War stories: an evening with Sebastian Faulks

As the nation and the world prepared to commemorate a hundred years since the end of the First World War, on 7 November bestselling author Sebastian Faulks and former war correspondent Andrea Catherwood joined Rathbones clients and staff to discuss their own experiences and thoughts on telling the stories of war.

View the full conversation (20 minutes)

In 1991 Sebastian Faulks told his publisher that he was working on a novel set during the First World War. She lowered her head into her hands in despair. Public interest in the subject was notably muted at the time, and she could only remark that she would do her best. The book was Birdsong, which would eventually sell more than three million copies in the UK alone.

Why was the First World War considered an undesirable topic for publishing when Faulks made his pitch? Maybe one reason is that it had been overshadowed by its successor. The Second World War was commemorated immediately and in a much more popular way, mainly through film. It was as if the Great War had been confined to history, forgotten, dismissed as a monumental act of futility — not least given that global conflict had re-erupted a little more than two decades after the armistice.

But attitudes have since changed. Ten years ago the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving First World War combat soldier from any country, was marked by hundreds of services up and down the country and even prompted Radiohead to write a song in his honour. Something in the way that he passed suggested to Faulks a very bad conscience on the part of this country.  

Faulks is modest when Catherwood asks about Birdsong’s role in transforming how we think about the war, but he admits: “Maybe a 19-year-old boy, as he was waiting to go over the top and walk into the biggest military disaster of all time, would like to think that a hundred years later other people have tried to understand, to care and to pay tribute.”

Faulks’ impact on the remembrance of the First World War is not confined to his writing: he was also part of the government’s WW1 Centenary advisory committee. He feels that we waited too long to talk about what our soldiers went through and to show them the gratitude they deserved; but hopes eventually that we will forget. “At some point you must let go” he shared. “And what has been so great about the last four years is that we have done enough that we could now let go with a clear conscience, which we couldn't before.”

Asked about his fascination with war in general, he recalls growing up under the threat of nuclear armageddon and wondering: “How did we get here?” As children of the 1960s, he and his friends had parents, many times father and mother, involved in the Second World War and grandfathers who had fought in the First World War. War was therefore something that had shaped much of his childhood.

It was also a sort of scientific curiosity about human beings and what makes them what they are, which drew Faulks to the theme of war. Like a chemist analysing what a material is made of by subjecting it to absolute extremes, to understand humans there are few more extreme experiences than war.

Today, he feels, our understanding of war has improved significantly. A hundred years ago those left at home could not have imagined the horrors that the soldiers endured, and patriotism gave some meaning to death and struggle. Now media and photojournalism bring events to us in real time and it has become impossible to ignore the reality of war.

Faulks admits to shedding tears of frustration and anger while writing Birdsong; oppressed at times by the weight of his stories. But he is optimistic for the future. The whole country, and in particular the young people in it, understands more now about the Great War than ever before. He hopes that maybe our children in the future, when making big decisions that could lead to armed conflict will remember their school projects on World War One and say to themselves “It didn’t go down well. Let’s think.” They will see things in a longer perspective and that can only be a good thing.

View the full conversation (20 minutes)

Sebastian Faulks is a member of the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics integral to the Rathbones Folio Prize. Find out more.

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