So `Deadlines`. What`s it all about then?
It is the story of one young man whose short life was shaped and ended by war and who never knew how he influenced the life of another young man in the following generation. There`s a story and a memoir.
So the story first.
Colin Curtis was my father`s brother who joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was trained to fly Wellington bombers. The son of a south Lincolnshire vicar, he was shot down off the Dutch coast on his third mission on 20th January 1942. He was 22. The Wellington and the six on board from 101 Squadron were never found. Colin was one of 55,573 men who died in Bomber Command during WW2. His life was unremarkable but ended dramatically and violently. I have researched his life, his time in the RAF and imagined his last hours alive. The German nightfighter ace who shot down the Wellington of Colin Curtis suffered the same fate a year later.
And the memoir?
The picture on my father`s desk of Colin Curtis in his RAF uniform fascinated me as a child. It helped inspire a lifelong love of aviation, sparked by a visit to the Farnborough airshow when I was eight. As a journalist I was lucky enough to indulge this passion, fly in fast jets and join RAF assignments abroad. Unpicking the story of Colin prompted me to revisit some of my own experiences as a young man, working as a journalist in local newspapers and local radio in Lincolnshire, Cornwall and Oxford.
When was this then?
It was mainly the 1970s and the 1980s. It was a time before everything became digital and before the arrival of the internet. We banged out our stories on manual typewriters and edited radio interviews with razor blades. There were no mobile phones and emails – just red telephone boxes and copytakers. Newsrooms were full of cigarette smoke and there were pin-ups on the walls.
Anything interesting to report?
There were national exclusives, protests and tragedies to report, mishaps to manage and deadlines to be met. Among the tragedies were the Bradford stadium fire and the Isles of Scilly helicopter crash. There were journalistic dilemmas – how quickly to report a fatal aircrash that I witnessed and how to deal with a racist outburst by a famous actor.
I was on both sides of the fence at Greenham Common, being one of the first journalists to report on the women`s peace camp and also working there with the International Air Tattoo. Mishaps included seriously upsetting a vicar by reporting on local television that he was opening up his church to drinking and dancing – and not in a Lord of the Dance sort of way.
If you worked in local newspapers and local radio, you will recognise many of the sagas and situations that we found ourselves involved in. Hopefully it will trigger a few memories for readers.
Anyone we would have heard of in the book?
Many well-known characters pop up including comedians, entertainers, disc jockeys, footballers, musicians, Royalty, press magnates, pilots, politicians, and racehorse trainers. They share the pages with heroic seamen, ghosts and exotic dancers.
There are some family stories such as Billy Butlin asking the Camp Chaplain (my Dad) to keep a close eye on saucy seaside postcards. There`s another wartime RAF pilot with strong family connections who also crashed into the sea and was never found. How about Uncle Frank, the bomb disposal expert, who tried to change the new international border between North and South Korea when it was redrawn at the end of the Korean war? My maternal grandfather was a medic at The Somme and Passchendaele, and my paternal grandmother (Colin`s mother) was one of ten sisters.
There`s something for you if like airshows and airfields such as Farnborough, Fairford, Mildenhall, Binbrook, Brize Norton, Coningsby, Scampton, Nellis, Butterworth, Akrotiri and long gone ones like Upper Heyford and Greenham Common. There are accidents to report involving a Vulcan, a Phantom, a Buccaneer and the Red Arrows – and flights in a Tornado, a Harrier, a Hawk , a Nimrod, VC10s and Jet Provosts.
Airfix kits, I-Spy books, the CIA, the Flying Nightingales, Dreamland, the Spalding Chutney Mafia, Imps and lots of music add to the heady mix. I was also mistaken for a Red Arrows pilot in a Cyprus bar and was responsible for the near execution of a nun in the name of the urban district council.
Published August 2017 – 75 years after the death of Pilot Officer Colin Hubert Curtis RAFVR.