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Some other girl: the case for Jean Batten

When I was young I worked in a library. It was situated in a long, light, airy room that adjoined a stuffy and neglected museum which we library assistants were required to dust once a week. There were a lot of insects captured in clear kauri gum, plus various bits of greenstone. Beyond the museum lay Rotorua’s council chambers. One wall of the library opened through french doors onto a balcony that contained a garden, enclosed by a low concrete barrier. Tom, the gardener, had red rheumy eyes with sagging lower lids. Then he had an operation to correct the condition and this brought him great happiness. He was a bent and shrunken man but we cared for him deeply. He would cut flowers for us, and when one of us had a twenty-first or got married he would come bearing a gift, a carefully chosen china plate. Opposite what we called ‘Tom’s garden’ stood the archway to Government Gardens, with steaming volcanic mud pools dotted here and there on the otherwise immaculate lawns. Sometimes a new geyser would bolt up through the earth and alter the symmetry.

I used to stand at the issuing desk in the library, wearing the latest fashions, balancing on stiletto heels. It was a library with a difference. The head librarian, who was beautiful and emancipated, expected ‘her girls’ to look their best for the public. Her hair was pale blue, like the head of a hydrangea, and she was having an affair with a married man, though later he became free to marry her. In my novel, Songs from the Violet Café, I modelled the character of restaurant owner, Violet Trench, on her. She was good to me, and for me. She gave me the incentive to broaden my horizons, to read widely, to take responsibility.

The library was a magnet for the locals, the social hub of the town, at least on weekdays and the evenings that we were open. There were several artists living in the area, then, Theo Schoon and Jan Nigro among them. Schoon called library assistants ‘stupid’ if they couldn’t find the book he was looking for straight away. Nigro wore flowing colourful garments and it was said in hushed tones that she painted people in the buff, something we discovered to be true: her nude paintings are still sought after. The Little Theatre crowd came in too, full of ‘dah-lings’ and abhorrence for ‘the ordinary’. We girls waited on them all, although I preferred the soft pouched faces of the elderly women who borrowed romance novels and offered us boiled lollies when they thought the head librarian wasn’t looking. Forestry workers came in too, because the timber mills were just along the road. They offered dates at the weekend dances and we accepted some of those too.

All of these people, young and old, wanted information. It was assumed that, with all these books around us, we would know things, we would have knowledge at our fingertips. We were the digital warriors of the 1950s. We understood that knowledge was a kind of secret power and we did our best. But the idea that knowledge could come from anywhere but encyclopaedias never crossed our minds. It’s just that we couldn’t read them all. Nevertheless, questions were fired at us every hour of every day. And one of them that kept being repeated was ‘Do you happen to know where Jean Batten is at present?’ If we were to hesitate for even a moment, there might be flashes of impatience, as if we were ignorant or uncooperative, followed by a reminder that Jean was a famous aviator (although they usually said aviatrix back then) and she came from Rotorua. She had been born here, didn’t we know, very famous indeed, a little odd perhaps, she seemed to have dropped out of sight.


I didn’t know where Jean was. None of us knew, but I did learn that her birthplace was just two blocks away, in Amohia Street, No. 1200, though I didn’t find that out until much later. Diagonally across the street from this house stood the rooms where her father practised as a dentist. It’s where, it was said, he accepted favours in return for dental work on women who couldn’t afford to get rid of their toothache any other way. But I didn’t hear that until much later, either.

Jane (Jean) Gardner Batten, born in September 1909, was the third child of Frederick and Ellen Batten. Her two older brothers were Frederick Jnr, known as Harold, and John. Her mother was usually called Nellie. Jean would become one of the most well-known fliers in the world, dominating the air throughout most of the 1930s. Much of her flying was financed by public speaking tours for which she was widely acclaimed on trips back to New Zealand.

