Shaky Do

Tony Gould

  • Mary and Richard: The Story of Richard Hillary and Mary Booker by Michael Burn
    Deutsch, 249 pp, £12.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 233 98280 9

Michael Burn assumes in this book that the name of Richard Hillary means nothing to present-day readers, so the reviewer had better follow his practice and provide biographical details. Although he was born in Australia shortly after the end of the First World War, Hillary came to England at an early age and had a thoroughly English upper middle-class education – prep school, followed by public school (Shrewsbury) and Oxford (Trinity College). Despite the influence of his English teacher at Shrewsbury, he was more hearty than aesthete and chiefly distinguished himself at Trinity by his feats on the river. As he later put it, ‘I went up for my first term, determined, without over-exertion, to row myself into the government of the Sudan, that country of blacks ruled by Blues in which my father had spent so many years.’

But this was 1938, the year of Munich, when – despite Chamberlain’s notorious ‘peace in our time’ – the prospect of war over-shadowed everything. Along with others, Hillary joined the University Air Squadron and, at the start of the war, went into the RAF. He trained as a fighter pilot and flew his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain – until he was shot down on 3 September 1940 over the Thames estuary, after he had himself brought down a few of the enemy. That could easily have been the end of him; his face and hands were badly burned; but his life-jacket kept him afloat in the cold sea water until he was picked up by the Margate lifeboat.

Slowly and painfully his face was remodelled by the famous plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at his hospital in East Grinstead; and, with his experiences still fresh in his mind, Hillary wrote his wartime best-seller, The Last Enemy. He wrote much of it in America, where he had gone in the hope of being instrumental in persuading the Americans to come into the war. In this he failed, as it was felt in official circles that the sight of his raw and patched face and claw-like hands would scare off the American matrons who might otherwise be eager to send their sons off to death or glory. Despite his spoiled looks, there was still enough of the golden youth about Hillary to attract the opposite sex and in New York he had a fling with the film star, Merle Oberon. In fact, it was Merle Oberon who gave him an introduction to Mary Booker, a divorced woman twice his age with grown-up children of her own, whom he befriended when he returned to London. Mary – who married the author of this book after the war and died some years ago – was a Society woman of unusual intelligence and selflessness; she became Hillary’s confidante before she became his lover.

Mary and Richard is their love story; it has been written (‘compiled’ might be the better word, since it consists largely of the letters Richard Hillary and Mary Booker wrote one another during the last year or so of Hillary’s life) partly in order to refute two theories that have accrued to the Hillary legend. One is that his death in a flying accident in January 1943 was a kind of suicide; the other, stemming from the first, is that he was driven to it by an unhappy love affair. The letters themselves disprove the latter; the former, however, is a more complicated matter.

Mr Burn blames Arthur Koestler and, even more, John Middleton Murry for putting about the suicide theory. Koestler had taken Hillary up after he had written The Last Enemy and Hillary greatly admired him (Mary was less enthusiastic about the author of Darkness at Noon: ‘Too much intellect, too little heart,’ she thought); and they corresponded up to Hillary’s death. Soon after that Koestler wrote an influential essay in Horizon called ‘The Birth of a Myth’ (April 1943) in which he argued that ‘Hillary’s life and death was in a way symbolic and he knew it – but a symbol for precisely what? That is what he could not, and would have so much liked to, know.’ Koestler’s conclusion tells us at least as much about Koestler as it does about Hillary: ‘It is the myth of the Lost Generation – sceptic crusaders knights of the effete veneer, sick with nostalgia of something to fight for, which as yet is not. It is the myth of the crusade without a cross, and of desperate crusaders in search of a cross. What creed they will adopt, Christ’s or Barrabas’s, remains to be seen.’

