetic depiction of a middle-aged woman’s sexuality, the twist at the end (a different twist, but the pattern remains the same). Morpurgo’s book is much cruder, of course,