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Adventures in Bookland: First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

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This won’t be so much a review as an injunction: read this book. That’s right, stop reading this review right now and go and get hold of First Light however you can: buy it, borrow it, steal it if necessary (any writer in his deepest heart wants readers more than anything else, so if you can’t afford to buy his work, he’ll forgive someone who steals to read).

Right, got it? What, you mean you haven’t bought it yet? Well, let me tell you why you should. Firstly, this book has moved, in a single reading, into my top five favourite books of all time. The achievement is all the greater in that the other occupiers of that list were books I read when I was much younger, unmarked, and could receive deeper and more lasting impressions from the books I read. But First Light has broken through the dull accretions, and the dullening, of age. So, if you would be young again, read First Light.

How has it managed to do this? Because it combines two things in a quite extraordinary manner. Firstly, it is the memoir of a boy growing into manhood while flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. As such, it is thrilling, humbling and intense in a way that very little else could be. (As an aside, the great Australian cricketer, Keith Miller, also flew fighter planes during the Second World War. When interviewed many years later by Michael Parkinson, Parkinson asked him about how the pressure of playing top-level cricket, to which Miller gave the immortal, and precise, answer: ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’)

As a straight memoir, First Light would be a good book for the almost impressionist way it brings to life the stress and tension of being a front line fighter pilot during the Second World War. But there are many other memoirs of the air war. Where First Light becomes something quite exceptional is that, unlike most of the other memoirs, it was written many years after the events it describes, when Wellum, so young during the Battle of Britain that he was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by the other members of his squadron, had become an old man. What’s more, he was an old man whose marriage had broken down and who had withdrawn from his old life.

First Light is the record of an old man looking back on his life and asking the question of whether that life was worthwhile. It is the record of humanity staring into the great unknown that awaits and asking, ‘Did I live in vain?’ There is thus, behind the tale of the young man growing up, the almost unbearable poignancy of an old man assessing his years and weighing them in the scales. This is what makes First Light so exceptional: youth recalled in age, and the great question of whether, when Geoffrey Wellum meets his maker, he will have anything to place in the scales to weigh his life as having been well lived.

Although there is an aching sense that Wellum himself is unsure of the answer, to the reader there is no doubt: that we live to read what you have written is testament to your life and its worth.

Thank you, Mr Wellum, for your life and for your book.

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