5. Learning to Fly

25-year-old Amy writes home from London to her sister Irene in Hull

2nd October 1928


I’m just back from flying! A lesson, of course, but my sixth now and they get better every time. I had Captain Baker today. He’s my favourite instructor. I’m not keen on awful Captain Matthews. Just because my first lesson was a disaster – he shouldn’t hold it against me. I think it says more about his teaching than my flying. How was I supposed to control the thing my first time? I’m much better now. Landings are more difficult than I took them for but I’ll get there. How hard can it be? Men manage it all the time and they’re known for being reckless. Besides, what’s a few bumps on the way down? I’m quite the novelty at the airfield, a female pilot. Some of the men look at me crossly, as if to say “look at her! Who does she think she is?” I just smile and think quietly, “I’ll show them. A woman can do anything you can do just as well – if not better!”

I’m going to get this over with now. There’s something I have been keeping secret. After Hans and I agreed to just be friends, we began to drift. Natural, I suppose. What reason to go on as we have all these years if nothing is to come of it? Quite out of blue, he wrote and asked if he might come and see me in London. It was the most brilliant summer’s evening when he picked me up from Maida Vale. Seeing him again, everything came flooding back. Every feeling I thought I’d buried, every fruitless hope I ever had. We were always doomed to failure, weren’t we? We defied convention for a long time in not marrying. The funny thing is, I always thought I wanted marriage and he didn’t. But it turns out I am quite happy on my own and Hans… well, he’s married. To that girl he started seeing in Hull whilst we were still together, if we ever were. I must have looked a fright when Winnie answered the door. After that night I thought I’d never cry another tear. I don’t think I truly understood heartbreak until that moment. The next morning, I got up, washed my face and went to work. I carried on. I won’t let him break me, Reeny. However hard, I will be alright.

Flying has helped. A distraction, but more than that. I have finally found something that feels like it’s mine, all mine. I had to wait so long – as with everything, it seems. It wasn’t until September my lessons finally came through. I don’t think I’ve ever waited so impatiently for anything! I would run down to the postbox every morning. It was only when I’d given up hope completely that the letter finally came so now I am determined not to waste another moment. I’m hoping father might tide me through with a bit of money. I’m rather short again. Don’t worry – it’s nothing like before, all that silly business with debt – I’ve been spending every penny on coming up to fly so things are a bit tight. But I’ll find a way to keep afloat – I always do, don’t I? I seem to have quite a skill for bouncing back whatever life throws at me. Sometimes I think that’s the only thing that’s kept me going until now. Fingers crossed it continues! Let me know how everything is at home, won’t you? You’ll have to tell me what it’s like being married. I don’t think I shall ever know for myself.

Love to everyone at home,

Amy x

4. Looking to the Skies

24-year-old Amy writes from London to her sister Irene, back home in Hull

4th April 1928

Reeny darling,

I can hardly believe I’ve been in London a year already! I suppose I can start calling myself a local now. It feels very strange after so many years in Hull but I am settled here, especially now Winnie and I have found ourselves the most darling room share. You must come and stay with us – if Teddy will let you. You’ll just have to tell him to put up with it! There’s no use letting boys tell you what to do. They do everything wrong.

The house is in Maida Vale, which is a very peaceful part of London, quite a relief sometimes from the dust and the din of town. I have to admit, before Winnie came, I was growing quite fed up of London. It can be overwhelming, on your own in the middle of Oxford Circus with buses and taxis and people coming at you from every direction. And living alone I started to grow quite anxious at night, the sirens and the shouting outside all seemed very sinister on my own. Of course I’m over that now but I needed to get away from all that for a little while and have some air. Maida is perfect for that – there are places to walk and swim and tennis courts right across the road. It’s good to be active, to be doing things, to be keeping my mind occupied.

And then there are the airplanes. Yes, airplanes! The drone of them thrums overhead all day long. I find myself darting for the window for a glimpse whenever one goes over. It turns out we’re quite near some airfield. It drives everyone else mad (why live here then??) but I like it. There’s something quite comforting about it. It reminds me of the war – do you remember that time the Zepps were going over and I ran outside to have a look? Dad dragged me back into the cellar so fast – you were so surprised you fell in the coal bunker!

I remember seeing a film at the cinema of a plane soaring amongst the clouds. Were you with me? I don’t remember. I just remembering thinking, what must it be like, to be so free of everything, so at home with the sky and the wind, the whole of the world at your feet? Then there was that disappointing five bob flip Molly had at the fair – it was all over so quickly! – but that hasn’t put me off. Something about the sound of the planes fills me with a burning desire to get up there myself. One day last week I couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought I would go mad if I stayed indoors listening to planes zoom by. So I got on a bus and went up to the airfield myself – Stag Lane. It was quite wonderful, planes taking off and landing and doing turns in the air and people sat in deckchairs watching. I joined in. I felt – I can’t exactly describe how I felt except it felt like home. Does that make sense? It sounds awfully silly now I write it. Anyway, I ended up asking about having flying lessons, just for the thrill of it. The club secretary says I have to pay for membership and then wait for a vacancy. I’m all paid up so now it’s just a waiting game!

