The Birthday Boys: A Novel

The Birthday Boys: A Novel

by Beryl Bainbridge

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504039420
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 181
Sales rank: 726,890
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Dame Beryl Bainbridge (1932–2010) is acknowledged as one of the greatest British novelists of her time. She was the author of two travel books, five plays, and seventeen novels, five of which were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, including Master Georgie, which went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the WHSmith Literary Award. She was also awarded the Whitbread Literary Award twice, for Injury Time and Every Man for Himself. In 2011, a special Man Booker “Best of Beryl” Prize was awarded in her honor, voted for by members of the public.
Born in Liverpool and raised in nearby Formby, Bainbridge spent her early years working as an actress, leaving the theater to have her first child. Her first novel, Harriet Said . . ., was written around this time, although it was rejected by several publishers who found it “indecent.” Her first published works were Another Part of the Wood and An Awfully Big Adventure, and many of her early novels retell her Liverpudlian childhood. A number of her books have been adapted for the screen, most notably An Awfully Big Adventure, which is set in provincial theater and was made into a film by Mike Newell, starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. She later turned to more historical themes, such as the Scott Expedition in The Birthday Boys, a retelling of the Titanic story in Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie, which follows Liverpudlians during the Crimean War. Her no-word-wasted style and tight plotting have won her critical acclaim and a committed following. Bainbridge regularly contributed articles and reviews to the Guardian, Observer, and Spectator, among others, and she was the Oldie’s longstanding theater critic. In 2008, she appeared at number twenty-six in a list of the fifty most important novelists since 1945 compiled by the Times (London). At the time of her death, Bainbridge was working on a new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, which was published posthumously.

Read an Excerpt

The Birthday Boys

A Novel

By Beryl Bainbridge


Copyright © 1991 Beryl Bainbridge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3942-0


Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans

June 1910

We left West India Dock for Cardiff on the first day of June. None of us were sorry, least of all the Owner. For a month we'd had the dignitaries coming aboard, poking their scientific noses into everything, leaving their fingermarks on the brass work shining in the sunlight, the ladies under their parasols shuddering in mock fear as the pig-iron ballast swung overhead. 'How picturesque it all is,' they trilled. 'How thrilling.' We'd had to keep our shirts on and mind our language.

The night after I signed on I took a drop too much to drink; and the next, and the one following. I'm not proud of my behaviour, what with being on short pay and having little enough to send home to the wife, but how else is a man to fill in his nights when he's far from home and without a berth?

While the ship was undergoing refitment and the mess deck out of action, me and Tom Crean lodged with William Lashly at his auntie's house on the Isle of Dogs. Trouble is, Crean was never a man for enjoying a bevvy, and neither Will nor I felt tranquil parked by the fire of an evening with only the auntie and her tabby cat for company. Living ashore hits men differently. Some shuffle back into it like they've found an old pair of slippers and others can't walk easy, no matter how they're shod.

That being said, me and Will didn't have to put our hands in our pockets all that often; no sooner had the whisper got round that we were on the Terra Nova than there was always someone ready to stand us a drink in return for a yarn. Lashly can coax a sick engine into life like it was an infant far gone with the croup, but he has a brutal way with his mother-tongue. It was left to me to spin the tales. 'Tell them about the blizzard on Castle Rock,' he'd prompt. 'Tell them how Vince met his Maker,' and off I'd go.

There's a trick to holding attention, to keeping interest at full pitch, and I learnt it as a boy from Idris Williams, the preacher in the chapel at the bottom of Glamorgan Street. It's a matter of knowing which way the wind blows and of trimming sails accordingly. All the same, I've never found it necessary to alter my description of the cold, or of the ice flowers that bloomed in winter along the edges of the sea.

'It was in the March of 1902,' I'd begin, 'and the Discovery was anchored in McMurdo Bay under the shadow of Mount Erebus. In a few short weeks the sun would go down and fail to rise and the long winter nights set in.' I'd add a spot of detail – how we built huts for ourselves and kennels for the dogs, though the last was a bloody waste of effort seeing the animals preferred to burrow in the snow, and how we butchered seals in the scant daylight hours so as to lay up fresh meat against the scurvy. Sometimes we played football, and it was a dangerous game, slithering about on the ice. 'You know what they do to horses when they breaks a leg, don't you, boys?' I'd wait then until my listeners got over laughing.

