Friday, 31 May 2013

Kristen’s Echat With... Charles Page

Kristen’s Echat With... Charles Page
Having come to writing late in life, and with no aviation experience, I am fascinated about the backgrounds of other writers in my chosen field. I have known Charles Page for a number of years. Firstly as a customer of Alexander Fax Booksellers, then as an author of two fine aviation books, then as a friend when we met for a wonderful chat and scone-filled morning tea, and finally as a writing colleague who is only too willing to offer advice on aviation technical matters and (unknowingly) inspiration in his organised writing practice. As with my first Echat With..., I am keen to discover something of the person behind the writer and so, as I did with Justin Sheedy, I bombarded Charles with a whole stack of personal and well as professional questions. Charles has been more than generous in opening up his personal history book and writing manual and it was a pleasure to Echat With... him.
Apart from his sense of humour, one thing became perfectly clear when I asked for the potted version of his life and passions: Charles has a well-rounded life. ‘As well as a happy family life’, he tells me, ‘I have been lucky enough to enjoy my three main passions—flying, travel and writing. All three are related, as the flying gave me travel, and then I wrote about the travel and flying. I have lived in the UK, South Africa, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, and visited many countries. You could say the world has been my oyster, but also the word has been my oyster.’ At Charles’ side, in both aeroplane and life, has been his wife, Liz. He ‘met Liz while we were both working at Hollywood Hospital, Perth. Our first “date” was church with her parents. On our second date I took her up in a Piper Colt, and she was my very first passenger. Years later, she became my passenger in the 747. We have been married for 45 years and have 3 children and 7 grandchildren’.
Charles’ co-pilot is Biggles, a handsome bewhiskered chap with, as his name attests, impeccable aviation credentials. Charles ‘recruited Biggles from the Cat Haven seven years ago. There were many kittens saying “please choose me” but when I picked up this little ball of ginger and white fur, he immediately began purring, and I couldn’t put him down. He has been a great co-pilot.’ Biggles has his own chair but Charles has to keep an eye out! ‘If I get up to make tea, he takes over my chair.’
That chair is in Charles’ dedicated writing place. (He is so lucky!). He has appropriated ‘the spare bedroom as a study. It has an ensuite, and huge cupboard space. There are two large bookcases and one smaller one. There is a TV, DVD/Video, and a CD/tape/record player. The six drawer desk has ample space for computer, flat screen, and multi function printer. Most of the files I need for writing the book are within easy reach. My study is a cosy place to write, with aircraft pictures and models, a library of about 500 books, Biggles purring away, and maybe a Glen Miller CD to keep me In the Mood.’ I would be in the mood too, if I had an office like that. And not just because Glen Miller, one of my musical fave raves, was on the turntable. Not since dear Tigi, have I had a cat who will ‘work’ in the office. Millie just passes through, and although Cordelia would sit on my lap, well, nice and cosy as it is, who can work with a great furry lump on their lap!
In an office full of books, Charles is obviously a reader as well as a writer. And like any true reader, he has difficulty pinning down just one book as a favourite. It all depends on mood, time and place! Charles confesses to ‘about a dozen favourite books, but if forced to choose’ (and I will concede this is not an easy task, but I kept pushing for his favourite) ‘I would say Fate is the Hunter by Ernest Gann. This book describes his DC-3 flying in the Americas back in the 30s and 40s. His writing is both eloquent and exciting. In 1967 I was charter pilot in Wyndham, awaiting my DC-3 course with MacRobertson Miller Airlines. Liz saw the book in Alberts, Perth, and sent it up. Then last year, a friend in Queensland sent me another copy. He had been given the book by an American friend, who was buying it in a second hand bookshop, when he felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Ernest Gann, and he signed the book for him. So now I have two, and they are both highly treasured.’ They are indeed. When I asked Charles for some photos of his office and bookshelves, there they were, among the half a dozen or so shots he sent me.
Charles has a number of pilot authors who he greatly admires and reads and rereads. Some of his favourite pilot-as-author (or author-as-pilot) books are ‘The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, Going Solo by Roald Dahl, A Gift of Wings by Richard Bach, The Big Show by Pierre Clostermann, Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis, and the wonderful books of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, including Night Flight, Wind Sand and Stars, and Flight to Arras.’ I haven’t read Clostermann or Bach (guess I have to now with this example!) and have been turned off de Saint-Exupery since being forced to study Le Petit Prince (in French) at school. This is a terrible bias that does him a disservice, I know and I plan to overcome it soon. I have a beautiful Folio edition of Wind Sand and Stars, sitting next to the Folio edition of Sagittarius Rising that I am saving for a quiet break in my all-too-crowded reading schedule. But you are not interested in my book collection. ‘Another gem’ in Charles’ collection is ‘a 1944 copy of God is My Co-pilot by Colonel Robert L. Scott, who commanded the Flying Tigers fighter force under General Claire Chennault. It is a well worn hard copy, but it has been signed by the author when he was in China in 1945.’ A gem indeed.
True readers are never satisfied with what they already have on the shelves. Naturally, Charles is already working on what he will add next to his collection, either from a visit to his favourite book shop or through transferring something from the reading pile to his aviation library. He is ‘presently reading Spitfire Pilot by Roger Hall DFC, originally published as Clouds of Fear. This is a beautifully written book that reveals the author’s innermost thoughts. In the holding pattern I have Lancaster Men by Peter Rees, Air Disaster Canberra by Andrew Tink, and several other WWII flying books’. He is also ‘awaiting Australian Eagles by Kristen Alexander’ (serious brownie points have been earned here!) ‘and Ghosts of the Empire by Justin Sheedy. And Charles is not just a print book reader. He recently fired up Liz’s Kindle to add Owen Zupp’s 50 Tales of Flight to his ebook shelves.

