Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Flying Shadow - John Llewelyn Rhys

I'm very late reading this (sorry Judith at Handheld - I had the best intentions, honestly) but having put down my knitting for a few days to try and catch up with some reading it finally got a chance to blow me away. I started 'The Flying Shadow' back in November but everything got in the way and whilst there was nothing off-putting about the first couple of chapters they didn't immediately suck me in either. When I started reading again in earnest over lunch earlier this week I really warmed up to both book and author. 

The plot of 'The Flying Shadow' is so-so. Robert Owen has left the RAF (it's the early to mid-1930s and you only get to serve for so long), a talented pilot desperate for another flying job. He finally gets taken on as an instructor for a club somewhere in the south of England. He settles in, we encounter the club members with him, go through the process of training pupils, follow his love affair, almost see a happy ending, and then don't. Something and nothing. What makes the book remarkable is the snapshot it gives of flying in the 1930s, and beyond that for the way the characters think and interact.

For anybody interested in flying and its history, this is a book you need to read. There's no shortage of technical details (explained well enough in the glossary to make sense) which interested me considerably more than I expected them to, along with the descriptions of what flying feels like, especially to Robert. My sense of it is a constantly shifting balance between the adrenaline rush of dealing with risk and the familiarity of routine which minimises those risks. 

The 1930s is still early in the history of aviation, the inter-war years the time when flying becomes accessible to anybody who has the money to spend on it. The clubhouse, the people who frequent it, the heavy drinking, their social aspirations, hopes of employment, and search for novelty are all documented. The way Rhys writes these scenes reminds me of contemporary paintings with their fragmented viewpoints making a coherent whole and adds to an almost dreamlike quality that I thought was going to be what would characterize the book until I was about halfway through.

At this point Robert starts talking about poverty, the thing he fears most. It's a couple of brief conversations, but along with some of the exchanges Robert has with one of the girls at the flying club who's interested in him they provide a contrast in tone that lifts this from being an interesting book to a really memorable one. There's no particular sense of Robert, or Rhys' politics - but the stark descriptions of how debilitating poverty is are remarkably powerful.

There's a lot going on here, and a lot to like. Currently, I'm most interested in the questions it raises about class and privilege and how they limit and oppress the various characters. Some of it seems ridiculous now, but some of it still rings true. But again, as part of the history of aviation, as a broad portrait of the era, or a more detailed view of a particular segment of society at a particular moment, there's so much to be interested in here. It's a remarkable book. 

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