episode seventeen: the wanderer returns

After an absence of some months, the wanderer returns with news…of a book…you can find out more by listening…




I’ve been a long way away, and for quite a while. I’ll explain why later, and offer an apology, but first, I’d like to shuggle back into the podcast chair in the little studio – shed actually – at the bottom of the garden, which is where I’m speaking to you from right now. It’s cold outside, but the sun has just come out, which helps.

The last time I was here, I talked about a film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and we’ve all lived through a time chock a block with all three. Over Christmas and New Year, thinking about what I might say, I’ve been mulling over another favourite film; one I watched again recently – perhaps for the twentieth time – one that my daughters know very well because we watched it together so often when they were young, and one that has stood the test of time, ranking amongst the greatest love stories ever told on the screen.

I won’t name the movie yet, but here are some clues. It was shot in the spring of 1945 with the Second World War still going on, soldiers and civilians around the globe fighting and dying in what must have seemed an interminable conflict, exhausting, brutal and relentless. The film was released in the November of that same year only weeks after the war was declared over and with millions of people trying to recall and rebuild the lives they had lived before war changed everything forever.

One piece of music plays thoughout the movie. You can hear it now in the background, but let me be quiet a moment so you can catch the theme…

Some of you will already have guessed the film title from the music because the theme is so indelibly linked to the story. But just in case you haven’t already worked it out, a quick telling would begin with a man and a woman, strangers to each other, meet at a railway station. When a bit of grit gets lodged in her eye, thrown up by a passing train, he produces a handkerchief and comes to her aid. An old-fashioned ‘cute-meet’, not terribly original, but that simple moment is the beginning of a love affair doomed to ends less than a year later, leaving the characters, and us, the audience, bereft, full of longing and regret, as the story ends with them resigned to their lives apart, despairing of ever finding happiness again.

Are you there yet? Let me be quiet again, to hear Sergei Rachmaninoff’s theme…picture it playing over scenes of a very ordinary town with very ordinary people going about their business, two of whom just happen to be experiencing the epiphany of a devastating attraction to each other that blots out everything else in their lives…

The film is Brief Encounter, written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, starring Trevor Howard as doctor Alec Harvey, and Celia Johnson as housewife and mother, Laura Jesson.

Once a week, Laura goes to town to shop and have a cup of tea, and take herself to the cinema for an afternoon matinee. Alec works as a consultant one day a week – a Thursday, as it happens – and sometimes stays over in a friend’s flat. Both are happily married with children. When they meet again by chance outside the chemist, and later are forced to share a table in the tearoom, it is the beginning of an impossible love that throws every certainty into chaos, especially in the nineteen-forties, a time when divorce was frowned upon, when duty and a sense of responsibility formed the glue of society and when the notion that one should follow one’s heart was considered an abdication, a selfish indulgence and a threat to the established order.

I know the story well enough to recall dialogue in time to be able to say the words along with the characters, a very annoying and irritating habit if you happen to be watching with me. But this time, as I watched the familiar story unfold exactly as it has before, and will again when I return to the film again – which I surely will – it was not the lovers and their plight that caught my attention. It was the shock of those ordinary lives going on in an ordinary town that gave me pause.

Gave me pause is not right. It’s not enough, stopped me in my tracks, fascinated me, that’s closer to it. Those ordinary streets teeming with people, and not one in a facemask. The crowded tea rooms, windows steamed and dripping with condensation and the tables full, everyone sitting close enough to touch each other and the waitresses squeezing between with trays of food and a fairly dreadful string trio playing in the background. ‘It all seemed so natural and so innocent,’ Laura says in her voice over. Exactly my sentiment as I watched them go to a packed cinema together, sitting side by side without a spare seat or two between them for social distancing.

We see them settle in, coats on laps, laughing at the trailer for a film called Flames of Passion and a very banal advert for Prams sold by Burtons on the High street, that together manage to sum up the film’s blend of the ordinary and extraordinary in less than ten seconds.

And later, when the two lovers have a last cup of tea at the station refreshment room, and Albert Godley, the ticket collector, flirts with Myrtle the café owner, there is not a pair of surgical gloves in sight.

Indeed, why would there be? Although the film was shot in the spring of 1945, there is no mention of the war still going on, no sandbags or air raid shelters, no uniforms or sense of menace, no threat at all in fact, bar the dangers of illicit love.

