The Perilous Descent – Bruce Carter

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I probably first read this book about forty years ago when I was the age it is most likely aimed at, what would now be classed as Young Adult by the publishing world, and I doubt I have read it since although the copy I have is still the one I had back then. I had no real interest in books as objects back then so never noticed that it is the first edition printed by The Bodley Head in 1952. The dust wrapper is missing, assuming I ever had one, which I doubt as I would have been careful with it even then and I would have bought the book from a second hand bookseller sometime in the mid to late 1970’s. I do know however that the picture on the wrapper was the same as the frontispiece reproduced above, with the title on the larger parachute and Bruce Carter on the smaller one.

Bruce Carter is the pseudonym of Richard Hough, which he used for the half dozen children’s books he wrote, with more than a hundred more titles in his own name which were mainly regarding ships or wartime escapades although he also wrote a few biographies. In 1952 he was working for The Bodley Head, hence his choice of publisher, and in the 1960’s he moved to Hamish Hamilton where he ultimately rose to the position of Managing Director of the children’s book division, Hamish Hamilton also published this book amongst others by him whilst he worked for them.

The Perilous Descent is a rollicking Boy’s Own adventure story apparently written in alternate chapters by the two Typhoon pilots Danny Black and Johnny Wild who were shot down at the start of the book on their way back to England ultimately ending up on a sand bar about a mile off the Dutch coast sometime in 1944. Hough was himself a Typhoon pilot in the war and had to make a forced landing after being hit during which he badly broke his leg which never properly healed although he lived until 1999. This first hand knowledge as to what the two protagonists would have with them regarding survival aids and how they could use the equipment they had certainly adds to the tale as they try to eke out their meagre rations after falling down a hole on the sand bar and into some mysterious tunnels. Ultimately the only way forward is down a huge cavern but fortunately they still have their parachutes so that is what is depicted in the frontispiece as they drop over 25,000 feet to the unknown world below.

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The land and people they encounter far below the Earth are a strange mix of sixteenth century language, clothes and armaments along with futuristic cities and transport as can be seen in the image above, it is also not a friendly welcome. It turns out that a rebellion had recently occurred and they had been mistaken for some of the rebels, they soon manage to convince the Governor that they are nothing to do with the insurrection and are enlisted to take part in a surprise attack on the rebel stronghold. The story races along and I found myself reading longer sections in one go than I intended to and the denouement, which is foreshadowed in the introduction, has a nice twist right at the end.

The book appears to be no longer in print and I suspect that the Puffin Books edition that came out initially in 1958 and was still being reprinted up until at least 1977 was the last available publication. Children’s books related to the war fell out of fashion around then and although I have greatly enjoyed this nostalgic read I doubt the book would be a commercially viable publication nowadays.

Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

This wasn’t the book I intended to read this week, but my friend and fellow book blogger Mixa in Barcelona (read her review here) saw a copy on my shelves and has tracked down a copy in Catalan so I thought it was probably about time to reread the book after a gap of about twenty years so that it would be fresh in my mind when she wants to talk about it. Nowadays Orwell (real name Eric Blair) is almost entirely known as a novelist and his journalism is largely and sadly neglected. Homage to Catalonia even started out being neglected. It was first printed on 23rd April 1938 and a year later by the start of WWII it had only sold around 900 copies and soon after went out of print. It would only be available sporadically until Penguin Books printed a copy in March 1962, since then it has never been out of print.

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The book tells of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of an international militia against the uprising of General Franco and he is very clear that this is the war as he saw it and for the most part it is a very readable account. There are two chapters where he attempts to make sense of the alphabet soup of political organisations and militias taking part and these are prefaced by clear warnings that it is about to get complicated, as shown in the below extract from paragraph two of chapter five…

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics. please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war.

What follows is a section I’m glad I read because I had to keep referring back to it to sort out in my mind the differences and indeed the similarities between PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU and AIT all of which were political parties or trade unions or possibly both, it does get very confusing, especially as in theory they were all aligned against the Fascists of Franco but seemed to spend most of the time fighting and bickering amongst themselves. This was particularly true during the short lived Barcelona uprising that Orwell got caught up in by happening to be on leave from the front after 115 days and arrived back in the city just before it all got even more complicated. But I am getting ahead of myself lets get back to chapter one with Orwell arriving in Barcelona with his wife, intending to write about the war but actually enlisting as a member of the POUM militia within days of getting there.  His wife Eileen stayed in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona throughout their time in Spain whilst Orwell was fighting on a front line less than 170 miles away. The photo below is by Robert Capa and is part of the John Hillelson Agency collection and shows the sort of trenches Orwell would be in.

