Thursday, 28 August 2014
Iain Maloney – First Time Solo. Guest Post.
Following on from yesterday's book review, we're delighted to welcome author Iain Maloney to share the inspiration behind his debut, Not-the-Booker short-listed, novel, First Time Solo.
‘Grandad, what did you do during the war?’
That flippant half-joke was the single cell that eventually evolved into First Time Solo. My Grandfather joined the RAF in 1942 when he was 18. You could be conscripted into the Army or the Navy but to become a pilot you had to volunteer, pass a strict medical and a fiendish maths exam. He succeeded and was told ‘wait for orders’. For a year he continued working in his father’s pharmacy. Although no one knew it at the time, the war had peaked and the Axis powers were on the back foot. The Battle of Britain had decimated the Luftwaffe and without the resources to rebuild, Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union, particularly the oil fields in the Ukraine. That, as we know, proved futile. The Luftwaffe was a spent force and the Allies had effective control over the skies of Europe. Put bluntly, the RAF were losing pilots and aeroplanes at a slower than anticipated rate.
He was finally called up in 1943, did his initial training in England and was posted to Canada for his flight training. He was destined never to see combat, and remained in
He told me a story. He was sitting in the pub with two of his mates. The first had been in the Army. He told them about his time in North Africa, sleeping in a foxhole in the desert, mortars bursting around him, the tanks, the guns, the searing heat of day and the bone-chilling cold of night. The second had been in the Navy. He’d been torpedoed twice by U-Boats, adrift in a life raft for days without food or water. Then it was my Grandfather’s turn. ‘It was hellish,’ he said. ‘I remember this one time when, for two whole weeks, they didn’t change our sheets.’
You’ve got to laugh. What’s the alternative?
I tried a few different ways of exploring that paradox, but nothing seemed quite right. I wrote two complete versions of First Time Solo, more than 200’000 words in total and threw them in the bin. Life in the military, particularly during training, is boring. You study, you march, you exercise, you take exams and if you pass, you do it all over again. I needed a way in. I found that in Japan.
Yukio Mishima, in his novel Confessions of a Mask, wrote about his own experience as a teenager in Japan. From a young age he was aware that when he became a man, he would fight and die for the Emperor. In addition to the terror this caused him, it also allowed him a kind of freedom. He knew he was going to die so why worry about school? Why worry about further education, a career, making money, finding a wife, having children? He’d be dead by twenty so none of that would ever matter. Mishima’s tragedy, he thought, was that he didn’t die. He was given a future for which he hadn’t prepared.
In Britain, those who turned eighteen and nineteen in 1943 were fourteen and fifteen when war broke out. They watched the war come at them for four years, watched their older brothers, fathers, uncles go off to fight. They watched the telegrams come back. They knew their fate, knew it wouldn’t be over by Christmas. Did they feel as liberated as Mishima? Or did they push back against a system that decreed their lives a worthy sacrifice? That was my way in.
The answer is both. Some embraced hedonism. An influx of American servicemen mixed with a population already hooked on jazz and in clubs and dance halls in places like London, Manchester and Glasgow people were dancing to forget. Seize the moment. Revel in alcohol, women and jazz. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
Others embraced ideologies. Britain went into the war an imperial power still clinging to the vestiges of Victoriana, and emerged a broken, bankrupt nation which immediately rejected the Establishment for a Labour government that introduced the welfare state. In Parliament Aneurin Bevan warned the Conservatives: ‘The British Army is not fighting for the old world. If honourable Members opposite think we are going through this in order to keep their Malayan Swamps, they are making a mistake.’ They were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
First Time Solo isn’t a traditional war novel. There are no battles. The lads want to fight, but there is a long way to go before they get near a Spitfire. Perhaps they never will. In the meantime they play jazz, chase women and get into fights, they argue about politics and make money on the black market. It’s the everyday that allows us to grasp the extraordinary and in between Dunkirk and D-Day there was a lot of everyday. Life wasn’t put on hold for six years, it continued amidst the craters and sirens, the gas masks and the telegrams.