'I dare say,' I'd continue, 'that you think you've known what it is to be cold,' and there'd be a murmur of agreement from men who had sailed the China Seas on windjammers bucking in a force twelve, the waves curling forty feet high and not a patch of clothing that didn't stick like a leech to their backs. 'But you can't know,' I'd say, quietly enough. 'Not until you've been south. To be cold is when the temperature sinks to –60°F and the mercury freezes in the thermometer. Petrol won't burn, see, at this degree and even an Eskimo dog can't work, because its lungs will stop functioning. Real cold is ...' and here I'd drop silent, jaw clenched, as though in the contemplation of such cold the words had frozen in my mouth. Shuddering, I'd shove my empty glass about the table. Then, after someone had placed another measure in my hand, I'd tell them, 'To be cold is when the snot freezes in your nostrils and your breath snaps like a fire-cracker on the air and falls to ice in your beard.'

I was speaking no more than the gospel truth. It had been as bad as that, and worse, when we'd gone in search of Hare, floundering about in the ghastly, twilight with the blizzard roaring about our ears. The Owner had despatched us onto the Barrier to test our skill on skis and see what weights we could pull sledge-hauling. At first the weather had been in our favour. It was ten degrees below, but the going was so hard, up to our knees in drifts and pulling those damned sledges because no one knew how to work the dogs, that we were stripped down to our vests. On the sixth day a blizzard blew up, and Hare went missing. Three of us turned back to look for him. It was madness; the dogs yapping in a tangle of traces and the wind cutting our faces like knives. Vince wasn't wearing crampons, and when he slipped he had no purchase. 'He called out something as he slid past me over the cliff ... but I couldn't hear him, see, on account of the wind.'

Again I'd pause, only this time I wasn't codding, for no matter how often I told it I relived the moment, that moment between Vince being there and being gone. I kept to myself how my heart leapt in my breast with joy that it was him that was lost and not me. Nor did I think it fit to let on how badly the Owner had taken the news of Vince's death. Crean heard him blubbing in the night. Dr Wilson sat up with him, attempting to persuade him it was God's will. The Owner doesn't find it easy to delegate and he held himself responsible. There were those among us, though they'd have thought twice before voicing it in my presence, who considered this no more than just.

'The next day,' I'd conclude, 'when we'd returned safely to base camp, ice flowers had formed on the newly frozen sea, sculptured blooms like those waxen wreaths in the cemeteries of home.' And that was the truth too, give or take another week or so.

Some nights, if the men grouped around us were still sober enough to listen, I'd throw in the yarn about the Owner and me stepping into space on the Ferrar Glacier. We'd been crawling across the plateau and toiling up those bloody mountains for weeks, whipped by the wind, the sledge runners torn to shreds, laid up in blizzards so fierce that the stove wouldn't burn and we chewed half-frozen food for sustenance. Come night-time, we huddled together in a three-man sleeping bag, and to begin with me and Lashly were uneasy at sharing dossing-room with an officer, until we caught on that it was his poor warmth and ours that was keeping us all alive. Lashly was hit bad with the frostbite, his fingers swollen fat as plums.

He was leading, me and the Owner hauling behind, when we dropped into the crevasse. The sledge we were dragging catapulted into the air and jammed bridge-like above us, and we dangled there between blue walls of ice, close as sweethearts, facing death and each other. The damnest thing, in spite of the cold I got a hard on. I suspect it was the best of me, rising up in protest against extinction. I was scared for my life, but at the same time I couldn't help noticing how bright everything was, the ice not really blue at all but shot through with spangled points of rosy light so dazzling that it made me crinkle up my eyes as though I had something to smile about, and there was a shadow cast by the Owner's shoulder that washed from seagreen to purple as he twisted in his traces. He hung a foot or so above, and when I looked up at his face I'd never seen such anxiety in a man's eyes, and it was for me, not him. All at once he let out a sigh, as though until then he hadn't been breathing, and he said, 'Are you all right, Taff?' and I said, polite enough, 'Don't trouble yourself about me, sir.'

