Monday, April 27, 2015

Arthur Bishop, Officer and Gentleman

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.
Ravenscrag (misspelled in photo), Lake Rosseau, Muskoka, 1910
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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Windermere House Muskoka

Windermere House, Lake Rosseau - copyright Melanie Wills
On the far, opposite shore of Lake Rosseau from Cleveland’s House (discussed last week) lies Windermere House. Originally of the same vintage, this popular hotel burned down in 1996 during the filming of a Hollywood movie. Unlike the dozens of other Muskoka resorts lost to fire, however, this one rose again from the ashes.

Windermere House, early 1900s - photo by Frank Micklethwaite
We stayed there before and after the fire, and marvelled at how accurately it had been rebuilt, with a few concessions to present times, like an elevator. Recently the interior has been altered, losing some of its Victorian charm.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cleveland's House Muskoka

Cleveland's House, Lake Rosseau - copyright Gabriele Wills
Here are some of the same islands as seen in last week’s photo, but from a different perspective – looking east instead of south. This is the waterfront at Cleveland’s House, the oldest surviving Muskoka resort.

Because 19th century settlers on these lakes discovered that their free land was mostly rock and not conducive to farming, they soon began renting out rooms to adventurers seeking a wilderness holiday. Many of the 100 inns and resorts that once populated the three large, interconnected lakes – Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph -  began as farmsteads, as did Cleveland’s House, founded by the Minett family in 1869. 

In my novel, Under the Moon, I loosely based the Seafords’ “Pineridge Inn” on Cleveland’s House, and located it where the Shamrock Lodge sits.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

98 Years Ago

Ghosts of Vimy Ridge - painting by Will Longstaff
Ninety-eight years ago today, 30,000 Canadian infantry shivered in the biting sleet of early dawn at Vimy Ridge in northern France. With another 70,000 troops in support roles behind them - the gunners, engineers, medics, cooks, and others - it meant that the entire Canadian Corps was there, together for the first time. And together they did what the British and French had failed to do during the previous two years, and never expected the Canadians to accomplish - they took that tactically important and heavily fortified Ridge from the Germans. They also helped to forge a nation. That scene is described in my novel, Elusive Dawn. [Read an excerpt at  The Age of Elegance Goes to War blog.]

In the months leading up to the battle, the Canadians had already had 9000 casualties. After the battle there were 10,000 more - a third of whom would never return home.

Author at Vimy Ridge Memorial - copyright Melanie Wills
This photo shows me at the impressive Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the 61,000 Canadians who died during the First World War. It was an appropriately bleak day in 2008 that I looked out over the Douai Plain, as had the victors that long-ago day, marveling at the feat they had accomplished, saddened by the many dead on both sides. It is almost beyond belief to see the stream of names carved into the memorial walls - over 11,000 who died in France with no known grave. Most of them so young.

Undetonated explosives 
 More than a million shells had pummelled this battlefield. Many still lie, unexploded, in the now-calm and green young woods that are reclaiming the pockmarked earth. But the thought sends a shiver through you, making you feel that the war didn’t happen almost a century ago. 

Tunnel at Vimy Ridge

Walking through the long, dank tunnels where troops had gathered before the battle, you can easily imagine what it must have been like for so many men, laden with their gear, anxious or fatalistic, crowded together as they awaited the dawn and an unknown future.

[This post was previously published on my Obsessed Writer blog.]

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lake Rosseau Muskoka

Lake Rosseau, Muskoka - copyright Gabriele Wills

OK, so I'm pining for summer, especially lakeside. This is one of my favourite Muskoka views, taken from the J.W. Marriott Resort on Lake Rosseau. Among these islands is the one that so impressed me as a teenager that it inspired my Muskoka Novels.

Interestingly, this is what it probably looked like 101 years ago during The Summer Before the Storm, as 19th century cottages still grace these rugged shores - among the many new luxury summer homes that carry on the tradition.