Memories slide up to the surface of the mind, like weeds to the surface of the sea, once you begin to stir the depths where every word, every gesture, every sigh lie hidden. (p 20)
The centenary of the Easter Rising is my excuse to delve into more books by Irish authors on the Great War 100 Reads list.
Jennifer Johnston’s 1974 book, How Many Miles to Babylon?, explores tensions of class and culture through the friendship of Alexander Moore and Jerry Crowe. Alec is an only child, born to the manor in a sterile and loveless Anglo-Irish family. Jerry comes from large Catholic family of labourers.
We meet Alec in prison, knowing that some tragedy had befallen him and his days are numbered. But because he is an officer, he is permitted to keep pen, ink, paper and shoelaces.
By now the attack must be on. A hundred yards of mournful earth, a hill topped with a circle of trees, that at home would have belonged exclusively to the fairies, a farm, some roofless cottages, quite unimportant places, now the centre of the world for tens of thousands of men. The end of the world for many, the heroes and the cowards, the masters and the slaves. (p 1-2)
From this ominous start, Alec recounts how his complex bond with Jerry developed and how their lives moved from a rural estate south of Dublin to the trenches in Flanders.
Isolated and schooled at home, Alec is awkward and naïve in social situations. At the same time he is lonely and longs for human attachment. Jerry is more worldly (in the realm of his world, anyway) and understands more acutely the nuances and effect of their class differences. They share a love of horses and of their countryside.
Jerry goes to war to augment the family income and to learn military operations that will serve him to fight for Irish independence. Despite pressure from his mother to be a hero, Alec is reluctant to sign up, then impulsively ‘defies’ her by following Jerry – thus doing what she wanted anyway.
The class hierarchy is only intensified in the army and reinforced by the brass. Gentle Alec is out of his league and ultimately unable to help his friend in a time of need.
Johnston packs a lot into a slim volume. Her prose is lyrical in its description of place and its portrayal of relationships.
Their voices when they spoke, polite and yet uncompromisingly vicious, would slide along the polished mahogany. (p 124)
After that her silence filled the room as my father and I carried on some sort of forgettable conversation, our words constrained, groping their way as if fogbound from one speaker to the other. (p 32)
The political tensions in Ireland are not the focus of the story, but linger quietly in the ether – “perhaps a more realistic portrayal of the way history subtly intrudes on most people’s lives.” (Rosie Cowan, The Quiet Woman, The Guardian, 11 Feb 2004)
Homoeroticism or bromance? Naked swimming, roughhousing, riding horses, shared dreams of raising horses together. Some analysts take pains to show homoerotic proof points. Others deny it vehemently. Whatever. Frankly, the book works either way. You can read into it what you like. And it is well worth the read.
A certain Canadian traveller has a penchant to read of the place when in that place. On a recent trip to Ireland, a knowledgeable used bookseller answered her wish to read local with a well-thumbed copy of How Many Miles to Babylon?. And so it was read again, and then brought back to Canada to wend its way to me. A lovely gift. Thanks, Vicki.