Did you know that in the early 1950s, airplanes were called air liners? Passengers who were embarking ascended the steps to the plane, were met at the door by the smiling Senior Hostess, who announced their name to those passengers already sitting inside. Like it was a cocktail party. The Chief Steward would escort the passenger and her furs to her seat, and fuss over them with offers of newspapers, sweets and a drink. The Junior Hostess, meanwhile, would be slaving in the tiny galley kitchen, sorting out the cocktail glasses and defrosting the canapes.
Later in the flight a six-course meal would be served to all thirty passengers. The plane would need to stop for refuelling on the long-haul routes, so the passengers could disembark or embark at all points in between London and Buenos Aires, or en route to Karachi. The pilots and cabin crew would have two-day breaks at Nassau before flying the return leg of the Bahamas route, and party madly.
I got this fascinating information from one of The Bodley Head’s didactic novels from the 1950s and early 1960s for young women thinking of taking up a career. Pamela Hawken seems to have written a few of these: Air Hostess Ann is the only one I’ve read, but if you do a browser search for her name and look at the images you’ll see more titles. I bought this one in the very good Kergord Hatchery Bookshop, Weisdale, Shetland.
It’s not a novel I could recommend for thrilling plot or literary merit. I found it fascinating for fossilised social commentary on how white middle-class Brits were expected to behave in that period. Fathers worked hard and gave their children a chance of an aspirational life by their own efforts. Mothers fussed and took a lot of persuading that a career for their daughters might not be social death, or the end of the world as they knew it. Young men who had known the heroine from school clearly expected her to settle down pronto and marry him, and stay in the same town forever. The one refreshing element in this parade of stereotypes is a sighting of modernity: the young woman halfway through her hostess training course at British World Airways’ Training School sees a plane’s lights passing overhead in the sky and instantly works out the route it’s on, wondering who will be on that shift in the cabin. Her escort at the party is forgotten, temporarily, until she remembers her manners and pays attention to him again.
The young women whose airline careers we follow are judged on their looks first, and their housewifely competence second. The really admirable hostesses are those who look superbly turned out and as glamorous as a Vogue cover. One of the interview panel runs the beauty school where stewardesses are trained how to be beautiful. Ann, our heroine, is a bit startled to be told at her interview that her responsibility to her crockery, and all the other plane stores for passenger use, is most important. She speaks fluent Spanish from her four years at school in Madrid. This is partly why she aces her interview to become an air hostess, but do we ever see her using this valuable skill? No: she is seen as being at her best when nursing an ill passenger or comforting upset children flying alone with stories about fairy dolls and tours of the galley. Her hostess training is all about hostessing, giving a perpetual dinner party to entitled passengers, and then tucking them up at night. The moment an emergency occurs (‘swarthy’ lady passenger runs amok in the cabin because she’s convinced the plane is on fire), Ann fails, because she doesn’t know how to stop her invading the cockpit.
This episode is presented as a potential professional blot in Ann’s career, but the reader is more perturbed by the social dimensions: Ann is being quite obviously chased by Junior Captain Alan somethingorother, and he is cross with Ann for not stopping the passenger invasion (fairly reasonably). Will this relationship endure? Alan did not begin well in this plot, as his second appearance was escorting Stephanie, the sloppy actress type who clearly had no interest in passing her hostessing exams. Then his car broke down and made Ann late for her shift. And he’s a bit pushy about not taking no for an answer in Nassau. On the other hand, he can fix the boiler in a crisis.
The other young women working with Ann – some of them share a house they call ‘The Chummery’, which I think says it all – are graduates of the girls’ school story of the period, relocated into what Pamela Hawken wanted her readers to think about becoming an air hostess. Marjorie is nervous and not self-confident; Pat jokes and teases; Sylvia goes to the wrong cafe and gets flirted with; Celia is the terrifying frosty one who later thaws because Ann is nice to her; Jean is the very nice and super-competent one who willingly stands down when she thinks she can’t give her best performance; Paula is a titled girl desperate for a career and nearly has a breakdown because of her mother’s resistance. The whole cast could have come from the Chalet School.
The novel is fine as social history, up to a point. It unnerved me because I had encountered these attitudes in the late 1970s, in my Girl Guides handbook which had very clearly not been updated for twenty years, and delivered the same instructions on how to look right at an interview (navy suit, gloves, a hat …). One of the modules I had to do for my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was endure a lecture and demonstration on how to wear makeup. (I gave up on the DofE pretty soon after that.) The Sex Discrimination Act was passed when I was in primary school, and trail-blazing Sarah Hook made sure that all girls in our school could thenceforth do woodwork because her mother was a serious feminist. But on looking now at the attitudes I encountered then through the lens of books like Air Hostess Ann, I can detect the tentacles of the patriarchy still clutching fiercely at us.