The Year That Changed My Life (Part 6)

•April 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the last of a multi-part post.]

Every journey must end, as the 1989 British screenplay research trip did after I “celebrated” my 30th birthday in London.

The journal picks up the story again here:

[Tuesday, Nov. 28] Abi left for work at 8:30, after stopping at the back room to chat with me when I woke up. I told her of my fears of him (Tass) and was anxious to leave the flat should he come round and be violent (he was after all highly irrational). At 9:00, I was packed and ready. I didn’t take time for a bath or even to wash my hair. I’d planned to meet Lindsay at her job across from Warren Street station on Tottenham Court Road at 4:00 today, so I had hours to kill. I took the tube from Wood Green to Green Park, where I had a roll and two coffees at a café in Mayfair. I was relieved just to disappear into the populous of London. I didn’t like the idea of lugging my baggage around London, so after breakfast I took the tube to Pimlico and walked down to the Tate Gallery, where I’ve been since 10 o’clock this morning. I checked in my baggage at the coat check and walked about looking at the paintings (most of them are down now, waiting to be rehung in Jan. 1990) and taking in a tour or two. It’s been peaceful here, after the events of last night. If I have a replay at Lindsay & Bill’s, then I’ll find a B&B near Gatwick and wait there until my plane leaves Friday early afternoon. But I don’t think lightning will strike in the same place twice. Hm?

[Thursday, Nov. 30] Another few days to backtrack to and retrieve. No, things are much better now. I got to Lin’s office at Maple House off Tottenham Court Road at around 3:30—she was looking cheerful and I told her the story of my rough two days at Abi’s. She had to work another half hour, so I repaired my map of London with some scotch tape. After 4:00, we made our way to Victoria station where we caught the train to East Croydon. They have a nice two-bedroom flat not far from the train depot in an area of office blocks, but it’s quiet—very quiet at night. I met her husband Bill—when we came in he was doing the dishes—he’s a nice fellow, and we all talked cheerfully for a while. After a bit, Lin ran up to the stores and Bill and I took a walk down to the video store to return a rented tape, After we got back we had two McEwan’s Ales, then Lin cooked some supper and we watched the news. I was dead tired from all the stress of the previous day, and so turned in early.

About Wednesday, Nov. 29: I tried to catch the coach at Victoria Coach Station to Guildford at 11am, but the coach left without us. I was standing with a sixth-form high school kid named Steven who was due for an admissions interview at the University of Guildford, so we both hiked over to Victoria tube station and caught it round to Waterloo station. It wasn’t a long wait for the train to Guildford, but I paid out more money that morning than I’d planned to. We arrived in Guildford at around 1:00, and I called Richard Jefferies from a shopping mall and caught the next local bus out to the Museum, at 2:00.

Watts Gallery is nestled in the Surrey countryside just outside Guildford in the sleepy little hamlet of Compton. I was greeted at the door by a young woman named Hilary, dressed in peasant clothes, with a neckerchief over her head and shawl around her shoulders. I saw two or three cats purring around the place (one was named ‘Simpkins’) and the walls just covered with Watts’ paintings. I met Richard Jefferies, a younger man than I expected, in his mid-40s at most, with longish dark hair and mutton-chop sideburns and beard. I’d felt as though I’d stepped briefly into the 19th century. Richard Jeffries is a pleasant, humorous fellow—and very knowledgeable about art, history, and literature. I looked at [Watts’ painting] Found Drowned and Hilary, who I’d gathered was his gallery assistant and secretary, looked over my script. We had a pleasant time discussing it and, after they started to see what I’d attempted to do by it, were enthusiastic. At one point Mr. Jeffries had to run up to town to pick up his young daughter (who later slunk about, seemingly fascinated by me) and later I met his wife, a short, quiet woman who shook my hand and disappeared. Later, he, Hilary (who occasionally got pedantically strident about her opinions on art) and I sat and drank tea in his Victorian-cluttered office, joked about Britain, art history, antiques—he even played Bishop’s “Tell Me My Heart” on an old player. He drove me to the train station at 6:30 and I got back to Bill & Lin’s by 8:00, beat but elated.

Friday, Dec. 1: This is probably the last entry I’ll make in Britain this trip. It’s a slightly overcast day here—another one frosty cold. I’m sitting at the writing desk in the back room of Lin & Bill’s flat. I’m looking forward to going home, the last leg of this strange journey—it turned out pretty much as I’d imagined it would be, like a strange dream, with joyous and nightmarish images mixed. It’ll hit me the hardest after I’ve returned home, I’m sure.

