If I were in the business of reprinting neglected novels, the one I’d start with is Portrait of an Airman, by Philip Arnall (pseudonym of Oliver Stewart). Many thanks to Steve Paradis for pointing me towards this book.
The novel traces a wartime career very like the author’s own, and it’s safe to assume that much in it is autobiographical. We meet the hero, Stephen Sloan, when he is a rather dissatisfied young officer in a Home Defence battalion. He resents his commanding officers (‘Fancy having to be ordered about by a little beast like that.’) and also dislikes the thought that he will eventually be sent to the infantry in France. More or less on a whim he applies to the Royal Flying Corps: ‘He envied the freedom of Flying Corps pilots who were given the charge of an aeroplane, and were then free in a way that he could never be.’
Rather to his surprise, his application is accepted, partly because he is a skilled motor-cyclist. We follow him through an often terrifying period of training (when the instructors express their contempt for the trainees by referring to them as ‘huns’). Then there is a job as a ferry pilot for a while, until, only a few months after beginning to learn to fly, he is in France, flying observation missions, and then getting caught up in serious air battles of various kinds. He is successful and survives, unlike most of his RFC contemporaries. The secret of his survival is an intense interest in the planes that he flies, and the development of personal tactics that will help him when in combat.
The technical side of air warfare is explained clearly, and the accounts of combat are gripping. Even more interesting, though, is the presentation of Stephen.
Sometimes war novels are judged according to their ‘truthfulness’; I find this a dubious concept, because fiction is by definition a lie. Generally, when a reviewer praises a novel as truthful, he/she means that it accords with his/her own ideas. I’ve even seen dear old Michael Morpurgo praised as telling the truth. So I won’t say that this is a truthful account of life in the R.F.C. But I will say that it is very frank.
The book is frank about Stephen’s motives. He is not an idealist. He has volunteered for dangerous work, but he sees it as less dangerous than being in an infantry battalion, since in his plane he is in charge of his own survival.
The book is frank, also, about Stephen’s sex life. This is the ‘nastiness’ that the Manchester Guardian review objected to (as indeed did all the other reviews that I have seen). Stephen has brief liaisons with a large number of women, most of them prostitutes. One of them he treats rather badly. From another he catches a dose of clap. As with his flying, so in sexual matters he is on a learning curve, going from his awkward and inexperienced affair with an older woman at the start of the book to, at the end, routine encounters that disgust him: ‘On the rare occasions when he felt prompted to go with a woman he went to London and indulged in intercourse of a steadily more sordid and mercenary kind, taking almost any girl who presented herself, and hurrying away almost immediately afterwards.’
These parts of the novel are not edifying, but they tell us a great deal about Stephen’s psychology. This man who was doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the war ‘saw his life during the entire war as a timorous evasion of risk,’ and in sexual matters too, while risking disease, he is avoiding the greater risk of emotional attachment. He runs away from the two women for whom he has anything like real feelings.
The strain of flying combat comes out as angry cynicism. Concerned by this, his C.O. in France sends him home on leave, and he is transferred to an experimental aerodrome where new machines are tested. He discovers a pleasure in aerobatics, and then in the technical aspects of aeroplane design. Once again, he takes enormous risks in his aeroplane, but is able to do so because he feels in control.
His view of himself is altered when he hears of his younger brother’s death in France. His brother had stayed in the infantry, the fate that Stephen had carefully avoided.
And all at once he began to see what an easy and trivial part he himself had played in the war compared with his brother. His brother had gone out and done the real work of the war. He had not attempted to secure safety for himself, but had gone straight where men were wanted immediately he was old enough.
There is an irony here – since choosing a fighter-pilot’s life, or even that of an aeroplane-tester is hardly a safe option. What Stephen had gained was not safety but independence. He had also got medals, promotion and glory:
His brother had borne the brunt so that people like himself might obtain the credit.
He admits to himself that he had learnt the tricks of flying ‘in order to overcome the dangers of war, not in order to help prosecute the war.’ This self-condemnation seems perverse, but is a way of making sense of his younger brother’s death.
All this is, of course, his grief talking, and soon, ‘to force his griefs into the background and to obliterate his past’, he throws himself into his work again – but suddenly the Armistice is signed and he is ‘left in the air without a purpose’. After ‘four years into which a complete lifetime seemed to have been packed’ he is a civilian.
The book is good on the social life of the pilots. The drinking and horseplay in the mess, and the singing.
There’s one song in particular I’d like to know more about, by the way:
She’s a lady of unlimited allurements,
A proclivity for passion she displays,
A desire for osculation she evinces,
She’s amorous and yielding in her ways.
I haven’t come across this before, and Googling offers no suggestions. Any ideas?
It is also good on the black humour of airmen:
There were few crashes to aircraft flown by the ferry pilots, but Aikman would make the most of each one and of those they heard of, telling with a wealth of detail how he had been strolling towards the accident and had tripped over one of the pilot’s legs, 300 yards from the rest of his body, or how he had found an ear impaled on one of the elevator king posts, or how blood had been running in a small stream the whole way from the scene of the accident to the balloon shed. Aikman’s stories on these occasions provoked roars of laughter.
This is not a book that has got anywhere near the canon of Great War literature. Contemporary reviewers disliked its frank treatment of commercial sex, and I don’t think it ever made a second edition (though it was published in America). It has not, I think, featured in any surveys of Great War literature, though it is better-written than many books that have attracted critical attention and praise.
It is neither a glorification of war nor an expression of war’s futility. Neither the author nor his main character is any sort of idealist. Stephen avoids what he sees as the more burdensome chores of war, but he plays his part fully. And for all his feeling at the end that he has gained no skills from his four years that will be of any use in later life, the novel has shown him developing and gaining mastery over circumstances.
As for the sexual passages (inexplicit, but sufficiently amoral to keep the book off the rather vicarish AQA A-level reading-list, I’d guess) they are a useful reminder that the men who fought were human beings, with all the human faults, needs and instincts. There is a tendency to sentimentalise and even emasculate the memory of the soldiers. Many like to think of the typical Somme casualty as the pure and decent Roland Leighton, as refracted through the mourning prose of Vera Brittain. It’s salutary to remember that not all soldiers were as pure as this imagined Roland . (And, come to think of it, did Roland himself ever pop in to the notorious Number 10 brothel at Amiens? We will never know.)
So the book is a good corrective to sentimental views of the war, but more than that it is a good novel in its own right, both readable and thought-provoking, and a fascinating study in psychology. Yes, it deserves a reprint.