Along the way, though, Koestler suggests that ‘a man’s longing for the Holy Grail may become so strong that he flies like a moth into the flame; and having burned his wings, crawls back into it again.’ This is the ‘suicide hint’ which so irritated Hillary’s family and friends. (When I was a BBC talks producer in the mid-Sixties, I phoned Hillary’s father to ask if he would participate in a radio programme I planned to make about his son and was told in no uncertain terms that he would have nothing to do with it if Koestler was involved.) Middleton Murry, in his essay on Hillary, takes up Koestler’s hint and, pursuing a Lawrentian (D.H., that is, not T.E., who figures much more largely in this story) theory of his own, states baldly that ‘the end was appointed. There was no escape from death ... Hillary’s letters ... are the record of the man facing the inevitability of death to which he has condemned himself as tragic hero.’ Michael Burn is right to nail these two writers for using Hillary to promote their own ideas, but wrong to conclude that ‘he does not go easily into myth or legend’ – a statement which he contradicts on the very next page when he says that The Last Enemy ‘is a legend of a conversion’.

Paul Fussell, in his study The Great War and Modern Memory, talks about the ‘triadic’ structure of ‘the paradigmatic war memoir’ and relates it to Medieval romance literature: ‘training, “combat”, recovery – or innocence, death, rebirth’. Quoting Auerbach’s Mimesis on the subject of the quest, he goes on to point out that ‘those engaged in these hazardous, stylised pursuits become “a circle of solidarity”, “a community of elect”.’ It is easy to see how The Last Enemy falls into the pattern of ‘innocence, death, rebirth’, even if ‘death’ is taken out of sequence and placed at the beginning of the book for extra effect; and the Oxbridge pilots, the ‘long-haired boys’, are certainly ‘a community of elect’, latterday Knights of the Round Table.

Middleton Murry may be overstating the case when he writes that ‘in Hillary, the deep urge of contemporary society towards death is made visible,’ but his analysis of The Last Enemy is acute. He points out that Hillary’s claim that he is writing his book to justify ‘my right to fellowship with my dead, and to the friendship of those with steadfastness and courage who were still living and who would go on fighting until the ideals for which their comrades had died were stamped for ever on the future of civilisation’ is spurious. Murry writes:

No doubt he did desire to commemorate his friends, and he did so, most memorably. But when he was doing that, he did not present them crowned with this halo of idealism: and it will not work retrospectively. Hillary – it is no moral criticism – is faking something. Artistically, he is forcing the note in order to give his record a significance different from that which is really its own.

Mr Burn reacts angrily to Murry’s suggestion that Hillary ‘faked the record’. The final chapter of The Last Enemy describes Hillary’s encounter with a dying woman trapped with her child in the rubble of an East London house in the wake of a bombing raid; he gives her brandy from a flask and she takes his hand, saying: ‘I see they got you too.’ Out of this incident, Hillary builds an enormous edifice: he sees the woman’s death as ‘a sin against mankind’, whose champion he suddenly becomes. He would have us believe that his Oxbridge arrogance miraculously drops away from him and he takes up the cause of ‘despised humanity’, along with the task of memorialising his friends. Mr Burn is indignant with Murry for his scepticism: ‘He informs us that, even after that vision of the dying woman in the ruins of London, Richard did not genuinely believe that the war had become a crusade. It does not matter how often Richard says that it had, Murry knows better.’

Actually, Murry does know better, though he could not have known what Mr Burn himself tells us: that Richard referred to his book as a novel, and that ‘soon, in a letter to Mary, he will be found questioning that very peroration. Meanwhile, to most of the audiences he was reaching out to ... that episode of the dying woman and her dead child being hauled out of the ruins became the harrowing climax, indisputably true, of a harrowing book. It is a measure of Richard’s urgent need to brand onto the printed page what so far had been taking place within him, as well as no little literary skill, that he was to tell Mary that he had imagined it’ (my italics). Murry’s instinct as a literary critic was right: Hillary had literally faked the record.

Another critic who saw through the peroration was V.S. Pritchett, who wrote in a review of the book: ‘Mr Hillary conveys the impression that he likes the spectacle of himself believing, and not that he believes ... he remains egocentric, busily self-conscious in defiance and remorse.’ A fellow pilot, who was himself badly burnt, also saw through the pose. ‘In my opinion,’ Geoffrey Page told Hillary, ‘you’re still as bloody conceited as ever.’ Soon after he had been shot down, Hillary’s mother had told him: ‘You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were, and you believed them. You were well on the way to becoming something of a cad.’

