|Publisher:||Time Warner UK|
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point of departure
Is it really possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? That is the absurd question asked by Bendrix, middle-aged author and the narrator of The End of the Affair, shortly before leaving behind a half-eaten steak and a third of a bottle of wine, and walking out of Rules restaurant in Covent Garden with the wife of a dull senior civil servant whose life he has been using as copy in a book. They hail a taxi and direct the driver to a tawdry hotel (the sort that only has double beds) off Sussex Gardens, near Paddington Station, where they make love 'badly'.
But it was certainly not over a dish of fried onions at Rules that the acclaimed forty-three-year-old English novelist, Graham Greene, first fell in love with the thirty-year-old American beauty Catherine Walston, upon whom Sarah is partly modelled in The End of the Affair. If one agrees with Cyril Connolly that adultery is a 'form of murder' because one murders the image of the rival husband or wife in the eyes of those whom they love then the police file on Greene and Walston begins around a quarter to four on a biting cold winter afternoon, just before Christmas 1946, with a trail of heel- and footprints left behind on the snowy landing field at Cambridge Airport.
There were no witnesses except perhaps a shivering ex-RAF petrol pump attendant to what Greene later repeatedly referred to in his letters to Catherine as the most 'important event' of his life. Only a few lonely shoe tracks in the hard crust of snow:those of an expensive pair made by a French designer like Dior; of another, more plain, pair of women's dress shoes; and of a man's black Oxfords about size eleven. They were left by the three 'Walston account' passengers as they walked to their tiny four-seater Percival Proctor V aeroplane parked on the frozen landing field.
Guests at Thriplow Farm, near Cambridge, and later at nearby Newton Hall, would privately complain that Catherine Walston rarely bothered with any formal seating plan. Often barefoot and dressed in a silk shirt, Catherine usually sat next to her husband Harry. The weekend shortly before Christmas 1946, however, it can reasonably be assumed that Mrs Walston chose to sit herself beside the six foot two, gas-blue-eyed author of Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory. Opposite Greene was Vivien, his wife of nineteen years and the mother of his two young children.
As the fine claret flowed during lunch, the talk turned to religion, sin, Ireland (where Catherine had a cottage), books and Christmas stockings. Greene liked secret panels, hiding places, private jokes. Had his attention not been captivated by his hostess, he would have enjoyed knowing that on the wall of her dining-room was a painting that could be slid away to reveal the prize Jersey cow sheds of the 2,500-acre farm.
Although wrong about the painting being a Picasso, Evelyn Waugh gave an insight into Thriplow life in a letter to Nancy Mitford after a visit there with Greene two years later:
I went to such an extraordinary house on Wednesday. A side of life I never saw before very rich, Cambridge, Jewish, socialist, highbrow, scientific, farming. There were Picassos on sliding panels & when you pushed them back plate glass & a stable with a stallion looking at one. No servants. Lovely Careolean silver unpolished. Gourmet wines & cigars.
But Greene's acute, slightly bulging eyes were far too diverted by the sight of what Mitford later described as a 'Ritz vision in mink' for him to take in such details. Exotic clouds of Chesterfield cigarette smoke encircled the striking figure of Catherine Walston. As they spoke, drank and laughed, Greene was suddenly reminded again what happiness felt like. Catherine was intensely direct and frank with men, especially those she wanted to sleep with.
Having always lived in fear of boredom, for now, at least, he had forgotten about such concerns as the tedious stack of reading waiting for him at his office at the publisher Eyre and Spottiswoode; his long-standing mistress, Dorothy Glover, back in London; his squabbling children in Oxford. If a sure sign of middle-age is the sudden realisation as a critic of Boswell once observed that the future has turned into the present, then Greene felt too alive at that moment to care.
Now that he was heading towards middle-age, with eleven novels or 'entertainments' published and his reputation assured, Greene had for some years been looking for a very different fulfilment: a new great love; an escape from the awful domestic future that loomed towards him like a trap at his family's Georgian terraced house in Oxford. The sheer thought of a slow train journey back to Beaumont Street with Vivien was in itself enough to make him reach for a drink.
