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Remembering Richard Hillary: the birth of a myth

Three months after Richard Hillary died, Arthur Koestler published an article about him entitled ‘The birth of a myth.”

The famous writer had known Hillary and corresponded with him. His musings sparked a theory that Hillary’s return to flying was prompted by a wish to commit suicide. This idea was further fueled by John Middleton Murray’s essay ‘Richard Hillary’.

Koestler didn’t overtly start that Hillary had intentionally killed himself. Instead, he related the fallen hero to his theories of myth. He had an image for the growth of myth. The public and artistic backgrounds- books, newspapers, the word on the street- were like molecules trying to find a coherent pattern; the individual was the core about which they crystallised.

He made much of Hillary’s distinction between his ‘instinct’, which told him that he would survive and his ‘reason’ which told him he must die. He suggested that Hillary was more or less a willing victim of the forces of myth. He came to no simple conclusion about Hillary’s reasons for flying, preferring to describe ‘a pattern composed of all the threads we have picked up, and followed for a short while and dropped again. For the pattern is more than the sum of the threads; it has its own symbolic design of which the threads know nothing.’ In other words, Hillary’s motives were mixed, but he was ultimately affected by the pressure of public expectation into making some kind of exemplary death(Faulks 213-215).

His essay ends rhetorically with an attempt to understand what fashioned Hillary’s life into a symbol: ‘a man’s longing for the Holy Grail may become so strong that he flies like a moth into the flame; and having burned his wings, crawls back into it again. ‘


We have seen all

Bombed city

Ma la notte resurge, e orami e da partir, che tutto avem veduto.

But night is rising again and now it is time to go, for we have seen all.

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV

Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

The Tangmere Military Aviation Museum was established in 1982 on the historic RAF Tangmere airfield. Tangmere was the sector station for the embattled 11 Group and was also home to many record breaking aircraft in the post war years.

With such a rich history in aviation, it seemed sensible to investigate the museum. 

I was greeted by a team of earnest volunteers (all chaps over the age of 60), who quickly ushered me into the ‘screening room’. Before being unleashed on the exhibits, all guests are encouraged to endure a shabby little video made in 2007. The museum is really only two rooms, but the film takes at least 10 minutes to explain how you should find your way around.

Overall, the museum has the feeling of a neglected attic. The displays look handmade, dusty and faded. Most of the aircraft are replicas. The ‘simulators’ aren’t  a patch on what you’d find on a modern video game. And, for me to take my family in, cost £25…

It was a sad place, because you can feel the intensity of the volunteers as they try to preserve history. What will happen when this current wave of custodians are no longer able to unlock the doors and take in dreary groups of school children? I noticed that their leaflet asks for anyone with web development skills to get in touch (the internet age is just beyond their reach. Their website advertises out of date events and is littered with broken links). A sign at the gates, which is covered in weeds and flaking paint reads: “For sale: former aircraft hangar”. In this museum, you can see that the War is bleaching away from living memory with every passing day. It takes energy, creativity and investment to preserve the past.

But, if you take the time, and look at each artifact on its own, there were some fascinating items languishing in the crowded cabinets. Perhaps the best bit that I discovered was a voice recording of a Lancaster crew on their bombing run over Germany. You could hear the pilot, navigator and bomb aimer speaking to each other over the intercom. It was haunting to listen to their voices as they went about their work. The accents and manner of speaking were far removed from modern inflections. They were so calm. I listened to the recording several times and had a chill down the spine.

In short, if you are passing near Chichester and have a bit of time on your hands, the museum is worth a visit- close your eyes to the overall effect and instead look for a lost relic in amongst the chaos.

Download the Tangmere museum brochure

A 1941 weekend

church fete

A couple, in costume, relive memories from 1941 at the local church fete

The little town that I live in made its nod to the nostalgia of the 1940s this weekend. The high street was decked out with ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters (which I know weren’t actually used during the war and were discovered after the fact in a bookshop). Vintage vehicles trundled their way onto the burgage and the church fete adopted the theme of a street party.

It was an outward pageant for the deep feelings that many people have about the war. The organisers stated that “this will be a commemoration of life and times of this community in 1941. It will remind us that everyone had a role in winning the war – even in this quiet part of England.”

There were plenty of people with direct memories of the war- recalling prisoners of war helping on the farms, evacuated children in the schools and the arrival of the Americans.

Dr. Derek Beattie gave a lecture in the morning about the homefront. In particular, he considered the darker side of evacuation. He described how children were taken out to the safety of the countryside and were cruelly selected by families- taking the strong and fit ones to work on their farms, while the sickly and be-spectacled ones were dragged door to door until a family took them in (the hellish procedure of a captain choosing their school sports team, magnified a thousand times). This meant that siblings were often separated from each other- sometimes never to be reunited. Even worse, many children were physically and sexually abused by their new families. What a war it must have been for them.

He also noted that the upper middle classes, who were well equipped with servants and generous homes, were very poor at taking in evacuees. The upturn in mysterious ‘heart conditions’ rose dramatically and rendered many wealthy families ‘medically unable’ to take the strain of looking after the filthy, ill and poor creatures landing on their doorsteps.

The local women worked on the farms and in the forestry industry, with Dr. Beattie noting that one woman he interviewed still had very strong arms, even though she is now in her 90s.  One might assume that the passage of time might diminish their remembrances, but it was very much the opposite. He found that many are so elderly and in the very last twilight of their lives (with nothing to lose), that they were able to give increasingly candid interviews (as long as he didn’t talk to husbands and wives together!). Before D-Day, there were as many as 5 young men for every young woman in the town.

