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Aeroplane Head Woman - Pete Brown and Piblokto!

In 1940, Canadian poet John Gillespie Magee, while stationed in England to train as a spitfire pilot, wrote the now famous poem "High Flight", which describes the elation that he felt while flying, portraying it as an uplifting, religious experience.

Modern legend used to have it that he sent the poem home to his parents in Canada, but by the time they received the letter, he had been reported dead, killed in action.

As the reporter says in the film "The Man who Shot Liberty Valence": "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend", this isn't strictly true. Magee did sent a poem to his parents and he had died by the time they received the letter, but it wasn't that poem, but another, not so good, or famous, or appropriate. "High Flight" does, after all, conclude with the poet touching "the face of God", and he was killed in a tragic wartime, air accident, colliding with a training plane that was being driven by a novice under tuition, so who can blame people for printing the legend?

In "Aeroplane Head Woman" Pete Brown, born a year earlier in 1940, the year of the Battle of Britain, reverses the stuff of legend, showing the sad shadow cast over the life of the woman an RAF pilot "left behind".

"She stands on the clifftop with tears in her eyes,

She longs for the moon to wash flames from the skies,

She doesn't look for the thrill of a kill,

There was only one, he came from the sun,

Pilot of her dreams rides her searchlight beams.

She sits in the city with wings on her mind -

She waits for the birdman who left her behind -

He had to fly almost straight into hate.

There is only one though the race is run,

Pilot of her love feels him far above.

She waits at the airport with hope in her heart -

She listens for spitfires' engines to start -

She hopes that he's near though it's been 30 years -

She's got a photograph taken for a laugh.

All the boys in blue hope their aim was true."

Brown eschews the usual themes of "Battle of Britain" heroism, for a more feminine view ("she doesn't look for the thrill of a kill"), still waiting hopelessly for his return in spirit thirty years later, suggesting that a casual moment of life is worth more than his sacrifice,

"...She's got a photograph taken for a laugh"

and the final line's double meaning hints at the pilot's amorous priorities for the day, and the real tragedy at the heart of the poem, the instinctual need to continue his lineage.

The track is from Pete Brown and Piblokto!'s second and final album "Thousands on a Raft", and, once again, the band are terrific, with scorching guitar by Jim Mullen and heavenly, trilling hammond organ by Dave Thompson

In 1966 I reached the final of the Scottish Junior Schools Poetry Recitation Competition, representing my school Aberlour House. One of the two poems we were set to perform was "High Flight", the other an excerpt from "Lepanto" by G.K. Chesterton.

On the day, in a first floor hall in Edinburgh, I was leading at the end of the first round which was Lepanto, and, having stormed the Gillespie Magee, and with only one recitation to go, thought it was in the bag. During some of the earlier readings, including mine, there had been siren noises from the street below, and a general hubbub, but we readers all carried on regardless, our sights firmly fixed on the gold trophy displayed on the stage. The final reader was a diminutive Glaswegian boy with a broad Gorbals accent, who had just started "High Flight",

"Och I have slipped the surrrrly bonds of earth

and danced the skies on laughter silverrrrred wings...."

when suddenly a troop of fireman, black coats , bunker gear, boots, helmets and all, burst into the hall through the far doors, ran the length of the room, and exited via a door beside the stage where he was performing. One of them even crossed the room, right in front of the querulously, declaiming boy, opened a window, stuck his head out and called to someone down below.

When my rival finished, the chairperson of the judges, a tall, effusive woman with a fur coat and a stole, as often seemed to be the case on such panels in those days, leaped up, ran to the Glaswegian lad and clasped him to her bosom exclaiming, "Oh you poor dear boy! How brave you were to carry on! You are truly a hero!" and so on. And that's how I lost the Scottish Junior Schools Poetry Recitation Competition.

I had been coached for the competition, for some obscure reason, by my French teacher, a Mr Jeremy Valentine, who I still remember purely because, at the ecstatic climax of the poem:

"...And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

he would add:

"And He said, "Ne touchez pas!"

I can still recite both poems word perfect today, such is the power of cultural brainwashing at an early age, and have occasionally silenced horrified rooms by drunkenly holding forth at random dinner parties and gatherings in pubs. But it's not the same. The moment will never come again.


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