Saturday, 6 April 2013

Penguin no. 1279: Fair Stood the Wind for France
by H.E. Bates

1st edition, 1958,
Cover by Imre Reiner.
Franklin looked at the revolver and saw it suddenly as a pathetic and useless thing. He saw his own belief in it as pathetic. He had become so used to handling a weapon as big as a house, and carrying enough power to wipe out a small town, that he had forgotten there are other types of power. He looked at the three people sitting in the lamplight waiting for a sound. He saw them, the three generations of one nation, as part of a defenceless people, as part of the little people possessing an immeasurable power that could not be broken. He saw them suddenly as little people who had lain on the ground and had their faces trampled on but whose power was still unbroken. He knew it clearly now as a more wonderful, more enduring and more inspiring power than he had ever believed possible: the power of their own hearts.

H.E. Bates was drafted into the RAF as a writer during the second world war, commissioned initially to write a series of short stories with the aim of improving the morale of a war-weary civilian population. He knew little of aeroplanes or flying, but he was given considerable opportunity to observe the airmen closely, and this included the chance to interview a pilot who had been shot down over France, and who had then managed to escape with the assistance of the French Resistance. This was clearly his inspiration for Fair Stood the Wind for France, which is an inspiring story of a bomber pilot's assisted escape from the German-occupied northern region of France during the latter part of the second world war. It is part-romance, part-adventure story, and perhaps a little melodramatic at times. But it is also a book in which a simple summary of the plot would seem rather inadequate in conveying what it is about.

It seemed to me to be principally a story about the inherent decency of ordinary people. Not all of them, clearly: inevitably some people think only of themselves, and it is the difficulty of distinguishing between the treacherous and the trustworthy which heightens the tension all the way through this novel.  H.E. Bates inverts the common action-oriented approach to war fiction which is centred on a tale of personal heroism; instead of one man as hero saving a community, this is the story of a communal effort to help one man.

His escape depends upon a whole series of small acts of defiance, and the selfless acts of many strangers. The people involved come from differing walks of life - they are young, old, and middle-aged, accomplished and uneducated, English and French. Some are motivated by the recollection of tragedy in their own lives, some by a belief in the future, and others by a simple and unshakeable faith in God.  And perhaps there is an underlying desire to be part of something bigger which has each one of them risking their own lives, and possibly the lives of those they love, and yet giving their assistance unhesitatingly. It is all uncoordinated and haphazard - simply a collection of people who, when given the opportunity, choose to behave compassionately and courageously.

3rd impression, 1964, 
Cover photo by Peter Theobald.
The story is mostly told from the perspective of John Franklin, a man suffering considerable pain. One moment he is involved in the war effort, calmly flying back from a bombing mission with his thoughts only on getting home, and the next he is looking for somewhere to land his Wellington Bomber because of a mechanical failure in one of the engines. He finds the ground to be softer than he expects, and the landing consequently harder, and when he regains consciousness after the crash he is aware that his arm is badly injured and he has lost a lot of blood. He knows that such a wound is a serious complication in these circumstances, when hospital care must mean capture.

But he is well-practised in constraining his attention to matters of immediate importance, and for him the only thing which matters is the safety of his crew. Everything of value in the plane must be salvaged or destroyed, and then they must find food, determine their location, and work out how they are to keep from the notice of the German soldiers, and later the gendarmes, while they make their way to Spain.

These five men impose a life-threatening burden on anyone who offers them assistance. All they have to fear is the loss of their freedom, but the locals face execution if they are even suspected of helping the downed airmen. And yet they are given shelter by the isolated mill-owning family of Fran├žoise. Grandmother, father, daughter and employee immediately dedicate their efforts to concealing and feeding the men, sourcing passes to facilitate their escape, and arranging the medical treatment Franklin desperately needs. But even so he continues to weaken, slipping in and out of consciousness, and sleeping for long periods. He struggles to maintain his  sense of himself as a man of action, but gradually realises that he must step back, and learn to trust and rely on others. This is the story of Franklin's escape, underpinned as it is by many courageous acts, and it is also the story of the romance which gradually develops between Franklin and Fran├žoise.

H.E Bates is also attempting to convey something of the experience of life in occupied France during the latter part of the second world war, and he does this through a focus on detail. His story is like a mosaic built up from fragments of Franklin's experiences; it is a collection of moments. He records the things Franklin observes: the silence of trees unmoved by wind, the unfocused gaze of a waiter staring vacantly down an empty street, the imprint of a girl's thumb on a ripening peach. But it was this background story of decent-hearted, selfless humanity which I enjoyed the most; it is illustrated in the concern the airmen had for one another, and the resilience, stoicism and bravery of an occupied population.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 2130: An Aspidistra in Babylon

4 comments:

  1. One of my favourite reads last year, Karyn.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This sounds like a really interesting novel. I had heard of it but not known what it was about -- I now really want to read it. Thanks.

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  3. I enjoyed your take on it. Bates writing always puts me in mind of a Japanese haiku. Something about the simplicity of presentation, the ordinariness of the subject(s), and the depths that open up - just beyond the edges of the words. Which reminds me that J.D.Salinger once described R.H.Blyth's translations and commentary on haiku as 'sublime' (I'd recommend any of his work). Bates may strike modern taste as a little too sweet at times, and perhaps a little too oblique, but his writing also has (it seems to me) that sublime quality. Though I might add, always (just like the best haiku) with a little mud on its boots. He wrote in a similar vein about the British retreat in Burma (1942) and the partition of India and Pakistan (1947/48) in 'The Jacaranda Tree' and 'The Scarlet Sword'.

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  4. Why did the pilot hope he'd landed in Occupied France rather than Vichy?
    What is the meaning of the title (which is the first line of Michael Hayward's 1600's poem Agincourt?
    Would like to have more info.

    ReplyDelete

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