Just finished two quite different books recently. Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, and first, Empire of the Clouds – When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World, by James Hamilton-Paterson.
The latter is a memoir of British aviation since the second world war, constructed mainly from anecdotes and memoirs of test pilots involved. Partly it’s a litany of risks and bad management of government funded aircraft projects and piecemeal rationalization of the many independent post-war names – Gloster, Bristol, Fairey, Avro, Handley-Page, etc – and the many dead (crew and bystanders) on whom modern safe civilian air travel depend. Nostaligic for me for 50 years of air-show display aircraft stories – Hunters, Javelins, V-Bombers, Lightnings, all of which I saw in the sixties at Middleton-St-George (Teesside), right up to Harriers. And of course quaint British industrial and management “class” practices. It’s also of interest because I actually left working on Harriers the UK Aero-industry in 1978, due to constant Heath-Wilson government swings in project decisions. The engineering was secondary to the partisan politics. Little did I know then that now, all these anecdotes are part of my sociology and evolutionary-psychology of decision-making agenda. Some great anecdotes that will mean even more when seeing remaining museum examples of some of the marques – the Lightning at Duxford for example – and the story of Alan Pollock – politically invalided out of the RAF in April 1968, after a protest flight without a flight-plan, that took in buzzing Parliament three times before saluting the RAF memorial on the embankment and flying off through Tower Bridge in his Hunter. The book covers right up the 2010 UK Strategic Defence Review. (I have a draft post somewhere on aircraft nostalgia …. the Lightning is still my favourite.)
Beatrice and Virgil on the other hand has a similar feel to Yann Martel’s prize-winning Life of Pi. Although based on a much darker underlying history than the simple(!) youthful journey in Pi, B&V’s agenda is still very much on pushing the limits on what might actually be true in writing a conventional first-person narrative story. In B&V’s case, it’s the play being written within the story, apparently fictional (clearly fictional, since it involves talking animals) but which is an allegory for a darker reality, linked with a twist to its taxidermist-author. Very clever and satisfying to read. (BTW It helps to know that Beatrice and Virgil were originally characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy. PS I also have Martel’s 1996 “Self” to read, which predates LoP.)