Going Solo

greenland (1040)

I have a soft spot for stories about early aviation (fact or fiction) and another one for the memoirs from Slightly Foxed, so when they recently published Going Solo, Roald Dahl’s memoir about his time working for Shell in East Africa in the 1930s and flying for RAF during WWII, I was a very early customer.

As a memoir it is a bit of a failure as it is hard to know which parts that are true and which that are not. Roald Dahl clearly doesn’t let pesky things such as accuracy get in the way of a good story and I am thus not sure how much I really learned about his life. However, I’ don’t really mind because even if he tells tall stories, they are great tall stories told by a fabulous story teller and that is an art form I admire.

I had promised myself to savour it for a bit and not finish it in one evening, as I did with his childhood memoir Boy, but it is a page-turner. I liked it even better than Boy.

Watching the world from above

Photo of two flying birds

As I loved Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry it is perhaps not surprising that I’ve recently been exploring other parts of his literary output. Specifically Night flight and Flight to Arras, translated by David Carter and William Rees respectively.

Night flight is focused on a South American air base and its leader during the time postal air traffic was in its pioneering and highly dangerous days. It is a fictional story but clearly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s own experiences as a pilot in such a company. I greatly enjoyed it but not as much as I did Wind, Sand and Stars. Often I prefer fiction to non-fiction as fiction usually allows the author to write a tighter or more interesting story. However, as Saint-Exupéry do these things brilliantly in his non-fiction the fictional element in this case only made me less involved in the plot. I would also have preferred to spend more time in the air with the pilots rather than at the air base. However, I did find it interesting to follow the thoughts of the leader who sent them into danger and desperately tried to bring them safely back. Overall a very good book but far from his best.

Flight to Arras on the other hand is a non-fiction text and much closer related to Wind, Sand and Stars. However, compared to that one it is a much sadder text. Whereas Wind, Sand and Stars was focused on the dangerous but also optimistic days of early air traffic, Flight to Arras takes place in the final weeks before the French surrender to the German invasion during WW2. The mission is to all appearances both pointless and suicidal and surrender is already inevitable. Much like in Wind, Sand and Stars we get the thrilling story of the mission parallel to the author’s philosophical musings. We follow his thoughts from surly resignation of the near certain death on this likely futile reconnaissance mission to an ultimately optimistic humanitarian message as he realises which kind of future he’d be willing to die for. I prefer Wind, Sand and Stars but this one is also a great book, in its best parts equally brilliant.

I count Flight to Arras as my Travel or Journey Classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge.


Wind, sand and stars

Footsteps in sand with wind ripples

I may have been somewhat unconvinced of the greatness of The Little Prince but Wind, sand and stars, also by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, more than made up for it.

The author was a pilot in the early days of air traffic and the memoir contains thrilling descriptions of these pioneering aviators and the dangers facing them. I would have loved this book for the flight scenes alone but it contains much more. Written as a collection of loosely connected essays it is partly a memoir of the early days of flying, partly a celebration of life and humanity.  In the end there is also a chapter about a visit in Spain during the civil war. It should feel disjointed but somehow the language and the love of life ties it together.

In the memoir he carefully describes the pilots, their air-crafts and the lofty world they inhabit. I especially enjoyed his description of the world below, written at a time when few people had been in a plane I imagine it must have sounded a bit like the astronauts’ descriptions of the world from space does to us.

It was written during the 1930s and his descriptions of the people he met during his time in Sahara are sometimes uncomfortable. However, unlike many of his contemporaries he had the advantage of writing about people he had interacted with and to some degree clearly respected. The result may not be a fair description of the people of Sahara but it’s probably a true portrait of how they would have appeared to a Frenchman at the time. As such I found it very interesting. I also appreciated his obvious love for Sahara, where he lived a few years, and which I felt resembled my own love for the Arctic.

All in all I greatly enjoyed this memoir and found it both thought-provoking and beautiful. I may not agree with all of his views but I found it a very worth-while read and am glad that the Classics club challenge made me discover it.

The full list of classics I have read or plan to read in the Classics Club challenge can be found here. In addition I count it as my 20th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge. Two other reviews of this book can be found here and here.



Some light flights with Worrals


I’ve been in the mood for some light reading recently, the type of entertaining reads that can be finished in one night. Usually that would have meant an Agatha Christie novel or some other golden-age crime novel but this time I made a new acquaintance, Worrals. Worrals is a young WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) pilot during WWII with a strong tendency to stumble on spies. The books are written by Captain W. E. Johns, more famous for his Biggles books.

I’ve got a soft spot for Biggles, I remember creeping back behind the armchair as a child to borrow my mother’s old copies (they happened to be placed in the least accessible spot). I still pick them up occasionally in second-hand stores and spend a few hours with mindless adventures. However, what’s blatantly missing from most of the Biggles books is women. The setting gives a partial excuse and anyway I prefer it to the open misogyny found in some other novels from the same time so I’ve mostly turned a blind eye to the omission. But it meant that when I heard that he had also written a series around a WAAF pilot I was interested but sceptic. I needn’t have worried, Worrals is a great character. She feels like Biggles’ little sister, same courage, same clear head in the face of danger, just with somewhat less experience (admittedly neither Biggles nor Worrals are very deep characters). She also have a very modern attitude to any suggestions that she may be less suitable for some jobs because she’s a woman.

Plot-wise they are not as good as the best Biggles books but neither is Biggles most of the time. I’ve read the first four books in the series and enjoyed all of them but liked the first one best. The first four (at least) are all written and published during WWII and that context made the books (which are really simple adventure stories) a lot more interesting.

Used Worrals books are not easy to find in my part of the world but the first three have recently been reprinted and in very nice editions (proper binding, good paper, I just wish they had kept the original illustrations).*

*No, I’m not sponsored in any way, I bought my copies myself.