About Thursday, Nov. 30: My last day in London, and it was a beautiful day, sunny and somewhat warmer later on. I was out the door of the flat by 10:30 and on the train up to London I thought I heard someone mention the name Ellen Terry, an older voice. Then I heard a man’s deep and distinctive voice and glanced back to see sitting just behind me an actor who’d played a flea catcher on “The Good Life” [the late Michael Robbins]. When the train stopped at Victoria, I told him I enjoyed his performance and he shook my hand. “Those are about the only parts I get,” he said dryly. I took off for the American Express office in Victoria Street to exchange a travelers check, then caught the tube for Holland Park, down Melbury Road and over to Addison Road where I found St. Barnabbas’ Church (built 1829) where Nelly & Watts were married in 1864. I talked to a young man at the Rectory door who showed me in and I got a photograph of the inside of the church. After photographing the outside of the church, I walked back up to Chester Place and to Holland Park, the juncture of which I imagine was the site of Little Holland House (no longer extant). I walked up past old Holland House, then through Campden Hill, back to the Kensington High Street station. I got up to Leicester Square, poked around a bit at the Reference Library there, then walked down to the National Portrait Gallery through Trafalgar Square, and looked at “Choosing” one last time. I stopped into a few pubs on the way into and out of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden (disappointing lack of memorabilia) and outside of Covent Garden at a pub I met an Irish couple (younger than I) who were working in London for a while, but had been staying in Boston, in the States. They bought me a half of Guinness. I had to race through Oxford Street at rush hour to get to Aldgate East station to meet Lin & Bill at the Seven Stars Pub (pictured above left) for a drink before supper. I had a pint of the cider, Bill had a whiskey and Lin a half of cider. Then they bought me supper at an excellent kosher restaurant on the corner, down from the pub and at around 7:00, we went to the AYH Auction at Toynbee Hall. It was an amusing evening; I bought two candlesticks (made in England) and a few books. Later, I joked with a few of the members there and Lin, Bill & I caught the train back to East Croydon by 11:00.

****

I’m cheered to read and remember that it ended so well. It occurs to me now that had I flown back immediately after the birthday night fracas, it would’ve permanently ruined what was a productive and happy journey. Fortunately I stayed with the plan to meet up with Lin and Bill, and was rewarded with generosity and community. It was marvelous.

And that exchange with the actor Michael Robbins on the train lends a sweet coda (even down to thinking I’d overheard someone say “Ellen Terry”) to the screenplay research part of the trip. Robbins, I’ve since learned, died three years later of prostate cancer.

My 30th birthday trip to England was like a strange dream, “with joyous and nightmarish images mixed” in.

A lot like life, no?

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The Year That Changed My Life (Part 5)

•April 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the fifth of a multi-part post.]

Movies, such as the screenplay I was writing back in 1989, consist of acts, which of course are further broken down into scenes.

In the movie that was my British screenplay research trip in November 1989, we’re now at the top of Act III, scene 1. Tensions developed. The journal tells it:

FADE IN: INT. BUS. DAY…

[Saturday, Nov. 25] Another long traveling day. I had to be up early to be at the Bath coach station by 10:05. I had a last breakfast at Sheridan House, sat next to the quiet older woman with buck teeth and another couple, younger, from Bristol. After breakfast I said goodbye to the Canadian couple I’d met at breakfast Thursday morning and to whom I’d mentioned the script. The walk down to the coach station was brisk and bright, the sky was blue, but it’s gotten much colder. The ride from Bath to London went without a hitch—sunny all the way and, out of Bath, beautiful sights. We stopped at one or two spots along the way, and reached London Victoria at about 10 past one o’clock that afternoon. I got my travel card at the British Rail office at Victoria and made my way over to the Wood Green station. I got there at a little past two o’clock and instead of waiting around the station, I walked up the road, asking people as I went, the way to Palace Gates Road. I eventually found it, but the couple in the downstairs flat at 64 Palace Gates Road, Julie and Hamish, told me Abi and her boyfriend had gone out only 10 minutes before, presumably to pick me up at the Wood Green station. After a while, they invited me in and Julie made coffee and I waited for Abi to return, feeling more than a little sheepish for not waiting at the station. She and boyfriend “Tass” (Nigel Tasanine) returned about an hour later and we three went upstairs to Abi’s flat and chatted for over an hour. Around 6:30 we drove out to a Malaysian restaurant for supper. I’m staying in the back room of the flat for the next couple days, then it’s down to Bill and Lin Lockyer’s place in East Croydon. Tomorrow I will call them and also Joy Melville. I talked to Richard Jeffries at the Watts Gallery on Friday in Bath. It was a pleasant chat and I made an appointment to see the gallery at Compton on Wednesday.

[Tuesday, Nov. 28] Right now I’m in the Reading Room of Clore Gallery, an annex of the Tate Gallery. It’s a grey, misty day outside. I’ve had an emotionally and psychically exhausting last two days. I left Abi’s flat in Wood Green in a rush this morning at 9:00, just after she left for work. Backtracking, here’s the story:

About Saturday, Nov. 25: Well, I’ve said most of that in the last entry, but to embellish: Dinner with Abi & Tass was a bit awkward because Tass turned out to be a well-read, soft-spoken guy—a bit of a pedant, but there was a certain tension underneath. He rolled his own cigarettes and disparaged bourgeois habits. Apparently I said all the wrong things, but he remained tacit (no pun intended). After supper we all went back to Abi’s and I went straight to bed. Tass slept with Abi in her bed. In the morning…

About Sunday, Nov. 26: They drove me in Abi’s car to Highbury and Islington station where I caught the Tube down to Euston. I walked over and photographed Stanhope Street, then stopped into a pub off Redhill Street, had two pints, and walked on to Regent’s Park. I strolled through the park on a cool, clear day … children playing, parents walking them by the zoo, couples snuggling up together … I got down to Baker Street toward the Marble Arch. Being Sunday, I decided to go over to Speaker’s Corner and milled about with the crowd and got an earful of nonsense. I chatted with a girl from Boston who’s celebrating her 20th birthday today (the 28th). After Speaker’s Corner, I took the Tube to Charring Cross and came up at Trafalgar Square. I went into the National Portrait Gallery and saw “Choosing” —it’s beautiful (pictured above right). I also saw a self-portrait of Watts. After, I walked up Covent Garden and took the Tube back to Wood Green by around 6:00. Abi stayed at Tass’s in South London Sunday, but I called over there to tell them I got back all right. I walked down to Wood Green High Street and bought a kebab sandwich for supper and cans of Stella at an off-license. That night I cozied up to keep warm, watched some television and went to bed.