Even if he and Vivien left right now, he thought to himself irritably, they wouldn't be back in Beaumont Street for hours.
'We must be getting back to give the children supper,' volunteered Vivien, almost reading his mind.
A Cambridge-Oxford train timetable was produced and studied.
'Why not fly back?' announced Mrs Walston matter-of-factly in her East Coast drawl. 'I'll fly with you ...'
'... and then fly back.'
Catherine dialled 56291, the number for Marshall's aerodrome in Cambridge. Extension '40' was the controller's ground-floor operations room, which dealt with private 'taxi' air charters.
Before the war, when the newly married Greene was living very modestly with Vivien in a thatched cottage in Chipping Campden, working on the two unreadable novels that followed The Man Within, he had sometimes been so 'short', as he put it later, that he had hardly been able to afford the train fare from Oxford to London. In his journal for the early 1930s, he wrote with a sense of self-pitying economy that a Tiger Moth bi-plane had been flying around fields in the local countryside, offering the 'cheapest ever prices' for pleasure flights over the Cotswold countryside. At the time, however, working around the clock on Benzedrine to complete Stamboul Train, he had no money for such thrills.
For Greene, to be flown back to Oxford in a private aeroplane by a wealthy American beauty with lustrous, knotty dark hair, smooth Anglo-Saxon cream skin, perfectly formed high cheek bones, and smelling of Guerlain scent, would have touched a sensitive nerve. Freud wrote that all train journeys are about death or sex. I have no idea whether he wrote a dream treatise about flying, but Greene himself always associated flying with a high level of excitement. Aged seven, when he filled out a questionnaire for the Berkhamsted School Gazette, he won second prize twelve tubes of watercolour paint for his 'confessions.' The first question, back in 1911 had been: What is your greatest aim in life? Greene's answer: 'To go up in an aeroplane'. (When asked again aged seventy-one, the answer was: 'To write a good book'.) In his autobiography, Greene recalled how he and his entire family had waited vainly around all afternoon in the garden at Berkhamsted, in the hope of seeing Louis Blériot make the first flight from London to Manchester.
Greene always maintained that 'childhood is the bank balance of the writer'. 'The creative writer perceives his world once and for all in childhood and adolescence', he wrote in The Lost Childhood, published in 1951, the same year as The End of the Affair, 'and his whole career is an effort to illustrate his private world in terms of the great public world we all share.' Our choice of reading as adults mirrors our desire to see our own features 'reflected flatteringly back' as in a love affair. One of Greene's favourite books was Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French air-mail courier pilot to North Africa in the Second World War and the author of the best-selling children's book, The Little Prince. And one of Greene's most vivid early memories was of reading The Pirate Aeroplane by Captain Gilson, a colour illustrated Boy's Own story of a 'villainous Yankee pirate with an aeroplane like a box kite and bombs the size of tennis balls', at least six times.
In 1946, private flying was undertaken on a very different scale to what it is today, when every computer mogul, playboy or sports star has a refurbished Lear jet with all the leather trimmings and a satellite phone. After the war, it was a Lucellan luxury. In fact, the War Office had only removed the ban on civil flying on 1 January 1946. Marshall's aerodrome in Cambridge was one of the leading small airports in the country. Its chief flying instructor, ex-RAF squadron leader Leslie Worsdell, had been the first pilot in England to fly with a new civil licence, shortly after 9am on 1 January 1946, using a Tiger Moth that had been stored in an old farm barn not far from Thriplow. Cambridge Airport had been founded before the war by David Marshall and his son Arthur (later Sir), Harold Abrahams' 100-yard-sprint arch-rival on the Cambridge Blue team (beating him on several occasions), and a member of the legendary (Chariots of Fire) British track team at the 1929 Paris Olympics. The airport's official opening by the Secretary of State for Air in October 1938 at the height of the Munich crisis included the first public display of the Spitfire. After the war, new flying clubs were only allowed sixty-hours-per-month fuel rations for 'taxi and charter aircraft', whilst private owners were allowed to fly only four hours a month. Harry and Catherine Walston were among the wealthiest of Marshall's first private clients; years later, as Lord Walston, Harry gave the address at Sir Arthur's wife's memorial service.
