In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).
I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.
It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?
Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.
That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.
On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.
Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.
Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.
Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.
Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.
The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.
In denial? Maybe a little.
On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.
Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.
As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”, it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.
Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:
“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.
“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”
There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.
1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.
2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.
Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)
photo: Jamie Gorman