Charles mentioned that he has a TV, DVD/Video in his office so, naturally, being overly fond of a good movie and TV series, I asked him what he would buy with a gift voucher for the world’s biggest DVD shop that stocks every film, TV series, doco, one off special ever made. His ‘first choice would be Doctor Zhivago, for the wonderful story, acting and musical score, but also because it was the first movie I took my wife to, in 1966. I still have the movie tickets, which have travelled all over the world in my flight bag. The other movies would be Casablanca, Reach for the Sky, The Dambusters, The African Queen, and Memphis Belle for its flying, musical score, and unabashed nostalgia.’ Charles is obviously a true romantic and a man of impeccable movie taste. More than a handful of those are in my movie library! I would have no probs curling up with the popcorn on Movie Night with Charles and Liz!
Charles has a full life with good books and movies, family, charity, writers’ group (this is largely a fiction based group but he has learned much from his writing friends; they have ‘some useful discussions on etechnology and publishing’ and swap pages to read and comment on) social activities, travel, research and writing. It is obvious that he has found what many strive for and most (including myself) fail to achieve: balance. Given I always seem to have too many things on my plate, I wondered how Charles maintains this. ‘My system for achieving a balanced lifestyle is to be realistic’, Charles tell me. ‘I count on 20 days per month for writing’. On these days, he focuses on his current manuscript. ‘I have a daily and monthly target, but when I have my minimum of 300 words per day, I can either carry on writing, or do research, or write an article, or family history.’ Such discipline! I wish I had it. ‘The other days are taken up with aviation groups and lunch with Liz’. Those lunches are one of Charles’ favourite ways to relax, particularly long ones at ‘Conti’s, Oscar’s, or Sitella’s’, accompanied ‘a good Margaret River Chardonnay’. Perfect for Perth’s brilliant, hot summers.
Weekends are just as full as week days and are split between family in the afternoon and volunteer work in the morning. Charles helps out with his local council as well as doing ‘volunteer maintenance on City of Joondalup infrastructure e.g. painting, cleanups’. He also helps out at a ‘local shopping centre. It’s good exercise which I would not otherwise get, and we get invited to a lot of functions’. Volunteer work is important to Charles because it is a way he can ‘put something back into my adopted country’. Adopted country? Oh yes. After a particularly cold winter in Britain, the coldest since 1740, where water pipes froze and he had to trudge through snow to reach the tube station to catch a train to work (as a ledger clerk at William Reed Publishers), Charles followed the lead of a friend and applied for an assisted passage to Australia. Charles is/was a £10 pom, arriving in March 1963.

