Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Deep Water

I had no idea that this documentary—released in the U.K. in December 2006—existed until a friend, knowing of my interest in the Donald Crowhurst tragedy, told me about it. The film has not been shown in North America—apart from at the Telluride Film Festival in the fall of 2006—nor is it available on North American DVD; but it is available on British (Region 2) DVD, and I promptly ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday. Thanks to our multi-system DVD player I was able to watch it, and was deeply impressed, as was Christopher. Even our nine-year-old son Tim watched the whole thing, and agreed afterwards that it was excellent: high praise indeed, considering that most children of his age would, I suspect, have to be paid a substantial sum before they watched almost any sort of documentary, at least outside school hours.

The filmmakers were able to draw on the audio tapes and films which Crowhurst took while he was on board the Teignmouth Electron, and which were found, intact, when the boat was recovered. There are also revealing and candid interviews with a number of people who were intimately connected with the drama, notably competitor Robin Knox-Johnston, Crowhurst's best friend Ron Winspear, Crowhurst's son Simon, and his widow, Claire, who is completely honest about the experience and clearly still saddened by the events of almost forty years ago, which she admits, in the press kit available on the film's web site, she thinks about several times a week even now. Effective use is made of excerpts from Crowhurst's logbooks, including the chilling 'It is the mercy' passage which I quote in a previous entry, and the final shots of the film will bring a lump to the throat of anyone with a pulse.

The filmmakers have resisted the urge to demonise anyone. Crowhurst may have been a deeply flawed man, but he is presented sympathetically, and presented in such a way that it is easy to see how at every step of the voyage he faced terrible choices, all of which led inevitably to death, or ruin, or public humiliation. In his position, faced with his choices, what would any of us do? Rodney Hallworth, Crowhurst's press agent, comes in for the most damning examination, and in a fascinating extra feature many of the journalists who were involved in covering the Golden Globe race try to determine how much culpability any of them had for what occurred. While there is some inevitable ducking for cover, at least one journalist confesses that he must, he feels, accept some responsibility for what happened to Crowhurst, and that he must live with that on his conscience for the rest of his life.

In addition to the film itself, there are a number of fascinating extras, including lengthy (five to ten minutes each) video features about the other eight competitors, all of which draw on archival footage and some of which feature new interviews with the participants, such as Knox-Johnston, or the widows of some of the competitors, such as Nigel Tetley's wife Eve and Bernard Moitessier's wife Fran├žoise. It's interesting to note how Claire Crowhurst, Eve Tetley, and Fran├žoise Moitessier—who are shown in the film, in footage from 1968, as the 'sea widows'—have all come to terms with those events of so long ago, and the inner voice which compelled their men to take part in an event which most sane people would consider suicidal. All three, in different ways, express the view that one must follow one's dreams, no matter the cost, and that however insane they may have appeared to outsiders, something in all three compelled them to do this thing, so that their wives could no more dream of stopping them than they could of flying.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Golden Globe race and the Crowhurst tragedy, from the perspective of many of those who were intimately connected with it, should make every effort to see Deep Water, a fascinating documentary which does a fine job of bringing a four-decades-old tragedy to vivid, and devastating, life.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tunes You Could Hum

In the 1972 film Sleuth (being remade as we speak) there's a scene at about the halfway point where the character of Andrew Wyke is making himself a late-night snack, while in the background Cole Porter music plays: 'Anything Goes', 'You Do Something To Me', and 'Just One Of Those Things'. He is interrupted by the unexpected, and unwelcome, intrusion of Inspector Doppler of the Wiltshire County Constabulary, come to ask a few awkward questions; but not before the policeman cocks an ear to the music and says appreciatively, 'Ah, those were the days, sir. Tunes you could hum.'

All of which preamble is by way of saying that I'm in complete agreement with Inspector Doppler (and Anthony Shaffer, who wrote the line, which incidentally doesn't appear in his original play script; according to the stage directions, Wyke is listening to Beethoven's 'Seventh Symphony' at this point in the proceedings). If Fred Astaire danced to it, or sang it, or both—even if he only could have danced to it or sung it—then I'm happy to listen to it until the cows come home, and for a considerable period thereafter. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that XM Satellite Radio, which we started to get a year ago, has a channel—number 4, called 'The Savoy Express'—dedicated to music from the 1940s, with forays back into the 1930s and even the late 1920s. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Vaughan Munro, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, Billie Holliday, Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, Duke Ellington, Betty Hutton, Johnny Mercer, Lena Horne: all are in constant play here, and it's the soundtrack by which my day is usually accompanied. No matter how harried or busy or complicated things get, just hearing—to name a few random favourites—'I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo', 'I Love New York In June', 'Sing Sing Sing', 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye', 'On the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe', 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'Easy To Love', 'One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)', and 'The Lady is a Tramp' never fails to cheer me up. And when I look up from my computer, I'm greeted by the smiling face of Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller, in an 8.5 x 11 black-and-white photo signed by Mr Stewart himself: two favourites together.

