In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.Sundowner of the Skies p11
This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.
Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.
The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.
Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.
According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.
There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.
For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.
It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.
Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.