OK

"Good evening."

The phrase 'standard work' means various things to various people - I know, that makes it almost non-standard - but it is generally acknowledged as, "an accepted or approved example of something against which others are judged or measured" ('Collins English Dictionary', http://www.collinsdictionary.com/... Retrieved, 8/13/2013)

If I glance up from my keyboard, at work, and look to my right, I can see a great, hulking volume, and almost hear the light oak shelf creaking; it has such 'presence' that you feel it would be right at home in the Library of Unseen University, along with the other grimoires. Yes, 'Gray's Anatomy:The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice', Churchill Livingstone, ISBN 9780443066849 now in its 40th Edition, still dominates the field, although the slimmer 'Netter's - Atlas of Human Anatomy'- is one that our 3rd Year Medical Students increasingly refer to.

Lady Antonia Fraser is a consummate biographer, but she excelled herself when she penned her complex, yet eminently readable work on that scheming, shallow, and tragic figure, Mary, Queen of Scots - 'Mary Queen of Scots', Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969, ISBN 038531129X - so much so that she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain's oldest literary award. The focus of all Catholic hopes, in both England and Scotland, and of European counter-Reformation forces in general, you just knew it was never going to end well for Mary. I remember walking in the grounds of Wingfield Manor, Derbyshire, one of the places where Mary was kept imprisoned, and trying to think of her plotting and scheming - all to no avail. Lady Antonia's portrait of Queen Elizabeth's first cousin, once removed, is stunning; her revelation that the so-called Darnley Letters, which were counted as the most damning piece of evidence at Mary's trial, were most probably fakes, makes this biography all the more significant. As an aside, biography must be a genetically inherited skill, Lady Antonia's mother, Elizabeth Longford wrote excellent biographies of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron, and Lady Antonia's daughter Flora has written, as her first biography, 'Venus of Empire: The Life of Pauline Bonaparte'.

The history of those peoples and nations which make up the British Isles, that small archipelago off the coast of Europe, is a fascinating one and has been the subject of writings by everyone from Winston Churchill to Kipling (we'll get around to the magnificent 'children's tales written for adults', as Kipling called his 'Puck of Pook's Hill' and the sequel, 'Rewards and Fairies', later). Everyone has their favorite, but one of the more scholarly and comprehensive attempts to cover the whole sweep of human occupation of the British Isles, is 'The Isles', by Norman Davies - 'The Isles: A History', Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0195148312. Davies has one or two pleasant literary devices, such as using contemporary names where possible, for example, calling the North Sea, 'The Ocean', as the Romans did, in the appropriate section of the book. My own copy is well-thumbed and although there have been many other attempts to give a good account of the history and peoples of Great Britain, this is a sound, modern-day treatment.

The three books I have just described all come very close to being the 'standard work' in their respective fields. I think there would be a very good chance that they would appear on a reading list for a university course on their subject matter. There is one more work I want to mention tonight, and that is an example from my own special area of expertise - aviation. The front cover of the 1st edition of this book is shown (my own copy lies around 4 feet away in one of the bookcases). 'Spitfire:The History', Eric Morgan & Edward Shacklady, Guild Publishing (by arrangement with Key Publishing), 1988, ISBN 0946219109, is a meaty book (Quarto;634 pages) and, according to the Foreword by Jeffrey Quill, the test pilot who undertook most of the testing of the prototype, '...it is not a book for light reading, but will be an essential on the shelves of serious aviation historians.' Eric Morgan, who served as an Electronics Officer in the postwar Royal Air Force, and Edward Shacklady, the former Editor of 'Air Pictorial' and the founder of Profile Publications, were the ideal pair to deal with this important subject. Containing chapters with titles such as 'Low Level Photography', 'A Useful Interim Type' and 'Blow The Spitfire', this tome covers all variants, all color schemes, and every major and minor technical detail. To my amazement, I found that the book lists every single aircraft of the type, more than 20,000 of them, and what happened to them (admittedly, in small type). I shall leave it to Jeffrey Quill - the ultimate Spitfire pilot - to give the final assessment, 'As definitive a history of the Spitfire as is ever likely to be written.'

So, you are thinking, how come I ended up playing a small role on the periphery of this project? Simply this; I was on staff at East Midlands International Airport at the time, and by a stroke of luck, Ronald Fraissinett kept his Spitfire PR.XI (the pretty, all blue one in the photograph) at the airport, as did Rolls-Royce and their powerful Mk XIV (the camouflaged aircraft, in the foreground). The publishers wanted an air-to-air shot of both types of Spitfire for the cover of the book, and it so happened that a small engineering company at East Midlands was involved with the restoration of aircraft, and had a twin-engined Piper Aztec, which could be flown as a chase 'plane with the rear door removed, giving the publisher's staff photographer a nice, clear shot. I acted as a facilitator, and we co-ordinated things with Rolls-Royce, so that BOTH the Spitfires and the chase 'plane could fly low over the Rolls-Royce Main Works in Derby, about 12 miles to the north of the airport (we timed it for lunchtime, and the workers literally BOILED out of the buildings on site!) It was on our way back from Derby, at about 5,000 feet, that the lovely photograph you see here was taken. Whilst all this was happening I was in the co-pilot's seat, (about 90 feet away from the other two aircraft) having the time of my life.

I got a copy of the book, and some great memories out of this. Now THAT'S how to get a 1st Edition!

Sadly, BOTH of the these beautiful aircraft were later destroyed in fatal crashes at air shows. Ronald Fraissinet, who was flying the blue photo-reconnaissance Spitfire, was killed in a helicopter crash in the French Alps, shortly after selling his Spitfire; it later crashed at a French air show, at Rouen, on the 4th June, 2001, when the new owner, Martin Sargeant, suffered an engine failure, and with smoke pouring from the aircraft, and seeing that he was going to land amongst spectators, deliberately crashed the aircraft as far away as possible; he was the only person killed, no-one else was injured.

My friend David Moore, the company pilot of Rolls-Royce's beautiful Spitfire Mark XIV, sadly mis-judged a loop (he was fuel-heavy for his next sortie) and crashed at Woodford Air Show near Manchester. That was a terrible loss. I am constantly reminded that display flying is a risky business.  

Oh, and it's off to another favorite theme of mine, next time; the cartoonist as war correspondent/author (think, Giles, Searle, Mauldin, Bairnsfather, etc), but this time it will be a 'peaceful' book from one of them!

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Aug 23, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, World War Two Aircraft, and Aviation & Pilots.

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