GO FLY, YOUNG WOMAN – Valerie Morton reviews the new poetry collection by Alison Hill — Sisters in Spitfires (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015).
Do Air Women Lack Charm ?
— so enquired the Daily Express in 1936.
It seems extraordinary that anyone ever needed to ask that question – men in uniform have always held an enormous attraction, so why would a uniform on a woman have the opposite effect?
Theirs is a job in which an ounce of grit outweighs a ton of glamour.
from “Some Slight Confusion”
The spitfire was a life unto its own; it was just beautiful.
from “The Barracuda Queen”
The spirit of adventure and glamour certainly went hand in hand:
A Touch of Silk
I packed my parachute
I packed my evening gown –
what more did I need?
My Gone with the Wind dress
I called it, essential for a girl
dashing about in a plane.
We never knew when glamour
might beckon – a dinner, a dance,
so I packed it just in case –
patting down the soft red velvet
cushioned against the tough
parachute straps of silk and security.
Alison Hill’s exciting new collection Sisters in Spitfires certainly goes a long way towards dismissing the myth that women cannot carry out certain jobs as efficiently as men.
These women chose to face all the prejudices towards their gender and take to the skies courageously doing their bit for the war effort. By joining the Air Transport Auxiliary they broke through male-dominated barriers to pilot aircraft – delivering them for service on the front line. They were well aware of the dangers of the job including battling with the weather.
With huge pressure from press and public, they had to show what they were made of, every flight, every day; nothing less would do.
from “Some Slight Confusion”
Keeping our Feet on the Ground
We were just girls, some barely finished,
others trekking halfway across the world
for the chance to fly with the ATA.
With youth, that innate fearlessness
yet we knew it could happen to any one of us –
the nose dives, the one-off engine failure,
getting caught in the ropes, but such gloomy
thoughts were a danger in themselves.
Pressure enough from the press and public
without putting our feelings on the line.
We had the ground in sight, but with a terrible
temptation to fly above the clouds, break free.
And from “Aetheris Avidi” (Eager for the Air):
We were just glad to be flying – doing
our bit doing something we loved.
Alison Hill has maintained the deft hand of a poet whilst telling the stories of these extraordinary women who were passionate about flying and turned this passion into a real and memorable contribution at a time of need. This poetic touch is no better illustrated than in:
Those silent moments,
Before the rain,
Scanning the skies
Hoping for a gap
In the clouds, knowing
It’s closing in.
Rare moments flying above,
Illicitly, gaily, not knowing
If you’ll find that gap
But hoping, praying
You’ll arrive long before
The storm breaks.
The dangers that they faced is handled with a sensitivity and yet powerful respect. The reader is not spared the sadness of loss as in “On Such a Day”:
Our hearts sank when we guessed
the worst, or dared let ourselves imagine
On such a day we stretched aching
muscles, pinching our flesh raw while
waiting for news that never really surfaced.
We knew in our hearts she was gone. (on the loss of Amy Johnson)
This collection of 52 poems is split into Five Sections – Private Lives, Making the Headlines, Ferry Pilot’s Notes, Sisters in Spitfires and Leaving Legacies – each section providing a unique insight into the lives and experiences of these courageous women, as individual as the poems themselves. It is a privilege to be invited into their lives and to be able to read and understand the challenges and sacrifices they had to make balancing home, family, friendships, joys, sadnesses with adventures, excitement and commitment. These poems speak for themselves, create a record we should all remember – memories other women may aspire to – of women who led the way to freedom and proved themselves on all fronts. Some sacrificed their lives and are honoured here through their remarkable stories.
…….. Yet in that moment before the stone drops,
akin to a horse rearing at rustling paper,
or lashing out in a sudden temper,
their Mosquito bucked upon landing,
reared up and burst into flames.Those left
behind tried to stop the darkness from
descending, as they watched the draped
coffins through flickers of late autumn sun,
as they tried to comprehend. (from “Mosquito Tears”)
Alison Hill’s collection is well researched, brilliantly detailed and she does her subjects proud by capturing their spirit with a delicate poetic touch. It is a delight to experience being taken to the air with these flyers which leaves the reader to ponder:
Tell me it wasn’t in vain – the sorties,
the fight for recognition, the press attention,
endless ferrying from factories to frontline.
Tell me it wasn’t in vain – encouraging
women in what was always a man’s world,
(Did that really change, after the war?)
Tell me that my work and all those women
who joined the ATA, moved up the ranks,
kept their spirits up … tell me we made
a lasting contribution.
I think the answer to this would be NO – it wasn’t in vain – it may have taken time but women’s part in the war effort did make a difference and paved the way for women taking a full part in what may have always been thought of as a man’s world.
And this generous collection tells us why.
Go Fly, Young Woman! ……… Climb into a cockpit, push yourself past barriers, / fly beyond your limits – yes, you!
And why not?
I would definitely recommend reading this collection – so many poems and each a portrait of a different flyer and the way in which they unflinchingly did their job with good humour and dedication. It has been an eye opener for me. Go on, go fly with this book – you will wish it was you up there in the skies – this is merely a taster and there is so much more within its pages.