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I lost my favourite book over twenty years ago. I could not remember its title or the author’s name so it seemed unlikely I would ever see it again. But this week, by chance, I rediscovered it.
I had arranged to meet my friend to watch an circus performance on London’s Southbank. She was delayed, so I watched the performance by myself. I moved to the front to join 30 confused and delighted school children. The show was outside, on one of those sunny days when the Southbank is the happiest place on Earth.
The two performers climbed and spun from tall flexing poles- swinging in dramatic switchblade movements- for the climax they wrapped themselves in reels of clingfilm, which reminded me of the funniest book I’ve ever read, ‘Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel Of Roy Orbison In Clingfilm’. This contains short stories, written in the voice of an Orbison clingfilm fetishist. Each story is a contrived set-up, leading (inevitably) to Roy Orbison being wrapped in clingfilm.
The show ended and my friend still hadn’t arrived, so I went to the book market under Waterloo Bridge. Being a mono-maniac with time to burn, I immediately looked for books about aeroplanes. The first I came across was entitled ‘Air Shows’, and was a rather dry guide from the early 1980s.
As I walked toward the next stall, I spotted a small landscape book with the image of a BOAC VC10 taking-off on the cover. Within seconds of opening it, I realised it was THE MISSING BOOK.
There have been two books that have changed my life, directly and profoundly. The second was The Wild, Wild World of The Cramps by Ian Johnston. The one I was now holding was the first.
I double-checked. It was the book. I hadn’t held a copy in twenty years. Every photo I could recall in absolute detail. I ran to the book-seller and paid the £3 pencilled in the inside cover.
I have tried to avoid looking at it until now. I want to share with you my reunion feelings as they happen.
Ok, I’m ready now. First impressions- my initial copy had no dust jacket, the cover image, in the dismally dreary colour reproduction of 1970, was new to me. The title ‘a source book of aircraft‘. The lowercase ‘a’ was strangely progressive, it made the little book appear friendly. As I look at the cover, I hear thunder outside. Written and compiled by m. allward (all lowercase). The reviews inside are lovely:
“For transport enthusiasts of any age…clear illustrations and and neatly laid out vital statistics for instant identification of the beloved objects.” The Sunday Telegraph
Beloved objects, how marvellous. Beloved indeed.
The Irish Independent said:
“easy reading in a survey ranging from the first perilous contraption to the latest droop-snouted supercilious model. There also grows on the reader a profound respect to those who flew the early machines or even believed the machines would fly.”
SUPERCILIOUS! Ha ha, a little bitchy snipe at Concorde, at a time when it was a fashionable target of criticism. I was just about to open the first page when my mobile phone barked (remind me to change my ringtone). I have a visitor. Well, I’ve waited twenty years, I can wait another couple of hours. Time for tea with the artist Katie Horwich.
I’m back. My first copy I marked with crosses and ticks, showing my approval or disapproval of each type. I was about five when I first saw the book. It introduced me to aeroplanes. I fell in love with aeroplanes from seeing them in this book.
The book is organised chronologically, starting with the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer I. As a child I did not like the early machines. They were not sleek, they resembled piers or bridges or fences. The first sexy aircraft was the Nieuport 17 Scout of 1915. On the side is a skull and crossed bones on a heart, a tattoo-like artwork which brings the ’17 to life.
The locations of the aeroplanes in the pictures were mysterious. Large empty airfields, woods and lakes. The Empire of 1936 was on a body of water next to a castle, a frothy wake streaming from its hull.
The Spitfire was unique in having two pictures- surely this made it the king of the aeroplanes?
The handsome Boeing 314 sat on a sunlit ocean and was photographed from the air- where was it? What was it doing? The absence of captions forced my imagination to make up the story.
Rocket-propelled nazis and jet Christs
When good quality photos could not be found (or copyrights granted?) the aircraft were shown in exciting, but naïve, paintings. The paintings were crudely over-painted photos, each seemingly completed in five minutes. This naïvety could not conceal the mad excitement of the Messerschmitt Me.163; a rocket-propelled nazi fighter and the first aircraft in the book with raked back wings. If that wasn’t titillating enough, the opposite page showed a gorgeous image of the Tempest fighter. As a boy this high-sided machine reminded me of a knight’s charger, the shape speaking of massive power and nobility. The Salamander of 1944 was cool, but incomprehensible, with a black boiler trying to mount it like a randy labrador.
The Sea Hawk of 1947 was a pure, uncluttered shape. The shape of the aircraft resembling a jet-propelled Christ on the cross.
The Sabre carried USAF markings, happy and garish, and familiar to me from toys and comics. The Comet of 1949 shared the same Christian looks as the Sea Hawk. A mass of well-balanced compound curves, the Comet had the gentle look of a deer.
In striking contrast to this- the Draken and F-104 were flying daggers! They looked to me like swords or battle-axes. They were speed, aggression and purpose. I loved them, maybe the most of all. The HS 125 and Trident 2E (I have used the aircraft titles and designations from the book), were further Christians, but this time with pally, dog-like snouts.
The MiG-23 was a revelation. It was Soviet, and therefore little was known about it. The painting showed a duet of zooming spaceships. They looked invincible. The designation ‘MiG-23’, later proved to be wrong. The aircraft was actually the MiG-25, the legendary ‘Foxbat’.
The world in the pictures was now looking more like the world I knew in 1983. The Harrier of 1966, with its ventilator-like nozzles and oversized tyres was apparently landing in Hampstead Heath, behind were winter-stripped trees. The setting familiar to a British child. The Viggen of 1967 earned a big tick; a gothic cathedral that had transformed into a fighter and flown off over some enigmatic misty landscape.
In 1969 the world ends. Concorde comes into land, in all its supercilious droop-snouted glory.
Seeing the book again was a main-lining of nostalgia that I will be unable to feel again, even if I bury this book for another twenty years.
I dedicate this article to Beatrice Brown, as without her terrible experiences on the London Underground that summer day, I would not have been reunited with this old childhood friend.
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