Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2016

When Blackbirds Sing, by Martin Boyd #BookReview

When Blackbirds SingMartin Boyd is one of my all-time favourite writers: an Anglo-Australian born in Switzerland, he is one of only a few writers to capture the ambivalence of belonging in neither homeland yet intensely fond of both.  His novels all feature the upper-class world of British privilege and its Australian offshoots, yet Boyd has a strong empathy for those  of a different class.  And in this novel When Blackbirds Sing there is yet another contradiction: he is anti-war yet not a pacifist.

When Blackbirds Sing (1962) is the fourth in The Langton Quartet, preceded by The Cardboard Crown (1952); A Difficult Young Man (1955); and Outbreak of Love (1957).   The novels, which can be read independently of each other, explore the lives of the Langton family, loosely based on Boyd’s own remarkable family, described as a cultural dynasty in the Text Classics introduction by Chris Wallace-Crabbe.  (See Brenda Niall’s splendid biography, The Boyds: A Family Biography). The dynasty included the great painter Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), and the influential architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971), as well as other noted painters, potters, and architects.  But it was Martin Boyd who was the writer.

The title When Blackbirds Sing derives from these lines by Julian Grenfell, one of many WW1 war poets who linked youth and imminent death

The blackbird sings to him, Sing, brother, sing,
If this shall be the last song you sing…
Who doth fighting hath increase

Dominic Langton enlists in the belief that it is necessary to protect his wife and son on their farm in Australia, and to prevent Australia from becoming a German colony.  It is a matter of honour:

He had very simple ideas of honour, as had Helena.  If he had not gone to the war, they might not have continued to be happy, knowing that their honour stood rooted in their dishonour.  Also Dominic had been intended for the army, but he had failed in his examinations, and he thought that now he had the opportunity to remedy this disgrace, which had overwhelmed him at the time.  (p. 6)

But rather than join the Light Horse as so many Australians enthusiastically did, he sails to England to enlist where he has family connections: his father had advised him to apply to the colonel of grandfather Byngham’s regiment, so that he would not be quite unknown.  But in the event, Dominic’s application is so diffident and self-effacing that the colonel doesn’t recognise the family name and barely acknowledges the letter.  Dominic ends up settling for the Territorials, a volunteer force lacking the regimental traditions and cachet of the British army altogether and administered by the County Lord Lieutenant who is not even a soldier.  In this case the Lord Lieutenant is Lord Dilton, near neighbour to the Langton ancestral home, and the father of a girl that Dominic had provoked into breaking their engagement…

Dominic, an innocent abroad, blithely makes his way back into the Dilton’s world, because he sees moral issues only from his point of view.  He is now happily married to Helena (and missing her painfully), and Sylvia has made a ‘good’ marriage to Maurice Wesley-Maude.  Therefore, he thinks, there should be no cause for resentment.  His good looks and amiability smooths over any awkwardness, and the Diltons welcome him as a patriotic young man doing his duty.   He feels very comfortable drinking wine from the excellent cellar and doing secretarial odd jobs for Lady Dilton:

Here he was in a house he knew, within an hour, back as one of the family, being scolded for his untidy writing.  This was what he liked best, to be at ease in familiar places with people who knew him well, who knew the worst things he had done but accepted them.  (p.20)

When Sylvia turns up from London to visit her parents, she greets Dominic with a rather arch style of conversation, but there are no hard feelings.  To the contrary.  There is a latent attraction…

In the period before he actually enlists, Dominic enjoys the contented routines of life in the county and he falls in love with the England he knew as a boy.  He feels such a strong sense of belonging in the landscape that he alarms Helena with a letter suggesting that they move back to the ancestral home, currently rented out as a consequence of his father’s financial difficulties.  Neither of these two young marrieds are very good at expressing their love for each other in correspondence, but Helena has been writing letters full of vivid detail about the farm so that Dominic always knows what he is fighting for.  She is mildly anxious about some gossip she has heard about a shipboard companion, and alert to any mention of the former fiancé Sylvia, but she is confident that Dominic loves her.  As indeed he does.  He was desolate en route and spent the entire voyage in an anguish relieved only by his innocent friendship with the widowed Mrs Heseltine.

Dominic settles into army life easily.  He doesn’t readily make friends, and his diffidence marks him out as a bit odd, but the routine suits him and he does his work well.  Before long he is given his orders for France, and has a week’s embarkation leave in London before departure.  London is where Sylvia is, enjoying a very lively social life in the absence of her rather dull husband in France…

The English interlude over, the scene then shifts to Béthune in Northern France. En route Dominic makes his first friend, Hollis, younger and more naïve than Dominic.  They become comrades-in-arms, Dominic feeling as if he has taken the younger man under his protection, which includes protecting him from the vulgarity of the other officers about women.  As the action intensifies, Dominic’s outsider status isn’t just because of his ‘colonial’ status, it’s also because his moral values are different and his outrage is provoked by issues that don’t bother men who think less deeply.

While Boyd was at home in elegant houses country estates and the world of officers and gentlemen, he could still mock its absurdities and snobberies.  In a sleazy exchange in the mess, from which Dominic stands aloof, the young man takes umbrage at this careless bit of teasing by his superior officer Harrison:

‘I bet you’ve been having some fun too, Langton,’ he said. ‘Come on, tell us all about it, you sly old bastard.’

Dominic takes this as an insult to his mother, and in a quaint form of knightly rage, challenges Harrison to a duel.  Jackson, a subaltern, tries to calm things down and visits Harrison:

‘It was only a joke.’

