I’ve always been drawn to women who have made incredible contributions to history, proving their own in a ‘man’s world’ – people like the war photographer Lee Miller, the travel writer Freya Stark, or the polymath and ‘Mama of Dada’ Beatrice Wood. I love smart, strong characters – adventurers who break new ground. As the old saying goes – well behaved women seldom make history.
When I read a small obituary for a woman who had flown Spitfires during WW2, I felt my hair stand on end. I knew this was a story that had to be told. I am married to a pilot, and a couple of our relatives served as Lancaster pilots, but I had no idea that civilian women had flown everything from Spitfires to huge bombers, ferrying planes to Allied fighter stations. I had to know more.
I learnt that these civilians came from every walk of life – pilots joined the Air Transport Auxiliary from 28 nations, and there were debutantes, conjurers, trick fliers, antique dealers and even a stripper. Among the men, there were one-eyed, one-armed veterans flying alongside young fresh cheeked graduates.
There were some incredible characters – women like Audrey Sale Barker, who had her uniform made up on Savile Row with a shocking scarlet lining. She had crash landed in Africa before joining the ATA. She calmly wrote an SOS note in lipstick and handed it to a passing Masai tribesman to take to the nearest Mission. My admiration for these women grew as I delved deeper and deeper into the research, and I wanted to make sure my fictional characters did them justice, reflecting their quiet bravery as well as their flamboyance and youthful beauty – to the fighter pilots they were ‘the beauty chorus’, but they were skilful, highly disciplined pilots too.
Amy Johnson is the only pilot many will know of the 166 women who joined up – she lost her life ferrying an Airspeed Oxford. In ‘The Beauty Chorus’ I’ve woven factual events like Amy’s crash with the fictional story of three girls from very different backgrounds who learn to live and fly together. Every time these women went up, they risked their lives – they flew without radios and without arms. But if you hear the veterans talk now, they will tell you what fun it all was, and as women what a privilege it was to fly these planes. It was the time of their lives.
‘The Beauty Chorus’ is published by Corvus, Atlantic 1/4/11 http://thebeautychorus.blogspot.com