A Marshall's advertising pamphlet ('Travel By Air!') from 1946 gives specimen charges for 'chartering' private aircraft at 6d. per passenger mile 'Cambridge-Paris-Cambridge £13.13.4.' and boasted: 'Qualified Radio Operator Carried in Aircraft. Race Meetings a Speciality'. As soon as Catherine's phone booking from Thriplow was taken by the on-duty clerk in the controller's ground-floor office, preparations were begun to wheel a four- or five-seater Proctor V from No. 1 Hangar out into the fading light of a wintry afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Walstons' driver (for many years Porter, an Irishman with dark hair and heavy-set features), prepared the car that was to take the Greenes and Mrs Walston to the airport. The Walston fleet over the years included a black Mercedes, Jaguar sports cars, and Rolls-Royces of various colours and specifications; in particular, there was a black and yellow convertible Rolls with red leather trim interior in which the small Walston children used to be driven at speed to Sunday mass, sitting behind the headlights on the front mud-guards.
Thriplow Farm, just set back from a narrow country lane close to St George's Church, looks like a New England stud farm. Back in 1946, its wooden clapperboard slats were painted white, making it look like an experimental mistake that Frank Lloyd Wright might have dreamt up after staying the night in a Bavarian hunting lodge. A regular weekend guest during the mid-1940s was John Rothenstein (later Sir John), the young director of the Tate Gallery, who has described how Catherine's American background made a strong impression on visitors to Thriplow:
Life at ... Thriplow was an engaging blend of the luxurious and the radically simplified. The family living quarters were constructed out of what in other circumstances would have been a hay-loft, the stables that housed a fine stud of Arab horses being situated underneath. The household was organised with an American style of intelligence to achieve a labour-saving efficiency appropriate to wartime whereby a large family of small children was housed at close quarters to their parents and yet with a skill that excluded the typically American sacrifice of the adult to the child. Much hard and concentrated work went into this amusing and smooth-running life, but it was lived with so much style and flair that the picture, as far as Catherine was concerned, was rather of a Marie-Antoinette in elegant jeans or (according to the season) jodhpurs.
Before they left, Graham Greene and his wife may have been asked to sign the Thriplow visitors' book. Had Greene flicked through the pages as he reached into his jacket for his Parker 51 pen, he may well have double-blinked. The guest-book included such names as George VI, Elizabeth II, Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope and Ingrid Bergman. But like the sliding panel in the dining room, this was another family joke. The names had been mischievously written in by John Rothenstein after staying there himself.
The route the Walston chauffeur would almost certainly have taken in 1946 the road from Thriplow towards the old London road (A10) passes within a few hundred yards of Newton Hall, the Walstons' vast neo-Queen Anne red-brick pile, into which they moved around Christmas 1950. Just as Greene spent many weekends at Thriplow in the late 1940s, so he would regularly be invited or invite himself to visit Newton Hall in the 1950s. The vast house witnessed some racy scenes, with midnight swimming-pool sexual scandals involving Catholic priests as well as Cabinet ministers. Certainly for the original champagne set of Labour politicians (Hugh Dalton and Dick Stokes, for example), along with various hanger-on Catholic intellectuals, Newton Hall had all the 'facilities' of Tory, right-wing Cliveden. Only Fleet Street didn't know about it.
In December 1946, Newton Hall was still occupied by the British army, who had commandeered it as a training camp. The army even went to the trouble of tearing down the wrought-iron entrance gates and pillars. Before the Labour government handed it back to the Walstons, it was used as a women's agricultural training college.
