Monthly Archives: June, 2017

Taking off into a perfect sky, they were soon reabsorbed into a dreamy blue-and-purple world

Waldorf was surely right to question their thinking when it came to the whole question of “point-of-view.” When they’d talked blithely about “pictures” they’d somehow imagined that highly stylised graphic posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the whole wide world. Posters like the Art Deco ones the P&O liner company produced. Big blocks of bold colour. The Parthenon, say, in pale grey against a lime green or yellow or blushing pink sky. Background hints of a town somewhere in the twilight. And above, the Lindbergh plane, in silhouette, pitched at a rakish angle. Done well, this sort of image might have a subtle power, conveying a notion of glamour and modernity but also the feeling that an aeroplane could be seen as the harbinger of a new version of history.

A simple yet powerful message: The aeroplane, if you let it, would create more ruins. A world of ruins.

But of course no such posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the world.

All they had with them was a little lightweight camera and a few rolls of black and white film.

Details, details. What mattered most, surely, was Charles talking to the press. After all, a Charles Lindbergh quote was worth a thousand pictures.

Tellingly, though, the fact that they hated the press was another small detail they’d sort of overlooked. When they landed in Italy, having flown rather daringly right over the Alps, they were met at the aerodrome by a handful of reporters. It was hardly a mob; but almost by instinct now they pushed through without saying a word and they contrived to escape further attention by having their car pull up to a side entrance. They were tired, they were hungry; the press could wait another day.

And yet, when they returned to the airfield the next morning, to begin in earnest the first official leg of the expedition, there was no-one there. Not a soul. Not a single reporter. Not a single flashbulb.

But Rome was a hotspot compared to further afield. Carthage, for instance. A hazy afternoon, they weren’t even sure they’d flown over the right ruins; but when they landed at the new airstrip outside Tunis, there wasn’t a single person to meet them. Not even any ground crew. One hangar and two single-storey buildings whose windows hadn’t even been fitted with glass yet. All deserted. Luckily one of the telephones was connected. “Pronto! Pronto? Prego? Francaise? S’il vous plais, Embassy, Etats Unis?”

So it went. They criss-crossed the Mediterranean in search of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The thing was, though, that with every day that passed, their sense of mission seemed to drain away. They were aware this was happening, of course they were; and they did their very best, their damnedest, to keep the flame alive. Yet it was also true that some sort of enchantment was working upon them. A mythical power. Or, who knew, perhaps even some sort of primeval force.

Each day, as they took off on a new leg, with a new target ahead, they were more easily distracted. They were more easily intoxicated by beauty. It was almost as it they had become initiated, without quite knowing how or why, as disciples of a new aesthetic. First thing, not long after dawn, they’d take off into a perfect sky and were soon reabsorbed into a dreamy blue-and-purple world. The blue of the sky was darkest directly above, becoming paler towards the horizon; the purple of the mountains was deepest, brownest, along crinkled coastlines, shading out into distant mauve; and everywhere beneath them, the seas were a deep purply blue. From right up under the ceiling of the sky they could barely make out any sign of human activity below them, save, here and there, for the faintest threads of white left in the wake of sailing ships. An overpowering sense, from up here, that the Mediterranean was just one great puddle at the centre of an ancient world. But no sense at all of the ruins of that world.

And yet, though they drifted, though they gathered wool, they never wholly forgot what they were about…

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa, looks back at Tingmissartoq and at Charles

The book came together rapidly now. And, day by day, as it grew in size, it grew, more importantly, in mastery too. Its engine no longer sputtered, it generated real thrust and an ever-more-evident potential to roar.

She’d acquired, from who knew where, almost out of the ether, a startling array of writerly tricks. Games with time, with visual perspective, with psychological perspective. Tricks of the light, tricks of the mind.

And she’d made the inspired decision not to begin, after a suitable explanatory preamble, right at Bathurst. Instead, she began her narrative on Santiago, one of the islands in the Cape Verde archipelago. Santiago had been their real-world stepping stone before Bathurst; but she now saw its potential as a psychological prelude too. They’d found Santiago a disturbing, unsettling place. Now she latched onto the eldritch nature of their brief time there, using this as a harbinger of things to come. And rendering the experience of Santiago into words on a page taught Anne the deftest of tricks when it came to collapsing the very-very large into the very-very small. Entire worlds in a grain of sand.