After daring but unsuccessful attempts to beat the women’s record for a solo flight from London to Australia, she beat Amy Johnson’s record by four days in 1934, in a time of fourteen days and twenty-two hours, flying a Gipsy Moth. She would go on to break record after record, later in a Percival Gull plane. In 1936, she became the first person, man or woman, to fly solo from Britain to New Zealand and then back. On her arrival in Auckland, on the last leg of her journey across the Tasman, thousands of people were gathered to greet her arrival. In a radio commentary I have listened to, the announcer cries out:

The crowd surges forward, a large crowd of police, mounted police, foot police and traffic inspectors and they are having a great job to keep the crowd back … Here she is coming down, she is down about twenty feet now, about ten feet, she is nearly on the ground, just very near the tops of those motor cars and nearly touches them. A beautiful three-point landing she is going to make … Here she comes … I don’t know whether you can hear me or not … We can see a white … a white helmet …

She had that sort of charisma, that grip on the imagination.

During the course of her return journey, Jean’s fiancé Beverley Shepherd, also a pilot, was killed in a plane crash in Australia.

What I did find in the library was her first book, a beautiful little memoir called Solo Flight, a young woman’s exuberant account of her early flying adventures, punctuated with entries from her logbooks, which reflect the scope of her feats. There are sometimes forlorn reflections about loneliness in the vast stretches of the sky, when she was effectively suspended in the air by a contraption made of fabric and wire, with a compass to help her navigate and a torch to see her through the nights. Her private life remained largely a mystery. The engagement to Beverley was the nearest she came to marriage. Famed for her beauty as well as her exploits, she remained single, spending most of her time in Nellie’s company. G-AARB, the registration number of her record-breaking plane, led to her being dubbed the Garbo of the Skies. At the beginning of the Second World War, her plane was requisitioned by the British government, meaning that Jean could no longer fly. By the end of the war, Jean and Nellie had disappeared from public view, rarely revealing their whereabouts. After Nellie’s death in Tenerife, Jean reappeared in New Zealand sporadically, before dying alone in Majorca, in 1982. The Percival Gull was recovered and brought to New Zealand. It hangs in Auckland Airport alongside the international departure lounge. Outside the terminal building stands a statue of Jean.


If Fred was making a name for himself in Rotorua around the time of Jean’s birth, so, too, was his wife. Nellie rode a white horse about town, wore a hat adorned with a bright feather and took acting roles in local drama productions. She had always lived this way, when she was growing up in the southern city of Invercargill. She had also developed an interest in pioneering flights. After Jean’s birth, she pinned a newspaper picture of Louis Blériot, in his two-seater monoplane, above her daughter’s cot. Just eight months before, the Frenchman had flown across the English Channel, the first person to achieve this feat, in a time of thirty-six minutes and thirty seconds.

The Batten marriage was falling apart. Several shadows were falling across their lives, not least the inconsistencies in their son Harold’s behaviour. The family moved to Auckland, Fred went to war and, afterwards, he and Nellie separated. Charles Kingsford-Smith visited Auckland and when Jean heard him speak she decided to be a flier too, despite excelling as both a ballet dancer and a pianist. She and Nellie engineered a secret trip to Australia so that Jean could meet Kingsford-Smith, take a flight with him and get advice on how to pursue her dream. Before long, she and Nellie were on their way to London, on the pretext that Jean would study music there. Her father, on whom the pair relied for funding, was against the idea of her becoming a flier.

Jean’s story now became a rags to riches one, as she began to take lessons at the elite London Aero Club at the Stag Lane flying field. It was the training ground of Amy Johnson herself, of dukes and duchesses, and the then Prince of Wales, briefly King Edward VIII.

So many people at Stag Lane were so famous, so self-confident. So rich and so well dressed. Nobody said the word ‘colonial’, but that was how she saw herself. When she opened her mouth, she didn’t sound nearly as eloquent as she thought she had back in Auckland.

Of more importance than the glamorous line-up of would-be fliers, Stag Lane was the site of Geoffrey de Havilland’s engineering school, and the creative industry that built the planes he had invented, the Gipsy Moth and later the Tiger Moth. Jean learned engineering too, so she could service the planes she would fly.


Jean wrote more books about her life. None of them matched Solo Flight and none of them told the whole story. There are great gaps in her narratives, such as a missing seven years when she and Nellie ostensibly toured Europe in the 1960s. They had ‘such fun’, she would recount, staying at spas and travelling. A 1990 book called Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies, written by the late Ian Mackersey with his researcher wife Caroline Mackersey, did not account for the gaps either, or explore the deeper mysteries of her personality.