One must not paint too black a picture. Mary Booker, who sounds like a level-headed woman, though a widower’s devotion makes it hard to get a clear view of her, obviously saw an attractive and vulnerable boy behind the arrogant pose. Mr Burn refers to both Mary and Richard as ‘beautiful, charming, intelligent and extremely privileged’ and, on almost the last page of the book, says that to Soviet journalists in Eastern Europe (where he was a correspondent after the war) Mary appeared as ‘an untormented Anna Karenina’. I was struck by this, since the early days of the relationship between Mary and Richard had already brought to my mind Anna and Vronsky’s sojourn in Italy when Vronsky, in F.R. Leavis’s phrase, was ‘being an artist’. Both couples moved in high society; Hillary, like Vronsky, was a military man at least temporarily out of action; both men had demonstrated a certain facility at their chosen art, but neither was truly an artist – at a speech he made at a Foyle’s literary lunch, Hillary spoke of himself as one of those ‘who would dearly love to be creative artists, but are not’; and each was finding it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue his art in the circumstances he was in.

A more compelling comparison is with the poet Keith Douglas, an Oxford contemporary who was also killed in the war. There were many similarities between the two men: both were considered, by some contemporaries, to be arrogant and snobbish; both were a mixture of hearty and aesthete; both proclaimed themselves individualists; both welcomed the coming of the war, not in a jingoistic way, but as, in Isherwood’s phrase, a ‘test’ of their manhood and an opportunity for enriching experience; both experienced battle and were wounded (Douglas was a tank commander in the Western Desert and was hospitalised when he stood on a wire which set off a trip mine); both wrote, as it were, instant memoirs (though Douglas’s Alamein to Zem Zem was published posthumously); both came to be revolted by the war; and both suffered deep depression as a result of their conviction that they would be killed when they returned to action, as indeed they were.

These similarities, however, are superficial – a matter of shared experience rather than temperament. Had he lived, Hillary might have developed in one of several directions; his vision of ‘the well-orientated man’ had at least three strands: ‘Creative imagination and all that follows from it, e.g. production of an intellectual theory which reorganises understanding and opens new vistas before the mind’s eye; the production of an original and significant work of art; the production of a personal relationship which drives both individuals to greater integrity; the production of vitalising social changes’. Indeed, some friends thought his future might have lain in politics rather than literature: he had an obsession, for instance, with the theories of Henry George. By contrast, it is impossible to imagine Douglas as anything other than an artist. At the risk of over-simplification, one might describe Hillary as a man of action endowed with a journalistic facility, and Douglas as an artist with a taste for action.

Alamein to Zem Zem is a vastly superior work of art to The Last Enemy. Whereas Hillary tells us about his friends, like Peter Pease, through stilted (and improved, if not invented) conversations with them, Douglas reveals his fellow-officers and men to us through their actions. Crucially, Douglas does not inflate his own role and thereby create a legend – of ‘conversion’, or whatever. Hillary mocks aristocratic ideals; he tells Peter Pease: ‘I may or may not be exactly a man of my time: I don’t know. But I know that you are an anachronism. In an age when to love one’s country is vulgar, to love God archaic, and to love mankind sentimental, you do all three.’ Behind his mockery lies the yearning that he transforms into ‘conversion’: by the end of the book he has assimilated, by his own reckoning, a substantial part of Pease’s creed. Douglas also celebrates aristocratic ideals in his poem entitled ‘Aristocrats’ but – and this is the difference – from a distance:

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep?
Unicorns, almost, for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry are celebrated.
Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

Where Hillary sees only a hero, Douglas sees a fool and a hero.

Both men, when they went back into action – Douglas in the Normandy invasion, Hillary on night-fighter training on the Scottish border – understood that the alternatives they faced were love or death. Douglas put it starkly in the magnificent final stanza of his last poem, ‘On a Return from Egypt’:

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Douglas’s refusal to mythologise his experience makes his death, when it happens, the more shocking and the more senseless. He is, in fact, the man of his time that Hillary, in his conversation with Peter Pease, thought he was. Hillary, lacking both Douglas’s intellectual equipment and his artistic detachment, was very much a part of what he set out to criticise, was himself an anachronism – more like someone out of the First than the Second World War. Hence his appeal to the older generation: Koestler, Linklater and Lovat Dickson (his publisher and biographer).

