Tag Archives: Neville Chamberlain

Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain

So it had come to pass. Exit, stage right, a weeping King, led by his belt buckle. Exit, stage left, a bruised bruiser of a Prime Minister, supernumerary, a worked-out Warwick, a provincial kingmaker needed no longer now the King was unmade. And in his place, stepping into the Premier spotlight, a man of quiet confidence, a man who had always known this moment would come and who was utterly assured as to its rightness: a conceited man, a man, in other words, well-practised in mastering conceit. Scrubbed, pressed, immaculate in a wing collar. A stickler, a grey man with a salt and pepper moustache: and yet, for all that, a man who’d almost succeed in convincing you there was a twinkle, a mischievousness behind the bombastic façade. Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain.

It was like the denouement to a History Play. Or, who knew, the opening scene of its First Act.

He stepped right over to the lip of the stage and stood there, scanning to left and to right, as if to take the measure of every single member of his audience. And then it seemed as if he were about to strike a dramatic pose. Looking up now, uppish, his eyes fixed on the back row of the gods, it seemed possible that at any moment he might shape a definitive gesture; his hand might shoot up and he’d clutch at an essence in the empty air, destiny perhaps, and pull it passionately to his breastbone in his fist.

But of course this gesture, the gesture of all great dictators, did not come. He merely stood there, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing on his lips. There were a few scattered coughs from the darkest depths of the auditorium; but not a pin dropped. And the more he stood there in the spotlight, inviting you to take him in, Chamberlain plain, the more you were aware of motes of dust dancing in the column of lit air that isolated him from the darkness.

Motes, like microbes, like a swarm of tiny insects. They somehow made him seem moth-eaten.

And behind him, lit only by their leader’s reflected glory, his cabinet. The sort of supporting cast of which only a Caesar might dream: Hailsham, Halifax, Simon, Hoare, Eden, MacDonald, Hore-Belisha, Inskip. Even Harold was there, to the very back of this tableau.

Opening section of Book 8 of Flying Over Ruins, a project currently hurtling towards its ultimate destiny at a glacial pace

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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.