There were any number of words roaring through my head, but when we were out of our pickle at last and lay spreadeagled on the ice, I came up with nothing better than, 'Well, I'm blowed.' Mostly I told the story as it happened, only generally I left out the bit about the sweethearts.

Later, we'd have a few more drinks and continue fairly matey until a carelessly expressed remark by some dog of a merchant seaman would send us out into the alley-way for a scrap, after which, if Crean is to be believed, we rolled home and burst all but insensible through the yard door, bellowing of pursuit by demons. I expect lost Vince ran at our heels.

It was Tom Crean who first alerted me that the Owner was thinking of going south again. He was coxswain on the battleship Bulwark, then under the command of the Owner, when the news came through that Shackleton had turned back only half a dozen marches short of the Pole. 'I think we should have a shot at it, don't you, Tom?' the Owner said, and Tom said, 'Yes, sir, I think we should.'

I didn't rush. After the way I'd acquitted myself on the previous jaunt I reckoned my application for inclusion in this present one was in the nature of a formality. And I was right.

'What delayed you, Taff?' the Owner asked, tongue-in-cheek, when I went down to London and presented myself at his offices in Victoria Street.

'I didn't think it was a matter of urgency, sir,' I replied, and was careful to smile with the right amount of deference. The Owner can be a stickler for what passes for the right attitude.

'I'm glad to have you with me, Evans,' he said. 'It wouldn't be the same without you.'

The roistering nights ended soon enough. The crew having mustered and the shipwright allowing us aboard, we slung our hammocks where we could and came under the authority of the Mate. Crean holds it's like old Discovery times, him and me and Lashly together again along with the Owner and Dr Wilson. I don't mind the doctor, though it's not easy to engage him in conversation, not unless you're knowledgeable about birds and their eggs. He being a serious sort of cove, lacking the common touch for all he believes to the contrary, and religious into the bargain, I can't help thinking less of him than the Owner. Both of them come from what the privileged classes assume to be humble backgrounds, meaning that from guilt, temperament or the ill winds blown up by life's vicissitudes they've felt compelled to earn a living. I'm not up on the Doctor's family, but I do know that two of the Owner's sisters are dressmakers and a third went on the stage, albeit not in the capacity of a dancer or a feed in a vaudeville act. I've come to the conclusion the Doctor pursues his chosen course on account of spiritual leanings, whereas the Owner's driven by necessity.

I don't want there to be misconceptions; more than most I'm in a position to evaluate the Doctor's worth, and even a cynic would have to admit he's not just a Sunday Christian. You could label him a peacemaker. On more than one occasion during the expedition of 1901 he took the Owner aside and told him a few home-truths. There was a lot of bad feeling between the Owner and Shackleton, and it was causing discord all round. The Owner has a bit of a temper, see, and when things go wrong he's apt to sound off. It's not that he lacks control, rather that he's nervy, and who can blame him when he's burdened with such heavy responsibilities? There's no doubt he relies on the Doctor to keep him serene and treading water. He calls him Uncle Bill, although Wilson's the younger of the two.

The ward-room have taken quite a shine to a newcomer called Bowers shipped hot-foot from Bombay, a former cadet on the Worcester and now seconded from the Royal India Marine with the rank of lieutenant. He's a rum little bugger with short legs, sandy hair and a nose shaped like a parrot's – the officers have already nicknamed him 'Birdie' – and on first clapping eyes on him the Owner is supposed to have said, 'Well, we're landed with him and must make the best of it.' Crean says he had to be accepted because he came highly recommended from Sir Clements Markham.