When I came across Mackersey’s book several years ago, it puzzled me. I had been interested in the Batten story, without following it in depth. I’d met my husband in the Rotorua Public Library all those years before. Ian’s love of planes was part of our lives from the outset. He had learned to fly in Tiger Moths when he was in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the 1950s. Our choice of home in Wellington was determined by the proximity to and the view of the airport. The movement of planes was a preoccupation for decades. Batten’s name came up from time to time. I would reflect on those enquiries people used to make about her whereabouts.

Mackersey’s book did have an answer of sorts about where she and her mother lived while I was working in the Rotorua Public Library. They had been in Jamaica, not far from Goldeneye, home of the writer Ian Fleming, and closer still to Noel Coward’s holiday house. But the two women portrayed in this book were decidedly unpleasant: Nellie a sour, domineering woman who ran her daughter’s life, Jean a spoilt, vapid person who gave herself airs and graces and chased men to fund planes and her career, before dumping them.

The more I thought about it, the more odd I found this. There was a huge amount of previously unknown information in the book, not least the whereabouts of Jean’s grave in Majorca, where she had lain unidentified and apparently lost to the world for five years before Caroline Mackersey discovered it. It was a brilliant piece of detective work. Jean had died alone in a hotel room, after being bitten by a dog; the authorities had assumed her name to be Gardner, her middle name, rather than Batten.

Caroline would be helpful to me when I set out on my own inquiries, but her husband remained unfriendly. Yet I kept asking myself if the witty Noel Coward would have had a flirtatious, albeit gay, friendship with a woman as off-putting as the one Ian Mackersey described. I had discovered that they danced and laughed and partied together. Winston Churchill was another admirer. And was Jean really a gold digger?

I read and reread Mackersey’s introduction. What struck me was the account he gave of his first and, it seems, only, encounter with Jean. He was seven years old and travelling by train with his mother between Hamilton and Rotorua. As Jean boarded the train and entered their first-class carriage, Mackersey’s mother greeted her, wanting to open a conversation, only to be rebuffed. Their fellow traveller sat hunched in her seat. This slight to his mother had rankled with the writer.

When I began to look more closely at this account, I realised that there was something interesting about when this journey took place. Jean had been touring New Zealand, giving speeches after her epic flight from London to Auckland, and was exhausted. She had just that day cancelled the tour, and was about to retreat to a hotel at Franz Josef for an extended recovery, funded by the New Zealand government. She was, in other words, having a nervous breakdown. Perhaps it was not so surprising that she didn’t want to fall into conversation with strangers. It seemed increasingly clear that her enigmatic life had been explored from an unsympathetic point of view. I wondered why Ian Mackersey had bothered to write a biography of someone he so clearly disliked.

A number of things had drawn me towards Jean. There was the link with Rotorua, with some other girl who had lived in the town at a young age, as I had done. There was the similarity of the planes she and my husband flew. And there was another strange link – her brother Harold had farmed in Waipū. In fact, where we lived on North River, the road curled up the side of the hill beyond to Cave Road. Harold’s farm jutted onto an area of caves, where glow worms gleamed in their dark tunnels. Jean would come there and stay. Our neighbours remembered how she would call to practise on their parents’ pianos. Her visits were short. Harold’s mind was in disarray. There had been a strange scandal, which had got into the newspapers, about a New Zealand youth in Sydney, arrested for forgery, but found to be hoarding gelignite and the makings of bombs. His name was Harold Batten. A case of mistaken identity, the family insisted, but nobody knew for sure. The real Harold had married an Australian woman and had children, but his past, even then, was clouded. Harold’s life would end after years of illness in a psychiatric hospital. His wife, I learned, feared his visits home.

I began by asking myself whether the way Jean and her mother were portrayed really mattered. They were dead, after all. But what had been said had become the ‘official’ record. Wherever you looked – on every internet site and in documentaries, of which there have been more than one – the same stories appeared, as if they were the only truth.

As clues and trails emerged, I had to face a truth of my own. I knew in my bones that I was going to write about Jean, to try and find the other Jean, the girl I might have known had we been of an age, and who, I was certain, I would have understood, probably liked.

From the beginning, I knew that the book would be called The Infinite Air, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’: ‘And so the sky keeps/For the infinite air is unkind.’ It seemed to speak of the tragedies of the many pilots, contemporaries of Jean, who would die in their record-breaking attempts – and of the effect those losses would have on her.