Had the Walstons' car had time to stop, they would have found rooms full of Edwardian furniture stowed away under dust sheets. Nissen huts were erected on the front lawn, used as dormitories and lecture rooms. The 'Long Room', where Lord and Lady Walston were to later entertain guests like the Shah of Persia, was locked up. Old Lady Walston, widow of Catherine's late father-in-law, Sir Charles Walston who had been a fellow of King's College, Cambridge and Slade Professor of Fine Art had been required to move out.
As the Walston chauffeur drove on up the lane towards the old London road, Greene's sense of excitement must have been increased by the proximity of Harston House only a mile from Newton Hall the walled off seventeenth-century Queen Anne country house of Greene's rich uncle, Sir William, who helped found the naval intelligence service. Harston was where Greene had been happy as a young boy in those Edwardian summers away from his father's school at Berkhamsted. It was there he dreamt of pirate aeroplanes, hid behind the 'potting shed', and witnessed violence in the form of tennis matches. As he states in the preface to The End of the Affair, Greene was obsessed by such coincidences; what a Catholic would call 'divine purpose'.
Later, he enjoyed the paradox of linking his Elysian childhood at Harston and his not-so-innocent sexual adventures with Catherine Walston in the fields just a mile down the road. The childhood memory of Harston provided the setting for the garden in The Ministry of Fear, his last thriller written before the war; and for his dark short story Under the Garden, in which a man dying of cancer returns to the old family home.
The garden was of a rambling kind which should have belonged to childhood and only belonged to childish men. The apple trees were old apple trees and gave the effect of growing wild; they sprang unexpectedly up in the middle of a rose-bed, trespassed on a tennis-court, shaded the window of a little outside lavatory like a potting-shed which was used by the gardener ... A high brick wall divided the flower-garden from the kitchen-garden and the orchard, but flowers and fruit could not be imprisoned by a wall. Flowers broke among the artichokes and sprang up like flames under the trees. Beyond the orchard the garden faded gradually out into paddocks and a stream and a big untidy pond with an island the size of a billiard-table. [The Ministry of Fear]
As a writer, Greene was obsessed with the random shrapnel of human experience that can never be extracted from the memory. In The Heart of the Matter, which he was writing in December 1946, Greene describes Wilson's first disinterested look at Scobie as one of those occasions a man never forgets: 'a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined'.
Such a moment awaited Greene shortly after the Walston chauffeur dropped Catherine, Graham and Vivien at the Cambridge aerodrome on the Newmarket Road. They walked into the hallway of the Civil Building, the administrative headquarters, with its oak balustrade staircase and dark-green leather easy armchairs, built in 1937 and now a listed building, unchanged from 1946. They were shown upstairs to the flying club lounge area, where they were offered tea or a drink.
During the war, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Flying School had trained over 600 pilots prior to the Battle of Britain, and over 20,000 pilots by the end of World War II. Many were instructed at Cambridge. They were interviewed and signed their papers in the club lounge (now the chairman's office of Marshall's Aerospace). In December 1946, Cambridge Airport still only had a very simple grass field airstrip.
A Marshall's pilot there was a team of five, all ex-RAF dressed in Biggles goggles and a jacket and tie, was called from the pilots' mess and walked across the glittering snow-covered airstrip, lit only by a few paraffin gas flares.
The distance between the controller's office, where the trio buttoned up their coats, and the tiny waiting aeroplane could not have been more than thirty yards. Greene huddled next to Catherine in the snow, and then, as they climbed into the plane, her wave of thick, dark hair brushed his face. It happened again during the flight.
One of the most prized letters of Catherine's was a hand-written poem from Greene entitled 'After Two Years', which describes the intense love of their first two years together. The second verse begins:
In a plane your hair was blown
Writing to Catherine a year after the flight, he remembered this moment. 'The act of creation is awfully odd and inexplicable like falling in love. A lock of hair touches one's eyes in a plane with East Anglia under snow and one is in love.'
