Review – ‘Above Us, the Stars’

Having grandparents or other twice-removed relations who served in the War is, for ignorant Millennials such as myself, so mundane and commonplace that it is pretty much never discussed. Reading ‘Above Us, the Stars’, recently prompted me to ask my husband what his grandparents did during the War. I’ve known this man for eleven years now, and I think this is quite possibly the only thing I don’t know about him or his family, because I’d simply never thought to ask about such a run-of-the-mill topic. Having had my historical interests tickled from reading AUTS, I waited for his response with an intrigued sense of anticipation, thinking I was about to hear some heroic anecdote which had been passed down through the generations of a family which I am now part of. However, the response which followed was somewhat of a disappointment, specifically: “f*ck knows, I know my granddad went to war though”, as we continued walking the dog and the conversation quickly moved on to what we fancied for tea. ‘Went to war’. That is the legacy of a man who most likely risked life and limb, to say nothing of his emotional and mental well-being, and entered literal mortal danger to protect his family, his country and future generations; for his whole story to be entirely forgotten within just two generations of his own offspring. Not even a glimmer of recognition as to whether he was in the Army, Navy, RAF or God knows what other role? I know it’s exceptionally difficult to talk about heroes of the Second World War without someone popping up and going ‘okay, boomer’, and much as it pains my pacifist, hippy, Millennial self to admit it, my God, we are a generation characterised by completely unapologetic ignorance.

But yes, back to the writing. As with her previous book ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ (which is also absolutely worth a read), ‘Above Us, the Stars’ takes the form of Jane Gulliford Lowes’ weird hybrid genre of non-fiction and fiction in that it reads like a fictional story but is littered with real-life accounts and factual information which helps to put the story in context and bring the characters to life. It feels a bit wrong to refer to the people in this story as ‘characters’, not least of which because (as an evening spent on Ancestry confirmed), Jack Clyde is my first cousin twice removed; thus nullifying my lifelong gripe that ‘no Clyde ever did anything remotely interesting’. As I was reading AUTS one night, my husband leaned across and uttered the question “why are you reading a book about the army? That’s not your usual tipple”, as I was squinting to focus intently on one of the more tech-y extracts which explained the types of aircraft Jack and his squadron were using and what everyone’s role was on board. I mean, I don’t even know where to start with how ridiculous that question was (disclaimer – I do love my husband, and the purpose of this post is not just to slag him off), but as I’ve said, Jane Gulliford Lowes has once again used her unique storytelling ability to breathe an exciting, fictional feel into one man’s real life story which could otherwise have easily been written off as quite ‘typical’ of his day and therefore uninteresting. Plus, even the photos on the cover make it pretty darn obvious that it’s about the RAF, not the Army, if we are going to start splitting hairs.

So, there I was, night after night, eagerly turning pages to learn more about where Jack and his family’s journey was going to go next. I will confess, I have no self control so after experiencing the anxiety of a couple of the more hairy chapters where I really wasn’t sure how his story was going to unfold, I did skip ahead to check who survives at the end. I would strongly advise against doing that, as it did take away a bit of the thrill of watching the ups and downs of this exciting journey emerge before me, however, it’s a testament to the wonderful writing of this story that I still cried at the end (and on multiple occasions throughout – I’ll never be able to hear ‘The Blaydon Races’ in the same way again). Having said that, I also wouldn’t tar AUTS with the same brush as other wartime sob-story books such as Atonement and the likes, where it’s all a bit over the top and there’s a grieving woman at home crying every night over her lost love, because the emotion of Jack’s story runs far deeper than the typical ‘he’s away from home, missing his family and sweetheart’ cliches, and the most poignant points were that Jack, and all of his mates and colleagues, were just normal young lads who were thrown into a huge responsibility which, ultimately, had them sh*t scared that they might leave in an aircraft one night and literally not come back. Sometimes, there isn’t a need to over-do a story with too many complex layers, and being able to take a fairly ‘typical’ experience shared by millions of others and render it into an emotive and epic story truly is the mark of an exceptional writer.

My own granddad (incidentally Jack Clyde’s first cousin), was born in the same year as Jack and served in the RAF at the same time, but never once spoke about it, that I can remember. I asked my parents about it once, as I think most children do when they study World War Two for the first time in primary school, and being told that he was taken off active duty to be given the grizzly job of going to the crash sites and stripping the uniforms off his dead friends so that they could be washed and re-worn by new recruits was quite grotesque enough for my seven year old self, to the point where it put me off ever asking again. But, I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I recently spent some time cramped inside a Halifax with Jack and his crew, that I really considered why that might have been the case. So, on a personal level I would just like to thank Jane Gulliford Lowes for breathing life into a story which could easily have been buried between generations like so many others have been, and I don’t think for one second that the only reason I was so moved by Jack’s story is because of the family connection I have; I really think that anyone who turns the pages of ‘Above Us, the Stars’ will have much the same emotional response, and will hopefully consider revisiting the same stories of their own families before they end up lost forever because, if this book is anything to go by, some stories are such that they just need to be told.

Image courtesy of Jane Gulliford Lowes, 2020

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