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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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Michael Hillary saw his son the next day.

‘We were impressed,’ he later wrote, ‘by the fundamental change in him. Beneath his usual gay manner he was quieter and seemed suddenly to have grown from boyhood into a man … It was evident he was in a disturbed state of mind on his last leave. He and I sat in the sitting-room for about half an hour without saying a word to each other, by which time the strain had become almost unbearable. I was aching to say “There was a time when you brought all your troubles to me, old man. Can you not do so now?” Whether from a natural reluctance to intrude upon his privacy or for some other reason I do not know, but the words did not come from me. At that time I did not know that his crippled hands were making it almost impossible for him to fly bombers. If I had spoken he might have told me, and it is possible that I could have done something about it. On the other hand, he might have resented the interference. Whatever the outcome might have been it will be my eternal regret that I did not invite him to confide in me.’

Richard wanted to see no one this time except those to whom he felt particularly close: his parents, Denise, Mary Booker, and Tony Tollemache. It seemed as though he was gathering his friends around him and binding them to him. On 27 December he returned to Charter Hall.

On New Year’s Eve there was a dance and ‘gramophone recital’ in the Radio Transmission hut. The radio speech officer, an elderly ex-choirmaster, played some Rossini to the assembled airmen and a few WAAFs. It was a long way from louche evenings in the Café de Paris after a summer’s day in Spitfires.

On 3 January Hillary wrote to his mother. ‘Time is very short and there are a great many people in the world. Therefore of these people I shall try to know only half a dozen. But them I shall love and never deceive.’

On the same day Hillary undertook a night flight with Wilfrid Fison. They went in a Bisley because Hillary was ‘scared stiff of the old Blenheims at night – you can’t even see your instruments – and also as I was to do a height test the cold would have been too much for me – quite apart from fighting with the undercarriage.’ Fison sat up front with Hillary and, somewhat to their surprise, they became airborne with no problem. Soon afterwards the heavy plane started plunging to starboard, but they could see no obvious reason. At 10,000 feet the pitch control of the port engine jammed, and at 19,000 feet the radio stopped being able to transmit to the ground.

Hillary pushed down the nose and told Fison to get a ‘homing’ from the airfield. The radio gave out various homing vectors and
Fison repeated them solemnly, slowly, and wrong. Then the radio packed up altogether. Hillary pressed down slowly through the cloud until he saw the flare-path of the runway. He flashed his navigation lights at 1,000 feet, but there was no answer. Then he rechecked the dial: 11,000 feet. He descended and circled the airfield, put down the wheels, throttled back and waited to land. Then he stalled. He was not at 100 feet, but at 1,000 feet, and spinning.

Finally he got the plane to 800 feet and received an affirmative flash from the green lamp on the airfield. Above the runway the unmasked lights flooded the bottom of the plane and made him turn away his vulnerable eyes. With Fison on his knees, holding his hand across the glare, Hillary found the plane being buffeted by a heavy cross-wind. He fought the stick with his weak hands and landed like a crab, the sweat pouring down inside his icy flying suit.

Twice in the air he promised himself that if he landed safely he would tell the Wing Commander that he could not go on; but back on the ground the thought of quitting merely amused him. He was hungry; he wanted to get into the crew room, have a cigarette and talk flying. The ambulance that had been waiting for them, watching their jagged descent, was dismissed. Hillary went off to find some supper, and on the way went past four men, drunk, carrying a barrel of beer. He could hear a piano playing. Somewhere there was a party. Somewhere, miles away across this dispersed, unhomely airfield, McIndoe’s letter was still waiting.

Then on 7 January the Medical Officer opened it. ‘I agree with you that intervention is suitable in such a case,’ he replied to McIndoe, ‘but I am also sure that Hillary’s self-respect is an enormous obstacle.’ The Medical Officer made Hillary promise that he would visit McIndoe when he next went to London. He did not intervene himself because he found Hillary ‘difficult to deal with’ and thought that any suggestion on his part that Hillary’s health was not good would lead him to conceal his true feelings.

