The Year That Changed My Life (Part 2)

[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.

~ by completelyinthedark on February 23, 2018.

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