Adventures in Bookland: Carrier Pilot by Norman Hanson

Carrier Pilot by Norman Hanson

There’s a strange new fashion in publishing to make a book’s subtitle into an advertising blurb. Browse Amazon – particularly its Kindle pages – and you will see books with, right there on their title lines, advertising bumph such as ‘the most uplifting and romantic novel’, ‘the gripping, bestselling Richard & Judy book club thriller’, and in the case of Carrier Pilot, ‘one of the greatest pilot’s memoirs of WWII – a true aviation classic’.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. That’s not to say Carrier Pilot isn’t a good book: it’s a fine read. But it’s not in the category of books that transcend the limitations of being a memoir and thus being limited to a particular man’s experiences and memories. However, what it does do is tell Norman Hanson’s story very well, of how he ended up training to be a pilot with the Royal Fleet Air Arm and sailing over to America in 1942 to be trained as a pilot in Florida. Indeed, the vast majority of the book is concerned with training: flying a plane is difficult enough. Taking it off and landing it again on the truncated runway of an aircraft carrier pitching on the ocean makes it all an order of magnitude more difficult and dangerous.

In fact, that’s what comes across most clearly in Hanson’s memoir: just how dangerous the training was. Although I did not tally the deaths up exactly, my impression was that as many pilots died in training as died in combat – perhaps even more. Hanson and his colleagues were not helped by having to fly the F4 Corsair, a plane of which Hanson says, in the book’s most memorable phrase, “of all the aircraft I had ever seen, these were the most wicked-looking bastards. The Corsair looked truly vicious.” These first Corsairs were vicious, and utterly unforgiving of pilot error. This is where the book is strongest, showing the cost and courage required even to learn to fly these planes.

So while not a true classic, Carrier Pilot brings new light to a discipline (fleet air flying) and a theatre (the British in the Far East) that have received relatively little attention and thus makes a worthy addition to any WWII library.

Adventures in Bookland: Voodoo Tales by Henry S. Whitehead

Voodoo Tales by Henry S. Whitehead

Supernatural stories of Voodoo written by an Episcopalian priest who served as the Archdeacon for the Virgin Islands in the West Indies from 1921 to 1929, particularly a man who was a close fried to H.P. Lovecraft a great writer but an inveterate racist, would seem like an open invitation to all sorts of paternalist, colonialist tropes calculated to make the woke reader reach for the matches of cancellation. And, yes, if you look for it, there is stuff here to take offense at – just as future ages will look back at us and shake their heads in disbelief and horror at some of our most unquestioned notions. But Whitehead reveals himself a sympathetic recorder of Voodoo beliefs and customs, as well as the general folkways and culture of the West Indian black population, all descended from slaves. While the culture of the time was segregated, as a clergyman Whitehead had better access to and, all credit to him, greater sympathy with the black population than the vast majority of other white West Indians. The stories also provide something of a snapshot into a culture passing into twilight as the old planter aristocracies decline. The stories themselves are more of the weird tale strain of supernatural writing than out and out horror, although one or two are early precursors of later body horror tropes, with Whitehead proving to be a skilled and restrained writer, rather different from the other pulp fiction writers of his time. All in all, a pleasant and engaging collection of stories.

Adventures in Bookland: The Mythology and Religion of the Inca by Jesse Harasta

The Mythology and Religion of the Inca by Dr Jesse Harasta

This short book (56 pages on my Kindle) provides quite a reasonable introduction to exactly what it says on the cover: the mythology and religion of the Inca. It’s probably possible to find all this stuff in various websites on the internet but having the information collated here makes it all more accessible and considerably less bitty. So, nothing to in depth, but a decent little introduction to a broad and deep and complex subject.

Adventures in Bookland: Memoirs of a Janissary by Konstantin Mihailovic

Memoirs of a Janissary by Konstantin Mihailovic

There are very few primary texts detailing what it was like to be a Janissary in the 15th century so this memoir by a man who was captured as a boy, trained as a Janissary, who fought for the Sultan during a number of campaigns before returning to Christian practice and Christian regions, is invaluable – but frustratingly bare. We would love to know more about the actual training of a Janissary and how the Ottomans took the levy of Christian boy slaves and turned them into the Sultan’s most effective ghazi, warriors of Islam. Sadly, Mihailovic does not go into any detail about this, although there are hints that it could be a brutal process.

The translation is clear and the accompanying scholarly material, particularly the extensive footnotes, are invaluable. A necessary read for anyone interested in the Sultan’s slave soldiers.

Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton

Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton

There’s an old Pogues song, from the days when Shane McGowan had most of his teeth and much of his wits, called Down in the Ground where the Dead Men Go. The chorus runs, with Spider Stacey bashing an empty beer tray on his head for percussion, “I don’t want to go down in the ground where the dead men go.”

That was exactly where these men did go during the First World War, fighting a silent battle beneath the ground that remains virtually unknown to this day yet, eerily, remains still largely untouched beneath the fields of Flanders where above ground the scars of the war have disappeared beneath the plough.