About Monday, Nov. 27: My 30th birthday started off well, but didn’t end that way. I’d called Joy Melville on Sunday night and we agreed to meet at Waterloo station at 10:30 Monday morning. So I got up early, bathed and dressed and got to Waterloo by 10:15. There was a bit of a mix-up finding her, but I got my bearings and saw her car outside on the street by platform #4. She drove us to her place in Clapham. I showed her the script, she made coffee and lit a gas fire and we talked for a little over an hour about Nelly, Godwin, Watts, and everything related to the story. I told her about Dr. Hinton’s attempts to save Cameron House and she took down his address. She corrected some bits of the script involving class and diction, and I made a mental note to go over those more critically at rewrite. She seemed pleased with the idea about a film, and when I mentioned that I thought Maggie Smith would make a good Julia Margaret Cameron, she said her sister is good friends with “Maggie” and thought she’d be too pretty to play the dumpy-faced Aunt Julia. We both agreed that Vanessa Redgrave, in her younger days, would have made a marvelous Nelly. At around noon or 1:00, she drove me to Waterloo Bridge and I walked across the river to Covent Garden. I wanted to see the Theatre Museum, but it was shut for the day. I had a ploughman’s at a pub near Long Acre in Bow Street with two or three pints of Bitter. From there I got it in my head to go to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was open, and didn’t see much there I liked, the lighting was all wrong—though the costume exhibits weren’t too bad [a lot of students there sketching]. Out of curiosity, I walked down Cromwell Road to Queen’s Gate Mews to see if David Puttnam was in at Enigma Productions. I found the place and went straight in. There was an attractive brunette secretary and another gentleman there. I said I’d come to see Mr. Puttnam, that I had with me the first draft of a screenplay on Ellen Terry that I knew he’d be interested in. The gentleman told me that “David” wasn’t in and that Enigma was up to their ears in scripts. I showed Colin Vaines [the gentleman] my script and he breezed through it, asking if I had an agent who’d refer me. I said I was a first-time screenwriter and had a property I knew they’d be interested in. “I believe in impertinence and pluck, like Mr. Putnam’s.” The guy seemed amused. He offered to take my script and read it when he had a chance, but I said I couldn’t leave it because it’s a working first draft. I said I could send him a treatment when I returned to the States and he gave me his card. As I left I said: “Don’t forget, this will be Enigma Productions’ 1995 Academy Award winner!” They seemed amused. I was feeling like I could do anything after that sort of day [Ms. Melville is meeting the Weares on Saturday and they will discuss my idea of an Ellen Terry film.]

About Monday, Nov. 27 night: Abi and I met at the door of her flat at around 6:00. I intended to go uptown for a meal and a few birthday drinks when the “ceiling caved in.” Tass had called and jealously told Abi he was dumping her things out of his flat and into the street. She’d have to go and pick them up. She was in tears and wouldn’t listen to me. She phoned family and friends for advice. According to Tass, I suddenly became “that fucking American gigolo.” He was sure that Abi would cheat on him. Abi had confessed to me that he was an alcoholic who’d probably beat his second wife (a divorce was pending) and all under the age of 35! I think he was probably drunk. We drove down to his place in South London to pick up her things and when she rang the door, he shouted out of the top window: “Go away! I don’t want to talk to you! If Abi wants me, she knows where to find me!” We picked up the garbage bags full of her articles, packed them in the car and left. When we got back to her place, he’d left messages full of invective on the answering machine. “Tell your American friend to learn the language before he writes a book!” It was nightmarish. We talked for a bit, then I shakily went to bed. As you can imagine, I didn’t sleep well, the phone kept ringing all night with his vile messages. Abi was on the phone to friends until all hours. By morning, I’d already packed and was more than ready to go home.

In hindsight, it was probably to Abi’s benefit that I arrived when I did and (inadvertently) aided in her breakup with Tass. If he was abusive to his former wife, you can sure bet he would’ve done the same to Abi.

As for this American needing to “learn the language before he writes a book”?

Well, only time would tell about that.

The Year That Changed My Life (Part 4)

•March 24, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the fourth of a multi-part post.]

It was November 1989, Wednesday, Nov. 22 to be exact.

I was on a bus en route to Bath, England, researching my first spec screenplay, about the early life of Victorian actress Ellen Terry (illustration at right, with her later colleague Sir Henry Irving).

The following is a direct transcription from my journal of the time, written at the end of that week, when I was preparing for the final leg of the journey back to London in time for my 30th birthday.

