The Birdcage evokes images of beauty constrained by bars, of colour and noise muted by an unthinking and uncaring jailer. This is life symbolically captured in first world war Salonika; its exotic blend of inhabitants protected from the bellicose Bulgars by a ring of barbed-wire.
Any notion of siege mentality though is shattered by the energy and optimism of such diverse characters as Sunny, the Biggles of the ballooning core and Simple (Simon) an Edwardian James Bond whose insouciant approach lends old school charm to the deadly game of spying.
Aslet balances the escapades of these military stereotypes with surprising sensitivity as we empathize with the artistic Winner’s struggle to track down Elsie, the seemingly innocent nurse who transforms herself into a Serbian freedom fighter before collapsing into the arms of her lovelorn suitor.
The nursing core are portrayed as the angels of the battlefield and provide the moral and puritanical canvass onto which is overlayed the emotional and bloody trauma of this forgotten battlefield of the Great War. The author’s alternative killing fields, populated by a collection of apparently superficial characters, could be seen to trivialise war but the objective of this book is more about people getting on with life; seeking normality in an abnormal world.
This simple ambition is encapsulated in the trials and tribulations of forming a concert party to deliver entertainment to the fighting men and women who long for a reminder of home. The collection of bints men dressed as women and unlikely prima donnas give the occasion an “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” feel and the reader can readily imagine a Windsor Davies type character corralling his band of highly strung performers with a steely glare only to be undermined by an air of slapstick which permeates the collective desire to produce a professional show.
Ultimately this is an understated account of life on the frontline told with humour and sensitivity and capturing a time and a place that represents values and experiences we could only dream of in our more cynical world.
The Birdcage by Clive Aslet
published by Cumulus Books (£18.95)
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