The first time I flew I was already established in my career. I went on a school trip from Wishaw in post-industrial Lanarkshire to Schweinfurt in northern Bavaria and we flew from Glasgow to Frankfurt. Clearly I didn’t let on to the pupils that I was probably the only person in the group who’d never been on a plane. I don’t remember much about the journey. I was probably too busy counting heads all the time to make sure all of my group was still there!
Unlike me, Ann Gardner longs to fly. Not only does she want to see the world but she also wants to be at the forefront of this developing mode of transport. It’s 1952. At least that’s the publication date. One thing about that puzzled me when I first read the book MANY years ago. We know that Ann is twenty two; we know that she lived in Spain for four years; we know that the family moved there when she was nine. Even as a twelve year-old I knew enough history to realise that something wasn’t tallying. Would Mr Gardner’s firm really have sent him to Madrid in 1939?
Anyway that’s just an indication of how picky I am! Ann is of course accepted for training with British World Airways. She and the reader are both made aware that the course is tough and that there’s much to learn. Not only must the stewardesses (that’s their official designation, we’re told) be beyond reproach; they must also be able to cope with pilots who believe that women have no place in the air – even if, like some of the older stewardesses, they actually flew planes during the war.
Once Ann has passed her course, she and four of the others rent a house (which they call the Chummery) near the airport and settle down into their new jobs. Ann is posted to the South American Line as she speaks Spanish and her first flight is to Nassau via Lisbon, the Azores and Bermuda. In these days when non-stop flights from London to Perth are being trialled it’s hard to remember how long it took to fly anywhere in the 1950s. My Dad flew from London to Melbourne in the mid sixties and then it still took days and many refuelling stops. Even my recent hurried and rescheduled flight back to Edinburgh from Auckland only took thirty six hours and that was with a stop in Bali and eight (long and weary) hours in Dubai!
But in 1952 the speed and ease of air travel was a marvellous thing and it’s perhaps easy to see why it seemed exciting and glamourous. Only the well-off would be travelling that way and airports were pictures of calm compared to today. Ann takes to flying easily and quickly gets over the tiredness that assails her on her first flight and becomes confident in her job. Needless to say she triumphs in looking after an unaccompanied child (well, you wouldn’t expect the chief steward to do that, would you?) and is the heroine of the hour in a crash-landing.
In between flights we get glimpses of Ann’s family and her friends in the Chummery – and First Officer Alan Royce whom Ann meets early in her career and who, it just so happens, is posted to the South American Line as a new Captain not long after Ann. We also hear about the introduction of jet liners which still needed to refuel in Lisbon but got there in a speedy two and a half hours.
Pamela Hawken tells a good story. She makes sure that her readers understand that being a stewardess is hard work even if it is exciting, and she does give some practical information. However, this is not at the expense of the characters and plot. Ann and her friends and family have personality and presence. And the plot, whilst slight, is real.