It’s Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s the first Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the first appearance of a pair of characters, Holmes and Watson, who are still having films and books made about them a century and a half after they first were lines on a page. But by the mysterious magic of reading, they have lived all that time, and show every sign of continuing to do so for the forseeable future. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it. Stories, among other things, are the perfect time-travel machine: portable, convenient, and enduring. Far better than sitting in Wells’ contraption!
As an aside, the story is not limited to London but includes a lengthy section in Utah, among the Mormons, taking on the character almost of a Western. I had not expected to find that in the first Holmes story!
Read my name. ‘Edoardo Albert.’ If, from that, you guess that I am part Italian you would be right. But what’s not nearly so obvious is that ‘Albert’ comes from my Sri Lankan father. And he is properly Sri Lankan: Tamil on his father’s side and Sinhala on his mother’s side (which is a whole other story). Anyone familiar with Sri Lankan names will know that ‘Albert’ is missing at least three syllables to make a proper Sri Lankan name (and that applies to both Sinhala and Tamil). So I share something with the author of To Sir, With Love. Because you would not think that Mr E.R. Braithwaite orginally hailed from Guyana and was even blacker than my own grandparents. But Braithwaite shared with C.L.R. James, and my own ancestors, something that is seldom given much credence nowadays: they were children of the British Empire who believed in its values. At least, those values that espoused concepts such as fairness, gentlemanly behaviour, self-restraint and a thoroughgoing appreciation for education and the highest and noblest elements of British culture (the more down market parts were not at that time exported to the colonies). C.L.R. James, the great Caribbean writer, grew up with a lifelong love of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and a better understanding and appreciation of English literary culture than almost anyone. Braithwaite’s parents both went to Oxford University, as he did too, but only after serving in the RAF during World War II. Braithwaite was a war hero, an Oxford graduate with a doctorate in physics: he was as exemplary a man as one might find.
So it was with growing horror that Braithwaite realised, in the 1950s, that all his accomplishments and endeavours stood for nothing in Britain when stood next to his black skin. This realisation was made all the worse in that he had not encountered any prejudice while serving in the RAF during the war. But having come down from Oxford, he would attend job interviews, only to be told by the interviewing panel that it was none of their doing but that the men he would be in charge of might not take kindly to being managed by a black man.
The anger this slowly stoked in Braithwaite was exacerbated by the deep sense that the prejudice he was encountering was a betrayal of the British values that he had imbibed and espoused: the British were not playing by their own rules. There’s few things less British than that (except, possibly, queue jumping). It was wrong. It was deeply, woundingly, horribly wrong. Such unfairness was thoroughly, there’s no other word for it, unBritish.
As an aside, the end of Empire was, I think, as much bound up with the realisation among the peoples of the colonies that the ideals that they had bought into, that had seen my own ancestors take a British name, were not honoured among the British themselves. For too many, skin colour trumped culture: even men as thoroughly British as Braithwaite and James were not accepted as equals in the mother country. That sense of unfairness drove much of the initial push towards independence in many of the former countries of the Empire.
Braithwaite himself finally found a job teaching in a tough East End secondary school and To Sir, With Love is his account of his time there, the students, the teaching, the teachers. Given Braithwaite’s previous accomplishments, it’s no surprise that he does well, but the writing is elegant and cultured in the fullest sense of the term: how many contemporary teachers working in the East End would take the bus to their first day looking forward to walking the streets of Chaucer and Erasmus, to looking up the old abbey of the Sorores Minores (I had to look it up myself: they were Franciscan sisters living at the Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate). It also serves as a view into a time that is not far off historically – less than 70 years – but that seems much further away culturally. It’s a view into the thoughts and feelings of the sort of man whom the British had been educating during the first half of the 20th century and an illustration of how well that education had succeeded and, therefore, why it failed.
Like Braithwaite, like James, like my own great-grandfather, we expected the British to play by the rules and were horrified and hurt when we learned that there were actually two sets of rules, according to so accidental a criterion as colour. The British Empire ultimately died from the embarrassment at the divide between its ideals and its realities.
One of the things I write down in my notebook is potential names for characters. A good name is better than a thousand words of description. It can obviate the need for pages of character development. A good name tells you most of what you need to know about a character. A great name becomes a synonym for the very characteristics you are describing. You don’t need to call someone a miser: call them a Scrooge! Ebenezer Scrooge. Harry Flashman. Uriah Heep. Hannibal Lecter. (Dickens was particularly good at character names!) A great character name is more important and harder to devise than the plot of a whole novel. So I was particularly jealous of Jemahl Evans: he’s come up with a name for his character that’s worth a hundred thousand words of background material: Blandford Candy.
Brilliant, isn’t it? You just know that Blandford Candy is going to be an upper-class rogue, rolling bon-mots out of one side of his mouth and sweet talking tavern lasses from the other. But, in a rather brilliant turn, Jemahl Evans (the author doesn’t do too badly on the great name front himself) has Blandford Candy end up taking on the Parliamentarian cause during the Civil War, turning a natural Cavalier into a Roundhead. It’s a fascinating stroke and sits really well with a time in our history that modern-day readers have almost no sympathy with and even less understanding of the causes that drove men to tear the country apart in a truly bloody struggle that saw some 200,000 casulaties.
