The BIG Interview with Helen Balkwill

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

“Telling the story of the Boy from the Moor”

Almost a year ago today, on 28th November, 2019, Helen Balkwill launched her debut book. A work of some 20 years in the researching and writing, it is a biography of her father, Peter Balkwill.

This book paints a fascinating picture of life in 1960s Yemen, once a minor outpost of the old British Empire. The core story is about the unusual life and ultimately mysterious disappearance of Peter in Aden, Yemen, in December 1969.

The book also describes the author’s own life as a young girl being brought up in a far-flung territory and in an era very different from our own. Peter led a very unusual and interesting life, which, at its end, left the family with a mystery. That mystery is the central part of a book that is at once intriguing and interesting.

Peter’s life is fascinating whether it be his friends and relatives; his career as an aircraft engineer in the emerging, exciting years of aviation in the last century; his national service in Egypt and his courtship of Helen’s mother, Joan.

I started off by asking Helen about what it was like to grow up in such a far-flung place – a new republic, following a hasty British withdrawal in November 1967 from the former colony – which few British families can say they have experienced.

The Balkwills and just a few other British families had stayed behind to assist with the running of a new air force for the new country that had become the People’s Republic of South Yemen (PRSY), set up by the British in the months running up to independence.

“It was a chaotic and turbulent time and families had to have bags packed at all times in case they had to leave in a hurry. Nevertheless, I attended a convent school in Aden and our family tried to live as normal a life as possible.”

Helen’s book beautifully captures in engrossing and vivid style her time in Aden, including about three re-visits she made to the country in the 1990s, despite the fact that it had become a difficult destination to travel to.

Perhaps most interesting of all about Helen’s book to Moorlander readers however, is that Peter Balkwill was a Hatherleigh boy, born and bred. The clue is in the book’s title: Boy from the Moor. The opening two chapters as well as the final one revolve around Peter’s roots and his life growing up an only child with his parents Sam and Margaret, surrounded by his doting aunts in this Devon town from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“The story of those years, which I tell via countless hours of interviews with people who knew and loved Peter, is alive with tales of Peter’s exploits.

‘A particular favourite of mine is an account of him arriving very late to join his friends at a 1950s dance hall in Okehampton, soaking wet and muddy.

‘In keeping with his maverick character, he had insisted on foregoing a lift with them to drive on his own in his parents’ vintage Austin car, which was so old that it had to be started with a crank handle. Predictably the temperamental old car broke down shortly outside of Hatherleigh, leaving Peter with no option but to have to tramp darkened, rain sodden moorland lanes all the way to Okehampton.

‘But he arrived grinning and looking for his friends and his pint. That was Peter Balkwill – always smiling, although never liking to be the centre of attention. Often doing things alone, he was nevertheless a social person. He liked to drop in on people. He liked to drink, but you never saw him drunk. Peter never altered.”

The friend of Peter’s that told Helen that story finished his anecdote on a more sombre note: “Shame he disappeared like that in the Middle East.”
National service took Peter abroad for the first time, to Egypt, then peripatetic aircraft work around the UK, as well as in North Africa followed – all of which episodes have also been researched and well documented and illustrated in the book by Helen.

“Marrying a girl that he met on the other side of the country in Cambridge in 1956, and fulfilling a dream of going to live with her in the Middle East, Peter never lived again in Hatherleigh.”

Helen said that one of her interviewees who had worked with Peter in Sudan in the early 1960s commented that: “He had loved the wide open spaces of North Africa – particularly the cotton fields in Sudan, where he worked on crop dusting aircraft that swooped low in the sky, spraying vast tracts of the cotton below, and that they reminded him of his life as an only child roaming the moor at Hatherleigh. He was a freedom loving and adventurous man.”

Peter would, nevertheless, return to his Devon homeland for annual family holidays during what were to be the final years of his life. These occasions Helen remembers very well, even though she was a young girl at the time. Having until then lived in the very different environments of both the Middle East and fenland Cambridge, Devon and her extended family were fascinating to her – the dramatic landscape, the distinctive thatched, cob walled houses and the unusual accents and very different traditions.
The book ends in Hatherleigh in 2017 with a symbolic visit.

Helen, along with her daughter – the granddaughter that Peter never met – returns to the place where the story had begun, putting to bed the long search to find out about her somewhat elusive father and what had happened to him.

This visit had come at the time that Helen was setting out to write the book that she would come to title Boy from the Moor and she drew massive inspiration from being in those surroundings for her writing.

“I have never lived in Devon myself, but nevertheless I feel the strong affinity for my father’s roots in the area. The Balkwills and the people of Hatherleigh have been good to me always.

‘In January 2020, on the back of the euphoric wave of my pre-Christmas book launch, immediately followed by the seasonal holiday, I travelled from my home in London to give a talk about Boy from the Moor to the Hatherleigh History Society. I wanted to be sure that Peter’s hometown, and birthplace of her story, would be the very first of a series of venues for such presentations to special interest groups around the country.

‘With Storm Brendan barreling in from the west onto Hatherleigh, the night of the talk turned out to be an intensely blustery one. There were fears that many of the locals – particularly those living out on the moor – would not be able to make it to The Old Schools, in the town’s Market Square for the event.

