Originally posted 1 July 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.
As I write this, I am unfortunately rather under the weather, as such I may return to this book in a later post to comment on it further, when more coherent.
Goshawk Squadron is a 1971 novel, then shortlisted for the Booker prize. It’s a novel about a squadron of the Royal Flying Corp, serving in France in 1918. More to the point, it’s a novel about war, about class, about the myth of the gentleman and about the conflict (still current in 1971) between gentlemen and players.
The concept of gentlemen and players goes back originally to cricket, and to the very British concept of the gifted amateur. A gentleman was one who by virture of birth and education had a certain natural talent for things, one who could play cricket but did so within the bounds of sportmanship and good fellowship. A player was a professional, not an amateur at all but rather someone who played for money. A gentleman was therefore a man of means who played from love of the game, while a player was a man of likely working class origin who was closer to a mercenary.
British history of the 20th Century is in large part the history of the downfall of the gentleman and the rise of the player. In 1971 the myth of the gifted amateur, the good chap who was sound and could be relied on, was still current in many walks of life (not least government and finance). It was not until 1987 that the player really became the dominant force in British cultural life.
So, Goshawk Squadron is in part about class. But it’s also about the war and the sheer randomness of it all. Stanley Wooley commands Goshawk Squadron, a working class (or lower middle class) man, a player who fights in order to kill the enemy. His squadron is composed of young men mostly of good families, who arrive in batches and die so swiftly that he struggles to keep track of their names. Wooley is cynical, burnt out, filled with hatred for the men under his command (in large part it seems because the alternative to hating them is despair given their likely life spans). Young men arrive full of propaganda and myths about being knights of the air, chivalric paragons who duel their German counterparts openly and honestly. Wooley teaches them to sneak up behind the enemy and to shoot them in the back, before the enemy knows they are there.
The novel has many characters in it, and frequently grants characters a narrative perspective so that for a while one sees events through a given character’s eyes and then from another’s. We meet many of them, each character briefly (but skilfully) sketched, and then most of them die.
They die in training, they die from lack of training, they die from equipment failure, they occasionally even die in combat. Characters die that we have just met. Characters die who have survived much of the novel. Characters die in the middle of enjoying a narrative perspective, characters die without us ever seeing events from their perspective. We meet characters, we briefly get to know them, some of them die and which ones is quite unpredictable.
The men of the squadron spend their time in training, in flying seemingly pointless missions, in carousing in French towns taking drink they cannot pay for and in one case accidentally killing a French restaurateur in a fit of drunken high jinks with tragic consequences. The men know they are going to die, except the new men who frequently don’t live long enough to realise how short their lifespans are likely to be.
Much of the novel revolves around Wooley’s exhaustive training schedule, where he tries to prepare the men as best he can. As they go to the front new men are transferred in, essentially untrained. Wooley’s efforts are near pointless, the men he trains also die in droves.
The French pursue the men for the accidental killing of the restaurateur, Wooley offers to court martial a man and picks at random – it is evident that whoever is tried will not live long enough to see a verdict anyway so it simply doesn’t matter who is held accountable.
The book is well written, often very funny, the black humour and cameraderie of the men is excellently captured. The naievety of the new recruits, the tension between Wooley’s pragmatism and the idealism of the gentlemen who come to him, the innocence and the frequent reminders of how young they all are, all these things are heartbreaking. A character experiences a triumph at one point, and is described as not having been so happy since he was made head boy at school the year before. Wooley, who throughout most of the novel is portrayed as an old man jaundiced through years of service, is only 23.
One comes to sympathise with many of the men, to see one of them slowly falling apart while the others don’t notice, to sympathise too with the women who enter into relationships with them while trying not to recognise that any love they show for these men is likely to end in bereavement within weeks. The characters are mostly likeable, or at least human, and yet for all their idealism and humour and love of life they still die casually and randomly throughout the novel.
Overall, it’s a powerful work, an indictment of the concept of an honourable war, a study of the death of the gifted amateur as the embodiment of English values, an examination of war and its impact on those caught up in it. It’s a reminder of the fact that war is about killing people, and that however it is dressed up in clothes of patriotism or honour or glory, killing people is ultimately a very ugly business.
It does remind me in part also of the marvellous novel The Hunters, by James Salter (who actually flew combat missions in Korea), in part perhaps as that is the only other novel about fighter pilots I have read. In The Hunters the tension revolves around the desire for the status of being recognised as an Ace (a man who has downed five MIGs). The pilots patrol a river during the Korean war, dreaming of facing MIGs, but generally seeing out their time in tedious patrols.
Again the conflict between the desire for glory, for recognition, and the messy reality is examined and again the characters of men are laid bare by the tensions of war. In Goshawk Squadron though the men are in a meat grinder, the average outcome is death, the men band together in the face of that certainty. In The Hunters most missions involve no sighting of the enemy, the fear is of no opportunity for combat and the pilots are much lonelier figures who are driven by competition with each other and a fear of being passed by while others excel. In Goshawk Squadron the characters arive with dreams of glory and soon hope merely to survive, in The Hunters the men compete for glory and the desire to prove themselves. In both, the shortfall between men’s desires and the circumstances of war is exposed and the impact of war upon the psyche effectively examined.
More possibly on another occasion, when my head doesn’t feel as if it were wrapped in several very dense layers of cotton wool.
Addendum, 17 July: The reference above to 1987 is actually wrong, and should have been to 1986. The reference was to the Big Bang in the City of London, which I view as a major factor in the decline of the concept of the gentleman as a major factor in British public life.