Royal Air Batley

Travel Talk

As a consequence of Tracy Brabin’s election as Mayor of West Yorkshire, a by-election is to take place in the Batley and Spen constituency, of which the Batley-born actress and writer was MP.

You knew that, of course. What you had no idea of knowing was that, on hearing the news, my thoughts turned to a trip I took some time in the mid-1970s. I think it was to Spain, but can’t be sure.

I was travelling with a BBC TV film crew and, during the course of the week, we created “Royal Air Batley”. It was the trip’s running joke.

It happens frequently, and I’m sure it’s happened to you.

There you are, on holiday with family and friends, or on a working trip with colleagues, and, early on, something tickles everyone’s fancy. It could be an encounter with a tour guide, a coach driver or a waiter. It could be a chance remark which has an unintended double meaning. Whatever it is, it acts as a catalyst for nonsense which lasts until it’s time to return home.

Usually the humour cannot be shared with anyone who wasn’t there. Indeed, trying to explain ends up with them totally failing to see the funny side of it. Which is fine, because the funny side of it was when you and your chums were having the joke, because it was part and parcel of the atmosphere you created during those days.

On this occasion, I’m pretty sure it was the sound recordist Robin Swain who started it, but have no idea what triggered the concept of an airline based in that splendid Yorkshire town, known for its Rugby League team, its Variety Club and its shoddy mills. (It also produced a Nobel Laureate, but most people don’t know that.)

But Batley was Robin’s choice and “Royal Air Batley” took form on that long-ago journey.

It was “Royal”, Robin explained, because it once had the honour of flying Prince Monolulu to Epsom for the Derby. (You have to be a certain age to know who Prince Monolulu was. I think most of you probably are.)

Other aspects of this unique airline – which we contributed as the trip went on – were that boarding could not take place until the youngest of the “air lasses” (which RAB insisted on calling its female employees) had finished donkey stoning the steps, and that the descent for a landing was conditional on the pilot putting the lids firmly on the chip fryers – the official announcement for this being “Pans to Automatic”.

The RAB fleet (converted Halifax bombers, naturally) offered two classes of travel, but whereas, in those days, other airlines had Economy and First Class, Yorkshire’s flag-carrier had Saloon and Snug.

Back in Saloon, its floor covered with scattered sawdust, its upright cane seats and its rows of pegs on which flat caps had to be hung before takeoff, the atmosphere was sometimes raucous, especially on the “Ferret Special” flights to weekend tournaments.

There, the air hostesses were large and severe ladies with a slight hint of facial hair and a temperament that stood no nonsense. They wore floral pinafores, dispensed tea from large brown teapots and told you to eat all your greens when “dishing up” – which other airlines called distributing the meal trays. Saloon class passengers crossed them at their peril.

It was a very different state of affairs in Snug class. Wide seats, designed to accommodate the ample frames of successful businessmen, were in uncut moquette and came complete with antimacassars. A complimentary watch chain-buffing service was offered.

The biggest difference, though, was the personnel employed “up front of t’curtain” (to use an RAB description). In contrast to their older (much older) and larger (ditto) sisters back in Saloon, the Snug Class girls were young and pleasant and (to use another RAB term) “comely lasses”.

Unlike Vera, Gladys or Phyllis back in Saloon, these nymphs were named Tiffany, Chantelle, or Tracy (sorry, Ms. Brabin). They were trained to fend off the attentions of passengers by the use of such phrases as: “Ooh, Mr. Arkwright, you are a one”, or “Now, Mr. Hardcastle, we’ll have none of that, if you don’t mind.” They were also proficient gigglers who took no offence.

Think of a Donald McGill seaside postcard come to life, and you have an idea of what the passengers and crew of Royal Air Batley looked like.

I imagine that whole nonsense is a concept completely beyond the comprehension of today’s “woke” folk, and, indeed, might well offend them. I feel sorry about that. Sorry for them.

Earlier, I said that trying to explain a running joke to someone who wasn’t there was more or less impossible. Well, I’ve tried and, for all I know, you might be thinking “what the devil was that all about?”

Maybe you really did have to be there to appreciate it. I was, and I appreciate it very much, even it was so very long ago. No, especially because it was so very long ago, because it also reminds me of a time when we travelled without giving it a second thought.

A time which, hopefully, will return soon.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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