By Richard Bach
“The gull sees farthest who flies highest.”
I find myself in the ideal location to reread Richard Bach’s classic fable, a book that celebrates the free spirit and exalts the joy of finding your own way in life. From my snug roost overlooking a pristine sandy beach backed by wind-blown dunes, I can absorb the spectacle of seabirds soaring above the water on thermal air currents. I am able, from this vantage point, to imagine a juvenile gull flying purely for the pleasure of doing so.
When I first read Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the early 1980s, it was widely regarded as something of a hippy-dippy, New Age novella by my peers, and they sniffily accused it of epitomizing some rather foolish notions of an earlier, overly naïve generation. In their opinion it was quaint but dated. It had, however, been recommended to me by a nature-loving friend who lived a simple life in a croft overlooking the sea (something I greatly aspired to at the time). She had indeed come of age in a far less disaffected and directionless, pre-Generation X era, but as a young person feeling out of place in a country newly obsessed with personal wealth and the accumulation of possessions, I was receptive to its message and relished the prospect of exploring the life philosophy of a seagull.
Reading it today, I see this slender, highly illustrated work is something of a Christian parable, but as a teenager, though vaguely aware of its religious undertones, I accepted it predominantly as an inspirational ode to self-determination via aerodynamic flight techniques. I too would rather break with tradition and discover the limitless essence of the mind. While not exactly life-changing, I found it touching, and to some extent, emotionally liberating.
Bach tells the story of a gull who lives his dreams and fulfils his ambitions against the conventions of his species. He learns to dip and soar like no other and, despite being ostracized by the flock, reaches a sort of seagull nirvana – a place where only those who achieve a higher purpose find themselves.
Unlike his family, for whom flight is a means to an end, Jonathan treats it as a spiritual quest, and he gradually comes to live by the mantra: “The only true law is that which leads to freedom”. As he flies at ever increasing speeds, he learns: “the gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.”
Born in 1936, Bach served as a pilot in the US forces in his early years, and for a time, wrote articles for Avian before becoming a contributing editor to Flying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of his books and short stories concern flight, either in the guise of an actual aircraft or figuratively. I admit to reading only this book from his varied oeuvre, but find he is the author of several bestsellers of the 1970s, including the award-winning Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.
My 2015 copy of the book, published by Thorsons, is the complete edition, which includes Bach’s recently rediscovered Part Four – continuing the story two hundred years after Jonathan’s disappearance from earth – and ‘Last Words’ (not, of course, the seagull’s, but the author’s in 2013).
Jonathan continues to represent for many the consummate symbol of an individual seeking to take control of his or her destiny, leaving behind the hegemonic, narrow-minded community from whence they came. With this I would agree. While I found the experience of rereading Jonathan Livingston Seagull a rather less profound experience than I did in adolescence, it still gladdens my heart, and it served to remind me that the tribe, while ostensibly offering safety and reassurance, can often be petty, cossetting and cruel to those who deviate from the norm.
“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding.”
This is my twelfth choice for The Classics Club.