This is what it says about the year that changed my life:

[Friday, Nov. 24] Yes, well it’s been a few days and lots of adventures in between. Wednesday the 22nd was a traveling day much like I hope tomorrow the 25th will go. I’d gotten a bus [coach] ticket in Freshwater and Tuesday afternoon I’d gotten together with Mr. Richard J. Hutchings and his wife, of Brighstone, who is a local historian of Tennyson. He and his wife picked me up at Cambridge Lodge and took me past the Farringford and Watts’ Freshwater residence, The Briary, just down the road. Anyway, I’d said all that before. Wednesday morning I had my last breakfast at Cambridge Lodge. The night before I’d been to the Albion and before supper walked the cliffs above Freshwater Bay. Wednesday a.m. I took the 8:23 bus to Newport. It was frosty and cold. At Newport I transferred to Cowes where I took the ferry over to Southampton. At Southampton I waited an hour and a half for a coach to Bath. It was a clear windy and cold day. When the coach got into Bath I headed for the Tourist Bureau and got booked into a room for three nights at 13 pounds per. Not as good as the previous places, but besides Tenterden, I paid more. After taking the local bus to Sheridan House at Bearflat and dropping off my luggage, I hurried back down to Bath and immediately found the Theatre Royal. There I talked to a Jane Tapley, who agreed to give me a brief tour on Thursday at 10am. I booked a seat for the evening performance of “Our Country’s Good” and went into town for supper and drinks. I didn’t find supper but I did find Guinness on tap and good conversation at the Smith Bros. Tavern Dorchester Ales at Westgate, just down from the theatre. All I had time for was a bag of cheese and onion crisps and a few pints of stout. I talked with two guys, one ditching his wife who’d been to New Orleans in the ’sixties and the other who want to talk Anglo-American politics. By 7:30 curtain, I had to drunkenly rush up to the theatre. The show was good, though a bit slow and amateurish. I really enjoyed being in the actual theatre Nelly played in Opening Night 1863. Afterwards I had drinks in the bar with the actors and a “hamburger” on the walk “home.”

[Thursday] Nightmarish – wonderful – magic. I had breakfast then ran up to meet Jane Tapley for the tour of Theatre Royal, Bath. After a 20-minute tour, I commenced to the Reference Library in Bath where a young man named Chris helped me find the Bath Chronicle for March 4, 1863 … I’VE GOT A COPY OF THE DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE! Hurrah! A thing I thought I couldn’t find! I was also able to get a playbill for the Opening Night of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I also chatted with a college student (blonde girl) who was doing her dissertation on Nazi art [?]. Directly after the library I took the 12:00 bus, at the bus station, to Bristol. What a dump Bristol has become! I wandered about the City Centre—the Tourist Bureau because I’d forgotten my map—then the Old Vic [Theatre Royal] where I bought souvenirs and arranged to take a tour on Friday. There was a performance of Ibsen’s “Master Builder” scheduled on Thursday at 3:00. I wandered up to the public library where I requested the Western Daily Press for Sept. 1862. I read the notices of “Endymion” on Sept. 15—then … came across the first of Godwin’s “Theatrical Jottings.” I wanted to have copies made, but the bound volume of papers was too big. I was able to jot down some notes. It was amazing to finally read [hear] Godwin’s own voice. I’m so far off base with him! He’s brilliant! After 4pm, I struggled wearily back to the bus station. On the bus back I had a drunk sit right behind me. I snapped at him and he wolfed back. I moved to the back of the bus. It was like an ominous note to a wonderful day—like the tumorous madman outside Tenterden—there’s a dark element to this whole proceeding. I went for a quick stout at the Smith Brothers, then had dinner at an Indian restaurant Tandoori [“Maharaja”] in Bath with chicken Madras, rice, and vegetables which made me sick later. It was odd. I stopped in for a last drink across the street, chatted with the Australian bartender and later, after I’d gotten back, was full of nausea and sickness—I threw up. A few glasses of water seemed to set me right and when I woke up in the morning I felt great.

[Friday] In brief, I’m dead tired. I’d like to get to London tomorrow and put my feet up for 2 days. Not go anywhere except by wheelchair. Today:

  • Bristol by 10 am. Portland Square. I photographed Godwin’s old home.
  • Tour of Theatre Royal Bristol at 12 noon. A gorgeous, grey-eyed brunette with a beautiful accent showed a handful of us around. I showed her the script later, but she didn’t seem impressed.
  • University of Bristol Theatre Dept. Talked with Mr. Christopher Robinson. George Rowell retired two years ago. Told him all about my project. Photocopied Keith Barker’s article on Terrys and Godwin in Bristol. Back at B&B by 5 o’clock.

I guess my big takeaway for this leg of the journey had to be the “ominious notes” that came from being on the road. Also, recalling the pure joy I felt in finding a missing piece in my research, right there in the Bath reference library.

With the good and the bad, I took things in stride, knowing change was just around the corner, and with it fresh possibilities.

Something, I believe, I still need to be reminded about.

The Year That Changed My Life (Part 3)

•March 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the third of a multi-part post.]

I just want to get back into the story, like I always do.

