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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Eight Over Essen - Eileen Marsh, 1943

Eileen Marsh took her adult fiction very seriously. This book starts with a bomber returning from a trip to Essen, follows each of the crew home for a week's leave, and ends with the next bombing run a week later, on which the are hit, without spelling out what happened to the crew. Written in 1943, it was not written to console, nor to acclaim flying crew. The book is unsentimental, except for the fact that the reader has come to know the crew, and the likelihood that they fail to return is no longer a statistic.

The crew are a mix of backgrounds and classes. The toff, Bill ('Dogs'), is only a Sergeant (to some chagrin at home) but he is content to be led. The captain, Skip, a Flight Lieutenant, is a grammar school boy, son of a tobacconist.

The home lives of the crew are the mixture we might expect in real life. The navigator, Swing, was devoted to classical music. Swing is misunderstood for his artistic temperament and love of music. Dogs strings along a pretty land girl, Shirley with half promises, and also enjoyed a no questions asked date with Daphne in town. The wireless operator Peter (Curly) is not happy in his marriage, to Ann, a novelist who is pregnant, but loses her baby during the week. The forward gunner Horace, an ex-burgular, found his wife running a crooked junk shop full of looted goods, picked up by the children aged 7,6 and 5. Daisy, the 5 year old, is crushed almost to death in a roof fall during the week. The flight engineer Shorty found his mother iller than usual and she dies during the week, but leaves a letter which listed her husband's infidelities and indicated that he had poisoned her. He put the letter in an envelope, pretending not to have read it, and his father burnt it after reading it. Unluckily for him, an over-zealous doctor ordered a post-mortem and the cat was out of the bag. Gunner Eric's wife dispises him and is an expensive good-time girl. Her plan this leave was to get pregnant so that she didn't have to work in the factory. They row and Eric threatens divorce if she gets pregnant by someone else, fearful that any child would be neglected. Bomb aimer Edward is a farmer and farmer's son. This is the nicest section, with most people on the farm being pleasant characters, and clearly loving the land. Finally the skipper John from Penge has an awful time at home, getting to know an old flame Lena who had become a nurse. His parents complain constantly, and when he brings Lena home they treat her execrably. He realises that they want him never to marry but to look after them in old age. He returns knowing that Lena will have a career of her own, and that a future together will be fraught - but they exchange addresses anyway.

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