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Initially Orwell writes of his surprise on arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 that unions and workers parties had taken over the city and everywhere he saw the red and black flag of the Anarchists who were in control. This appealed to the socialist principles that Orwell espoused and it was probably this that led him to opt to fight for them rather than simply report on the situation. Unfortunately for him later he chose the wrong set of initials to join up with, but as he had said above the internecine politics hadn’t registered with him at first and he effectively just joined the first group that would have him. The first chapter covers the ‘training’ or rather lack of it he received in the Lenin barracks the poor conditions and the largely useless equipment they were issued with, chapter two has him on his way to being posted to the front where he was finally issued with an ancient rifle.

Chapters three and four tell of his time in the trenches above Zaragoza on the Aragon front, a place where the 6 foot 3 inch Orwell was clearly unsuited being head and shoulders taller than his fellow militiamen as can be seen in the photo below from the University College, London collection and reproduced opposite page 65 of my edition.

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The time there was largely one of freezing temperatures, squalor and boredom, the two front lines were so far apart on opposite mountain tops that only by the merest chance could anyone be hit by firing from the opposition. What wounds and deaths did occur were mainly accidents of the sort you get when you hand unreliable weapons to 15 year old boys without showing them how to use them. The real oddity in the photo above though is that Eileen is there so she must have made a trip up from Barcelona although Orwell doesn’t mention her doing so in the book.

After the first of the political chapters, chapter six has him still bored at the front line

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into the habit of saying that this wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime.

and reflecting on the effect that the war was having on the local population who were largely trying to live their lives as best they could. In chapter seven Orwell finally sees some action, it was decided to crawl at night across the hundreds of yards of no man’s land and attack the fascist line. It did not go well and although they did get into the enemy trenches they were told to retreat before morning and that would be the only time he faced the enemy in actual combat. Chapter eight is very short and is largely concerned with preparations to go on leave back to Barcelona.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven all concern his badly timed break back in the city. On his return he discovered that the workers revolution had largely petered out and life had returned to a sort of normality with the war something happening in the distance.  However this was not to last long, the tensions between the various groups was about to explode onto the streets and on the 3rd of May fighting began, initially at the telephone exchange but rapidly spreading through the main thoroughfares.  Orwell is caught up in the middle of this but it rapidly becomes as much of a stalemate as the ‘fighting’ on the front. The various factions take up strategic positions and sort of agree amongst themselves to not shoot each other. These chapters for me are the most interesting of the book, the endless boredom of the front is at least improved here by not only the considerably more action but also the shortness of the time scale before it all came to an end.

Chapter twelve sees Orwell return to the front but this was to be for a very short time as he was soon wounded by a shot through the neck which saw him invalided out. By this time he was increasingly disillusioned by the war, what he had seen in Barcelona had convinced him that this was not the great and noble calling that he once thought it was and his choice of POUM was about to become a major problem. Whilst in hospital and then trying to get his discharge papers signed off POUM were picked on as the scapegoat for the fighting in Barcelona and all members were to be arrested and probably shot as traitors. As he describes it this was definitely untrue but it was a convenient fabrication to allow the other factions to re-unite behind. So as well as being wounded he was now a wanted man. In the last two chapters he and Eileen manage to escape Spain and he reflects on his experiences. His conclusions went strongly against the narrative being pushed in the socialist press in the UK which he also heavily criticised and this meant that getting the book published proved difficult as his normal publisher wouldn’t take it.

The book is a fascinating study of the realities of war, the long periods of tedium enlivened by occasional periods of firing from the trenches in the beginning of the book through the difficulties of conflict within a city and is also surprisingly funny in places as he enlivens the tale. All in all it deserves to be better known. When most people think of Orwell what usually comes to mind is 1984 or Animal Farm, try his reportage, it is definitely worth seeking out.

