"If you want a big hit, write a book about the Second World War," a publisher of my acquaintance recently told me. Iraq has put war on the agenda; our climate of austerity echoes that of the war, and we are once again going about telling each other to "turn that light off". Also, the war is becoming exotic, whereas in my childhood of the Sixties and Seventies, the memory of it was domesticated and overfamiliar. That friend of my dad's who'd been on a ship hit by a torpedo filled the house with cigarette smoke and talked constantly about golf. The man over the road, who'd been in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, spent every weekend fixing his three-wheeled car. As the participants fade away, the publishers move in, and we select from a range including the archly reprinted Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which contends that the pacifists were right and the war was unjustified.
I doubt if any of the blokes - and I use that word advisedly - who go for this book will have bought the Baker. They are more likely to have read Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, a beautifully written book that seeks to give the bomber crews the credit they have been denied because of the morally awkward nature of their work. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, head of Bomber Command, put it like this: "The bomber drops things on people and people don't like things being dropped on them. And the fighter shoots at the bomber who drops things. Therefore he is popular, whereas the bomber is not. It is as easy as that."
Yes, but Haynes has already published its owner's manual for the definitive Second World War fighter plane, the Spitfire. It was a bestseller, and so now we have the book about the definitive Second World War bomber. On the face of it, this manual is aimed at a readership of about 15 people because that's how many Lancaster bombers survive of the 7,337 built (and only two of those are airworthy). As one chapter heading concedes, "Purchasing an airworthy Lancaster is hardly likely!" So, the title is a joke, a borrowing from the Haynes car manuals, which are more likely to be found in Halfords than Waterstone's, and which feature a cutaway of the car concerned on the covers. These manuals are now iconic, or so Haynes has decided, apparently with some justification, and their cutaway car images are to be found on young men's T-shirts.
This manual does not contain much direct, present-tense instruction, as in "You are now ready to start dropping bombs on people". Indeed, I could not seem to locate the directions for dropping the bombs. Maybe they've been played down on grounds of health and safety. Then again, there's a fair amount about loading them, including the following curious sentence: "Although not important, it was more convenient to load the small bomb containers, the 500lb bombs and the 250lb bombs in that order." I'd have thought that everything to do with bombs was important.
The book provides a clearly written, handsomely illustrated technical tour of the aeroplane (with the main cutaway diagram surely a masterpiece of the genre), combined with some history and a flatteringly confiding account of flying a Lancaster from the men of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which operates one of the two fully working Lancasters, and flies it over Buckingham Palace on the Queen's birthday. "On take-off, the Lancaster has a marked swing to port, which has to be countered immediately," cautions Flight Lieutenant Ed Straw. ". . . It's not uncommon to use all available right rudder on take-off." Reading that, I became quite tense. Fortunately, however, "as the speed increases the situation quickly improves, as the greater airflow over the rudders means they become more effective".
For all the wryness of the title, the book itself, like all Haynes titles, is dead straight. Indeed, it is for men who definitely do not see anything funny in a sentence such as, "The pistons are attached to the connecting rods by fully floating gudgeon pins." Any bloke who fantasises about meddling with the pistons of a Lancaster bomber will probably also fantasise about flying one. But such a man can consider himself lucky that he did not do so during the war. After 20 sorties in a Lancaster you were, statistically at least, dead.
Andrew Martin's novel "Death on a Branch Line" has just been published by Faber & Faber