Lift-off for anthology inspired by trail-blazing women
Most if not all of us have had that dream of flying occasionally – of looking down on the world from above. On Wednesday night a poetry anthology that tries imaginatively to capture the many aspects of that sensation, taking in butterflies, Concorde, the Wright brothers, Icarus, and the land of the dinosaurs, was launched.
Fifty Ways to Fly is the brainchild of poet and editor Alison Hill, who is still on her own flying journey. Her journey took off when she published Sisters in Spitfires in 2015, a poetry collection that celebrated the lives of the women who flew planes with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the second world war. Since then she has read at the Amy Johnson festival in Hull in the company of poets such as Ian Duhig, whose own poem, ‘The Last Testament of Amy Johnson,’ is included in this collection.
There are also poems from two wartime flyers, Pauline Gower and Jackie Moggridge, at the end of the anthology, which is being sold in support of the British Women Pilots’ Association, founded in 1955 by former women members of the ATA.
Wednesday night’s reading was launched with the anthology’s title poem by Maggie Sawkins, read by Judith Watts. Its list (don’t try some of these at home) includes: “Launch yourself from Ben Nevis … Come back as a hawk … Take a tab of LSD … Akimbo on a magic broomstick”. Jenny Messer’s ‘Fifty Ways to Fly II’ referenced Cape Canaveral, EM Forster, and Wim Wenders. ‘Jet’ by Derek Adams captured the “grey roar” of a training plane in the Scottish Highlands, and the way it “unzips air”, while Annie Taylor looked back wistfully to the glory days of Concorde, that supersonic “aristocrat of the aerial Appian Way”. She said: “I used to watch it going over Chiswick at about six in the evening, as I was collecting my daughter from her dancing lessons.”
The reading order was announced via paper planes that zipped about the upstairs room at The Railway pub in Teddington, bearing the names of poets. It was another measure of the warmth of the evening that Annie Taylor and Frances White also read poems in the anthology by departed members of their poetry group - the late Beryl Myers, and Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Dylan Thomas.
Isabel Bermudez’s ‘The Butterfly House’, set in Colombia, opens with rich imagery that descends into darkness, as she imagines the butterflies as “sheaves of propaganda leaflets from army helicopters, corpses in the river or by the road, young girls … with bullets in their skulls”. Michael Bartholomew- Biggs’s ‘Learning to Fly’ was part of a sequence, and in the spirit of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’. Dino Mahoney involved a dreamlike mood in ‘Up’: “You have to be thinking of / something else, / or nothing at all, / to rise and fly.”
Alison Hill read a poem by her mother, Patricia Hill, called ‘Looping the Loop’, and one of her own from her Spitfires collection, ‘Remembering Jackie’. She followed that with the last two poems in the collection. ‘Ten Little Aeroplanes’ by Pauline Gower, founder of the women’s section of the ATA, was taken from her collection Piffling Poems for Pilots; ‘The Last Flight’ was by Jackie Moggridge, who was apparently always writing poems, and after her war service became the first female airline captain. ‘The Last Flight’ – “which bearing is the best all through the night / to reach the great unknown?” – was found only recently by her daughter in an attic.
And that wasn’t all. In the spirit of Rhythm & Muse, the popular poetry and music night that Alison ran for a number for years, the evening ended with two music acts, both performing lyrics that appear in the anthology. First was singer-songwriter James Burton with ‘Sisters of the ATA’, to be followed by Dudley Tyrrell and Stephanie Sara – the Flying Blueberries – with ‘Wave From Paradise’.
It was a night when another event earlier in the day, only a short train ride away, was never far from our minds – but it was a night too to nevertheless enjoy the communality of poetry, and to celebrate the wartime heroics of women pilots. It’s right to remember them, and the freedoms they sought and stood for.