Cynthia Hamilton


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Cynthia Hamilton

The Story Behind the Story: Suzy Henderson “The Beauty Shop”

Books based on true stories can be incredibly powerful. Especially in cases of courage in the face of overwhelming pain and suffering. When author Suzy Henderson learned of the heroic efforts of soliders fighting against an unimaginable horror and the doctor brave enough and creative enough to patch their lives back together, she knew this was a story that needed to be shared.

In her book, “The Beauty Shop”, she creates characters from a composite of the brave young airmen who risked their lives to defeat Hilter, and the women drawn to their heroism. It is a love story underneath a fascinating look at a history that should never be forgotten. It’s a beautiful work, full of devotion and sacrifice, honor and bravery.

It’s my great pleasure to share with you Suzy Henderson’s Story Behind the Story:

I was inspired to write The Beauty Shop after researching WW2 and RAF Fighter Command, having discovered the story of the Guinea Pig Club, and fighter pilot Geoffrey Page, who suffered horrific burns during the Battle of Britain. What particularly captured my attention was the amazing care Geoff Page received, courtesy of a small cottage hospital deep in the heart of Sussex – the Queen Victoria in East Grinstead. The consultant plastic surgeon there had a unique approach, and I have to say, I was awestruck. The surgeon was New Zealander Archibald McIndoe, the cousin and protégé of Great War plastic surgeon, Sir Harold Gillies.

During WW2, the pilots of Fighter Command faced appalling odds, and 3,690 men lost their lives. And for those serving with Bomber Command, around 55, 573 were killed between 1939 – 1945. A total of 350,000 Americans served with the Eighth Air Force here in Britain. Of this number, 210,000 men flew combat missions, and 26,000 men lost their lives. As well as all those killed, many more suffered serious injuries including amputations and burns. What of them? While many who found themselves in such dire situations felt as if their lives were over, those destined for the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead were certainly the fortunate few, although it would be some time before they realised as much.

When Neville Chamberlain declared war on September 3rd, 1939, Archibald McIndoe and his team were ready and waiting. Archie was an outstanding plastic surgeon with great skill, but even so, the injuries he witnessed shocked him. One day, when faced with a nineteen-year-old pilot who had his entire face burned away, Archie had no option but to experiment. It wasn’t long before the men realised they were simply ‘guinea pigs’ for the Maestro (one of the nicknames they had for Archie).

Above all, Archie treated his patients like human beings and had great empathy. I think he was immensely proud of every one of the men in his care and moved by the sacrifices they had made for King and country, and it was this that made him determined to see that Britain did not abandon them in their hour of need.

When some of the men formed a drinking club in July 1941, they had no idea what they had started. It wasn’t long before the Guinea Pig Club began to attract attention from as far away as America and people sent letters to Archie, with job offers and donations of money for the men. Archie quickly realised the potential of this and applied for the club to be given charity status. Over the years since, the men have been able to access grants to have homes adapted to their needs, establish themselves in business when suitable employment may have been impossible or denied them, and even buy homes.

McIndoe was a great visionary, an innovator, and a pioneer of plastic surgery. Above all, he was a godsend to the men he treated, but the brilliance of this true story runs far deeper than medical care alone. It is a story richly layered with humour, love, pranks and courage, with tragedy at its heart. I wanted to illustrate some of McIndoe’s achievements and show how from such abhorrent times arose magical acts of humanity.

Far from the stereotypical doctor, Archie’s ethos of care was remarkable and ahead of its time. He rocked the boat and shook up the medical establishment to achieve the best for his ‘boys’. Above all, he had their welfare at heart, young men whose latter years of boyhood had been so savagely torn from them as they volunteered or were called up to fight. Often horrifically disfigured, they were left to cope with the consequences alone until Archie strode in and became their advocate. He realised right from the beginning that he was rebuilding bodies and souls. As he once said, “A man disfigured in battle fights that battle for the rest of his life.”

Archie waged his own battle here in England, taking his mission into the heart of East Grinstead. Re-integration of the airmen into society was vital. Realising the enormity of his task, Archie recruited the people of the town to assist. He gave talks, and the people answered the call to duty, with offers of invitations to tea and dances. At Archie’s request, they looked the men in the eye and treated them the same as anyone else and became known as ‘the town that did not stare’.

The hospital ward, nicknamed the ‘beauty shop’, was often a buzz of activity, the air thick with tobacco haze while big band music drifted from the radio day and night. There was dancing, romance, fun, and camaraderie as the men formed a unique bond. Archie even allowed them to have a keg of watered down beer at all times – fluid intake was vital for burns patients!

For me, Sir Archibald McIndoe was an amazing man. When he held out his hand, the men grasped it and held on to hope as he told them, “I’ll fix you up.” Four magical words. He was their saviour and the ‘beauty shop’ was their sanctuary, a place of safety and camaraderie. Archie’s intuitive, caring approach touched all who met him, and he helped so many rise from the ashes. He was an outstanding surgeon and a remarkable philanthropist, and his ‘boys’ and the lives they would go on to lead are his triumph and legacy.

And if you were wondering what happened to Geoffrey Page, he returned to flying duty in 1943 and soon rose to command a squadron, carving out a successful career in the RAF. After the war, he had an equally successful career in civilian life, married and had children. He became an active member in the Battle of Britain Fighter Pilots Associaton and the driving force behind the Battle of Britain Memorial, erected in 1993 atop the White Cliffs of Dover. In 1981, he released his memoir, Tale of a Guinea Pig. Geoffrey Page was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Distinguished Service Order and the Order of Orange Nassau. In 1995 he was awarded the OBE for his great achievements. Geoffrey died in August 2000, aged eighty years old.

In memory of Sir Archibald McIndoe (1900 – 1960). He saw what others did not and pioneered great change.

Suzy Henderson lives with her husband and two sons in Cumbria, England, on the edge of the Lake District, a beautiful and inspiring landscape of mountains, fells, and lakes. She never set out to be a writer, although she has always loved reading and experiencing the joy of being swept away to different times and places.

In a previous life she was a Midwife but now works from home as a freelance writer and novelist. While researching her family history, Suzy became fascinated with both World War periods and developed an obsession with military and aviation history. Following the completion of her Open University Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, she began to write and write until one day she had a novel.

Other interests include music, old movies, and photography – especially if WW2 aircraft are on the radar. Suzy writes contemporary and historical fiction and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Her debut novel, The Beauty Shop, has been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

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