War story. Love story. Great story. It is 1942 and John Franklin is piloting his Wellington bomber over France, home to England after a successful mission. He is forced to crash land in the black. In the movie* this will happen after a hail of flak, or perhaps a German night fighter attack, complete with explosions, blood, swearing and a CGI plunge to the earth. But this isn’t Hollywood. In Fair Stood The Wind For France, H.E. Bates goes for the workaday, bathetic notion of mechanical failure. Either way, Frankie and his four fellow aviators – Godwin, Sandy, Taylor and O’Connor – are now stranded in Nazi-occupied France and the pilot himself has a badly wounded arm. Arriving at a mill, they put their trust in the beautiful Françoise (well, her eyes are ‘big and bright and black’ after all). As a result, Frankie is now responsible for his crew and for Françoise’s family. A medical operation is obliquely – horribly – described. The everyday, dreadful trauma of war for all those involved is beautifully rendered as ‘the experience of running your finger along the thread holding things together and not knowing if or how soon the thread would break’. Frankie and Françoise in particular feel this keenly. The poetry of Bates’ prose foreshadows the work of Andrew Greig in That Summer, another story of love and flying in World War Two. Frankie remembers when he was ordinary, and Worcestershire is constantly in his dreams. But the summer romance must end, and is followed inevitably by autumn when the mood darkens. This novel was published in 1944, a couple of decades before Marcel Ophüls’ extraordinary documentary The Sorrow And The Pity shone an uncomfortably bright light on the realities of French collaboration and resistance, letting the camera linger on people talking matter-of-factly about what they did – or justifying what they didn’t do. Those same choices are quietly presented here by Bates, as are the dangers. No clichés: there is no archetypal thin-lipped, cruel SS officer in the novel – just 100 ordinary French townspeople rounded up and shot, off screen as it were.
*What movie? Surprisingly, there is no film of Fair Stood The Wind For France. Why ever not? It’d be brilliant