Authors: H.E. Bates
H. E. BATES
My grandfather, although best known and loved by many readers all over the world for creating the Larkin family in his bestselling novel
The Darling Buds of May
, was also one of the most prolific English short story writers of the twentieth century, often compared to Chekhov. He wrote over 300 short stories and novellas in a career spanning six decades from the 1920s through to the 1970s.
My grandfather's short fiction took many different forms, from descriptive country sketches to longer, sometimes tragic, narrative stories, and I am thrilled that Bloomsbury Reader will be reissuing all of his stories and novellas, making them available to new audiences, and giving them â especially those that have been out of print for many years or only ever published in obscure magazines, newspapers and pamphlets â a new lease of life.
There are hundreds of stories to discover and re-discover, from H. E. Bates's most famous tales featuring Uncle Silas, or the critically acclaimed novellas such as
, to little, unknown gems such as âThe Waddler', which has not been reprinted since it first appeared in the
in 1926, when my grandfather was just twenty, or âCastle in the Air', a wonderful, humorous story that was lost and unknown to our family until 2013.
If you would like to know more about my grandfather's work I encourage you to visit the
H.E. Bates Companion
â a brilliant comprehensive online resource where detailed bibliographic information, as well as articles and reviews, on almost all of H. E. Bates's publications, can be found.
I hope you enjoy reading all these evocative and vivid short stories by H. E. Bates, one of the masters of the art.
Tim Bates, 2015
We would like to spread our passion for H. E. Bates's short fiction and build a community of readers with whom we can share information on forthcoming publications, exclusive material such as free downloads of rare stories, and opportunities to win memorabilia and other exciting prizes â you can sign up to the H. E. Bates's mailing list
. When you sign-up you will immediately receive an exclusive short work by H. E. Bates.
The war of 1939-1945 required total commitment from British citizens. That included writers. Almost everyone from Noel Coward to George Orwell was anxious to do their bit. Some like Evelyn Waugh saw themselves as men of action rather than scribblers and spurned the pen for the sword â a mistake as it turned out. Most though, decided they could make the most effective contribution by practising what they did best.
Herbert Ernest Bates was thirty-four years old when the war broke out, and married with four children. He was already a well-known writer and a junior member of the literary establishment with friends like Graham Greene. Despite his age and family responsibilities he first tried for a commission in the Royal Air Force only to be turned down. He spent a frustrating time trying to get worthwhile war work. Eventually, in September, the Air Ministry offered an unusual assignment. They proposed to commission him into the RAF simply as a short story writer, charged with showing the public the private face of the aircrews who by now were engaged in an all out bombing campaign. Bates was alarmed at first â he knew nothing about flying or military aviation. That soon gave way to a feeling of pride and excitement. He left the ministry âfeeling rather as if I had been awarded a literary Victoria Cross.' The results, published anonymously at first under the pen name âFlying Officer X,' would enthral hundreds of thousands of readers and delight his superiors.
The stories are all taken from Bates's time at bomber stations in the east of England during the autumn and winter of 1941-1942. It was a painful period for the RAF and for Bomber Command in particular. The realisation was dawning that without better navigational aids bombing was hopelessly inaccurate and wasteful.
Bates's job was not to analyse operational shortcomings but to anatomise â and celebrate â the character of those doing the flying and dying. He did so triumphantly, subtly exposing the motivations and mindsets of men who spent little time examining their emotions, explaining them in a way they would have been hard pressed to do themselves.
He spent three months based at Oakington, a newly built station in the flatlands north of Cambridge. It was home to 7 Squadron equipped with the giant new four-engined Stirlings and 101 Squadron flying Wellingtons. During that time they were flying sorties over Germany interspersed with trips to Brest where the battlecruisers
(Salmon and Gluckstein in RAF slang) were berthed, menacing Britain's vital trans-Atlantic supply line. It was a dismal place and a dismal time. Thirteen aircraft were lost, thirty-eight aircrew were killed and thirteen taken prisoner. The losses achieved little. Bates was profoundly aware of the gap between himself as an observer and those who were taking the risks. He offered a sympathetic ear, rarely probing, and these taciturn men opened up to him over a drink in the mess or the local pub. The stories show that he was not only a great writer, but also a superb listener.
As a fan of Bates's writing, I am delighted that the
Flying Officer X
stories are collected into one volume here for the first time together with some previously unpublished stories from the same period.
