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 .

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

  1. This is one of those books which I’ve always meant to read, but somehow never got round to. I’m not certain I’m strong enough to read it at the moment, having not so long since finished William Brodrick’s ‘A Whispered Name’ which would make an interesting companion piece to this. Do you know it?

    • No, I didn’t know it but am very grateful to you for mentioning it. It would indeed be a great companion piece to this one, I just read about it on amazon. It was the first time that I came across the theme of the “mercy killing” in a war novel. They regularly shoot horses which is bad enough to read about. The part isn’t easy to read but it does not take up as much space as in Brodrick’s novel, I’m sure. The overall impression of How Many Miles to Babylon? is still one of great beauty.

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating. Great War books are rare enough as is… I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered (or at least, read) a book about World War I through an Irish history lens. I’m often hesitant with books that have the class warfare themes, but it seems like How Many Miles to Babylon? (based on your great review) doesn’t fall into the common traps.

    • Thanks for the copliment about the review. The whole part of the friendship between Alec and Jerry does obviously touch on the class system a lot. I just think, Jennifer Johnston went much farther than that. A lot of the problems between the Irish and the British did result in this too. What I really appreciated it is how she managed to prepare for her later novels which did then explicitly handle the Troubles and as such, I think, if you are at all interested in Jennifer Johnston, this is a great book to start. I cannot think of any other book from an Irish writer on WWI. There certianly must be others though.

  3. I’m still in the middle of my reread and picking up more than I did the first time around–how is it possible to miss so much with so short a novel? You write about it very well–I had a hard time also writing about it when I first read it (not wantintg to give much away). Did you notice how neither mother (in the two books we’ve read) come off very well really towards their sons–particularly not Alec’s mother who seems to want only to send her son to war for the sake of appearances–ther other families are sending off their sons…She was almost cruel to both husband and son. Maybe it is a class thing? The need to stand back and be unemotional? I missed the whole swan thing–didn’t pick up on the second reference. I really liked the Irish perspective–one you don’t often get in WWI novels–it changed the tone from being simply a War story to something more. Although I’ve not read it, I think Sebastian Barry (who is also an Irish writer) set one of his books during WWI. I have to say–I’ve yet to understand exactly what the title references–I know it was a nursery rhyme, but I am totally missing the deeper meaning–any ideas?

    • It’s interesting that you missed the swans because it tells me how different we all read. I have always been more fascinated by atmosphere, imagery and symbols in books. That’s why I often forget the end of a book (even a thriller). I read some W.B. Yeats and Irish fairytales, maybe that is why I picked up on that immediately.
      The mothers are not very positive in both books but this one is by far worse. I can’t remember the father in Strange Meeting to be too positive. Alec’s father is a very kind man. I think his mother wanted him to join because of the appearances but also because she knew how much her husband relied on him. A realy mean woman. I read Barry’s The Secret Scripture that I found very bad so I’m reluctant to try him again but will still look it up, thanks.
      The title was something I thought about for a long time but didn’t come up with anything particularly logical. I saw on wikipedia that there are at least 15 books that reference to this nursery rhyme. It is not Irish, that’s for sure. Is it not a bit nosensical? Maybe she wanted to hint at the futility? I am not sure. I could understand all her other allusions but not this one.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Caroline! I’m going to search this book everytime I visit any bookstore. I am sure you know how much I love a certain actor from Ireland and he makes me want to know more about Ireland, but I haven’t found any book that talk about Ireland in my book blogger friend’s blogs…or should I say a book about Ireland that intrigued me. I am still keeping my eyes open for At Swim Two Birds.

    The Quotes you chose are very interesting.

  5. Pingback: Review: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston « Diary of an Eccentric

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just finished the book about an hour ago and am still stunned. I hadn’t thought about the comparison between the mercy killings and the killing of the swan. I can’t believe I missed that! Then again, I was too busy crying to really process it all.

