15th November 2022 Handheld World War 2 Classics 6
The Welsh author John Llewelyn Rhys (1911-1940) published The Flying Shadow in 1936, The World Owes Me A Living in 1939 and England Is My Village in 1941 (also reissued by Handheld Press). 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.
Robert Owen is the only son from a Welsh vicarage, now a brilliant pilot and flying instructor, recently of the Royal Air Force. He has taken a new job at the flying school at Best, a prosperous cathedral town in the south of England.
Flying has never seemed so alluring and so terrifying. Human frailty is tested in the drilling and repetition of hours in flight, and Robert’s skills as a pilot and in diplomacy with pupils with delusions about their competence are tested to their limits. And then he falls in love, risking his heart as well as his body in the air.
The Introduction is written by Luke Seaber and Daniel Kilburn, both lecturers at University College London.
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‘They climbed another two thousand five hundred feet before he spoke again. “That was quite a good show, but you’re still inclined to be a little stiff on the controls. Try to relax and take things a little more easily.” As he explained the theory of spinning, with engine throttled down so that the aircraft was hanging on the slots, his eyes searched the empty sky. Below, the clouds were flat as beaten snow, dazzling white in the brilliant sunshine, undisturbed except for the shadow of the Moth which slid easily, silently, over their even surface. For scores of miles there was no movement, nothing but the sunny emptiness of the sky and the hard, white floor of the clouds, the enormous silence pricked by the stutter of the engine. For the hundredth time the beauty of such a scene hooded his mind, the sense of overwhelming desolation intensifying his realization of individuality. Nothing in the world, he thought, was as lonely as this, no scene so static in beauty, so expansive in monotony.’
In the 1930s, flying was all the rage. All over Britain women and men had grown up watching WW1 flying aces perform aerobatics in the sky. Now they too were learning how to fly.
The Flying Shadow was Rhys’s first novel, written before he was 25 years old. He was born in Abergavenny in 1911 and died in an RAF training accident just before the Battle of Britain in 1940. His last book, England Is My Village, a collection of short stories assembled by his widow, the novelist Jane Oliver, was posthumously published in 1941 and won the 1942 Hawthornden Prize.
‘It is the negotiation of behaviours around the aerodrome that makes these books most interesting, alongside the eloquent sensorium of piloting itself. Llewelyn Rhys has pages of laconic alcohol-fuelled dialogue between his pilots and other members of the milieu … in contrast with the barely enunciated fraternity between pilots … These books are a tantalising revelation of the sensibilities of pilots so often regarded only from the outside in this period, embedded in the social context of 1930s Britain.’ – Times Literary Supplement
‘For anybody interested in flying and its history, this is a book you need to read. There’s no shortage of technical details (explained well enough in the glossary to make sense) which interested me considerably more than I expected them to, along with the descriptions of what flying feels like, especially to Robert. My sense of it is a constantly shifting balance between the adrenaline rush of dealing with risk and the familiarity of routine which minimises those risks … as part of the history of aviation, as a broad portrait of the era, or a more detailed view of a particular segment of society at a particular moment, there’s so much to be interested in here. It’s a remarkable book.’ – Desperate Reader
‘Shot through with beautifully lyrical writing on the thrills of flying, the novel is also suffused with a poetic melancholy, the “flying shadow” of the title not only describing the joy of seeing one’s own silhouette steeplechasing over the fields and hedgerows below, but also the haunting spectre of death awaiting a lethal momentary lapse of concentration or a fatal incorrect control input.’ – The Aviation Historian (issue 44)
‘Now republished by Handheld Books in their series of forgotten classics, The Flying Shadow (1936) is a novel set in the relatively unexplored territory of early British aviation. In Rhys’s novel, pilot Robert Owen takes a job at a flying school in an English cathedral town, where he teaches all comers. This reflects a huge – but little explored in fiction – interest in the relatively new technology of aviation amongst the British population in the 1930s … In common with the other novels in the Handheld series on twentieth century history, The Flying Shadow focuses on individuals and their lives. So while it is rich in technical detail about early light aircraft, the novel is primarily about what a life dominated by flying is like for Owen and his colleagues at the flying school. The shadow of the title is not just that of the plane on the fields below, but that cast by a war not long past (and another approaching).’ – Lunate
Dutch aviation review site Aviation Book Reviews liked The Flying Shadow very much!
‘For anyone with a love of the sky’ – Country Life