Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Desert Flyer - Martyn R Ford-Jones

As I mentioned in the review for Caine’s Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer, the use of a wartime diary is often the genesis for an insightful and personal memoir. A diary on its own can make for interesting reading but add some context, stir in some other characters and provide a generous dollop of illustrations and you’ve got the perfect recipe ... if you can cook it right. Desert Flyer has all the ingredients for a five star dish but it should have been left in the oven a bit longer.

The subject of the story is F/O William Marsh – a working class lad with a green thumb developed from working a market garden. He joins the RAF and trains in Canada before being posted to 605 Squadron but ultimately ends up with 274 in March 1942 (after sailing in convoy and witnessing the loss of HMS Ark Royal – interesting photos here). Marsh remains with the squadron for well over a year before leaving for his ‘rest’ tour as an instructor. Throughout his time with 274 (and before and after) Marsh provides a window to his experiences through numerous candid diary entries that offer insight into life in the desert. The diary entries and main body of text are ably supported by more than 200 of Marsh's photos. To my knowledge, none of these photos had been published before and they are a truly remarkable record of one man’s war from the frozen airfields of Canada to the hot landing grounds of North Africa. Every facet of his life is contained in these photos and all are printed on high quality paper so their reproduction is superb.

However, I am not at all impressed with the writing and editing. The bibliography contains just five sources which surprised me a great deal. The grammar is average (not that mine is perfect) with regular errors and I encountered several incomplete sentences which made no sense (not to mention the repeat of an incomplete sentence in a paragraph about a combat - took the 'rush' away!). There is also the apparent need to insert extra words into some of the diary/log excerpts. This lessens the feel and originality of Marsh's writing. Over-clarification also prevails. When "Spits” are mentioned by Marsh, for example, the author or publisher (I suspect the latter) felt the need to put "Spitfires" in brackets. Seriously. Perhaps I’m being a little sensitive on this last point but [Spitfires] could have easily replaced “Spits” altogether (which is how I was taught to use square brackets).

I have a severe feeling this book was written for the American market and was simplified so RAF ops in North Africa could be easily understood. I don't think American enthusiasts were given enough credit here.

Now for my big ‘but, hang on’. If I am completely honest the impact of the errors/lack of research/treating the reader a little like an idiot are lessened by a bit of sentimentality and empathy. Sure, the issues I have with this book were greatly frustrating - a classic example being a pilot recorded in the text as having pranged his Spitfire but was referred to in the end notes as having pranged his Hurricane ... and the caption of the relevant photo also said Hurricane - but, as I read about Marsh's time with 71 OTU at Ismailia, I realised I would miss this pilot whose life had been laid out in front of me over 300+ pages. His loss, as with all losses in our readings, was sobering and I felt it keenly.

So, despite the frustrations that are clearly evident, consider this book if you ever come across it. Sure, it's a bit light on for detailed research (depends what you’re after) and there are all manner of things you'll pick up as wrong etc but it is an insight into ‘one of the many’ - the fighter pilots who were not aces but were bloody good at their jobs and who should have had the chance to live a longer life. You could also buy this book for its 200+ photos alone. They are astounding and the perfect condiment for a book that is slightly underdone.

I realise this is a somewhat negative review but it is how I saw DF. While I haven’t written a book yet, I obviously appreciate the effort made by authors. We can all get passed errors etc but considering how much we can pay for books I think we deserve value for money.

I bought my hardcover copy of DF off Ebay and was quite taken by the cover and overall ‘feel’ of the book – nice and heavy and printed on good paper stock. I’m a sucker for anything in North Africa.

Reviewed copy published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd in 2004.
ISBN 0-7643-0347-3

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