Blackbird Head of Zeus, 2017
This is an account of the design, production, active service and demise of Lockheed’s ‘Blackbird’ family of aircraft: the A-12, M-21, YF-12 and SR-71.
I point out in the book’s first chapter that ‘Haynes Manual’-type books about this aircraft already abound, full of the ‘wow’ factor stressing its technical complexity and record-breaking performance. However, the aircraft’s political context is often too briefly summarised, which in my view misses much of the story’s abiding interest. Intense paranoia reigned on all sides in the Cold War between 1945 and 1980, and it is in that ‘Dr Strangelove’ atmosphere that the ‘Blackbird’ was conceived, when there were at least 16 different US intelligence agencies, each competing for its unique niche, as well as the three main armed services equally competing for their own preferential funding. It needs to be understood why the ‘Blackbird’ (as the A-12) was a project of the CIA and not of the USAF, how it grew out of Lockheed’s earlier U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, and what made it vitally necessary at the time.
Also part of the story of the ‘Blackbird”s astounding technical success and humiliating end were the frustrations of the Air Force with successive Presidential vetoes on overflights of the USSR, the project’s massive expense, and behind it all the rapidly improving space technology that enabled satellites to do the aircraft’s job more efficiently, cheaper, and with no danger of being shot down. It was this, plus a combination of internal politics and external technology, that finally grounded the SR-71. In short, it became obsolete.
In memory, film footage, and museums, the ‘Blackbird’ remains arguably the most charismatic aircraft ever built: a machine of awesome beauty and performance whose design, construction and testing were achieved in pre-computer days in conditions of absolute secrecy at Lockheed’s Skunk Works and at Area 51 in Nevada. Its story tells us a great deal about American attitudes during the Cold War, and how those attitudes were changed into something more cynical by the failure of the war in Vietnam.
There is plenty of technical detail in the book, together with cockpit accounts of near-disaster, actual disaster, ejections, air-to-air refuelling, aircrew selection and the rest.
Eroica Head of Zeus, 2016
This is a non-fiction account of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony, placing it into the context not only of the composer’s life but also of the genre’s development as well as that of Nineteenth-century Romanticism generally. Although written with the non-musician in mind, the book begins with a brief explanatory overview of how Western music progressed from Plainsong via counterpoint to J.S. Bach and thus to the Viennese Classical period whose style Beethoven inherited, transformed (some would say deformed), and then subsumed into his own almost aggressively personal style.
I describe how the ‘Eroica’s origins were interwoven with Beethoven’s own apprentice years as a teenager, not only via the exciting radicalism of the French Revolution but even in some very early compositions whose tune appears to prefigure the famous ‘Eroica’ theme of his future symphony’s last movement. I give an account of the symphony’s antecedents as well as its actual composition and its reception as a work so avant-garde it was deemed unplayable as well as something of an ordeal to sit through. I also speculate about the nature of its ‘real’ hero, who may very well not have been Napoleon.
Marked for Death Head of Zeus, 2015
This is decidedly non-fiction: a historical account of the First War in the Air. The centennial interest in WW1 seemed to concentrate almost exclusively on trench warfare and the indiscriminate slaughter of the ground war. This is understandable in ‘humanitarian’ terms. But few indeed seem to know about the air war, other than vague images of the Red Baron and possibly Biggles. But that sort of air combat between aces was in a way the least interesting and certainly the least significant aspect, and it certainly had zero impact on the war’s outcome. Far more intriguing was the way in which aircraft went in four years from being little more than slow, frail observation machines only grudgingly tolerated by the military on all sides to being bombers and fighters capable of 140 mph and altitudes of up to 24,000 feet, with the ability to dominate the airspace over the battlefield now being universally recognised as essential.
There has probably never been such swift development of any technology, and it was all down to the pressures of war. I deal with the aspects that particularly interested me, including technical ones such as Why biplanes? and Why rotary engines? and the crucial significance of inventing interrupter gear that would allow a machine gun mounted in front of the pilot to fire without shooting the propeller off. But I also deal with training (which in the RFC was appalling until quite late on); Mess life and morale; why no parachutes were issued; the medical aspects of disorientation, lack of oxygen and intense cold – all of which were virtually new subjects at the time. In addition I deal with the lamentably inadequate defence of London against the attacks of German Zeppelins and bombers (and the political fallout), and also British air activity further afield in Mesopotamia and the Balkans.