There's something about these songs, with their lush arrangements, playful lyrics, leisurely instrumental introductions, and consummate professionalism that appeals to me. The lyrics might not be profound, but they're heartfelt and sincere; the singers might not always be as vocally proficient as one would like, but they knew how to sell a song; and the tunes have the wonderful merit, as Inspector Doppler noted, of being instantly hummable, as well as easily understood and catchy as all get out.

Nickelback? Franz Ferdinand? Justin Timberlake? Fergie? Carrie Underwood? I'm sure they're great. But if you'll excuse me, I have to go; Don Kennedy is hosting 'Big Band Jump' on The Savoy Express. 'I'll never smile again / Until I smile at you.'

It Is The Mercy

In 1967, Englishman Francis Chichester sailed solo round the world in Gypsy Moth IV. He was not the first man to accomplish the feat, but his was the fastest such voyage yet recorded; and unlike others, who had stopped at several ports along the way for provisions and repairs, Chichester made only one stop en route, in Australia. His feat caught the imagination of the world; nowhere more than in England, still reeling under the blow of World War II, aware that its glory days as a world leader were behind it, and searching for a new hero. Chichester and his voyage caught the public imagination in England, and he joined a small, select group of men which included Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, and Roger Bannister, all of whom had been crowned as heroes by the British people. When Chichester arrived in England the event was broadcast live on British television (amid speculation that after so long at sea his legs might give out when he went ashore; they didn't), he was greeted by 250,000 people lining the shore at Plymouth Hoe, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was lionised throughout the country and the world.

It was perhaps inevitable that others would try to emulate Chichester's accomplishment, although it was clearly not enough now merely (!) to sail single-handed around the world; the voyage must be done faster, and without any stops at all. The sailing fraternity was not slow to take up this challenge, and almost immediately several men began making plans to attempt the feat. The Sunday Times newspaper, which had sponsored Chichester's voyage, sensed the commercial possibilities inherent in the quest; but how to exploit them? Difficulties at once emerged. The nature of the men planning to take part meant that each was anxious to be 'the first', and potential competitors were busily planning their voyages and would be off as soon as they were ready. There was no question of participants hanging around to wait for others so that they could all set off with the boom of a starter's gun, so how to decide a winner? There was also the problem of persuading people to actually take part in an official race; what if someone declined to take part and simply set off on his own? After some deliberation, the ST got round these obstacles by announcing that there would be a five month window during which competitors could depart—from 1 June to 31 October 1968—and that anyone at all who decided to sail around the world solo without stopping, and who departed during this time period, would be part of the competition, whether they wanted to be or not. Participants were not allowed to put into any port, or receive any assistance from another boat or person. There would also be two prizes: the Golden Globe itself would go to the first person to complete the venture, while a prize of £5000 would go to the competitor who finished the race in the shortest period of time.

The rules, such as they were, meant that since anyone who departed during the stipulated time was taking part in the race, the Sunday Times had no control over who was part of the event, and could not, therefore, insist on assessing participants before they left for such basics as seamanship or mental stability; nor could the paper ensure that the participants' vessels were suited to the voyage, or that they were properly outfitted or supplied. Thus it was that Donald Crowhurst, whose knowledge, and practical experience, of sailing was minimal, whose boat was poorly designed (by himself) and built, and whose supplies were woefully lacking, was able to take part in the most gruelling sea race yet devised.

Hours before the 31 October deadline, Crowhurst set sail in his trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. To say he was woefully unprepared would be an understatement. The ship-building process had been fraught, to say the least, and the boat was not properly finished; the trial run had been little short of a disaster; Crowhurst's much-vaunted (and self-designed) computerised running system was a jumble of wires that led nowhere; all was confusion aboard the boat; and vast quantities of supplies, including a bag of gifts from his wife, remained on the dock when Crowhurst finally sailed. The situation was so obviously desperate that a BBC-TV crew, there to film Crowhurst's departure, was quietly told by the man in charge—who sensed a tragedy in the making—to stop filming and help with the loading of the boat instead.

