The old gentleman quickly put me at ease when he enthusiastically discussed writing as if we were long-time colleagues comparing notes. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous phoning him, since he had a daunting pedigree – great-grandson of Timothy Eaton, founder of a mercantile empire, and son of Billy Bishop, Britain’s top WW1 flying Ace. But Arthur Bishop was down-to-earth and utterly charming, showing as much interest in my journey as a writer as I did in his.
Having just finished reading his engaging autobiography, Winged Combat: My Story as a Spitfire Pilot in WWII, I wish I had realized then that I would write a novel set during the Second World War (Book 4 in the Muskoka Series), because I would have had so many more questions for him.
Back in 2009 when we first talked, I was merely trying to gather facts about Billy Bishop and William Barker’s seaplane service from Toronto harbour to Muskoka in the early 1920s, which inspired scenes in Under the Moon.
Now I know that Arthur and his family spent summers at Ravenscrag – the cottage that Timothy Eaton built in 1896. It was close to Windermere (see last week’s blog), and Arthur enjoyed dating girls who holidayed at the hotel.
His family frequently interacted with famous people – Arthur’s godfather was Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and former Governor General of Canada, and his godmother was Princess Louise, cousin to Queen Mary. In 1941 the Bishops hosted British film star Anna Neagle and her director husband, Herbert Wilcox, at the cottage, much to everyone’s enjoyment.
Billy Bishop was an Air Marshal during WWII, so when he was in residence at Ravenscrag, his pennant was flown from the flagpole above the blue ensign. Arthur wrote, “… my father, never lacking in showmanship, had turned our place into a designated RCAF seaplane base.”
We spoke about what it was like growing up in the shadow of such a famous Canadian hero, something that Arthur addresses in his memoir. As the Montreal Gazette stated, “He has the greatest name in military aviation to live up to.” One of Arthur’s commanding officers in Britain reprimanded him for not reporting a faulty radio in his Spitfire, saying worriedly, “… you won’t hear me and you’ll be shot down. Then what’s old man Bishop going to say?” In her foreword to Arthur’s memoir, his daughter, Diana, writes about her grandfather, “… as youngsters, my brother and I thought it was pretty neat to have someone so famous in the family, and marvelled at how he ruled over us, larger than life, even in death.”
Arthur’s biography of his father, The Courage of Early Morning: The Story of Billy Bishop, is a riveting and honest account of a man he obviously loved and admired, but who is certainly not portrayed as a saint. I based a scene from it in Elusive Dawn, where my fictional Ace pilot meets Bishop in an officers’ mess, dancing atop a piano and pouring champagne into it.
Among Arthur’s many achievements was that of military historian, with several other books to his credit. He seemed genuinely delighted to read my first two Muskoka Novels, and I was thrilled with his review [paraphrased, with approval, from a conversation]:
"The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn are not only well written, suspenseful, and enjoyable, but also historically accurate. The amazing amount of research provides an excellent educational background on the Great War and on aviation. The writer obviously has a keen interest in and knowledge of the subject."
I feel privileged to have connected with Arthur Bishop, even if ever so briefly. He passed away in 2013 in his 90th year, having had an interesting life, well lived beyond the shadow of his illustrious father.
His tale helps me to chart the course for one of my characters, just as his father’s experiences generated historically accurate exploits for my WW1 aviators.
For more info about Billy Bishop and William Barker, see "Daredevils of the Skies". See a blog about Sir John and Lady Flora Eaton’s cottage on Lake Rosseau.