Books: a book that changed me

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The Independent Culture
Nicholas Royle

on Piers Paul Read's `Alive'

When did you first read it? The Fairchild chartered by the amateur rugby team from Uruguay crashed in the Andes in October 1972, but I wasn't aware of the story until at least a year later, when Piers Paul Read's remarkable book was serialised in the Observer Magazine. Only 10 at the time, I found myself completely gripped by the narrative.

Why did it strike you so much? Inevitably I was morbidly fascinated by the revelation that those who survived the crash and their ordeal on the mountain only did so by eating the flesh of their dead friends. But my main interest was in the crash itself. I had never flown, so the Observer story was my first exposure to the mystery of man-powered flight. The word which rang in my head as I tried and often failed to get to sleep was not "flesh" or "meat", but "fuselage". For me, the word has never represented the main body of an intact aircraft, a supposedly reliable means of transporting human beings, but rather conjures up an open-ended, flimsy white metal tube perforated by black portholes, with unspeakable materials spread out on the roof to dry in the sun.

Have you re-read the book? You bet. If I ever catch myself even casually entertaining the idea that flying might be an option, when I could get to where I have to go by train, bus, car or boat, I immediately pull down my copy of Alive from the shelf and reread certain passages. Or I'll leaf through my comprehensive World Directory of Airliner Crashes. My wife and I once rented the Alive video and couldn't watch more than 10 minutes. The difference between that and Read's book is that he is so good at rendering the indomitability of the human spirit. He brings the characters alive, so that while you are reading the book - which I recently did again in three traumatic days - you care desperately about their fate.

Do you recommend the book? It should be required reading for all those morons who bang on about how, statistically, flying is the safest form of transport. Far from blaming Read for giving me a fear of flying (not a phobia, by the way, as it's entirely reasonable), I'm indebted to him.

's new novel, `The Matter of the Heart', is published by Abacus at pounds 9.99.