So to change things up, I’ll let the journal do the talking first and flip the commentary to the end:

[Saturday, Nov. 18] Yesterday, after I sadly and reluctantly left Tenterden, was the most nightmarish of the days yet. I caught the bus to Hastings via a transfer in Rolvenden. A crazy character with a tumor sticking out of his neck, and smoking one cigarette after another, ranted a bit to me at the bus stop. After arrival in Hastings, I never saw him again. Hastings is a bustling coastal town, all jam-packed up to the sea, much like Brighton. I didn’t really like it. At the coach stop, I bought a ticket to Portsmouth and was told I’d have to wait until 4:30 for the next coach. It was a maddening wait, for I had arrived in Hastings at a quarter past noon. I walked down the street, thinking I’d sit by the sea, but felt anxiety that I’d miss a bus being too far from the departure spot. I wanted to travel that day, not wait around. I ended up stopping into a pub just down the road from the coach, on Queens Avenue. There I wrote postcards and put down pints of bitter. After a while an elderly couple sat down beside me and we chatted. It was a pleasant time and I got a few glances from the locals when they heard my American accent. Well, the couple left after extolling their imagined virtues [of] Disneyland, and I had another hour or two to kill. I alternated between the street and the pub. Finally, after 4:00, when I queried the bus driver, he told me there was no bus from Hastings to Portsmouth; I had to come up to London again and transfer to the Portsmouth bus. Arrgh! I was hungry, tired, and had to pee halfway through the journey. At London Victoria Coach Station I ate, double-checked schedules, and relieved myself. By 7:30, I was on the bus to Portsmouth wondering where I was going to be sleeping for the night.

[Sunday, Nov. 19] I broke down when I reached Portsmouth Harbour, The Hard, and booked the first place I saw, right across the street. I was exhausted from a long, hard day. It’s symbolic that the place I stayed [at] was called The Hard. Anyway, it was 45 pounds for the night—the most expensive to date, and nothing special. But I was able to relax, clean up, watch Monty Python on the telly, and sleep in a very comfortable bed. Unfortunately I was psychically unprepared to completely relax, and had some trouble really sleeping. I left the hotel by 11am and caught the 11:20 ferry to Ryde. It was a lovely day, warm (I’d guess 50-60 degrees F). I took the local bus in Ryde to Newport and transferred in Newport to Freshwater. I trudged up the hill at Bedford Road to Farringford Hotel where I am now in a comfortable room (No. 5) for 18.50 a night with breakfast. I made some phone calls after I settled in here—and Mrs. Wright of Totland Bay (who I’d written to months ago) fixed me up with Cambridge Lodge just down the street for the next two nights at 15.50 per. Well, I’ll save a bit and after all I’ll be closer to Dimbola (right across the road). I walked around this afternoon and photographed Farringford, the Downs, and Dimbola (photo above right). The seagulls squawked overhead, the sky was overcast. I walked down by Dimbola and looked out toward Freshwater Bay. This evening the guests have gone and I’m the only one staying here. I walked upstairs to the Tennyson library, and the young porter showed me Room #1—the poet’s bedroom, with the bathroom a walk down two stairs connected—the one that was quite probably the one in which Mrs. Cameron took the famous photo of Nelly.

[Monday, Nov. 21] This morning I transferred from Farringford to Cambridge Lodge, down the road, at a savings of 3 pounds a night. I had a good day today. I [ate] breakfast at Farringford and chatted with a nice couple in their late 40s or 50s—she German descent and he English. They wished me luck on the rest of my journey. At 10:00 I checked out of the hotel and walked down the back footpath to the entrance of Bedbury Lane. I got set up in my room and then went to Freshwater Town Centre. Everyone I met along the way was nice. I stopped in at a Travel Agent and booked a coach ticket from Southhampton to Bath on Wednesday at 1:00. I looked in the shops and got a new watchband at Reade’s. A lovely young brunette helped me with it. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by BTO played over the speakers. I thought it odd at the time. I stopped into a pub called Buddy’s and had a ham & cheese sandwich and a bitter and listened to a few songs by Buddy Holly there: “Learning the Game” and “Think It Over.” At 1:30 I stopped back [at] the Freshwater Library to meet Dr. Brian Hinton, the librarian. He looked like a British Wallace Shawn, youngish, late 30s, excitable, and we sat in the small library’s gallery where I showed him my draft of “The Wandering Moon”—he seemed pleased. He had just come from a Borough Council meeting about the fate of Dimbola. At Cambridge Lodge, I’m right across from it now. We didn’t chat long and at 4:30-5:00 I phoned Mr. R.J. Hutchings, a Tennyson scholar from Brighstone, at a phone box up the road. He’s picking me up here at 2:30 tomorrow to see my script. I had supper down at the Albion Hotel in Freshwater Bay after walking by the seafront and thinking about Everything.

