Tag Archives: Richard Hillary

Faulks’ Fatal Englishman

The Fatal Englishman is Sebastian Faulks’s first and so far only venture into non-fiction. It is a triple biography, whose subjects were all men of high promise who died young. They are the painter Christopher Wood (1901-1930), pilot and author Richard Hillary (1919-1943) and Jeremy Wolfenden (1934-1965), an academic and journalist.

Faulks writes on his own website:

“It was in some ways an odd book for me to write, because I have such mixed feelings about biography. But as I wrote, I found odd connections between the three – circumstantial and thematic. I saw that since they came from different parts of the century I could smuggle in an oblique portrait of England and how it had changed in the 20th century.”

David Hare in his Spectator review of 1996 said: “The book is on a great theme; how the failures of Britain in the 20th century have seeped into the soul of its countrymen.”

The second section on Richard Hillary captured my attention. Faulks dashes through the early years to get to where he wants to be: with Hillary in 1940, at RAF flying school in Scotland.

It is difficult for Faulks to be compelling in his descriptions; Hillary’s own words in The Last Enemy grasp the reader around the throat while Faulks is left to mechanically fill in biographical detail. Faulks is helpful though, in contextualising Hillary and in observing his lasting place in history.

Faulks suggests that Hillary returned to flying, against the advice of his doctors, out of some First World War sense of camaraderie, and he draws comparisons with Wilfred Owen. He writes:

“In the Great War many men joined up from a sense of patriotic duty and were then disillusioned. Their motivation after that point was sometimes no more than a will to survive, but in many cases the lost cause of patriotism was replaced by a desire to honour their dead friends: only by seeing it through to the end, only by enduring, could they make some sense of the sacrifice that had been made by so many. This feeling was less common in the Second World War because in 1939-45 most men felt they had a proper moral cause to fight for; they therefore had less need of the subtler claims of the dead. Hillary, however, made it quite clear that this ’14-18 feeling was a powerful if not primary motivation for him.” (217)

Faulks’ account, however, eventually leads one to conclude that it was Hillary’s bloody conceit and indestructible arrogance that made him insist upon flying Blenheims– even after experience had confirmed that his catastrophically damaged hands could not properly control such lumbering aircraft.

Peter Parker argues in The Independent:

“The shared features of their stories are vital to Faulks’s book; without them, it remains a collection of three not especially distinguished biographical essays. What the form dictates is surely something a little more virtuosic than these perfectly decent, very readable but very conventional accounts. We are left to draw our own conclusions, one of which is that while Faulks’s subjects were undoubtedly moulded by their times, their individual falls had more to do with private than public pressures. What proved fatal to these Englishmen were the particular flaws of temperament each carried within him.”

Parker may be correct in his assessment that each of these characters has an individual failing, but I think he understates the significance of history’s processes. Despite the fact that only one of the fatal Englishmen is in active service, all three stories are touched by the effects war.

Much of Faulks’ writing follows a mission: to articulate the horror of war which, for so many, was literally and devastatingly incommunicable. “I felt that these things needed to be explained to people of my generation,” he says. “That may seem rather odd because there have after all been some great war memoirs and poetry written, but they weren’t giving the kind of experience that I wanted to write about. I felt there was something else to say.”

In an interview with Andrew Miller, he describes the need for imaginative access to the past. He explains:

“I have this tremendous greed for the experience of the near past. I never wanted to be a centurion on Hadrian’s Wall or to live in 18th-century London but I would fantastically like to be alive in the 1930s and 40s…

I like the idea that everyone’s life is a complete story, with tiny overlappings and long roots in history. My generation is uniquely privileged in that we haven’t had to go to war, but my father and my grandfather were there and because of that, it’s part of my life. I don’t think I had really grasped that until my first son was born in 1990. That, more than anything else, has been the engine behind my writing.”

I can’t shake the thought the thought though, that Faulks’ writing leaves me a bit chilly. He is competent, applauded and well-trained. But his prose somehow fails to fire me up. I am sure this is a failing and misunderstanding on my part, but as much as I agree with his theories and am fascinated by his topics, I just can’t get my teeth into it.

The Fatal Englishman is interesting and certainly worth reading; but for something that really gets under the skin, we’ll turn elsewhere…


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. ‘

Barrington Gates’s review of The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement of June 13, 1942

“This is another book written by a young man who interrupted his youth to become a Spitfire pilot. It will not disappoint those whose appetite for realistic description of the R. A. F. fighters in training and action is still unsated; and it will refresh and sustain many whose interest is rather in the men who are making this tradition than in the details of the battles they fight. This is a book of war aims in which the act of aiming a Spitfire at the enemy is only incidental; if anyone is still unconvinced that this war is a war of ideas over the secret places of the human spirit he will find a proof here. Mr Hillary’s enemy is hardly at all the one he met in the air. The last enemy of his title is drawn from I Cor. xv, 26, but even that is not a very precise definition. It is not death but rather the evil of negation, of life ingrown in self, which engages Mr Hillary as he hunts himself through the fortunes of this striking discourse…”

Read the full article. 

