London West End
Life seems rudderless. Like looking for a lost wallet, my search for direction is fruitless. Until recently there’s been purpose – even momentum. As a stage manager in a London West End theatre, my career is on the up. That is until a dramatic event throws me like a horse.
This is the winter of disconnect. The miners are on strike; coal stocks are running low, and electricity is rationed. A beleaguered Tory government has the country working a Three-Day Week. Britain is on its uppers. One light shining in the gloom is pantomime at the London Palladium. As stage manager I’m in charge of a matinee performance of Cinderella. What could possibly go wrong?
Imagine a cast of national treasures doing what they do best – getting a laugh from gags, risqué innuendo and pratfalls. Well-paid stars giving it large to a full house of adoring fans on the biggest stage in town.
Come the transformation scene, the high point of illusion and theatrics; the moment when the Fairy Godmother turns mice into horses, a pumpkin into a carriage and Cinders into a princess, there is a power cut. The lights go out, leaving the audience well and truly in the dark.
It is time to take control. I call for the curtain to come down and wait for the emergency generator to cut in. Then I’m told it won’t start – there’s a serious fault. Out front, children begin to cry.
The pause turns uncomfortable. Adults begin to boo, and the stars retreat to their dressing-rooms. With only emergency lights illuminating the stage in a ghostly hue, I walk out in front of the audience, explain the hold-up but promise the show will go on. Cinderella WILL go to the ball. Everybody cheers. Behind the scenes the electrician tells me it will be half an hour before we are up and running. I muster the cast backstage in the dim light of the Green Room.
‘Look! We’re doing our best to fix the problem, but I need you to go out and entertain the audience until we get the power back.’
My request meets with blunt refusal.
‘It’s not in our contract,’ says Fairy Godmother, pointing her magic wand at me.
‘What will we do, we have no script?’ opines Cinderella – and that from a star who cannot remember the lines she has already.
‘Give ’em a refund and send ’em home,’ sneers Prince Charming, eyeing up another member of the chorus line.
‘You’re professionals,’ I snap in frustration. ‘Go out and improvise.’ There are gasps of disbelief, like children frit by a bogeyman. Worse than naming Macbeth, I’ve uttered the thespian’s dirtiest word – improv. How dare I ask them to perform without a safety net?
A slow handclap can be heard out front. It echoes backstage like a giant lumbering down the corridor.
Baron Hardup breaks the silence.
‘Darling, the last time I improvised was at the Ad Lib Club when the Kray Twins asked me if I needed protection.’
‘Bravo!’ I reply. ‘That will get a laugh. You’re on in two minutes.’
Leaving the stars to muster their courage I return to the impatient
crowd. In the stentorian tones learnt at drama school by backstage crew for just such a moment, I announce to the restless crowd. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages! The London Palladium, this Palace of Dreams, is not going to let you down in this time of national crisis.’
Loud whistles and heartfelt cheers come back at me from the gloom. ‘While I go to phone up the unions to see if they will turn the lights back on, will you put your hands together – and welcome on stage – a cornucopia of household names, here to entertain you with all the skill and talent for which they are renowned.’
A thunderous round of applause reverberates around the auditorium. Parting the heavy drape curtains, only Buttons and the two Ugly Sisters tiptoe onto the stage. I leave just three comedic talents standing in front of doting fans. Behind them a lifetime of experience in television, theatre and vaudeville. There is a frisson of anticipation in the air. Will something amazing happen? Is the Blitz spirit back in town? The best our gang of overpaid luvvies could do is organize a singsong of ‘Roll out the Barrel’.
Having made it to the West End by way of alternative and political theatre, the scales fall from my eyes. I walk out the stage door vowing to never return. It is, of course, a futile gesture. The lights come back on, the kiddies get their ice-cream, Cinderella goes to the ball, and my name goes on the block list. But that’s all behind me now.