Around that point, I began to experience a high level of anxiety. I knew the book would be unlike any I had written. For a start, when I write fact-based fiction, I travel to wherever the action has taken place, to see for myself the sights, hear the sounds, absorb the smells. This was clearly impossible. Jean had crash landed in Middle Eastern deserts, flown over Afghanistan, now a war-torn country. I lacked the resources to travel in her footsteps.

Yet there were surely other possibilities. I decided that if I could research the circumstances of every person Jean was known to have associated with, I might find some answers to the riddles. I would lay my hands on biographies of people she had known, interview every person who might have known the family. For on-the-ground research in the Royal Air Force Museum, where I’d had a hint there might be unseen letters, I hired a researcher who spent months uncovering the treasures there, and another researcher here to comb every 1930s newspaper in every little town where Jean had given talks. Jill Nicholas, who has lived in Rotorua on the edge of the lake for decades and has a passion for the town’s history, offered to help with local knowledge. She’s been a noted journalist all her life and a stalwart friend in the search for clues to the Batten mysteries.

I remember a moment in Oxford, north of Christchurch. I was giving a talk to a group of people about an earlier book. During question time, I was asked what I was working on now. When I replied that I was going to write a novel about Jean Batten, a man in the audience said, ‘I hope you know a bit about flying. I’m an international airline pilot, and I know you need to get it right.’ That was not all he had to say on the subject. He had met Jean Batten on her last visit to New Zealand. This was Jonathan Marrett, who has since become a firm friend. In retirement, he paints scenes from Jean’s life.

But the conversation gave me a jolt. Ian knew a lot about flying and certainly about the planes Jean flew. All the same, I had to learn from scratch how these machines worked, to be able to think like a pilot at their controls. Added to my research were lessons in front of the computer with simulated cockpits and controls of Gipsy and Tiger Moths, where I ‘practised’ flying, with Ian as my instructor.

It was time, too, to start talking to the Batten family, Harold and John’s children. John had been married briefly to Madeleine Murat, a novelist, who wrote also under the pseudonym of Dorothy Quentin. John was an actor, starring in movies. The couple had had one daughter, who lived in England.

Except that these conversations with the Battens were not going to happen. With the exceptions of Harold’s son, Jim, and Lesley, a great-niece who lives in Australia – I’m grateful to them both – the Batten family flatly refused to help. When I rang a great-nephew, he said he treated people like me in the same way he did stock agents selling manure. Others wrote and told me that ‘Mr Mackersey had done such a wonderful job that there was nothing more to be said and there it must end’. I would learn from Caroline that one family member, at least, left money in their will to the Mackerseys. The source material had largely disappeared, given to Mackersey by her relatives, and the correspondence held by Barclay’s Bank, where all her mail went, had also been destroyed.

In a strange way all this unpleasantness offered me freedom. They had had their chance. I wasn’t beholden to them.

What was their problem? I think there were some terrible family secrets. Freedom is a two-way thing, of course: it demands respect. I was a fiction writer, but I was not going to invent their secrets. That would have been too easy. I spent months on a false trail with a woman, now dead, who believed she was Jean’s daughter, and had been given up for adoption. Initially I thought the story was credible but after an exhaustive search of records, it became clear that Jean was in Europe at the time of the woman’s birth. The one positive thing that came out of our conversations was a meeting I suggested between her and Jim Batten, and I believe gave her comfort.

Do I have a view about those Batten secrets? Yes, I do. I think they lay within the shadows of the family and siblings and stretched back to Rotorua. I believe that Nellie knew she must do something to protect her daughter, and that this was why she took her away from the family. Divorce, in the early twentieth century, was unthinkable for most women. Nellie appears to have had compelling reasons to leave and they seem to have centred on her daughter’s safety. Protecting Jean became her lifelong mission.

