Awe aboard a float­ing airstrip

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

There is a lot about mil­i­tary life that makes it ripe for ridicule. The hu­mil­i­at­ing hi­er­ar­chies, the end­less, seem­ingly point­less drills, the ab­surd ex­tremes of dis­ci­pline, the phys­i­cal dis­com­fort, the overt and in­evitable un­fair­ness. Given a two-week res­i­dency on an Amer­i­can air­craft car­rier, a writer with the comic gifts of Ge­off Dyer might be ex­pected to take the easy path of mock­ing his hosts.

But one of the things that makes Dyer such an orig­i­nal and sur­pris­ing writer is the breadth of his in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est. This is the English­man’s 10th work of non­fic­tion (in a ca­reer span­ning al­most 30 years, he also has writ­ten three nov­els) and his work has cov­ered sub­jects rang­ing from photography to au­thor John Berger, and from yoga to jazz. He’s of­ten de­scribed as a ‘‘slacker’’ writer (per­haps be­cause his nov­els tend to fea­ture idle and he­do­nis­tic 20-some­things), yet it turns out he is also some­thing of a mil­i­tary nerd.

As he ex­plains in An­other Great Day at Sea, he grew up in post­war Eng­land and for chil­dren of that era the re­ceived mem­ory of World War II “seeped into our pores and brains”. As a boy he used to build model air­craft and the child­hood en­thu­si­asm for jets and ships has never left him.

Dur­ing Dyer’s two weeks on the USS Ge­orge HW Bush he roams — or rather shuf­fles, half­bent — through the tiny cor­ri­dors of the ship, vis­it­ing its var­i­ous de­part­ments: ord­nance, air traf­fic con­trol, the brig (it’s empty, much to his dis­ap­point­ment). He speaks to the cap­tain and the pi­lots, of course, but also to the chap­lain, the den­tist, the chef, the drug coun­sel­lor.

This is an ex­tremely funny book, but Dyer seems not even re­motely tempted to deploy his comic gifts at the ex­pense of his in­ter­vie­wees. He deeply ad­mires the ship’s per­son­nel: their en­ergy, their com­pe­tence in per­form­ing com­plex, high-risk tasks. He finds some­thing pro­found in their com­mit­ment to the idea — stodgy as it sounds in our in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­ture — of ser­vice.

In­deed most of the hu­mour de­rives from the fact that Dyer por­trays him­self, by con­trast, as var­i­ously awk­ward, old (he’s 56), emas­cu­lated, fussy, self-con­scious and puerile. Yet some­how his per­sona re­mains thor­oughly charm­ing. This is not just be­cause he makes fun of him­self but be­cause he ap­proaches his re­search with­out a trace of cyn­i­cism.

There are mo­ments when Dyer is so good­na­tured, in fact, that one sus­pects he’s skim­ming along on the sur­face, ac­cept­ing the of­fi­cial ver­sion at the cost of a less palat­able re­al­ity. (When he is told that race re­la­tions, gen­der re­la­tions and the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” have all been non-is­sues, he re­marks wryly to the reader that ‘‘in re­la­tion to three of the big ar­eas of po­ten­tial in­tol­er­ance and bigotry the Navy was just about as ad­vanced as any other in­sti­tu­tion on earth’’.)

Dyer is a play­ful prose stylist and he may af- fect a bum­bling per­sona at times, but as the book pro­gresses we see him grap­pling with com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions. He has an ea­gle eye for para­dox. Stand­ing on the flight deck, ob­serv­ing ground crew safety sig­nals in prepa­ra­tion for a launch, he writes: ‘‘The elab­o­rate, hyp­notic chore­og­ra­phy on dis­play was de­voted en­tirely to safety, to the safe un­leash­ing of ex­treme vi­o­lence. Vi­o­lence not just in terms of what hap­pened … where the planes were headed, but here, where the im­mense forces re­quired for launch were kept un­der sim­mer­ing con­trol.”

There’s a lot to marvel at on an air­craft car­rier: the sheer scale of the ves­sel, of course (“big enough to gen­er­ate sto­ries about how big they are”), but also the rou­tine ap­pli­ca­tion of ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­man skill. A whole book of Dyer wan­der­ing bug-eyed around the ship would be tire­some, but some­how he man­ages to keep his sense of awe fresh. Af­ter speak­ing to a pi­lot about the ex­pe­ri­ence of night flight, he writes: “It was as if he had re­vealed some­thing in­ti­mate to me … a realm of po­etry ac­ces­si­ble only to those whose world-view is based on tech­nol­ogy, knowl­edge and cal­cu­la­tion rather than wideeyed won­der.”

In one of the fi­nal chap­ters, as Dyer an­tic­i­pates the end of his visit, he re­flects on Tom Wolfe’s cel­e­brated 1975 es­say The Truest Sport: Joust­ing with Sam and Char­lie, also about life aboard an air­craft car­rier. Dyer, in awe of Wolfe’s work, suf­fers a cri­sis of con­fi­dence in his own writ­ing. He likens him­self to a vet­eran pi­lot who is no longer up to the task. A pi­lot “who is so con­vinced that this time he’s go­ing to slam into the fan­tail that he comes in too high, misses all the ar­rest­ing wires and bolts”.

But Dyer needn’t have wor­ried. A vet­eran of launches and land­ings in ob­scure places, he brings this de­light­ful jour­ney to an end smoothly. But, never one to be pre­dictable, it’s a smooth land­ing in a sur­prise lo­ca­tion.

The air­craft car­rier USS Ge­orge HW Bush; au­thor Ge­off Dyer, inset

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