[Tuesday, Nov. 21] My last night at Cambridge Lodge, across the street from Dimbola. I was up before 8:00 for breakfast at 8:30 sharp. I caught the 9:23 bus into Yarmouth and walked about there—cashed some traveller’s checks, had a coffee, and photographed the pier. I knew I had the appointment with Mr. Hutchings at 2:30, so I struggled to make it back to Freshwater, returning by 11 o’clock at the Freshwater Library the copy of Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater: A Comedy that Dr. Hinton had loaned me. We chatted for a bit while he stamped people’s books. He’s an excitable fellow, a bit scatter-brained, but the local people think he’s brilliant. He’s gung-ho about preserving Cameron House on Freshwater Bay. After speaking to him at the library I walked back to Cambridge Lodge and waited a half hour for Mr. R.J. Hutchings, who showed up in a car with his wife. They are a couple in their 60s and were pleased to show me Watts’ old house in Freshwater, The Briary, as well as Moorlands Manor down the road toward Brighstone. I showed him the script and Mrs. Hutchings made tea. We talked somewhat haltingly about Watts, Tennyson, Freshwater, and the Camerons. He seemed somewhat pleased, but didn’t envy my task in rewriting and trying to sell the screenplay. He seemed to ask me a lot of questions about filmmaking I couldn’t answer. His wife drove me back to Freshwater Bay at around 5:00. I watched telly for a while and later had supper (Beef & Guinness pie, chips and peas) at the Albion Hotel. The college crowd came in [Mike, etc.] and Glaswegian Steve behind the bar was running about. Tomorrow early I leave for Cowes, Southhampton, and Bath before [returning to] London again.

Let me just say “The Hard” never lasts. That’s a cliché, of course, but the takeaway is by enduring difficulty, seeing it through, I got to a better place in the end. There would be more strange things on the road ahead, but after the diversion back to London, and finally reaching Portsmouth, I knew I could soldier on.

The other takeaway is recalling I was completely immersed in a new world, one I never would’ve imagined existed, and would never have had been a part of, had I not laid the groundwork months before (pictured at left in my Hopkins studio apartment work area in 1989).

Just looking at that photo (taken by my maternal grandfather on a visit), confirms what my late father always said to me: “Mike is a pack rat. He makes his nest. He most feels at home when he’s like Thoreau in his Walden cabin.” I can’t confirm this statement (yet), since Dad is gone. But I’m still grateful he told me that. That pack rat nest is where I produced a lot of work, and where I developed my work ethic.

Is it my best self?

Who knows.

The Year That Changed My Life (Part 2)

•February 23, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the second of a multi-part post.]

In 1989, I finished the draft of my first screenplay.

Then I went to England to do research toward a rewrite.

I was living two different lives. Primary life: Average corporate drone, 29 years old, living in my first apartment and dreaming of a world beyond how everyone seemed to insist the average corporate drone live: buying things, not doing anything remarkable, and staying on the capitalist treadmill. The second life was that of a real writer, putting in the writing time, staying curious, and going out into the real world to meet people who could maybe help shape my work.

Damn, it was a heady year. That’s why I think it changed my life. And while I’m eager to pull it apart, analyze and explain it, maybe it’s best to just let it speak for itself.

So here’s how the 1989 journal continues the story of the year that changed my life:

Sunday, 19 November. Well, three days later and things went slightly askew. Right now I’m in an overly expensive hotel room, just up from “The Hard” in Portsmouth. Today I’m planning to ferry over to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, then take the local bus to Freshwater. After yesterday, I’m more skittish of timely transportation. I’ll feel more confident after today, when the workday transport is going again and the banks are open.

To recount the previous wonderful two days: [Thursday morning] I caught the coach to Tenterden via Ashford. The last Wednesday night at Holland Park Hotel was nightmarish— I got only about one and a half hours of sleep due to a noisy couple who banged about when they returned after 11pm. I was glad to be out of London Wednesday morning—I called Lindsay at work and told her I’d call her & Bill at home when I returned from the provinces. Thursday afternoon I arrived in Ashford and took the local bus to Tenterden. I found a list of B&Bs in the Visitor’s Center, called a Mrs. MacDonald within walking distance of Town Hall, settled into an upstairs room at their place and went up to town in search of food and drink. The recommended “Wool Pack” pub wasn’t open before 6pm, so I went across the street to the “Eight Bells”—I had a pint of Bitter and eventually, when it was discovered I was American, got into a conversation with the locals. One old guy, Dick, was a WWII POW in the Pacific, with him was his white-haired friend Wynn, a retired general. They were chatty, fairly agreeable folk, but Dick kept going on about us Yanks being “Our Babies” and talking politics, race, and religion. I seemed to surprise him with my general knowledge of world events prior to my birth—my working knowledge. He bought people drinks [and] I eventually had some “pub grub”—sausages, chips and salad—the younger set at the pub were beginning to pity my place beside “a yawning bore like Dick.” Apparently it turned out, after Dick, Wynn, and a younger friend left, that the regulars hadn’t seen him before. I struck up a conversation with Steve, a hospital assistant from Tenterden, 27 years old, who had been one of the folks pitying my lot and amazed at my patience. He told me to stop in at the Eight Bells at 6pm on Friday and meet him and his fiance Gloria for drinks. I agreed and went “home” to bed.

