Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) Richard Bach

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Whatever an author writes – whether it’s a poem, a bodice-ripping melodrama or a sci-fi novel – it always has a splash of autobiographical content. This is certainly true of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a parable in which its author lays bear his soul, exposes his frailties and pours out his passion. From the age of seventeen onwards Richard Bach had two ruling interests: a passion for flying and a talent for writing. As soon as he was of age he took flying lessons. This enabled him to spend a large part of his adult life in the air, first as a tactical fighter pilot with the American air force and later as a flight instructor and film stunt pilot. One of his high school teachers had praised him for his literary abilities, and as he matured he honed this skill by writing on aviation matters whenever magazines and newspapers called on his expertise. He wanted to make his mark by excelling in whatever he did, rather like his direct forebear John Sebastian Bach. His drive and self absorption made him something of a loner, but he had one aeronautical hero whom he worshipped from afar and obsessively tried to emulate. He was the legendary air ace Jonathan Livingston, who had won the cross country race from New York to Los Angeles in 1928, and was still one of America’s top competitive pilots. In his idle reveries Bach wondered what it would be like if he could metamorphose into a seagull and learn to fly with the panache and speed of his idol.  Over the months he captured these daydreams on paper, a venture which finally produced the text of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a homily about personal freedom, fulfilment and excellence which contains less than ten thousand words and can easily be read at a single sitting.

He offered the manuscript to an array of publishers, who all turned it down no doubt because it was too off-beat. They couldn’t imagine that people who could possibly empathise with a seagull, which was ostracised by his friends because he aspired to higher things. Eventually the book was accepted by MacMillan, who decided to give it a chance, possibly because it was illustrated by a series of evocative photographs of a solitary flying seagull. The book was a runaway success, breaking all records for hardcover sales since Gone with the Wind. It remained for thirty eight weeks in the New York Times best seller list, and in 1972 alone sold more than a million copies. Such was its appeal that it was turned into a ballet, a rock opera, and finally a film, with radio-controlled gliders designed to perform like birds.

How does one explain the book’s universal appeal? Today we might say that the seagull was the avatar of Richard Bach. It tell the story of a creature – which could as well be a human being as a bird – which sought to escape the banalities of everyday life and strive for something better. The text is peppered with aeronautical terms – outside loops, rolls, tumbling spins, vertical dives, and formation point-rolls – which the seagull learns and Bach, the aspiring pilot, longed to master. Like the seagull, Bach was bored with the day-to-day trivia and the constant struggle to survive, and longed to reach out for higher things. This struck a chord with many readers, who instantly recognized that by being obsessed with material things they too were failing to meet their true potential. They felt a rapport with the courageous bird which discovered that ‘the most important thing in living was to reach out and touch perfection.’ He might have been banished from the flock for his unwillingness to conform to the mores and standards of the day, but in the process he achieved enlightenment, freedom and personal growth. He gave readers the courage to be true to their own calling and inner convictions. ‘You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.’

The tragedy is that the high ideals the book portrays seem to have done little to ease the author’s personal angst. While the seagull’s teacher tells him that when he returns to earth he must ‘Keep working on love,’ this hasn’t been easy for Richard Bach, who has been married

three times. He had children by his first marriage, which ended in divorce partly because he doesn’t really believe in the state of matrimony. (One of his estranged children, Jonathan, wrote a poignant book about the father he never knew called Above the Clouds.)  His second wife was an actress involved in the shooting of the Jonathan Livingston movie. They divorced amicably after twenty-two years of what he has described as a ‘soul mate’ partnership. Immediately afterwards he married his third wife with whom he now lives. And what you may ask of the original ‘Johnny’ Livingston, Bach’s mentor and the model for the book’s avian hero? He lived to enjoy the book’s success, and died peacefully four years later soon after landing at a Florida airport at the end of his final plane ride.

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