I wish I had gone to see Terence Rattigan's play about the RAF, Flare Path, whilst it was on at the Bristol Old Vic earlier this year. There is talk of it going into the West End, where it would fit the revived interest in traditional theatre.
One of my half-uncles was air-gunnery officer Rattigan's commanding officer in West Africa during the writing of the last part of the play. Rattigan worked with a monkey on his lap (from the tree opposite) and overlooked by curious and unsober airmen.
Squadron Leader Billy Filson-Young brought the manuscript to London and touted it round the theatrical companies of the West End in January 1942. Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont put it on to huge success at the Apollo that July. In 1945, some of the Flare Path material was reworked for Anthony "Puffin" Asquith's The Way To the Stars.
Billy was no stranger to artistic people of every sort. His mother was a stylish socialite, painter and poet*, and his father - the second of her three husbands - was the musician, war correspondent, editor of the Saturday Review and novelist, Filson Young. In 1942 Billy enjoyed a pub lunch with Puffin Asquith who was "very nice" but "peculiar". That was in a round of dinners and lunches at the Savoy, Grosvenor House and the Cafe Royal. There were shows and dancing at the Gargoyle Club (which I used to go to in the Eighties when it was a strip joint and alternative comedy venue).
Billy's mother noted that he was drinking too much, but was in love, which softened him. He was, after all, a warrior, flying on active service from the start of the war.
He fought on until 15 May, 1945 when a Japanese gunner shot him down in a fireball in Burma. He had flown 255 sorties, won a DFC and bar, been admired by his men and read a book or two a week. By the end he was a very tired and very determined man. He had heard in August 1942 that his younger brother Richard had been killed whilst flying over the Egyptian desert in his Hurricane. It had been his second operational flight. In August 1943, Billy shot down a German flying boat, "with at least six Huns on board". That "evened up the score a bit on Richard's behalf", he wrote to his mother.
Billy was 25 when he died, and Richard 21. It is wonderful to have nearly every letter they wrote to their mother and many of hers to them, to have their baby books, to have talked to the girl Billy died loving, to have my father's correspondence with people who flew with them.
I did once consider writing about their lives at length, and might still do it. But the impertinence of it worries me. I know a lot about Billy, but too little. Billy was very young and had led a service life after public school and had brushes with both bohemia and a rather grand circle. Would he have voted Labour or Conservative in July 1945? I know that's not the be all and end all of a man's attitude, but it's a fair proxy for some ticklish questions that arise as I rifle through the two battered suitcases which contain what I know of my half-uncles' lives.
Suppose Billy's commands had led him to a certain young Blimpishness and severity as well as to an appetite for boozy camaraderie? Was that - so to speak - his real nature, or the result of fighting a war? Who would he have grown into? And Richard, more obviously a sensitive soul: what would he be like now, as a man of 74?
Even in the fighting of the war, the English remained, as A J P Taylor put it: "a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient and generous". That is how I find them now, and feel that what I really owe Billy and Richard is to do better than I now do in the business of helping to keep it so.
*Vera Bax wrote three sonnets: 'To Richard, My Son'; 'To Billy, My Son' and 'The Fallen' (VJ Day, August 15, 1945), to be found in the anthology Chaos of the Night,
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies