The book that flew: A hawk used for pigeon control in St Pancras station. Photo: Getty
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Peregrines over Westminster, my bloody great beehive and the Samuel Johnson Prize

The winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for her book H is for Hawk chronicles a life-changing week. 

Saturday is a disconcertingly beautiful day. The November air is like hot gin. I’m driving down from Newmarket to Hastings in a glorious mood – until I realise with horror that I’ve still not sent the BBC people a release form for the Samuel Johnson Prize interview they filmed last week. I panic all the way to Hastings, where the employees of a local branch of Waterstones come
to my rescue. They and other high-street booksellers have been fantastic champions of H Is for Hawk – my book about the death of my father, training a goshawk and the life of the novelist T H White – but this is way beyond the call. I email them the form from my phone. They print it out for me. I sign it, photograph it and email it to the BBC, feeling half like a spy, half like a complete idiot. Then they give me directions to my destination – the Beacon, a huge Victorian villa perched on an inland cliff. Carefully I write the directions on a piece of paper and promptly leave it behind.

I’m here for the Black Huts Festival, a bewitchingly eclectic event run by the poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson. He publishes my poetry and invited me to give my first public readings decades ago. Eventually, I find the Beacon and haul my case from the car. Distant police sirens, a waxing moon, a sprawl of end-of-season courgettes over winter garden frames – and above, a migrating woodcock flying in from over the sea, uplit in the sodium dusk. Where has it come from? Finland? Russia? Then inside to greet Nick and hear the folk musician Alasdair Roberts rehearse. Astonishingly beautiful, playing to an empty room.

Explosions in the sky

Sunday is lunch with friends and a ride on the Hastings funicular – seaside architecture is so magical – before a reading with Patrick McGuinness. His Other People’s Countries is one of my books of the year. Then I set off back to Newmarket in darkness. It’s Bonfire Night weekend: all the way, sprays of light blossom and fall across the horizon, turning Essex into a scene from Tron. The best moment was sitting in the car park at Birchanger services munching a cold samosa alongside scores of other drivers, all of us transfixed by a huge local display across the road. It was extra thrilling for being unexpected, for not being meant for us at all.

Peas and progress

I’m at the RSA for a Samuel Johnson Prize event. Six white chairs on a spotlit stage under James Barry’s extravagant 18th-century paintings The Progress of Human Culture. No pressure, I tell myself. I stuff my face with wasabi peas from a bowl in the green room and spend the first few minutes onstage necking glass after glass of water, my throat on fire. The diversity of the shortlist is thrilling. There are many memoirs on it this year. I am fascinated by the reasons you might write yourself into a narrative about wider historical and cultural phenomena. Doing so is a good way to explore how your assumptions colour your understanding of the subject, how your view, like everyone’s, is always subjective and inevitably partial.

Too much adrenalin

Tuesday is lunch at the British Museum with a fellow historian of science. We talk about invasive tamarisk, rescue dogs, British empire shipping maps from the 1930s and the ecologist Charles Elton. I rush off to get my hair done for the Samuel Johnson Prize ceremony. I’ve decided on a bloody great beehive. It is a ridiculous creation and I love it. Back at the hotel, hyperventilating and spaced on hairspray fumes, I drag on a frock, stumble into a taxi and zoom off to the awards at Riba. Rosy light, crowds, pilasters, smiles, the whole thing already surreal.

“Did you manage to eat anything?” I was asked afterwards. Well, yes. Only because the dinner was so lovely I kept forgetting what it was in aid of. Then I’d remember, put down my cutlery, all appetite gone.

One by one, the judges take the podium to deliver acute critical assessments of each book. Then the impossible news from the chair, Claire Tomalin, that H Is for Hawk has won. Shock, disbelief, delight, then waves of dizziness. I manage to hug my dear mother, my editor, Dan Franklin, and my publicist, Ruth Waldram, without falling over but trying to make it up to the stage in high heels is very dicey. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry if I won. But I cry anyway, right the way through my acceptance speech.

Then I’m whisked away for interviews, feeling oddly as if I’m made of helium and hay – buoyant, airy, liable to fall apart. All social ability has vanished. When the BBC’s Nick Higham describes the book to the camera as being “three in one”, I blurt out that I like the comparison because it makes the book sound like washing powder. Oh, God. Too much adrenalin. I can’t sleep a wink that night. I spend most of it playing “match three” games on my phone and when the taxi comes to collect me for the Today programme at 6.40am I resemble an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

How to make books fly

Wednesday’s hero is Ruth, my Jonathan Cape publicist, who accompanies me all day, organising things to perfection. We race between the BBC, Four Colman Getty and newspaper offices; a whirl of podcasts and photo shoots. Cranes, denuded plane trees, burnished silver light. There’s one glorious moment of stillness in stationary traffic: I look out of the window and see a pair of peregrines circling over Westminster, high in a cirrus-hatched sky.

By lunchtime, I’m almost hallucinating with tiredness but a quick stop for fish and chips works wonders. Then to the Random House offices for a celebration. I’m reminded once again that, however lonely the writing of a book might be, it’s other people who make books fly: editors, designers, artists, proofreaders, sales people, booksellers and all the others behind the scenes. The prize belongs to them, too. As I stand there, cup of tea in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, I try to make a less emotional speech. But seeing how happy everyone looks, I burst into tears all over again. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times