They always say to write about what you know, and Charles knows about flying. When he was six years old, his uncle sat him in the cockpit of a Spitfire at Durban airport, South Africa. That was the beginning of an almost life-long love affair.

‘I thought’, recalled Charles, ‘ “Wow this is the best toy ever”. I had caught the flying bug’. Charles wanted more of this great big toy. His ‘first flight as a passenger was in an Avro Anson over the City of London in 1957’. It wasn’t long before he switched from passenger to pilot, albeit one with the aerial equivalent to an L plate. ‘My first flight at the controls was in a De Havilland Chipmunk with the Air Training Corps in 1958.’
Charles continued to fly the Chipmunk with the Air Training Corps. It was ‘a lovely aeroplane to fly. It was known as the “Chippy”, which was coincidentally my nickname. It was sweet to handle, fully aerobatic, and often referred to as “the poor man’s Spitfire”. I went solo in eight hours, and shouted drinks in the club bar that evening’. He loved the little Chipmunk but even so, he would ‘look enviously across the airfield at a Mosquito squadron. As an air cadet, I was offered a flight provided I got a “blood chit” from my parents. As we took off, the awesome power of the two Merlins sent shivers down my spine. We flew for four hours, along the coast to the White Cliffs of Dover and out over the English Channel. On return, we screamed down the runway, did a fighter break and crossed the fence at 110 knots. Bragging rights and drinks in the club bar afterwards.’

But back to reality, and the Chipmunk which provided him with a good complement of memorable flights. One was cross country ‘to Bristol, then down to Plymouth, and along the scenic Devon coast back to Exeter. As I flew into the circuit area, the setting sun tinted the high cirrus clouds a delicate salmon pink. It was a magical time to be flying, and I lingered around the circuit, before making a three pointer landing, with the wheels gently rustling the grass. When I shut down the engine there was complete silence. I slid back the canopy, and just sat there awhile, taking it all in. The bar could wait.’ I think from this reminiscence you can see why Charles is a writer!)
Charles completed his Private Pilot Course at Exeter and the sky was his. But he did not always have to solo. ‘I was lucky to have a mentor in my grandmother, who was a private pilot in New Zealand, and flew with Charles Kingsford Smith in the Southern Cross. My other mentor was my CO in the air cadets, Flight Lieutenant Len Pearce, who was a Halifax flight engineer in WWII. I have kept in touch with him ever since, and visited him many times in UK.’
Charles made the leap from a private licence to a commercial one after he arrived in Australia. ‘I wanted to see the world as well as fly, and the best way was to fly the big jets like the 707 and the 747 on international routes’. First off, he flew DC-3s with MacRobertson Miller Airlines. After his course was retrenched in 1968 he moved to Canada and joined Pacific Western Airlines. There he flew the DC-6 before moving up to the 707 in 1972. Seven years later, he and the family were on their way to Hong Kong, to join Cathay Pacific. He retired in 1995 and returned to Perth.
And then he started writing, which of course is my cue to ask about Charles’ writing ‘spark’. What made him first pick up that pen and weave words into a story. Charles believes that ‘the urge to write is in my DNA, but I was lucky, in that I had an adventurous early childhood. I was born in London during WWII, and in 1946 sailed out with my family to Durban, South Africa. We lived near the majestic Drakensberg Mountains, and enjoyed an idyllic few years. We sailed back to England in December 1949 aboard the Capetown Castle, calling at Capetown and Madeira, before docking in Southampton. I was so excited with all our adventures, I felt compelled to write them down. I am not sure if I was pessimistic or precocious, but at the age of eight I wrote my first ‘book’, entitled The Story of my Life. It was eight pages long, section sewn, and fully illustrated.’ I reckon the sequel would be a lot more than eight pages long! 

