Sisters in Spitfires by Alison Hill

Sisters in Spitfires by Alison Hill

Title: Sisters in Spitfires

Author: Alison Hill

Review by Jade Craddock

Much has been written about the Second World War – the plight of the soldiers, the conditions on the Home Front – but Alison Hill’s collection Sisters in Spitfires shines a light on perhaps a lesser-known, lesser-remembered component of the war effort: the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Founded at the outbreak of the Second World War, civilian members of the ATA were responsible for ferrying military aircraft between factories, depots, and squadrons, and New Year’s Day 1940 saw the arrival of the first female recruits. Yet their substantial contribution has gone rather unacknowledged, by and large. Indeed, whilst notable male figures like Douglas Bader and Leonard Cheshire, rightly, get their just plaudits, Pauline Gower, Winnie Crossley, Lettice Curtis and their contemporaries remain unknown. Alison Hill takes it upon herself to give these women a tribute worthy of their achievements, lest we forget. But we cannot forget what isn’t remembered, and Hill begins that process of remembrance.

 

Remarkable women

In poems that span the incredible experiences of these women’s lives, Hill introduces a cast of remarkable women: Dorothy Fuery, one of the first American women hired by the ATA; Margaret Gore, one of only two female Commanding Officers; Lettice Curtis, a founding member of the British Women Pilots’ Association; Mary Wilkins Ellis who became the UK’s furst female Air Commandant, and of course the primogenitor of female aviation, Amy Johnson.

Whilst footnotes provide the historical detail about the women, the poems themselves ensure that these women are no longer the footnotes of history, as in ‘The Magnificent Woman’, a eulogy to Joan Hughes, which ends with the empowering line: ‘I am the pilot said Joan, here’s your plane.’ It is something straight from a Hollywood film script yet these were ordinary women made extraordinary by the roles they undertook. Indeed, it is this dichotomy that is at the heart of the collection, which contrasts the banality of their day-to-day lives, the trivialities of ‘washing our hair’ and manicuring ‘the window box/ with nail scissors’, with ‘the throb of engines/ The reek of hot oil/ The speed and danger’ that became their lives in the ATA. But there is more to this dichotomy, centred on the gendered expectations and roles of men and women, and the female pilot becomes a figurehead for these debates.

I packed my parachute

I packed my evening gown –

what more did I need?

 

Military and femininity

Alison Hill

Alison Hill introduces a cast of remarkable women

Here, the parachute symbol of the military and the evening gown symbol of femininity are packed side by side, the two facets of the pilot’s life equally relevant, equally significant. There is no confusion, no abnormality for the poem’s speaker in balancing both sides of her life. There is an argument that the poems perhaps play up femininity too much, circumscribing to the expectations of women’s domestic and gendered lives, but rather, the women in the poems wear their femininity, their womanhood as a badge of honour, not something to be ashamed of, or eschewed. And as well as depicting their lives in the air, the poems also celebrate their lives on the ground: love, romance, marriage. And Hill uses the perfect metaphor to round off her poem ‘Spitfire Dance’ in which the female pilot and her beau meet in a dance hall:

She’d approached the floor with caution,

wondering if this particular flight signalled

the start of the rest of her life

Gender relationships though are not as easy in the air, where the female pilots of the time enter a predominantly male world:

They were all in it together – same uniform,

same hours, same regulations, at first less pay

they had to show what they were made of, every

flight, every day; nothing less would do

The poems explore the sexism that the women faced; their own private battles taking place against the backdrop of a war at large.

I sensed so many people watching me

behind the polished mirror, watching

and waiting for me to fall, to crash land

or just give up and go home, raise a family

And elsewhere, in ‘Rapid Dispersal’, the fallout at the end of the war:

We were simply

expected to pick up our lives, our jobs,

our kitchen sinks

Yet in spite of it all, these women are defined by courage, defiance, strength. Flight becomes a metaphor for their determination to push higher, to exceed expectations, to reach the dizzy heights. There is no glass ceiling for them up in the skies:

We head the ground in sight, but with a terrible

temptation to fly above the clouds, break free.

These women become icons, heroines, ‘blazing Spitfire trail’. But the lives of the female pilot weren’t without danger:

The sense of an ending

Coming too soon,

Crashing, falling

Splintering

Silence

And ‘An Unmarked Grave’ depicts a poignant memento mori to the lost lives of these female pioneers:

Her moorland grave is simply marked

with the stone from her outdoor pool, the notice

in her local paper written in Connie’s own hand.

No fuss, no limelight – an extraordinary life

 

No grand exit

This for ‘one of the first/ British women to gain a licence, the first to fly/ on Tyneside, the first to skim the Alps in her/ de Havilland Tiger Moth’. The poem’s title conjures the Unknown Soldier, but whereas the Unknown Soldier is a symbol of solidarity, reverence and honour, the unmarked grave here is a humble acknowledgement of the female pilot’s lack of recognition. Though, the suggestion is that she herself wanted ‘no fuss, no limelight,’ it seems that there is no alternative.

There is no grand exit for this defender of her realm, no Last Post, for she is only an addendum to the history books, not the main story. These poems though begin to address that and one of the great triumphs of Hill’s work is the awareness she raises of this other history, the ‘fuss’ and ‘limelight’ she gives to these women and the desire this breeds to want to discover more. More than a book of poetry, it is a vade mecum for a revisionist perspective on the war, an introduction to the aviatrixes who played a vital part, and a feminist primer for exploring the other forgotten voices of the Second World War.

‘Tell me it wasn’t in vain’, says the speaker of one of the collection’s final poems. ‘Tell me it wasn’t in vain – the sorties,/ the flights for recognition… Tell me it wasn’t in vain – encouraging/ women in what was always a man’s world’. And whilst these women may not have received the recognition they deserved, theirs is a powerful legacy, a postscript that is summed up in the final poem:

go fly, young women!

Climb in a cockpit, push yourself past barriers,

fly beyond your limits.

Indeed, the greatest way to honour the remarkable lives, the remarkable feats of these exceptional women is, as Hill’s collection suggests, to take on their baton, to continue their legacy, to make sure their achievements aren’t ‘in vain’.

To buy a copy of Sisters in Spitfires go to the Indigo Dreams website.

Review by Jade Craddock

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