Sunday, 01 September
Jobs are thin on the ground. Unable to find work means time hanging out with friends getting stoned and talking revolution. When my mate Antony says his dad is looking for a crew to help him sail across the Atlantic, a door creaks open. Having never sailed before it is a crazy notion but going to sea has always been a secret dream. Now the opportunity has come along, and it is the chance of a lifetime. The perfect escape route for a twenty-three-year-old dole-scrounger.
Two days later John Francis Kearney Farrell, the skipper on this new adventure, comes to town to meet me. Mr Farrell sports the gentleman-farmer look. His Viyella shirt collar is turned for wear and the elbows of a favourite sweater are neatly darned. Below well-pressed trousers, sturdy oxblood brogues complete the picture, giving off an impression more of the gentle than the farm.
The interview is not a grilling, more a light sauté. I explain my situation and tell him that my father is Chapman Pincher, the investigative journalist. Without doubt he knows of my dad’s front- page scoops. Most people do, whether they like him or not.
He writes from a reds-under-the-bed perspective that the Labour Party loathes; while at the same time infuriating the Tories, because he believes the public needs to know what’s being done in their name. He sees all governments as fair game. So, the Lone Wolf of Fleet Street, as he’s known, is feared by politicians but admired by his readers. I hate him, but that’s for other reasons. Right now, though, being his son proves useful as it adds weight to my flaky credentials and poor education.
None too fussed that he is taking on someone who’s never sailed before, John soon decides that I’m acceptable. Straightening his wire-framed glasses every so often, he outlines the plan. We are to prepare Gay Gander, his yacht currently moored down in Devon and then, in a month’s time, set sail for the Canaries to be ready to cross over the Atlantic to Antigua by Christmas. My passage will be free in return for a contribution to rations. Oh, and there may be someone else coming along but right now it is just the pair of us.
‘Come down next week by train and we’ll get started,’ he says in an officer-class accent. ‘Bring only a few things with you as there’s little space. Wet-weather gear and seaboots are all on board. Don’t forget your passport and plenty of money.’
John’s clipped voice has the same clear diction as mine. In my case it rubs people up the wrong way. With him, I suspect, it’s the opposite. Comfortable in his skin and with a lofty air, he’s admired for it, if not by his peers, certainly by the ladies. So, my new boss is Mr Farrell from Ireland’s County Meath. A vigorous man, he’s tall and handsome, sharp-witted, and a lover of language and learning.
‘Mick, do you have any questions?’ he says, lighting a pipe.
‘Can I bring my banjo?’
His nostrils explode in a flare of smoke. ‘If you must. A mouth organ would be better. You’ll be sailing – not performing a cabaret turn. See you down in Devon in a week. We’ve much to do.’
It dawns on me that John is desperate to get away and would have taken anyone for this job. Luckily, I’m the only contender. Destiny has thrown us together – for better or for worse.
So that’s me sorted then. Off to the seaside to sail the ocean blue on a yacht that sounds a beauty. My only knowledge of sailing comes from Giles, the cartoonist on my father’s paper and an inveterate sailor. His cartoon annuals were a Christmas treat. Every few pages there would be a lively drawing of seafaring antics. In deft strokes of the pen Giles sums up the class, money and manners of the sailing fraternity; it looks like jolly good fun. I can’t wait.
Tuesday, 10 September
After Mr Farrell collects me from the train station, we walk along the towpath of the Exeter Shipping Canal to Turf Lock where his yacht Gay Gander is moored. Alongside the brambled bank is a collection of old sailing boats, rusting barges and a paint-peeled motor launch that looks like its last outing was the Dunkirk run. Ahead is a rundown pub and a ramshackle set of sheds. The place feels as neglected as a graveyard of hopes and dreams. It is not a promising start.
Mr Farrell strides on, commenting that the mooring fees are nominal and what it lacks in facilities is made up for in freedom and privacy. He’s clearly an outsider so we have something in common.
Turning a corner, the view opens up and the air is suddenly ozone fresh. In front of us, as though just out of a toy box, a single-mast yacht sits against the quay waiting for the wind.
