Dramas of contradiction

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has an essay in Moving the Centre entitled ‘Biggles, Mau Mau and I’, which I read a long while ago when writing a doctoral thesis on postcolonial theory.  It’s about the incongruity between his love of Biggles adventure stories, as a young student in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, at the same time as one of his brothers was fighting with the Mau Mau in the forests being targeted by the RAF as part of the British counter-insurgency strategy against the Mau Mau rebellion:

“What actually broke the back of Mau Mau in the mountains was the intensive bombing by the Royal Air Force. Mau Mau had no reply to the terror from the sky. My brother, who survived the war, still talks with awe of the bombings”.

As Ngugi puts it: “So, in reading Biggles in the years 1955 and 1956, I was involved in a drama of contradictions”. To be more precise, it’s actually a drama of identification which he describes, pulled between two hero figures – his brother, and Biggles.

This essay by Ngugi has always stuck in my mind because, in 25 years in the air force, the only sustained ‘hot’ war my father engaged in was as part of this bombing campaign Ngugi refers to – the RAF deployed Lincoln bombers to Kenya from 1953, and my father was navigator in one of these squadrons. One of only two medals he had from his years of service is from this Kenya operation – I only recall once hearing a passing remark from him disdaining the idea that the bombing was effective, something to the effect of ‘You flew along ’til you were over the forest, dropped the bombs, and then fly home’. (Actually, this pretty much captures the logic of air power in the Mau Mau campaign – the British patterned-bombed areas designated as ‘known’ terrorist locations, defined as ‘prohibited areas’ – anyone in them was therefore, by definition, assumed to be Mau Mau. On these grounds, the bombing campaign can be considered a successful model for limiting civilian casualties).

My father’s military career, and the first twenty years of my parents’ marriage, coincides with the period of Britain’s imperial downsizing, from the early 1950s to mid-7os. A period of ‘small wars’, or ‘peripheral conflicts’, although not so small perhaps from a Kenyan perspective, or not so marginal to understanding the history of the present in, say, Cyprus.

It turns out that the role of the RAF during the Kenyan ’emergency’ is a topic of renewed interest in fields of military-academic research, as part of a wider interest in learning lessons from the British use of air power as part of ‘COIN’ in the 1950s and the 1960s, from Malaya onwards (see here, here, and here for example). Needless to say, in this intellectual universe, the interpretation of the role of the RAF is somewhat different from Ngugi’s; although I should also say that this ‘theatre’ of post-war aerial warfare does not seem to play much part in critical genealogies of aerial bombing. (And, by the by, on the basis of my speed reading about this sort of thing in last few weeks, I do hope somebody out there is writing the definitive genealogy of the vertical geopolitics of the helicopter).

Amongst the things I have been sorting out from my parents home in the past few weeks is a little box kept by my father, who I don’t remember as a sentimental man, containing those two medals, a medal for achievement for something or other from Northampton Grammar School, and a number of wings, insignia and badges he had removed from old uniforms (and a leather cord wristband which I cannot imagine him ever having worn, but who knows, he was young). Amongst these is one from Bomber Command, which must date from the early 195os – the motto reads ‘Strike with Accuracy’, which we all now know is something more of a statement of hope than of fact. There is also an enamel badge from his last squadron, in the 1970s, flying long-distance transport aircraft – ‘United in Effort’ it reads, less rousingly, but rather more honestly. The arc of his military career is captured in these two badges.

I can’t say I identify very strongly with this aspect of my father’s life (it’s interesting, depending on one’s tastes, but that’s not the same thing). It might be more a matter of actively dis-identifying with some elements of its legacy. But the fact that these mementoes of RAF-life are kicking around in the same box as the school medal does strike a chord with me – it’s a reminder that for him, the RAF was a route of upward social mobility, for a working-class boy who had left school at 15 to work as a clerk on the railways, who then found himself ‘Officer material’ on merit. It was also a route to overseas adventures. Somewhere in the box is a sociological lesson about the material grounds for identification with ‘the nation’, for example, as an aspect of dull and ordinary career paths, or as the background in which friendships were made. But also, perhaps, a lesson about the thinness of that identification, in so far as it might have been accompanied by all the usual disappointments, resentments, regrets, and failures which accompany people’s jobs and careers.

Ngugi’s account of his boyish identity being formed within a drama of contradictions is certainly more dramatic than mine. The attraction of Biggles, he suggests, lay in  literary form – “in the story and the elements of what happens next”: “They were the kinds of books that told a young man: once you start reading me, you will not put me down. It was the strong action that made one forget, or swallow, all the racist epithets of the narratives”. Ngugi’s point is that this is an element of ‘literarature’ which one is meant to grow out of, an important first immersion, but one which only invited “involvement in the actions of the hero and his band of faithfuls”, not “meditation”. My dad wasn’t Biggles, and I didn’t even really grow up in a military family, but rather one in which air force life was a fading memory.   There isn’t much of a story here, actually, is there? I did grow up in a house full of books, although not a bookish household, and anyway, they weren’t story books, not exactly – they were history books by Paul Wellman about the old West, or Guy Gibson’s autobiography. Books which, if I were to read them now, I might suppose have an element of the tragic in them lying beneath all the adventure. And you don’t get that in Biggles.