Charles Bain, author of Fonthill’s just published RARE BIRDS: Forgotten Aircraft of the Second World War, gave us some insight into what inspired him to write this important new book.?
I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and I’ve spent almost all of my life here – it’s been a wonderful city to live in. Being a border city, it also meant that I was exposed to both the Canadian and American worlds in near equal amounts. It’s been a fairly unique experience.
In what ways was the military part of your life from an early age?
My grandfather, who meant the world to me, was a musician in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII. He never liked to talk about it much, but given that it was his job to play at military funerals, I have always understood why. He was, however, always proud that he never had to harm another human being – and I’ve always admired him for that. Besides that, I had three great uncles who served in the war. Two were in Canadian service, the army and air force, respectively – one died at Dieppe, and the other served as a gunner in a Lancaster. The third was in the US Army, and though he survived the conflict he endured a German prisoner of war camp. In the end, the military was part of my life in terms of loss – that war was a terrible, destructive thing.
When and how did you become interested in Military history?
Being Canadian, being raised with literacy and knowledge being presented as important and even fun, I think an interest was almost inevitable. Remembrance of the World Wars was and indeed still is a part of the Canadian identity. Simply by growing up in Canada, you learn about it – and every opportunity I had to study made my interest grow. I was further helped by very encouraging adults at every turn, most especially my parents.
I do admit, however, that I have difficulty with the term ‘military history’ – I don’t much care for the idea of walling off one part of history from another. Even in writing a book that was very specifically about WWII aviation, I had to touch on culture and politics. Outside of this book, military events have a very heavy impact on social development and other sorts of history. I’d highly recommend books on historical memory, for instance, such as “Long Shadows” or “Culture of Defeat”.
It may be becoming clear, at this point, that I believe that any time one talks about history can be a teachable moment.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
I’d been fascinated by the stories of some of the lesser-known aircraft of WWII since I was a teenager, and in writing this book I realized I had a chance to both introduce newcomers to the subject and also to put down detailed accounts that would work well for the experienced reader – I’m rather happy with the result. It was a chance to put a lifetime of enthusiasm and years of historical craft into something I was passionate about, and it’s really wonderful to see it in print.
How long did it take you to write it?
It took about a year to write, edit, fix, hone and acquire the photographs, though that doesn’t include the time you spend thinking about what you want to include and hoping you haven’t missed anything important.
How much research did you do for the book? Can you give us some tips on this?
I did as much research as was feasible for the book, and even got to accumulate some new primary sources for it, which was enjoyable. In the main, however, I was limited by finances to extensive study of secondary sources. Much as I would have loved to directly access archives, the subject matter covered the globe and I simply could not. Thankfully, people were exceptionally kind and willing to help make this as successful as I believe it could be.
But from previous experience on historical research projects, the main advice I can give is not to get discouraged. Research of any sort requires persistence – and it also requires a willingness to be proven wrong. Whatever you argue, whatever you write – it has to be shaped by the evidence. If you do it the other way around, that’s a betrayal of what I believe is an essential duty to human knowledge. Never let the thesis shape your argument.
Have you read anything lately that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
For those interested in a Canadian author, I think readers would enjoy Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919”. Though one I always recommend is Marta Danylewycz’s “Taking the Veil” – social history is a wonderful field, and “Taking the Veil” is one of the most unexpected books I ever read, and I recommend it to anyone.
Getting away from books about Canadian history or by Canadians, however – I cannot recommend “Long Shadows” by Erna Paris enough. History of memory is such a critical and growing field. In this vein, I’d also recommend “Culture of Defeat” by Wolfgang Schivelbusch and Jefferson Chase. Though if you want a very unusual – and fascinating – look at the social history of the United States, I’d recommend Donna Gabaccia’s “We Are What We Eat” – I guarantee it will surprise you.
How do you relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests?
I think I’m fairly typical. I like a good movie (or at least one that is bad in a funny manner), or television show – but the best way I relax is still a good book. And that’s what it will always be.
One of my major interests now is teaching volunteer history courses for senior citizens – it’s a way to keep my teaching skills nicely honed, and it’s the best audience I’ve ever had.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m working on my second and third books – the second one is actually underway, and I’m getting interviews done for the third. The second book is going to be on flying boats – and for the third, well, I get to come to a central part of Canada’s history and culture: the Avro Arrow.
I’m really looking forward to finishing both. It’s probably almost as enriching for me to get to write about these subjects as it will be for my reader.
Thanks Charles, and we look forward to seeing yor new books!