‘Here she is,’ he says, his long legs arching over the guardrail. ‘Welcome aboard.’
Gander’s lines are sleek yet simple. Although she sits high above the River Exe in a freshwater channel, her bow points out to sea, and she looks like a thoroughbred waiting for race day. Leaving my bag and banjo case on the hard, I climb aboard a yacht for the first time in my life. The deck bounces and the mooring lines creak with a sense of shared anticipation.
We stand in open inset area, not much bigger than a bath. Mr Farrell puts a firm hand on the tiller. ‘This is the cockpit,’ he says, gazing ahead as though already out at sea. ‘It’s the safest place to be.’
My idea of what the boat would be like are now confounded by the reality of how small she is – like a Mini compared to the Mark 10 Jaguar I had in mind.
‘Gander’s quick, agile and turns like a polo pony. And she’s fun to ride as well,’ he enthuses, slipping back a hatch cover. ‘Come below. Mind the steps and always come down backwards.’ Mr Farrell slips through the flap and primes a paraffin stove to make a brew. ‘I won’t have gas on board,’ he says, hand-pumping water into a kettle. ‘Collects below the waterline. Once saw a boat with the sides blown out when some idiot lit a match for breakfast.’
‘What happened to him?’
His face cracks a wry smile. ‘He never did it again.’
I laugh nervously at all the unseen dangers that lie ahead. ‘This area is the doghouse,’ he adds, pointing to the hatch that leads on deck. ‘Don’t get caught idling here or you’ll be well and truly in it.’
‘In what?’ I ask.
‘In the doghouse you nincompoop!’
‘I wasn’t born on April Fool’s Day for nothing!’ I say by way of explanation to make up for my ignorance.
Mr Farrell laughs. ‘Now you tell me,’ making a mental note for future reference.
‘After that it’s the main cabin,’ he says, picking up where he left off. ‘Oh, and we’ve got to make storm shutters for these six windows. They let in lots of light but I’m not sure they’d survive an Atlantic storm.’
Thinking boats only had portholes I look at the car-door-sized glass and shudder as I imagine the water pouring in. What have I let myself in for?
He points to a small array of instruments. ‘I’ll explain those later, but this is the chart table – a no-go area for you now as it’s my office! As you can see, there’s standing room under the coach roof through to the heads.’ He reads my blank expression. ‘The bog.’
The kettle whistles and Mr Farrell spoons loose Horniman’s Dividend Tea into an old silver pot and sets it aside to brew.
‘This area is the saloon, where we eat.’ He pulls up a leaf of a central table. ‘Clever design this! Always upright even when we’re heeled.’
I just nod my head and don’t ask what heeled means let alone wonder why there are so many names for parts of a boat no bigger than a caravan. He rattles two melamine mugs out of a locker, pours the tea, adds milk and spoons three sugars into his. ‘I’m going to try those new teabags for the trip. Might make life easier on the go.’
I’ve been using teabags for years so stare into my brew and smile.
He’s clearly something of a traditionalist.
On either side of the table are seats that convert into settee berths. Behind are lockers, sideboards and bookshelves. The white paintwork and varnished mahogany give the cabin a cosy feel.
Mr Farrell finishes on a technical note. ‘Gander is a Rambler Class keel sloop designed by Laurent Giles in the 1960s as a rugged, practical cruising yacht. Teak below the waterline with mahogany topsides. She’s thirty-seven feet long with a nine-and-a-half-foot beam. With a draught of four foot, she displaces eight tons.’
Standing upright in the cabin, and master of all he surveys; Mr Farrell breathes that sigh of pleasure you give when you realize the worth of something you’ve taken for granted.
‘If she were a horse, she would be an eventer – one with the face of a duchess and the arse of a pastry cook.’
‘She’s not very big,’ I say, my concern about what I’ve let myself in for growing by the moment.
My comment brings him up short.
‘Gander’s large enough to live on and small enough to manage on my own,’ he says, defending his property. Then continues testily: ‘You’ve time to change your mind if she’s not grand enough for your taste.’
