Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC

Guy Gibson was my childhood hero.

I don’t know how I heard of him and his involvement in the “Dam Busters” raid, or why I came to idolise him; but as a pre-teen I developed a brief obsession with the man and the “Dam Busters”.

I don’t recall seeing the 1955 film of the raid before my interest began, so that doesn’t seem to have been the spark, but I did read Paul Brickhill’s book on which the film was based; borrowing it from the local library on several occasions.

A few months ago I found a hard cover copy of the Brickhill book in a Canberra second hand book shop and couldn’t resist spending a few dollars to get it. As I was paying for it, the shop assistant told me he had a copy of Guy Gibson’s own account of the raid, Enemy Coast Ahead, somewhere at the back of the shop. It was a book I vaguely knew about, but had never seen before.

I happily added it to the Brickhill book purchase.

This week was Anzac Day, one of the most significant Australian commemorative holidays, when the war service of Australian and New Zealand military men and women is remembered. Around this time TV channels dust off their war movies and documentaries so they can broadcast relevant programs.

A day or two before Anzac Day, the Dam Busters film was screened, and for the first time in many years I was able to see it, and was surprised to find how good it was for a war film of its the time.

Straight away I picked up Gibson’s book and started reading. Again I was surprised. For a book written so long ago by someone not primarily a writer, it presents a very readable, uncompromising insight into the day to day life of a bomber pilot, from the first days after his call-up, through weeks of tense inactivity, to his early experiences as a bomber pilot and on to the famed dam raids a few years later.

Gibson doesn’t hold back the more “human” aspects of a bomber crew’s life, and its off-duty hours of drinking, partying and womanising. But as he makes clear, they were men who were not expecting to live long. They didn’t know when they’d be called upon to fly out on what could be their last mission, and their last day of life.

In the early days of September [1939] I had an appointment with the dentist but didn’t turn up. He had seen me in the Mess afterwards. “I did not come along” I explained, ” because I didn’t see any point in having my teeth fixed and going through agony in the process, when I was likely to die within the next few days”

Although this incident preceded any of Gibson’s serious missions, for evidence [in hindsight] that there was no flippancy in his remarks to the dentist, the reader only needs to look through the list of 100 former crew members to whom Gibson dedicates his book, all of whom were killed, or missing presumed killed, at the time of the book’s writing. Gibson himself could later be added to that list after not returning from a mission over Germany in September 1944.

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History Mine: a personal history of history (3)

This year I renewed research into my family tree after stumbling across a website giving free access to basic genealogical records. Through that site I was able to track my ancestry back to the mid-1700s to a time before white settlement in Australia, making my PERSONAL history older than the official history of my adopted country.

Tamworth CastleFinding those more distant ancestors helped me make sense of something I recall from my childhood.
Tamworth in Staffordshire is about 25 kilometres from where I lived, but I only recall going there once. My only memory of the place is an outdoor public swimming pool where I braved a high diving board. Around the time of that visit I’m sure I heard something about a bible associated with my family being held in the Castle museum, but I was told no details.

Over time I began to think I must have dreamed up that story or misunderstood. Why would a bible associated with my family be in a museum in that town?

I was surprised when I discovered that part of my family on my paternal grandmother’s side had strong links to Tamworth in the mid-late 18th century. That finding gave some support to the bible in the museum memory, and the possibility of the claim being true. I’m now waiting on a reply from the museum, to see if they can give any confirmation of the story. I’ve supplied my ancestor’s names to see whether there is any match with the several family bibles they have in their collection.

One family story I was able to confirm was that one of my forebears was the bailiff at a large country house. I made that discovery through Census records where the house was listed as his residence. It was only after seeing that record that I remembered that my grandmother had mentioned it in a letter more than 30 years ago, in which she’d told me the little she could about our family history.

That house, owned by the same family for the last 600 years, is now a venue for conferences, concerts and a variety of other activities. I contacted them about my ancestor who worked for their family, but received no reply.

Calke AbbeyHe wasn’t the only family member to work for a large estate. My great, great grandmother was apparently a seamstress at Calke Abbey in South Derbyshire.

Again I’ve tried to find more information. At first things seemed hopeful, but after an initial promising, prompt reply I’ve heard no more. A lot of the work at the property is done by volunteers, so it’s not as if they have someone designated to help with enquirers like myself.

