What on earth is a writer in residence?
I am the RAF Museum’s writer in residence.
So what’s that?
To be honest we are making it up as we go along. But that’s good. For instance, my first job was to write a story about First World War pilot Kevin Furniss.
Furniss was a pilot in 1917 and last year his family donated some of his possessions to the RAF Museum at Cosford. His flying jacket, his shaving gear, his Royal Flying Corps badges and a handful of letters he sent home from the war. These objects have been used by the museum as a focus for their First World War in the Air exhibition. And it really works. It makes the pilots more than faceless men who flew the planes that grace the museum.
But up close, the First World War aircraft that you can see at RAF Museum Cosford look not very different to a pile of artfully stuck-together wooden crates and children’s kites. Although the aeroplanes are amazing, how can we really get into the mind of a young man to climb inside one, take off and climb thousands of feet above a war zone, only a few years after men had learned to fly at all.
How do you write about that? How can we grasp it?
By going to a museum is one way.
If you see a man’s razor and the surprisingly heavy flying hat that he needed to wear. And if you read his letters to his dad, describing his first operation over the trenches – letters in which the pilot says some things, but misses so much more out – you start to get an idea what it might have been like for a nineteen-year-old boy to pilot a plane towards almost certain eventual death.
And that – sadly – is what happened to Second lieutenant Kevin Furniss. He managed two operations before he was shot down. He was only nineteen years old. One year out of Wolverhampton Grammar School.
I was proud to read A Boy from Wolverhampton at the launch of the First World War in the Air exhibition launch in January 2015 at RAF Museum Cosford. The contents of the story will probably be nothing like what really happened to Furniss, but, thanks to the materials, books and artefacts at RAF Museum Cosford, I will have come a little closer than I could have before.
The First World War in the Air exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and with support from BAE Systems.