In which your humble correspondent finds himself in agreement with Sir Ronald Harwood and essays a sublimely pointless gesture of solidarity
I’ve said it before and I’ll (probably have cause to) say it again: the political is the enemy of the creative. So it goes without saying that I agree with Sir Ronald Harwood’s recent comments on the state of British theatre. I don’t often go these days (my most recent expedition took me to Kenneth Branagh’s excruciatingly awful version of Osborne’s mediocre play, The Entertainer – but that’s another story for another time). When I do turn out and take one for the team, I usually come away feeling profoundly depressed.
And yes, I’m well aware that Branagh’s production wasn’t state-funded. Of course it wasn’t. Or at least not directly – but it breathed deeply of the miasma emanating from that particular swamp.
And it’s almost inevitable that state funding engenders certain insidious forms of deafness. Or worse, numbness.
Few of those making a tidy living at, say, The National Theatre, can even begin to imagine how exciting it might be to rebel against a tired and outdated consensus.
Sadly, it falls to marginalised artists with nothing to lose (and therefore, almost by definition, little influence) to point out that tiresome is as tiresome does.
There is a better way. No, really, Melvyn, there is.
That night, drifting, Anne allowed herself to dream. And she saw how it would be. First she’d sleep, sleep at long last, such a deep, nourishing sleep; then she’d awaken, refreshed. She’d wake Jon and Charles; and gradually, as they stirred, they’d realise that the boat was no longer rolling.
They’d already docked. Already alongside, tied up.
Why had no-one come for them?
Wonder upon wonders. But of course it was not yet dawn. Not a soul stirred below decks or on the quay.
A clear night. Dead still. Cold. Moonlit.
So they decided they’d make a break for it. They told Jon it was all a great game. They disembarked like fugitives, hunched, their coat collars turned up around their ears, stealing onto the quayside, fearful that each footstep might echo. They set off, hand in hand, across cobbles slick from a shower of earlier rain: they walked, the three of them, Anne, Jon and Charles, into a sleeping city.
She stirred eventually, reluctantly. It felt like she’d only just drifted off.
“What time is it?” she asked.
Not yet dawn. That bit of her dream, at least, had come true. But the boat was still rolling.
The captain put his head around the cabin door when they were eating breakfast. He’d been in communication with the port authorities and the police. A crowd had already gathered. It was probably in everybody’s best interests if they agreed to remain below decks for an hour or two, maybe more, after they’d docked. Let the excitement die down. Maybe people would begin drifting away.
Fat chance. Just after dawn, in the offing, as they began negotiating the channel approaches, they were buzzed by an aeroplane. More were to follow.
They did as they were told. They remained below.
They read, played cards with Jon, stared at the cabin walls. The hours turned into what felt like days.
So, no, in the end, it wasn’t a bit like Anne’s fugitive dream. Stepping out into a new life… the reality was a little less than magical: they came ashore in broad daylight, Anne leading, Charles ten feet behind, cradling Jon in the crook of his right arm, feeding the gangway rail deftly through his left hand for support. It was blustery yet mild: Charles wasn’t even wearing an overcoat.
This was New Year’s Eve. They’d cross the Atlantic on the American Importer (the irony of the name was not lost on them, nor on the legions of newspaper reporters covering the story around the world), a modest-sized cargo ship carrying no other passengers. They made some friends though. Two, precisely: the ship’s kitten and a nice white-haired steward who served them their meals in their cramped (sometimes they felt like stowaways) little cabin. An Englishman, he’d served in two wars.
“And now we’re getting trimmed for another one,” he told Charles.
“Think so?” replied Charles, more amused than surprised.
“Oh yes, sir. To settle the question…” The steward paused here, glanced from Charles to Jon to Anne and then back again to Charles. “A chop for the baby?”
Jon was distinctly unimpressed with this. “I’m not a baby am I?” he protested, wriggling irritably in the nest of cushions they’d made for him so he could sit up at the table.
Jon had a point. He was not a baby. He was almost three-and-a-half.
Charles nodded. The steward withdrew.
War. Now we’re getting trimmed for another one. To settle the question. To settle it once and for all.
Two days out from Liverpool, it felt as if it had already begun. They’d sailed into a storm; and one particularly monstrous wave had almost done for them all, overwhelming the ship, crashing broadside, threatening, for an instant, to capsize it. The Lindberghs’ cabin flooded and their clothes (the clothes they were standing in and the clothes in their luggage) were ruined.
But they’d sailed through; and as they’d passed the coast of Ireland, though the seas were rough, the skies were blue. The breeze carried with it the distinctive smell of land, powerfully evocative after more than a week at sea, and their hearts lifted.
The decision to leave America had been made in secret. Charles hadn’t even told Anne until a couple of days before. Then he’d talked to Deak Lyman on The New York Times, on the strict understanding that the interview was to be embargoed until after the American Importer had sailed.
The article, 1750 words that would win Lyman the Pulitzer Prize, ran on Monday 21 December 1935. The front page headline of the Times that day, set in huge type across four columns, was:
LINDBERGH FAMILY SAILS FOR ENGLAND
TO SEEK A SAFE SECLUDED RESIDENCE:
THREATS ON SON’S LIFE FORCE DECISION
The headlines ten days later in Liverpool were rather simpler but no less dramatic:
LINDBERGHS IN LIVERPOOL
It was all a blur on the quayside. Police, some on horseback, a milling mob of reporters and photographers. Yet they made it to their waiting car.
Jon was brave. Anne and Charles, sitting back, looked at each other, smiled, squeezed hands.
Then, as if by divine intervention, the crowds parted and they were off.
Anne stared out of the car window as images of an unfamiliar city flitted by. Trams, omnibuses, chimney pots, red-cheeked children, women with shawls, nursemaids wheeling prams, dirty brick terraces, raincoats, drably dressed girls.
And on every street corner, newspaper sellers crying their wares. Extra! Extra!
LINDBERGH IN LIVERPOOL
Anne felt a frisson. Butterflies in her stomach. That intoxicating mix of fear and anticipation.
On every street corner as their car sped through the city streets:
LINDBERGH IN LIVERPOOL!