I am always curious about a writer’s first published piece. Charles’ ‘was a 5,000 word article about flying in Africa, and it was published in a Canadian aviation magazine in 1977’. So, he had started long before settling down to a literary retirement but in a way, this article heralded plans for post-work writing when ‘I took a travel writing course, fully intending to write travel articles and books.’ Of course, well laid plans of mice and Charles... because, ‘when I returned from an overseas holiday, I saw an ad in a month old writers’ magazine asking for someone to write the story of a Vengeance dive bomber that crashed in the West Australian wheat belt. This crash occurred in 1944 in the Shire of Yilgarn, and they wanted the crash and search written up. I had to present before the Shire Council at Southern Cross, and after a few days I was surprised to hear I had been given the assignment. I think it was because I had flying experience and had written some articles.’ The next thing you know, Charles was researching his first book, Vengeance of the Outback. A Wartime Air Mystery of Western Australia.

Quite often, restrictions are placed on the author of a commissioned work. Charles was fortunate in that ‘the only thing they asked for was to put in the names of all the locals who had taken part in the search. They also put me in touch with schoolteacher John Parker, who had collected much research, and was a great help. Otherwise, I had free rein to research and write the book.’ It was a great experience for Charles because, not only was he the author, but he played a significant part in the production process, not an easy task for your first full length writing project. He ‘had all the publisher duties of selecting and working closely with the editor, book designer and printer. I organised every stage, and was at the printers when the first book came down the chute. The whole exercise was a great learning experience.’ And at the end, ‘I took some [of the books] home in my car, savouring the new book smell all the way’.
Returning to the theme of writing about what you know, I was interested to discover what Charles brings from his former career as a pilot to his aviation writing. He believes that he has brought ‘all that I have learned over the years, through studying as well as actual flying. It’s basically there in your mind, and comes naturally in your writing. This makes your writing credible’. Given that Charles can enter the mindset of his subjects through sharing their experience of flight, I wondered how, when he has finished writing for the day, he comes out of the ‘headspace’ of 70 odd years ago and return to the ‘real world’ of today. ‘As a “war baby” I grew up in the shadow of WWII, and as kids we inspected all the local bomb sites, and devoured all the war films, books and magazines that came out. We were so close to the war that I think that era stays with you, so for me it is completely seamless.’
That personal affinity with the era he writes about is evident. Taking this introspection further, I asked Charles about his personal book philosophy. ‘My genre is non-fiction aviation, particularly WWII. I like non-fiction because there are so many stories that need preserving, that might otherwise be lost forever. With non-fiction you don’t have a believability problem, and you can put in all the extraordinary incidents and coincidences. Of course, fiction has its advantages as well. To me, writing an article or book is like going on an adventure. As I journey around Australia and overseas, I visit war cemeteries, wartime airfields, crash sites in the jungle, and I am often out of my comfort zone. After the field research, I visit the museums, libraries and archives, and interview veterans and relatives. After all that, I am ready to write. In writing non-fiction, my aim is to enjoy the research, write with integrity, and make the story as accessible as possible, without losing important information. I guess it’s a balance between educating and entertaining.’
Charles has brought more than just his love of and great wealth of flight experience to his writing practice. He seems to be a bit of a bower bird, picking up all sorts of practical hints along the way. For example, ‘the most useful thing I learned in grammar school English was précis, and I think this has helped with rewriting and editing. However, I learned more about writing from my History classes, as we had to write 12 page essays every weekend. My History teacher, Frank Hopton, was a brilliant, charismatic man, who had been a navigator on Lancasters, and flew 30 missions. I visited with him two years ago, and gave him a signed copy of Wings of Destiny. I think he was pleased to see a former pupil write history, and especially WWII.’