A Bloody Campaign has five short stories featuring Blandford Candy and other characters and makes a great introduction to the time and the series. With the English Civil Wars being the most disgracefully neglected period in our history, Jemahl Evans’ stories of the reluctant Roundhead make a great introduction to the period for anyone wanting to learn more while reading some thoroughly entertaining stories along the way.
There was a time when flying, rather than resembling being squeezed into a toothpaste tube and passed through the sky in a metal tube, was not even an adventure: it was widely regarded as an impossible dream. Even among those people who thought it possible, its realisation would be based on extravagant funding and a very sizeable private purse. It was a business for the wealthy gentlemen amateurs of the Edwardian era.
So it’s no real surprise that when two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio (otherwise known as Nowheresville, USA) said that they had developed the world’s first powered flying maching, not only did no one believe them, barely anyone even noticed. Now, at least there was the excuse that Kitty Hawk, where these bicycle mechanics did their first flights, was an isolated place, a long sand bar on the east coast of the USA far from most places and difficult to get to. But even when the brothers brought their planes back to Dayton and started flying in a field not far from their home, the world still did not pick up the extraordinary events – and achievements – taking place there. After all, what of interest happened in Ohio?
David McCullough, in the key insight that makes this book so compelling, realises that the story of the Wright Brothers invention and development of the world’s first flying machines was, more than anything else, a story of moral courage and perseverance, of two extraordinary men – and their extraordinary family – pursuing a vision despite disbelief and disinterest until, finally, it became impossible for the world to ignore what these two country hicks had achieved. McCullough covers the story of the extraordinary technical innovations and inventions made by the brothers in enough detail for the reader to realise something of what the accomplished – inventing wind tunnels for testing aerofoils and the crucial insight that control of an aircraft was the key issue to solve rather than just getting it into the air are just two of these – but he never bogs the story down in these details. What drives it are Orville and Wilbur themselves: first, their desire to devise and improve their flying machine until it became a genuinely reliable flying machine, and then their quest to vindicate themselves in the eyes of the world and, being businessmen, get due recompense for all their work.
It’s a great and inspiring work, and a fitting tribute to two extraordinary men. We can’t hold it against them that commercial flying has become what it has.
Goodbye, Mr Chips, James Hilton’s most famous novel, has somehow acquired a reputation for sentimentality and a rose-glow view of the English past, particularly in its public schools, that has done the book few favours. I stand here to tell you that this is not true. Yes, there is sentiment, but it is the sentiment for a time and world that was irrevocably lost in the mud and trenches of World War I, that took the boys who went through the English public school system and fed them through a meat grinder that had no notion of the ideas of honour, valour and playing the game that they had been inculcated with at those public schools. Yet a glance at the rolls of honour of any of the old English public schools will show that those boys played the game to the end, even though, as junior officers, leading their men from the front, they knew that they were deliberately targeted by the enemy. Indeed, the life expectancy for junior officers was the lowest of the lot among the soldiers of the First World War.
This is the story of one of the men who sent them off to war, who made them into the young men they were, made them prepared to lead from the front even though that was tantamount to suicide. Mr Chips, at the end of his life, after his retirment, returns to his old school, which he had never really left, to see it through the Great War, as the roll call of the dead is read out each week and the boys destined for the meat grinder and readied for their own turn upon the wheel. Yes, there is sentiment there, but it’s a true sentiment: a sentiment for what was lost – the ideal of the gentleman – and of what they had done: turned those boys, with all their enthusiasm and courage and hope, into meat for the grinder. Goodbye, Mr Chips is not the story people think it is. Read it for yourself and see.
You might think that the book that gave the world ‘Shangri-La’ would be a rather sentimental tale about the recovery of a lost eden – and even if you, dear reader, did not, I certainly did. But it turns out that Lost Horizon is much complex and layered than that, and Shangri-La itself a much more dangerous and doubtful place. First published in 1933, Lost Horizon shares with much of Hilton’s work an examination of the damage done to me who served in the First World War but coupled to that is a prescient, and rather chilling, sense that the world is rushing towards yet another cataclysmic war – a prediction that would prove all too accurate. Lost Horizon is suffused with this sense of the war fought and the war looming, with only the Tibetan monastery that draws – drags rather – its protagonists into its orbit as a potential refuge against the coming storm. Indeed, there is something about the sense of coming threat that suggests a sense, on the part of the author, of the terrible weapons that saw out World War II and that would hang over us all throughout the Cold War. The story is caught between the trenches and the presentiment of nuclear war, a presentiment all the more remarkable given that such weapons were not even on the drawing board at the time of writing.
But, then, what price eden? That is the question the book poses and which Hilton does not definitively answer. As such, Shangri-La can become that which the reader wants, and from that taking the answer to the question. What price eden? Well, what would you pay?
