Book reviews, September 1980, September 1980

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More about books 

“The Flight of the Mew Gull” by Alex Henshaw. 310 pp. 83/4” x 51/2”. (John Murray Ltd., 50 Albemarle Street, London, W1X 4RB. £9.50).

This is an absolutely splendid book and a pleasant surprise, coming so soon after that other Alex Henshaw “winner”, “Sigh for a Merlin”. This one is all about the famous pilot’s sporting flying, from the beginning. He learnt to fly at Skegness in a DH Gipsy Moth, and subsequently flew his own Gipsy Moth, followed by a Comper Swift, a DH Leopard Moth, a Percival Vega Gull and his well-remembered Percival Mew Gull G-AEXF. Henshaw raced his aeroplanes in most of the more important races in this country, notably in the 1933-1938 King’s Cup, and with the Mew Gull in 1939 he broke the England-Cape Town-England record by a very big margin. 

He tells in great detail what it was like to do all this exciting flying, a fascinating story. He flew mostly with his father, who was also a pilot, and to whom he refers simply as “Dad”. The joys and frustrations of competing in handicap races, the tricks and the techniques, the modifying of light aeroplanes for speed contests, all this comes over remarkably well. Perhaps pilots remember better than motorists, with Log Book entries to refresh their memories; but Henshaw wrote much of the text for his family, before the war, anyway. It certainly misses out almost nothing of interest or importance, yet it comes over with no trace of exaggeration. The forced landings, the close-calls, the engine-failures, the dicey take-offs, were all part of pre-war flying. Henshaw’s fine account of flying on holiday with his father to the Cape and back, from England in the Vega Gull is a startling reminder of how very much a light-aeroplane, devoid of radio and blind-flying aids, was in those days at the mercy of the weather, which could change with frightening rapidity on a long flight of this kind. Henshaw’s racing Mew Gull was tuned to fly at over 270 mph on a nominal 225 hp and it could cruise at 240 mph at 7,000 feet. What it was like for one man to fly this tiny aeroplane, without radio and with very poor vision forward, the 12,754 miles of its 1939 Gravesend-Cape Town-Gravesend record at an average speed of well over 200 mph is graphically told by the photograph of Henshaw being lifted unconscious out of the cockpit after that punishing four days and. ten hours; the pilot’s account of what he experienced must rank as an epic of aviation writing ….

I enjoyed every word of this book. It describes how Henshaw flew out to the desert to rescue the Clouston Ricketts DH racing Comet that had damaged an undercarriage leg in a heavy landing, using a borrowed Vega Gull, how he and his father flew about Europe before the war in the DH Leopard Moth, how he jumped in 1935 from his burning Arrow Active biplane – another of his racing aeroplanes – how he met “Mad Jack” Shuttleworth, and so on. It is all about fairly recent flying, so will interest many who find the pioneering days of aviation too far distant to interest them and it is also a valuable insight into air-racing, about which so few books have been written. Henshaw pays warm tribute to Jack Cross and his team, of Essex Aero Ltd., who tuned and modified his competition aeroplanes, and he has dedicated the book to his father, “to whom I owe everything”. 

The photographs are good (if out of sequence in one instance), there are Aeroplane drawings and Aeroplane Momhly plans of the famous Mew Gull, a tabulated record of its career, and the stages of its Cape records, a useful Index, and the enthralling reading concludes with an account of how G-AEXF has been restored by Story and Barraclough for permanent display, and what FD Bradbrook of The Aeroplane thought of it when Alex let him fly it in 1939. The book also has maps of the Cape route and of the race-circuits.

Henshaw puts the performance of his pre-war racing Percival Mew Gull into perspective when he remarks on how it was able “to overtake military and other private aeroplanes”, and he paints a picture of the King’s Cup race that shows its similarity to pre-war motor-racing … ” it was an atmosphere charged with excitement, challenge and expectation mingled with the smell of cellulose, petrol and oil as you walked down the line of England’s finest light aircraft as they prepared for the test to come.” 
The only mild grumble I have is that the long account of breaking those Cape records, while fascinating, is somewhat over-dramatic in parts – but then it was a dramatic flight, and perhaps is unedited since it was written soon after that great flight, by the young pilot, who collapsed in the cockpit on landing at Gravesend after leaving Cape Town just over 391/2 hours earlier. In one place Henshaw says that a forced-landing between any of the African aerodromes “is entirely out of the question”, I would have thought that a pilot has no choice in the matter in most forced landings! But that is niggardly criticism of a writer who gets over so very well the strain of flying for endless hours over interminable stretches of sand, in cloud or fog, maybe with falling oil-pressure .. ..

The book includes plenty of technical detail, such as how Cross contrived to  fit a Ratier vp propeller to the undrilled crankshaft of the Gipsy Six R-type engine, and of how the Mew was prepared for racing and made to carry as much fuel as possible for the Cape flight, etc, etc. Incidentally, this is yet another book that mentions Brooklands, and of motoring interest there is the tiny Citroen that met Henshaw at Gao on the Cape flight (although it was 1939 the car had running boards, so may have been a vintage model) and the new MG given to Henshaw by his father. Incidentally, Henshaw had his first flight, at Brooklands, a joy-ride in what he thinks may have been a DH9 flown by Capt Barnard.