Catherine and flying became inexorably linked in his mind; he wrote to her on many of his plane journeys, not to pass the time but because it was there, in the limitless sky, that she had become vivid to him. Writing to Catherine in 1948 from his desk at Eyre and Spottiswoode, about a business trip he was making to America, where they planned to rendezvous, Greene said: 'I long to see your seaplane coming down in Augusta.' From Salzburg in 1951, he wrote that 'I can smell your hair in a plane, and every plane I take I look for you in the seat alongside.' This love of planes formed an idea in Greene's mind. Writing to Catherine at Newton on 17 August 1955, following twenty-seven hours' flying, via Toronto, to visit his daughter Lucy in Canada, he added a post-script that he had an idea for a book of reminiscences called 100 Odd Airports, based on a similar project their friend Norman Douglas had written about visiting cards.
Greene once referred to himself as 'God's spy'. Not, perhaps, an entry to include in one's passport under 'profession'. But as he was a man obsessed by crossing borders, human, psychological and geographical, airports were among the few places where he seemed to belong. The combination of airports and snow he arrived in Vienna in a blizzard to write The Third Man in February 1948 always triggered a sense of private elation. Airports were his means of escape from himself as well as from other people with the exception of Catherine. With her, they symbolised the point of meeting, not 'The Point of Departure' (the original title of The End of the Affair).
On 2 September 1955, he wrote again from Vancouver, saying that he had started the new book, now called 110 Airports. 'I'm afraid I'll have to leave out the most important', Greene wrote to Catherine, 'Cambridge and snow on the ground and hair across my nose.' Writing from Beaulieu in April 1949, he says, 'sometimes these last days I've felt the same sort of in-love feeling as after the plane ride to Oxford, as though I'd never had you and probably never would, but longed, longed, longed to hold hands at a movie.'
A year later the flight still obsessed him. 'I just can't believe that the plane trip Cambridge to Oxford, was not designed, any more than I believe that there's anything wrong in loving you using my body as well as my mind "With my body I thee worship",' wrote Greene to Catherine on Palm Sunday in 1950. His words imply the sanctity of marriage rather than the sinful state of adultery. On the preceding line, he quoted from the French theologian Jean-Pierre de Caussade:
Nothing happens in this world, in our souls or outside them, without the design or permission of God: now we ought to submit ourselves no less to what God permits than to what he directly wills.
Greene was a Catholic fatalist. Lady Longford, who herself converted to Catholicism in 1946, remembers a particular conversation she had with Greene on this theme when he gave a lunch party at his flat in St James's Street; 'I was very pleased to find myself sitting by him.' Greene asked her whether she had read de Caussade. 'In the most impressive way he then proceeded to explain de Caussade's doctrine of "Submission to Divine Providence". It was a case of accepting all the eventualities of life as God's will, in all circumstances.'
It was certainly something Greene believed in without compunction. 'It was part of his views, he didn't have to grope towards what he believed and it was all there,' said Lady Longford. 'It came to this: that the last word on life had been given by de Caussade, a priest who had a whole lot of women in ... Switzerland or France; his job was advising them and he had a great sort of court and the basis of what he taught was that one must accept what God said and that was the beginning and the end and you couldn't question it; and this is what he practised. He told me, he said, this was what he held onto.' Nonetheless, if his affair with Catherine was something ordained by God, then Greene was freed from any feelings of personal guilt; it certainly relieved the mind, as his comment to Lady Longford reveals: 'I can recommend it to you,' he said. 'You will find that it will solve many problems.'
The steel propeller of a single-engine Proctor V is started by an electric button close to the control dials. Planes were automatically re-fuelled on landing, so the tiny Proctor would have been immediately ready for take-off once the oil gauge indicated the correct temperature. To fly towards Oxford, the pilot would have set his 360-degree flying compass to 245 degrees, begun to taxi out slowly onto the snowy grass, and then fired open the throttle heading directly into the westerly East Anglia wind. In 1946, No. 1 Hangar had 'CAMBRIDGE' painted in huge black letters across the roof as a landing sight device. The Civil Building had been camoflauged during the war but had been re-painted white in the summer of 1946.
