Imperial Airways conjures up pictures of sleek silver-clad aeroplanes with rows of propellers and sometimes lots of wings. Rich people in furs and pearls (well, the women) and cloche hats smiling at the camera as they wait to climb up a couple of dozen steps into the luxury of the 1930s pre-jetset. Is that really how it was? Well, yes, according to my father.
Imperial Airways and my father
As regular readers know, my dad was a starry-eyed schoolboy who applied for the Imperial Airways commercial training programme in 1933. After training, he went out to Africa, where at 22 he was left on a beach with his suitcase and told to set up a base for the flying boat service. Apart from the Colonial service officials (who were most put out that he didn’t report to them but to Imperial Airways), their wives, some planters, some other immigrants, and the native tribes, there was nothing much there. Not at Lindi, anyway, and these days nobody’s heard of Lindi, and historians keep mixing it up with Malindi, in Kenya. Lindi was in Tangyanika, and so is now in Tanzania.
As kids we got told stories of his exciting time in Africa over the dinner table. It was pretty exciting stuff. He never tired of telling stories and we never tired of listening to them. Eventually we got to hear a little more about my mum’s exciting time in Africa too. This was mainly about her leaving her safe nursing job in London to join the overseas nursing service, and managing to avoid the plum posting to Singapore in order to take the one in Uganda – which was at least on the same landmass as her fiancé. Singapore, as anyone knows who has seen Tenko or the like, turned out not to be safe at all.
Eventually my dad got around to recording his stories on a small micro-cassette tape recorder. After he died I took care of them, his photograph album, and other stuff from ‘the old days’. Five years later I started transcribing the tapes, and eventually turned his memoirs into a book, White Water Landings.
But what had been a passing romantic interest in flying boats, drawn from those Saturday lunchtime stories, turned into, well, not an obsession, but an inspiration.
Early flying machines
I‘ve always had a soft spot for flying, any sort; but the pioneers were fascinating. I don’t say I got deeply into the history of Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and the rest, and when someone asked me if I had any information on Lady Mary Heath who pioneered routes in Africa, I had to look her up. But flying boats, and biplanes, and all the strange other designs that didn’t quite make it into the air, I loved them.
Even now, if I find Those Magnificent Men in the Flying Machines on tv, I’ll sit down and watch to the end. I often cite it as my favourite film, and I simply never tire of it. It’s a pastiche, of course, with all the ridiculousness of British uppercrust stuffiness and terribly stereotyped Europeans, but that’s really how a certain type behaved pre-war. And the film is pre World War 1; nothing much changed the Colonial British till after World War 2.
My father used to rant about this stuffiness (well, he never ranted, he poked fun at them in a mild voice*); the need for engraved calling cards, not printed ones, or you’d be ‘cut’ (ignored); having to go into the main Imperial Airways office in Khartoum in a suit even at 120 degrees (F), and so on. He wasn’t the type to live in luxury, and he always had a childlike awe for it. (I must tell his story about the most Luxurious Loos in London some time).
*I just realised I use this same style when trying not to be bitchy about stuffy upperclass people I work with occasionally!
It didn’t come as much of a surprise to me that when writing the Princelings series, that flying machines turned up in my head. Once George had invented the power supply system that ran on strawberry juice, which was an idea I had before I started writing, his eye turned to other engineering opportunities. Someone flew a ‘new-fangled flying machine’ over from ‘the continent’ and George was hooked. As a matter of interest, I used this new enthusiasm to help him recover his powers of speech after a head injury. That inspiration came from a friend of mine in the same situation, and I dedicated book 3 to her.
Now George has been developing flying machines with greater range and capacity, and the series will come to an end when he finally succeeds in flying the Great Western ocean, as his people term what we know as the Atlantic. When and why? It was foreseen in the first book. But it won’t happen till the last!
Here’s how he first saw them, stutter and all. (The stutter comes from having to remember how to form sounds; he’s relearning how to talk, in essence). Fred and George are looking out of their window at Castle Buckmore, waiting for Princess Kira (with whom Fred is in love) to arrive, ‘driven’ by her brother.
A strange noise crept into their consciousness, a kind of buzzing. It changed tone, skipped a beat, and sometimes stopped altogether. The princelings looked out, straining to see what was making the sound. Fred stared down the road as far as the bridge; George gazed up into the sky as if he was dreaming.
“There… there..they..ther..” he stuttered, and pointed for Fred to locate.
“What?” said Fred, following the direction and wondering why George was pointing into the sky. There was some sort of bird flying towards them.
“I w-wond-ered.. a ffly-ing ma-ma-sheen.” In his excitement, George was having trouble getting any words out at all. He slipped off the window seat and went over to a pile of papers on his bed. He selected one near the top of the pile and brought it back to Fred.
“M. Bleriot demonstrates flying machine at Fortune,” read the headline. Underneath was a picture of a very dashing French person with a helmet and goggles standing next to a funny tube with two boards sticking out of it on either side.
Fred glanced at it, held it close to look at the machine in more detail, and dropped the paper to look at the sky. A very similar machine was now approaching the last stretch of road before it turned to come into the castle itself.
“Oh my goodness,” said Fred, his eyes wide in panic. “She’ll be killed!”
“Mn, I ddon’ thing so.” George said. “The m-masheenstoo val-u-able.”
The Princelings and the Lost City, Ch 1; © J M Pett 2012
Ever been inspired by the stories of your parents or grandparents? Try to record them before we lose their experiences. There are projects to do this, see if your local library can help.