While the letter was in the post to McIndoe, Hillary was
required to fly. In the evening a Polish pilot noticed Hillary looking ‘tired, strained and very red about the eye’. He and Fison went up before midnight. There was intermittent sleet with a strong wind occasionally breaking up the cloud. The flight passed without incident, and the two men went back to the hut for a cup of tea and a cigarette before their second flight.

Shortly after take-off Hillary was told by radio to circle a flashing beacon. This was a normal procedure, in which the pilot would gently orbit the airfield while keeping the beacon on his port wing. The weather varied locally between little cloud with starlight to periods of 10/10ths cloud at 2,000 feet. The R/T asked him: ‘Are you happy?’ This was the standard operational word. Hillary replied: ‘Moderately.’ There was not necessarily cause for alarm in his choice of word. A former Spitfire pilot, bestselling author and reformed Oxford rake could not honour-ably answer ‘yes’ when he was flying a heavy, unreliable old hulk through cloud above a place he had described as the end of the world.

‘Moderately,’ he said. ‘I am continuing to orbit.’ The official report of the flight recorded that when R/T called him again there was no answer. An officer on the ground noticed that he was losing height. The report said that he lost control while circling in cloud. Wing Commander Benson wrote: ‘I must have overestimated him because I liked him and admired him for what he’d been through. He wasn’t happy so we recalled him. I was watching his navigation lights, and he spiralled straight in from a thousand feet.’

If, however, he was in cloud, it is difficult to see how an officer on the ground could make out his navigation lights and thus see that he was losing height. In any case, navigation lights were not generally used in night flying at Charter Hall. If anyone had perceived that the plane was falling, he ought to have contacted Hillary to warn him. It looks as though radio contact, as so often, had been lost. What may have happened is that Benson did not see, but heard the plane coming down.

The noise was loud enough. A shepherd in a nearby village heard the great machine lumbering and screaming overhead, causing his children to wake up in alarm and plaster to tumble
from the ceiling of his cottage. The plane buried itself in the ground with a shattering impact that was heard for miles around in the freezing night. The explosion, in Benson’s words, ‘lit up the entire countryside’.

It was impossible to rescue anything from the flames. Hillary and Fison were annihilated. Hillary was identified by his wristwatch.

In London on the morning of 8 January Mary Booker received the telegram. ‘Deeply regret to inform you Flt/Lt Richard Hope Hillary No.74677 killed in flying accident today.’ She went at once to break the news to Edwyna Hillary, who was working for the Red Cross at St James’s Palace. She looked up as Mary entered the room. ‘Is it Richard?’ she asked. Mary took her home and spent the day with her and Michael Hillary.

At Charter Hall the story went round that Richard Hillary’s was a coffin they had to fill with sand.

The flames, as Hillary had anticipated, had their man in the end. On 12 January 1943, at 10.30 am, he was cremated at Golders Green. But before the ashes were scattered, before his parents had emerged from their shock, strange things started happening to the memory of him. It was as though, despite the finality of his end, the elements that had made up his existence remained unstable.

Richard Hillary’s brilliant and short ascent to fame, the disfigurement of his handsome features and his violent death in a broken-down trainer made him the fit subject for a myth that the writing of the previous decade had been preparing. When Hillary himself spoke of ‘the pilot’ and the mysterious role the figure played in society he was aware of the literary associations he was invoking. In his poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ Yeats understood and helped articulate something of the sense of mastery, of escape and of fatal indifference that airmen commonly experienced.

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Hillary’s attempt to express his version of the same thing in
The Last Enemy
was, by comparison, almost incoherent:

The pilot is of a race of men who since time immemorial have been inarticulate; who, through their daily contact with death, have realised, often enough unconsciously, certain fundamental things. It is only in the air that the pilot can grasp that feeling, that flash of knowledge, of insight, that matures him beyond his years; only in the air that he knows suddenly that he is a man in a world of men. ‘Coming back to earth’ has for him a double significance. He finds it difficult to orientate himself in a world that is so worldly, amongst a people whose conversation seems to him brilliant, minds agile and knowledge complete – yet a people somehow blind. It is very strange.