‘However, I was in for a very nice surprise when we arrived to
find a good-sized audience waiting in the warm and brightly lit hall. A book signing afterwards was particularly rewarding, bringing forth as it did, many people keen to share with her their stories of my father, his parents and the wider Balkwill family from back in the day. As there is no longer any family in the town, and almost all relatives are now long dead, these memories were priceless to me.

‘Most special of all was a meeting with one of my father’s close boyhood friends, a man by then in his nineties, who I had previously interviewed by telephone and whose reminiscences I had used in the closing paragraphs of Boy from the Moor.

‘It was a rewarding evening, as well as an emotional one. Captivating for me to be at the heart of my father’s hometown, surrounded by the moorland of that wild and windy night – the kind of atmospheric backdrop that I had always pictured in my romantic imagination as being that of my father’s childhood, and which was now the setting of the bringing home by me of his exciting, mysterious and ultimately tragic story.”

Unfortunately, only just a month after Helen’s Hatherleigh presentation, the UK went into its first COVID-19 lockdown. Other Boy from the Moor events, following on from that first Hatherleigh History Society appearance that Helen had worked hard to set up for 2020, as well as arrangements for the sale the book, were instantly and entirely cancelled.

Such has been the enduring appeal of Peter’s story however – its settings, characters, historical and political detail and the mystery that engulfs it all – that early promotional work that had paved the way for Boy from the Moor seems to have paid off, and the book has been in slow but steady and continuing demand from the outset, usually being ordered online.

It is a high production book, with carefully selected illustrations that make it a book to treasure as well as enjoy. Miraculously, for such a transient personality, Peter had left behind a wealth of photographs and memorabilia, which Helen was able to draw on for inclusion in the book. In particular there are some evocative photos of family life in Hatherleigh dating back to the early years of the 20th Century.

Helen is in no doubt that the fascinating but mysterious tale of her Hatherleigh-born father, Peter Balkwill, the Boy from the Moor, is one that will live on and interest and entertain people for years to come. Early reviews of the book have supported that belief.

I finished off our interview by asking Helen to tell me a bit more about the life of her father, and his disappearance, that she so vividly captures in her book:

“Following national service in Egypt, Peter worked in a range of jobs in aviation at airfields around the country until he settled to the industry of aerial crop spraying. From approximately 1950 until 1955 he was based in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, spraying crops during the summer time there, then flying in long journeys punctuated by stops in places such as Le Touquet, Cannes, Rome, Sardinia and Tunis, the little light crop dusting aircraft down to the south of Khartoum in Sudan to spend the British winter time spraying the cotton fields down there.

‘Following his marriage to Joan in Cambridge in 1956, Peter took a job as a ground engineer with Sudan Airways at Khartoum Airport where the couple made their first home in an old colonial villa on the outskirts of the city and spent five happy years enjoying the good life there. Their two children were born during this period.

‘On termination of all contracts with the British by the Sudanese government in 1966, our family left Khartoum, going to live temporarily in a house that Peter had bought in Cambridge, whilst he went on to work on a new contract in Aden; which at the time was heading towards its independence from Britain. Peter had been seconded there by British firm Airwork to help in the setting up of an air force by the departing British for what would become the new country of the People’s Republic of South Yemen.

‘We joined him immediately following independence on 30th November, 1967, and so began the last tumultuous couple of years of my dad’s life, spent amid the chaos and violence of the first years of independence in the PRSY.

‘He died in a mysterious accident on December 21st, 1969, in Aden. Despite my best efforts to locate it, his grave in Aden has never been found.”

Like many boys of his generation Peter was an aircraft fanatic. Unlike most of them though, he pursued his dream and made a life in aviation a reality with his training as an aircraft fitter. He was also an adventurer and a traveller, managing to also bring these two passions into his life by combining them with his career. By all accounts he was a very methodical person who took detailed interest in the hobbies in his life, such as jazz music and horse racing. He was a snappy dresser and was always ahead of the curve when it came to fashion and popular culture. Peter was a lover of the Middle East and could speak fluent Arabic.

Through Helen’s writing in Boy from the Moor, we get to relive Peter’s story in such detail, it’s like we are living it with him for the first time.

ABOUT HELEN: Born in her mother’s home city of Cambridge in 1961, Helen Balkwill spent her childhood in the Middle East: in Sudan and Aden, Yemen. On the sudden death of her father in 1969, the family returned to Cambridge.

Helen then went to boarding school, finishing her education studying for secretarial qualifications back in Cambridge. Employment followed in a number of jobs as varied as museum telephonist, hotel receptionist, shop manageress and civilian work for the CID. The idea being to fit her work around a travel schedule that would satisfy the wanderlust she had developed as a result of her early years abroad. After marrying she settled on the UK south coast to raise her children, whilst working in property renovation.

During those years she began researching her father’s
mysterious death and attended writing courses. Now based in London, Helen is travelling again, particularly in the West Indies, discovering the cultures and histories of the islands, whilst enjoying the sunshine and kind of lifestyle reminiscent of her childhood in the Middle East. When not travelling or keeping house in London, Helen enjoys fitness classes, reading, playing Scrabble, gardening, dog walking and socialising with family and friends. Boy from the Moor is Helen’s first book, but she is already working on other projects, at least one of which she hopes will result in a future publication.

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