MEETING THE JET MAN
About David Knowles
In 1912 Bertrand Russell advised Wittgenstein to give up aviation in favour of philosophy. There was no similar advice forthcoming from the professors at Oxford when David Knowles abandoned his ambition to become an academic philosopher. He joined the RAF as a pilot in 1982. During the whole of his subsequent twenty-five-year RAF career David was assigned to flying duties – they never managed to tie him to a desk job. For most of that time he was on front-line Tornado ground-attack squadrons, amassing well over 3000 flight hours on one of the most potent airborne weapons systems of its day. From the closing years of the Cold War, through a decade of peace-keeping, the military victory in Iraq and then into its aftermath, David was strapped into the cockpit trying to make sense of what he was seeing, experiencing and participating in. Awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for actions during the opening phase of the invasion of Iraq, David has first-hand experience of aspects of modern warfare which have scarcely been touched upon in poetry before. He has recently retired from the RAF and founded Two Ravens Press publishing house with his wife and fellow writer Sharon Blackie.
See the author's website at http://davidknowles.wordpress.com
Praise for David Knowles
'An accomplished and thoughtful writer ... set to become Britain's first war poet of the Iraq era.' Anna Burnside, Sunday Times (for complete article, click here)
'The verse here covers two Gulf wars and is impressive stuff. The ideal companion volume to Simon Armitage's The Not Dead.'
Scott Pack, The Friday Project (http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/scottpack/)
James Campbell, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, made the following mention of Meeting the Jet Man as part of their ongoing discussions about modern war poetry:
'At the beginning of 2007, we wrote: "We have been at war for over five years, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq. Where are the poets of the war?" There were few answers... Mention might be made of David Knowles. After twenty-five years as an RAF pilot, during which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross "for actions during the opening phase of the invasion of Iraq", Mr Knowles retired to found Two Ravens Press, a poetry publisher in the Scottish Highlands. It has just published a book of his own work, Meeting the Jet Man, an assortment of poetry and prose based on his military experience. "Coming Home in a Seat" describes the return of the bodies of two soldiers accidentally killed by their own side:
these were friendly deaths
with no best side for the camera
denied their varnish
of enemy fire. Us they send home in a seat
parcel-post on a plane, not met
by bands of black
We are not carried off the ramp
nor punctuated with a bullet.'
An interview with David Knowles
When did you first begin writing, and what inspired you to do so? Have any specific books/authors served as inspiration for you?
I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t admire writers as members of society, and aspire to be one. I wrote lengthy religious essays when I was ten. Poetry too, in some gawky fashion – but rarely stories. Of course my ideas about what it is to be a writer have changed over the years – particularly my ideas about what does not count as being a writer. The giants of my early reading were Camus, Sartre, Mann, Nietzsche and more Nietzsche. Fowles was the only modern writer I stumbled upon who seemed to take the business seriously – though of course I have been shown many others since.
Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind Meeting the Jet Man? And about what you were trying to achieve; what ideas you were trying to convey?
Clearly the inspiration came from events, particularly the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which I participated. With that raw material I wanted to do at least two things. First, I wanted to put a human face on the bomber pilot – the people whose distorted voices you hear calmly reporting a weapon impact, halfway through the Six o’Clock News. It isn’t enough to see such pilots as an other, as a ‘them’. They live next door, they are in the checkout queue behind you. And it’s only when they have a human face that you can begin to do the second thing – which is far more interesting – and that is to ask what it does to a person to be so completely part of a machine, both the aircraft and the wider military machine. Some of my suggested answers to that question will not be popular – I certainly do not see all the outcomes in a negative light.Of course, the basic question isn’t unique to jet pilots, not by a long shot. But it is particularly acute and clear for a pilot on operations. I once saw a clip of myself on television, climbing down from the cockpit after a bombing mission. I was grinning from ear to ear and walked confidently over to do a live interview. I did not recognise myself. What I saw was The Jet Man. That degree of dissociation is part of what I wanted to write about.
How do you go about creating your voice on the page?
I concentrate very hard on not hearing all the other voices that want to speak when I open my mouth. All the authors I ever read and all the people I have really listened to – they all want to grab the microphone. I have to produce some sort of diversion to keep them busy while I sneak off-stage and write. Luckily they leave me alone when I’m revising and re-writing.
How and when do you write?
Mostly in fragments, anywhere, anytime. Often first thing in the morning but just as likely on a boarding pass as I wait for a plane, even once in a dentist’s waiting room.
What do you enjoy reading? What are you reading that you can recommend at the moment?
I read a lot of poetry, of course. But I try to focus on a particular poet for days or weeks at a time, reading the work and the secondary literature. Most recently I have returned to Dylan Thomas. I have always found him an easy poet to listen to, but a very difficult one to understand. It seems to be a common view that poems can be picked up in isolation from their context and fully, or nearly fully understood. No doubt there are such poems – but I believe them to be the exception rather than the rule.
Other than that I read a lot of non-fiction – philosophy and history. I would generally chose the short story before the novel – maybe I have too short a concentration span!