We’ve recently had a Waterstones bookshop open in our “city of philosophers” (Lichfield), and they kicked off what we all hope is going to be a series of book events with a signing by the Reverend Richard Coles of his mystery novel Murder Before Evensong.
Since he had been on Celebrity Mastermind with a specialist subject of the Mapp and Lucia novels, which had also been my Mastermind specialist subject in the first round, it seemed we might have something in common (we’d both played in bands in our more youthful days, though he is a much better musician than me, and had far greater success with The Communards than I did with Ersatz..
So I decided to take along two of my own Mapp and Lucia pastiches, Mapp at Fifty, and the very exclusive Captain Puffin Comes to Tilling (not available on Amazon – special edition printed for the Gathering of the Friends of Tilling last year).
As it happened, there were far more people at the event than I had expected. At 12:32 (start of event scheduled for 12:30) the shop had sold out of Murder Before Evensong, so I bought a couple of the Rev Coles’s non-fictions, and joined the 40–50-strong queue.
When my time came, we actually managed to have a little chat, and I’d pre-signed one of his books with Major Benjy’s favourite shout of “Quai Hai!” and he did the same for me.
I read a lot of history for fun. I’m interested in how we fight – what we fight with, and how we use these weapons, even though I am really a pacifist at heart. I’m especially interested in aeroplanes (airplanes to some of the world), and have been even more so since I took up scale modelling again during lockdown (current build is a 1/48 MiG-21MF (“Fishbed”) in Bundeswehr livery following German reunification).
So, when I saw Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” offered for sale, I actually bought a copy (we have a Waterstones in Lichfield at last!). I was disappointed. I’m not an expert in bombing tactics or strategy, but I flatter myself that I know more than the average bear.
So to read a book about “the bomber will always get through” without a mention of Douhet or Balbo and only a passing reference to Billy Mitchell seemed to me to be extraordinary. Instead, emphasis is placed on a small group of US Army aviators who are reported to have a belief in the ability of a small force of aircraft (even single plane) to perform precision bombing on a logistical Schwerpunkt such as a ball-bearing factory, thereby saving the lives of thousands by a surgical strike.
In this, the aviators would be aided by the Norden bombsight, designed by an eccentric monomaniac, described in loving detail in this book, which in theory would allow the placement of a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In practice, of course, this proved completely unworkable. Winds, vibration, the difficulty of mass-producing a precision device, and human factors made it impossible to achieve this laudable goal (laudable because it would reduce the number of casualties needed to achieve a definitive war-winning result.
The British, of course, under “Bomber” Harris, scoffed at this utopian vision of warfare, and carpet-bombed German cities at night, when precision bombing was impossible. They looked at the American Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids which cost the USAAF over 60 planes and 500 men, while having results which were less than conclusive at best and wondered what the “Yanks” were playing at.
Curtis LeMay, a less than idealistic USAAF general, once he had been transferred to the Pacific theatre from Europe, decided that the best way to use the US military’s latest and most expensive project, the B-29 Superfortress, was to bomb the inflammable wood, straw and paper Japanese civilian cities with the newly invented napalm incendiaries which spilled sticky liquid fire over everything and everyone. They even built Japanese style urban dwellings to test the effectiveness of napalm.
Eventually, thanks to the discovery of the jet stream at the projected operating altitude of the B-29, these massive aircraft were sent night after night at low level to burn Japanese cities – and thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians – indiscriminately to the ground.
But ultimately, the book somewhat underplays the horror of these mass killings, other than to describe them in American terms. The planes were so filled with the stench of burned human beings that they had to be disinfected after the missions.
And yet they continued, even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a professor of history recently said in a conversation with me about this book, one problem is “the pigheaded belief that if it was Americans committing the atrocities, that somehow meant they weren’t “atrocities””. Actually, LeMay is reported to have said that if the Allies lost the war against Japan, he would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. He was fully aware of the fact that he was burning thousands to death, and however much the Japanese were depersonalised as “yellow monkeys” and the like, he was aware of the crimes he was committing. No wonder he was satirised in Dr Strangelove as General Jack D. Ripper.
To me, the book started with a reasonable idea – the story of the precision bombing, but it was full of facts which are disputable (for example, in 1936, were variable-pitch airscrews really standard? Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t get them until 1941). And the emphasis was on the wrong people in my opinion: Norden and Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) as examples. Not a recommended book if you know anything about WWII air power and strategy.
I’ve been recently encouraged to write a story featuring G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Though both are British detectives, and can be seen as occupying almost the same space and time (England, especially London, in the early 20th century), there is a marked difference in their surroundings.
Sherlock Holmes’s London is one of mean streets, when it is not one of high society. We can imagine ourselves alongside Holmes as he treads through the dark stinking alleys of the East End, or examines the fibres of a bell-pull in a drawing-room.
G.K.Chesterton’s London (and indeed his England) has more of a fantastical quality to it. These are to passages which have stuck in my memory since I first read them. First, London.
The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate.
The Invisible Man
And here we are in the Norfolk Broads of Father Brown:
They pushed slowly up the brightening river; the glowing violet of the sky and the pale gold of the moon grew fainter and fainter, and faded into that vast colourless cosmos that precedes the colours of the dawn. When the first faint stripes of red and gold and grey split the horizon from end to end they were broken by the black bulk of a town or village which sat on the river just ahead of them. It was already an easy twilight, in which all things were visible, when they came under the hanging roofs and bridges of this riverside hamlet. The houses, with their long, low, stooping roofs, seemed to come down to drink at the river, like huge grey and red cattle. The broadening and whitening dawn had already turned to working daylight before they saw any living creature on the wharves and bridges of that silent town.
The Sins of Prince Saradine
I have chosen to attempt to place my story immediately following the Great War. We may assume that Holmes, though considerably older than the man who wrestled with Professor Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls, is still active as a detective, and that his faithful Watson, greying, if not grey, is still with him. The London I have chosen is closer to G.K.Chesterton’s, because I am writing my story in a Chestertonian style. Even though Father Brown is indeed a parish priest, close to his East London flock and their very human privations, his surroundings are never coloured in with the gritty realism that permeates Holmes’s London.
I like this period of the early 1920s, because I feel it is a time of great change, socially, and indeed morally. The chaos that resulted from the double whammy of the Great War and the flu pandemic is a very fruitful ground for a psychological drama. Here’s how I have begun the story:
It was in that period immediately following the Great War that the events related here took place – that time of moral doubt and uncertainty that followed the great bloodletting of the nations, itself succeeded by a virulent plague that rivalled those experienced by Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Men’s souls and consciences were sorely tried, and ancient beliefs and practices that had remained dormant stirred once again, and rose to the surface to challenge the beliefs that had been held for so long.
from my forthcoming Father Brown Confronts the Devil