    I posted my thoughts here:

    I’m so surprised that Johnston was able to pack so much into such a short novel: family strife, friendship, class division, the impending battle for Irish independence, and WWI.

    I also wasn’t so sure I liked the book until it was finished. I didn’t know how Alec would get to his current situation, I didn’t even know how I felt about him, but I just went along for the ride. I wasn’t bored or thinking it was bad, it was just slow. But that ending sure packed a punch and turned it all around for me.

    Thanks for hosting the readalong!

    • You are welcome. I loved this book from the very first sentences but it wasn’t what I had expected. It’s really heavy on symbols and foreboding. I really knew from the start how Jerry was going to die. It is a very rich book and I think she did it very well, the different themes blend in nicely. Those different killings are so heartbreaking. That agonizing man got to me as well but the swan really stressed me. That is just something someone could do. Being in all that mess, surrounded by death and dying, not even think that another being might want to live as well. I think there is a profound statement in this part. How it does ultimately not alter people. Even if they are threatened by their own death, it doesn’t make them any better. I will include the link and go to you post right now.

      • I didn’t figure out the outcome of Jerry’s story at all. I figured Alec had been arrested, but that’s as far as I’d gotten. I’d missed a lot of the symbolism, too, probably because I was just expecting a book about friendship during WWI and got so much more. I think I’d like to re-read this book at some point in the future and see all that I missed the first time through.

        • It was almost spooky how I related to this book. I saw almost every thing happen long before it did and all the symbols spoke to me. But I also thought I would like to read it again, I still think I missed quite a few things too. I’m sure the menaing of the title would become clear the second time. It wasn’t my first book by her and I would now really like to read one in which she writes about the Northern Ireland Conflict.

  7. Fantastic review. Better than the book, unfortunately. I much preferred “Strange Meeting”. As I already have made clear, I prefer historical fiction to be instructive and although this book features the Irish- British friction, there is little you will learn about WWI from this book. I was hoping for some action. I do not regret reading it, but I’m glad it was short.
    The book is kind of depressing. His family is as dysfunctional as you can get. His parents are both despicable and he is a wimp. Not a lot to like there. I loved the line “Their only meeting place was the child”. I also noted his father’s “War’s tend to never end before Christmas”. So true. Johnston does have a way with words.
    I liked the twist of the mother demanding he go to war. It was also unusual to have the protagonist prefer to be a live coward to a dead hero. That was outside the box, but the prince and pauper theme of Alec and Jerry was not very original. The naive rich kid and the earthy poor kid. The friendship rang true, however.
    You also get a second truly despicable character in the Major. I think the most memorable passage involved the Major hitting Alec with his cane causing Alec to sneeze (!) several times. That is such a bizarre reaction!
    I liked the ending partly because I have to admit it was particularly shocking to me because I misread the opening. I thought he was dying from a wound and that’s why the priest was there. Although I am embarrassed by that, I have to admit it made the ending more interesting for me.
    A minor quibble with one of the more powerful passages – the knifing of the screaming soldier in no man’s land. What took them so long? The dude was out there for three nights! I found that very unrealistic.

    • Why did I know you wouldn’t like this so much? A rhetorical question of course. From a literary point of view Johnston is the superior writer. Compared to this Strange Meeting felt like a lecture. I like poetry, fairytales and mythology, all things that are present in How Many Miles to Babylon? Many things are hinted at, implicit… Not everybody’s cup of tea. Their only meeting point was the child is agreat line, I agree. I found the father’s statement to be very enlightened. He might have been the character I liked best. I don’t know if the friendship was too clichéd. I think many of these kids, particularly if they didn’t have siblings wouldn’t have had another chance at frienship. I never saw Alec as a coward. The sneezing is weird, I thought that too but he might have hit a nerve in the face. Maybe it is possible?
      Yes, the knifing of that man… I was wondering if they really did it. Did it happen. Apparently, as Annie mentioned, there are other books treating this so it might have been a fairly common practice. Maybe they were hoping that they didn’t have to do it but he was not wounded enough to die quick. A very disturbing scene. Any ideas about the title?

