August 12, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Emma Donoghue's timely novel The Pull of the Stars offers glimpses of hope in this urgent and captivating book set during the Great Flu of 1918.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"The Pull of the Stars moves with the quickness of a thriller. . . . Donoghue has pulled off another feat: She wrote a book about a 100-year-old flu that feels completely current, down to the same frustrations and tensions and hopes and dangers. And she did it without even knowing just how relevant it would be -- how well and frighteningly her own reimagining of a historical catastrophe would square with our actual living experience of its modern sequel."
My novel The Pull of the Stars (set in a Dublin hospital in 1918) is full of tunes that the characters overhear or sing – the numbers that help get them through a flu pandemic that killed three to six percent of the human race. What I’m only registering now is that all the songs on my Book Notes playlist were written by men, even though my novel is full of women (maternity patients, nurses, a volunteer aide and a doctor). I hope the two threads - songs and novel - wind together to give some impression of what women and men, in war and pandemic, on the Home Front and various Battle Fronts, were going through in those particularly hard times.
‘Goodbye-ee!’ / The Humblebums
This 1917 classic by R. P. Weston and Bert Lee is one of several songs I have my characters quote from the British music hall tradition. Said to have been inspired by factory girls the songwriters heard calling out farewell to soldiers marching to London’s Victoria Station to ship out to France, it celebrates the playfulness as well as courage of those two groups, each ‘doing their bit’ for the War. The title cannily uses top comic Harry Tate’s catchphrase, a stretched-out pronunciation of goodbye. I first came across this song as the title of the finale of Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), an absurdist sitcom which left a lingering impression on me that there was nothing great about the hellish, so-called Great War.
‘Are Ye Right There Michael’ / John Roche
This song, a hit for drains-inspector-turned-composer Percy French in 1902, pokes fun at a County Clare train so slow that it made him miss one of his own concerts. (The mortified railway company unwisely sued him for libel, but lost.) I include this song in the novel not just because it’s such a lasting favourite in Ireland, but because its theme – of enduring a long delay – fits not only the War but the delivery that each of the labouring patients in Nurse Julia’s maternity ward has to get through one way or another.
‘Send Me Away with a Smile’ / John McCormack
Many American songs were embraced by audiences in the British Isles, especially in 1917 when the US joined the War on the Allied side. This one by Louis Weslyn and Al Piantadosi is sung here by Ireland’s beloved tenor John McCormack. ‘You must be a soldier too,’ the man tells the girl he’s leaving, and one of the central ideas in The Pull of the Stars is that women are at war too, not in the trenches but in other gruelling settings such as hospital wards. ‘When I leave you dear/ Give me words of cheer / To recall in times of pain’: in the novel I’ve tried to catch that spirit of bittersweet gallantry, not so much stiff-upper-lip as gallant wink.
‘The Bells of Hell’ / Theatre Workshop Players
Some of the most popular songs during the First World War were parodies, adapted by servicemen to satirize their ghastly conditions. ‘The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling’ is a macabre parody (from about 1911) of a song called ‘She Only Answered Ting-a-ling-a-ling’, attributed to British airmen. Its allusions go way back: ‘Oh death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling’ riffs Saint Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, 15:55.
‘The Soldiers’ Song’ / The Wolfe Tones
My protagonist Julia Power hears this 1918 rebel anthem in the street in 1918 and bristles, because like so many Irish people at that time, she still thinks of that cause as a perverse, destructive one. ‘The Soldiers’ Song’ by Peadar Kearney and Patrick Heeney (translated into Irish as ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’) was embraced by Irish republicans but the Government of the Irish Free State (founded in 1922 after the War of Independence) was wary of rebuffing Britain by announcing a national anthem to replace ‘God Save the King’, so they only officially adopted it in 1926.
‘Stand to Your Glasses’ / Oscar Brand
I love the long, tangled, impure genealogies of folk songs. (When I was writing notes on the ones I included in my 2014 novel Frog Music, I was amused to learn how many of them had wounded up changing tone and meaning as well as the communities they were associated with.) ‘Stand to Your Glasses Steady’ is an anonymous mid-nineteenth-century English drinking song with many variants, which seem to derive from one W. F. Thompson’s poem ‘Indian Revelry’. It’s hard to match it for a festive, fatalistic toasting of death.
‘Are We Downhearted?’ / Arthur Boyton
I haven’t been able to find who wrote this rousing song that was recorded by Arthur Boyton in 1914. There was an American song and a nineteenth-century hymn with the same title but different lyrics. Like many popular tunes, this is a meta-paean to music’s powers of uplift: ‘Then let your voices ring/ And all together sing / Are we downhearted? / No!’
‘Two Little Boys’ / Rolf Harris
This homoerotic tearjerker from 1902, prompted by the Boer War, was written by American duo Theodore F. Morse and Edward Madden, but became a hit for Scottish music-hall star Harry Lauder. It was the first of the songs in The Pull of the Stars I ever came across, as a child – I remember being deeply stirred by its portrayal of loving comradeship between soldiers when I heard this sweetly wistful Rolf Harris version which was a surprise No. 1 hit the year I was born, 1969.
‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ / Murray Johnson
This 1915 march by Welsh brothers George Henry and Felix Powell is one of the most well known WWI songs today, often sung along the similarly structured ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’. Included in an American show called Her Soldier Boy in 1916, it probably helped fire up war enthusiasm for war on that side of the Atlantic as well as boosting morale in the British Isles. What I love about this body of music isn’t its sentimentality but its rueful insistence on classy behaviour even in the face of cannonfire: ‘Smile, boys, that’s the style’.
‘Liebestod’ / Edo de Waart
This tragic love aria from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan Und Isolde (1865), sung by Isolde over her lover Tristan’s corpse, is played on a gramophone by Doctor Kathleen Lynn in my novel, as mid-shift stress relief. I wanted to pick something that would ring true as a favourite for an educated early twentieth-century music lover, and I also had to get in the word ‘liebestod’ (German for love death), because The Pull of the Stars is meant as a Liebestod itself, a story of passion arising despite and even out of the multiple horrors of birth, pandemic and war.
Born in Dublin and now living in London, Ontario in Canada, Emma Donoghue is best known for her fiction including Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes), Akin and The Wonder. She also writes for film/tv and was Oscar nominated for Lenny Abrahamson’s 2015 film of ROOM. Her other works include short story collections, stage and radio plays, literary history and fiction for young readers.