03 January 2012

Understanding an addiction

I think the definition of an addict has in it somewhere the performance of actions that, upon reflection, the afflicted person can’t quite remember doing. Hi, my name is Andy and I’m a book addict. I had a package arrive today (actually there was two of them but let’s not go into details) and, for the life of me, had no idea what book (books) was in it (them). It doesn’t help that I regularly buy books from overseas and the cheap postage attached to the price often means I have to wait up to three months for the surface mail. So be it, it works out in the end. I guess that makes me a cheap addict too.

Anyway, I didn’t recognise the sender of the bigger package and, upon opening it, noted what was a hardback peering out between the gaps between the bubbles of the packaging material (another benefit of being an addict … bubblewrap!). The cover, see below, immediately took me back to early October when I had discovered the existence of yet another Fleet Air Arm memoir I had not heard of. Somehow, again, I have no idea how, I had stumbled upon proof of the existence of Norman Hanson’s Carrier Pilot. As alluded to in the previous ABR post below, I do tend to Google such things so it was not long before I had educated myself and decided this book was a worthy investment if I could find an affordable copy. As much as I love books, I refuse to pay exhorbitant amounts for them (although on very rare occasions I have spent close to A$100 for a thick A4-sized hardback) preferring instead to spread my budget over three, four or even five or six titles (and not all brand new). I guess that makes me a wise addict.

Obviously I managed to find an affordable copy – either that day or striking it lucky with a quick Abebooks ‘Want’ notification I honestly don’t remember – but that is about where it all ends until today. In the hustle and bustle of ‘managing’ the various responsibilities of having a pregnant wife, a birthday, a new niece and the festive season the fact that I had a worthy addition to my collection steaming its way (I suspect with less class and purpose than the author’s HMS Illustrious but with class and purpose all the same) across the high seas completely and utterly flew out of my head. If anything, the thrill of the chase was over and I had moved on. I guess that makes me a fickle addict.

This edition of Carrier Pilot is the 1979 printing by Patrick Stephens Limited (ISBN 0 085059 349 2). Ordinarily I don’t go for books this old – the early ‘80s is usually my cut-off (I know, I’m missing out but one has to draw the line somewhere … so it can be crossed…) – but I am certainly glad I did. With a dust jacket illustrated by Michael Turner and, amazingly, flaps that are almost as eloquently written as the main text, I began to wonder if I had found a ‘forgotten’ classic. I read the first few pages as the front flap suggested and a mild sense of euphoria washed over me. Hanson can write. I guess that makes me a lucky addict.

I have spoken about the use of a dramatic moment from the featured person’s life at the start of the book as an excellent tool to hook the reader. Once the potential reader is attracted by the siren-like call of the cover, only photos and a well-placed ‘kicker’ can suck someone in (I’m generalising). Tim Vigors does it well when he describes the end of his combat flying career at the start of Life’s Too Short To Cry. Equally dramatic is Phil Davenport’s running battle with several Ju-88s in a Sunderland over the Bay of Biscay in Hurrah For The Next Man (reviewed December 2011). And so Hanson does the same although his book appeared on the shelves a good 20+ years before the two examples mentioned above. The chapter is titled "Suddenly there was gunfire…"

Our hero runs to the port side portholes as the carrier’s guns open up on fast and low Betty bombers. Sticking his helmeted head out of the port hole, Hanson has a front row seat before suddenly realizing he was literally sticking his neck out. Trying to pull his head in, he realises his helmet was stuck on the outer rim of the porthole. A nearby explosion forces his entire body back inside – “my head came inside without any trouble, almost pulling in the port-hole with it.” Just as you’re almost chuckling at this scene there’s a shout from a colleague:

Come on, Hans! Stretchers!

Two shells from the cruiser Euryalus had hit the carrier’s island and the shrapnel had rained down on the men man-handling two Grumman Avengers down the deck. Hanson doesn’t say it but his descriptions of what he finds on deck must have happened in slow motion. You can see it and you can feel his shock.

The bos’n, one Charlie Hobbs, notices Hanson’s understandable daze.

Come on, Hans, for God’s sake! Move these lads up against the island!

Hanson reacts:

I caught up the legs of one body and pulled it, slowly and tenderly, to the high, grey wall of the island. I just felt sad – oddly enough, not sick. Just unbelievably sad.

‘Oh! For Christ’s sake, Norman!’ (My Sunday name now!) ‘Get a bloody jerk on, son! Those bastards’ll be back any minute!’ Charlie was grabbing them by the ankles and fairly hurling them across the deck. He looked up and saw my face.

‘Don’t let it worry you, Hans,’ he said, surprisingly gently and softly, despite the rumpus that seemed to fill the deck. ‘They can’t feel anything now, you know. You can’t hurt them any more.’

What a great man you are, Charlie, I thought. Somewhere along the years you will tell them that you were the bos’n of Illustrious and some smooth bastard who knew the sea only from kicking pebbles into it from Southsea beach will say ‘So what?’ No one but your shipmates will ever know what a sterling character you really are.

That evening Charlie was sewing those mangled kids into tarpaulin sheets.

I’ve left out some of the descriptions of the carnage of course as it is not pleasant but it is written in a way that strikes to the core. How can a book start off with quite dark humour – the helmet stuck in the porthole while under fire – and then, less than a page later, actually hurt to read before marveling at the bravery and humanity of a man in a most dire situation? This chapter is a little over three pages long yet my emotions were all over the place. Not since Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall have I been so stunned by so few words read (and Peden’s opening elicited a snigger and then full-blown laughter in the first two pages so is really at the other end of the emotional spectrum).

I’m sitting here trying to think what to write next to expand on what I’ve discovered and am trying to, somewhat clumsily, convey. I’m a hopeless addict. Really, since he started it all, the last words should be Norman Hanson’s as they echo what is at the very heart of spreading the word about aircrew books:

That evening, as we cruised slowly south-eastwards, 100 miles or so from the coast of Sumatra, we buried them. Our great ship slowed down to six knots. George Fawkes read the Burial Service, standing beside that silent row of Union flags. One after another the boards were tilted and the hammock-like tarpaulins slid swiftly and quietly into the Indian Ocean. The plaintive notes of the bugle rang out over the great waste of water and they were gone. We could do no more than hope to remember them.


  1. Dear cheap, wise, fickle, lucky, hopeless book addict...another excellent review. The last paragraph - Hanson quote - very moving. Thanks.

  2. I bought this book in 79, read it then and could not put it down, I never through the book away as I knew it was worth another read which I am doing right now and the book has not lost any of it's impact. Fabulous book; great view of being a carrier pilot and how well he writes.