15th November 2022 Handheld World War 2 Classics 7
This new edition of England is My Village, and The World Owes Me A Living is a stunning rediscovery of the brilliant Welsh writer John Llewelyn Rhys, who was killed in wartime. ‘Had he lived,’ an obituary noted, ‘he might have become the Kipling of the RAF.’ Rhys’s prose is spare and direct, with no words wasted. His dialogue is immediate, conveying mood, emotion, relationships, character and action with precision.
The World Owes Me A Living (1939, and filmed in 1945) is a powerful novel about British aviation in the 1930s: the planes, the pilots, their need to be in the air, their skill and bravery, their hard-drinking lives, the long-distance record-breaking attempts, and death through accidents and taking one risk too many.
The short stories of England Is My Village (1941) were assembled by Rhys’s widow, the novelist Jane Oliver, according to his plan for their publication. They illuminate the terrible responsibilities placed on very young men flying thousands of feet up in the air in boxes of metal, petrol and canvas. England Is My Village won the Hawthornden Prize in 1942. Rhys’s first novel, The Flying Shadow, is also published by Handheld Press.
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‘I soon found the field, much smaller than it had been in my imagination, with the two Avros lined up before the hay shed. I pushed my map into my pocket and dived towards them. The airspeed needle climbed steadily, the controls grew stiff beneath my hands and feet. As the pasture that was to be our aerodrome grew clearer, more earth-like, till it seemed that I was flying into the trees at the north end, I pulled back sharply on the stick relying on the specially strengthened structure to bear the strain.
And now, stone-like and immobile, I was pressed hard into the seat. As every rivet, strut, spar, and longeron took the strain it seemed that my body joined the protest screamed by the interplace bracing wires, the anguish expressed by airscrew thrash and the rattle of the engine.
The horizon came up to meet me, the sky rolling itself away as a blind. I eased the stick forward and the strain was lifted from me. Putting on full bank I rolled off my back into normal flying position again, keeping up the nose with top rudder while the engine fought for revolutions and the airspeed needle dropped off the clock.
Looping and rolling and spinning for the first time for months, the outline of each manoeuvre clear in my mind, I felt suddenly happy in the insecurity of it, the quick certain movements, the latent fear that braced the mind. Again it occurred to me that flying was the only reality: that as every action of life is but relative to the act of being alive, so every aspect of consciousness was, to me, subordinate to the mere piloting of an aircraft.’
John Llewelyn Rhys (1911-1940) was born in Abergavenny and was killed in a flight training accident in 1940. He published The Flying Shadow in 1936 when he was 25 years old. This was followed by his second novel, The World Owes Me A Living in 1939, and England Is My Village in 1941.
Reviewers routinely compared his writing to the work of the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, for his lyrical response to flight and its technology. The New Yorker said Rhys’s writing was ‘sensitive, intense, and touched with a poetic mysticism’.
‘Elegant character studies of aviation types of this period, also meditations on alterity, on operating at a remove, on living a life that is often very close to death … a fascinating perspective on a well-trodden area of historical enthusiasm’ – Times Literary Supplement
‘An essential addition to any self-respecting aviation-related fiction bookshelf, the quality of the writing every bit the equal of St-Exupéry’s existential musings, Harald Penrose’s rhapsodic recollections of “wind in the wires” or, for a different generation, the Zen meditations of Richard Bach. In the title story of England Is My Village, a curious, macabre tale, Rhys sets the scene in characteristically elegiac tones: “And now the other machines were taxi-ing towards him, huge heavily laden monoplanes, grim against the dawn, moving fast over the close-cut turf, beating down clean thick lines through the white frost . . .” Lovely stuff.’ – The Aviation Historian (issue 44)
‘These are two fine special books to read. Brave of HP Handheld Press to publish these older books again!’ – Aviation Book Reviews