Books I’ve enjoyed #3

Here is my annual roundup of some books I have recently enjoyed or found interesting. They are arranged by alphabetical order of title, and the links refer to the Amazon versions.

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: The memoirs of a literary editor and biographer whose distinguished career has been combined with an eventful personal history. Despite her experiences of family tragedy, she has found contentment in later life. She comes over as remarkably intelligent, energetic and capable, and writes in elegant prose without a trace of self-pity or self-praise. 

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott: The narrative of this long and ambitious thriller alternates between France and the UK, the 1940s and the present day. Investigation of the murder of an elderly woman reveals links with her past as an SOE agent during the wartime Resistance. The historical detail is extensively researched. An absorbing read, even if the convolutions of the plot had me baffled in places. 

Admissions by Henry Marsh: Another memoir from the British neurosurgeon whose previous book Do No Harm was on my 2016 list. Descriptions of his clinical cases and frustrations with the NHS are interwoven with reflections on his own life and the approach of old age. Thoughtful, frank, provocative and drily humorous.

Air Force Blue by Patrick Bishop: Following on from Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, this is a masterly account of the history of the Royal Air Force and its role in World War Two, illustrated by personal accounts from those who lived through the conflict.

Bluff by Michael Kardos: A fast paced American thriller about a magician who turns to cardsharping in the hope of reviving her failing fortunes. I don’t know how to play poker, so much of the detail went over my head, but even so I found it a gripping read with a clever twist at the end. Not for the squeamish.

Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen: Through years of painstaking research using neuroimaging techniques, the author has shown that brain-damaged patients who appear to be in a vegetative state are sometimes aware of what is said to them and capable of mental responses. This has important implications for their clinical care, even when recovery is not possible.

Salt Lane by William Shaw: Having been brought up in Kent, I liked the descriptions of the remote landscape near Dungeness which forms the backdrop to this British murder mystery. The investigation, led by a female police detective with a complex private life, touches on the topical theme of illegal immigration.

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere: This extraordinary book is described as a novel but the first part, the story of a French intellectual’s passionate though transitory immersion in the Catholic faith, appears to be autobiographical. I did not finish the second part, a fictional account of early Church history focused on St Luke and St Paul.    

Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Weber: a memoir by the brilliant composer of many hit musicals (Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and more), who was brought up in a bohemian London family and has led a colourful life. 

Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt: The utterances of dying people are often dismissed as nonsensical ramblings, but this linguistic analysis of some clinical examples suggests they often contain insights about this life and the next, expressed in symbolic terms.  

I haven’t published any new books of my own this year, but the Smashwords version of Carmen’s Roses – the first of my Three Novellas – is free from this link until Christmas Day. If you enjoy it you might also like the others in the trilogy: Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration. All these are also available through my author page on Amazon.

Memories of Bomber Command

This year I have been volunteering with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). This charity, based in Lincoln UK, was “created to provide a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command” and officially opened in 2018 as part of the RAF centenary celebrations. My role involves carrying out audio interviews with World War II veterans who now live in the Auckland region of New Zealand.

Image 3(photo courtesy of IBCC)

My interest in military aviation stems from having edited Geoffrey Guy’s War, my late uncle’s memoir about his experience as a photographic reconnaissance pilot in World War II (see here for a detailed summary and review). That led me to read some of the many other books about the conflict, and go to a local airport to take a trial training flight; one of the peak experiences of my life.

By a combination of skill, hardiness, and good luck my IBCC interviewees had not only survived the war, but lived to an advanced age; they were at least in their mid-90s and the oldest was 100. Several had flown in Lancasters as pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator or gunner. As the photograph shows, these operations also involved a large number of ground staff. I have not interviewed any of these, but they played an essential role.  Another man in my group was a pilot with the Pathfinder force, dropping flares to mark the targets for bombing. The only woman I saw had served in the WAAF, processing the photographs taken during the raids to show which targets had been hit. Many of the men continued in aviation work after the war, and one of them was chosen for the role of a pilot in The Dam Busters movie. They felt great pride in their service as evidenced by all the books, photos and memorabilia in their rooms. Even those whose memories were failing were immediately able to recall their service numbers.