Despite whatever was withheld from me, and whatever I chose to leave out, a mountain of revealing material had begun to present itself. In the Royal Air Force Museum in London, a wonderfully funny document had appeared, an unpublished manuscript called ‘Memories of Stag Lane’, by Bernard Collacott, who had worked as an aircraft mechanic while Jean was there. He details the idiosyncrasies of the rich and famous, including the Prince of Wales’ drunken exploits and how, one evening, his fellow pilots saved him from himself by rolling him up in a blanket in the back of a laundry van and dropping him off at the back door of Buckingham Palace. In a West Australian newspaper, I discovered a review of Madeleine Murat’s first novel, Sidestreet, featuring movie sets and film directors and homosexual men having complicated relationships with women. This didn’t seem too different from her own relationship with her husband, John Batten, the brother from whom Jean would become estranged for many years. And an interview Jean gave to a newspaper after an evening spent with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was a splendid find. She provided intimate details of the informal supper she had been invited to at the end of her return flight to New Zealand, describing what everyone was wearing, what they ate and how Princess Elizabeth came running in to show off her new puppy. Revealing such details was a departure from protocol but nonetheless, Jean had some impressive medals bestowed on her by royalty.

I also began a patient re-examination of the negative accounts of her romantic life. Jean Batten was a gorgeous young woman, and conscious of her glamour. She usually dressed in white, except when she was working on the engines of her planes or flying, and would step off her flights with perfect make-up, wearing her white flying helmet, before retiring quickly to change into a white silk dress. There were often men in her life. An early romance was with a man I chose to call Frank Norton, one of the few aliases in The Infinite Air. I did this for the sake of his descendants and because, in a sense, his real name was not important. He was a New Zealand-born RAF pilot whom Jean met on a ship while returning home from England. She was twenty-one and he was eight years older, and already a hard drinker. He fell deeply in love with her and, on learning that she wanted to fly, offered to finance her lessons. It was clear that she accepted some assistance and that he also lent her money. Jean was not in love with him, although he would pursue her in New Zealand and follow her back to London, where he continued to court her. But she was already involved in a relationship with a man called Victor Dorée, who had learned to fly in Australia, while he was there selling silk and linen. Dorée came from a wealthy London family, who would offer to fund the purchase of Jean’s first plane. They showered lavish hospitality on Jean and Nellie, who were barely getting by, often hungry and cold in their bedsit. They took this friendship seriously.

Young women make mistakes. Frank Norton was Jean’s. Well, actually, so was Victor Dorée, but for different reasons.

Norton was ready to settle down and return permanently to New Zealand. He assumed Jean would follow him, but she turned him down. Perhaps she had made promises to him, or perhaps not. You could say that she was foolish to have accepted money that she then had no means to repay. You could say he was foolish to have given it to her. What men and women say to each other in the heat of the moment can be confusing in hindsight.

In the event, he left England bitter and angry. You could say his heart was broken, never mind his wallet. Over the years, when Jean visited New Zealand, he would be waiting at stage doors to intercept her, demanding the return of his money. He married and had children. At some point, Fred Batten persuaded Jean to give him a cheque for £250. Norton died in his late forties.

The relationship with Victor Dorée had flourished. A plane was acquired and registered jointly in Jean’s and Dorée’s names. It had belonged to the Prince of Wales and was in need of repairs. During the restoration, the couple quarrelled over the condition of the con rods, which had a record of being prone to metal fatigue. Jean wanted the engine dismantled but Dorée insisted that this wasn’t necessary.

On 9 April 1933, she set off on her journey to Australia from Lympne Airport. It was supposed to have been a secret but at the last minute Dorée invited the press to see her off. There was high excitement. His family turned up, wearing furs and fancy clothes, and a filmmaker appeared. I found it interesting the way Ian Mackersey commented on this farewell. He wrote: ‘One is impressed by the way in which all the activity revolves around Jean. She appears as a very diffident and innocent-looking young woman of below average height – she was 5 feet four inches tall – holding centre stage and accepting the VIP treatment. She is composed and unexpressive, possibly overawed by the warmth of the farewell party, and in none of these scenes does she radiate much joy.’ The real sting in the tail is yet to come.

After a number of adventures, which included a landing in a desert, the plane crash landed near Karachi. A con rod had broken. Jean was unhurt but out of funds. The Dorée family turned their backs on her; overnight, it appears, their fortune had vanished. Jean was left to find her own way back to England. She did this thanks to Lord Wakefield of Castrol Oil, who would become her mentor for future flying attempts. It would be another year before she set her first record.

