Every aviation enthusiast will encounter the most famous of John Gillespie Magee’s poems. Its oft-repeated lines have, in varying levels of completeness, been quoted by newsletter editors, orators, authors and even a US President. Even I quoted a small part at both of our children’s christenings and, naturally, it has been used for more than one epitaph. It is a staple of aviation literature. At its very heart is an omnipresent love for, and fascination with, flying. The poem, therefore, appeals and applies to all and it is this that makes it so widely known and loved.
I have seen mention of its overuse, appearing regularly in the ‘fore-papers’ and appendices as it does, perhaps reducing its effectiveness or impact or even becoming a cliché. Indeed there are times when I’ve found it in one of my books “yet again” and have skipped ahead to what I, most likely, haven’t read before. To do so is a dis-service. The perfect antidote for this ‘laissez-faire’ attitude? Take a moment, for that’s all it takes, to read “High Flight” again. Take a moment to marvel at the perfection. Take a moment to consider the ability of a man to put into words something he has felt that even those with little interest in aviation will, upon reaching out and touching the face of God, sit back and stare skywards.
Who was this man who captured the essence of flight and freedom in so few words? “High Flight” is, these days, correctly attributed to John Gillespie Magee but “An American serving in the RAF/RCAF” is still found among older titles. This latter attribution suggests little was known of Magee until relatively recently. With the release of Roger Cole’s High Flight there is now no excuse (although this is certainly not the first biography to be written about Magee).
John Magee was born in 1922 in Shanghai. His American father and English mother were in China as religious workers and both hailed from families where the patriarch was a religious leader. The American side of the family had done particularly well for themselves since their descendants had emigrated from Ireland in the late 1700s.
Just after he turned six, John and his family moved to Japan to escape the escalating tensions in China. This was a temporary solution as John, with his two brothers and his mother, was in England by Christmas 1931. His education began in earnest and it was his years at Rugby School under the direction of its head, Hugh Lyon, that were to have the greatest influence on his life. Lyon would prove the steadying hand to the tearaway and headstrong Magee. It was Lyon who recognised the potential in the boy and it was Lyon who gave him his last chance to “reflect on what has been and what might be and what must be”. He provided the inspirational fatherly influence that Magee Senior, in his long absences, was unable to provide.
A holiday in the US to visit relatives gave John a taste of how well off his American family was. He enjoyed himself but he yearned to return to England, to the family he knew, to complete his studies at Rugby. War intervened. Stranded in the US, he had little choice but to complete his education as directed by the family. The bright side was that he re-discovered his love of literature and eventually published a small book of poetry in 1940. These works, included in their entirety in HF, show the development of the artist, the man, and are the stepping-stones to his later efforts.
Watching sea birds and “sea eagles” while on holiday is the first indication of an embryonic interest in flight. Certainly, he liked to drive fast, to climb tall trees (or ship’s masts!), to test himself. Flying was the logical progression and the interest matured into enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940. He could not return to the US for fear of being imprisoned as a ‘belligerent’. Not being able to properly farewell his family and friends would have cut deep but the sense of adventure and challenge was a worthy distraction.
By all accounts John was a gifted flyer and was remembered by one his instructors, many years later, as his best pupil. He soloed at six hours, the first to do so in his class, and regularly topped the marks in the written exams. He was, however, still John Magee and still prone to bouts of ‘exuberance’ that saw him in hot water on numerous occasions with the most serious being writing-off a Harvard on landing and coming within a hair’s breadth of being washed out, just before receiving his wings, for dogfighting and low flying with another Harvard (it was his finishing first in the ground school exams that saved him).
Arriving in England, at last, in July 1941, now Pilot Officer Magee was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit. Here he experienced the Spitfire for the first time and it was here that ‘that poem’ was written. If you are familiar with the poem you will notice, as John becomes a more experienced pilot and discovers ever more wonders of flight, the narrative building towards its inception. With each discovery and experience he finds another piece of the puzzle that would form “High Flight” and, even after writing the poem, he continued to try to “capture the inspiration of flight”.