I’m sure it would be much easier if I could visit these places in person, but that brings me back to the point I made in an earlier post: the problem of becoming interested in the history of a place and people after moving to the other side of the world.

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photos from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamworth_Castle
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catton_Hall
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calke_Abbey

History Mine: a personal history of history (2)

I’ve now been in Australia for almost 45 years after my parents brought the family half way around the world. They saw a potentially better future for my sister and me outside of Britain, so they made the decision to leave their own parents (my grandparents) and everything they’d known, to follow that hope of better opportunities.

At the time we were labelled migrants, or “ten pound Poms” – a reference to the token 10 Pound payment each adult had to pay to be included in the Australian immigration scheme of the time. Today, if we were from a different racial background, our reason for making the move would have us considered as “economic refugees”, and we’d be spirited away to a detention centre.

The move excited me. It was a big adventure. But I didn’t really appreciate the finality of it all. How I’d suffer for years from homesickness, wishing I could again see the people and places associated with the first 13 years of my life; and how my desire to learn more about where I came from would grow.

here to there

I was born in Burton-on-Trent and until our move to Australia lived on the Derbyshire side of the river Trent.
I knew nothing about the history of the area until I was in my 20s, when I was able to learn a little from a few books I was able to track down. Finding those books wasn’t easy in pre-internet years. It took a lot of letter writing to British libraries, museums, and local government offices trying to find someone to point me in the right direction. I then had to find a bookseller able to mail out the books I’d discovered, IF they were still in print.

It was many years ago, so I don’t remember who gave me the most help, but someone sent out copies of documents relating to the village where I grew up: documents that included a reference to my great grandfather who had been a men’s barber within that town as well as the local truancy officer. There wasn’t much detail about him, but seeing his name on a document dated in the 1800s gave me a small sense of connection to the town’s history.

Three of my Grandparents were still alive, so I asked them to tell me what they knew about our family background. I still have the few letters in which my Grandmothers told me what they knew; mostly names, but occasionally a cryptic piece of information that at the time didn’t mean much.

Using all of the names and dates, I drew up a family tree dating back to the 1870s, the point where my Grandmas’ memories (and a family bible) ended. The only addition after that point came when my sister went back to England for a few weeks. I asked her if she could get copies of the birth certificates of the two most distant ancestors I knew about.
She came back with two documents. I found one of them wasn’t for the right person, but the other one was – and I was able to extend the family tree back another generation thanks to its information about the parents of the baby being reigstered.

And then my research came to a stop again. For the next 30 years.

History Mine: a personal history of history (1)

My interest in history developed too late: after my parents moved our family from England to Australia. It was only then that I started to regret not taking a greater interest in the historical landscape of the place I’d left. Wishing that I could again visit castles, churches, cemeteries and grand houses that I’d taken for granted as a child.
They were only old buildings to my pre-and early teen self. I’d had no awareness of (or interest in) the people and events associated with them. That only came when they were no longer accessible.

It was hard to get excited about the “history” of my new country. In England I’d been to houses older than Australia’s recorded history*.
Maybe it was partially “home-sickness” that started to draw my mind back, reminding me of what I’d lost and giving it a significance I’d not previously considered.

If only I could see Tutbury Castle again, now knowing of its connection with Mary Queen of Scots. And the nearby St Mary’s church, parts of which date back to the 1100s, where my friends and I raced around the graveyard to see who could find the oldest grave.

Then there was Kenilworth Castle and Stonehenge, visited on different school trips – and the Tower of London where my family seemed to queue for hours to catch a glimpse of the crown Jewels, and where I was very unimpressed when I saw the Bloody Tower, which wasn’t really tower, and didn’t have people sitting around swearing at each other as I’d imagined as a young child.

I could probably list more of those places I visited without appreciating. And I could look back at things closer to home – such as the WWII air raid shelters alongside my school, the entrances of which were all sealed, apart from one, which no-one dared to enter beyond the first few steps, for fear of what may still be down there.

So, separated from those physical reminders of centuries of history, I’ve had to make do with books about that history.

Unfortunately those books can only provide a distant view that lacks some of the thrill of seeing and touching where history was acted out. And that distance is greater when it rarely touches upon the local links I recall, when local histories of places I lived aren’t easily accessible.