On the subject of boys doing everything wrong: when I moved to London, I was sure my moving away would force Hans to act. I think half of me really expected a ring. Of course nothing of the sort has happened. Oh, we’ve written, as usual. You remember when I told you I was going to Scotland with a friend from work? The truth is we were together. I don’t know why I lied about it. Because I knew you would disapprove, I suppose. I still have his little portrait out on my dressing table and I look at it every night. Hans won’t commit and I can’t let go. He told me he’s started seeing another girl in Hull. Even knowing that, I didn’t break things off. Will I ever be able to? I don’t know. I feel as though he will always be there, at the edge of everything I do. I am trying to be strong and live a full life but he is always there. Sometimes he talks about coming to live in London and I dread it. It would be too hard to keep away from him if he were here. But I dread it most because I know that deep down I don’t dread it at all. Deep down I long for it, desperately.

That is why I have made a decision. I am going to take control of my life. When I come home for Easter I am going to tell Hans we must just be friends from now on. I know I am in the habit of giving him ultimatums with the secret intention of making him act but not anymore. This is for me. It’s not because I want another man – there’s no one – but I want my life back. I don’t want to feel like I’m only half-living any longer. I want to be able to go out to dances and parties and not feel guilty. Do you think it is the right thing, Reeny? I keep telling myself, however hard it seems now, it will be worth it in the end. It will, won’t it?

Amy x

2. Coming Home to Hull

22-year-old Amy writes from Hull to her close friend from school and university, Gwyneth Roulston

10th June 1926

Dear Gwyneth,

Hans is the most despicable creature I ever knew. He is a pig – an absolute pig and I can’t believe I ever loved him. I never should have come back to Hull just for him – I should be in America. Father could have found me a job there, I’m certain. But no, I came back to this rotten old hole that is Hull and for what – love? I am a fool, the biggest fool I ever knew for thinking Hans and I could be together. Four years it’s gone back and forth, writing letters – always letters – and what else? Engagement? How could there be? He just likes to keep me on a string he can pull when he wants company, never willing to commit. Am I really just some puppet of a thing, controlled by a man?

You were right – I should have ended it all months ago but I didn’t know how. I still don’t know if I can. Despite it all, I love him. I know I shouldn’t. Of course now we’ve had another row. It started off about some business trip abroad but it wasn’t really about that. I just want him to be steady with me. Irene has her Teddy and he – of course – is perfect. Why can’t I have that? I wish Hans were the kind of hero you see in films or read in books. I want him to rescue me from this dull, black and white life. But at the same time, I’m angry for wanting that. I should be able to rescue myself. I’ve always done what I want. You know I have a knack of getting my own way. What’s happened to me? I even asked mother to teach me how to cook and do things around the house so I might be marriageable. Me, cleaning and ironing! I couldn’t stand it. I’m just not that sort of girl. Whoever my husband is he’ll have to be able to do his own ironing. I certainly won’t be wasting my time with it. If I ever have a husband, that is.

On top of that, it turns out I’m not very good at anything in particular. I tried accountancy but that was dire I gave it up. It turns out that with a degree I am overqualified for making tea but unqualified for serving it! You know me, I shall keep trying. I’m in advertising now. It’s a little better but I’m only a junior so I get all the worst jobs. And the other girls in the office don’t seem to like me. I get along with the lads alright, even if they do try to be terribly over familiar sometimes, but I don’t know what to say to the girls. I miss you, Gynnie, and Winifred and Tuppy and the other Sheffield girls. I don’t have any friends here. It feels like everyone in Hull is either family or Hans’ friend. I don’t have anything of my own.

Things are dire at home too. It’s been brewing ever since I came back. I know father is frustrated – he thinks I can’t settle. Why can’t he understand I’m waiting for something to feel right? Mother disapproves of Hans terribly (made worse by Irene’s perfect Teddy). The fact he’s a Roman Catholic has always been difficult and mother is terrified I am going to convert from Methodist. In truth I have thought about it, but what’s the point if we’re never going to marry?

Then one other thing. I’ve not told anyone else. I can’t bear to. Irene is too busy with Teddy. I’m in debt. Terrible debt. I’ve made a right fine mess of things, buying too many new clothes and books. Things just sort of spiralled out of control before I could stop them. I’ve borrowed £50 to pay off the debts but now I must pay that back. It’s on my mind all the time, especially at night, lying in bed and I think I’m going to be sick with fear.

Oh what shall I do Gywn? Write to me and tell me what to do. I need a change in my life. I’ve gone on so long waiting for something to happen. I’m scared it never will. I’m scared I’ll end up like my mother. I don’t want her life. I want something more. There must be something I’m good at, mustn’t there? If you can think of anything, do let me know, won’t you?

Yours despairingly,

Amy x