|Barry Sutton, who fought in the Battle of Britain, was shot down three times|
My war ace father’s secret life as a poet
Julia Gregson’s father was a pilot whose war experiences his family never quite grasped. Then he arrived one Christmas with a plastic bucket containing a 5,000-word poem, saying he was taking it to the BBC
Saturday 16 July 2016 06.29 BST
t was shortly before Christmas, and London was covered in snow. My father had arrived at our house for a party an hour too early. My first uncharitable thought was, “Oh no! Not the blue New Zealand suit.” The suit in question was a cheap, periwinkle blue, Bri-nylon fashion disaster, the bargain and love of his life, found on sale in a men’s outfitters in New Zealand about a decade earlier. It stuck to him like an ill-fitting shroud and exposed inches of thin, white ankle. He wore it despite howls of derision from the women in his family – and there were only females in his family: my sister, my mother and me. His monstrous regiment of women.
He was 6ft 4in tall, outstandingly good-looking, in spite of a few scars on his face, and had a finger burned off in his fighter pilot days. Properly dressed, he could, we sometimes cajoled, have had a lovely second career, modelling for knitting patterns or Saga cruises.
That was never going to happen.
On the surface, this was a man’s man who liked speed and action: a Battle of Britain ace, a pentathlete, a dasher into icy seas, a moonlight steeplechaser who loved motorbikes, and flying aeroplanes, gliders, gyroplanes anything. I remember once his utter confusion at listening in on a north London male encounter group talking on television about the traumas of marriage, work and children. He simply didn’t get it. After being shot down three times, being alive, being married, having children, were miraculous and unexpected gifts.
Abandoned, aged two, by his mother, he was shipped off to live with relatives in Canada. (An old photo, captioned “Barry’s first day”, shows him dressed in a boiler suit, a resolute little face, sucking a man’s pipe for a dummy.) He never complained about it or thought it worthy of analysis. Later, when he was in 56 Squadron, young pilots who talked about death, terror or remorse in the mess were fined and had their names entered in a book. God knows what a toll this took because, paradoxically, he was also a sensitive, dreamy kind of man who loved words and music. He’d longed to be a writer and was working as a trainee journalist on a Nottinghamshire paper before the war.
On the snowy night in question, he carried a plastic bucket that contained a few of these contradictions: a Marguerite Duras novel, a few bits of shaving tackle, whisky, some feathered flies left over from the last fishing trip and, at the bottom, a poem – not well typed and in a brown paper bag.
It was called The Summer of the Firebird. He’d been working on it for a year. It was 5,000 words long. Too long, probably, he mumbled shyly, but he was going to take it to the BBC, which was why he had arrived early.
I was frightened for him, imagining smart young men in interesting glasses, half-cut at their Christmas party, mocking him and rejecting him, an old man in his blue suit, with his poem in a bucket. It was all right for us to tease him, but not for other people.
“Are you sure the timing is spot on?” I asked him. “Wouldn’t it be better to post it?”
He said he’d rather go in person. “I’m too old to be humiliated,” he said, pulling one of the hammy faces that used to make us laugh when we were five.
He was right. At the BBC they handed him a drink, read the poem, and accepted it on the spot. A few months later Martin Jarvis read the poem on the BBC with Stravinsky’s Firebird playing at the beginning and end.
Listening to that poem was like ripping off a plaster and seeing a very deep and frightening wound. It describes in vivid detail a day when he was shot down, aged 22, in a Spitfire. His parachute had failed. He hung from a tree somewhere in Sussex and while a bird sang blithely in a tree nearby, he watched his fingers burn like candle wax, thinking of “the last slow kiss” of his adored young bride, Vicki, my mother; of the wretchedness of losing so many friends; the shame of finding in the wallet of a young German pilot he’d shot down two tickets to a theatre in Berlin.
Hours later and half dead, he was finally rescued. A year in hospital, drips, skin grafts, hands so burned he had to be fed for months, and then he was patched up and sent off to fly in Burma.
When I heard the poem, I cried tears of pride, mixed with tears of guilt and regret. Yes, of course, these were men who to some extent had been trained to ignore their emotions. And yes, it’s true that teasing, rather than “sharing”, was very much the lingua franca of our family, and jolly good fun it was sometimes. But why had I, a professional journalist at that time, never asked him properly about all this? Worse, I had not bothered to read the two books he’d had published during his year in hospital. That might have been a start.
Would a boy have taken more interest? Put on the leather flying jacket that hung in the back of the wardrobe for years before it went to the RAF museum; taken the medals out of their glass case and wanted to know their stories; pored over the logbooks? “To France with B flight. One HE 113 destroyed Thames estuary.” Would a boy have wanted to hear about the battles? Read the kind of books with him that might have connected with his passion for aeroplanes and made him feel more appreciated?
If loneliness is the absence of meaning, as well as the absence of people, had I left him high and dry?
My parents, with the cheerful disregard for child psychology common at that time, made no secret of the fact that I was supposed to be born a boy. They even had a name for me – Nicholas.
In retrospect, I’m grateful to have had this shadow boy in my life. He may have encouraged me to try to win my father’s respect by doing adventurous things.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the saddle in front of him as he galloped flat out down a field. (Terrifying and uncomfortable, I don’t recommend it.) He took my sister and me up in a Tiger Moth, trussed up like Biggles in leather helmets, shouting at him through the rubber pipe. But a boy would not have rolled his eyes when he tried to teach us the mechanics of the car engine. “You see, girls, it’s like two dinner plates going in opposite directions”, or begged us many times to go fishing with him. (My mother’s response was, “when you catch smoked salmon count me in”.) We refused point blank to learn to play chess.
Instead, we allowed him to reduce his war to a few funny anecdotes: chortling at the names of his Battle of Britain colleagues: Pricky Proud, Sheepy Lamb, Nobby Clarke, etc, or telling us about the time he took off in Rangoon and blew the turban off one of the ground staff.
And, of course, we teased him about being a typical man, “planned incompetence” was one of his phrases and, to be fair to us, he was – paradoxically for someone trained for disaster – hopelessly impractical. I’m thinking of the pea soup on the ceiling incident during a pressure cooker demonstration – or his fire-safety talk, during which smoke gently curled up the curtain behind him, ignited by the pipe in his right hand.
Oh, how the monstrous regiment of women roared at that. But even if we did let him down, how we loved him. In spite of all the suffering, and all the terror, he was such good fun – right up until the end. He would hate any handwringing now on his behalf.
On the day before he died, a district nurse came in, and said, “How are you feeling today, Group Captain Sutton?” and he made us smile when, skeletal and weak, he raised himself from the pillow and said with old school gallantry: “Never better, how are you?”
That night, in the tiny house my parents shared, close to the sea in Jersey, he asked my sister and me to sit with him on his bed. He wanted us to talk, to hear the sound of our voices. So we talked – about our jobs, our friends, our lives. At around 4am, running out of things to say, I asked what colour curtains my sister planned to hang in her room, at which a thin weary hand was raised. Fashion and home decoration were never going to grab him.
But the wounds, and the memories, remained. A few hours later, my sister, Caroline, recalled how he, “half asleep, and dreaming, looked towards the end of his bed as if he were seeing a wonderful and endless procession of people. He said simply and quietly: “Such fine men.”
And they were.
• Barry Sutton’s Fighter Boy is published by Amberley Press, £10.99. The Monsoon Summer by Julia Gregson is published by Orion