There have been many, deserved, accolades for Pierre Clostermann’s account of his service as a Free French pilot flying for the RAF during the Second World War. For myself, I just want to say it opened my eyes to something that I had never considered before in reading accounts of the closing year of the war. Scan the histories of the campaigns from the Normandy landings to the fall of Berlin and you’ll see bland statements along the lines that the Allies had complete aerial superiority, that German armour and troop movements had to take place at night to avoid being strafed by marauding Typhoons and Tempests. In comparison to the Battle of Britain or the Bomber offensive, it all sounds pretty straightforward. Turns out, it wasn’t that at all. Clostermann flew through to the end of the war and the struggle he describes, with the Luftwaffe, who were a long way from being completely beaten, and even more with the anti-aircraft batteries that clustered around the targets they were assigned to attack tells a very different, and seldom told, story. How much more difficult to fly into a wall of flak when you know that the war is all but over and the instinct for self-preservation grows ever stronger. That pilots such as Clostermann did so, for precious little praise afterwards, says volumes for their courage and their dedication. I can only stand in awe before their sacrifice and steadfastness.
It’s not like any other flying book you’re likely to read. The Englishman in me is inclined to say that it’s very French, but then I stop myself: I am not English. Nor am I a pilot. But I have looked at the sky, I have flown in dream and watched, wide-eyed though gravity bound, the soar of red kites and the jagged sweeps of swifts. The contraction of flight, of we earth prisoners taking to the sky, to the tedium of modern commuter aviation is one of the greatest crimes against beauty that we have perpetrated in recent decades. Perhaps if planes, instead of the meagre portholes they provide, had windows like the great canopies that the pilots of fighter planes have, or glider pilots, then we would still have the wonder. But instead we look out on the world through a portal that looks like nothing so much as the door of a washing machine: a world of unexpected beauty reduced to a smeary spin cycle.
It’s perhaps just as well that Antone de Saint-Exupery never lived to see flight so reduced. He witnessed, and flew through, the romantic age of flying, opeing up new routes across South America and the Andes in planes that were little more than constructions of wood, wire and cloth. On one occasion, forced to land on a rocky plateau in the Sahara, he walks upon land that no human foot had ever trod before, its only means of access by air. He crashes in the desert, nearly dies, but continues to fly. It seems mad. But it reminds me of a friend of mine from university.
Yossi (his mother was reading Catch-22 during pregnancy) always dreamed of being a journalist. We got to know each other working on the student newspaper, where I also learned his ruthlessness, being roped in as an unwitting accomplice to the coup Yossi launched to unseat the newspaper’s editor. But while he was at university, Yossi caught the climbing bug too, and started dragging me up rock faces. For me, climbing was a retrospective pleasure, one I mainly enjoyed when I was no longer spread eagled on a rock face at an unfeasible height above the ground, but for Yossi it was more than that. Leaving university, Yossi started moving up the journalistic ladder, cutting his teeth at the Birmingham Post, with a move to Fleet Street all but certain. But then he fell off a mountain. Not just any mountain: Mont Blanc. In between writing stories, Yossi, with all the energy that a young man has to command, had been going off climbing and this time he was coming down Mont Blanc with a climbing friend, Mike Clarke, when they fell off.
The story made the press. They fell 3,000 feet down the side of the mountain, bouncing off rocks and snow on the way down, tumbling over crevices – Yossi’s helmet hit a rock so hard it shattered and he took a puncture wound from his ice axe that just missed a major artery – until they came came to a stop at the bottom. They should have been dead. Obviously. People don’t survive that sort of fall. But not only were they both still alive, but they were almost unscathed. Cuts and bruises: not even any broken bones.
Having brushed so close to death, Yossi took stock – and decided to give up his lifelong dream of being a journalist to become a full-time climber. He moved to South America, to Bolivia, working as a mountain guide while opening new routes up some of the least climbed mountains of the world. He was becoming the doyen of South American climbers. But then, towards the end of the climbing season, Yossi and his partner took two Americans up for a final climb. Yossi was roped to one of the clients, Dana Witzel, and his partner had the other. They were aiming for the summit of El Presidente, a 5,700-metre peak. No other mountaineer knew this peak and its surrounds as well as Yossi.
It was a small avalanche. A piddling little affair, a shifting of a few layers of snow. The other two climbers saw it and got to Yossi and Dana within minutes but they were too late. Yossi and Dana were both dead.
Yossi would have understood Antoine de Saint-Exupery perfectly although he would never have written like the Frenchman. But some things make so much of life that should death demand his due, he will be happily paid.
This is the fourth in Chris Durbin’s Carlisle and Holbrooke naval adventures set during the Seven Years War (so half a century before the Napoleonic era milieu of most age-of-sail stories) and the author has really hit his stride. What started off as workmanlike but nautically plausible and engaging stories with likeable characters is in danger of becoming something really quite exceptional through Durbin’s increasing command of the language: he is approaching the sort of bell-like clarity of expression that very few writers achieve. I very much look forward to reading the next in the series.