Tag Archives: birdsong

New Year Message from James

Hi all!

First of all, I would like to wish you all – regulars, visitors, friends and family – a very happy new year.

You’ve probably noticed that there has been a marked decrease in the frequency of blog posts recently. I remember quite well they days, years ago when I started this blog, that I often posted two or three articles in a day. Isn’t it interesting how times change! If somebody would like to invent 28 hour days and eight day weeks, please feel free! I’ve been very busy recently, visiting family, working on my next book, and not to mention the ‘day job‘ and trying to relax every now and then. Please rest assured that I do hope to try and post more often, as time and commitments permit.

So what does 2013 hold for me? Well, in a few months Sarah and I will be saying goodbye to Chichester and moving to Portsmouth. A month before that move is due to take place I will be handing in my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’. The writing process for this book has been patchy to say the least – I managed to write 35,000 words in a month, then about 5,000 in three months! It just goes to show how inspiration can come and go. Perhaps I’ve been doing too much military history in the past few years – the research and writing process is very rigid, particularly when you also have a day job. Not only that, but any non-fiction writer will tell you, the financial rewards just aren’t there. Not that I want to make millions from it, but when you sit back and realise how many thousands of hours you put into something, and what you get in return, it just doesn’t cover the costs sometimes, sadly.

I have been thinking about trying my hand at writing fiction again – I used to write a lot of short stories at school and college, which seemed to get good marks. But I’ve been reading and writing so much non-fiction research recently, I’m finding it hard to think creatively, in terms of dreaming up ideas. With history, the facts are there, you find them, and write them up. With fiction, it’s all out in the world around you, and you write it via your imagination. Not only that, but I’ve spent so long recently working, researching, writing and chasing deadlines, that my brain just isn’t thinking creatively. All good fiction writers seem to relax and watch the world go by and let the inspiration flow, rather than force the issue. Think of Dickens and his midnight walks around London, or JK Rowling writing Harry Potter in Edinburgh Cafe’s. I think more hillwalking, camping and fishing might be in order!

My brother is much more of a fiction fan, and has been pushing a lot of good fiction my way recently – Catch 22, Norwegian Wood, All Quiet on the Western Front, Birdsong… and I remain an eternal fan of Bernard Cornwell, in particular the Sharpe novels. I find reading Dickens a real chore, but the stories themselves are marvellous.

So, who knows what I will be writing come 2014?!

Elsewhere around the world, 2013 began as every year seems to begin and end, with Ms Fernandez-Kirchner talking the same old drivel down in Buenos Aires… more of which very soon…

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970′s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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Filed under fiction, On TV, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I often feel that in the twenty-first century we are in something of a literary wilderness. Whilst I am sure that there are some great books out there that I just haven’t found yet, I cannot help but feel that the burgeoning shelves of Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter wannabe’s will never been in the same league as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare or Chaucer. Happily, Birdsong is one modern novel which follows the best traditions of British literature.

Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens in North France in 1910. After embarking on a clandestine love affair that causes scandal and upheaval, after heartbreak we follow him to the horrors of the western front. By starting the story in pre-war France, and establishing the readers rapport with Stephen Wraysford well before the Great War, Faulks has ensured that this is a book that is about more than just war. It also gives the story longitude, and broader meaning. Unlike a lot of modern novels, I can also imagine sitting in a classroom, analysing this text for an English exam. There are all kinds of interesting metaphors, contrasts, and other tricks that colour a story.

The plot of writing a novel in two eras is a brave choice. Switching from one time period to the other within is even more risky – like a badly-sewn shirt, the seams might show. But Birdsong works. By introducing snippets from Wraysford’s descendants, but without spoiling the story, Faulks reminds us poignantly of how long-gone events have a resonance to us today.

The problem I often find with military historical fiction – and this is from somebody who has tried and failed to write myself, numerous times – is that the balance between the history and the fiction is often out of sync. You either read a historian playing at fiction, or an author playing at history. Faulk’s illuminating preface tells us of how he would sit in the Imperial War Museum’s Library and read accounts from the Great War, and it obviously had a great effect on his writing.

Birdsong is a modern classic, I found it a pleasure to read. The best books take no effort to read, and this is one of them. A TV adaption, or even better a feature-length version, is well overdue.

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Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, World War One