Flight Command by John Oddie

flight-command I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*

The paintings of Oddie are haunting.  In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”

When I knew that Oddie had written this autobiography, I added the book to my reading list, wanting to know more about the man and the “burden”  Quilty had revealed in his paintings.john oddie

After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.

As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.chinook

Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.

One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie  organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities).  I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book,  contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.

Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives.  He writes:

In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…

…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.

Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.

What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.

For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.

It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.

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* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition:  http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/

Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

 http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/books

Hilary Mantel’s memoir (and thoughts of my own) with just a hint of Rushdie

Hilary Mantel is a double winner of the Man Booker Prize, first for Wolf Hall and then for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. These are the first parts of a trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII.

I read Wolf Hall two years ago and included my impressions of the book in an article here *: http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2011/01/visiting-lady-jane-grey-and-tudor.html

Yesterday I received Bring Up the Bodies, something I’ll have to try to fit into my crowded reading schedule. But it’s another book by Mantel that I’ve been reading over the last few days, a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost.

Giving Up the GhostCompared to the last memoir I read (Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – see note below*) this one is a small book, but it seems to contain far more than its size would suggest. I’m only 2/3 of the way into it, but there has already been a lot to keep me interested. I can identify with a few areas of her experience; from Derbyshire village life in the 1950s-60s (though she’s six years older than me); living in homes that have a “ghostly” presence; to the occasional “tip” for writers. She also has a liking for semi-colons.

The first half of the book recalls her childhood and she is able to create a cohesive narrative out of many fragments of memories.

I occasionally consider writing my own memoir (which at the most may be of interest to future generations of my family) and I can see how my account of childhood would be made up of fragments – just brief glimpses of things I did and saw; a few seconds of a movie playing in my head.

Things like an image of a holiday cottage beside a beach. At that cottage I recall lying in bed between my parents. I must have been under three years old because I was later told that my mum was pregnant with my sister at the time, and she is two years ten months younger than me. I also ecall a walk through the back garden of the cottage to get to the pebbly beach. There are other incidents of this holiday that I don’t remember myself, but I know of them through family conversations over the years. The difference between the actual memories and those recounted anecdotes is in the detail. The memories are snapshots or brief loops of “action”; while the anecdotes have a form of narrative.

In Mantel’s book the most covered part of her childhood is her primary school years and earlier. It is during this period that she gives up her belief in God after a strange unnerving experience in the garden of her home. An experience that she thinks God could have (should have) prevented – and because He didn’t, He couldn’t exist.

Like so many who have given up (or never had) belief in God, the conclusion of His non-existence was formed according to criteria of Mantel’s choosing. God didn’t fulfil her expectations, He didn’t act how she thought He should, and therefore He couldn’t be real.

Joseph AntonA similar thing came up in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where the child Rushdie concluded God couldn’t exist because He’d never live in such an ugly “house of God” as the church building near his school. And in an interview (and maybe not in the book) Rushdie also told of how (as a “moslem” child) his ability to eat a ham sandwich without being struck down by an angry God gave him further certainty of God’s non-existence.

Surprisingly, the teen years of Mantel’s story are skimmed over in comparison to her pre-teen life. It is that period of my own younger days that I remember most, and my hypothetical memoir would perhaps need a separate volume to cover it.

I have now read up to the start of her adult life; her time at university and her early marriage. And how times have changed – Mantel’s marriage being an economic necessity; home life for two being more affordable than home life for two individuals, and culturally impossible for an unmarried couple to make a home together.

Even as an engaged couple they had difficulty finding “a place together in anticipation of [their] marriage…the landlords demanded certificates …to say that [they] had really booked the priest and registrar”.

I’ve already mentioned the size difference between this memoir and Rushdie’s, but that isn’t the most significant difference. Rushdie keeps a regular journal and that practice clearly helped and shaped the book he wrote. It is largely a straight forward narrative that avoids the playful approach to language and storytelling found in his novels.  Rushdie is getting his story across,  putting right the many false impressions of the “fatwah” years presented by others.

Mantel’s book is one of reflection rather than reporting;  remembering the past from an adult’s perspective, but not just as an adult; she writes as a mature literary writer interpreting her life from a present day vantage point. 

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*I see that I had a problem with Mantel regularly using the term “he” to describe her main character in a way that made it difficult to determine exactly who was being referred to. That’s a problem I also found in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie continually referred to himself in the third person often making me unsure of whether he was referring to himself or someone else.