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Under the Radar, by James Hamilton-Paterson

review published on July 3, 2013. Reviewed by Jon Owens

Under the Radar is from the outset an interesting concept. The Cold War is very much a period reflected in literature and film by the shady dealings of spies, and facing off with the Russians across the Iron Curtain. It is refreshing then to pick up a novel dealing with the lives of the crews that made Britain’s nuclear deterrent a reality – the crews of the iconic V bombers.

The novel follows the lives of a crew of a Vulcan bomber, and specifically the pilot. Amos is the centre of the narrative. An exceptional pilot, utterly dedicated to his role and his men. And with the deep-seated love of aviation that makes even the tedium of the Cold War a great personal responsibility. It is easy looking back on this period of history to see it as a non-event in Western Europe, and that the confrontations that did take place all did so thousands of miles from home. But this is obviously the benefit of hindsight, and for the men sat on runways across Lincolnshire preparing for attack this was always a possibility.

It is this concept of ever teetering on the brink that Hamilton-Paterson does to perfection. Even with the frustrations of constant drills and training exercise, for the men in Under the Radar this potential Third World War is a genuine possibility. The emotional stresses of living in these circumstances is well presented both professionally for the flight crew, and personally beyond the cramped confides of the Vulcan herself.

Under the Radar also communicates well the level of distrust even between allies. The inception of new technology to the bombers is a closely guarded secret, even from our cousins across the Atlantic. Hamilton-Paterson manages to add significant tension to almost the entire novel at all levels of the command structure, and for this he must be congratulated.

As ever further analysis of the plot itself, and the devices by which we the reader are kept expectant, would be in danger of ruining some of the cruxes by which the story hangs. Suffice to say the characters and plot are believable, very human, and often pushed to the limits of their endurance in the air and at home. Not only this, but the author does so with some truly emotive description that allow the reader to feel the Lincolnshire fog on the face as the behemoth aircraft launch themselves skyward.

For this reviewer the Vulcan remains a beautiful aircraft of a lost era, and Hamilton-Paterson allows us to see her at her peak. The feel of the cramped interior and the smell of hydraulic fuel and sweat all conjure up the realities of the time. Hamilton-Paterson also gives us several appendices, clarifying the reality of some of the events and the nature of the RAF during the Cold War. These are something of a treat to any history geek, even if they do come across as almost defensive in their “look this kind of thing really did happen” nature.

Overall Under the Radar has much to recommend it. There were several moments of genuine surprise through the course of the novel, not to mention further strong story-telling in describing the seemingly inevitable twists that never actually happen. Much like the Cold War itself. Hamilton-Paterson seems to have captured the essence of the RAF of the period as well as the hardships the men (and their families) endured. And in doing so he still weaves a compelling and enjoyable narrative. A thoroughly entertaining read, and one that will leave the echoes of the Vulcan’s Rolls-Royce engines echoing around your head.

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HHhH, by Laurent Binet

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Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by Paul Roberts

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