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This article was written on 06 Jun 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Depression and Air Ace Picture Library: an unlikely unity

I love comics and, I hope, always will. Someone who learns to sneer at what they once loved with a child’s certainty is a vile human being with no place anywhere near me. On Saturdays, I used to vibrate with excitement because my copy of Battle & Action Force was due and I still read the Beano and Dandy well into my teenage years, because I loved the measured anarchy of it all. And because I was that most predictable of things, a young kid with a love of warfare who would have soiled his trousers if anyone shot at him, one of the things I coveted most was the annual Air Ace Picture Library Holiday Special.

Some of these stories were trite tales of derring do, with airmen who won the war single handed or delivered a secret weapon despite unrealistic odds, but occasionally the story was one that resonated long after you finished reading. As I went on to study English Lit, there are some fine pieces of fiction, plays and other works that I was introduced to that did, indeed, stay with me, but then there are some comics that did that as well and, until humanity can find a way to make a set of scales that can determine the weight and significance of one feeling relative to another, I will maintain that the time I read ‘The Bomber Barons’ is up there with the works of Christopher Marlowe, Milan Kundera, Sophocles and all the other people I encountered at university.

The comic is about 666 Squadron, a wholly fictitious bomber squadron that we are asked to believe was part of the RAF during the Second World War and for some years after it. Unusually for a comic book, it starts in what would have been the present day, with pilots flying Vulcan bombers and being herded into the mess to listen to a brief history of their squadron, which the pilots and crews deride as being ‘pi-jaw,’ period slang for tedious waffle, I suppose, and a dull diversion from the excitement of their flying duties. What follows is told in flashback and I’m not going to retell it here, as that’d be slightly pointless, but there’s one scene that is important to me as it was, intermittently, a source of hope in the darkest days of very serious depression.

In one brief tableau, 666 are sent on a bombing mission at night, over Germany, in aircraft that are hopelessly outdated. The squadron is cut to ribbons and a French pilot who has escaped from the clutches of the Nazis to fly with them is one of the few to survive his run over the target and head for home, albeit with his crew killed or disabled and his aircraft damaged so badly that it puts his survival in jeopardy. He clips on his parachute harness and sets the aircraft on autopilot, making his way to the back of it, his intention being to bale out through the yawning hole where the rear gun turret used to be. When he has crawled back and seems about to leap into the night, he realises that two other squadron aircraft had been there throughout the night, formatting on him and using their guns to keep enemy fighters from shooting him down. With his radio working, he had not realised and, emboldened by this revelation, duly pilots his shattered aircraft home.

So much for that brief interlude of pluck and daring. The scene came back to me, though, when I tipped over into life-threatening mental illness in which suicidal ideation wasn’t so much a fleeting presence as a permanent companion tugging at my elbow and telling me, roughly every minute, that I’d be better off dead. And the way it came back to me was as the suggestion that, just perhaps, I was the French pilot, flying through a very savage night, and that there were unseen people flying out there with me, my best interests at heart.

I’m a person of faith, for all that my faith is a feeble and flickering thing which doesn’t really know where it fits or how best it should find expression. Nominally, I’m a Quaker, but after someone I liked spoke harshly to me at Meeting I’ve pulled back from it with all the rapidity of someone who has touched a scalding hot stove. For all that, my choice is to believe that the other aeroplanes in this strange, waking fantasy are God and, perhaps, a future that was infinitely more beautiful and positive than I would ever have dared to believe. They were there all along, even at the times when I thought they were absent or when I wanted to do something terminal to myself, patiently waiting and keeping station out there for a time when I would look back and take heart.

This is, admittedly, a highly personal account and an equally personal interpretation of some fairly bleak circumstances which may have no validity for you at all. But if it does, and I mean this whether you happen to be a person of faith or an atheist who is so certain in their convictions that they make Richard Dawkins look like a milksop, the most important thing you can do if you are mentally unwell, the most important thing by far, is to hold on. Mental illness is savage and it has broken some of the best people in the world and no blame attaches to you for experiencing it. If you are offered clear-eyed, objective help that will help you get better, take it. If you are offered psychoactive medication by your GP, take it. Every road out should be explored. But they all start with one principle: hold on, because one day, what you are enduring now will dissipate like the morning mist, and you will see life differently.

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