11 December 2012

Luck, pleasant surprises ... and Typhoons

I'm always on the lookout for books featuring the men who flew the Hawker Typhoon.  It is one of those aircraft that demands awe and, considering the environment it worked in, it certainly gets it ... the men even more so.  There's not a massive amount of books on the subject out there - there are some very well known ones - so I regard finding any memoir-style title about the Tiffie and her men as a bit of a coup.  As you can imagine, the excitement can know no bounds.

Anyway, in late October we were in Echuca, Victoria, on a family long weekend. Echuca is a lovely place with a lot of history. Anywhere with a river scores high on my scale of places to visit. As the family is wont to do, I found myself wandering the main street behind the heritage port precinct and stopping in at various shops selling trinkets and nibbles. As ever, my book senses were on high alert and any shop with a “oo” in its title (I hate bookkeepers!) had my attention. My nose was set to its paper setting and my ears were tuned-in for the rapturous screams of fellow book-lovers finding that one title they’ve always been after. A look through one second-hand shop – books and antiques – revealed an interestingly diverse military section but nothing that caught my eye.

We eventually made it across the road and I sauntered into a dedicated second-hand bookseller, Read Heeler (geddit?) Book Shop. A quick nod and “G’day” to the man behind the counter was the extent of my pleasantries as I made a beeline, again, for the military section.

Scanning the shelves, I was pleased to see several familiar titles but I did note the prices were beyond my budget or, at least, I had paid less for my copy of the same title. However, Michael Enright’s Flyers Far Away had “$10” pencilled on its first page and, since I didn’t have that title in my collection of ‘anthology’ aircrew books, the visit to this bookshop was already a good one. Not astounding, just good.

This changed rapidly as, several shelves further on in my scan, a slim volume caught my eye and two words that, when I had thought about it in the past, I thought I’d never see caught my eye as if they’d just lit up. There it was. Typhoon Warfare. Reminiscences of a Rocket Firing Typhoon Pilot. The first copy I had seen. Not since finding Sortehaug’s The Wild Winds at the RNZAF Museum had a book leapt off the shelf into my hands more quickly. Immediately I knew this was perhaps my one chance to buy this book (something to look into there regarding another edition perhaps?) as the author had passed away. He had been selling his copies for $20 so with some trepidation, I opened the cover and was pleasantly surprised to see $15. In reality, that’s what the book is worth as a slim, second-hand paperback.

Long story short, $25 and a few more pleasantries later, I was walking out the front door of Read Heeler in somewhat of a daze. No one, other than my wife, would understand my jubilation and, indeed, she did nod approvingly with a knowing smile (or was it a "That's nice, dear"?) as I had once again bought books to add to our groaning (since rationalised slightly) shelves. Ah, basking in the warmth of a successful hunt.

Funnily enough, I pulled another rabbit out of the hat just this past Saturday. This time, however, it involved a book I could find relatively easily but was a fair way down the ‘wish list’. If only I’d known just how good it is…

I was in Melbourne overnight as I had to sit an exam on Saturday morning. Melbourne is one of those cities with lots of lovely little alleyways full of cafes and shops and nooks and crannies. The kind of place you’d expect to find eclectic and specialist bookshops (indeed, one of the leading military bookstores in the country, Hyland’s, is in the Melbourne CBD). However, the discount bookshop I found – its name escapes me but it’s between 440 and 480 Collins Street – was not in one of these alleys. I refrained from popping in until after the exam – no one was more surprised than me when I passed. The glow of a successful brain dump continued as my usual scan of the shelves, initially interesting but not heart-grabbingly so, settled on a 200-page hardback nestled in to the end of a shelf. The first thing I noticed was the Grub Street logo at the base of the spine. “Ooh, hello”, I breathed quietly.

The rest is history as I discovered a lovely (Grub Street do make fine books) copy of To Live Among Heroes by George Armour Bell. The Typhoons (yes, Tiffies again) on the cover are enough for me but the “A Medical Officer’s Insight into the Life of 609 Squadron in NW Europe 1944-45” will soften even the hardest of aviation hearts. Despite my excitement with regard to Typhoon Warfare, Bell’s book has proven to be my purchase of the year (in a year where The Bomber Command Memorial Book is on its way).

As I flew back to Jodi and Maggie that afternoon, I started reading even though I have two other books on the go. I was immediately struck by Bell’s humour and heart. It is a truly wonderfully written effort and there are already hints of his understanding of flying stress and the affinity he had for the pilots … and the trust and love they had for him. That the squadron led him astray in many ways is an understatement (he was, after all, a young Scottish doctor who had had a relatively sheltered and peaceful life) but he grew as both a man and a professional and felt the loss of his charges as keenly as the pilots who witnessed the “ball of fire”. At one stage on the plane I had to turn away from my fellow passengers as I collapsed into uncontrollable, body-shaking, tear-inducing laughter as Bell recounted a briefing by CO Johnny Wells (with an attending Dwight D Eisenhower!). On the next page, after again smiling at a pilot putting on his silk inners (gloves) and saying there were that many Tiffies on the op he was going up to direct traffic, the still present tears began to build again, but for the opposite reason, as Bell waited for said pilot to return from a costly trip…

To Live Among Heroes is what you always wish for when you settle down to read a new book. It pushes all of the buttons, is delightfully written and gives you that light-headedness and warm glow all good books do. Find a copy.  The rewards are immeasurable.

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