Aileen Ballantyne was a journalist working in the newsroom of The Guardian when Pan Am flight 103 crashed into the town of Lockerbie in December 1988. The disaster, which took the lives of all 259 people on the plane and 11 in the village, is still the worst terrorist disaster on UK soil. That night, on the phone at her desk in London, she listened to a rescue worker describing the scene from the cockpit of the fallen plane.
Having recently been appointed medical correspondent, she did not continue to cover the disaster but, many years later, when she began to write poetry, the subject returned. “I was interested in whether you can say something useful about it as a poet that you can’t say as a journalist,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to people’s stories.”
Ballantyne has a PhD in Creative Writing and Modern Poetry from Edinburgh University, where she now teaches, and was a recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2018. Her sequence of poems about Lockerbie (three of which she reads for the Scotsman Sessions) form the spine of her first poetry collection, Taking Flight (Luath, 2019). The book also approaches the theme of flight more widely, from her memories of her first transatlantic flight as a child, to the moon landings and the flight of birds.
She approached writing about the Lockerbie disaster with journalistic tools, but with a poet’s eye, picking out the details which illuminate the bigger picture: the toothpaste tubes exploding in each suitcase, the pebble gifted to a grieving parent which marked the spot where her daughter’s body fell, the women of Lockerbie who washed and ironed the clothes of the victims before they were returned to their families.
What emerges from the story is kindness as well as tragedy. “I was very struck that Seamus Heaney, after writing for years about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, said, as he got older, he felt it was important to make space for the marvellous as well as the murderous,” says Ballantyne. “When I came to write about Lockerbie, I was drawn to the marvellous rather than the murderous, how it was bringing connections between people, and still is.”
To order a copy of Taking Flight by Aileen Ballantyne, visit https://www.luath.co.uk/productst/taking-flight
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