Personal anecdotes were many and varied: Being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany, and spending the rest of the war in a POW camp after a failed attempt to escape through a tunnel. Parachuting into occupied France, and managing to cross over the mountains into Spain, disguised with the help of local people. Performing a slow roll in the Gypsy Moth used for training, in deliberate defiance of the order “No aerobatics”, and getting himself and the aircraft smothered in hot oil. Managing to fly home safely after the navigator of his two-seater Mosquito lost consciousness.

They described some gruelling events with calm detachment, often with humour, and obviously had no doubt that their service had been worthwhile. Patriotism, camaraderie and the love of flying must have sustained them through the years of extreme hardship, challenge and loss. Bomber Command has been criticised because its operations caused the deaths of German civilians, and a few interviewees expressed regrets about this, but regarded it as unavoidable: “It was them or us”.

As a former psychiatrist I am interested in the mental and physical disorders that can affect military personnel. I touched on this topic in an earlier blog post and in my short novel Blue Moon for Bombers. Even a couple of my IBCC interviewees, a highly resilient group who did not develop any major problems, spontaneously mentioned symptoms such as nightmares persisting for some years after the war ended.

It is a pity that this work could not have been carried out before now. The quality of some recordings is compromised by the frailty of the aged participants. Other veterans who might have been included are too unwell to take part or have already died. But better late than never, and when they have been uploaded to its website, these veterans’ interviews will contribute towards the IBCC’s aim of “ensuring that generations to come can learn of [Bomber Command’s] vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.

Diary: Happy Sunday

This post about a day in my life was written mainly as a record for myself, and may or not be of interest to anyone else.

Daylight saving in New Zealand ended yesterday and so I got up even earlier than I usually do on Sundays, to catch the ferry into downtown Auckland for choir rehearsal before Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was going to be a full day, as I had been asked to give a reading at the SPCA‘s annual Blessing of the Animals service at St Matthew’s in the City in the afternoon. And then, if I was back home in time, go to a tea party at our neighbour’s house.

I had had a migraine the day before; not the terrible kind I used to get when I was younger, confining me to bed with a bursting headache and repeated vomiting, but bad enough to make the simplest tasks seem like onerous burdens. Every cloud has a silver lining and, after recovering from one attack, there is always at least a week before the next. So despite missing an hour’s sleep, I was migraine-free on the Sunday and able to enjoy all the activities planned for the day.

Choir promised to be a challenge because along with two traditional items from our repertoire, Almighty and Everlasting God by Orlando Gibbons and Jesu Thy Blessed Name by Douglas Mews, we were to give our first performance of Oh For the Wings of a Dove by Felix Mendelssohn. There are only three of us in the alto section and our part is not very easy. But if we did make any mistakes I think they would have passed unnoticed by the congregation as they listened to the beautiful soprano solo and organ accompaniment of this piece.

Mass finished quite early so I had time to sit outside in the spring sunshine and eat my sandwich lunch before walking up to St Matthew’s.

The Animal Blessing Service used to be an even bigger event than it is nowadays, preceded by a procession up Queen St and including larger animals such as donkeys, goats and once even a black bull. Now it is confined to the church itself and dominated by dogs of all shapes and sizes, all apparently having a good time and some barking their heads off. The few cats in their cages kept very quiet. I was unable to bring my dog-share Labrador Ireland, but he would no doubt have caused chaos with his enthusiasm for jumping on top of other dogs and “helping” with my reading.

Animal blessing St Matthews

Besides the prayers and readings we heard three sweet songs from a children’s choir, and a wise and witty address from SPCA’s regional manager about what we could learn from dogs. They never cease to find joy in familiar everyday activities and things, and to show curiosity about new ones. They know the value of long rests, and are not governed by to-do lists. They are free of expectations and blame; if their owners come home late they are simply delighted to see them. They have an endless capacity for love.

After two afternoon teas, first with SPCA colleagues and then with the next-door neighbours, it was home to cook the supper and watch the final episode of Hitler’s Circle of Evil on Netflix. This may sound an incongruous choice, but it is an excellent series which has helped to expand my knowledge about the history of World War II, relevant to the interviews with Bomber Command veterans that I am currently carrying out for the IBCC and will describe in a later post.