26 February 2013

Blood, Sweat And Valour - Steve Brew

You know the times when you just have to sit back and take stock of what you see before you?  Often, it is a good thing to be sitting down as the euphoria and awe that washes over you might be a bit too much!  Such was the case when my copy of Steve Brew's epic work on No. 41 Squadron - Blood, Sweat And Valour - arrived in the mail yesterday. 

Epic is an understatement but the only other word that comes close is "brick".  At 980+ pages this book is simply massive yet, cleverly, maintains a manageable size in that it would not look out of place among the big hardback fiction books that top the bestseller lists.  Fiction it most certainly is not of course.  As one of two units to receive the Spitfire Mk XII in 1943, No. 41 Squadron and its EB codes are a familiar sight to RAF, Spitfire and WW2 afficianados.  Exploiting the first Griffon-powered Spitfire in operational service to the hilt, the Squadron excelled particularly against the V-1 flying bomb threat.

However, while the Mk XII is perhaps the most famous 'face' of the Squadron post-Battle of Britain, there is a reason why this volume (effectively volume two) is so large.  No. 41 Squadron was involved in just about every major operation that has since become iconic within the history of the RAF - Dieppe, D-Day, Operation Big Ben (anti-V2 ops) and the Arnhem landings.  A ridiculously impressive service record that deserves a ridiculously comprehensive 'biography'.

This has been achieved with BSV and is an absolute credit to the tireless work of Steve Brew.  He is the current historian for the Squadron and, beyond the valued relationships he has developed with current and past members, has a direct and proud link to the unit in that his great uncle was shot down and taken prisoner in 1941.  A very quick flick-through of the book revealed an attention to detail very rarely seen particularly with regard to personal details ... and not just of aircrew.  This is truly a tribute to every serviceman who had the privilege of calling the Squadron home.

As you'd expect from a book of this size and detail, there is a lot of text.  Happily, there is no separate photo section.  The more than 300 photographs can be found throughout the book and are placed so as to be relevant to the text surrounding them.  Nothing like putting a face to a name as you read.  One of the more personal aspects of the book are the numerous caricatures which reflect a lighter side of squadron life and are the perfect foil to the purposeful, and somewhat sobering, maps and tables.  Text that is missing, however, is an index.  This would have been invaluable but its absence is understandable given how much bigger it would have made the book.  Fortunately, Steve Brew has circumvented this somewhat by including a downloadable personnel index on his BSV website.

A word of advice.  This is, obviously, a very heavy book and I was reliably informed it will justifiably retail in Australia for more than $70.  I am not in this game for free books so rather than expect publishers Fonthill Media (they have excelled themselves with the production of what must have been a challenging project to put together) to foot the bill, I bought my copy through an Abebooks seller in the UK for roughly, all up, A$40.  I am a strong supporter of book stores but, like you, have a limited budget for such things so like to 'invest' wisely. 

That this book is accessible affordably is something to take advantage of as its value goes beyond anything monetary.  It will teach, enlighten, move and entertain even the most 'hardened' reader of this genre.  BSV is the shining light that guides us down the historical path to a time seven decades in the past.  It is a past we are losing as the men of that time dwindle in number.  Blood, Sweat And Valour keeps their memory alive like no other RAF squadron history before.

10 February 2013

They Hosed Them Out - John Bede Cusack

I'm not much of a fan of aircrew fiction.  For the most part I find little, niggly errors (factual and historical and perhaps some not so small) that get under my skin. That said, the same can be found in non-fiction books on the same subject! I do admire the ability to write and publish one's own book but, really, aircrew fiction is not for me. I mean, there's so many true stories out there - some more outlandish and incredible than the most gung-ho fiction author's imagination - I'll never have time for anything else!

However, where the fiction is written by a former airman, I am more than happy to recognise the exception to the rule. Here's someone who was there and saw it all, for better or for worse. Whatever the reason for writing a fiction story rather than a non-fiction one is not for me to ponder (too much). I am just grateful the effort was made and, in doing so, a window to the man's soul is revealed. It would take an iron will of a type never seen before to not let one's opinions and emotions be reflected in the story. Understanding what they went through is part of respecting and honouring their memory and a 'fictionalised' account can achieve this just as well.

They Hosed Them Out's reputation precedes it but, until now, it has remained somewhat of an enigma. Published incomplete, but with no effect on the story, it was written by former air gunner John Bede Cusack ... whose name didn't even appear on the cover (pseudonym John Beede). So, an enigma wrapped in a mystery etc etc. Whatever it was, THTO's impact cannot be denied. This fictionalised autobiographical effort has been justifiably elevated to 'classic' status and shares this pantheon with the well-known (non-fiction) works of Don Charlwood and Ivan Southall.

How can something like this have new life breathed into it? Why not just ride on the coat tails of the book's legacy? Fortunately, this was not the approach taken when this new edition was put together. Wanting to honour Cusack publicly, perhaps giving the man the publicity he somewhat avoided, this new edition has included, for the first time, all of the chapters originally written and, again for the first time, included his full name on the cover. It does not stop there, however, as the editor, Robert Brokenmouth, has gone to great lengths to, where possible, reference the people and events of this fictional account to Cusack's logbook (and other sources) and the operations he was known to have flown. This has been achieved through the use of footnoting and appendices so the original narrative is in no way interrupted or impaired. It is a wonderful piece of work with the added gem of a short biography of Cusack written by his daughter.

So, not only do you get to experience a classic book in its entirety for the first time but you also see just how firmly this work of fiction is planted in reality. The seed planted by 'Beede' many decades ago has truly matured. The original was hard to put down and is truly revered by those who have lost themselves between the covers. Expect the same from the new edition ... including the appendices!

Happily, this new THTO comes presented as a high-quality paperback. Wakefield Press' tagline on their website is "We love good stories and publish beautiful books". No argument here. The pages are crisp and the book has that lovely, solid feel to it that I have come to expect from quality publishers in Australia and New Zealand. 

What excites me the most about this book is that it is not 'just another' heavy bomber crew book. If you haven't read the book, this new edition may give you that false impression with the cover image. Cusack flew as a gunner in Wellingtons, Venturas (Eindhoven raid, anyone?!) and Mitchells. I can't even think of a book written by someone who flew all of these workhorse types operationally during their wartime career.  They are certainly few and far between and, with the justifiably massive interest in Bomber Command's heavy campaign at the moment, that's what makes the timing of this new edition so important. These were the 'other' bomber men and they will be remembered. They Hosed Them Out is fiction but not like anything you have experienced before.