In a very sweet moment, Dr Beattie recalled that the region accommodated many Italian prisoners of war. “Oh, I know. I knew them!” piped up a woman, carefully dressed in period costume- complete with head scarf and wicker basket. “‘Know’ them in the biblical sense?” he teased. Everyone in the audience chuckled. Without embarrassment and with just the hint of a smile, she reiterated, “Yes, I knew them.”

Disturbing the seeds to make them grow

PoppyReflecting on yesterday, I think the crux of the matter is that I don’t know whether you honour the sacrifice by remembering or by forgetting. I think Peter’s point was that there was no purpose in any of it- the only comfort being that the next traveller along the path would be spared what he himself had to endure. Even Max Hastings comments that he is grateful that he has been relieved of  the need to discover whether he could have matched their impossible sacrifices.

Is it important to interpret the past, or is it just pawing around in the glories of someone else?

I’m still very unsure about this. Or…

Another way to look at it, is to consider papaver rhoeas– the common field poppy.

The field poppy is an annual plant which flowers each year between about May and August. Its seeds are disseminated on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for a long time. If the ground is disturbed from the early spring the seeds will germinate and the poppy flowers will grow.

Three doors down: a moment to take stock

Our next door neighbour:

Today was a fine English day. Our neighbour held a garden party to celebrate her birthday. Pretty bunting, loosely tied bouquets of old fashioned roses and bowls of strawberries welcomed the guests into a neatly clipped garden. It was warm and sunny (which I might say isn’t very English) and the Pimms quickly went to work on everyone’s head. The odd guest popped inside to check progress at Wimbledon, but otherwise, everyone sat contentedly and enjoyed the the green and pleasant land.

The chap two doors down:

I sat next to a clever, retired police officer at lunch (I know him well, but hadn’t seen him for some time, so it was a good chance to catch up). He’s recently published a book about the fate of the many servicemen from our little town. He’s a great source of information and his bright detective’s memory holds on to all the detail (‘talk to Chris…he can really find his way around an archive and knows everything about Naval matters…Did you know that there’s a fellow down at Rochford with a VC? He was 16 years old and didn’t leave his post…Old Ron, such a gentleman. He used to carry Prue’s Bible to church for her. Who would have thought that he was one of 2,000 (of the 8,000 that went in) who came out of Arnhem alive.) I admire him, because he was able to discover and record new things and had the dedication to fulfill his work in a fully published book (albeit published himself). “How’s your work going?” he asked. “Well, all I’m doing is reading what other people have written… I haven’t actually found anything out yet.” Which then made me wonder- was I tying to find something out? I think I’ve lost track. I guess the point is to discover what happened to Grandpa, but I think there will be very little find. I was pondering this problem when he tapped my arm “Hey- didn’t you say you’d flown a Harvard? You should talk to Peter here- he trained on them.”

Three doors down:

Peter is an elegant man, with a soft voice and beautiful manners. He and his wife have retired to the imposing red brick house three doors down. They once lived in a country estate, but as they were in their 80s, they figured it was time to relocate to something more manageable.

He has an exquisite charm and brightness that puts you at ease and encourages conversation. I’m not exactly sure how he started, but he explained that in 1945, he was stationed  in Africa, where he was training to be a pilot. He trained on the Harvard, and was trying to remember whether they had canvas wings. He considered it wistfully and asked about Grandpa. I told him that he flew Wellingtons. “Oh yes, Wellingtons. They liked to fly them, because they could be shot to pieces, but still fly. They had a clever design.” (I wanted to pipe up with ‘geodetic’ but it felt a little silly to cut in). He was then trying to remember a particular aircraft that began with H and I chimed in with ‘Halifax’- which was clearly wrong. The neigbour two doors down helpfully contributed ‘Hampden’, which was the right answer. I felt a bit sheepish for randomly guessing at planes and thought I better remember that for the future- don’t guess at an answer. I’m sure it didn’t matter, but I still wanted to kick myself.

He then looked very quizzical. “It’s funny that you are interested in this. It’s not worth remembering. Such awful things happened. I think of some things… like the Americans in South East Asia. The Battle of the Coral Sea. Flame throwers. They destroyed the Japanese that they came across. Burned them to death and all manner of terrible things. Well, they had to. But who wants to remember that?” He paused and fidgeted with his cuffs (despite the heat, he was wearing a perfectly ironed button-down shirt).” I lost my brother in the RAF”. His hands started to tremble. Neighbour number two jumped in: “Now it’s not about glorifying anything. It’s making sure that history books don’t get rewritten and that important things don’t get forgotten.” He looked unconvinced and said quietly “I don’t know how this came up. I really don’t care to talk about it.” I looked at him helplessly and said “I’m not expecting to find anything heroic or happy- I just want to know more about what happened to my Grandpa.” “It’s just curious to me” he said “that someone your age is bothered with any of this.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Sigh. It does leave me uncertain. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. The log book should arrive with me this week and perhaps looking at it will tell me whether to go on, or whether to quietly leave this alone.

Far more alarming is that I am interviewing an author on Tuesday who has written over 20 books on the Battle of Britain. Good grief. I need to tread a careful line here- thoughtful and interested, but don’t repeat today’s mistake of jumping in with the wrong aircraft. I do have a habit of saying foolish things when I get nervous. I asked the chaps in my office whether they thought that I could get through the interview without being stupid. They both smiled and answered ‘No’. Oh dear. That’s the next hurdle then- get through Tuesday in one piece.



Hastings’ conclusion on Bomber Command’s leadership

“Bomber Command was very well served by its aircrew, and with a few exceptions very badly served by its senior officers, in the Second World War. The gulf between the realities in the sky and the rural routine of headquarters was too great for most of the staff to bridge….High Wycombe was fatally isolated from both the front and from sharp critical debate on policy. Even after all their bitter experience in the early years of the war, senior officers were unwilling to face unacceptable realities” (457).