Theresa Breslin is the author of over 30 books for children and young adults who has had work filmed for television and dramatized for radio. Titles include the Dream Master series, Remembrance and The Medici Seal. Divided City, exploring prejudice and friendship against a football background, has been shortlisted for 10 children's book awards. Theresa won the Carnegie Medal for Whispers in the Graveyard, a story about a dyslexic boy. Her latest book is The Nostradamus Prophecy. Below she discusses Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys.
Theresa Breslin on The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
I'll tell you of the Ancient Gaels,
The ones the gods made mad.
All their wars are happy,
And all their songs are sad.
Being descended on one side of my family from a long line of Ancient Gaels I have a particular fascination with stories and songs of doomed heroes and heroines. When I was growing up, our home was full of books and my favourites were those containing tales of the Greek and Roman gods, old Legends and Myths and Folk and Faerie Tales. I loved the contests of wits, the battles, the bravery, the stirring declarations, the noble deeds. I thrilled to ballads recited by my father, telling of unrequited love with catastrophic endings. The family favourite, often acted out by myself and my brother and sisters, was Lord Ullin's Daughter by Thomas Campbell. Long suffering aunts and uncles were coerced into watching our presentation of the Highland Chieftain's attempt to elope with his true love. Fleeing from the wrath of the girl's father (Lord Ullin), they both perish, swept beneath the waters of a stormy loch, while Lord Ullin stands on the shore, calling desperately to his child.
'Come back! Come back!' he cried in grief,
'Across this stormy water;
And I'll forgive your Highland chief.
My daughter! - O, my daughter!'
Twas vain: The loud waves lash'd the shore,
Return or aid preventing;
The waters wild went o'er his child,
And he was left lamenting.
After our finale there was not a dry eye in the house.
In a book we owned, entitled Real Heroes and Heroines, I'd read of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his brave companions and how they perished after reaching the South Pole. I took my own children to see the Discovery (the ship used by Captain Scott on his first voyage to the Antarctic) lying at berth in Dundee, the city where it was built. The Discovery has been lovingly and meticulously restored, recreating the actual conditions in which the men lived and worked as they travelled south on their long and arduous journey. Without GPS and sophisticated computer technology it is astonishing that they plotted their courses and collected scientific information with such accuracy. In New Zealand a few years ago I saw the replica of Scott's hut in the Kelly Tarlton exhibition in Auckland. Like most visitors I marvelled at the fortitude of these men in venturing into such horrific conditions without the benefit of modern thermal underwear, trying to beat off the intense cold using clothing made from various animal skins.
So, when a friend recommended I read The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, saying it was about Scott's fatal expedition, I was sure that I would enjoy it.
I expected to be caught up in the unfolding tragedy, moved by the struggle against the odds, angered by the almost wilful foolishness, yet compelled to admire the courage of these early Polar explorers. What took my breath away was the magnificent storytelling, underpinned by stunning writing which totally enmeshed me in their lives on a uniquely personal level. Even though one knows the outcome, when reading this book it's almost impossible not to begin to hope, desperately and against all reason, that somehow, at least one of the doomed men might survive.
Yes. Beryl Bainbridge's writing is that good.
Five men tell their own story. These five are Captain Scott and the four others he selected from the expedition team to accompany him on the last stage of the journey to the South Pole. Each man's tale is set within a time frame that takes us, in different episodes, from their departure from Britain with all the jingoistic huzzah of their send off and poignant parting from loved ones, through the arduous sea journey south, the establishment of the accommodation hut in the Antarctic, the long final slog, the crushing disappointment of discovering they were not the first at the South Pole, and then their final days together as they succumb on the way back to base, when all five die of hunger, exhaustion and ill health.
Each member of this party is at once narrator, observer and diarist, and during the course of events each celebrates his birthday. The content of the five characters' monologues occasionally overlaps so that one sees the same incident from different points of view. In this way the reader is led to an understanding of each man's personality. You share their humiliation at a perceived insult, their outrage, their joy, moments of self-revelation, struggles to overcome their own faults and, very tellingly on occasion, their inability to perceive personal weaknesses. Accounts of petty jealousies, wry observations, self-doubt, scrapes and rescues, laughter and celebration, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and how each deals with the trials set before them, meld the plot as it unfolds to its tragic climax.
With deft strokes Beryl Bainbridge conjures the magnificent and terrifying environment that these men attempt to conquer. The characters' description of the sea voyage and the landscape makes one shiver, we wonder at the colours in the ice, are dazzled by the refraction of light on the glacier, and gaze open-mouthed at the hanging curtain of colours in the aurora: 'as God's own paintbrush splashed among the stars'.
Certain key scenes are works of genius: the moment when Titus Oates realizes that he is an unbearable burden on his companions. Reluctant to remove his socks for fear his frost-bitten toes will drop off he sees that his skin is blotched red and purple right up to his ankle and asks:
Do you reckon a man without feet could still ride to hounds?
In the dream-like quality of Oates's hallucinatory last moments, Bainbridge allows him, and the reader, a small measure of peace.
Her depiction of the flawed heroism of Scott calls out to one's own flawed humanity. As she brings to life the misuse of energy and resources one is aware of the looming shadow of World War I. Are some of Scott's actions a macabre foretaste of those of the officer class in the conflict that followed so soon after? A belief in dedication to duty, to serve and to lead one's men, combined with appalling ignorance yet admirable bravery in the face of overwhelming odds? One could scream with frustration at the apparent wasted opportunities to avert tragedy. But far from hating and despising these men Bainbridge makes you love and care for them.
Everything about this book is awe-inspiring; the subject, the characters, the setting, the structure, the seemingly effortless writing which binds the reader to the story. I have owned about 11 copies of The Birthday Boys. I never lend it out. I always give it away to those I think will appreciate it and then buy myself another copy.
It is a slim book. The writing is spare. Yet it does what all good writing does - it resonates at the same frequency as the human spirit.