Arts & Books

John Hinton: the urbane writer who never missed a great story

John Hinton had previously worked at Time magazine and ITN

I regret to inform readers that John Hinton, a longstanding contributor to the Catholic Herald, has died aged 72. John had worked for the paper in various capacities since 2003. I first met him in 2005 when I became literary editor. One of my predecessors in the role told me that John was one of the best reviewers around and that I should make sure to hold on to him. I worked with John for the next 10 years and he became as much a part of my Catholic Herald life as the office in which I sit and write this.

John had previously worked at Time magazine and ITN. For me, he was a reminder of the vanishing world of old-school journalism and I learned a great deal from him. As a reviewer, he instinctively knew how to snag a reader’s attention. He had an effortless, erudite style which was often more pleasurable to read than the books themselves. He had that incredibly rare writer’s knack of always being able to tell a good story, even when he was reviewing a bad book. He would pick out the most choice anecdotes and present them in a witty and urbane manner. Here we publish the last longer review he filed before his death.

John was a charming and generous man who always supported the Catholic Herald and those who worked for it. I find it hard to imagine our Books pages without his byline to grace it. Some people are irreplaceable and the world is a poorer place without them. John was one of those. Perhaps even now he is entertaining heaven with his inimitable stories and fabulous anecdotes. I would certainly like to think so.

Stav Sherez, Literary editor

Marked for Death by James Hamilton-Paterson, Head of Zeus, £20

Flying was still a novelty in the First World War, widely seen as daring and glamorous. Newspapers did much to promote this view by concentrating on the air “aces” – a handful of particularly successful combat pilots who were singled out for propaganda purposes to be awarded medals and become national heroes. But in his new book, James Hamilton-Paterson unsparingly exposes the truth of early wartime aviation: of flimsy aircraft and unprotected pilots who had no parachutes; of burning 19-year-olds falling screaming to their deaths; and pilots freezing and disorientated as they flew over enemy lines at 15,000 feet.

Manfred von Richthofen was the war’s top-scoring fighter ace. Fifty-four of his 80 victims were downed in flames. He became known as the “Red Baron” partly because he was a baron and partly because he flew a distinctive all-red aircraft. Much later, fun was made of him. The jokey title of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a direct reference to the “Jasta” formations in which he flew. And the comic-strip dog Snoopy is shown pretending to fight him sitting atop his kennel, wearing a leather helmet and goggles with a scarf blowing behind
him in an imaginary slipstream.

This is a far cry from the baron’s real victims as they fell, wrapped in flames, from 8,000ft for the 30-odd seconds it took to reach the ground. A cold-blooded killer, Richthofen once observed: “When I have shot down an Englishman my passion for the hunt is satisfied for 15 minutes.”

Parachutes were issued towards the end of the war, but until then the authorities believed they sapped the pilots’ “fighting spirit”. Pilots did have pistols to defend themselves against enemy troops if they landed on the wrong side of the lines, but how many used them to end their lives rather than face a fiery death can only be guessed at.

At its height, the air war pitted almost 6,000 British and French aircraft against 3,000 German adversaries, while about 50,000 airmen lost their lives from all sides. Military planners saw them above all as a means of reconnaissance, spotting for the artillery. Many planes were remarkably unreliable and training was extremely rudimentary: many eager young pilots were sent to the Western Front after barely 10 hours of solo flying. The death rate was horrendous: out of some 6,000 young men being trained by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) by the spring of 1917, an astonishing 1,200 died before they had qualified. Hamilton-Paterson rightly calls it “the slaughter of the innocents”.

To outside observers, the pilots seemed to live in a world of their own. The pilot, wrote WE Johns, the creator of Biggles, who joined the RFC in 1917, “fought the war in his own way. He spoke a language of his own, understandable only to his colleagues. If he was hurt, he complained solely because it meant leaving the squadron; if he was killed his friends drank themselves unconscious and never mentioned his name again.”

Pilots’ jargon was full of zooms, stalls, pancakes and flips. To celebrate a successful mission, the pilots’ mess would celebrate with near-lethal cocktails and a meal with lashings of wine. Afterwards, they might go and look for fun in the nearest French village. But for many there would be a price to pay: an orderly would be coming to wake them up at 4am for the dawn patrol, and to face more danger from the skies.

Johns wrote about his first bewildering dogfight as follows: “One minute we – my formation – were sailing along all merry and bright and the next minute the air was full of machines, darting all over the place. I didn’t see where they came from or where they went. By the time I had grasped the fact that the fight had started and I was looking to see who was perforating my plane, the show was over. Two machines lay smoking on the ground and everyone else had disappeared.

“While I was considering what the Dickens I should do, I suddenly discovered I was flying back in formation again! The fellows had come back to pick me up and formed up around me. I didn’t even see where they came from.”

The author suggests in his postscript that the legacy of the First World War pilots was not just that they paved the way for the bloody aerial battles of future conflicts, but also that they helped push their new technology to the limit and established some of the principles of the exceptionally safe air travel that millions of us enjoy today.

That’s a practical rather than romantic verdict. But, as Johns remarked, “only politicians saw the romance in it”. For most of his fellow pilots, he wrote, “the war was a personal matter. Another fellow shot at you and you shot back; you shot at another fellow and he shot back; and it jolly well served you right. That was all there was to it.”

John Hinton

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (18/9/15)

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