Audiences seeing the film for the first time weeks after the war’s end, would have engaged with the lovers’ story through a peculiar lens that would have transported them to a time before the war, or perhaps an imaginary landscape where the war had never happened at all. I wondered how they would have felt to see nothing of their recent experience of deprivation and death on such a grand scale that even in our situation now, we can scarcely imagine the devastating impact on so many lives around the world. Seventy-five million deaths are attributed to the war, forty million of those, civilians. After five years of conflict, perhaps it was a blessed relief to escape it all for an hour and a half in a darkened cinema; to see life as it was fondly remembered and familiar. Though the more I thought about the film, the more I realised how the film makers had managed a very extraordinary thing. They could easily have chosen to situate the lovers against the backdrop of a war would only have served to offer more urgency to their love and more reasons why they could not be together. Instead, David Lean, the director, and Noel Coward, the writer, chose to pitch the story against ordinary life, remembered but no longer true. Why, I wondered? Escapism. Denial? And yet Brief Encounter is a tragic tale of wishes unfulfilled, with a haunting theme throughout, a theme that describes the pain of loss and the will to recovery, to go on, despite it all. Perhaps that’s why no-one to my knowledge anyway, criticised the film for failing to show things as they truly were. Whether consciously or not – I don’t know – this small story, so simple and so powerful, achieves something much grander than at first appears, especially at the time, making audiences weep for the lovers then, as we still do now, bringing catharsis, perhaps the most important kind of catharsis, the kind that only stories can bring; parallel to our lives as lived, separate, self-contained, but speaking to the universal experience of love and loss.

I hope that we too will begin to tell stories and make films that console the spirit, with such subtlety and grace, allowing us too to weep for our losses, find the same sort of relief and catharsis, long after this pandemic is history.

Watching for the twenty-first time, again I felt a lump in my throat as Laura confesses the affair to her husband in the last scene, at least in her mind. We’re never sure if Fred guesses what she has experienced or where she has been, but he offers her both forgiveness and unqualified love when he says, ‘You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.’

It is that last scene in the film that really drew me back to the movie again. Because like Laura, I have been a long way away and I would like to be forgiven for disappearing from this podcast for so long.

I have been away because for six months, I have been writing a book. A very courageous literary agent, Jen Christie, introduced me and this podcast to a very wonderful publisher by the name of Claudia Connal. Together, they have encouraged, persuaded, cajoled and corrected my baby steps in the direction of making a coherent and, I hope, engaging story that builds on familiar characters and scenes with new material, together with a surprise ending that ties together the themes sketched in this podcast.

Love and Care, the book, will be published in hardback, here in the UK, in May of this new year, 2021, with a paperback to follow. You can pre-order the hardback now at your favourite bookstore, be that online or in your local bookshop, and remember, it is only out there because of you. Tell your friends, you heard it first and you made it happen, so thank you. I hope that when you see it and read it, you will forgive me being away so long, just as Fred forgave Laura, and find the book some compensation for my own brief encounter with the literary world.

But I want to close with a thank you, a hopeful vision of the future in this most turbulent of times, and a gift. The thank you goes first to my marvellous sister, who has been here with me sharing the care of our mum and giving me the time to write. It is she who has shouldered most of the care, she who prepared spaghetti Bolognese – her special ragou takes six hours or more to fully meld and is an act of love and care for a brother sometimes stressed and always high maintenance, though a long period of lockdown that has felt at times interminable, as it has for so many people around the world. Like the film makers of Brief Encounter, I have written the book during the pandemic, but it is not about the pandemic and is set before we knew what Covid was, even though, as I write this, thousands of people are being looked after, day and night, with extraordinary love and care, the kind that deserves better politicians, better pay and recognition, and the best of behaviour from all of us sticking to the guidelines, soaking up the pain and helping in any small way we can to make their work possible.

How can a simple thank you suffice? It can’t, and yet I am in awe of the dedication and commitment shown by our health workers – carers, nurses, doctors, first responders, and all the ancillary professions – that keep our health services going, against the odds and at enormous cost to themselves and their own families.

As for that vision of the future, with so much loss still to come, is a hopeful vision possible? Yes, I think it is. It was for those early audiences watching Brief Encounter. They saw ordinary life depicted just weeks after the end of a devastating world war. They wept at the end of a doomed love affair, for the lovers, but also for themselves, and they would go on to rebuild with a national health service for all and a social security system that was designed to ensure we shared risk and we cared for others. We are ordinary people too, living through extraordinary times. We too can rebuild our world, only let’s follow their example and do it better, more inclusively, with compassion for all.

And now a gift; I’d like to say it is from me to you, and it is, through the source is Wiki Commons. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number two in C Minor Opus 18 in it’s entirety, and blessedly, without me talking over the music.

You might be interested to know that before writing this piece, the composer had fallen into a deep depression that took several years of patient love and care to heal. Sergei was supported throughout by family and friends and finally emerged whole again. The concerto speaks to his recovery and is dedicated to the physician who helped to cure his writer’s block and restore his self-confidence. Eleven sublime minutes for us all to reflect on the losses of so many, the sacrifices of so many working even now for us and for our own recovery…

Listen now, or save it for later, and take time out from the worries and the woes to feel hope, to contemplate life as it could be, and will be, in the future. As J. M. Barrie says in Peter Pan, ‘this has all happened before and it will all happen again,’ but we can learn from our mistakes, rebuild better and be ordinary again, in the best sense.