A nation with no navigation: Already a master of the sea James Hamilton-Paterson now rules in the air


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The Independent Culture

Somehow you don't expect a famously footloose writer who has lived rough for long stretches on an islet in the Philippines, reported on wars in Indo-China and military juntas in Brazil, and then found later-life acclaim as the historian and celebrant of daredevil British aviators, to pick you up in what he calls a "Chelsea tractor".

However, as James Hamilton-Paterson insists while we drive from the nearest station in his (second-hand) banker's tank through the damp meadows of Upper Austria towards his isolated hillside home, he needs it strictly for use, not for show. Around here, halfway between Salzburg and Linz, the winter snows can drift to three or four feet across the narrow roads.

He came to Austria in 2006 after 23 years in Italy (two separate locations in Tuscany), punctuated by regular long spells on the pseudonymous island of "Tiwarik" in the Philippines. It inspired his classic memoir Playing with Water (1987) and also enriched the maritime meditations of his great book about the sea, Seven-Tenths (1992).

The antithesis of the smug "Chiantishire" loafer, he fell out of love with rural Tuscany just as the trend-following bourgeois herd moved in. The follies and pretensions of the place-in-the-sun brigade prompted a trio of savagely funny novels about the Tuscan pratfalls of a celebrity biographer, beginning with Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004): another genre gear-shift in a restlessly versatile career.

A celebrated solitary (if that's not a contradiction), but also friendly, hospitable and impressively well-informed, Hamilton-Paterson later explains over his kitchen table that "It really doesn't bother me very much where I live. My prerequisite is quiet. I'm not a city-dweller. I've always lived in country places, and often very remote places. I like silence." For him, the expat life he has enjoyed since 1979 may even deepen his understanding of Britain. "Yes, it gives you the perspective of distance. But it also means that you're able to compare it to other places.

"Most of my adult life has been spent outside Britain. And yet I do keep in very close contact, and not just with my sister and her family, and various friends. I also take the London Review of Books, Private Eye – essential! - and New Scientist, and I look at the papers online every morning. That distance is very useful. I quite often feel, possibly erroneously, that I perceive things that people on the ground – even in the press – don't see as clearly."

A few years ago, this sumptuously eloquent prose-poet of the sea and its mysteries changed his literary element, migrating from water to air. The result was Empire of the Clouds, an elegiac and much-admired history of postwar British aviation. It revived all the romance of a moment when finely engineered fighters and bombers - the Javelins, Vulcans, Lightnings and Hunters - could beat the world, but also excoriated the muddle and drift that wrecked a stellar industry.

Empire of the Clouds struck deep chords among readers far beyond the Biggles tendency of hard-core aero buffs. It interwove some exquisite snatches of Fifties boyhood memoir with the suspenseful and often tragic history of its ravishing, but accident-prone, hardware. Hamilton-Paterson himself learned to fly in Brazil during a late-Sixties sojourn there. (The country also inspired his beautifully melancholic first novel Gerontius, about Elgar's Amazonian journey in 1923.) Then the sea and its depths seduced him.

But last year, while he was a passenger in a light plane, the pilot "said to me 'Lovely day for flying, James. You have control.' It was the first time I'd had control of an aircraft in 40 years. It was amazing, wonderful. It's like riding a bicycle – it just came back."

Ironically, Hamilton-Paterson's lament over squandered brilliance helped mend fences with today's UK aircraft builders. In response to his nostalgic dismay, they sought to show him green shoots in the aeronautical wasteland. "Contrary to what I had originally thought, there is still quite a lot of aviation industry in this country – sorry, in Britain. It's still lively."