Within half an hour of stowing his kit Bowers stepped backwards and fell nineteen feet into the hold. I peered down at his face, red on arrival and now dark in shadow, his barrel chest unaccountably heaving up and down, and remarked, 'He's breathing, lads, but he's a gonner.' We all thought he'd broken his back on the pig-iron, but ten seconds later he bounced up unscathed.

Since then, the Owner refers to him as a perfect treasure, and although I won't go so far overboard I will concede he's a worker and strong as they come. Lashly maintains he may well turn out to be the toughest of us all. 'Why is that?' I asked him, and he said it was owing to his being so bloody ugly. 'A man like that,' he said, 'has a need to prove himself.'

The Owner admires physical strength above most things; I suspect it has something to do with him being considered sickly as a child. By that I don't mean to imply he was ailing, rather that he lacked robustness, languished under a melancholy disposition. It's been my experience that men overburdened with emotions often have an exaggerated regard for muscle. I don't let on I'm sentimental myself by nature; that's why him and me get on so well. To my knowledge he's never flinched from a show of feeling exhibited by his equals, but I reckon he'd be discomfited if I went in for the same sort of caper; being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I'd die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.

There's another bloke arrived from India, a Captain Oates of the Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoons. He presented himself on the dock wearing an ancient raincoat and an old bowler-hat. None of us knew what to make of him, and some took him for a farmer. Crean says he's paid a thousand pounds to join the expedition and that he's down on the parole for a shilling a month. I'd have known he had money without being told, just by the easy way he conducts himself and his disregard of appearances. The talk is that he distinguished himself fighting the Boers and lay in a dried-up river-bed east of Kaarkstroom with a bullet through him. He's been taken on because he's an authority on horseflesh, and it had been planned he travel out to Siberia to join Mr Meares and advise on what ponies to buy, only he quickly became such a favourite, such a willing dogsbody, that the mate begged the Owner to keep him aboard. The other day he returned from being ashore, looking more dishevelled than usual. Everyone had been ordered to the dental surgeon that afternoon, and I asked him if he'd had a rough time in the chair.

'I didn't go,' he said. 'I borrowed a friend's motor-bike instead and took a spin as far as Greenwich.'

'Well, now sir,' I said, 'was that wise? The cold can play the very devil with a man's mouth.' I should know, seeing I lost most of the nerves in my lower jaw at Cape Crozier, and my teeth along with them.

'I'm against medical precautions,' he said. 'There's an awful lot of rot talked about germs. In India one was almost forced at gunpoint to be vaccinated against smallpox. I refused.'

'You were very lucky to get away with it then sir,' I said.

'I didn't,' he replied. I went down with it in Bombay and damn near died.'

He's pleasant with me, no side to him at all, yet I sense a space around him. He has a manner of eyeing people, even if he's standing face to face, as though he sees them from a distance.

The only foul-weather Jack among the officers, thus far, is my namesake, Lieutenant 'Teddy' bloody Evans. He's going to be in command of the ship until we reach Capetown, the Owner being obliged to stay behind to pay off bills and drum up more money. Though I'll allow Lt. Evans is a capable enough seaman, it's my opinion he suffers under illusions of grandeur. On the strength of having influential connections in Cardiff, he's been raising funds for the expedition by poncing up and down the country waxing poetic on the Land of his Fathers – and him with about as much Welsh blood in his veins as the Kaiser. Besides, he has a down on me on account of the drinking, which is rich when you think of the kerfuffle he raises of an evening after they've passed round the port in the wardroom.

The day before last I was working up near the forecastle with Lt. Bowers. He's responsible for the stores – food, paraffin, excess clothing and suchlike and I'm officer in charge of the scientific and polar journey equipment. It's not up to me to say whose job is the more important. God help us if we made landfall only to find the sledge runners defective, the lamps without wicks and the sleeping-bags unlined; but then, I doubt if any of these items, in apple-pie order or otherwise, would be of much use if we were lacking the necessities of life. I was just shifting a crate of whisky, donated by some distillery in the Midlands, in order to get at a consignment of photographic chemicals, when Lt. Evans came up and said, 'Well, now, Petty Officer, I see you're giving due consideration to the priorities.'


