Day 4 of 12 Days of Christmas : 4 Calling Birds & Song

I never liked the idea of a calling bird. It smacked of the Judas Goat, even when I was a child. But I’m told that “calling” is a mondegreen in this context and the original was probably “colly birds”. Which apparently are blackbirds.

4 calling birds, Christmas Island stamp 1977Hmm. Bit of a cheapskate suitor there, then. I mean, blackbirds come free with the landscape. All he had to do was scatter a few breadcrumbs on the lawn and then point out the descending blackbirds as her present.

Mind you, the Easter Island stamp version is along the same lines. And gulls call all right. Anglo Saxon poets thought they were the souls of dead sailors. Give me a blackbird every time.

So I’m assuming that our Day 4 gift is of tuneful birds.


Birdsong 1993 edition cover for day 4The subconscious is prompting me to go for Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, slightly to my surprise, I admit. Apart from its title, I suppose.

I bought Birdsong on a friend’s recommendation and galloped through it. And yes, I did feel for the hero once he got to the trenches, cold to the bone and beyond, detached from feeling. That felt fresh and honest and I cried. But… but… Birdsong left me not really satisfied somehow. I didn’t want to read it again.

Now, I think that’s probably the fault of the title. It implanted subliminal expectations which weren’t fulfilled. This is partly because of stories told in my own family, I concede. I wanted to recognise something in the novel, I suppose. And its characters, even those with whose situation I sympathised, alienated me. In particular, Stephen Wraysford, the hero. He barely notices anyone but himself. As the original 1993 cover indicated.


WW1 and natureOf course, what I was looking for was something I could relate to. Like something to be found, for instance, in Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel. The 2017 Wainwright Prize winner, this book collects accounts of men who knew their countryside and its creatures and carried on recording observations of the natural world as the mud churned. Almost unbearably moving in places but yes, I can relate to it.

BirdsongFaulks’s take is different. Birdsong, high and indifferent, is what is  left. And the 1994 cover (new publisher) is clear that this story is about the impact of war.

Before the Somme offensive, the hero’s company finds soldiers digging a large hole beside a farm track. As they realise that it’s a mass grave for tomorrow’s dead, “The songs died on their lips and the air was reclaimed by the birds.”

But having said that, the novel is an extended family saga, shot through with love, passion, betrayal, loneliness and yearning. There are two time frames, 1910-1918, set in France and 1978-1979 in England, where the heroine tries to decode her grandfather’s wartime diaries, in order to understand him since she, like me, found him alienating. And she, too, is on her own emotional trajectory, involving risk and moral choice.


We have been inundated by World War 1 stories, both fact and fiction, over the last three years. Now is a good time to reconsider not only what happened, but how it shaped those who fought in it and what they passed down to us.  And Faulks, more than any other novelist I have yet read, has nailed that awful soul-deep unfeeling engendered by exhaustion and too many men dead and traumatised.

4 thoughts on “Day 4 of 12 Days of Christmas : 4 Calling Birds & Song

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Your first image sent me into nostalgia! My father lived on Christmas Island for some years. It belongs to Kiribati (at that time the Gilbert Islands) and I went to visit him back on Kiribati itself years later and stayed about three months. Memories….

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh Liz, how marvellous. Is that the same as the Arthur Grimble place? A Pattern of Islands, was it called? I remember we read it at school and I was completely hooked. What was your father doing there? What were you, for that matter? Lotus eating?

        1. Elizabeth Bailey

          It is in fact the VERY Arthur Grimble place! A Pattern of Islands, yes. Though I have to say the islanders pretty much panned a number of his claims about how things were done – turtle catching for one, as I recall.
          My father went out there to do the Census and ended up staying, and remarrying eventually to an islander. He came back a couple of times for operations and so on, but retired there to one of the smaller islands and only returned to UK when my aunt, his sister, got severely ill and then he stayed to be with the family.
          When I visited he was still working on Tarawa (the main island). I think I was going through some trauma or other and he sent me the fare. I joined him for three months holiday and we came back together as he was coming home on leave. That’s when we dropped into Hong Kong, India and Egypt on the way.
          No lotus eating, but I did consume lots of fish and coconut!

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