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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Lady Lucy Houston DBE

Aviation Champion and Mother of the Spitfire


Miles Macnair                         Pen & Sword Aviation, 2016

Lady Houston rose from a modest background to become a force of nature who did all she could to prepare her country for the inevitability of World War II. She married well – not once, but several times – hence acquiring her title. But that DBE was earned by her untiring efforts on behalf of Great Britain. She is probably overdue a modern biography. The reason why she has not been portrayed before (since two sketchy efforts in 1947 and 1958) is, as Macnair admits, the paucity of raw material. This presumably largely accounts for why this author veers off-piste at times, to indulge in what a cynic might call padding.


However the meat of this book is very absorbing, with Houston not being short of colour. Comparisons with Boudicea seem deserved.  Although her wealth came from out-living her husbands, she was a canny money-manager – persuading Robert Houston to go liquid ahead of the Great Crash. Once her personal wealth was confirmed, she acquired a superyacht. Unlike some counterparts today, her generosity became unstinting, and her energy ceaseless.  Given her innate patriotism, the book gives some insights into the uneasy relationship between such views and fascism in Britain in the Twenties and Thirties.  


Unlike some biographers, Macnair is capable of criticising his subject -  “Lucy’s narrow, blinkered outlook”. Describing her as “Mother of the Spitfire” is perhaps descending to the Daily Mail’s approach to such matters. She is better described as ‘Mother of the Supermarine S6B’ – the aircraft which secured the Schneider Trophy for Britain, and which became the progenitor of the Spitfire. Nonetheless she developed into a central figure in British politics (and to a lesser extent military aircraft procurement) in the Thirties.


One or two cavils: Macnair seems to vastly overstate the efficacy of tanks in Britain’s victory in 1918. He employs a technique of speaking directly to the reader and telling him what he will do next, or when he will return to a topic. This moves from irritating to infuriating! And “Alpha Romeo” anyone?!


But an interesting read: one is left with the thought of how a conversation between Houston and Margaret Thatcher would develop!

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