'Greene and Walston would have been in the air very quickly' said Terry Holloway, Marshall's group support executive, through his walkie-talkie pilot's head-set, just before we took off to follow the exact CambridgeOxford flight-path that his company's old Proctor V would have taken in 1946. 'The air would have been crisp and cold good visibility,' he added after we were in the air. Within moments, the Hornby-like tracks of Cambridge railway station stretched beneath us. Just below, to the right, were the towering spires of King's College.
To our left, heading west towards Thriplow Newton Hall is visible from several miles away they would have seen the smoking chimneys of Fulbourn Hospital, the old Cambridge lunatic asylum. 'With snow, hedgerows stick out like solid lines, added Holloway. 'The landscape turns a very brilliant white. Very intense colours, with glittering dark blue shadows falling behind farm buildings and trees. The fields really sparkle beautifully.'
According to Herbert Tappin, one of the Marshall pilots in 1946, inside the plane was 'quite comfortable, not cramped, like a motor car'. Passengers wore overcoats and seat-belts, and would have been able to talk clearly once they were flying at about 2,000 feet. The flight to Oxford took about forty-five minutes. Of the five ex-RAF pilots who were employed by Marshall's and could have been working before Christmas in 1946, three were still alive in 1999: Worsdell, Tappin and Tony Farrell. All still have their flight log books. None have a record of a flight to Kidlington. I can only assume the pilot must have been one of the two (Wallis and Hubbard) now dead.
Without radar, the flight was made by pilot visibility alone and it would have been nearly dark when the plane came in to land at about 4.30pm at Kidlington Airport.
As they climbed out of the plane, Greene told Vivien to walk on ahead. While her back was turned, Catherine, her hair swept back by the wind, kissed him on the lips. 'My heart stopped for everything', he later wrote to Catherine, 'one winter evening in a plane over the snowy fields.'
The tall figure of Greene walked slowly back in the gloaming light towards his wife, who was standing alone on the edge of the airfield. As he got closer, his flushed sense of joy became soured with a sense of personal failure regarding his marriage. Long doomed, he had to put an end to the misery. Crossing the snowy field, he walked into the old farm building to ring for a taxi.
The memory of first kissing Catherine Walston at Kidlington Airport was to haunt him for years. Writing to Catherine from his cabin on board Alexander Korda's yacht, the Elsewhere, in the Aegean at 7.40am on 18 June 1951 after a bad night's sleep (The End of the Affair was about to be published), Greene associated their love with the 'wonderful, heavy ruins' at Mycenae that he had seen the day before. Seeing 'our chauffeur' as he described the old Greek taxi driver standing at the quay that they had once used, Greene experienced a powerful Proustian moment:
I've dreamed of you all night, dear heart. Vague, sad dreams. The cabin began being very big and homeless the first time I went into it, and I wish the type-writer wasn't there it looks like a returned ring must look on a desk [...] We used the old chauffeur [...] and he had candles in his pocket to light Agamemnon's extraordinary beehive tomb, and he was very sweet [...] An odd thing happened after you left: I fell in love with you all over again. Rather like when you dropped me at Oxford out of the airplane. It feels fresh and exciting and sad like then.
In the taxi to Oxford in December 1946, Vivien said nothing. By five o'clock, they were back at 15 Beaumont Street.
Table of Contents
|1||Point of departure||1|
|2||A sense of reality||14|
|3||A sort of wife||43|
|4||The unquiet american||72|
|6||May i borrow your wife?||108|
|7||The edge of the desert||131|
|8||Martinis before lunch||162|
|9||The replacement lover||175|
|10||Loser takes nothing||205|
|Epilogue: the last word||276|