[Friday.] The previous afternoon, upon my arrival in Tenterden, I’d phoned Margaret Weare at the Ellen Terry Museum. We’d made arrangements to meet on Friday morning. The earliest bus to Smallhythe was 8:05am, so I had to be up early. I got there at 15 or 20 minutes past the hour. It was a lovely brisk morning, sun shining, frost on the grass and fallen leaves. Here I was, finally standing in front of Ellen Terry’s front door (photo at left). I half-expected her to come out and cheerfully show me in. I waited until about 8:30am, and walked about taking photos of the cottage from all sides. At 9am, a woman hailed me from an open upstairs window, asking me to come around to the left gate. There I met Mrs. Weare, a lovely woman in her mid-fifties. She show me in, we went upstairs to the library where she turned on a floor heater. We talked all the while, I showed her the script and we looked through five or six large photo albums full of Nelly in costume or various poses. It was marvellous! I looked over the old books I requested the previous afternoon—Godwin’s drawings, Nelly’s notes in the margins of books—one in particular describing a night where she’d played Ophelia opposite Irving’s Hamlet and felt she’d failed, and walked up and down the Thames embankment in despair. She wrote: “Oh the Misery I felt that night!” It spoke clear out of the ages to me.

Mrs. Weare showed me ET’s bedroom, and Forbes-Robertson’s painting of Godwin & Nelly’s house in Harpenden. Lovely! The floors of the cottage were creaky and crooked, and bent about in odd directions. The ceilings were so low I asked Mrs. Weare if Ellen had trouble walking about if she was so tall—“She was only about 5 ft. 7 in.” Mrs. Weare said.

After awhile her husband Tony, a tall, sweet man in his late fifties, showed up, apparently with a bit of a cold, and joined me in the library, reading over my script as I looked through the books. He made a few very good suggestions, but overall seemed pleased with it and said: “It flows very nicely.” I explained to them both some of the more vivid scenes: the King John rehearsal, the Charles Reade realism bit, the scene where Nelly [is] left in Tennyson’s bathroom. They seemed pleased and amused. They showed me Ellen’s costumes as Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Portia—beautiful! In one book I even got to touch a lock of Henry Irving’s hair that Ellen had kept! As I was talking to Tony, we got on the subject of Godwin and he said to me: “You realize you’re sitting in one of his chairs just now?” I nearly leapt up! It was reupholstered, but the wood was the same, with carved lion heads on either side of the top. Chilling! It probably came from the Harpenden days. I was at the museum from 8:15 to just after noon when Mrs. Weare drove me back to Tenterden and we said goodbye. It had been an absolutely magical morning.

[Friday afternoon.] I went back to the B&B, deciding to stay in Tenterden one more night. At around 3:00 I went into the Eight Bells for a drink and to recollect my thoughts when I saw Steve sitting at the bar with his pint of Stella Artois lager. I [joined him] as he unwound from another hectic day in surgery. At around 5:30 or 6 the regulars came in, Steven the barman with blonde hair and blue eyes replaced by Pete, a tall dour type who’s leaving England shortly to live with a Frenchwoman on the continent, Martin who [does] the Street Works, a cheerful guy, came in and got his own half pint mug filled. “Cheers.” Then Gloria arrived after she got off work as a nurse at the same private hospital where Steve works. We all had drinks at the bar and Steve, Gloria, and I planned to have supper at an Indian restaurant down the road. Before we were about to leave, a bearded guy to the right of me overheard me telling Gloria about my Ellen Terry film script and asked if I needed a local reference to write him. “What about my credentials?” I said, perhaps a bit cheekily. “What you’ve said already and the way you’ve said it is credentials enough,” he replied. He wrote down the address. Turns out he’s an English teacher at the local school.

After a cheery supper at the Indian place, we stopped over at Steve and Gloria’s and met their cat. Gloria expressed amazement at my trip and what it involved and said, “I think you’re very brave.” Then Steve and I went up to the Working Man’s Club and watched a mate of his, Nigel, play snooker. I got back to my room around midnight, or a little before, after Steve gave me his address and we said goodbye with a handshake in the street.

When I left Tenterden around 11:00 Saturday morning, I felt very weak and had tears in my eyes.

I think this trip is the most wonderful, and also the most difficult, thing I’ve ever done.

Sabrina Throws a Party

•February 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

It’s unusual for me to repost after posting a new blog, but these are strange times. This post covers a night rich in memory for me about a friend who may be on his deathbed in Minneapolis. I was sorry to hear about this, but happy to (re)share this post. Mark and his family should know I wanted to use the incident (of the case of Miller beer in trunk) in an as-yet unpublished novel (a pivotal scene), so I’ll have to dig through boxes to find that and report back later. Ah, life. Go hug someone you love. Or call them. God bless you, Mark and family.

Completely in the Dark

Awaking late the morning of Jan. 1, 1978, head still buzzing from the night out with Stephanie in the backseat of Harvey’s ’68 Mustang, I had one pressing chore: Pack for the Family Project’s ski trip to Telemark Resort in Wisconsin.

Dad had rented a condo in the town of Cable, on Lake Owen, and we were leaving on New Year’s Day. We’d be gone for nearly a week. I hastily called Steph, the diary reports, “before we left around 7:00 or so. I told her I’d be thinking about her, she said she’d miss me too.” I added, “But when I get back, there will be Sabrina’s party for us to go to.”

The drive was uneventful. But when we reached the place near midnight, it wasn’t yet ready for us. Dad angrily put us up at a little place called “The Alpine Motel,” where we…

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The Year That Changed My Life (Part 1)

•February 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

When I don’t know where my life is going, I always lean back to the past. It just makes me feel better—like I actually came from someplace.