‘I didn’t mean to be rude but the Atlantic’s a big place.’
‘You’ll find Captain Bligh survived the vagaries of the Pacific in a boat ten foot shorter.’
Images of Trevor Howard, a childhood hero, cast adrift by Marlon Brando come to mind. A sinew inside me stiffens.
‘If Bligh can do it,’ I blurt out, overtaken by a burst of heroics, ‘then so can I.’
Relieved my mutiny is quashed, Mr Farrell slaps the chart table with the flat of his hand.
‘Good man! And don’t worry, Gander sails well to windward and has a lively speed under the engine. She’ll get us across the Atlantic alright using just God’s wind and the will of man.’
We stand quiet for a moment at the enormity of what he’s just said. I break the silence.
‘Mr Farrell … What do I call you?’ I ask, having restrained from calling him ‘sir’.
He laughs, dismissing the ‘Mr Farrell’ with a wave of his hand. ‘John or skipper. Whichever takes your fancy. Only never skip! I’m master of a classic yacht not someone playing hopscotch.’
After explaining the light switches and with a stiff lecture about turning them off, he continues the tour and shows me the heads – although why the loo is called that when it’s as cramped as a coffin defeats me. No doubt an arcane naval term that meant something hundreds of years ago.
‘As you see there’s a marine lavatory that flushes with seawater – I’ll show you how to use it later. There’s a hand pump that supplies cold water from the tank to the sink, but I count every pump!’
‘Does that mean water’s rationed?’
John ignores the remark with an ‘It’s a boat you idiot!’ roll of his eyes and a flicker of irritation on realizing I may not be the full shilling.
‘To starboard is the oilskin locker where you can stow your banjo
– it’s a bit bigger than I expected by the way.’ He chews the word as though it is something contraband. God knows what he’ll say when I start to play it.
‘Your berth is in there.’ He points forward to a round top door.
Looking in and squeezing the mattress I realize my cramped quarters are tiny, with no room to swing a cat let alone finger-pick a banjo.
‘That’s the forward cabin that I call the cuddy. As you can see, it’s full of sails right now so you’ll be sleeping in the main cabin with me for the moment. Amidships, behind those sail bags, is the chain locker and forepeak stowage. You might find Stryder in there.’
‘What’s a strider?’
‘Not what! Who! Stryder’s my cat, a five-year-old Russian Blue. Comes and goes as he pleases but he’ll be coming with us.’
‘What, across the Atlantic?’
‘Yes. Travels with me everywhere. He’s a great companion and has a natural ability to get used to new surroundings. Nothing fazes him. He also knows when it’s about to get windy. He’s the purrfect barometer.’
This time I get the pun and laugh.
‘If you’d missed that one,’ John says, ‘I’d be worried.’
‘Is he friendly?’ I ask, worried he’s thinking me as thick as a plank.
‘Friendly! He’s a cat for goodness sake. You’ll have to take him as you find him. Cats were once worshipped as gods and Stryder thinks they still are.’
It is a lot to take in and I feel a little lost.
‘If you hear me talking to myself,’ John says as an aside, ‘I’m not.
Russian Blues are very vocal. Stryder and I have much to discuss.’ I laugh for no reason – a reflex action to realizing that I’ve wound up with an Irish eccentric – a law unto himself and to hell with the rest. John notices my bafflement. ‘You may find as you get older that animals are preferred company to humans. Anyway, have a nosey about.
You will find she’s not wanting.’
After examining the heads, I hit my head on the door frame. John looks down at me. ‘How tall are you?’
‘Five eleven and three-quarters, except when I lie about it – then it’s six foot.’
He picks up his pipe and tamps it with a finger. ‘Lying’s all very well for anglers but it will bring you no advantage here.’
‘Just under six foot then,’ I say by way of compromise.
‘One last thing,’ the skipper says. ‘Gander’s got a tender called Bumble, which is either towed behind or stowed on the coach-house roof.’