It allowed her to strike up a metaphysical relationship with the elements too. The sea, the sky, a gale-force wind, hot and dry.

Because they’d been misled about Santiago. They’d been told it was a French seaplane station: and indeed, there was every evidence that, once upon a time, it had been earmarked as an important base for French transatlantic aviation. But at some point in the 1930s it had been semi-abandoned. Buildings crumbled, equipment rusted. Three of the base’s crew remained, perhaps forgotten by Paris, forsaken, human accounting errors still drawing meagre pay and rations.

It was a fly-blown, diseased outpost, a plague ship. They’d all had fever. Or would contract it soon. But it seemed a dysfunctional community in other ways too, a darkness simmering below the surface. Each minute she was there, Anne was glad she would not have the time to discover more. Perhaps if they’d stumbled upon some monstrous secret they’d never have been allowed to leave.

The station boss, his wife and the radio operator lived in a bungalow near the top of a steep hill overlooking the bay. A dusty, crumbly hill like a cinder spoil-heap. As Anne took off up the hill she looked back to see Charles in a row boat, pulling hard into the gale, heading out into the bay where Tingmissartoq was at anchor.

Closes her eyes, climbs further up the hill. She looks back… and Charles is still rowing hard into the wind and it is as if he has made no progress at all. She climbs some more, looks back, and he is still pulling hard, but still nowhere near reaching the plane.

Time does that sometimes. You walk forwards but sometimes you cannot help but look back. Or sometimes you walk forwards but everything around you stands still. And sometimes the effects are magnified, intensified, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa.

And another odd thing about Santiago was that, when she began reliving it, writing it, her general mood, already darkening, became darker still. She was conscious now of a festering anger. An anger and a pessimism. Even odder was the fact that she was almost certain that some of this anger was directed not towards Charles but towards Harold. It was almost as if she now openly resented him. For befriending her, for helping her, for giving her the use of Long Barn, for encouraging her, for being, when all was said and done, right about Bathurst.

Harold Nicolson, pretty flamingo, the pinkest of Elizabeth’s courtiers

… So off he flew to the land, more or less, where Stanley had met Livingstone. And he was hugely grateful in the end because the whole business proved wonderful for the soul. He found Africa stunningly beautiful. The approach to the airfield near Kampala, for instance, was particularly awe-inspiring. The strip was situated right by a lake; and from high above, circling to begin a descent, it looked for all the world as if this lake was edged in a coral necklace; and then, turning into a final approach, this necklace shattered, dissolved, fragmented, as thousands upon thousands of flamingos took to the air.

Day after day, there were further wonders to behold; and Harold drank them in.

The very air itself, he could have breathed it for a thousand days. Everything was clear and clean. Every experience seemed etched in peculiar sharpness. It was like Switzerland without the snow, hyper-real, more than vital. Even his allotted task, its endless meetings with uninspired and uninspiring colonial bureaucrats, seemed terribly stimulating. It was almost a shame to have to come home.

But come home he did to the last dregs of a filthy English winter.

And there was no mistaking the new mood. Edward VIII had gone and in his place as King, his brother, formerly The Duke of York. The Queen at his side, Elizabeth, was the mischievous little Scotch lady Harold had, in recent memory, failed to recognise at a cocktails reception. Yes, that Elizabeth, the twinkly-eyed pixie he’d attempted to shock to the very core of her being by taking her to a Sodom and Gomorrah show in Berlin less than ten years ago. O-ho! She had him now on toast if it pleased her. She could retain him as her poor fool.

Indeed, one of Harold’s first public acts on his return was a visit to Buckingham Palace. The new King and Queen, still feeling their way, threw a party for the Great and Good: and Harold, though insisting he qualified on neither count, was invited. He did his best to maintain a low profile and somehow blend in with the furniture; but all evening the Queen insisted on bringing people over to him, introducing him to friend and foe alike as “the pinkest of my courtiers.”

By which of course she meant his politics: his election as a National Labour member for one thing, his liberal views for another. She was teasing, naturally, and he didn’t much mind. In any case, the word “pink” now made him think of a coral necklace shattering into countless flamingo fragments, rising into the clear air above an African lake.

Extract from Book Seven of the 2016 draft of Flying Over Ruins