Literature and War Readalong February Wrap up: How Many Miles to Babylon?

I wanted to thank all of you who have participated this month. I loved the book and enjoyed the discussions.

Even though there is also a friendship at the heart of How Many Miles to Babylon? this book is totally different from Susan Hill’s novel Strange Meeting which we read in January. As you can easily see my review doesn’t emphasize the role of the friendship between Alec and Jerry as much as Anna’s or Danielle’s (and here as well) does.

I realized when reading the other posts and a few of the comments that some had a bit of a problem with this novel. There were different reasons for this. For one Alec doesn’t appear to be a very likable character, he was even called a coward by some. For several reasons I never thought of him like that and was wondering why. I realized that from the start, I was totally fixed on his going to be executed. I saw him like some Breaker Morant character (which he isn’t) and thinking he did something that would have this consequence set the tone for me from the beginning. Another point of criticism which, with hindsight, seems fair, is the fact that the WWI elements are toned down. WWI seems to serve more as a pretext for the tragic story and to write about Irish history. WWI itself is rather just a backdrop. I did not mind this at all but can understand that this can bee seen differently.

I think we all equally agreed that the mother in this book was an extremely negative figure, the whole family situation, as Kevin pointed out, is highly dysfunctional.

What I couldn’t really solve was the question about the title. Why did she choose this nursery rhyme as the title for her novel? In an article on the net I found one tiny hint, saying that it did underline the relationship between the soldier and his superior.

On Wikipedia I found this list which enumerates how many times the rhyme has been used in popular culture

In popular culture

In literature

In film

In popular music

  • It is parodied as “How many miles to Babyland?” on Lenny and the Squigtones– a comedy album by the characters Lenny and Squiggy from the 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley”.

This is quite a considerable list. It eludes me why this rhyme is so popular with writers and I am still open for any interpretation why Jennifer Johnston chose it as her title.

6 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong February Wrap up: How Many Miles to Babylon?

  1. I’m glad I was not the only one to be stumped by the use of this particular nursery rhyme for the title. He mentions it several times in the story, too. I might have to do a little investigating but when I first read the book I also didn’t find many references online to it. Interesting that it has actually been referred to so many times other places. There must be some meaning particular to that period that is lost on me now! I thought Alec was such an intriguing character–it didn’t really strike me that he was cowardly necessarily. Wanting to not go to war and die seems more like self preservation to me–especially when he didn’t believe in the reasons. He seemed resigned more than anything. It’s a story that certainly leaves you with a lot to think about.

    • The rhyme isn’t even Irish, so that isn’t a reason either. I never thought he was a coward. And he was very young. Put up a fight with your own mother at that age is very hard. We all have different definitions of courage I suppose. It never struck me as particularly courageous to go to war.

  2. No idea about the title. Then again, I didn’t even get from the very beginning that he was to be executed. His family definitely was dysfunctional. I didn’t mind that WWI was in the background since there was so much else going on.

    Thanks again for hosting such a wonderful discussion!

    • You are welcome and I am glad you are participating.
      I think it is a book that really changes in ones perception once it is finished. There are so many elements that fall into place at the end but do not even mean all that much during the reading. I can see how one can miss the beginning, you were not the only one, I got it because I went back to the beginning some ten pages into the story. For some reason I was very distracted when I started reading it and the second time around I realized that he is writing the story because he will be executed.

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