He says that "I didn't mean to give aviation as a bellwether of decay and decline; I wanted it as a bellwether of indecision and incompetence." A cumulative series of official blunders and fumbles lost Britain its lead. They reflected "Indecision about exactly who we are, what role we're supposed to be playing, and what the hell the military are supposed to be doing. We've never really answered this question since 1945." As Hamilton-Paterson knows better than anyone, you can take the writer out of England, but…

With his new novel Under the Radar (Faber & Faber, £14.99), he switches his aerial register from history into fiction. Its close-focus story evokes the "monkish", stressful but exhilarating routines of Britain's Vulcan bomber crews, marooned on airbases in the Lincolnshire Fens, during the Cold War stand-off of the early 1960s. "That must have been very unreal. Planning sorties you hoped never having to carry out against people you didn't know in cities that you felt you knew better than the local towns in Fenland."

Amos McKenna, his unhappily married Vulcan ace, harbours a personal secret that might upset some plane-spotters more than any wizard prang. Amos cherishes his sleekly sophisticated steed but (much like his nation) hasn't the foggiest about its ultimate purpose. By then, intercontinental nuclear missiles had already made of the British V-bomber force a pretty, but bankrupting, charade. "It was a retaliatory gesture which was absolutely vain, but nobody said this."

In microscosm, and boosted by data-rich prose that nonetheless soars to lyrical altitudes, Under the Radar captures an era, a military culture - and maybe a country - in denial. Behind the splendid, pointless rituals of the RAF lies the traumatic memory of hot, recent combat that shaped Hamilton-Paterson's generation, and which runs through his work. "I'm of that period myself. I could have been one of them."

Born in 1941, he rebelled against his public-spirited medical family - his parents, both doctors, were founding pillars of the NHS - with a bittersweet intensity that galvanises Playing with Water. In the wake of world war, "People of my generation – or at least the boys – grew up with the fair certainty that we were going to have to fight. Not everything had been resolved… That sense underwrote an awful lot of what happened in that period" - not least those messy end-of-empire wars (Aden, Borneo, Kenya, Cyprus) that felt "very close to hand".

Although something of a crack shot at prep and public school in Kent (King's Canterbury), uniform never tempted him. After Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, he taught in Libya (site of his rape by Bedouin herders, recounted with shocking sangfroid in Granta in 1999), before adventure-hungry journalism for the New Statesman took him to Brazil, Vietnam and finally, in 1983, to his obscure outcrop in the Philippines. Apart from Playing with Water - in this writer's opinion, a rock-solid masterpiece - his love of the country led to a landmark history of the Marcos regime, America's Boy, and a baroque thriller, Ghosts of Manila.

"Tiwarik" and its nearby coastal villages appealed not thanks to coral-and-palm tropical clichés but for their unromantic ordinariness. "What I liked about that place was that it's nondescript. It's a working province; the beaches are working beaches with shingle and dogshit, and goats that come down to eat the dogshit, and dead fish and fishermen mending the nets. It's not a tourist place." He adores the location, its people and the spear-fishing craft he mastered in its seas, but never idealises them. "There is no great other place. End of story."

His Upper Austrian retreat offers blessings of its own. The local health service works well - both sorts of arthritis have begun to trouble the 71-year-old. And, not content with mastery of a handful of literary genres, he can now play the piano in a land that honours the art. "All my life I've been much more interested in music than in literature; I know more about it and I'm better at it. And Austria is wonderful from that point of view." He plays with his GP, a violinist, and the doctor's cellist wife. A Beethoven trio awaits them.

Meanwhile, his brace of airborne books seems to have sharpened the vigilant outsider's sense of Britain's lost chances, wrong turns and "terrible errors" of military overstretch after victory in 1945. "Hats off to that Labour government for embarking on an incredible range of social betterment with absolutely no money – which is why we had to go cap-in-hand to America, and why we are so much in America's pocket. Had it not been for that…"

As spring rain falls on the Alpine foothills, this elegist of Britain's graceful but doomed machines - and their graceful but doomed custodians - imagines another postwar flight-path, one of high-minded and peaceable neutrality. "I think we should have become a kind of elder statesman, whose job would have been to try to dissuade others from making the sort of mistakes we had made and learned from… We would have been like a kind of world-weary Switzerland. But obviously, that was never on the cards..."