Monthly Archives: November, 2016

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living at, say, The National Theatre, can even begin to imagine how exciting it might be to rebel against a tired and outdated consensus.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.

Flying Over Ruins Book One: The Lives of the Caesars

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.

“Anne? Anne!”

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!

***

Charles Lindbergh’s clandestine role in the Munich crisis is not widely known. It may surprise many

Flying Over Ruins: a synopsis

Flying Over Ruins is a portrait of two of the most remarkable marriages of the 20th Century – and of the period in the late 1930s when their fortunes intertwined.

Charles Lindbergh, heroic aviator, the most famous human being on the planet, and his wife Anne, as sensitive as she is courageous, a first-rate writer in the making, seek a new life England in the aftermath of the murder of their first child.

They already know Harold Nicolson, who’d been a guest of the family in the States when he was writing a biography of Anne’s father. Now they’re destined to fall under the spell of Harold’s wife too: Vita Sackville-West.

Their arrival coincides with the revival of Harold’s ambitions as a statesman – and, for a while, his friendship with Charles is advantageous. But this proves a double-edged sword as Charles, naively, accepts invitations to visit Berlin and allows himself to be feted by Nazi Germany; and when he allies himself to the pro-Appeasement faction back in England, he helps throw Britain’s foreign policy into disarray.

As a result, Harold’s career soon lies in ruins. He can console himself that he’s been highly influential in Anne’s emergence as a writer of real talent; and he rediscovers his love, unlikely as this may seem to outsiders, for Vita. Anne and Charles, meanwhile, are drifting apart.

All the source material for Flying Over Ruins is already in the public domain; but no-one has put the material together in quite this way before – and there are genuinely new perspectives here. For instance, Lindbergh’s role in the Munich crisis will come as a surprise to many.

But as we see as our narrative unfolds, when Charles preaches about the invincibility of German air power, the nation listens… and his arguments are a major factor in emboldening the Cliveden Set. Similarly, Harold’s role in pre-war politics is almost always ignored: he’s far better known these days as Vita’s husband. But he’s a witty and colourful character in his own right – and Flying Over Ruins aims to show him at his compelling best.

At the outset of the book, the Lindberghs are installed in Harold and Vita’s Long Barn property; and the supremely well-connected Harold begins introducing Charles to all the people who matter, including royalty and the political elite. Along the way, he tries to co-opt him to the side of the foreign policy hawks warning of a growing German menace.

But Charles, much to his mentor’s chagrin, drifts towards allegiance with Nancy Astor – no friend of Harold’s. Coincidentally, despite several barnstorming speeches in The House, Harold’s star begins to wane.

Both men are damaged, professionally and personally, by events as they unfold – and have every reason to feel disillusioned. There’s a catalogue of failures here, some darkly comic (not least the Lindberghs’ Berlin trips), others poignant. Yet there’s resilience here too: Harold, outmanoeuvred, finds consolation in a new understanding with Vita; Charles, his naivety now cruelly exposed, heads back home, defeated in Europe but ready to meet turbulent new challenges in Washington.

As their story heads towards an elegiac conclusion, we begin to realise that history will eventually prove both men right, though in very different ways.

But Charles and Harold aren’t the whole story. Though they give the book much of its narrative structure, Anne is its beating heart. She was one of the most remarkable women of the age, celebrated for her role as co-pilot and navigator on Charles’s more sensational expeditions. Indeed, we’re party to one of these as they seek to fly over the ruins of all the world’s ancient civilisations (thus the book’s title) in one round trip before following Alexander’s route to India, where Charles meets one of his heroes, the mystic writer, Francis Younghusband.

In the opening chapter, Anne arrives on these shores still haunted by tragedy – the kidnap and murder of her first son in the so-called Crime of the Century. In England, she finds herself once more; and, encouraged by both Harold and Vita, begins to emerge as a writer of real talent.

In particular, we focus on the evolution of the acclaimed “Night Flight from Bathurst” chapters of Listen! – a book destined to become an instant bestseller.

More people should know about Anne Lindbergh – her story is an uplifting one.

In summary, Flying Over Ruins is a fictionalised account of a true story, as-yet-untold in this detail, about two marriages, four extraordinary people – and the ways in which they each see the world. Sensitively derived from the diaries and letters of the four main characters, it’s also a book very much about a time and a place, evoking Kent and London during a vividly intense period in Britain’s history.