Friday, October 8, 2010

Geoffrey Wellum: First Light

I have just read an extraordinary book and I want you to read it too.
While everyone else was tucked up with the Man Booker Prizer winners of this year, I was biting my nails in suspense reading Geoffrey Wellum's 'First Light'.  If you're wondering how a shallow, self-obsessed 26-year-old American girl whose primary concern after waking every morning is about what to wear came to become rapidly engrossed in a true account of a World War II RAF fighter pilot, then please - read on.  
You see, about a week ago, John and I were fighting over the remote again.  I wanted to watch "Don't Tell The Bride" on ITV (you know, like, where the chavvy hubby's in charge of organizing the wedding and the bride ... you get the picture) or whatever it is and he insisted on a documentary on the Battle of Britain - the first major air campaign to be fought entirely by air forces.  Reluctantly, I allowed the channel to change and busied myself with Facebook.  However, I couldn't help but listen to some of the WWII veterans being interviewed by Colin McGregor  (Ewan McGregor's brother) as they gave first hand accounts into their experiences of war and, more importantly, fighting in the air (I might add that this wasn't my first foray into WWII documentary viewing - a few days earlier, I got sucked into Airbus's anniversary of wartime aircraft and cried copious tears at the men and women involved who were reunited especially for the program).  When Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, DFC's, book, 'First Light', was mentioned, I knew I had to read it.
Of course, John thought I'd gone crazy.  Well, he didn't think I was seriously interested, but when I rushed home from work making a beeline for the book and shushed him when he tried to speak to me, he knew there was something wrong.  "I don't know ... on one hand I feel like I've won the lottery and on the other, I'm finding it all a bit strange," he admitted, as he described my newfound obsession with Spitfires and World War II air tactics to his co-workers.  "Also," he continued worriedly (or so I imagine), "She was really into the World Cup this summer."  His colleagues clapped him on the back (so I imagine) and called him "a lucky guy" (don't think this was imagined).
The problem with discussing this book is that anything I say about it won't do it justice.  I could tell you that it's the story of a "war hero" - which it is, but that term is thrown around so loosely these days, no one takes it seriously.  I could tell you that it's about the journey of a "boy who becomes a man" - which it also is, but then that sounds like some kind of gender identity crisis saccharine-type memoir, which this most certainly is not. 
But I suppose I could tell you that it made my heart beat out of my chest in a way no other book has done; I could tell you that it made me chuckle with a hint of sadness; I could tell you that it made me cry in both the sad and beautiful parts.  In short, I could tell you many things about the way this book made me feel, but none of it would measure up to the admiration and respect I have for this man and his colleagues who served in the war. 
After losing Peter, the best friend he made during training, he describes going out on his own for the first time:  "I remember before I do to say a prayer and have a short talk with Peter.  At least if things go wrong I know he will be waiting for me and then we will both push off in a couple of Harvards [a type of plane] on a formation cross-country to God."  I smiled at that passage, but had to wipe a tear away as well.
And then there's the pride for his craft and his country - simultaneously coupled with humility.  One cannot help but feel a swell of national pride (even if you're not English) and the intense fear, coupled with fascination, he must have felt when faced with enemy planes for the first time.  The following is my favorite quote from the book:
"I look into the far distance, the vast panorama of sky.  There it all is, the whole arena for bloody battle, and there they are, the enemy.  A swarm of gnats on a warm summer evening ... the whole spectacle frightens yet fascinates.  These are the King's enemies.  These are Huns attacking England, our our small country, our island, intent upon invasion and eventual occupation. We are on our own against this Teutonic monster, this arrogant bully, this invader of small nations… I glance round at the ten brave little Spitfires and a strengthened resolve flows into me. Well, there’s not many of us, but we’ll knock the shit out of some of you, at least for as long as we can.”
It's really beautiful stuff.
Please go out and buy it.  Even if you're a shallow, self-obsessed twenty-something American girl.  It's neither sentimental nor heartbreaking.  It's a privilege to read.  And you'll understand why when you do. 
I wrote a letter to Mr. Wellum yesterday after receiving permission to do so from his editor.  In it, I told him how much his book meant to me - this shallow, self-obsessed American girl - and I thanked him for his years of service and dedication to the RAF.  I told him he was a hero.  I don't know if he'll write back - in fact, I doubt it, but I don't mind.  I just wanted him to know - as much as I want you to know.
'First Light' is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin.  It may be purchased directly from the Penguin website, or here.


1 comment

  1. My goodness you can write, Jaime. Green with envy. Anyway, if you're on a war kick you might like this (I might even still have my copy lying around somewhere)

    It's a different world - his sangfroid in the face of mortal danger is unbelievable!


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