Excerpted from The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. Copyright © 1991 Beryl Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans June 1910,
Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson July 1910,
The Owner: Capt. Robert Falcon (Con) Scott March 1911,
Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers July 1911,
Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates March 1912,
A Biography of Dame Beryl Bainbridge,

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The Birthday Boys: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
dee_kohler on LibraryThing 26 days ago
Bill was very anamored with this topic. I read it for him. It was hard for me to get through although it was a little book. Thought it was cold and dry
tloeffler on LibraryThing 26 days ago
This is a novel that recounts Captain Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is told in an interesting fashion: Each of the 5 sections is written by a different member of the expedition, covering different time spans from June 1910 to March 1912. Because it's a novel, and because this is really something I'm woefully uneducated about, it's hard to know what's true and what's not, but I found the book and the narrative style fascinating. It was interesting to see how each of the narrators reacted to the other members of the team, and how incidents seemed to each of them. This was another inadvertent but timely tentacle to my WWI odyssey. From the book flap: "It was an inept rehearsal for the carnage of the first world war, the ultimate challenge for the arrogant generals who shared Scott's skewed notion of courage that led men qualmlessly into harm's way." Recommended.
stickerooniDM More than 1 year ago
This book is an unusual format for a work of fiction ... and at the same time, it's not quite fiction. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge is a historical fiction account of the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott-led trip to Antarctica. It's a relatively quick and easy read, and even if the reader doesn't know the outcome before beginning the book, it shouldn't take long for the outcome to be anticipated. What is slightly unusual about this book is that it is written in five chapters and each chapter is a monologue narrative from one of the members of the expedition. Petty Office Edgar "Taff" Evans, Dr. Edward “Uncle Bill” Wilson, and Captain Robert Falcon “Con” Scott each detail what they know of the preparations and fund-raising for the epic adventure as well as stopovers on their journey. They set the reader up by describing the conditions that they face and how they worsen with the conditions in Antarctica. Wilson, as the doctor rightfully would, expresses concern for the crew's well-being and he believes he sees an angel of death appearing before the ship as a warning omen. And as Scott sets up their base camp, they experience mechanical failure and animals die in the elements. And if matters could be made worse, it would be that a competing expedition, led by Roald Amundsen is already ahead of them. The last two chapters are told by Lt. Henry Robertson “Birdie” Bowers, and Capt. Lawrence Edward “Titus” Oates. From the beauty of the southern auroras to the slaughter of penguins for their fat to a blizzard that strikes, threatening every single life, Bowers' and Oates' tell riveting tales of the struggle of man against the harshest of nature and the ability of man to dig deep and accomplish something for himself and for his fellow man, when most necessary. It is hard to remember, sometimes, that this is fiction. Bainbridge has written this as a series of essays/journal posts from the members of the expedition and she has done it well so that we believe it comes from each man. But because of the nature of this story, it doesn't quite have the momentum and build that you would get in a more typical fiction narrative. It works okay for this story ... this story that we already know the outcome before going in to it. Looking for a good book? The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge is a short, historical fiction account of the Scott's expedition to the South Pole and shares the adventure from the point of view of different members of the party. I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Silk-Serif More than 1 year ago
The Birthday Boys is a novel about perseverance. This novel is a look at humanity in the face of increasingly inhospitable conditions and the camaraderie of a group of ill-fated scientific explorers whose story is evidently famous. Personally, I know little of this expedition and have only read works on the Shackleton expedition. I honestly had no idea there was a second expedition on route at the exact same time as Shackleton’s until I read this account. Regardless, the perilous nature of the arctic during this time is well envisioned by Bainbridge in this alternating narrative concerning the push to reach he pole. Originally written in 1991, Birthday Boys is still a powerful fictional account of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic in 1912 and should still be consumed by readers of today. Bainbridge marries the style of classic novels and modern flair to create a haunting account of the ill-fated voyage and her doomed crew. I found Bainbridge’s tale of survival on the