Empire of the Clouds, Illustrated edition Faber, 2011
This is a large-format ‘coffee table’ version of the book designed originally for the Christmas market. The book’s original text has been considerably shortened, and the rest is frankly eye candy for aero buffs interested in post-war British aircraft.
Under the Radar Faber, 2013
This novel grew out of my fascination with the Cold War and with the UK’s V-bomber force that existed to deliver our nuclear bomb in the event of an all-out war. Of our three V-bomber types, I was particularly interested in the Avro Vulcan, so I set the book on a fictitious East Anglian airfield with a squadron of Vulcans involved in the gruelling daily routines of Quick Reaction Alerts, bombing practice (both ‘live’ and by radar), top secret briefings, inspections and all the rest of it, interspersed only occasionally with trips abroad. It was a very intensely-lived life, and among other things I wondered how it impinged on the crews’ private and married lives.
While writing the book I talked to a number of ex-Vulcan aircrew and went to some pains to get the details of squadron life and the technicalities of the aircraft as correct as possible.
Amongst other things I researched the famous ‘Skyshield II’ exercise of 1961 when all commercial aircraft on the Eastern seaboard of the US were grounded for a day while USAF and RAF bombers, simulating a surprise attack by the Soviet Union on major cities like Washington DC, New York, Boston etc, tried to get past NORAD’s radar defences without being ‘shot down’ by hordes of fighters scrambled to intercept them. The intense aerial activity that lasted for hours led many citizens on the ground to suspect that war really had broken out. The upshot was that at least one Vulcan avoided detection and effectively wiped out New York. The exercise showed up many crucial gaps in radar coverage and technology and caused a considerable political scandal. I discovered from the USAF’s Historical section that the final report on Skyshield II is still officially classified as secret, which seems odd well over half a century after the event. Some foraging in the National Archives at Kew revealed some intriguing cables dating from 1969 between London and the British Defence Secretariat in Washington on the subject. This is all written up in an appendix at the end of the novel.
Empire of the Clouds Faber & Faber, 2010
What started as a former schoolboy plane-spotter’s essay in nostalgia ended on the edge of a rant about the way Britain’s economy has been so badly mishandled ever since 1945. My fascination with aircraft and flying dates from my earliest memories and has never diminished. It was abundantly nurtured in the 1950s by the sheer number of different British aircraft in the skies and performing at airshows. There was enormous public interest in aviation at the time, springing from the almost religious respect in which the RAF was held by the end of the war as Britain’s ‘saviour.’ The aircraft industry was Britain’s largest – bigger even than coal mining or shipbuilding – and we were well placed to take the world lead in the new jet technology and even to be the first nation to break the sound barrier. But for various reasons it was not long before we were overtaken and only broke the sound barrier after the Americans had done so.
Nevertheless, aviation stories were immensely popular in the British press and in those days test pilots became folk heroes much as sports figures are today. My own hero was Bill Waterton, the Chief Test Pilot of Gloster Aircraft. He was a Canadian who was awarded the George Medal for bringing back his crippled Gloster Javelin prototype rather than ejecting. After that he became the Air Correspondent of the Daily Express and used his column with devastating frankness. He was highly critical of the way the British aircraft industry was run, and no less critical of the political floundering and indecision that killed off so many promising aircraft while wasting copious amounts of public money. Eventually his criticisms earned him the sack as doing nothing for morale in the Cold War and Waterton essentially disappeared for the next fifty years, vilified as the black sheep of British aviation.
But he had been right; and the progressive chaos and decline of the industry only confirmed his every point. It was doubly tragic in that against all odds, individual aircraft companies continued to design and built some wonderful aircraft. Yet in nearly every case they were too delayed to achieve their sales promise, or else the government or an airline changed its mind. There was no real national plan, no co-ordination of effort; and this lack was combined with poor management and outdated manufacturing skills. The steady run-down of the industry – together with that of nearly all Britain’s industrial base – seems with hindsight to have been deliberate.
In 2009 I traced Bill Waterton’s family in Canada, he having died in 2006, and was privileged to be able to work from his archive of log books, newspaper cuttings and photographs. Most of all, this book is a tribute to him and to the other test pilots of his era whose skill and courage made airline travel today as outstandingly safe as it is.
