BBC Radio 4, 8-12 April 2013
First published in 1974, How
Many Miles to Babylon concerns the tensions surrounding the friendship between an Irish aristocrat, Alexander Moore,
and a labourer on his lands, Jeremiah (Jerry), both before and during the First World War.
Initially the friendship is frowned upon:
Alexander's mother tries to take her son away to Europe, and forget about someone from such a humble background; his father
seems more indulgent, but things are not quite what they seem in the family. Alexander discovers something about his
parents that proves so shocking that he needs someone to confide in, and Jerry fits the bill perfectly. The two young
men enjoy a platonic relationship, swimming naked, riding and writing to one another.
They re-encounter one another during the First
World War in the trenches; Moore is an officer, and Jerry an ordinary soldier. Jerry finds out that his father is missing,
presumed dead and requests compassionate leave; it is refused by the commanding officer Major Glendinning. Jerry has
only two courses of action; to respect the order or to go AWOL. Inevitably his decision leads to tragedy: class once
again rears its ugly head, and Moore is placed in an impossible position by his commanding officer. The book's ending
is almost unbearably poignant, involving issues of nationalism, duty and loyalty.
Andrew Scott's reading of this slim but powerful work
was truly memorable, demonstrating a wide vocal range from an upper-class English accent to a working-class Irish accent.
He seemed so involved in Johnston's first-person narrative that it almost seemed as if he was Moore himself speaking in confessional
tones to the listeners - not in the hope of redemption, but just because he needed to speak. The producer was Gemma