Saturday, November 19, 2011

Empire of the Clouds - Book Review

Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World by James Hamilton-Paterson
In 1945, Britain was the world's leading designer and builder of aircraft - a world-class achievement that was not mere rhetoric. And what aircraft they were. The sleek Comet, the first jet airliner. The awesome delta-winged Vulcan, an intercontinental bomber that could be thrown about the sky like a fighter. The Hawker Hunter, the most beautiful fighter-jet ever built and the Lightning, which could zoom ten miles above the clouds in a couple of minutes and whose pilots rated flying it as better than sex. How did Britain so lose the plot that today there is not a single aircraft manufacturer of any significance in the country? And what was it like to be alive in that marvellous post-war moment when innovative new British aircraft made their debut, and pilots were the rock stars of the age? James Hamilton-Paterson captures that season of glory in a compelling book that fuses his own memories of being a schoolboy plane spotter with a ruefully realistic history of British decline - its loss of self confidence and power.It is the story of great and charismatic machines and the men who flew them: heroes such as Bill Waterton, Neville Duke, John Derry and Bill Beaumont who took inconceivable risks, so that we could fly without a second thought.

This is a most frustrating book - it's so 'hit and miss'. There's much of interest but you have to trawl through a lot of irritating dross to get to it, and by a lot I mean way too much!

I understand there's a tendency for books about such subjects to be over-flowing with description and data which can be off-putting to a casual reader. But Hamilton-Paterson goes too far the other way and lets vague nostalgia get in the way of fact. To be brutally honest, I don't care what his nan thought or how he fell out his pram when a jet passed low over his garden. At times this feels more like his memoirs than an account of the British aero-industry. And such expressions as 'the sky was full of jets' are just inaccuracies that make you doubt the validity of his other points - his referencing of Wikipedia doesn't help matters. I know this isn't the most serious of history books, but Wikipedia? Come on!

The book isn't a long one, only 270 pages, yet it feels fleshed-out by the author repeating how Bill Waterton was seen as a difficult person to get on with, how test pilots earned a pittance (though a pittance worth more than double that of an average worker), and how people at the time wrongly believed Britain was at the cutting-edge of aircraft design and production.

I think making Waterton one of the main focuses of the book is a good idea, but poorly executed. H-P clearly doesn't have enough information to make a full biography of Waterton - yet he has enough to detract from the stories of the other test pilots and the planes themselves. Do one or the other, not both half-heartedly.

When H-P isn't trying too hard to be a writer and isn't doing his 'it's not like it used to be' routine, the book can be very interesting, readable and informative. Such sections of the book usually occur when he lets the facts talk for themselves. The chapter on the V-Bombers is good and the part about the airliners is enlightening (H-P has no enthusiasm to cloud the details here - he admits airliners are the aircraft he is least interested in). In many places however the book concentrates too much on the politics of the business of post war flight and not enough on the amazing achievements and aircraft, and the politics is written in such a dry way that ti becomes tedious!

For me, this book has served as a useful starting point and it has certainly furthered my interest and knowledge. I just feel it could have been much more than that. All the ingredients are here for something fantastic - a fascinating subject, glamorous planes, colourful characters and a wider setting in the form of the general decline of British industry as a whole. But H-P really hasn't got the balance right. Too much opinion, too much nostalgia...just tell the stories of the planes and people, they're interesting enough - they don't need any embellishment from you! As a result the book rates a mere two stars from me and should be only considered if you cant get a good illustrated guide or don't mind large amounts of backbiting in your books.

Available from:
James Hamilton-Paterson
Hardback • ISBN 9780571247943


Tony said...

Thank you for the review.

I have seen this book in The Works - discount book store in the UK and thought of picking it up.

I like the idea of the subject matter but was not sure.....

I might now try reading it. But not buying it at full price.


Millest said...

Thanks for the comment and glad the review was of use.

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