Last time we were here, at Completely in the Dark, it was the mid-1980s.

I’d left University of Iowa for a proofreader gig at a direct mail marketing corporation in Hopkins, Minn., where I’d moved in April 1986. It was my first-ever apartment (photo at left) and I was proud that I had a full-time job. I had benefits, a 401k (another first!), a new girlfriend, and I entertained coworkers with dinner parties and nights on the town.

It was a heady time.

Of course, heady was never enough and I crashed under the weight of it all in 1987. The Cliff’s Notes of the story include recovering in 1988, taking another shot at finishing an undergraduate degree, and changing work from day to night shift.

In 1989, the work change gave me time to write my first screenplay, The Wandering Moon, and still pay the rent. Then I set another goal: I’d return to England that autumn, the first draft in my hot little hand, and complete research on outstanding questions I had about the story—not to mention seeing the locations up close and personal.

Plus, it would be my 30th birthday.

I knew I wanted that milestone to mean more than a passage of years—it had to bring new purpose to my life.

In hindsight, it did. Big time.

It’s important for me to remember all this now because I’m at a similar crossroads.

I’ve just come off probably the hardest decade of my life, beginning in 2006 and finally turning around last year. Over that time I gained two new jobs, back-to-back, a condo home (with a mortgage!), a girlfriend, and was on a strong foundation.

Then 2008 arrived.

Both my parents died. The economy tanked. The following year, the girlfriend and I broke up; just over two years after that, left the full-time job. Everything went south, fast. The losses accumulated year after year from then on—less work, less money, finally losing my home and having to move in 2016. It was horrifying. But friends remarked my inborn Stoicism seemed to bear me through it all. Sometimes, not so much.

Now I’m seeing some exciting possibilities on the horizon, and I’m reminded of the year that changed my life—1989.

That year pushed open the door wider because I hunkered down and did the work. On the way to the office for evening shift, echoing in my head, I heard horses’ hooves clacking on cobblestone streets of 1864 London, after I’d been working on the script all day.

I had a goal for year’s end, and I made it.

I saw it was all possible.

So here’s how the journal begins telling he story of the year that changed my life:

Wednesday, 15 November, 1989. The Return to England.

Huh. What a day. It’s been absolutely dream-like. The plane got going late (7:05) and then we had a 1-1/2 hr. stop-over in Boston where we filled the plane to capacity. I sat next to a young guy from Oxfordshire named Gary and his red-headed little boy. The rest of his family (wife and daughter) were a few rows behind us. He was the first Brit I’ve showed The Wandering Moon to. He was impressed and amused.

Earlier, Hollingsworth had driven me to the airport in his newly bought used pickup truck. Traffic was backed up for miles and a snowstorm had begun. I was feeling jittery and anxious. The flight was tedious. I tried to read the script, then I tried to sleep. I dozed for about an hour, listening to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and dozing off to the hum of activity around me. That was the moment this dream journey began. I sat opposite on the aisle of the plane with a girl, blonde, early twenties, from a town outside Bath, county Avon, who was flying back home after staying with an American family in Wisconsin. She seemed very shy—in a tired way. She was also lovely. We only chatted now and then.

When the plane arrived at Gatwick, we all said goodbye—I hustled through Customs, getting pounds Sterling, then making the train to Victoria, London. It was a dizzying ride—my jet lag was extreme and I was swirling in my head just trying to stay awake. The countryside flicked by more frantically than I’d remembered it had when I took the coach in ’82. At Victoria, I struggled with my baggage as I attempted to relearn the Subway and eventually lugged my way to 6 Ladbroke Terrace. The Israeli/Iranian guy running the place had given up my room with facilities, but he had a cheaper room without, so I took it. I took a hot steaming bath down the hall as the maid made up the bed, and then the phone rang as I prepared to take a nap. It was Dan calling from Gatwick—Sharon had missed her flight out but her luggage was on its way to the US of A sans Sharon. So Dan & Sharon made plans to come up to see me in Kensington, then we’d go out shopping for a day’s worth of clothes for Sharon and, afterwards, supper. I slept for almost an hour, after which I phoned Abi (not at home) and Joy Melville (of the Ellen & Edy biography) and she was hurrying to meet a deadline, but she was interested to see the first draft of my script and we made plans to get together between Nov. 25–27 when I returned to London.

Dan & Sharon arrived at Holland Park Hotel around 6:00 and after a brief tour of my doormouse-sized bedsit, we went shopping. It was a fun evening, chatting happily with friendly London salesclerks. We gawked at all the toys and food items at Harrods. Then we had supper at a little café in Knightsbridge called “The Stock Pot”—chicken, soup, coffee, cake—they treated me to a birthday dinner. I got back to my room at around 9 o’clock & called Abi. Her boyfriend was over and she was doing his laundry. We chatted for a bit—I saying I’d see her on the 25th. London! What a cacophony of noise, sights—beautiful women! Tomorrow EARLY:

1) Get coach ticket to Tenterden

2) See “Choosing” at the Nat’l Portrait Gallery

3) Get back and packed and out of Hotel by 11:00

4) Get on bus to Kent!

 
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