If Douglas’s death was needless, though foreseen, Hillary’s was the almost inevitable outcome of the role he had adopted as ‘the last of the long-haired boys’ who – as Middleton Murry puts it – ‘stays awhile only to commemorate his dead friends, and to be converted to the creed which the public is made happy to believe they professed; then hastes to join them’. What impelled Hillary to risk his life was, in Murry’s admirable phrase (with its overtones of dulce et decorum est), a ‘sense of decorum’.

At a less rarefied level, Hillary (unlike Douglas) was faced with a choice: to fly or not to fly. With his injuries, no one could accuse him of cowardice (though one woman did) if he settled for a staff job: but he was not satisfied with that, even though it would have enabled him to pursue his love affair with Mary, from whom he professed to have learnt much. Instead, he determined to return to the air. In taking this decision, he was critically influenced by T.E. Lawrence, whose work, particularly The Mint, his (then) unpublished account of life in the ranks of the RAF, and personality, one might say, he encountered through the painter Eric Kennington. Hillary had gone to Kennington to have his portrait painted but he got rather more than he bargained for: not just an idealised face, but a role model as well. T.E. Lawrence, of course, was another would-be artist who turned his life into myth and died in an accident.

For Hillary, crudely, Mary represented life and love, Kennington/Lawrence death; and he chose the latter. This is not to say that he did not waver thereafter, and indeed resume his affair with Mary as well as contact McIndoe, in a moment of weakness, in an attempt to reverse the decision of the medical board he had earlier persuaded to let him fly again. He was, after all, and despite the legend he himself fostered, only human. But the extraordinary thing about his decision to return to flying was his clearsightedness about the likely consequences: ‘If this thing plays to its logical conclusion, there is no reason why I should survive. After a few hours flying, my instinct will tell me that I shall survive, while my reason will tell me that I shall not – and this time reason will be right.’ This when he has claimed all along that he could ‘reason’ no more but trusted his ‘instinct’ in bringing him back to flying. ‘I came back not expecting to come through – it was a very part of my decision to come back.’

These last letters to Mary are intensely moving in that, paradoxically. Hillary in the very act of fulfilling his mythical role ceases to play a role. His struggles with his injured hands and the recalcitrant aircraft are graphically told; his mutually reinforcing relationships with his Radio-Observer, Sgt Fison, a Cambridge graduate and hockey blue, and with other new friends – the trainee pilots, who at first strike him as ‘less fine than those I knew’, but soon acquire distinctive personalities – are deftly established. He almost writes his own death scene when he describes a near-fatal training flight a night or two before the one that actually did for him. On landing, he meets his Flight Commander who, when he hears the story, says with classic understatement: ‘Christ old boy. Shaky do eh?’

What of the suicide accusation, which – as Mr Burn points out – is actually an accusation of murder, since Hillary’s observer was killed along with him? It does not seem to me that one has to deny the potency of the legend in order to refute this accusation, as Mr Burn does. Obviously, Hillary did not set out to kill himself or anyone else, apart from the enemy, whom he never got anywhere near the second time round. Equally obviously, there was implicit in his decision to return, as he himself and Mary recognised, the likelihood that he would be killed. ‘There is no doubt,’ Mary writes, ‘that he was convinced that he wouldn’t come through.’ She also argues that any hint of suicide is ‘utterly false’; and of course she is right about that too. So should we blame Koestler and Middleton Murry for writing about him the way they did and causing distress to his family? I think not.

Koestler believed – it was a theory which greatly impressed Hillary – that there are two planes of existence – ‘the vie tragique and the vie triviale’. According to this theory, mankind’s miseries come from not being able to live wholly on one or other of these planes, but from oscillating between the two. Applying this to Hillary himself, one can see that on the trivial level he simply got on with his life, hoped to master night-flying and pick up the threads of civilian life – and love – when the war ended, as one day it must. On the tragic plane, however, ‘with its un-commonsense cosmic perspective’, he had written himself a script which required a final act. In duly recording this, Koestler and Murry were only following Hillary’s own lead. Now that all the principals are dead, perhaps the accusation of suicide can be consigned to oblivion, where it belongs.