This was a silent war, a dark war, a secret war, of tunnellers digging in absolute quiet under enemy lines to lay mines there, sending up volcanoes of earth and rock and bodies when they blew. For the troops, sheltering in trenches from the shells and artillery from above, to have the earth below erupt and swallow them was particularly demoralising.

Peter Barton and his co-authors do an extraordinary job of bringing this forgotten theatre of the War back to life, mingling first-hand reports and memoirs with broader history and recent archaeology, much of it their own. It was one theatre of the war where the British gained complete mastery, outengineering the Germans, and this underground dominance played a large part in the British victories of 1917.

A superb history of a largely unknown aspect of the war.

Adventures in Bookland: H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

Spoiler: they all die.

Yes, this is not a book to read if you become attached to characters fighting, mostly successfully, to maintain their humanity in the most appalling circumstances. Yes, I knew the convoys to Murmansk during World War II were grim but this – all you 40k and Warhammer fans out there – this is grimdark before people started playing with it. This is grimdark as something people actually endured, for real. And all I can say, having read it, is that I have added a new theatre of war to the list of those that I thank God I have never had to endure.

Alistair MacLean himself sailed on some of those convoys – although he evidently survived – and the reality of the cold Arctic Ocean and its strangeness is one of the most vivid parts of the book. The story itself is a tribute to the endurance of the men who crewed these ships, although it does seem to conflate all the worst convoys to create a single convoy to perdition, but as I said, fans of grimdark should love it. For myself, knowing that much of it was true, in spirit if not detail, made me enjoy it both more and less – in some ways it came close to literary torture porn, in others a diatribe against the incompetence and coldness of the admirals who sent men out to die on the cold sea.

Final spoiler: actually, one man does survive.

Adventures in Bookland: Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

This is perhaps the most detailed and in-depth single volume history of the Battle of Britain available. It takes the reader on what is virtually a day-by-day, engagement-by-engagement history of the battle, from the first skirmishes in the Channel to the long drawing down of the Blitz. So if you are looking to know exactly what happened on, say, the 28 August 1940, this is the book to go to before referring to individual squadron histories.

On a broader level, Bergstrom argues strongly, and convincingly, that the Me-110, far from being the flying target duck that it is usually depicted as, was in fact a very capable plane more than able to fulfill its combat ‘destroyer’ role when employed correctly. It is also clear that Goring, far from being the buffoon he is so often portrayed as being, knew how to deploy it, and the rest of his fleet, to overcome the substantial strategic advantages enjoyed by the RAF (in particular, fighting over home territory and the integrated defence system developed by Hugh Dowding). But Goring was let down by his chief lieutenants, who failed to carry out his instructions. Maybe the RAF would still have won, but what was an already close run thing might then have run ever closer to the wire.

The book’s subtitle makes much of its revisting a well-known story but Bergstrom has no axes to grind: he is just trying to get to the truth – and he gets as near to it as is humanly possible. A superb book.

Adventures in Bookland: Scramble by Norman Gelb

Scramble by Norman Gelb

The subtitle to Scramble is ‘a narrative history of the Battle of Britain’ and, I must admit, I completely misunderstood what that meant. I expected a history of the Battle of Britain from its beginning with the fall of France to its end in the Blitz: the bread and butter of historical writing. What I actually got was a selection of interviews, excerpts from memoirs and reminiscences by the men and women who actually fought the battle, with a little bit of linking commentary by Norman Gelb.

So rather than straight history it was more personal, rawer and less refined than the sort of stuff professional historians prefer to write, but as a result much more immediate and visceral. I suspect only someone who has been caught in a Hurricane, on fire, with the canopy stuck can have any idea of what that is like: in this book you will find a man who does know exactly what that was like. So if you like your history unfiltered, this is the history of the Battle of Britain for you.

Adventures in Bookland: Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

This was a clear example of buying a book for its title: Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. I’m a writer. A lot of my characters wield swords. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t committing any swordfighting faux pas in my stories and seeing that Guy Windsor is one of the leading lights of the contemporary resurgence in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) I thought he would have a lot to teach me.

He did, but not about writing sword fights. Fellow writers beware. Unless you are really, really useless, there’s nothing in Windsor’s treatment of how to write a sword fight that you won’t already know. However, if you want to peer into the mind and practice of one of the most brilliant pedagogues I have ever encountered, then go for it!

What’s clear from reading Swordfighting is that Windsor is a committed, thoughtful and imaginative teacher who has considered long, hard and deeply how to teach swordfighting while remaining committed to the historical principles that guide his vision of swordmanship. As such, the book offers a valuable insight into the sort of pedagogical thinking that should inform any physical teaching (my wife, who is a voice teacher, found it hugely valuable) as well as speaking much about Windsor’s own journey as a man extracting an ancient skill from manuscripts and fleshing them in his own practice. Far more fascinating than it has any right to be!