Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis is a quite extraordinary book. It is like none of the other titles in the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) Wartime Classics series. Indeed, it’s like no other book I’ve read that is set in the Second World War. One night, in 1942, six men take off in a Wellington. They’re going to Kiel, leading several hundred aeroplanes to the target before they area bomb the city. The book nods to the contentious nature of this as a military practice. But in fact, most of the novel isn’t about this mission. Probably about three quarters of it is set in the inter-war period. Part of Lewis’s aim is to write the story of men who ‘found against odds…the men whose story is never told’. So Pathfinders is the story of six…pathfinders.
There’s Nobby from London who works round the clock on his cycle business while trying to express his care for his sick wife; Tom who sailed into and out of the eye of a hurricane; Peter, who hasn’t really got over his first love; Sam, a trapper from Canada whose turbulent and confused family relationships have seen him sign up to serve, fleeing what he wrongly assumes is a murder investigation; Benjy, the brilliant film critic brought low by a disastrous marriage; Hugh, a man trained to rule. It’s hard not to see this as a series of short stories about characters formed and forged, about destiny created and thwarted. And, because all the characters are young men – and the sort of young men who have made it through to sit in the belly of a Wellington – the challenges overcome and the creating and the thwarting is of a certain kind. They have not grown old and the years have not condemned them. Their stories are well told, even if the characters around them are not especially rounded.
The IWM have done well to choose this title that stands out as so different in its format, and it is an arresting and immersive read. But there are other reasons for its interest. It was published in 1944 at a time when it was probable though not definite that the Allies would triumph. The chapter about Hugh tackles the failure of politics to provide prosperity after the end of the First World War. How would things be different this time? I found myself lurching from a slight irritation about this kind of discourse (those born to rule talking about political philosophies without practical perspectives) to a real interest in how concerns about atomised consumption – fuelled by faster and faster communications and mass media – predate the Boomers and perhaps help us to counter the current synthetic culture wars.
Here are the two things you need to know. I rattled through the book, wanting to know more about the characters. And I thought about the book afterwards and will continue to think about what it teaches us for today.
Thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.