  8. You know me well. But please remember I am glad I read the book. I promised you I would read all the readalongs no matter what. It’s not like I wanted to stop reading it.

    I took the sneezing incident to be Johnston wanting to do something unique and memorable – mission accomplished!

    As to Alec being a coward, I was mainly referring to his attitude toward going to the war. He basically said it about himself. He wasn’t so much a coward when he was at the front, but he certainly was not a warrior. I would argue that he was a coward in that he put up with the Major when in war, “accidents” can happen. He certainly was not a coward at the end.

    The knifing of the wounded soldier rings true, I just question the timing of it. Why did Johnston choose to have him out there for several nights? That made no sense. If they could go out to him on the third night, why not the first?

    All I know about the title is it comes from a nursery rhyme. I remember it was referred to in the novel but do not feel like skimming to find it, sorry.

    How many miles to Babylon?
    Three-score and ten.
    Can I get there by candle-light?
    Yes, there and back again.
    If your heels are nimble and light,
    You will get there by candle-light.

    Since you are the one interested in subtleties (I’m male), I’ll leave it to you to figure the connection.

    • Yes, yes, you are the big bad wolf in this readalong.
      So you think or know that they did kill their badly wounded? You sounded almost as if you blame her for letting him suffer this long. Another reason might have been that no one had the guts to do it as they put themselves in quite a bit of danger.
      I am still not sure about the meaning of the title. Will have to ponder and maybe come up with something in my Monday wrap up.

  9. It was routine to send out night patrols to gather intelligence. Why would you not send out a patrol to rescue a wounded comrade? Are you telling me none of his mates would risk it to go to him? Pehaps it’s a British thing – I am quite sure Americans would have gone much sooner even at the risk of their lives. I’m not blaming Johnston for letting him suffer, I just think the length of time is perplexing. I have no problems with a mercy killing under these circumstances. It was definitely the right thing to do.
    A wolf to balance out the swans – sounds like a good arrangement.

  10. I have only read one Jennifer Johnson novel, but I admired it very much. This sounds like a fascinating work and makes me realise I must read more by her. Thank you for a wonderful review!

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  12. Wonderful review, Caroline. I’ve never read anything that gave the Irish viewpoint in WWI. Though I haven’t yet read the book, your review reminds me of Sebastian Faulk’s “Birdsong.” Have you read it? Very descriptive of the bleakness of war.
    Will have to add this to my growing list of books to read.

    • Thanks, Mrs Pearl. I loved Birdsong. The end is one of those that I will never forget. It haunted me for days. This one is very different in tone. It’s incredibly beautiful and melancholic. And of course very sad. I have always been fascinated by Ireland. Beauty and tragedy go hand in hand in that country.

  13. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong April Wrap up: The Winter of the World « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  14. I absolutely love this novel, My leaving cert is next week and in school we did How Many Miles To Babylon, it’s so interesting and I would definitely read it again, and most definitely recommend it to other’s

    • I agree, it’s a wonderful book. It has a lot to offer. Did you read anything else by the author? I read The Gingerbread Woman first and it was also astonishingly good.

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  19. The swans seemed to me to suggest that Jerry and Alec were lovers (people meant for each other at least under the skin; not physically) and the Yeats’ poem does not seem to detract from that reading of mine. When the swan was killed and Alec reacted, I thought it highly likely that Jerry would be dying soon.

    In many ways, I think this novel predicts or ponders the recent infinitesimally slow movement of our civilization towards valuing ALL people’s lives not just the lives of those who have the power/wealth to cause/order death.

    • Now that you say this, it does make sense as well.
      It’s a very low movement, but books like this can contribute something.
      I need to read other books by Jennifer Johnston. She’s an amazing writer.

  20. Pingback: Michael Morpurgo: Private Peaceful (2003) Literature and War Readalong May 2014 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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