Vom Meer Mare, 2010
This is a collection of some of my essays on the sea and maritime subjects which I have written primarily for German and Swiss magazines, in two of which I had a regular column for some years. Most of the essays have not yet been published in English; mainly, I suspect, because the English-speaking market is generally hostile – or at best indifferent – to science in a way that Continental Europe tends not to be.
Rancid Pansies Faber & Faber, 2008
The third book in the trilogy finds Gerald Samper determined to write the libretto to a grand opera. A stay at the Suffolk home of Max Christ, the conductor, ends in a dining disaster when Gerald’s fieldmouse vol-au-vents produce unexpected symptoms. Back in Italy, he discovers that the privacy of his Tuscan eyrie had been invaded by religious pilgrims, drawn by the alleged apparition of Princess Diana (an anagram of whose name supplies the book’s title). An earth tremor changes Gerry’s fortunes and he finds himself collaborating with his neighbour Marta on an opera about the Princess. This is eventually staged at Max Christ’s concert hall in front of a Glyndebourne-type audience: as Gerald imagines, the high point of his literary and artistic career. The Fates, however, have other plans.
Caused me to creep out of bed and seek medication lest I wake the entire household with snorts of mirth.
Independent on Sunday
I read every word James Hamilton-Paterason writes, and he never lets me down.
Barry Humphries, Sunday Telegraph
Farcical fun and lethal wit.
Hamilton-Paterson is a national treasure.
Ian Thomson, Spectator
Amazing Disgrace Faber & Faber, 2006
The Samper saga continues with Gerald turning his contempt for contemporary public heroes on the admittedly dreadful Millie Cleat – the celebrated one-armed around-the-world yachtswoman. His musical pretensions are such that what he really yearns to ghost-write are the memoirs of Max Christ, the famous conductor. This connection soon brings him into contact with some vengeful oceanographers whose survey Millie Cleat once unwittingly ruined. Together they plot her come-uppance, though not in the spectacular way it actually occurred.
Hamilton-Paterson has created one of the great comic characters of English fiction, ranking alongside Bertie Wooster or E.F. Benson’s Georgie.
I love his elegant and intensely evocative style: strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume.
A formidable literary writer.
Cooking with Fernet-Branca Faber & Faber, 2004
This was the first of what turned out to be a trio of books featuring the dreadful but engaging Gerald Samper, an expat ghost-writer of sports personalities’ ‘autobiographies’. He lives in splendid isolation up a mountain in Tuscany, as befits the lofty disdain he feels for his subjects. He is ribald about all forms of sport but he does take cooking seriously – so seriously, in fact, that it enabled me in turn to be ribald about gastro-fashion and TV cheffies. His relations with Marta, a close neighbour, are a farrago of misunderstandings, as is revealed by the technique whereby each tells the tale alternately.
Cooking with Fernet-Branca was longlisted for the MAN Booker Prize in 2004 and won the BBC’s alternative Booker Prize, Bookered Out.
A work of comic genius
Independent on Sunday
Larded with bitter satire and piquant wit, at the expense, often, of its readers and their dreams of Italy.
Loving Monsters Granta, 2001
At first sight this seems as though it might be be a precursor to the Samper romps in that it begins with a British writer living in Italy being propositioned to write the biography of a strange near-neighbour, a man named Jebb. This is not a comic novel, however. As Jebb unfolds the story of his apparently monstrous life in Twenties London, wartime Egypt and modern Tuscany the narrator finds his own life oddly compromised by it. I suppose the book is a reflection on the nature of biography; but it is also about how love can appear to make a life monstrous while explaining and even redeeming it.
Loving Monsters is very, very good … new readers will stumble across him in a bookshop and go on turning the pages with the same sense of joyful bewilderment: “How does he do that? How can something be this good?”
Bella Bathurst, Sunday Herald
There is a rare touch of authenticity about Loving Monsters, and few readers will care whether this thoughtful, provocative and extremely well written book is fact or fiction or somewhere in between.
The book is fresh with the imaginative vigour and moral urgency that make Hamilton-Paterson an important writer.
Loving Monsters is almost too good to be true … tantalising, erudite and ingenious.
