Roald Dahl, Going Solo
The close of Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir Boy sees him setting off for Africa in 1938 to work for Shell, ecstatic at the thought of the freedom and adventure that lay ahead. ‘What a prospect that was! I was off to the land of palm-trees and coconuts and coral reefs and lions and elephants and deadly snakes . . . I couldn’t wait.’
Africa certainly didn’t disappoint. Going Solo finds Dahl travelling the dirt roads of Tanganyika in an old station wagon visiting distant and often eccentric Shell customers, the people who quite literally kept the machinery of Empire running. It was a headily independent life and full of incident – the wife of a District Officer’s cook was carried off by a lion but survived unharmed and the Shell garden boy was very nearly dispatched by a lethal black mamba. When war broke out Dahl’s manservant Mdisho, who came from a warrior tribe, beheaded an unpopular German sisal-owner with Dahl’s antique sword.
But did he really? We shall never know, but Going Solo is largely based on the letters Dahl sent to his adored mother Sofie, which were no doubt written to entertain. The second half of the book opens with Dahl’s 600-mile drive to Nairobi in his little Ford Prefect to enlist in the RAF. Since he was 6ft 6in, training as a fighter pilot was excruciating – his knees were near his nose – but he approached it with his usual can-do enthusiasm.
Going Solo is a marvellous read. As well as being a story of extraordinary courage, it’s also a haunting evocation of the unspoiled beauty of East Africa in the 1930s and its now extinct breed of expatriates, ‘the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet’.
Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy
‘“Thank you, sir,” she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking at me again, she said after a pause, “I see they got you too.”’
The scene is London, 1941. The young fighter pilot Richard Hillary, on his way in a taxi through London, takes shelter in a pub when the air-raid siren goes. Then everything is a chaos of falling plaster and broken glass until finally, unhurt, he goes out into the street and finds that the building next door has been hit. A woman and a dead child are being pulled from the rubble and he offers the woman some brandy. He has had a lucky escape – yet he has not escaped. The woman sees immediately from his horribly disfigured face and hands that he is a victim too.
Richard Hillary was a charming, good-looking and rather arrogant young man, fresh from public school and Oxford, when, like many of his friends, he abandoned university to train as a pilot on the outbreak of war in 1939. At the flying training school, meeting men who hadn’t enjoyed the same gilded youth as he had, his view of the world, and of himself, began to change. In 1940, during the Battle of Britain, he shot down five German aircraft and was finally shot down in flames himself, sustaining terrible burns to his face and hands.
There followed months in hospital, where he underwent numerous operations to reconstruct his eyelids, lips and hands by the pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, struggled to come to terms with his defacing injuries, and heard almost daily of the deaths of his friends. He was 21 when, as a tribute to their courage, and as a kind of self-examination he began to write. The Last Enemy was published in 1942, seven months before his own death in a second air crash, after he had, unbelievably, persuaded the authorities to let him fly again, though he could scarcely hold a knife and fork. With its raw honesty, lack of self-pity and its gripping and terrifying accounts of aerial combat and the psychological aftermath, his book is a wartime classic, the harrowing story of a carefree young man who, like many others, was suddenly and cruelly forced to grow up.
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