My copy is the 1970 Folio Society first edition which was popular enough to have two further reprints in 1972 and 1975 before dropping out of the Folio catalogue until 1998. It then re-appeared as part of a five volume set of Orwell’s reportage along with “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and two volumes of journalism and essays. This set has as yet not been reprinted. Although bought second-hand and with a badly sunned spine and grubby covers that don’t want to clean, what I like about this edition is the inclusion of contemporary photographs of Orwell and other people mentioned in the book on the front line. Regrettably not any by Orwell himself because as he explains in the book his camera and photographs were all stolen or impounded along with his notes and press clippings at various different times whilst he was involved in the war. I have reproduced a couple of the photos from the book above. The cover illustration is a view of the battlefield near Belchite on the Aragon front and is from the Fox Photos Ltd collection.

How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone

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Rosie Garthwaite’s book sounds like it should be one of those parodies that are all too common nowadays but in fact it is deadly serious and has to be the one example on my bookshelves which legitimately uses the tag “It Could Save Your Life”. Mine is the first edition from 2011 published by Bloomsbury and is still available.

Of course for most people the best way to avoid being killed in a war zone is to make sure you never go to one however the book covers so much more that it becomes a highly entertaining and indeed useful addition to any bookshelf. Split into 15 sections which cover everything from planning, preparing and arriving on your trip through first aid and emergency medicine, keeping fit and surviving kidnapping amongst other things. It is part survival guide and part filled with anecdotes which illustrate the topic being covered. The range of people Rosie has spoken to in compiling the book is huge and covers top war reporters, members of the military, charity workers, a former Somali pirate and, in the case of kidnapping, Terry Waite who was a hostage negotiator in Lebanon for years before being kidnapped and held for hostage himself for almost 5 years.

Some things in the book you hope you will never need, like how to put on a flak jacket correctly, others like some of the tips on keeping safe in a crowd could be useful at any time, as she says

The best advice is to avoid street protests at all costs. Of course, that’s not always possible, sometimes they run into you. And sometimes you might join a small peaceful protest that turns into a riot. You might be in an ambulance waiting to deal with the fallout nearby. You might be involved as a protester when it all goes wrong.

You don’t need to be in a war zone, sometimes the streets of your home city can become surprisingly dangerous.

Anyone who has read books written by war reporters about their lives on the job would enjoy the anecdotes in this volume, Rosie herself works for Al Jazeera and recounts many stories of her journeys for work, mainly in Iraq, and a lot of the other reporters she quotes also work or have worked for that news organisation. There are also a good smattering of BBC, Sky, CNN and various (mainly British) newspaper writers along with people from Médecins Sans Frontières who also tend to be on the front line. It is interesting to read the different opinions of the journalists on how to survive, some like to blend in with the locals others prefer to stand out, there are advantages and disadvantages to both viewpoints. Blend in and you may get closer to the story but risk being mistaken for a spy, stand out and everyone knows who you are so you can get further up the chain of command, but you are also obvious if somebody is looking for a high profile target to attack.

The first aid section is particularly good and at 45 pages also the longest part, it takes you through a basic medical kit to pack if going somewhere where the local medical service may not be the best or if heading into wild country. A lot of this I have packed in the past, put it in a clearly marked container in your pack and make sure other people you are with know it’s there. There is no point carrying sterile medical items if they don’t get used because nobody knew and you can’t tell them for whatever reason at the time. It then has an A to Z of medical issues and what to do until somebody who really knows what they are doing arrives, CPR, recovery positions, slings, tourniquets, treating burns, dislocations, frostbite and sunburn amongst many others. One I really, really hope I don’t ever need is how to deliver a baby but you definitely don’t need to be in a war zone for that one.

I’m not a war correspondent and frankly wouldn’t want their job but I’ve been through armed official and unofficial checkpoints set up on strategic roads in Libya and Lebanon. One of the people who boarded the bus in Lebanon in 1996 with an AK-47 over his shoulder appeared to only be about 14, you just have to keep calm. I’ve also been very aware of being watched to see where I was going in Libya, Syria and Iran amongst other countries, bribed my way into Ceaușescu’s Romania back in 1987 as I didn’t have a visa and also used dollar bills in my passport on several borders where it simply made getting the right paperwork processed faster. I just wish Rosie had written this book 20 years earlier.