podcast: (download: duration 6m 31s/9mb)
I read a good book the other day #11
“What does ejaculated mean?”
(Cough, cough) “Er-hum… Sorry son, what was that?”
“Percy ejaculated. What does it mean?”
Uncomfortable shuffling on the landing outside my bedroom, where Dad just happened to be passing when I asked my innocent question. “Well, it means, um… sort of… Is your bed a bit wet, son?”
“No dad. Is that what ejaculated means?”
“Never mind, son. It’s nothing to worry about. Settle down now, eh? Time for lights out.”
“But dad, it says in this book…”
“OhMyGod,” (rushes into my bedroom) “Lemmeseethatbook. What are they teaching kids in school these days?”
Dutifully I hand over my now precious copy of The Cockpit to father. It is nearly 11 inches by 8, an inch and a half thick, quite a weighty tome for a youngster. Published sometime between the World Wars it is now getting on a bit, and such are the dangers of archaic language in old books that I swear that conversation actually took place between me and my father when I was maybe eight or nine years old. Okay, so I invented the detail, but the gist is there.
Listening to Dan Snow’s Voices of the First World War on the wireless recently (BBC Radio 4: the Home Service, don’t y’know…) has been inspiring. Sadly, there are no WW1 ‘vets left now. All gone. Only their recorded voices survive to tell it as it really was. They inspired me in this centenary period of World War One to re-read The Cockpit: Flying Adventures for Young Pilots.
You’ve all heard of Biggles? The Cockpit is a collection of short stories of World War One flying. There is one Biggles story in The Cockpit, as well as seven others by a variety of authors, all brilliantly evocative of the times and of the mind-set that pervaded such stories in that heroic period of sanitised reconstruction of history for public consumption. My favourite features Comstock the Canadian Camel crasher, a Sopwith Camel being a variety of WW1 biplane, of course. He is succeeded by Glorious Devon the Perfect Pilot.
THE BEAUTY OF FLIGHT one of eight colour plates by Stanley Orton Bradshaw depicts a Hawker Hart of 33 Squadron RAF, probably the most modern aeroplane depicted in The Cockpit. The diagonal stripes are a defect of digital scanning not present on the original.
There is no publication date in my copy of The Cockpit, but in this year of 2015, fully 100 years since the times and events described in The Cockpit I thought it appropriate to read again one of my favourite books from childhood. The pages are yellowed now with age, but the print is large and the paper stiff as card, so despite its thickness there are not so many pages as to daunt a nine year old. As well as line drawings depicting exciting scenes from each story there are eight gorgeous full colour plates depicting aircraft of the time in flight, one of which, the Hawker Hart, to my eye, shows in its profile hints of the Hurricane later to be developed for another dreadful war.
In The Cockpit, pilots and their gunners are heroic figures. They shoot and bomb and deal with spies and outwit the enemy’s best efforts. Their machines – that’s what they call their aeroplanes – are of the most advanced for their time. They outfly and outgun the enemy’s machines and bring them down in flames. All the stuff of adventure for boys of nine or ten. But in spite of all the carnage, nobody seems to suffer too greatly. Nobody is horribly burned or dies in agony, shot to pieces by red hot lead or plunged headlong into the ground at full flying speed. False fantasy? Not truly representative of the horrors that must have befallen many of those heroic pilots and aircrew? Yes, sure, but of such stuff is adventure made for nine year olds, without giving them nightmares. It would be just too cynical, even for me, to suspect The Cockpit of being recruitment propaganda for the next world war shortly to follow, the one in which my father served.
Do beware of letting your nine year old loose with The Cockpit, though. Some guidance might be in order. That archaic language includes words and attitudes that we might consider dubious these days. U-boats are called pig-boats, for example, which I assume was authentic language for the time but which displays an attitude to Johnny Foreigner that we might no longer wish to encourage in our children.
Don’t ask to borrow my copy of The Cockpit. I image it came to me via an uncle from one of my grandfathers whom I am sad never to have met, since he died the year I was born. I treasure it now for its heritage as well as its power to take me happily back to childhood, a momentary escape from our modern world of trouble and strife. My copy of The Cockpit is not in the best condition. It is a bit ragged round the edges, stuck together here and there with bits of tape and bearing the mouldy signs of some long past storage in a damp place. It’s my guess that you’ll be lucky to find The Cockpit even in an antiquarian bookshop, but if you do then grab it at any cost. It’s a rattling good read that takes me right back to that innocent question one night in my boyhood…
Father studies the page I show him and reads aloud the offending lines: “Forty pounds of cast iron, high explosive, delicate concussion mechanism and aluminium guide tail went hurtling toward the monster of the deep. “Dash!” ejaculated Percy, as he watched the yellow egg strike the water ten feet from the greasy-sleek U-boat. There was a gurgling roar, a torrent of foamy sea water, and that was all. A complete miss.”
“Whew!” father ejaculates, relieved. “It’s… an expression of surprise, son. That’s all.” He hands back my book with an indulgent smile and allows ten minutes more for reading before lights out.
Stories in The Cockpit, published by John Hamilton Ltd, London:
HOODOO by Kenneth Quintrel
PRICELESS PERCY by Arch Whitehouse
THE UNFORGIVING MINUTE by Kenneth Quintrel
THE ACE OF SPADES by Captain W.E.Johns (a Biggles story)
FRIGHTFULLY BRIGHT by Kenneth Quintrel
MAD MIDNIGHT by Arch Whitehouse
THE ENGLISH OFFENSIVE by Rudolf Stark (a flying story told from the German point of view)
ONE CROWDED HOUR by Kenneth Quintrel
PS: I checked ebay and found one copy of The Cockpit for sale at £52, so there are copies out there if you search.