Throughout his time in England, the Lyon family was never far from John’s thoughts or heart. He was particularly fond of the eldest daughter, Elinor, and this was reciprocated. They spent a good deal of time together sharing their love of literature and fascination with the world. Both wrote poems that truly expressed their feelings (and are included in the text) but neither openly confessed their love. In the end, they never had the chance to do so.
John was posted to RAF Digby and No. 412 Squadron RCAF. He served with the squadron for less than two months and flew his first operational sortie (Circus No. 110) in early November. His time at Wellingore, a satellite field the squadron moved to, is an interesting snapshot of life on the squadron. Intensive training, acceptance by the squadron, flight tests and convoy patrols are interspersed with good detail of the men’s living arrangements and, of course, John’s observations, relationships and knowledge. A theme begins to emerge however. Accidents were a fact of life on an operational squadron and the author gently introduces them as if to familiarise the reader. Most are mentioned in passing as part of the chronology of John’s time on the squadron. These passages, and the combat losses of close friends, highlight the tenuous hold these men had on life. You really do understand why some felt themselves to be already dead. This feeling is evident in the darker tones of some of Magee’s poems – “Then it seems that I am doomed to extinction…”
Magee’s death is handled superbly. Even before opening the book I knew it was coming but it still hit hard. It is the abruptness that makes it so effective. Bang. It’s done. He’s gone. The author built up to the inception of “High Flight” and, as just mentioned, slowly builds to the collision with a regular stream of non-operational accidents. There is no conclusive realisation. Only swift and sudden death. One moment a squadron of Spitfires is diving through a hole in the clouds and the next one of those Spitfires and an Oxford (flown by LAC Ernest Aubrey Griffin who, pleasingly, is honoured by the inclusion of his photograph) have been torn apart and their pilots cease to be.
Everyone, of course, grieves for John but his memory seems to linger and breaks the expected stereotypical ‘move on’ coping mechanism so many employed to deal with constant loss. The reaction of his roommate is an indication of the effect John had on people’s lives long before his writing became widely known.
Part-biography, part book of poetry, HF must surely be the most complete look at the man yet written. Wrapped in a typically beautiful Fighting High hardcover, it is a look into the very soul of the man. That’s something that’s been said before about other books but the inclusion of what might be Magee’s complete works makes this possible. The author brings the story into the ‘modern’ era by recounting the event that thrust Magee’s work into the spotlight – the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Ronald Reagan ended his address to the nation eloquently by combining the first and final lines of “High Flight” into one sentence. This account is preceded by a creative little chapter featuring two workers at the Wellingore Woodsheds as they come to the realisation that the “lad they called Maggie” who “used to hang around here” was appearing in the newspapers. I found the scenario a little odd but I think the fact that one of them is quoted as being 26 is what threw me. Maybe I’m missing something but I think I’ve been thrown by the first typo I’ve ever found in a Fighting High book (surely it was meant to be 76?)!
Never mind all of that though for the final third of the book is dedicated to the poetry of John Magee. Reading them reminded me of high school English Lit classes but never have I been able to understand so clearly where each poem has come from. For that we must thank the author of High Flight. Roger Cole has lovingly brought John Gillespie Magee to life through extensive access to the many letters and diaries written by Magee and his family and friends and a writing style that includes a necessary, well-managed touch of creative flair.
“High Flight” truly has a life of its own. While expressing what every flyer has felt it also serves a higher purpose. Magee’s voice is also that of the thousands who did not live to see peace. As much as Laurence Binyon’s “For The Fallen” gave us the perfect words by which to express our eternal respect, “High Flight” does the same for a generation of young aviators by telling us how they lived and died as they reached higher and flew faster than all before them.
You know the poem. Now know the man.