When Crowhurst set sail he was, like the other eight competitors, heading into the unknown. It is almost impossible, in these days of Global Positioning, instant messaging, faxes, computers, and the Internet, to appreciate what these men were facing. Their radio communication with anyone at all would be sporadic at best; they could go weeks without being able to send or receive a message. They would be calculating their position using chronometers and sextants, putting them closer to Cook, Ross, and Franklin then to sailors today, a mere generation later. The Sunday Times, which had not been able to vet competitors or their ships, was able to enforce the rule about no contact, so on the rare occasions when the men were close enough to another ship to retrieve a bundle of letters or newspapers from home, they were unable to receive even these small comforts. These men were, in essence, even more isolated and alone than Apollo astronauts, in a voyage that could last anywhere up to a year.

It takes a certain amount of mental stability and toughness to endure this sort of isolation; and it quickly became apparent to several of the competitors that this element would be the most difficult to endure. In the end, of the nine men who set out, only one completed the voyage successfully; and given the title of the book which heads this entry, it's not giving anything away to say that Donald Crowhurst was not that man. On 10 July 1969, the Royal Mail Vessel Picardy discovered the Teignmouth Electron floating, abandoned, in the mid-Atlantic, about 1800 miles from England. The vessel was quickly identified as that of Donald Crowhurst, taking part in the Golden Globe race, who at that point was supposed to be heading home in triumph, having completed the most gruelling portion of his trip; his sporadic radio accounts, while somewhat vague as to his precise location, had indicated that the novice sailor was defying the odds and looked set to become a hero when he returned to England. There was no sign of Crowhurst on the boat, however; the last logbook entry was dated 1 July, and while the boat was in some disarray, there was nothing to indicate a disaster. It was surmised that he had been swept overboard by some freak accident—perhaps a rogue wave—and after searching the area the Picardy departed for England, with the Teignmouth Electron hoisted on board.

It was a sobering end to what had been shaping up as a miraculous voyage, and Crowhurst looked set to be memorialised as a hero. However, when the Picardy arrived in England and the logbooks were examined, a very different, and deeply unsettling, story emerged. I will not spoil that story by going into further detail here. Suffice it to say that the account of it—immortalised by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, first published in 1970 and recently reprinted (with a new introduction by Jonathan Raban) by McGraw Hill as part of its 'Sailor's Classics' series—is one of the most harrowing, and terrifying, books I have ever read. Tomalin and Hall's reconstruction of the events strikes me as flawless; it is almost as if one or both were there, on board, watching as Crowhurst descended into madness, a process which takes place before our eyes in the course of the book. By the time the story comes to its inevitable—but no less horrifying for that—conclusion, you will be drained, and hoping that this is the closest to true madness that you ever come. Near the end of his final entry, Crowhurst writes chillingly:

I will only resign this game
if you will agree that [on]
the next occasion that this
game is played it will be played
according to the
rules that are devised by
my great god who has
revealed at last to his son
not only the exact nature
of the reason for games but
has also revealed the truth of
the way of the ending of the
next game that

It is finished—

It is finished

IT IS THE MERCY

Like the narrator in 'Bartleby the Scrivener', when I consider these words I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Those whom the gods destroy, they first drive mad, indeed.

The background of the Golden Globe race, and accounts of the other participants, are touched on in Tomalin and Hall's book, but it is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with Crowhurst. Those who would like to find out more about the race as a whole, and the other competitors, are encouraged to seek out Peter Nichols's A Voyage For Madmen (Harper-Collins, 2001), which fills in many of the background details about the Golden Globe and the other competitors. Even without Crowhurst's presence, the race would have made for an electrifying account, and Nichols, who in addition to being a writer is a skilled sailor, has the literary and sea-going talents to ensure that his book is a page-turner from start to finish. The nine men who took part were very different in terms of temperament, seamanship, and motivation, and Nichols does a skilful job in assessing each one, and trying to find out why they did what they did. This is, as Nichols himself admits, an almost impossible question to answer; even those driven to attempt feats which most of us would consider life-threatening, foolhardy, and well-nigh impossible, in approximately equal measures, usually have no satisfactory answer, unless it's along the lines of George Mallory's response, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest: 'Because it's there.'

Both The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and A Voyage for Madmen are highly recommended, in and of themselves and as complementary volumes. I'd even go so far as to say that these accounts of exploits on the high seas would make perfect summertime reading; unless, of course, you are planning a sea voyage of your own, in which case you might want to save them until you return home.