• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

A revealing interview with aviatrix Jean Batten

Jean Batten with her Gipsy Moth in Kolkata, India, during a refuelling stop in 1934. Photo/Getty Images

Two years before her death, world-renowned pilot Jean Batten returned to New Zealand where she gave an interview to the Listener.

“Legs Batten,” Jean Batten proclaims herself, stretching out her ankles for inspection. “Look, look at those – not bad for a 70-year-old.” She wants the photographer to take her picture next to her “boyfriend downstairs”. She twinkles naughtily, “Our names have been linked.” She confesses later she has had a crush on him since she was a child. The “boyfriend” is the statue of James Cook in the foyer of the hotel.

Miss Batten gets her way, although the photographer is reluctant. “If I had thick ankles, they’d insist on taking me full-length,” she pouts, and then smiles to take the sting from the complaint.

RelatedArticlesModule - Jean Batten

She also wants her picture taken outside her bank and post office. She is sure the one in front of the post office will be the picture of the tour. She is very pleased to have Jean Batten Place in central Auckland named after her, and not some tatty street miles out in the suburbs. And she did not have to wait for the honour until she had been dead and gone for 50 years.

Leading the way from the hotel, she calls to us to “Come on” and sprints across the six lanes of Customs St. After all, she does not want to get run over on this street. “It would be bad enough on Jean Batten Place, but on Customs St – what an undistinguished death.” She laughs happily, full of high spirits, as if her own mortality had never occurred to her.

At 70, she says, she is “terrific”, feels marvellous. Inside she feels 25. In fact, her heart is lighter than when she was 25; she has less anxiety now.

Batten. Photo/Motat/Supplied

At 25, she did not know where the next penny would come from for the flights she wanted to make. She is full of advice on how to stay fit after 40 – obviously people are always asking her “how she does it at her age”. She is a great believer in walking and does two miles a day, early in the morning when the air is cool and fresh. She lives in a sixth-floor apartment in Tenerife in the Canary Islands and each morning runs all the way down the six flights of stairs. “‘Miss Batten, why do you always run down the stairs?’ the other residents ask me. I tell them it’s good for the ankles.” She also advises swimming – and giving up your motor car. “Have you noticed all those women over 45 with weak knees?” And the men over 45 get hunched in the shoulders from stooping over steering wheels. No weak knees or round shoulders for Miss Batten. “I am straight as a ramrod.”

Her present trip to New Zealand is to promote her republished book, Alone in the Sky, and to open the new bank in Jean Batten Place. It was not arranged that way, “It was fate, a lovely coincidence.” At a function to launch the book, at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, she speaks of the cleanness of the city, how everything looks as if it had been thoroughly washed, of how her father, returning from the war, had been right when he said, “This is God’s own country.” People should go down on their knees and thank God for New Zealand, should work to make it a strong, solvent country.

Jean Batten greeting Whakarewarewa guide Bella Papakura, circa 1936. Photo/ATL

The inspiration

Kiwi or not, her attitude is as British as the roast beef, roast potatoes and peas the guests struggle to eat at the buffet dinner. Batten’s achievements in the 1930s make her the epitome of all those old-fashioned British virtues: grit, pluck, determination to see the thing through. Her voice is terribly English, evoking pictures of tea with cucumber sandwiches on the lawn, the plink of tennis balls in the distance. The voice is of a woman in her twenties rather than her seventies. The voice makes it easy to believe that, inside, she really does feel 25.

Since the end of the war, until her mother’s death 13 years ago, her life was spent quietly in such places as Madeira and Jamaica. Public life behind her, her ambition achieved before she was 30, Batten devoted herself to her mother. When she speaks of her mother’s death, which was sudden, she looks away from you.

But no, she assures you, she is not distressed, it is all right. “I can talk about it now, just, without weeping on your shoulder.” At the time, she was “nearly mad with grief”, but finally learnt to take comfort in the fact that the end had come fast and that her mother had died “with her boots on”, as she had always wished. She was 89.

“She was the inspiration. I’m not saying this just because she was my mother, but I have never met a woman who had such wide horizons. She was an artist. She was a rebel; she believed in the emancipation of women. She was a wonderful mother. She had lovely classical features.”

In flying kit, alongside her Gipsy Moth, ahead of her solo flight from England to Australia in 1934. Photo/ATL

Getting your own way

But we must not dwell on such things. These past 18 months have been among the most exciting of her life. The republication of the book, being given the Freedom of the City of London, her flight in Concorde, her 70th birthday party celebrated at the Helicopter Club of Great Britain’s first rally, held to coincide with her birthday.

Out come the coloured snaps of the party. There were nine helicopters  – Batten arrived in one. The 100 guests drank 60 bottles of champagne. She cut the cake with a sword, which she handled as if to the manner born. Her grandfather, she reminds you, was an expert swordsman.

Her conversation bubbles along from incident to anecdote and back again. It gives away nothing of the private person, nor is there any evidence of deep introspection; no fantastic imagination is revealed. But then, if you were flying halfway around the world on your own, incommunicado, in a wood-and-canvas plane, a vivid imagination probably would not be an asset. What you would need – apart from robust health – would be grit, pluck and the determination to see the thing through. And the ability to get your own way.

Miss Batten appears to have retained all of those things, along with her wide and still strangely girlish smile.

*In 1934, Jean Batten (24) smashed Amy Johnson’s England-Australia flying record with a solo 14-day flight over the same route. In 1936, she made an 11-day, 22,750km solo flight from England to New Zealand (with a break in Australia), a record that stood for 44 years. Her flights were characterised by precision navigation. Her single-engined Percival Gull now hangs in the Auckland Airport Jean Batten International Terminal. Batten died in Majorca in 1982.

The Listener turns 80 this year and in celebration of reaching that milestone we're delving back into the treasures of our archive. Pick up a copy of the 80th Anniversary Bumper Issue and see for yourself.