S has now left Grendon, and T expects to have done so by the next meeting. But apart from these movements, all the regulars came back, and we had a very good conversation.
We spent most of the session just talking about ‘Birdsong’. T had found it difficult and not read much. M has been too busy, but the other three of us had read it over again and found it just as wonderful as on previous readings.
We were all utterly engaged in the writing, the terrifying depiction of life on the frontline, buried in tunnels where the claustrophobia was tangible. We agreed that the physicality, smells, feel and sights he conjures up are so potent and so real that sentimentality is totally absent. We were also amazed at the beauty of the descriptions of the love affair and physical relationship between Stephen and Isabelle; and compelled by the characterisation of the difficult and reserved hero. We talked about the emotional power of the various letters written, to Isabelle as the only person in the world Stephen felt he had any bond with; and between Jack and Margaret after the death of their small son. We reflected on the extraordinary intimacy of the relations between the soldiers, and the ways in which they depended on the smallest signs of tenderness between one other; the themes of the loss of sons, of birth and death, of the body as a source of joy, and the body reduced just to physical pain and utter fear. And we appreciated the subtlety of the time switching between 1916-18 and 1978, which made the intensity of the earlier parts of the novel easier to bear.
We debated the significance of the title ‘Birdsong’ for which, between us, we came up with three different theories. And then we talked about other novels by Sebastian Faulks including Charlotte Gray, (in which two characters from this book appear – i.e. the daughter of Gray and one of the Germans who rescues Stephen at the end). We also all rated ‘Engelby’ very highly.
We went on to discuss recent war films, the forthcoming ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ and shared diverse and quite extreme views on Churchill the man, plus the stories in the press this week about his liaison with a beautiful socialite which bizarrely could have left him open to blackmail at a crucial point in discussions with the Americans about entering the war.
Another lively discussion with some of the men saying this was their favourite Reading Group read so far. Most of the men had illustrated copies and we discussed how illustrations can help in novels and add an extra element of interest. Most of the men loved the pencil drawings accompany the stories.
We had a list of 20 interesting facts about Arthur Conan Doyle which the men read out loud and we discussed.
A couple of the men did not like the book as they said they didn’t like the style of writing and said it was too slow a pace. It was an interesting debate! Each person nominated their favourite short story and gave the reasons why they liked it. A number of men took the book away again to reread or finish it.