Mackersey wrote: ‘In neither of her two books, nor in her unpublished manuscript, did Jean describe her departure from Stag Lane that spring afternoon on what was the start of a flying career that was to realise all her aspirations for fame and success. She was not prepared to acknowledge publicly, even over forty years later, her indebtedness to Victor and his family. She appears to have viewed their patronage simply as the due entitlement of a woman of destiny.’ I see it differently. I think she might have minded quite a lot that she was abandoned by her sponsors in a foreign country.

More than fifty years later, as the Mackerseys were researching their documentary and book about Jean, they had what they saw as an amazing piece of luck. The widow of Frank Norton wanted to talk to them, but they would need to hurry because she was dying. On her deathbed, she told them how Jean had ruined her and Frank’s lives because she had taken all his pension money and this meant they had to delay their marriage. I am puzzled by this. We can’t know what happened – what her husband told her and whether it was true. He drank heavily. Was the real answer that he had lost his money before he met his wife? He did, after all, have the means to support Jean when he left England.

This was not the only widow the Mackerseys managed to track down. Shortly after Jean’s crash in Karachi, a notice had appeared in the Times announcing the engagement of Victor Dorée and Mary Swan, an heiress. It was to Dorée’s widow that they now turned. The widow assured them that Jean was a bad lot who had taken her husband for his money. This is at odds with Jean’s own account, in an unpublished memoir, that she repaid her erstwhile fiancé back. And it is at odds with the circumstances of Mary’s own engagement to Dorée.

Taken together, these stories don’t add up. These men appear to have wanted the golden trophy of marriage to a world-record-breaking flier, and thought that money would buy her. In the case of Victor Dorée, her failure to perform seems to have triggered instant rejection.

There were other men, but Shepherd appears to have been Jean’s one great love. Her relationship with Ian Fleming is almost impenetrable, although Jim Batten ventured to me that they had been close. What does one make of the fact that Jean and Nellie sold up and suddenly left Jamaica the same week as Fleming made a hurried marriage to Ann Charteris, Viscountess Rothermere? Fleming impregnated Ann not once but twice and the viscount had had enough, divorcing her quickly on the grounds of adultery. Fleming was her third husband; she was his only wife. (She later abandoned him in favour of the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell.)

Jean Batten may not have fulfilled the image of the perfect hero, but there seems to be a dismaying trail of unreliable witnesses in the stories we have been told about her. She was a woman pursued by demons and trauma, and the deaths of many friends. There is much that is still not known about her. Someone, some day, may find where Nellie and Jean disappeared to in Europe for seven years before settling in Tenerife. The clue may lie in Keep on Dancing, a memoir by Sarah Churchill, the daughter of Winston. The Churchills’ holiday home was at Cap d’Ail in the south of France. Sarah recorded the sense of sadness she perceived in Jean when she visited in the early 1960s. Her sister Diana, the same age as Jean, had committed suicide.

Perhaps Jean and Nellie travelled Europe, ‘having fun’ and ‘laughing and laughing’. Or perhaps, between the good times, there were necessary bouts in spas and health clinics, to repair Jean’s fragile mental health. This seems a possible explanation for the extreme secrecy with which they shrouded their lives during this period, directing all their mail through Barclay’s Bank, so that their movements couldn’t be traced. Jean persisted with this arrangement until the end of her life.

Not long ago I stood in Amohia Street in Rotorua with Jill Nicholas. We were outside No. 1200, looking across to the spot where Fred Batten’s dental practice once stood. All traces of those houses have gone, replaced by square modern buildings. But the sturdy trees that have been a signature of the Rotorua skyline for as long as I have known the place, and the heavy smell of sulphur on a summer’s day, were there still. I thought of Nellie pinning up the newspaper cutting about Louis Blériot and about how mothers could dream for their daughters’ happy lives. At the height of her fame, in the 1930s, Jean had met Blériot and been invited to stay with the family in France. Like these two aviators, I have been honoured with the French Légion d’Honneur, something I am proud of and gives me a particular sense of connection with Jean Batten.

In my mind’s eye, too, I saw Nellie riding her white horse through the town. And I saw a lost child, a girl who could make it only by flying as high as she could. ‘Very lonely,’ she would write in her logbook, ‘no land in sight.’

Rotorua is like a foreign country to me now. Some other girls lived there. Me, the girls from the Violet Café, Jean Batten. The real and the imagined.

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