‘Langton doesn’t take it that way.  He doesn’t think a gentleman calls another a bastard, even as a joke.’

‘Is Langton a gentleman?  I thought he was an Australian,’ said Harrison.  (p. 127)

The scenes at the Ritz, and the luxury of hot baths and lavish country meals contrast starkly with the scenes at the front in France, but Boyd has more to say than that, and the tone can be quite bitter:

The governments and generals on both sides must at this time have been on tenterhooks lest the soldiers woke up to the suicidal futility of their lives, that some common humanity such as that of Christmas 1914, or the sheer weariness which the French were beginning to show, might lead them simply to stop fighting.  It would have been a disaster for either High Command if the enemy had walked away.  There would have been no glory attached to victory.  At Christmas 1914, this disaster had been prevented by a high-ranking English officer firing into the German lines while the opposing troops were dancing together around bonfires in No-man’s-land.  At Etaples there had been a riot and the soldiers had killed five military policemen.  Always there was fear of the psychological uncertainty of a million men, and everything possible was done to prevent peace breaking out.  Lloyd George addressed those Old Testament exhortations to the armies, which so disgusted Lord Dilton.  He would not consider an armistice ‘as it might be difficult to get the nations fighting again.  Raids like that in which Hollis was wounded were ordered ‘to keep alive the spirit of the offensive.’ A general came to inspect the battalion.  He asked each subaltern, ‘What were you in civilian life?’ When the young man answered modestly ‘I was at school’ or ‘I was reading law’ the general replied, ‘Well, you’re going to be a soldier for the rest of your life, remember that.’  And this was true for a number of them, as half the battalion was wiped out in the approaching attack, though the general ended his days playing golf in Surrey. (p.131)

This long authorial intrusion does not quite belong in this otherwise authentic narrative.  The novel, first published in 1962, almost a half-century after WW1, shows Boyd still working through his own traumatic experiences at the front.  The reader senses something intensely personal in Dominic’s anguish over his part in denying the humanity of a German boy on the battlefield, and in the piercing clarity of his empathy for the tragedy of Hollis’s wounding.  Dominic goes home to his farm in Australia, seeing it now as an sanctuary offering succour and decency, hoping that Helena will understand:

He felt as if he had climbed out too far along a branch, and was perched there isolated.  If he had known the people who might have understood his attitude, the socialist pacifists, he would have shocked them with his Tory-anarchism, with his background of tradition, even if he had stripped away all its colour.  His instincts were non-political.  He had no idea of progress through politics.  He only wanted to achieve some passionate innocence in his own life, and to redeem his inherited violence, though this longing was not explicit in his mind.  (p.198)

I had thought I was tired of books about the First World War.  But the sophistication of this novel meshes so perfectly with the heartfelt story that it tells.  When Blackbirds Sing well deserves its place on my shelves.

Author: Martin Boyd
Title: When Blackbirds Sing
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922147998
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $12.95

Buy it from Fishpond:When Blackbirds Sing (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. Well there’s one for my TBR. A Difficult Young Man was at the centre of the books I read for my matric and was very influential, particularly as I went from a country high school to mixing (awkwardly!) with Geelong and Melbourne Grammar boys at uni.

    • Yes, I think I can predict with some confidence that you would like this one.
      That transition must have been difficult. My experience of Grammar boys is that they are inclined to overdo their sense of privilege. Some of them grow out of that when it dawns on them that there are other people who may even be smarter they are…
      Others just join the Young Libs and are lost forever…

  2. I never realised Arthur and Martin were related. Of course now it makes sense. What a talented family. This book sounds pretty interesting but I too am tired of WWI and WWI I stories. They are generally so sad. This does sound different.

    • Well, part of the problem is that there really can’t be much more to say at this point in time. As far as WW1 is concerned, people who were there on the battlefield – and if they had the writing skills as Martin Boyd did and could write authentically about it – are long dead and gone; everyone else is writing from research not from experience, and frankly, I wish they’d be a bit more imaginative and think of something else to write about. There really has been a surfeit of war books and commemorations ever since the anniversaries began in 2014, and we have another 3 years of it to go. I think if I see one more book that derives from old WW1 diaries of an Anzac ancestor, and any more people weeping on TV over ancestors they’ve never actually set eyes on because the Anzac was dead before the weeper was born, I think I might say something imprudent…
      *deep breath* This one is different because Boyd was passionately against this particular war once he saw how pointless it was, and because the focus is actually on the moral growth of his main character.

  3. Your reviews are always so thorough, Lisa. This book sounds like another I’d love. I haven’t yet tired of reading books on WWI and WWII, but I love history, and I love reading books set in Europe. I also don’t watch TV, and I doubt I’ve read anywhere near as many books on the topic as you!
    I’m totally in awe of the Boyd family, too.
    PS. I added the pencil sharpening scene yesterday—I so hope it gets published and I can thank you for it!

    • Hi Louise, I just read your inspiring post about Daughter#2. I hope she makes it into your story too in some way…
      Isn’t it interesting that in our f2f life people like us who don’t watch TV much are weird and strange but here in the virtual world of books we are completely normal? I love that.

  4. I read A Cardboard Crown a couple of years ago and loved it. He really does capture that feeling of not quite belonging in either England or Australia. I do hope to read the rest in the series at some point. This one sounds terrific.

    • The Cardboard Crown is my favourite of his. One of the few books I have that weathers re-reading….

  5. […]  novels—The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955) , Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962). A fifth was planned but Boyd says he refused to write it when his publisher demanded more […]


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