Don's diary: Marketing Mannock, 'the ace with one eye'

February 21, 2003

January 1963
Wow, BBC schools broadcast on Mick Mannock VC, the "ace with one eye" who, myth has it, memorised the sight chart, tricking the doctors in order to rule the skies over the Western Front 1917-18.

January 1971
A curious coincidence: the supposedly senile great aunt of one of my mature students insists her brother-in-law shot down more German aircraft than anyone else. As a result, I discover Major Mannock's memorial plaque in Canterbury Cathedral.

January 1998
Waiting for my wife in a Bournemouth bookshop, I kill time by flicking through an encyclopedia of VCs. On a whim look up Mannock and discover that he was a wholly atypical Royal Flying Corps officer: Irish working-class, Roman Catholic and an active socialist. Mental note to pursue this further. Descend uninvited on the current occupants of 183 Mill Road, nerve centre of the Wellingborough Independent Labour Party, from where Mannock went to war. Amazed to discover in the loft Mannock's Sam Brown (officers' leather belt and shoulder strap), prismatic compass and riding boots. Suggest a telephone call to the Imperial War Museum, London, or, to ease the mortgage, Sotheby's. Log all the Mannock references in Northamptonshire and Kent, and arrange to join his niece at annual commemorative service in Canterbury.

January 1999
Stung by History Workshop Journal 's rejection of my article on Mannock's politics because it "failed to address gender issues", I embark upon the fifth and, hopefully, definitive biography. Myth, commemoration, ideology, cultural representation and dog fights - it's all there. The Public Record Office files kill off the "ace with one eye" legend: medical records prove he had 20/20 vision. Set off to Lens, France, in search of the grave of "an unknown aviator".

January 2000
Manuscript with the publisher, but Palgrave insists on £42.50 cover price and no paperback. Don't they want to sell books to all those enthusiasts who will purchase anything on the Great War, especially if it involves flying?

January 2001
Organise book launch at work (the last one was in the House of Lords), and note Palgrave's marketing tactic of zero publicity. No review copies, so no reviews, unless you count the Cross and Cockade website offering the anorak perspective (wrong number of buttons on his tunic and so on).

January 2002
History Ireland does me proud with a full-colour spread on Irish air aces. Good publicity, but it won't sell the book. So, with Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot - Myth, Life and Politics a mind-boggling £45, I send a copy to Cassell Military Paperbacks.

December 2002
Eventually, the Cassell commissioning editor replies - she thought I was told three months ago that there is a moratorium on new titles. Can she hold on to the copy I sent her? At £45.00, no, she can't. The things we do for love - and the research assessment exercise.

January 2003
"We're awfully sorry, Dr Smith, but in fact we've lost your book."

Adrian Smith is senior lecturer in historical studies at the University of Southampton, and advises interested readers to secure his book via inter-library loan.

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