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.’

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