07 May 2012

Into The Midst Of Things - Sir Richard Kingsland AO, CBE, DFC

I haven't had time to write my next review so, wanting to keep things ticking over, I invited Kristen Alexander - author of Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader (and one half of Alexander Fax Booksellers) - to be a guest reviewer.  She happily obliged and has provided details of another book (after mention of Lost Without Trace below) recenlty published by the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre.  Enjoy.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s Office of Air Force History (OAFH) has a remarkable oral history program and has now produced a number of autobiographies under its auspices. The text of Into the Midst of Things derived from a series of interviews with Sir Richard and Lady Kingsland and was supplemented by Sir Richard’s records as well as a couple of extensive interviews conducted by the National Library of Australia. The raw material was then shaped into a captivating narrative by the RAAF Historian, Dr Chris Clark, and sensitively edited by Wing Commander Keith Brent, both ensuring that Sir Richard’s distinctive voice is not lost.

Sir Richard had long resisted a biography and one of the reasons he was happy to become part of the OAFH’s oral history program was simply because it was the RAAF who was asking. He acknowledges the important place the RAAF held in his life and wartime career and even as a launching pad to his post-war career. Even so, in his prologue, Sir Richard makes it clear that this account does not include the ‘complete “me” to be put out for public scrutiny’. Not because he has anything to hide, or because he has failed to recognise his weaknesses but because he did not necessarily want those failings ‘broadcast or highlighted for posterity’. And there the reader catches a first glimpse of Sir Richard’s sense of humour which makes reading this memoir-with-gaps such a delight. 

Sir Richard Kingsland, AO, CBE, DFC, (né Julius Allen ‘Dick’ Cohen) has a distinguished place in the history of the RAAF, Australian defence and public administration. His air force career took him from a Point Cook cadet in 1935 to Group Captain within ten years. He saw service with 10 Squadron, was awarded the DFC as a young flight lieutenant in 1940 following a dangerous operation in Vichy-controlled Morocco, took over command of 11 Squadron and was director of RAAF intelligence in the latter stages of the war. He was clearly marked for greater things in the post-war air force but transferred to the public service in 1948 and pursued a career in the Department of Civil Aviation, then Air, and then Defence. In 1963 he was head of his department and he remained in charge of two large organisations for the next 18 years.

I like a certain amount of biographical topping and tailing, but I usually stop reading memoirs when they delve too much into the post-war career. I didn’t stop with this one. I continued to be fascinated. Interestingly, Sir Richard offers no false modesty regarding his flying career (he was a good pilot and acknowledges this) but he was very reluctant to give himself credit for anything else. A perfect example of this is when he tells of his Point Cook classmates. He admits that he found himself ‘associated with a group of “giants”...It seemed to me that they were the best specimens selected from a large number of young people from around Australia who had already acquitted themselves in a variety of ways’. And some of those continued to acquit themselves well such as Colin Hannah, later Sir Colin, air marshal, Chief of the Air Staff and governor of Queensland and Hughie Edwards who was awarded the Victoria Cross. With the benefit of hindsight, Sir Richard could confidently acknowledge that he was one of those giants. He may not admit it, but his ‘giantness’ shines through his achievements.

As I raced through his memoir I mused that Sir Richard was a closet thriller writer: he would often signpost exciting things to come, even before he had finished telling of something equally interesting. But this foreshadowing directly relates to Sir Richard’s preference for starting a story in the middle, revealing the before and after as he goes along. And hence the title, Into the Midst of Things. But the title could equally have been As Luck Would Have It. Sir Richard’s life is full of turning point episodes where, if his luck had run out, things would have turned out very differently indeed. I won’t list the many examples (starting with what if the RAAF hadn’t accepted the cadet application from someone who did not have any burning ambition to fly!) you can read them yourself but, interestingly ‘luck’ is a major theme of this memoir ‘How Shorthand led to the Air Force’, ‘My Career Stocks got a Lucky Break’, and ‘Dicing with Death at the Flemington Track’ (the image of what might have been the end of his life or at least flying career is incorporated into the front cover design). He even crossed the Atlantic in the ‘lucky’ Bayano. It is a shame that ‘amazing’ has been so overworked these days because there is a great deal in Sir Richard’s life which amazes the reader.

Into the Midst of Things is ‘unputdownable’. It is well-written, fast-moving, very well edited and where you want good description it is there. I love reading about the joy of flight and how our pilots responded to the thrill of being in control of their aircraft. Sir Richard’s account of his first solo flight is pure magic and I could see his wide grin as I read it. Sir Richard may have wanted to hide some aspects of his personality but he clearly reveals himself to be a man of warmth, charm, great humour with a wonderful capacity to make and keep friends. Brief encounters as a young man would result in life-long friendships. And yet, the warmth is counterbalanced by a certain dispassion; Sir Richard does not dwell on the emotion of an incident. He ‘tells it like it is’. And perhaps this ability to set aside the emotion is a key to his success in public administration and people management.

I don’t think it is too much to state that Into the Midst of Things is one of the best air force memoirs I have read in a long time. It reveals the person, it recounts interesting stories from a very interesting flying career and, happily, it is well-produced and almost perfectly copyedited. I have two criticisms, however. OAFH obviously had access to Sir Richard’s personal photo albums, so I would have liked to have seen more photos. And, with a career that crossed the paths of so many other fliers and important people, I believe an index is essential. The price of the book is clearly subsidized so I think a little extra should be spent on these essentials. These minor criticisms aside, this is an enthralling must-have read for the aviation enthusiast and anyone else interested in Australian memoir. Highly recommended.