Christina Koning was born in Kuala Belait, Borneo and grew up in Venezuela and Jamaica. She has worked as a travel writer and journalist – most recently for the Times. Her novels include A Mild Suicide, which was short-listed for the David Higham Prize for Fiction; Undiscovered Country, which won the Encore Prize and was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and Fabulous Time, which was awarded a Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship. The Dark Tower, her first novel for Arbuthnot Books was published in 2010. It was followed by Variable Stars in 2011 and Line Of Sight in 2014. A Mild Suicide was re-issued by Arbuthnot in 2012. Game Of Chance, the second book in the Blind Detective series, was published by Arbuthnot in 2015.
Why I became fascinated by Amy Johnson and the women fliers of the Golden Age of Air
When I started writing my latest novel, Time of Flight, which is set in 1931, I knew one thing: that it would be about flying - then reaching its zenith as a popular craze - and that it would feature a character inspired by those magnificent ‘queens of the air’, who did so much to popularise flying in its golden years. One of the most celebrated was the American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic - but Britain wasn’t slow in fielding a candidate of its own.
Amy Johnson (1903-1941) was, at first sight, an unlikely celebrity. The daughter of a Hull businessman, she first became interested in flying while working as a secretary to the solicitor, William Charles Crocker. His offices were on the far side of London Bridge, and it was there that my grandfather, Charles Thompson, worked as a telephonist and receptionist. This, incidentally, was one of the jobs the blind were trained to do, in the years following the Great War. My grandfather had learned typing and telephony at St Dunstan’s, the rehabilitation centre for the war-blinded, then located in Regent’s Park, where he was referred after being invalided out of the army in 1917. Charles was of course the model for my ‘Blind Detective’, Frederick Rowlands, in the series of detective stories of which Time of Flight is the latest.
It fascinated me that Charles must have known Amy when she was first getting interested in flying - although, sadly, he died long before I was able to ask him what he thought of her! But of course, this curious fact - that my First World War hero grandfather had once worked in the same office as one of the greatest ‘heroines’ of modern times - was one of the reasons I chose an aviation theme for the novel. It had been at the back of my mind when I started the Blind Detective series, and I knew that ‘Miss Johnson’ (as she is referred to in the first book, Line of Sight) would have to have more than just a walk-on part.
And so I got more and more interested in Amy, who in 1927, the year in which Line of Sight is set, was still unknown. But her anonymity wasn’t to last very long: in 1929, after saving up for flying lessons at the Stag Lane airfield, she was awarded her pilot’s license. She also gained her ground engineer’s ‘C’ license - a qualification that would stand her in good stead on her famous solo flight from England to Australia, when her engineering skills came into play on numerous occasions. Amy was twenty-six years old, and had had only 90 hours’ flying experience when she set out from Croydon Airport on May 5th, 1930 in her De Havilland GH60 Gipsy Moth ‘Jason’, on the first leg of this epic 11,000 mile journey.
Averaging 800-900 miles a day, she was confronted by all kinds of extreme weather - from rainstorms, which reduced visibility to zero, to sandstorms that caused her to crash-land. Much of the time she was ‘flying blind’ - radar hadn’t yet been discovered, and the instruments she had to guide her were basic, to say the least. She found her way by looking down from the open cockpit, and following the lines of rivers and roads. After many terrifying escapades, she reached Darwin on May 24th - and was hailed as a heroine of the Modern Age: ‘Amy, Wonderful Amy’ in the words of the 1930 hit song. Overnight, this unassuming young woman became an instant celebrity - a role with which she was far from comfortable.
Because, in spite of having gained international renown, at a time when few women achieved fame for anything other than their looks, Amy Johnson was shy and reclusive by temperament. Her passion was flying, and she continued to set records throughout the 1930s, including one for a solo flight from London to Cape Town in 1932, breaking her husband Jim Mollison’s record. The marriage to Mollison, who seems to have been a bit of a playboy, didn’t last, but Amy continued to pursue her fascination with speed - learning to drive racing cars (another of the era’s dangerous hobbies) and taking up gliding.
|Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson|
With such rich material to draw on (and Amy’s story was only one of many - for a fuller account of the lives of ‘Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines’ see my HG post of the same name), I found the writing of Time of Flight an enjoyable - if not always uncomplicated - experience. Since it is, obviously, a murder mystery, I had to find solutions to the crime writer’s perennial problem of how to kill people without making the killer too obvious from the start. Fortunately, I had expert assistance from a friend who is also something of a Flying Ace. He not only took me up in his plane, but let me fly the thing, in order to get an idea of what those early aviators had to deal with. More usefully still, he came up with a fiendishly clever idea for making a murder ‘work’ within the context of a story about flying.
So I’m grateful to Amy Johnson - not only for being such an inspirational figure, for me and for millions of women, in the years since she took the controls of her Gipsy Moth, but for providing me with such a great theme for my detective story. I live not very far from Duxford Airfield, and so I quite often see light aircraft - some of them the sort Amy herself might have flown - flying over my garden. Whenever I do, I can’t help feeling a thrill of excitement, and a glow of admiration for all those amazing aviatrixes of the past.
(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)