Barry Humphries, Sunday Telegraph
America’s Boy Granta, 1998
I wrote this in reaction to the international media coverage of the 1986 ‘People Power’ revolution in the Philippines that sent the Marcoses into exile and foreign journalists into ecstasy over the new president, Cory Aquino. The book was not in any way intended to exonerate the Marcoses; rather, it was an attempt to explain the political and social roots of their régime. I had already lived for some years in a provincial fishing village in the Philippines and had seen at first hand a feudal system that nurtured oligarchs in a country where the writ of central government often never made it beyond the outskirts of Manila. I was also impatient at the way the knee-jerk denigration of the Marcoses by the international media – few of whom understood such things – spilled over to tarnish the reputation of the country generally.
It was particularly hypocritical that the US press should heap ordure on Ferdinand Marcos’s head after 1986 when the CIA itself had done much to ensure his election back in 1965. At that time the US badly needed a pro-Washington ally who could provide extensive military facilities for the expanding war in Vietnam. Washington equally supported Marcos’s years of martial law and were content to turn a blind eye to his theft of huge sums of money. Indeed, President and Mrs Reagan remained to the end close personal friends and supporters of the Marcoses.
The book cuts between the village life I knew and the corridors of power in Manila to illustrate the cultural continuities which most of the foreign media missed entirely. The Marcoses were undoubtedly monsters in their individual ways; but they were authentically of their own people all the same, and just as authentically S.E. Asian and not American.
America’s Boy was also published in the Philippines, where it won a National Award.
The ultimate book about the national character of the Philippines has been written … both a history and a psychoanalysis of a whole people, a socio-political tour de force.
Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Malaya
Three Miles Down Cape, 1998
This is the account of a treasure hunt in 1995 which I joined as the expedition’s chronicler. A group of Britons had chartered the Russian oceanographic ship, the Mstislav Keldysh, to look for the wrecks of two vessels sunk in the Atlantic in the Second World War. These were a requisitioned British liner and a Japanese submarine. Both were alleged to be carrying cargoes of gold. The Keldysh was most famous for deploying her twin MIR submersibles, rated to a depth of 6,000 metres, to dive on the wreck of the Titanic. Their brilliant designer, Anatoly Sagalevitch, was also aboard the Keldysh with us.
We did not find any treasure, but from a writer’s point of view the expedition was a huge success. Not only was I at sea again; I was privy to the emotions and practical technicalities of the search phase of marine salvage. The weeks at sea provided high drama, pure farce and much hilarity, not all of which was attributable to the several vodka stills aboard. Best of all, I myself went down 5,000 metres to the Atlantic seabed in MIR 1: a 14-hour journey in a cramped capsule with two Russian pilots that was perhaps the greatest experience of my life. At the time (and this is probably still true) fewer people had dived to 5,000 metres than had been into space. I have never ceased to be grateful for the privilege of being one of them.
Rather surprisingly, the US edition of the book even made it into the New York Times bestseller list.
His controlled, crystal-clear prose is well suited to things maritime. He conveys the torpor of a long ocean voyage, the idle chats, the games of table tennis, the waiting.
His unfolding of the story and his deft sketching of some unusual personalities grips like the skinny hand of the Ancient Mariner.
He proves to be a chronicler of the intrigue among a crew of strangers, a fount of lore about wrecks and deep-sea exploration, and a marvellous witness to the lightless wonders of profound depths.
The Music Cape, 1995
Fifteen short stories, all about music.
Always an important theme in [the author’s] work, music here becomes a starting point for a series of tales, fables and meditations on life, art and creativity. Written in a wide range of voices … they reveal an imagination as wide-ranging as it is dazzling. Astonishingly versatile … extremely funny.
Christina Patterson, Indepentent
Beautiful, eerie, witty, astute, dazzling.
