Jennifer Johnston: How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974) Literature and War Readalong February

Alec and Jerry shouldn’t have been friends: Alec’s life was one of privilege, while Jerry’s was one of toil. But this hardly mattered to two young men whose shared love of horses brought them together and whose whole lives lay ahead of them. When war breaks out in 1914, both Jerry and Alec sign up – yet for quite different reasons. On the fields of Flanders they find themselves standing together, but once again divided: as officer and enlisted man. And it is there, surrounded by mud and chaos and death, that one of them makes a fateful decision whose consequences will test their friendship and loyalty to breaking point.

We know from the beginning of this novel that it is not going to end well. Alec is held in detention and knows that he will die. Because he is an officer and a gentleman, as he states, they have given him his notebooks, pen and ink and he writes down the story of his life. The story spans from his lonely isolated childhood in rural Ireland to the war-torn trenches in France. The tone of the novel is melancholic, full of nostalgia for a world that has been lost and is at the same time infused with the profound love of a country.

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, quiet 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.

Alec’s childhood was a lonely one. Caught between two parents who hated each other and who kept a polite and icy distance, he was the pawn with which his mother played. He didn’t like his mother, a haughty, cruel but beautiful woman whose strict rules and relentless following of etiquette ruined every childhood joy. What his parents do not know for a long time is that Alec has a secret friend. Alec and Jerry have a lot in common. Their love of horses, their sense of humour, they share so much, unfortunately not the social class. Alec is an only child of a wealthy Anglo-Irish couple whereas Jerry is part of the Catholic underclass. When their friendship is found out, Alec’s mother freaks out and decides to go on a 4 month trip to Europe with Alec.

When Alec comes back he doesn’t see Jerry anymore. Jerry is working while Alec is still studying. And then the war breaks out. At first there seems to be only a rumour of war. Jerry knows it long before Alec hears it and most people think it isn’t really true.

We paid very little attention to the war when it happened first. Belgium and Flanders seemed so far away from us. Our fields were gold and firm under our feet. Autumn began to stroke the evening air with frost. Smoke from bonfires was the only smoke to sting our eyes. Cubbing began in the early morning, the earth temporarily white with mist and dew. A few familiar faces disappeared. War was on the front pages of the newspapers daily brought from Dublin on the train.

Many do not feel that this is their war or that they should assist the British. Tensions inside of Ireland start to be palpable, tensions that bear the foreboding of the things that will come, the striving towards independence. However people who feel loyal towards Britain send their sons. Alec’s father considers it to be foolish to go to a war when you are not forced to go but his mother, out of spite and vengeance against his father, drives Alec away.

Meanwhile Jerry had already enlisted and the two young men meet in the training camp near Belfast in which they stay for six weeks until they get shipped to France. Their superiors do not like to see an officer talk to an enlisted man. Alec, due to his social class, has become an officer immediately.

When they finally arrive in France they stay separated. Alec shares quarters with a British officer, Bennett, a guy with a lot of humour, while Jerry sleeps with the other enlisted men. Still the three of them meet occasionally and ride about the country together.

They hardly see any action for a long time and stay far off the trenches for a while. When they are finally sent to the front line they will spend a lot of their time cleaning and reconstructing the badly damaged trenches.

We spent three more days in the front trenches, mainly shoveling and making props. It rained a considerable amount of the time. Sometimes sleet cut into the men’s bare hands, and at night there was sharp frost that covered the bottom of the trenches with a thin film of ice. We extended the line to our left. It was hard work moving the earth, heavy with water, always crouching till ones back and shoulders ached pitifully. The men hated it and worked slowly, grumbling most of the time. For most of the day there was concentrated shelling of the German lines by our artillery. The shells screeched over our heads sometimes for hours at a time. After a while I became so used to the noise that I felt strangely unprotected when it stopped, then slowly the process of thinking had to begin again.

The cold is unbearable and Alec suffers a lot from it. They constantly drink rum as it is the only way to warm up. Here again Alec and Jerry are caught talking together and the superior officer forbids it. But that is not the only trouble they are in. The Irish are not appreciated at all. On top of that there are rumors of a movement that wants to fight for the independence of Ireland. Jerry is suspected to be part of that movement and one day he confides in Alec.

“I don’t know how you can contemplate ever fighting again.”

“It won’t be like this. There’ll be no trenches, no front lines. No waiting. Every town, every village will be the front line. Hill, rock, tree. They won’t know which way to look. Even the children, for God’s sake, will fight them. It won’t be like this, I promise you that. Oh, Alec, it’s some thought.”

When Jerry receives a letter from his mother in which she informs him that his father has gone missing, he runs off to look for him and the tragedy unfolds.

I loved How Many Miles to Babylon? I think it is a beautiful book. It doesn’t teach you as much about WWI as Strange Meeting (see post 1) but it says a lot about Irish history. I found this look at the first World War from an Irish perspective extremely fascinating.

As Jennifer Johnston said, she wanted to write about the Troubles but didn’t feel ready yet. This is the prehistory of the Troubles. The Irish War of Independence started right after WWI in 1919 and was closely followed by the Irish Civil War. This succession of wars was the reason why Ireland stayed neutral during WWII. They simply couldn’t afford to be in another war in such short time.

How Many Miles to Babylon? hints at all this. But it is not only a very Irish novel because of the historical elements but also for its imagery, the symbolism and the many references to Irish mythology and culture.

The motif of the swans is a recurring element. There are swans on the lake on the property of Alec’s parents, they see swans in France, some soldiers shoot a swan which does upset Alec terribly. Since Alec reads W.B. Yates at the beginning of the book I think the swans are an allusion to Yates’ famous poem The Wild Swans at Coole which seems to mourn a time long gone.

In contrast to the gratuitous killing of the swans stand the mercy killings. Wounded horses are killed, a wounded man is killed…

I really liked this enchanting novel. I loved the poetical prose, the melancholic tone and the feeling of nostalgia that pervaded it.

What did you think of the novel in general and its treatment of WWI?

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress) and here as well

Fence (Susan Hated Literature)


How Many Miles to Babylon? was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier. Discussion starts on Friday March 25, 2011 .