30 September 2012

Don Charlwood - RIP

Don Charlwood was, first and foremost, a writer.  He will always be remembered by generations of Australians for his between-the-wars Australian childhood classic All The Green Year (recently republished this year).  This book was a staple English class text for thousands of young Australians and became a favourite of many.  Charlwood spent much of his childhood in Frankston, Victoria, to the south-east of Melbourne (the setting for ATGY), and his ability to put his memories into a detailed and eloquent story earned him many fans.

If anything, All The Green Year is the perfect foil for Charlwood’s other well-known work – No Moon Tonight.  This story of his time training and flying as a navigator with No. 103 Squadron (on Halifaxes and Lancasters) remains highly-regarded as one of the most accurate and moving accounts of a Bomber Command crewman (and crew) at war.  If you want to know what it was really like flying in a bomber over Germany at night then this is one of the books you must read.  DC wrote NMT while working as an air-traffic controller (and, later, ATC trainer) in Australia post-war and one wonders if living and breathing aviation at the time was the catalyst for the book.  I doubt it would be hard for any veteran to drag up memories of the war but talking to aircraft as they tracked through his area must surely have brought the events of the previous decade flooding back.

NMT was Charlwood’s first book with ATGY being his best-selling.  They are two books that are poles apart in content but, really, the latter could be regarded as a ‘prequel’ to the former.  The children of AGTY who lived those halcyon days in Frankston – before the popular beachside holiday destination was swallowed by the incessant urban behemoth that is Melbourne – had a coming of age like no other in the form of the Great Depression and a world war.  Did the sacrifice Charlwood wrote about in NMT cause him to reflect further on the young lives cut short and the path they followed to their volunteering for Bomber Command (and, consequently, his path)?  Did he want to remind the world – a world that had since criticised the large-scale bombing of German cities - that the men who flew the bombers had had a childhood that was the polar opposite to the world in which they died … or have I made a connection that is not there?

Donald Earnest Cameron Charlwood died in June.  He was actively writing in his final year and continued to be published in newspapers.  His many books and articles have left a legacy that will ultimately dwarf his eight decade writing career.  To provide such an esteemed author and man with the tribute he deserves, the meanderings and somewhat misguided analysis above falls far short.  I will leave the ultimate tip of the hat to another respected author.  Regular ABR contributor Kristen Alexander is an author with a particular eye for the personal detail – an eye that looks beyond the operational and wartime life of a man and sees the family life, education and vocational aspects that moulded the man who went to war.  Here, she reviews Charlwood’s ‘other’ Bomber Command book, Journeys Into Night:

Many of you would have read Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight where, in a novelistic style, he tells of his experiences in Bomber Command. I consider that one of the best aviation books I’ve read. His 1991 book, Journeys into Night, is ‘up there’ in my ‘best ever’ list.

As with the earlier book, Journeys into Night is thoughtfully and lyrically written but this reflects the maturity of someone who is looking back on the distant past. Like No Moon Tonight it deals with the young Charlwood’s experiences in his bomber squadron but it also follows closely the experiences and fates of his training comrades and members of his crew.

Charlwood uses extracts from his own diaries as well as the writings of his companions, so the reader is continually experiencing shifting perceptions: the fresh experience; the mature reflection. There is a strong bittersweet sentiment running through the account and the reader is constantly reminded that many will not return—there is almost a sense of a ‘countdown’. For example, ‘Two lads who sleep near me failed to return this morning’, he wrote to his young lass, ‘I woke when the rest came in and heard the news. I saw their belongings still in their places…It all happens so quietly that one does not realise that they have been victims of war’.

Alongside the sadness, there is an occasional flash of that unmistakeable brand of Aussie humour and irreverence. Like the time, for instance, they encountered the Station Warrant Officer, a florid, elderly-looking man. He wore the ribbons of ‘14–‘18 and would oft declare that he didn’t believe in parachutes. Of course, the boys, knowing they may need to rely on theirs to save their lives, quickly realised he was a ‘wingless wonder’, and doubted he had ever been high enough to need one!

The humour was also poignantly apparent in times of danger, like when the MO was trying to convince them of the good sense of using oxygen during flight. The MO had an uphill battle as there was a degree of male braggadocio about this: real men could do with less oxygen, just as they could hold liquor better than the rest. It wasn’t until he provided them with a practical example of the effects of anoxia, that it sunk in:

"We were taken up to 28,000 feet, three of us with oxygen and three without. The three without all started well enough, but gradually became like drunks. Watching Harry work out simple division was excruciatingly funny…When his calculations reached the end of the page, Harry continued with supreme confidence down his trouser leg.

Then the MO asked Charlwood to feel his oxygen lead. Charlwood found it plugged in, but the Doc informed him he had actually been unconscious until Harry had connected him."

If you can get your hands on this, it is well worth a read. Tinged with sadness and the inevitability of death, yes, but full of the joy of mateship, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.