Like many other writers, I always indulge in a fixed ritual whenever I have finished another book. Mixing relief with a sense of achievement, I pour a glass of whiskey, draw deeply on a cigar, and play the theme from The Dam Busters. The musical accompaniment seems appropriate, given that almost half of my books have been about the Second World War. That includes the latest, a history of Coastal Command, the RAF’s maritime arm, which played a crucial role in the victory over Nazi Germany. Its title, Cinderella Boys, refers to the transformation of the service from neglected outcast into formidable aerial warrior.
But on the completion of this latest manuscript, I felt an extra surge of pride. “You’ve really done it,” I told myself, my eyes moistening and a lump appearing in my throat. The reason for this emotion lay in the troubled medical backdrop to the book’s authorship, for all the research and writing had to be conducted while I coped with the onset of Parkinson’s disease, the neurological disorder that progressively undermines the body’s motor functions. At times, when my hands froze at the keyboard or I was convulsed by shaking or my head was overwhelmed by exhaustion, I felt I would not make it. Often, I felt trapped at literary base camp with a mountain still to climb.
Writing, said Winston Churchill, starts as “an amusement”, before it successively becomes “a mistress”, “a master” and then “a tyrant”.