Monday, April 16, 2007

Dover Castle in Kent is one of those really satisfyingly castley castles, if you know what I mean - moats, ramparts, tunnels, hugely thick walls, a fabulous keep...the sort of place one imagines English castles to be when you're small and reading books about England from the other side of the world. This weekend I visited with a friend and we had a whale of a time exploring. Did you know that apparently Henry VIII moved around a lot because of the stench in his castles when everyone was in residence? It looks like Dover used rainwater in the garderobes, however, so it may have been on the cutting edge of lavatory science! The stained glass windows in his castles kept his glass cutters busy - every time he replaced a queen, they had to replace the windows! There are fantastic medieval tunnels with the guns still in place and a tucked away concealed guardroom at the bottom of the moat, with a simple but effective multiple gated entrance slightly easier to defend. You really get a sense of the age of the place down there (the castle was built in the 1180s).

One of the big attractions is that beneath the castle, in the famous white cliffs themselves, are a rabbit warren of tunnels begun in the Napoleonic era but extensively expanded during the twentieth century. The evacuation of Dunkirk was organized from here and you can still see military command equipment and paperwork on display from the period. There was an underground hospital as well, and extraordinary footage shows ships sinking and bombers being shot down off the coast with crew bailing out in parachutes. I was particularly amazed by this because serendipitously, like so many books I read, the latest choice slots right in with this period. Last week on the new books display at the library was K.M. Peyton's most recent offering, which I snaffled up immediately. A choice between a "how to drive" manual and fiction? No contest!

I loved Peyton's Flambards series as a teen - the horses were ok, but what really gripped me were the planes and cars - the excitement of new inventions coming into their own was perfectly described. She had a superb sense of place and time, and I also remember the series being rather angst-ridden and romantic, which is perfect young teenage reading. I haven't read them since, so this recollection is no doubt flawed.

The new Peyton, BLUE SKIES AND GUNFIRE, is set in the Second World War at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, and having just seen the footage at Dover when I started the book this weekend, I had vivid images of aerial bombing raids in my head as I read. Josie is evacuated from London to stay with relatives in the country. Hormonal and stroppy, it is a life-changing experience for her. She has moved near an airbase and by the end of the book we have discovered, through Peyton's plot-driven descriptions, something of the dreadful realities of the lives of fighter and bomber crew at that time.

Yesterday's Sunday Times (another coincidence) carried a review by Michael Burleigh of a new book out on on RAF Bomber Command (BOMBER BOYS: Fighting Back 1940-1945 by Patrick Bishop). Burleigh writes: "The statistics are sobering. Between September 1939 and May 1945, RAF Bomber Command lost 47,268 men, killed on operations, with a further 8,305 killed in training missions. Almost half of the 125,000 men who volunteered for this service did not survive: a rate of attrition considerably higher than that suffered by officers in the first world war." If you cannot quite picture what this means, the review notes:
The odds were against the bomber boys. In 1942, fewer than half of all heavy-bomber crews would survive the 30 sorties of their first tour and one in five would make it through the second. In 1943, only one in six could expect to survive one tour and one in 40 a second. A Canadian airman kept a book, listing names and odds. "Do you know, Bill, you're on the chop list tonight?" When asked to stop, he objected:"We know some of us are not going to return."
H.E. Bates's FAIR STOOD THE WIND FOR FRANCE begins with an eerie description of flying back towards England following a mission, and the thoughts in the pilot's head as the wounded plane limps and then crashes. Bearing in mind that Bates himself flew during the war, this description is no doubt creepily accurate. In BLUE SKIES AND GUNFIRE Josie dates a young man, but then falls in love with his brother, a fighter pilot. While one might be forgiven for thinking the result would be a fairly predictable read, it isn't. For one thing, Peyton's own experience (she was aged ten to sixteen over the course of the war years) shines through. The plot delivers a real kicker at the end, which has you re-evaluating human nature (I won't say more). This is teen fiction of the highest order, especially for those who like historical novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It seems appropriate to finish this post with an extract (apologies for the length, but I think it is charming) from Peyton's wonderful Author's Note at the start of the book, as her experience colours the book throughout. She writes:
I lived on the outskirts of London and saw much of the Battle of Britain in the sky above. I was on a train going to school which was machine-gunned, and had to shelter under trees a few times out in the country from a Spitfire, flying very low, shooting up a Messerschmitt, or vice versa. I was not evacuated until the time of the doodlebugs, when I went to an aunt in Birmingham after school broke up for the summer holidays. The doodlebugs were terrifying, but I actually enjoyed the excitement of the rest of it. We were not bombed out, luckily, although we had all our windows blown in, and my school was very knocked about. In winter we had lessons wearing all our outdoor clothes, including gloves for there were no windows and no heating. We all had terrible chillblains.
So this book, although fictitious, is written with a lot of true things in it. I did have a very romantic, innocent affair with a man ten years older than myself who was wireless operator/gunner in a bomber. He flew on raids over Germany night after night and was shot down once, parachuting into the sea. He was very lucky to stay alive. His brother, a pilot, was killed. He proposed to me under the cherry blossom in Kew Gardens. I have never forgotten him.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous David said...

And? Did she accept?

12:45 pm  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I never read those Flambards books (I was not aware of them when I was growing up) but I did see some of the TV series ages ago, and liked it.

I did, however, read Fair Stood the Wind for France when a child (about 12 I think) and loved it, in common with about all H E Bates ever wrote. Have you read The Purple Plain? That was good -- or at least I thought so at the time. Fair Stood the Wind for France was one of the first really sad books I read, I think.

I don't think I've been to Dover castle, though I have seen it from afar. I've enjoyed Hever Castle (home of the Boleyns) and Leeds Castle in Kent, though -- if you haven't visited those you might well enjoy them. Ann Boleyn's letters are at Hever, including the one where she begs Henry not to have her executed.

9:10 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

David - no idea; she doesn't say, so my guess is perhaps not.

Maxine, I've never read any other Bates except for this one. It was a school set text when I was 16 and I reread it last year to see whether my memory of it had held up over the intervening years. It was very poignant, sad, and much better than I expected. A great book for teenagers I think.

Castle explorations in Kent coming up this summer I think! Thanks for the suggestions.

7:37 am  

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