‘Named after my favourite fishing fly. Our short, fat tender looks like an Irish Bumble. Both are excellent top droppers you can use on most waters. You’ll meet her tomorrow. She’s in the shed waiting for you to paint her.’
Wednesday, 11 September
Turf Lock quay
The days of lying-in are over. Following a fitful night’s sleep and hoping I didn’t snore, the two of us are up early. Outside, raindrops fall on the water rippling like a Bridget Riley illusion. A grey day lies ahead. Over tea and porridge John fills in the background.
Born within the Pale, in County Meath, his life was a roundelay of fishing and snipe shooting, but as he had no hankering for the thunder of hoofs and the bloodlust of the promiscuous fox-hunting set, he was something of an outsider. Ten years ago, after a series of disastrous harvests, he sold up the family estate. Then, in his fifties and hankering for the gypsy life, he bought Gander with part of the proceeds.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says, scooping out and swallowing teaspoonful of jam, ‘Ireland’s a fine country. If only it had a roof.’
‘A bit like here then?’
‘Yes! And that’s why we need to get to sunnier climes,’ he says with eagerness. ‘Get away from all this doom and gloom.’
The rain eases. A watery sun breaks through the autumn sky. John goes over the list of things that need fixing. He questions my competency about completing the tasks.
‘Trained as a stagehand,’ I say. ‘Learnt skills from electrics to prop-making to dealing with petulant actors. Then worked in a repertory company where you have to turn your hand to anything.’
‘A jack-of-all-trades then?’
‘Yes! Nothing wrong in that. Actually, I can fix almost anything.’
‘Everything except your language,’ he jibes. ‘What does, actually … actually mean?’
Dumbstruck, I finish my tea. John’s a pedant like my stepfather
– the ‘Sewer Rat’ as my father calls him. A waspish lawyer always on the lookout for a linguistic stumble. Any opportunity to humiliate is eagerly leapt upon. Okay for cross-examination in court but a bit cruel at the breakfast table.
‘Now’s not the time to argue semantics,’ John says, pushing back a shock of sandy, forward-falling hair. ‘It’s time to crack on, we’ve lots to do.’
He puts the dirty things in the galley sink no bigger than a chamber pot.
‘You can wash up later,’ he says with the air of pardoning a servant. ‘Come and meet Bert.’
A hundred yards back up the towpath there’s a large, rusting corrugated iron workshop. Its gaping doors stuck wide open. Inside there is a smell of old oil, sawdust and nicotine – a malodorous sense of decline. John calls out, the affection for an old retainer in his voice. ‘Bert you old rascal! Where are you hiding?’
From behind a piled-up workbench, a barnacle-encrusted man appears complete in faded fisherman’s smock. On top of a ruddy, beard-bristling face sits a Breton cap in permanent position; the stub of a pencil behind one ear, a roll-up behind the other.
‘Wot you got ’ere, Captain? Looks like a girl with all that hair.’
‘This is Mick. He’s my new crew. We’ll get him a regulation cut before we leave.’
I feign indignation at the thought of losing my curly blond locks. Bert gives me the once over.
‘So, you found yourself a shipmate then Captain. Good thing too as you is running out of time. I hope he’s not from the bottom of the barrel. Mind he looks strong enough though.’
John ignores the remark. He could have flattered me by saying I was the pick of the bunch but that’s not his style.
‘We’re going to set about getting Gander ready in earnest now, and Mick will be in and out of your shed.’
‘Fine by me, Captain, as long as girlie don’t touch anything,’ Bert says, pointing a strong stubby work-engrained finger in my direction. ‘I knows where everything is cause I’s put it there myself I did.’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t make a mess,’ I assure him.
‘We’ll see girly, we’ll see.’ Bert picks up an old radio and shakes it to see if it will come to life. ‘In here,’ he whispers, looking around as though someone is listening, ‘rust never sleeps … and neither do I.’ He winks a gin-cracked eye at me.
‘You do alright by Captain Farrell, and I’ll do alright by you.’