Today, 11th January is the anniversary of the birth of Neville Duke. “Now who the hell is Neville Duke?” you will probably be asking. Well, when I was about 12, he was the hero of my childhood. He was born in 1922 and in June 1940, at the age of 18, he joined the Royal Air Force, became a fighter pilot and shot down at least 27 aircraft. He was shot down himself three times, the last being in June 1944, when he sheltered with the Italian partisans until the U.S. troops arrived.
He returned to the United Kingdom in 1945 and became a test pilot for Hawker, advancing to Chief Test Pilot in 1951 and in 1953 he set up a new world air speed record of 727.63 mph in a Hawker Hunter. In the same year he wrote his autobiography, “Test Pilot” in which he recounted in detail his war experiences. I was twelve and had recently fallen in love with aeroplanes having sat in the cockpit of a De Havilland Chipmunk with my uncle who was a flying instructor and who had also been a fighter pilot during the war. After reading Neville Duke’s autobiography it was clear to me what I was going to be when I grew up. I wasn’t going to be a famous cricketer like my previous hero, Len Hutton, I would be a pilot and I secretly hoped for another world war to start when I was 18 so that I could become a fighter pilot and shoot down even more enemy aircraft than Neville Duke. It never crossed my mind that I could quite easily be shot down myself on my first sortie.
I was saved from this fate two years later by a call from God to become a priest, and my hero became the Reverend Brackley, the curate at Fordingbridge Church. This passion lasted for another two years, when I fell in love with school and decided to be a teacher – until I fell in love with the theatre – and the rest is history!
Neville Duke died in 2007, aged 85. He was flying his private aircraft with his wife as passenger and became ill. He landed safely at a nearby airfield and was taken to hospital, suffering from an aneurysm, and died that same evening.
January 11th is also the anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy, one of my favourite novelists and poets , and the only one of whom I can say that I have read all his novels, 17 of them, plus a collection of short stories. I am particularly attracted to them as most of them take place in my part of England, Dorset, the neighbouring county to my native Hampshire.
When he died, his family and friends wished to respect his last wish, which was to be buried alongside his first wife, Emma, at Stinsford, in Dorset. However, his executor, Sir Sydney Cockerell, insisted that he be placed in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. A compromise was reached whereby his heart was buried at Stinsford with Emma, and his ashes in Poets` Corner.
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