Saturday, 26 February 2011

Penguin no. 198: Amateur Adventure
by Gandar Dower

"So much has been written about great and exceptional flights that I do not believe that an account of a very ordinary flight has ever been attempted at all. The faster you go the less you see, and the less time you have to see it in...None of my friends seems to have the least idea of what it means to go on such an expedition as this - of what the conditions must be like, of the experiences to be encountered, of its possibilities, its pleasures and its occasional dangers. So I shall pen this amateur story of an amateur flight because, after all, it is in this type of ordinary adventure rather than in far more spectacular achievements that the future of private aviation lies."

It would seem that in the earliest decades of the machine age the focus was very much on record-breaking: going the furthest or the fastest, or being the first. The question as to which record he was challenging greeted Kenneth Gandar Dower wherever he went. And so he begins the recollection of his adventure in an apologetic tone (although with an explicit statement that he refuses to apologise), because he and his flying companion Irwin did not conceive of this journey in those terms.

This book is Gandar Dower's record of the fortnight they spent late in 1932 flying from England to India, a journey undertaken simply for the thrill of the adventure of doing it, and because he saw the opportunity to fulfill the dreams of his childhood:
"Every boy has dreams of adventure, and for most, unfortunately, they must remain only dreams, until at last they die away and are forgotten in the humdrum middle years...But shortly after leaving Cambridge I began to realise that for me it was possible to transmute them into reality."
He downplays the significance of this flight. Travelling in a small two-seater plane was only marginally quicker than travelling by boat, and substantial parts of the route could be covered on a commercial flight. Inadvertently and unknowingly, they did break a record by completing the first successful flight from England to Madras. This is an account, told with humour and self-deprecation, of the difficulties, dangers and disappointments of the trip, but also the sheer enjoyment he experienced from living in the moment and taking on an experience unlike anything he had tried before. He compared it to the feeling that lured young men to war - a break from the past, and a removal of the need to plan for the future; life and living focused always on the immediate present.

Kenneth Gandar Dower was in his early 20s when he decided to buy a secondhand Puss Moth plane, and learn to fly. He bought the plane in April, passed his flying test in May, and in June - with very little flying experience - competed in the King's Cup, finishing fourth. He then made plans to fly to India in the October. This was done in secrecy: his first concern was to ensure his mother was kept uninformed until his success was certain. And this was a little difficult, because he had some renown on account of his exceptional athletic ability.

They took off from Heston heading for Paris on the same afternoon as Audrey Sale-Barker and Joan Page started on their journey to Cape Town. The two planes kept company as far as Cairo, and he gives an amusing account of their initial sense of chivalry towards the two women - a vision of themselves as protectors, and a growing awareness that these two capable women were in no need of their help. He deviates from time to time into discussions on his views, and these passage are a real glimpse into a different world, one unaffected by modern sensibilities: he expresses some admiration for the achievements, though perhaps not the intentions, of Mussolini; he completely doubts that Indians will ever be capable of self-rule; and he shows a desire to kill living animals - upon reaching India his plans are to spend a month hunting tigers.

Apart from the sense of joy he conveys, the strength of this book is in his descriptions of the landscape he sees from above:
"The Persian Gulf has an evil reputation among aviators. Its north-eastern shores make an almost straight route from Basra to Karachi, but the seas are genuinely shark-infested ... and the coasts have to be seen to be believed. I have heard that they were originally raised from the sea-bed in some primeval convulsion, and I propose to believe it until I meet some geologist who tells me not to. Suffice it to say that a Persian mountain does not hesitate. There is no gathering itself together, no rising foothills - just 1000 feet of sheer jaggedness, then a ledge, then a further 2000 feet of further jaggedness; and so on till it gets tired of it, and washes its hands of the whole affair and leaves you with nothing at all."
There are other memorable passage about the land around Persia, approaching Jerusalem and their unplanned landing in a field in a rural part of India, in which the entire village turned out:
"But Angus and I were only given two minutes of peace before we suddenly found that we had at last assumed our rightful position at the centre of the universe. For to us the whole village came running ... First the young and vigorous, then the fat and corpulent, then the bowed and bedridden, for in order to see us the lame literally took up their beds and walked."
These cerise Penguins seem to have been written by interesting and inspiring individuals. Gandar Dower was only 36 when he died in 1944. During his short life he had found fame as a sportsman, an aviator, and an explorer, and he wrote a number of books about his adventures. He was onboard the SS Khedive Ismail when it was attacked by a Japanese submarine, and was one of 1297 people who died when the boat sank.

Flickr set of cerise Penguins


  1. Just discovered your blog by way of a search on Mr Gandar, a true British eccentric. I am in awe at his achievements. Reading his life makes me want to quite my job, pack my bags and commence forth on a life of adventures.

    Nice review by the way, it's just a shame this book isn't available on Amazon at a decent price.

  2. Hi Karyn,
    Thank you for your review!
    I would love to read this book but just can't find it anywhere online (I'm based in the UK). Any tips on where I could get it from?
    Many thanks!



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