Flying (and sex) machines

By Stoddard Martin, June 4, 2009
Red Baron plane

Red Baron plane

Fighter heroes of WW1
By Joshua Levine
Collins, £8.99

Spitfire Girls
By Carol Gould
Arrow, £6.99

We live in an age so used to air travel that it is a shock to recall that this unnatural feat began barely a century ago with a few amateurs gliding across a field on a wooden construct. In that era of earliest films, when Chaplin was cobbling together whole features in one afternoon in Niles Canyon (Hollywood not yet a glint in a property-developer’s eye), English public-school boys and other aspirant heroes were racing off half-trained into the heavens to joust with their “Hun” counterparts.

For these aces, unlike lower beings in trenches, the First World War was closer in spirit to the age of chivalry than to what would eventuate at Hiroshima. When Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, was shot down after 82 kills, his corpse was buried by British authorities with full military honours.

Similar courtesy led a German camp commandant to inform his English prisoners in their own language: “Gentlemen, I regret to tell you that your tunnel has been discovered. I beg of you, do not try to go out of it, because if you do, you will be shot. But don’t, on any account, tell the French.”

Toff nut to crack: “Red Baron” von Richthofen, downed after 82 kills

Toff nut to crack: “Red Baron” von Richthofen, downed after 82 kills

Such nuggets are strewn throughout Joshua Levine’s History-Channel-style book. Excerpts from memoirs, letters, interviews, journals are arranged in rough chronological order, with accompanying commentary. The resulting polyphony may cause some readers to drift; others will find it admirably democratic — history recounted through the voices of its actual participants. Narrative drive is subject to bumpy loop-de-loops, but this is compensated for by authenticity.

Not so, the pot of fiction and factoid Carol Gould boils up about female aerial actors in WWII. The tone is set by the first sentence: “In 1933 an ex-convict with one testicle was catapulted to the leadership of the German people.” Holocaust and war are sketched in thick strokes as background to a version of a sex ’n’ shopping novel. Along with action in the skies, the eponymous girls encounter many a male not so testicularly challenged.

The prima inter pares is a Home Counties teenage corker who is turned lesbian by a gang of her dad’s fox-hunting friends who barge in to rape her. “Stuffy Britishers”are “antisemites in kilts” to one observer, the mentality of grouse-shooters like that of Nazis.

Gould’s plot is over-egged and indigestible. The first serving of rumpy-pumpy is a mere hors d’oeuvres before further Bad Sex Award candidates.

There is inter-racial transgression, sapphic inflammation, penises flayed by sadistic torturers. Dashing from spitting fire in bed to doing it in the sky, the girls seem to promote ladette post-feminism avant la lettre — be liberated, and hooray Henrietta!

Perfect for reading this summer on a beach where it’s too hot to think.

Stoddard Martin is a publisher and critic

Last updated: 2:40pm, June 4 2009