George Hencken, film producer and director, on her father’s flying log books
GB Tell me why you chose this.
GH These are my father’s log books, he was an RAF pilot and they span his entire career, almost 40 years. He kept them in his study, and though I knew they existed I’d never really seen them. After he died a couple of years ago, I came across this stack. They are square, hardback, cloth-bound RAF issue books. There is something immensely pleasing about the books themselves, the size and shape and weight & colour, and the fact that there were lots of them. Page after page full of coded stories. They are also beautifully ordered and calming to look at.There’s something Gohonzon-like about them.
GB Is the beauty primarily sentimental? (Would you find flying log books beautiful ordinarily?)
GH They do fire my sentiment synapses, but the physical attributes of the books go straight to my beauty receptors. I respond to the texture of the covers, and the typeface both inside and out. The design, the clarity of the books. The aesthetic is deeply satisfying to me. My father’s handwriting adds enormously to what pleases me about the books once I open them up. I find his handwriting very beautiful, especially within the framework of these books. Something in his handwriting reminds me of Japanese calligraphy. If the books were full of messy or ugly or boring-looking handwriting they wouldn’t delight me as much as they do – but I would still love their dimensions & the feel of them, and the typeface, and the weight of the paper,and how the effect of that is amplified when you get a load of them together. By nature I am the opposite of ordered and tidy. My notebooks are chaos. Maybe I find beauty in an order I aspire to, but that I know is unobtainable for me.
GB Does your father’s handwriting say a lot about him?
GH My relationship with my father was difficult. I found him unreachable and unknowable. I think he felt the same about me. His handwriting always fascinated me, though when I was a kid, I couldn’t decipher it at all. It seemed there was something ritualistic for him in the act of writing. He always wrote in black ink, using a big fat blue fountain pen which had a gold nib and a gold cap, and he used a half-moon blotter that he would roll carefully back and forth over the wet ink. There are no blots at all in any of the log books. No mistakes or crossings out, until you get to the very last entry. That one is written in pencil, and there’s a scribble on it.
GB He often flew Avro Shackletons which are held in great affection by aviation enthusiasts. Did you ever fly in one? Do you find these planes beautiful?
GH My father flew Shacks for the greater part of his career. He clocked up over 7000 hours. He may well have clocked up more hours on that aircraft than almost anyone else. I never flew in one, but I’ve been on board many many times. The smell of the inside of a Shackleton is unforgettable; a unique combination of hydraulic fluid and very old, high-quality leather, with hints of cooking and chemical toilet underneath. Dyptique should make a candle! And the sound of the engines is something else. We’re talking 4 Rolls Royce 36 litre V12 engines, something like 19,000 hp each. All the pilots wound up deaf. I adore them, and they are remarkable aircraft with a remarkable history, But beautiful? No. They have friendly, silly faces, big eyes, big nose and a funny smiley mouth. They’re like a big smelly old St Bernard.
GB Tell me about some of the specific entries. Do you have a favourite story associated with them. What does Frilly Knickers mean? Why are some entries in red?
GH I love how the entries tell stories, or fill in details of stories that have been part of the fabric of the family all my life. Or they create questions. For instance there are entries that just say “Engine Failure”. The first pages in the photos you have are from 1969-1970 when we were stationed in Singapore. The entries for October 21st 1969 record a flight from Changi in Singapore to Butterworth, Malaysia, Butterworth to Gan in the Maldives, and then Gan to Majunga, Madagascar. The Beira Patrol listed in the next entry was the British blockade to prevent oil getting to what was then Rhodesia. So there he was, my 27 year old father, on these wonderful odysseys across the Indian Ocean. He brought me cowrie shells back from those trips, and told stories of seeing vast Manta rays in the ocean below, and of ball lighting rolling along the wing of the aeroplane, into the inside of the plane and then rolling down the centre of the aircraft before exiting through the tail end. Flying this ancient old aircraft, (it was designed in the 40s, became operational in the 50s, so it was 20 years into what would be a 40 year service life even then) was undoubtedly a romantic and adventurous thing for him. We found each other extremely difficult, and hurt each other deeply, but his stories of flying across the Indian Ocean, or the North Atlantic, brought out the poet in him, and that’s when I felt connected to him. He planted a sense of the bigness of the world in my mind.That said, ‘Operation Frilly Knickers’ was a sore point for me. That meant taking all the squadron wives for a flight, which pissed me off because I really wanted to experience flying in a Shackleton & it never happened.
The final entry, the one in pencil, really gets me. Shackleton 963 now lives at Coventry Airport where the Shackleton Preservation Trust are trying to restore it in the hopes of getting it flying again one day. My father was invited there in 2008, to test out the engines by taxying the aircraft. 963 is not airworthy, not allowed to fly, but my Dad just couldn’t resist getting some air between the wheels and the ground for just a few seconds.
GB Is beauty linked to a sense of adventure or excitement for you? These planes made round world trips and were named after one of our greatest explorers. Is that spirit something you look for in other areas of life?
GH Yes, absolutely. Adventure and excitement make my eyes keener and my ears sharper and my sense of smell more acute – and in that state one is intensely present to even the tiniest or most fleeting experience of beauty. I do seek adventure and excitement, although what I find adventurous and exciting may not be the classic idea. I don’t need to go to the moon or climb a huge mountain, or sail round the world to experience adventure or excitement. I can find it in some pretty prosaic places. Canvey Island, for instance!
GB Did he make a lot of search and rescue missions? Is there an element of heroism in this beauty? Or an element of sadness because he was doing something dangerous and probably away a lot?
GH Search and Rescue wasn’t actually what the Shackleton was for. The Search and Rescue element was an off-shoot of the main job, which was AEW – Airborne Early Warning. Shackletons were built for long-range ocean patrolling. They were flying radar stations, patrolling airspace and coastal waters to sniff out incursions by enemy submarines and aircraft. During the Cold War this meant the Russians. The Russian aircraft – I think they were Tupelovs? – were known as ‘Bears’ and so my Father and the squadron he commanded, 8 Squadron, were ‘The Bear Hunters.’ He’d be called out in the middle of the night & go flying out over the sea to tell the Russians to sling their hook. I don’t know about heroic, but I did see it weirdly as quite glamorous. It was the late 70s – 80s. Everyone was obsessed with the Russians, they were the enemy du jour, and my father was on the front line of UK air defence in this remote part of Northern Scotland. I felt it was all very filmic, but then I was a child living in the middle of nowhere and bored out of my brain – I imagined everything as a film in order not to go loopy.
GB There is so much time and such an incredible story condensed into a few pages here. This condensing is also important in your documentary work – you can see how to store a whole world of meaning in particularly concise ways.
GH At the beginning of a project I can never imagine how I’m going to be able to condense all the information I want communicate and make it concise or coherent. I get chronic insomnia every time due to the apparent impossibility of the task. I have tried in the past to organise information in an ordered, precise way. I like the idea of spreadsheets, with columns and headings – a log book! – so that all the information is there at a glance, but actually that doesn’t work for me at all. It’s better to simply immerse myself and then leave it to my subconscious. The thing I am good at is finding clues, and allowing myself to be open and be led by those clues, especially if it’s in an unexpected or risky direction.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
GH Anything that dissolves the illusion of separateness is beautiful to me. Reading my father’s log books dissolved the sense of polarity that had existed for so long between us. I would have liked to have read them with him, talked to him about them, and found that connection before.