It is not surprising that Hillary wrote less well than Yeats. What is significant is that he recognised, in a literary way, the mythic potential of what he was writing.

Throughout the previous decade, when Hillary had been studying literature at school and university, English writers had puzzled over the role of the man of action. Many of them confessed to feeling themselves in some way unmanned by the fact that they had not faced the trial of the Great War. The influence of Wilfred Owen was important, not only in the way he wrote, but because as well as being a poet he had been a soldier who conquered shell shock, returned to the front, and won the MC. The writers Hillary referred to dismissively as the ‘Auden group’ were aware as early as 1931 and 1932 that they were
entre deux guerres
, and their work was sometimes a contemplation of the next war before it was an accommodation of the last.

The literature of the 1930s was concerned with what to do next. The figure of the pilot kept recurring. In October 1931 an Italian anti-fascist poet called Lauro de Bosis flew in a light plane from Marseille to Rome to drop political leaflets. He never returned, and his flight took on some poignant significance.
When the poet John Cornford, one of the most celebrated English volunteers, was killed in Spain in 1936, his obituarist wrote: ‘I could not but think, when I heard of his death, of Lauro de Bosis – the young Italian who went to Rome in his lonely aeroplane, delivered his testimony, and died.’

A man was to make his point, alone, then die. His action should preferably be politically motivated, but there was the possibility that action itself could redeem. In 1932 Auden published
The Orators
, the longest part of which, Book II, is ‘The Journal of an Airman’. The character is weak and troubled; the mission he flies is a political one against a class enemy. Auden was helping to create the idea that there was something symbolic in the figure of the pilot: that he above all other people epitomised the private man forced by calamitous events into a public role.

Day Lewis referred to Auden himself as a pilot in a poem in
New Country:
‘Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!’ One aspect of the reflexiveness and self-reference of English writing in the 1930s is the irritating, clubby way the poets refer to one another in their poems. However, the self-consciousness and awareness of ‘action’ and of political developments in Europe also meant that public events were quickly scrutinised, turned over, and transformed into verse. By the time Richard Hillary died in 1943 there was an established technique in overnight myth-making.

In 1934 Day Lewis included in his poem ‘A Time to Dance’ a narrative section based on a flight from England to Australia made by two Australian war veterans called Parer and McIntosh. They flew in a condemned and ill-serviced DH-9, its condition something like that of the wretched Blenheims at Charter Hall. The poem is remarkable among contemporary works in that it seems to have no political content at all. Day Lewis was at this time a Communist, but the poem is about the thrill of flying. The following year another Communist, Christopher Caudwell, edited a book called
Great Flights.
He worked under the pen-name C. St John Sprigg, while as Caudwell he wrote a Marxist study of poetry called
Illusion and Reality.
His interest in flight was uncoloured by his political beliefs. Flying was seen as a feasible form of heroism and individual self-assertion that
survived the degradation of the infantry slaughters of the Western Front. It was already depicted by these writers as what Richard Hillary later called it: exciting, individual, disinterested.

Auden had anticipated Hillary’s interest in T.E. Lawrence; in fact it was Lawrence who was the inspiration for Auden’s Airman in
The Orators.
The year before Lawrence’s death in 1935 Auden wrote: ‘To me Lawrence’s life is an allegory of the transformation of the Truly Weak Man into the Truly Strong Man, an answer to the question “How shall the self-conscious man be saved?” ‘ Auden returned to Lawrence as the basis of Michael Ransom, the main character in
The Ascent of F6
the following year. Auden saw in Lawrence’s life the dilemma that Hillary saw: the problem of heroism and of what a self-aware man should do. The complication is that only decisive action itself appears capable of revealing such a man’s true motives. In
The Ascent of F6
Auden complicated matters further by introducing a Freudian element. Ransom acts heroically to please his mother, but is then destroyed by her. Edwyna Hillary, far from being destructive, tried hard to protect her son, though it is possible that in his emotional reliance on her rather than on his father, Hillary developed unconsciously a desire to please and impress her, comparable with Christopher Wood’s drive to honour and vindicate his mother’s love. The pity is that both should have finished by producing the last consequence that either mother wished to see.

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