As perfect a collection of short stories as you’re ever likely to come across…
Paul Sussman, Independent on Sunday
Ghosts of Manila Cape, 1994
This was written after I had spent time with a Manila cop who conducted me to parts of his city that tourists take pains not to see, including lively and occasionally menacing slum communities. The book opens in a wasteland near Manila Airport where a small family business is boiling down the cadavers of police death squad victims and re-assembling them as skeletons for sale to medical students: an industry I witnessed before the trade was spoiled by cheap and anatomically-perfect plastic versions. The story involves a somewhat burned-out British TV journalist, a cool American lady archaeologist, a streetwise but often rueful Manila policeman and a family in one of the shantytowns. The novel was also published in the Philippines, where it understandably caused a bit of a stir for being too realistic for the taste of the Bureau of Tourism. Less offended Filipino reviewers were kind enough to admit that it was unfortunately quite truthful. Indeed, I was at pains not to exaggerate and pander to the fashion among certain Western writers for foisting their baroque and prurient imaginings on this historically fascinating city.
Has the intensity of a thriller, the precision of a documentary, and the authority of great fiction.
Tim Manderson, The Bookseller
Hamilton-Paterson’s excoriating book would be unbearably painful were it not so beautifully written. The clarity of his vision and the lucid elegance of his prose – lightened by flashes of gallows humour – make this one of the most extraordinary and powerful novels I have read for years.
Jessica Mann, Literary Review
The memory of the tormented city will live in my mind for a long time. This is a remarkable piece of writing.
Alberto Manguel, Independent
It is the author’s remarkable achievement that the city, in all its ragged splendour, continues to haunt the mind even after the last page of the book is finished.
Simon Prosser, Sunday Telegraph
Griefwork Cape, 1993
This book had its genesis in a vivid dream about a Holland-like landscape of dykes which caused me to catch the next plane to Amsterdam. The story is set in the tropical palm house of a botanical garden – possibly in the Netherlands – just after the Second World War. Its single-minded and distinctly odd curator, Leon, has brought his precious ark of exotic plants safely through the war but is now struggling amind the snows of winter to keep its boilers going in fuel-starved Europe. His conversations with the plants at night reveal much about his own past.
Griefwork is beautifully written. The author explores the tangled roots of his subject with brains and imagination, sustaining a tautness between Leon’s affirmation of nature and the creeping truth that will expose its provisionality.
Hamilton-Paterson’s strange and compelling novel puts down enduring roots in the reader’s mind.
The Bell Boy Hutchinson, 1990
Somewhere on my tropical travels I encountered a rickety hotel on whose roof an ancient servant lived in a converted hen coop. This gave me the idea for a young bell-boy, Laki, who is up from the provinces and lives on top of his hotel in the holy city of Malomba. He moonlights as a shrewd guide for foreign visitors, his latest clients being a hippie English family who are in Malomba for psychic surgery. Their mutual exploitation leads to both farce and minor tragedy.
A brilliant religious satire with elements of E.F. Benson and Evelyn Waugh … Few books since E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (whose formal perfection this novel shares) have conveyed more intensely the allure (and the revulsion) the East holds for Westerners.
New York Times Book Review
Seven-Tenths Hutchinson, 1992
One of the things I always regretted was not having studied marine biology (as it was then known) at university. A lifelong interest in the sea and oceanography eventually led me aboard the R/V Farnella in 1990. This was a British research vessel under charter to the United States Geological Survey which was using a new British-developed towed sonar to map the seabed contained by the US 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The experience of seabed mapping near Hawaii led to ‘Charts and Naming’: the first chapter of this book concerning different aspects of the sea.
The title refers, of course, to that fraction of the planet covered by oceans. It was probably a mistake. Where I had hoped it might intrigue, it clearly confused. I once found the book in Dillons in London filed under Mathematics. Its other seven chapters hint at the book’s scope. They are ‘Islands and Boundaries’, ‘Reefs and Seeing’, ‘Wrecks and Death’, ‘Deeps and the Dark’, ‘Fishing and Loss’ and ‘Pirates and Nomads.’ The current Faber edition also contains ‘Sea Burial’, the account of an odd experience I once had off Palawan when our lobster-fishing expedition encountered a dead man sitting in his little outrigger boat.
Informative, arcane, poetic and always articulate.
Seven-Tenths should be required reading for the decision makers of every maritime nation.
Alexander Frater, New York Times
Not since Rachel Carson have I heard such eloquence, such passion for the sea and everything it means to us.
