4 JANUARY 1992, Page 27

Into the wild blue yonder

Montagu Curzon


Leo Cooper, f12.95, pp.150

In 1941 the RAF decided to allow any- one who had formerly been a pilot to apply for flying duties. At once Cecil Lewis was out from behind his Air Ministry desk and back into the air, shedding three grades of rank in his eagerness to resume, at 43, the career he had described in Sagittarius Rising, fighting with the Royal Flying Corps in the first world war. Sagittarius Surviving is its sequel.

The snag was that he was 'married to a beautiful, brand new wife', and so loth to be sent off to the Eastern Mediterranean with Transport Command. But this gave the form, and to us the charm, of this book as it is extracts from the hundreds of letters he sent her, happy, easy, intimate in tone, with a warmth one is willingly drawn into, so following him through the rigours, longueurs and dangers of wartime life.

Another personal touch to his war is that, whilst a flying instructor in 1941, he had trained his own son, Ivor, who became `No, 1 don't think the effects of Post Creation Trauma have worn off yet,,' either.'

a fighter pilot and was likewise sent to the Mediterranean. His sudden appearances out of thin air, visiting or coinciding with his father, punctuate and enliven the story, and give it a tension: will he survive, or does tragedy lurk a few pages on? After one visit, to Sicily, father accompanies son and his friend as they fly early next morn- ing, back into action in Italy. Past Etna the Hurricane peels off over the sea in farewell to the two Spitfires, a picture in Homeric clarity of simple male bravery.

Lewis had to set up airfields for the swarms of planes in constant movement about the Middle East or being ferried to India or America. Tireless organiser, he looked after the piston-lagged and rather smelly ferry pilots (`their other uniform in a laundry on another continent'), who seemed 'doomed like spirits to wander for ever round the world'. In Egypt, then in Sicily (speaking Italian) after the invasion, he tells his wife the adventures of service life, but dodges its notorious boredom by darting off into some Coptic churches, flying over Scylla and Charybdis, visiting Herculaneum, going to a seedy opera in Sicily and to the marionette show. There is an innocence in his descriptions of Mediterranean life — curious, because war is on, death and destruction have rained down on every side, every species of cruelty is being widely practised. But the villages are quiet and homely, the villagers smile, the young men gaily tramp the grapes, the girls burst into song, the sea is clean, fish are plentiful and shipyards are busy. The deeper damages of modernity and tourism are yet to come.

His view was disenchanted, by his own side as well as the other:

My feeling gets stronger and stronger that the set-up is all wrong. H.G. Wells is right when he says there is a limit to the human being's ability to cooperate.

Then he was sent to Greece, at first a feted liberator, then a prime target in the civil war. Under heavy attack he struggled to save his men and keep the vital airfield open. But, true classicist, he was at least as much impressed by the setting as by the present action:

All this stuttering of machine guns and thud- ding of mortars is taking place in days of the most perfect crystalline clarity I have ever seen! It is as if our eyes and our ears lived in two different worlds.

He wandered in deep awe through the moonlit Acropolis, climbed Mount Pentelikon with a friend, and the view of the Plain of Attica unleashed

a marvellous conversation. Nothing about what was going on. 'Nothing about war, destruction and death. Just about dreams, hopes, longings . . . for something better, .more worthwhile to live for ...

Sagittarius, still surviving at 93, gives a useful demonstration of how to keep civilised curiosity and decency intact in a hostile climate.