BBC recording of Richard Hillary

Richard HillaryA pilot vividly recounts his experience of being shot down over the North Sea.

‘Hillary had a fine talent for writing and an interest in self-analysis. In this unusually reflective account he recalls the dogfight that was his undoing and gives a dispassionate account of his injuries and thoughts about death as he floated in the North Sea for three hours until he was rescued from the water.’

In listening to this calm, well-spoken account (taken from the first chapter of The Last Enemy), it is his age that particularly strikes me. The mature timbre of the voice belies the injured, lonely 22 year old boy sitting behind the microphone.

Listen to the interview, recorded in 1941.  

The last enemy

In antiquity, autobiographical works were typically entitled ‘apologia’, purporting to be self-justification rather than self-documentation

Richard Hillary was born in Sydney, Australia in 1919. He was sent, at the earliest permissible age, to boarding school in England. He was independent and assertive; many found him to be arrogant and provocative. But, his good looks, athleticism and willy self reliance ensured his success and he secured a place at Oxford. He left his course in his second year to take up a short commission with the RAF as a fighter pilot.

The Last Enemy is his account of learning to fly, his wartime experiences and the treatment of his horrific burns. Published in 1942, it has been hailed as one of the classic texts of World War Two.

Sebastian Faulks writes in the introduction:

“[Hillary’s] descriptions of flying and of life on the station are lucid, swift and exciting; they are of a different calibre from the hundreds of R.A.F. memoirs that were published after the war: they aspire to, and attain, the status of literature. One of the most memorable aspects of the book is the sonorous but unsentimental way in which he records death, one by one of his friends…Richard Hillary captured in his cool prose the attitudes of the men who fought in those crucial weeks; the exact match between the charm of his style and the global importance of the battle is what enabled The Last Enemy to touch a public nerve.” (xi)

In searching for a definition of truth and authenticity, his book puts a marker in the ground. It is a blunt, articulate first-hand account. It was written as soon as he was physically able to put pen to paper (he found writing very difficult with his clawed, burned hands). Time was not allowed to erode the immediacy and accuracy of his memories.

Hillary relates his self-absorbed and disconnected attitude towards the war throughout the book, but then two encounters lead to a damascene revalation: one is a meeting with an old friend- a former pacifist who mourns the fact that he turned his back on the need to combat the great evil sweeping the world; the other is an act of heroism as he pulls a mortally injured woman from a blitzed house in London. He credits the woman with her ‘cow eyes’ and gentle sympathy (she looks at his burned face and comments “I see they got you too”) with his conversion to the enormity of the cause. Hillary writes:

“That that woman should die was an enormity so great that it was terrifying in its implications, in lifting the veil on possibilities of thought so far beyond the grasp of the human mind. It was not just the German bombs, or the German Air Force, or even the German mentality, but a feeling of the very essence of anti life that no words could convey. This is what I had been cursing- in part, for I had recognized in that moment what it was that Peter and the others had instantly recognized as evil and to be destroyed utterly. I saw now that it was not crime; it was Evil itself-something of which until then I had not even sensed the existence. And it was in the end, at bottom, myself against which I had raged, myself I had cursed. With awful clarity I saw myself as I was. Great God, that I could have been so arrogant!” (174)

But, both the meeting with his friend and the rescue of the woman, are fiction (Hillary once described the work as a ‘novel’). Hillary was in New York when he wrote the book, not the bombed streets of London. How does this affect the ‘truthfulness’ of the memory? What must literally happen, and what falls under the ancients’ tradition of writing for self justification? Faulks argues that The Last Enemy acquired the aura of a book that ‘says something vital, whose importance goes beyond what it literally describes.’

Hillary draws a conclusion in his final chapter that he must write a story that records the lost lives of his friends to earn his “right to the fellowship with the dead.”

He underwent further operations by the great plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. After a slow and painful recovery, he begged to be allowed to return to flying. He was transfered to a bomber training unit in the bleak wilds of Scotland, and despite the great unease from both his commanding officers and his friends and family, he took to the skies again.

He was killed at the age of 23, when his plane crashed in a night training exercise.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
-1 Corinthians 15:26