I was born if not in a cross-fire hurricane, then certainly not in a Hawker Hurricane either. Although thanks to Airfix kits, I knew enough about them to kid most people along.
Flying, or the idea of it anyway, fascinated me when I was a boy. All this were fields, an’all, but that’s another story as equally true and/or plausible. I was about to say I didn’t get on an aeroplane, as we called them in my house, until I was nineteen, but it wouldn’t be true. Somewhere there’s a picture of me aged about four, wearing a tweed coat (oh because people did in those days, all right?) and somewhat improbably, a modern pilot’s helmet, sitting in the front seat of an English Electric Lighting. One of the only things I share with Jeremy Clarkson is a admiration for the Lightning. Someone I used to know got a ride in a Russian Foxbat about twelve years ago. She said it wasn’t like flying. Not like flying out of Heathrow or Gatwick, anyway. She said it got off the ground, got to the end of the runway then sat back on its haunches and went straight up. The same as the Lightning was designed to do, get to 36,000 feet in three minutes in 1959. It topped-out at 87,000 feet, deep into the edge of space. Think about that for a moment.
Obviously the RAF scrapped the Lightning and bought American Phantoms, which above all else, were American. The idea of an independent defence capability was a joke even then, before anyone even mentioned Trident. Aged four, I didn’t know any of this. I just loved aeroplanes.
Maybe it was my father. As a professional liar he’d claimed he’d been a pilot when it turned out that in fact, he’d been the bloke who put air in the tyres and started the engines up. He watched black and white documentaries in the middle of the night. Once he got me out of bed to make me watch something about the Blitz. Forty thousand British people died from bombing in World War Two. About the same number of Germans died in three days in Hamburg and Dresden, but nobody even mentioned that, then.
Where is this going? I wish I knew. Tangentially around a picture I bought in Bath a couple of weekends ago. It spoke to me of my childhood, or my early teens anyway, when I discovered Captain W.E. Johns and his heroic creation, Biggles. I read them obsessively, especially the First World War stories. They had something about them I’d never read before; it was years before I knew why they were so powerful.
Firstly, although obviously any mortal man having as many adventures as Biggles would have been dead before he’d done half of them or even a quarter, Johns had been a fighter pilot himself, in France. He knew what he was writing about. This Biggles drank, got in fights with other pilots, loved, shot and killed people, crashed, got cold, got tired and displayed what now are so very obviously classic PTSD symptoms. Only later when the magazine articles had proved wildly popular Biggles’ diction changed and he switched from Scotch to lemonade at the insistence of John’s publishers and agents, to widen the market to schoolboys.
But Biggles of the Camel Squadron and Biggles of 266 are the original, first attempts. And while they’re polished, perfect little short stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, they’re also very raw. When pilots die in these stories, there’s no doubt but that they’re dead and little or no talk of glory or a purpose in their deaths. I’d never, ever read about a man crying when another man had been killed before; to this day it surprises me that the first place I read this was in a Biggles book. The shock was real; I didn’t know men did this.
I didn’t know men wrote about it either. It was a different world, a long way from my father’s fantasies of flight, a long way from the Wiltshire village I grew up in. But then as now, the past is a different country. They do things differently there.