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The Aerodrome

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Sphere, London, 1968
(price: 7/6; 208 pages)
first published 1941 by The Bodley Head

The blurb on the back:

‘Remember that we expect from you conduct of a quite different order from that of the mass of mankind. Your purpose - to escape the bondage of time, to obtain mastery over yourselves, and thus over your environment - must never waver... This discipline has one aim, the acquisition of power, and by power freedom.’
This is the voice of the Aerodrome, ruled with an iron hand by the Air Vice-Marshal. His aim is to save humanity from itself by obliterating human error. He is dedicated to ruthless efficiency and absolute power. To Roy, the most brilliant young officer in the aerodrome, this challenging doctrine offers an escape from the muddled ideals and sexual blunders of the Village, his birthplace and the home of his unfaithful mistress.
This superb allegory is probably the only novel of its time to understand the dangerous yet glamorous appeal of fascism.
’Brilliantly imaginative ... it remains the best, perhaps the only, English Kafka novel.’ Anthony Burgess, The Listener

opening lines:
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance to me of the events which had taken place previous to the hour (it was shortly after ten o’clock in the evening) when I was lying in the marsh near the small pond at the bottom of Gurney’s meadow, my face in the mud and the black mud beginning to ooze through the spaces between the fingers of my outstretched hands, drunk, but not blindly so, for I seemed only to have lost the use of my limbs.

This is a very odd piece indeed, and one that’s strangely neglected, despite high-profile enthusiasts including Anthony Burgess and Angus Wilson, the latter writing the introduction to this edition. Rex Warner (1905-86) was a friend of Cecil Day Lewis and achieved some limited acclaim as a poet in the late-20s. That was the generation that was radicalised by Soviet revolution and by the struggle against fascism and war, and presumably The Aerodrome is coming from this general direction. Because, as the sleeve-notes point out, this is a fable about fascism.

Roy’s a young man living in a place known only as the village, just next to which is the Aerodrome. Tensions exist between the arrogant, self-absorbed airmen and the villagers, and Roy increasingly finds himself drawn to the promise of discipline and order that the Aerodrome represents. As the village comes ever more under the heel of the Air Force, with its traditional social structures and ways of life being trampled underfoot, he joins up as an airman. It’s a process assisted by his discovery on his 21st birthday that he was adopted (or worse), and that what seemed like security is in fact based on lies. Oh, and his supposed father, the vicar of the village, turns out to have been a murderer as well.

Luckily he finds a surrogate father in the form of an Air Vice-Marshal who explains that life is only ‘a brief and dazzling flash of time between two annihilations’ (p.121), and that his destiny is therefore to be as completely himself as possible, irrespective of family and friendships; all that existed before he joined up is as nothing because now his duty is ‘To be freed from time. From the past and from the future. From shapelessness.’ (p.150) It’s a vague kind of philosophy, but then fascism has seldom been noted for its intellectual rigour. Indeed, intellectualism is one of the things that it’s against. But he does get comradeship, sex without responsibility, and a smart uniform. And that promise of structure looks appealing, when it’s opposed to the mess and confusion of the village.

The juxtaposition of the allure of technological efficiency and the shambling compromises of real life is the core of the book, but it’s the telling of the tale, as much as anything else, that lifts this into a class of its own. I love the dead-pan acceptance of extraordinary events by both Roy, the narrator, and everyone else (a villager is shot accidentally by an airman, and everyone seems to regard it as just one of those things), and I'm hugely impressed by the way that the writing subtly delineates the two opposing forces: the village is described in sentences that sprawl seemingly at random, twisting and deviating like a stream, almost in defiance of grammar and structure, while the Air Vice-Marshal delivers his thoughts in clear, concise packages.

It’s a minor classic, I think, and – even though it was written just as the full enormity of the fascist experiment in Europe was becoming clear – it’s not really an historical document. Like all the best fables, it continues to resonate, because actually it has more to say about human experience than it does about the political structures of its time. Seen more than sixty years it was written, it comes across as a description of a young man trying to make sense of, and find a place in, a confusing world, and being attracted to a system and a creed that offers to do it for him.

This was apparently filmed by the BBC in 1983 in a version starring Jill Bennett, Peter Firth and Richard Briars. I rather wish I'd seen it.


When Anthony Burgess drew up a list of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984, The Aerodrome was amongst them, as was:

Pamela Hansford Johnson, An Error of Judgement

read another review of The Aerodrome by The Brothers Judd