This is the best book about sporting flying since Clouston’s (“The Dangerous Skies”, Cassell, 1954). The colour front cover of the dust-jacket of “The Flight of the Mew Gull”, by Michael Turner, may give the impression that this is fiction. It isn’t. Henshaw’s story beats any flying novel to a frazzle! I recommend all who are at all intrigued by pre-war air-racing and record-­breaking to get a copy at once …. – WB. 

The Guinness Book of Records is a best-seller. The publishers, Guinness Superlatives Ltd, 2 Cecil Court, London Road, Enfield, Middlesex, also publish “The Guinness Book of Car Facts & Feats”, edited by Anthony Harding. This has recently been completely revised and up-dated. Historians, writers, publicity copy-wnters, TV producers and all the rest are, it seems, frequently in need of historical motoring information and data these days. This book, inexpensive at £6.95, is just the job. It is now in its third edition, having been available to researchers since 1971. Apart from all the infallible motoring information it dispenses, this is an attractive, art-paper reference and browsing book, very well illustrated. It contains 288 pages full of fascinating answers to those illusive queries that tend to haunt many of us! 

Harding made his name as editor of the now-regrettably-defunct “Profiles” and he has ensured accuracy in this “Facts & Feats” volume by enlisting such authorities as the late Anthony Bird, David Hodges, Cyril Posthumus, F Wilson McComb, John Davenport, Bill Boddy and Michael Sedgwick as his team of contributors. The answers are spread over chapters that enlighten the reader on such subjects as road travel from 1769 to 1919, road-racing, sprints, hill-climbs and rallies, track-racing and record-breaking, and everyday motoring. 

If you want to know who first used trafficators, an oil-pressure warning light, safety glass and the like, which drivers and cars were the first to record 100 mph in the various capacity-classes, when car-heaters were originally used, which is the smallest-ever car to win a European Rally, and countless more, here is your source. Drivers’ potted-biographies abound, there are colour pictures, and over 300 pictures all told. This edition of this invaluable Guinness tome has been in the book sellers since July 1st, so hurry if you need it. 

A great deal has become available about the immortal Austin Seven, and I did a book of all the more important articles about it that have appeared in Motor Sport. This book is now out-of-print and anyway, thre is never enough in one publication to satisfy everyone. So note that the 750 MC has now issued “The Austin 7 Companion”, which is a 286-page book simply packed with Austin 7 allure. Not just history, but tuning tips, overhaul data, maintenance information and the like, much of it reproduced from the Club’s magazines, but much again that is new. The classic Birkett and Mallock articles are there again, and I see that what I wrote about the origins of the flourishing 750 MC are included. This is a great collection for A7 folk to have. It can be ordered from Dave Bradley of the 750 MC, at 16, Woodstock Road, Witney, Oxon, OX8 6PT, the price being £8, plus £1 for postage and packing.

Volume Two of Ken Hill’s book about “The four-Wheeled Morgans”, covering the cowled-radiator cars, has now been published by Motor Racing Publications Ltd, 28 Devonshire Road, London, W4 2HD at £7.95, this following the landscape style of his earlier book and being packed with technical and historical Morgan-lore, including a remarkable list of major (Club) competition successes by these cars from 1954-1979 and notes on World-Morgan Clubs, Morgan personalities etc. The price is £7.95 and companion to this book is Graham Robson’s coverage of the T-Series MGs, in the same publisher’s “Collector’s Guide” series, at the same price. The pictorial side of both these books makes them of the greatest appeal to Morgan and MG fanatics. 

JAGUAR followers, users and those who need to know all about the evolution of these cars professionally are well catered for, especially as two new Jaguar titles have appeared recently. The first is “Jaguar Sports”, compiled by Peter Garnier, FRSC, from Autocar archives, so that one gets a whole selection of interesting articles and absorbing photographs of all the sporting Jaguars. This large 160-page book costs £6.95 from the Hamlyn Publishing Group who have a knack of bringing out excellent books, full of good pictures, at competitive prices, and it includes factory descriptions, road-tests reports and technical information. The other Jaguar book is “Jaguar Saloon Cars” by the now-fully-established Jaguar writer, Paul Skilleter, in conjunction with competition chapters by that dedicated Jaguar historian, Andrew Whyte. Thus the accuracy of the contents is assured. The book is a heavyweight, of 602 full-magazine-size pages, on art paper, recalling all the closed Jaguar models from the first ones, on through the MkV to MkX and the recent Jaguar saloons. Whyte deals with how they performed in competitions and the lead-in chapter recalls the pioneering Swallow days, with one photograph of the first Swallow Austin 7, with cycle-type mudguards and disc wheels, which may surprise A7 experts. This book must become the standard “bible” on the subject. It is the product of the Haynes Publishing Group of Yeovil, and the price is £24.00. One might have thought that this would exhaust the  Jaguar field but I believe MRP have a book about Jaguar power units in the pipeline. 

That standard Daimler history, “Daimler Tradition” by Brian Smith, first published in 1972, has been revised and brought up to date, with new pictures, in an edition that is produced to the same high quality as the first edition. This has become a sought-after item, but it may be less expensive to invest in the 1980 edition, a 334-page, art-paper, copiously-illustrated edition priced at £12.95. Also revised, but not to any great extent, is “History of Lamborghini” by Rob de la Rive Box and Richard Crump, this 73-page book costing £9.95. It first came out in 1954. The publishers of both these worthwhile histories are Transport Bookman Publications Ltd., 8, South Street, Isleworth, Middlesex. – W.B. 

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