Michael Kernan, New York Review of Books
Gerontius Macmillan, 1989
When I visited Manaus by river in the late 1960s I had no idea that Sir Edward Elgar had been there before me in 1923 when he took a six week cruise from Liverpool to Manaus and back. Even when I was there the town was virtually unchanged from the place he saw: no road out and no high-rise buildings. The sole modes of access to the town were by river or air. Elgar had made his trip at a low point in his life: his wife had died and he felt acutely the pall that the First World War had cast over Europe and its culture. My novel was an attempt to recreate the composer’s trip and his attempts to rescue his creativity from the silence into which it had fallen.
Gerontius won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1989. In 1990 I wrote a two-part radio adaptation for the BBC with Sir Michael Hordern (who had recently lost his own wife) most movingly playing Elgar. This gave me the opportunity to write some pastiche Elgarian music for the production. The adaptation won a Gold Medal and the Grand Award at the International Radio Festival of New York in 1990 and a Sony Radio Award in 1991.
Elgar emerges more vividly than any biography could make him – crusty, petulant, self-deprecating, egotistical, boyishly keen on ‘japes’, and grateful for the last secret promptings of a dwindling muse. An original and beautifully written debut.
Anyone acquainted with the composer’s real writing will recognise that [the author] has captured the style with uncanny accuracy.
The portrait is so credible that when the main musical conceit of the story is introduced the reader thrills to the notion of the Muse once again, albeit fleetingly, visiting Elgar after long absence.
Times Literary Supplement
Hamilton-Paterson’s writing has many of the qualities of English music: sweet fluency, clarity and feel for natural beauty, and modesty; it has the same suffocated mystic yearning at its center, a yearning that self-effacement and manly common sense will never allow to flower… It is absolutely convincing.
John Crowley, Washington Post
Enthralling … a major achievement.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe
Playing with Water Macmillan, 1987
The nearest thing I have so far written to an autobiography, this is an account of how I first went to the Philippines and wound up living for part of the time on an uninhabited islet. This involved fishing at night with a home-made spear gun, a single plywood flipper and a torch waterproofed with inner tubing. During the day I dried my catch and repaired my equipment. These were skills I had painfully learned in a fishing village up the coast, where I lived in a hut on stilts on top of a jungly hill. My intrigued involvement with the local culture laid the foundations for my later book America’s Boy.
Playing with Water was also a reflection on my early dissatisfaction with living in England once I had emerged from the shadow cast by public-school-and-Oxford. In fact, I haven’t lived in my native land for over thirty years and probably never shall again. Such things need explaining.
Rich, original, adventurous and very well-written.
One of the most moving and beautifully written books of interior exploration that I have come across for a long time.
The View from Mount Dog Macmillan, 1986
Twelve short stories without any particular common theme, although they do reflect my extensive travels in South America, the Middle and Far East.
A Very Personal War Hodder & Stoughton, 1971
In 1969 I was writing TV documentary scripts for ATV when my agent called me into his office to meet a mysterious man who wanted his story told. He was Cornelius Hawkridge, who had escaped from Hungary during the 1956 uprising and had gone to America. He had recently returned from Vietnam, where for some years he had been conducting a bull-headed one-man investigation into the wholesale theft in S.E. Asia of US construction materiél, the corrupt practices of major US contractors supplying the military, and an international money-changing scam. Hawkridge had been trying for years to alert the US authorities to this – bombarding among others the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, with letters. But few wished to know: any negative news about the war in Vietnam qualified as ‘rocking the boat.’ Yet the US Mafia were certainly paying attention to Hawkridge: they were involved in rackets dependent on revenue from officers’ clubs, among other things, and resented his exposures. A year before I met him Hawkridge’s car had been forced off the highway near Vancouver in a hit attempt. His young wife was killed and he himself was seriously injured.
In 1970 I holed up with him on the island of Gozo for some weeks while he told his story. The book never sold as it might have: by 1971 when it was published Europeans had become sated with the Vietnam War and Americans increasingly wished it would go away. But in 2006 there was an interesting postscript for me in the revelations of corruption surrounding the US military presence in Iraq. Some of the same contracting companies that had been involved in the wholesale cheating of the American taxpayer in Vietnam were cited once more as grotesquely overpricing such essentials as cement and fuel in Iraq. Some things never change. I am told this long-out-of-print book has achieved a minor kind of cult status for Cornelius Hawkridge among certain Vietnam Veterans.