Patrick Bishop, 2015
Every morning when I came downstairs I sat in the mess and looked for it in the papers. “Last night our bombers â¦” I would read. “Yesterday evening at dusk a strong formation â¦” But what I really looked for was never there.
I used to consider the case of Dibden. Dibden was twenty-five. He was a pilot with thirty-three operational trips and a D.F.C. to his name. He flew Stirlings and looked more than anything else like a dark, very handsome little Eskimo. You felt that it was a pure accident that he was flying a bomber instead of doing a roll in a kayak or having a snooze in an igloo.
Dibden was a good type, and a very good pilot indeed. But there were some who would not fly with him. Navigators, changed from their own crew, would suddenly develop violent toothache or trouble with their ears. Dibden was rather proud of the way he could land a Stirling in fair imitation of a golf-ball.
Once, on circuit and bumps, Dibden began to come in for landing with his air-speed down to ninety. He pulled her off again and did a sickly turn over the telegraph posts on the railway line and came back to land on the established golf-ball principle, hastily. “It was quite a moment,” Dibden said.
There was nothing about that in the papers. Nor, of course, was there anything about the way he had all his operational hours carefully added up. His thirty-three trips amounted to a hundred and fifty hours.
Very soon, with another fifty hours, Dibden would be a veteran â an old man of twenty-five who had watched others do their three and five and perhaps fifteen trips and not return. Dibden always returned; like a ball thrown at a wall he came back, and the harder you threw him, the faster he returned.
Once or twice a week, when not on ops., Dibden got a little whistled, but the papers, of course, did not mention this either. You came into the mess late at night, tired, perhaps, after a spell of duty, to find Dibden bouncing from chair to chair, table to piano, like a smiling cherubic little Eskimo chasing an invisible bear.
At intervals he stopped being the Eskimo and became the bear, rushing up to other people, especially newcomers, to embrace them. “Bad type, bad type!” he would say. “Seize him, knock him down. Bad type!” We were all bad types when Dibden was whistled, but the papers, of course, did not mention this either. We are very good types really.
After these adventures others came down to breakfast with faces looking the colour of the sheepskin on their flying-boots; they looked at the mess of kidneys and bacon and said: “My God, I've had it,” and crawled away.
But not Dibden. He bounced in very late, more cherubic than ever, charmed the first overworked waitress into bringing him crisp rashers, potatoes, kidneys, fresh toast, and coffee, looked at the clock and said something about five minutes to make the hangars, and then began to eat as if he had returned from a hunting expedition. “Pretty whistled last night, boys,” he would say. “Rather off my feed.”
He spent most of the rest of his life being brassed off. “Good morning, Dibden,” you would say. “How goes it?”
“Pretty much brassed off, old boy.”
“Oh, what's wrong?”
“Just brassed off, that's all. Just brassed off.”
This phrase, which, of course, was never in the papers either, covered all the troubles of Dibden's life. It covered all his troubles with his kite, his crew, his ops., his leave, his food, his popsy.
He was brassed off when ops. were on because of the increasing monotony of trying to prang the same target; he was brassed off when ops. were scrubbed because there was no target at all. He was brassed off because there was fog on the drome or because his popsy could not keep her date.
But however brassed off he was, he succeeded in looking
always the same: cherubic, grinning, bouncing, handsome, too irresponsible, and altogether too like a schoolboy to be engaged in the serious business of flying an expensive bomber.
One afternoon Dibden was out over the coast of Holland on a daylight. It was his thirty-third trip: the veteran adding another four or five hours to his flying time. Down below, off the coast, he saw what he took to be an enemy tanker and he went down to have a look-see.
The tanker opened up at him with a fury of flak that surprised him, holing his port wing. I do not know what his emotions were, but I imagine that he was, simply, and as always, just brassed off. He went in and attacked the tanker with all he had, bombing first and then diving to machine-gun the deck.
The tanker hit back very hard, clipping a piece out of the starboard flap, but the more the tanker hit, the more Dibden bounced back, like the ball thrown hard against the wall. His rear gunner was very badly wounded, but Dibden still went in, firing with all he had left until the flak from the tanker ceased.
The next day there was in fact something about this in the papers. It did not sound very epic. “Yesterday afternoon one of our bombers attacked a tanker off the Dutch coast. After the engagement the tanker was seen to be burning.”
It did not say anything about the holes in Dibden's wings or the way the outer port engine had cracked coming home. It did not, in fact, really say anything at all
about that brief, bloody, and very bitter affair in which Dibden had bounced back repeatedly like an angry ball, or about the long journey home.