From the outset, there is a recurrent theme of fire. The brothers consumed by it, the fires in crashing planes, and the blazing cities, even the constant reference to smoking. Was this deliberate and planned?
The story – and I guess the story of Bomber Command – is all about people and things getting burnt away to nothing, literally and metaphorically, so the prevalence of fire in the story isn’t surprising. The cigarette theme started, as far as I can remember, from the idea of Jackie’s (and therefore Jacob’s) cigarette stub, the last piece of him that is left. And in reality the cigarette was, by all accounts, a pretty constant presence for many of the bombers, a means of coping – perhaps also for those they left behind when they were gone.
Apart from the theme of fire, what other key themes are there in the book?
An element of contradiction is central to the book, and – I think – to the story of Bomber Command. How a wrong can sometimes be a right. And the ambiguous nature of freedom and entrapment, how what traps you can be the thing that sets you free, how we shape our prisons to our needs – Jacob trapped in the bombed-up belly of his whale, unable to escape from the life he is living, but freed by it too, fulfilling his dream of flying, something he probably could never have achieved if the war had not intervened. And the fact that what traps you can also set you free means that Jacob’s pigeons return to their cage when they are let out, the canary in its cage at Kings Cross station sits content there when it could fly through the open door and into the sky, a trilling speck of yellow, and Jacob is drawn back to ‘bomber land’ again when he is finally free to leave. Strength and beauty in adversity would be another theme – in Jacob’s poem to Rose, the moon represents love, a love unseen in daylight, unseen until the darkness sets her free, the notion of the best of people coming out in adversity, the darkness releasing light, another contradiction. And the theme of temporariness making things more, not less, valuable – a temporariness that for a Bomber Command airman enriched life to an exaggerated degree because tomorrow he might well not be around to enjoy and appreciate the precious things. So Jacob had it all, an enhanced richness to his life, true companionship and love, but too little time to live it all in. That this effect was played out on so many thousands of airmen, and at such a young age, and the fact that they have been maligned ever since, is at the heart of the tragedy of Bomber Command.