ice sheets illuminating in a few ways. First, there were probably far more expeditions to the pole than what is in popular historical record. Second, all expeditions sent to the pole during this era were doomed. Modern technology has made living on the polar caps possible – although still incredibly difficult – but the early explorations relied on human capital and luck to survive these conditions. Today we have insulated parkas, heated buildings and advanced medicine to combat the effects of the elements, yet during Captain Scott’s expedition in 1912 they took ponies, basic medical supplies and sleeping bags made of material that freeze solid when wet. It is one thing to rationally understand the conditions early expeditions encountered, but another entirely to read a fictional account based on historical records. The suffering the members of this expedition and their animals faced was sometimes difficult to read. The men of the Scott expedition continued to dream about their loved ones and the warm sunshine until the very end of their tales. Each man held onto the knowledge that soon enough they would set sail from the Arctic and return home - many of which planned to make this journey their last and settle down. Birthday Boys was a sad tale about an ill fated voyage. I did not know what to expect going into this novel and was frankly surprised by the ending. I also found the characters to be a tad difficult to differentiate from when I had taken a break from the intense and often overwhelming monologues of the crew. Each crew member recounts their experience before setting sail for the Arctic, and each reveals their experiences on the ice once cold, frost bite and hunger set in. Hostility, fear and depression set in and each crew member recounts how they suffered. What really stuck with me once I finished reading Birthday Boys was the hope the crew members continued to hold until the very end. Unfortunately, there isn't much more I can say about this novel. It was short but difficult to read, it was well written but often too intense and it will undoubtedly be a classic some day. Strong characters, realistic situations and a well researched fictional account of a real event with an exploration of the psychological effects the doomed crew of Scott's expedition experienced on their final journey to the top of the world. Received from the publisher for a completely unbiased review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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BusyReader More than 1 year ago
1 OCT 2016 - earlier this week I received an email from Netgalley inviting me to a free download of The Birthday Boys. The summary sounded appealing and last evening I downloaded the book. How can I say No? A free book in exchange for a review - that is a no-brainer. Many Thanks to Netgalley for this opportunity. Netgalley always sends just the right book recommendation at just the right time. 4 OCT 2016 - review submitted as submitted to NetGalley A fabulous read! Ms. Bainbridge captured the thoughts of the men of the Terra Nova Expedition on point. Each of the five narrators relays his story in his own words and these stories and words ring true. I felt as though I were a part of this ill-fated Expedition. Please do yourself a favor and read this well-written book. Together, you and I will share our reading experience and ensure that the men of the Terra Nova Expedition are not forgotten. Thank you, NetGalley, for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you. Quote from The Birthday Boys as voiced by "Birdie" -- 'It seems to me,' Birdie said, 'that we have to make a choice between the spiritual and the material world, and if we can't become saints, then we must find a sort of balance which will allow us to be at peace with ourselves. All I know is, nothing matters a damn except that we should help one another." Well said, Birdie. (He was my favorite character.)
BusyReader More than 1 year ago
1 OCT 2016 - earlier this week I received an email from Netgalley inviting me to a free download of The Birthday Boys. The summary sounded appealing and last evening I downloaded the book. How can I say No? A free book in exchange for a review - that is a no-brainer. Many Thanks to Netgalley for this opportunity. Netgalley always sends just the right book recommendation at just the right time. 4 OCT 2016 - review submitted as submitted to NetGalley A fabulous read! Ms. Bainbridge captured the thoughts of the men of the Terra Nova Expedition on point. Each of the five narrators relays his story in his own words and these stories and words ring true. I felt as though I were a part of this ill-fated Expedition. Please do yourself a favor and read this well-written book. Together, you and I will share our reading experience and ensure that the men of the Terra Nova Expedition are not forgotten. Thank you, NetGalley, for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you. Quote from The Birthday Boys as voiced by "Birdie" -- 'It seems to me,' Birdie said, 'that we have to make a choice between the spiritual and the material world, and if we can't become saints, then we must find a sort of balance which will allow us to be at peace with ourselves. All I know is, nothing matters a damn except that we should help one another." Well said, Birdie. (He was my favorite character.)