Sunday, January 21, 2007

Are you local?

I was in my office today doing something incredibly boring with an Excel spreadsheet when the phone rang. It was someone on the shop floor. 'There's a local author who wants to see you.'

My heart sank.

I prepared myself for the usual routine in which I try to politely explain that self-published poetry doesn't sell and no, a signing session wouldn't be a good idea unless they like sitting at a table for an hour being ignored by customers.

The other problem I have with local authors is that many of them have stretched the dictionary defintion of 'local' to include the following categories:
  • They live 27 miles away but occasionally shop here
  • They live in Scotland, but their daughter-in-law attended a local school in 1974
  • They have a friend who used to live here
  • They are local, but to somewhere else
And why do they always turn up on the busiest day of the week, expecting me to drop whatever I'm doing and listen to them ramble on for half an hour about their anthology of poems about Tenerife? By now I was getting annoyed, threw my spreadsheet down and marched onto the shop floor ready for battle.

At the counter stood a man who was so old that his spine had contracted to a height that made him resemble a hobbit. His frail, purple-skinned hands were slowly shuffling some papers that he had produced from a bag and although I was standing right next to him, he seemed unaware of my presence. I introduced myself and shook his hand, trying to give him the sort of firm handshake that men of his generation like, without inflicting any damage.

He had written a book called Beaufighter Over the Balkans recounting his experiences as a fighter pilot during World War Two. I knew nothing about the Bristol Beaufighter and was fascinated to hear how he was sent on missions to destroy strategic buildings and ships, most of which required him to fly at a dangerously low altitude so that he could fire his rockets with a reasonable degree of accuracy. In addition to flying fast and low, he had to take photos to prove that he'd hit his targets and he showed me examples of his work. One picture showed a Nazi headquarters before and after he'd fired rockets at it. Another showed an attack on German shipping.

Unlike most of his colleagues he survived the war and went on to play a crucial role in the Berlin airlift of 1948. He slammed the book shut and asked if I'd be interested in doing a signing. I had a better idea - how about a talk? If anyone had a story to tell he did. He seemed pleased to be asked and next month, if he's still alive, Steve Stevens DFC will be speaking at my shop.

I have tried to find a photo of Steve Stevens, but it wasn't easy. First I found this...

For all his strutting, male posture, if this Steve Stevens was involved in any action he'd probably start crying

This Steve Stevens does look like he's seen a bit of action, but unless he's done a Michael Jackson, I think that my Steve Stevens was always white...

Steve Stevens: The Rotary Club Years. No, I can't imagine him firing rockets at Nazis either. There are many other Steve Stevens on Google images, but only one of them has been awarded the Dinstinguished Flying Cross...

And here he is: Steve Stevens DFC, standing in front of one of the best-known photographs from the Second World War.


Andrew MishMash said...

Hi Steerforth

I hope your proposed talk with Mr Stevens goes well - and I'm sure that if you can get people in the door it will.

I grew up surrounded by men like Mr Stevens, all of whom continue to inspire me years later. It is sad that they are so under-used as a historical and social resource.

I wrote recently about a similar talk from Johnson Beharry VC that had to be cancelled -

I suspect you may have a smaller gathering in mind but I wish you well and I know Mr Stevens will enjoy his accolade. Could your local rag help talk it up?

Andrew Mishmash

Steerforth said...

Luckily Mr Stevens is an accomplished self-publicist and he has a good contact at the Sussex Argus.

I feel very humble in the presence of people who have not only risked life and limb for their country, but also lost most of their friends. Steve Stevens showed me a poem that had been written by a fellow pilot and friend of his. It was all about sacrifice and remembrance and was particularly poignant, as its author was killed in action only a few hours after writing it.

When I was a small boy, most old men I knew had fought in the trenches. Now there are fewer than a dozen left and I'm accutely aware of how little time is left before the generation that fought the Second World War become a nothing more than a memory.

Anonymous said...

Steve Stevens died on Sunday 5th June. He was my father's friend.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for letting me know. It's extraordinary that he'd lived this long.