And that takes us neatly to Charles’ second book, the biography of Charles Learmonth. I asked him how he came to this story. ‘The name Potshot, in Exmouth Gulf, came up in the Vengeance book, and I was curious as to why it was changed to Learmonth. About that time, the Maritime Museum thought they had found Charles Learmonth’s crashed Beaufort underwater. I then interviewed his widow, and realised there was a good story there. Just then, Edith Cowan University advertised a course in biography, and that we would be expected to write a 6,000 word article. Well I wasted a whole day trying to find the classroom, only to find the course had been cancelled. I was so incensed, I decided to write the Learmonth biography anyway, and it grew from 6,000 words to 120,000 words, and I had the book, Wings of Destiny.’
Perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of writing that book for Charles was ‘meeting all the veterans and hearing their stories, making new friends, visiting the Learmonth home “Carramar”, and New Guinea where much of the action took place. Then having a great publisher, getting good reviews, and having it recommended by the Chief of Air Force.’ An aviation writer can’t ask for better than that. Or any writer for that matter (though I am yet to hear of a crime writer recommended by the CAF!).
With two well received books in the bag, and on my bookshelf, I am naturally interested in Charles’ next project. ‘I am about half way through the first draft of The Kimberley Triangle. This non-fiction story describes a Tiger Moth forced landing, and a B25 Mitchell bomber ditching in 1945, and how their stories became entwined. The large number of incidents and accidents in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are brought into the story, as well as relevant aspects of the Kimberleys, and how the missionaries played a large part in search and rescue. It is a story of unbelievable coincidences, survival against the odds, and a ditched B25 with a rich cargo, guarded by raging currents and crocodiles. In my field research I have flown over and photographed the area at low level. I plan on another flight and possibly a search for the B25.’ But this fascinating story is not the only project Charles is working on. His ‘other project is a search for the Boston bomber of Bill Newton VC. Together with my colleague, who has a boat and sidescan sonar, we hope to find the aircraft off Salamaua, Papua New Guinea. We have the search area down to about two square miles. Since the aircraft ditched, rather than crashed, it should be reasonably intact. We are awaiting delivery of a new boat, and for good weather and calm seas. I have also been given a memorial plaque to lower down to the Boston. This project should lend itself to a TV documentary, article, and possibly a book if the Boston is found.’
I mentioned earlier that Charles has been generous in offering me assistance and advice (even if he might not know it all the time!) and so I asked him about the best writing advice he ever received. It ‘came from a safari guide in South Africa, who said, “When a lion is charging at you, put up some lead in the air.” So for writing, that means put up some words, even if your aim isn’t good. By some magical process the writing takes on a life of its own, and before you know it, you have written a book.’ Charles is proof of this. 300 words, 20 days a month is all you need. And before you know it, you’ve notched up 6,000 words. You can have a decent sized first draft in 10 months. Bu, the underlying lesson is, you have to be diligent. Charles is and it has paid off. As I put together my notes for our Echat With..., Charles sent me a note to announce he has already reached his May target of 35,000 words. But he is not taking a break, he is now doing some research as well as powering towards his June target.
Apart from this obvious example of sound writing practice, I asked Charles what specific advice he would pass on to someone just starting out. ‘Read a lot’, Charles says. ‘Join a writers’ group, go to workshops and tutorials, write short stories or articles, and enter competitions. Find your own voice, and be passionate about your writing. Then when you have honed your writing, find your niche in the writing world.’
Charles has certainly found his niche but even so, it is a changing world. But that does not mean we have to stand still as it changes around us. Charles sensibly advises that ‘we have to keep pace with technology, and learn all the new tricks. Publishers will expect us to have blogs and even websites, and promote our books. I hope that physical books survive along with ebooks. I think there is a place for both’. Charles is well on the way to implementing his own technology strategy. He is already facebooking and you can connect with him at (make sure you get the address right. There is another Charles R Page out there!).

He has added ebooks to his personal elibrary and Wings of Destiny is currently available as an ebook from Amazon. But he won’t stop there. ‘After I finish the first draft of KT around September this year, I will be doing more field research, and that’s when I hope to get into blogs, and later a [personal] website when the manuscript is finished. Meanwhile I am learning more about blogs, websites, ereaders, epublication, marketing etc.’
If you haven’t read Charles’ books, it is about time you did! There is nothing better than seeing how an author applies his or her own words of wisdom. Vengeance of the Outback has recently been reprinted and can be ordered from Shire of Yilgarn, PO Box 86, Antares Street, Southern Cross, WA, 6426, for $39.00 including postage, payable by cheque to Shire of Yilgarn, or tel (08) 90491001 with cc details. Wings of Destiny is out of print, but the ebook is available for $14.99 at
I am delighted Charles Page agreed to be the subject of my second Echat With... I have learned much about his writing practice and I hope others do, too. Next month I Echat With... Owen Zupp, commercial pilot and author of Squadron Leader Kenneth Butterworth McGlashan’s biography, Down to Earth. A fighter pilot’s experiences of surviving Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Dieppe and D-Day and the aforementioned 50 Flying Tales.

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