My special guest this week is author Suzy Henderson. Over to you, Suzy!
Thank you so much for hosting me here today, Adrian. It’s a pleasure and I decided to talk a little about the idea behind my debut novel, The Beauty Shop.
About six years ago, I stumbled across the story of the Guinea Pig Club, and in that moment of discovery, I knew I had to write about it. People might wonder why it’s so remarkable, after all, they were burned airmen who required medical care. But the hidden beauty is that they were far more than that to one man, a maverick plastic surgeon who cared for them all. It truly is an extraordinary tale and it is one that touches on themes such as beauty, identity and self-worth.
Archibald McIndoe was a New Zealander, and when he first arrived in England, British surgeons treated him as a colonial, something which irked him. Later, he would encounter disabled and disfigured Great War veterans begging in London or selling matchsticks or other wares just to get by. It was another shocking experience that stayed with him.
So, after he was appointed to run the burns unit at East Grinstead at the beginning of the war, he already had plans and ideas in mind. Once the first casualties began to arrive, he was shocked at the extent of the injuries; injuries that had never been seen before – but this was the war in the air, far more advanced warfare than had been seen during the last war. Young men, who just the day before had been glorious, handsome fly boys were burned beyond recognition, and some were suicidal. Fortunately, Archie had an agenda. He was determined these lads would not become social outcasts, and that they would live a whole life, have employment and the chance of marriage and children.
For Archie, it was a challenge, and he was a man who rose up and thrived from a challenge. His craft, which he had learned from his cousin, Sir Harold Delf Gillies, a plastic surgeon who had worked on the shattered faces of Great War veterans, was to be challenged tremendously and Archie became a leading innovator and pioneer in burns treatment.
One fine July day in 1941, a few of the lads from the ward decided to form a drinking club. They gave it a name and that was that. The treasurer was picked because he had his legs in plaster and therefore wouldn’t be able to run off with any funds. The secretary was nominated because his hands were badly burned and bandaged, so he was unable to take any notes. Even in such adverse circumstances, their spirit and humour shone through.
Archie had his own ethos of care and that involved treating ‘his boys’ as he called them, normally. They weren’t sick, and many of them had to endure multiple operations, becoming bored and frustrated while waiting between surgeries. Aware of this, Archie would arrange trips to the theatre in London, and he also encouraged them to go into the town of East Grinstead. Nurses were asked to be chaperones, and later, Archie recruited chorus girls from London’s West End to volunteer for duty on his ward, and the lads enjoyed being seen out on the arm of a pretty girl. A few of the men married nurses from the ward. There was always a keg of beer on the ward and drinking, smoking, music and dancing was allowed all day long.
Archie would give talks whenever possible to the locals, informing them of his work at the hospital and educating them about burns treatment and the psychological implications. He often said, “Look them in the eye,” and the locals quite literally took Archie’s boys under their wing. They were very protective of them. Many would invite the lads back for tea, and some would hold house parties and dances. If you were lucky enough to be one of Archie’s guinea pigs, then your social calendar was quite a busy one.
Resources for hospital care have always been tight but back in WW2, if Archie needed anything, he’d use his contacts and demand if necessary. He had his ways of extracting what he needed and asked many favours. Archie took the doctor-patient relationship in a whole new direction and considered the social and psychological problems these men endured. He would often ask friends and contacts about jobs for his boys. Quite simply, whatever they needed, Archie seemed to have a means of obtaining it or a solution. Have you ever heard of a doctor like him before? He joined the lads at the pub, drank with them, laughed with them, no doubt he even felt their pain.
He was rather more than a surgeon; he was a philanthropist until his early death in 1960. The club continues to this day, and of the original 649 members, 17 remain. The organization has served many of them and has helped those who needed it with things such as adaptations to their homes, buying suitable housing and establishing businesses. There is no club like it in the world, and I doubt there ever will be again. The price they paid to join was incredibly high, a price none of us would wish to pay.
The Beauty Shop by Suzy Henderson
England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.
Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.
John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.
Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.
Based on a true story, “The Beauty Shop” is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.
For more information: http://myBook.to/TheBeautyShop
Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England, but a career in healthcare would eventually take her to rural Somerset. Years later, she decided to embark upon a degree in English Literature with The Open University.
That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.
It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother died in 1980 as did her tales of war as she never spoke of those times. When she decided to research her grandmother’s war service in the WAAF, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories and tragedies and it is such discoveries that inform her writing.
Having relocated to the wilds of North Cumbria, she has the Pennines in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association. “The Beauty Shop” is her debut novel and will be released 28th November 2016.
Thank you Suzy for your fascinating story – good luck with The Beauty Shop.