In this centenary year of the First World War, Sebastian Faulks finds it ironic and fitting that his novel Birdsong has come of age. It’s hard to believe it’s been 21 years since it’s publication. Faulks began thinking about writing the novel around the 70th anniversary of the armistice, and found there to be much less to draw upon in the way of other fiction at the time. He confessed that he wrote it at a time that the events of the First World War seemed to have fallen out of public thought and memory.
He then read from the chapters of Birdsong, ‘July 1st 1916’, which was set at what would later be called the battle of the Somme. His comprehensive research included examining documents at the Imperial War Museum and accompanying WW1 veterans to French battlefields. It was humbling to hear how one of them recounted to Faulks how he’d witnessed his best friend blown to pieces, then how he collected up as many pieces as he could find of him and buried them, next to a tree with a simple wooden cross. They found, on that poignant and enlightening trip that someone had located the makeshift grave, and given the soldier a proper burial, complete with gravestone.
One of the questions Faulks kept asking himself, was “why did they keep on doing it?” One answer may have been that their reality existed alongside their comrades in the trenches, rather than being at home where they found it impossible to talk about, nor live a normal life.
One audience member thanked him for “bringing to life to what happened” in a way that doesn’t happen dry history books. Faulks concluded that one reason for why so little fiction existed after the war that explored the subject, was that the few writers that had been there perhaps found it too raw and far too early to talk about it.