I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Eighteen years ago yesterday, three air cadets died in a helicopter accident at Llyn Padarn in Wales. One of them was my cousin, Mark. One was one of my sister’s best friends, Amanda. The other was a boy from Horwich.

My sister had gone with the air cadets to RAF Valley in Anglesey. Mark was with her, along with his best friend Chris. They’d been a good few times before, and always had a great time. They got to go up in planes and see how it really is in the air force.

We lived a different life from Mark and his sister Charlotte who lived on the other side of a main road dividing our estate up. Mark was the same age as Abi; Charlotte the same age as my younger brother Alastair. We weren’t close close but we saw Mark and Charlotte more times than any of our other cousins. Both Mark and Charlotte were bright, sociable, polite and friendly. Charlotte is one of the most lovely, gregarious, wonderful women now: she’s always absolutely radiant. Mark would no doubt have been a man of the same character, not unlike his older namesake, my other cousin Mark.

I was working in an Italian restaurant that summer and I’d gone to work knowing that four cadets and three Air Force men had gone down into the lake and were presumed ‘missing’. I hoped and prayed for their safety. My first worry was that it was my sister. We weren’t so close as we are now, but I don’t know how I’d have gone on without her. We got a phone call to say it wasn’t Abi. I was so relieved. I didn’t even think of anyone else – I was that relieved. Only moments later did I step outside my selfish gladness to think that someone‘s kids were missing and that it could be people we knew and loved. I never feel so hopeless as when I’m waiting unable to do anything, so I went to work anyway. I listened to the news all that afternoon. First came the names. Mark Oakden. Amanda Whitehead. Sarah Coker. Chris Bailey. My cousin. Two of my sister’s closest friends and a boy I didn’t know.

First they were just missing. One of the cadets was assumed to be alive. I thought it must be Mark. He was such a strong swimmer. He swam for Lancashire. If anyone could have survived, it should be him.

At 10 pm the names of those who hadn’t survived were released. Sarah was safe. Mark, Amanda and Chris were not.

It was a hard weekend. The press hounded my Uncle Geoff and Auntie Tina. Everybody was utterly shell-shocked. Nobody expects teenagers to die. Then came the memorial service. There isn’t a person there who can listen to Last Post without weeping. Abi and I were among the first out of the church because we were sitting with Mark’s family. My Nana is the favourite sister of all her siblings, I’m sure. She was a rock to my uncle and aunt. We were right up there with my Nana. Because Abi was in uniform and the first out, the Daily Mail snapped a picture of me with my arm around my sister; she was weeping and I was too. Gratuitous sales at the expense of personal tragedy.

The ceremony was well attended – it felt like the whole town turned out. I can’t remember who it was – one of the padres I think – he gave a speech that offered a little consolation. It wasn’t holy. It wasn’t filled with trite, religious meaninglessness. He said we should look up to the chemical trails, because Mark, Amanda and Chris were like that – just because they were gone, didn’t mean they didn’t leave signs of their lives upon our hearts. I can never look at chem trails without thinking of this and thinking of the marks they left upon our hearts.

The worst is always afterwards – when the shock has dissipated and you’re left coming to terms with how the universe, how any God could let this happen – how cruel life can be.

Mark’s GCSE results came a couple of weeks after his death. Top marks in all his subjects. No doubt he would have gone on to do the same at A level and degree. He wanted to be a pilot and I know he would have been. He was determined. The motto of the RAF is ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through hard work to the stars. He was an embodiment of that.

I can’t say as much about Amanda – it wasn’t like I moved in the same circles as my sister. I know that on that day three families had the hearts torn out of them. I know that friends realised how fragile life is and how cruel the world can be to take such good kids from the planet.

However, a poem quickly did the rounds – something that had a tremendous significance for everyone who knew Mark or Amanda. It was written by John Gillespie Magee, and is the official poem of the Canadian Royal Air Force amongst others.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The idea of seeing beauty rather than tragedy is so important in this poem, and I think it should be important to all of us. In amongst all the aftermath of the riots, it’s also important to remember there are lots and lots of wonderful, admirable teenagers out there – not least those who go on to live having faced such sadness so early in their lives.

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