Darkest Hour: Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

A visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London: photographs and history of this famous underground complex where Winston Churchill directed the war.

Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph
Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, iStock Photos.

You haven’t seen home in 3 days, and the thing is . . . you aren’t sure your home is actually still there. The bombing has been relentless for nights. One of the reports you read indicates one hit very, very close to your street.

Recently, you whole existence seems to be defined by a warren of passageways and rooms just a few feet below the ground. You’ve been awake for 18 hours now, and you’ll be spending another night in the dormitory here. The mad clatter of typing gets suddenly louder as someone opens a door.

The air, heavy with cigarette smoke, is stale in other ways that have become normal: a combination of food smells lingering from supper a couple of hours ago, and a tinge of the latrine that never seems to quite go away. But he’s here — you’re sure of it. There’s the unmistakable odor of a cigar somewhere close. And that always means the PM is nearby . . .

I visited the Churchill War Rooms when I was last in London. I had planned to write about the War Rooms later this spring, but after seeing Darkest Hour yesterday — I can think of little else. It immediately took me back to my exploration of the underground complex where the leaders of the British Government directed WWII.

It doesn’t take much to imagine yourself on staff and part of this extraordinary period in history.

The London Milkman, 1940
The London Milkman, 1940. The British government censored photographs of Luftwaffe bombing to prevent the Germans from knowing how the British countermeasures were working. This was a staged photograph, designed to say to both the British AND the Germans that English daily life continued — despite the best efforts of the Nazis to destroy their spirit.

Yes. We all think we understand how horrific the bombing of Britain was, but the gulf between an academic understanding, and a personal knowledge is vast. Look at the map below showing the sites of all the bombs dropped between October 7, 1940, and June 6, 1941.

Chilling, isn’t it?

There is something about the visual — all of those pins, all of those bombs, so thick at this zoom level that they all simply merge together in a massive red lump. The brilliance of this project is that on the Bomb Site Project, you can zoom in to the detail of each, single bomb strike, street by street, and bring up information and pictures.

Map from the Bomb Sight Project
“The Bomb Sight project is mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.” — from the Bomb Sight Project

As the 1930’s progressed and the situation in Europe deteriorated, many in the British government thought that having an alternative meeting site, protected from potential bombing, was imperative. But indeed, with budget cuts and a habit of continually putting the project off, there nearly wasn’t an underground war room. While the idea had been under discussion for some years, going back to 1933 when Hitler left the League of Nations, nothing had been done.

On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria to force its incorporation into the Nazi state. At this time, the British government “planned” to include an underground war room in the basement of a building that was to be constructed and completed in, perhaps,  four years time.

On March 16, 1938, Colonel Hastings Ismay (Deputy Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence) felt sure hostilities were imminent, and there was no time to wait for new construction. He had available basement spaces surveyed, and by May 31, 1938, identified the basements under the New Public Offices (now the Treasury) on Great George Street as the ones best suited to their needs.

The intention was for this to be a temporary underground headquarters until something better could be built. Ismay assigned Brigadier Leslie Hollis to manage the conversion of the space into the central nervous system for a war-time government, and it was full steam ahead.

Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.
Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.

In September 1938, as Hitler threatened to annex Czechoslovakia, Ismay rushed into outfitting a ventilation system and reinforcing the ceilings of the basement rooms.

Then came the Munich Agreement: on September 30, 1938, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy reached an agreement that permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.

While this agreement did little else beneficial, it bought time for the War Room project to be improved to the point it could actually be used. It took much of 1939 to convert what Hollis called ‘the hole in the ground’ to the set of facilities we see today. The first test meeting held in the War Rooms came on October 21, 1939.

May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Just a few days later, he went down into the underground complex to look at the Cabinet Room. The moment was later described by Brigadier Leslie Hollis:

As he looked around the empty room, the poignancy if the moment touched him. No one could say what the news would be within the hour, whether or not England was even then under her first invasion in a thousand years. The little group stood for a moment in silence under the humming fans, each thinking his own thoughts, and then Mr. Churchill took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed at the homely wooden chair at the head of the table. ‘This is the room from which I’ll direct the war,’ he said slowly.

Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.
Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.

The Main Corridor

Main Corridor in the War Rooms in London
Main Corridor in the War Rooms.
Weather Indicator in the Churchill War Rooms letting people know what things were like above ground.
Weather Indicator letting people know what things were like above ground.

What’s the weather like outside? You certainly don’t know if you’ve been below ground for any length of time. Check your handy weather indicator sign to the left — Fine and Warm today! And that’s a good thing isn’t it? Did you know that if it says “Windy” that’s a euphemism for heavy bombing in progress!

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms
War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Cabinet Room

The War Cabinet met every day, sometimes twice a day, depending current circumstances.

“The morning meeting invariably starts with reports by the Services on the military situation, and by the Foreign Secretary on political developments.” — General Ismay

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms in London
Another view of the War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The Imperial War Museum chose to preserve the Cabinet Room the way it would have looked just before a meeting on October 15, 1940, when bombs had caused significant damage to 10 Downing Street the night before — an event that finally persuaded Churchill to meet regularly in the underground War Rooms.

Note the layout of the seating.

Churchill would have been seated in front of the map where his red dispatch box is, and the cabinet members in the other seats around the outside of the square.

The seats in the inside of the square? The hot seats, where heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force would sit directly across from the PM to be grilled.

How would you feel staring eyeball to eyeball with Winston Churchill?

Map Room

One week before the war began, the first team of officers took their seats in the Map Room. As the central nervous system of all war planning the Map Room was never empty. Shifts of staff worked round the clock for six years . . . until the war was over and the entire War Room complex closed and locked.

The Map Room looks as it did at the end of the war, reflecting Allied positions in the hours before Japan’s surrender.

The Map Room in the underground War Rooms in London
Churchill’s favorite room in the underground facility? The map room. Photograph, Ann Fisher

Churchill’s Room

Churchill's private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC.
Churchill’s private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Just next to the map room, you’ll find Churchill’s private room. While he spent only a handful of nights in his underground bedroom, he regularly used the room as an office before or after meetings with the War Cabinet. Churchill also took a number of his famous afternoon naps here. Additionally, four of his BBC broadcasts were made from the desk in this room.

You’ll find photographs of more of the rooms in the underground complex below, including the Chiefs of Staff room, Mrs. Churchill’s bedroom, as well as the Churchill’s kitchen and dining room.

In the fall of 1940, Churchill discovered that the War Rooms were not strong enough to survive a direct hit from a bomb. On his orders, a concrete slab was built between the basement ceiling and the floor of the building above, and other sections of the War Rooms were filled with concrete to make them more bomb-resistant.

End of the War

On Tuesday, August 16, 1945, the doors to the War Rooms were closed. Even then, the British government recognized the extraordinary historic value of the space. According to Asbury’s book the Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, impromptu tours of the space were happening as early as 1946, even though there were still top secret documents present. These were removed in 1947.

In the 1970’s, as many as 5,000 people were touring the War Rooms each year. With growing concern about the conservation of the site and its contents, the IWM (Imperial War Museum) finally took steps to turn the space into a museum. On April 4, 1984, the Churchill War Rooms officially opened to the public.

Darkest Hour and the War Rooms

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).
Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).

Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as Churchill has been roundly acclaimed by both historians and film critics. This is one of my favorite films of 2017, and is now on my list of best WWII films ever made.

Scenes from the film take place in Parliament, and 10 Downing Street of course, but nearly four weeks of filming happened in the War Rooms, which were painstakingly reproduced by designer Sarah Greenwood at Ealing Studios in London.

In an interview with Mental Floss magazine, Greenwood said, “I designed [the War Rooms set], drew up the rough plans and everything over a weekend, and when I showed it to Joe, he was just like—and this is very rare—he was like, ‘Yep, that’s great.’ There were very few changes that we made to that,” Greenwood says. “And I think that came from knowing what it was going to be like. Because we’d been to the real War Rooms, we knew what we were trying to capture.”

If you want to get a sense of Churchill in these spaces, the Darkest Hour is the perfect film to watch before a visit to the War Rooms.

Two thoughtful reviews of Darkest Hour are available here: RogerEbert.com and the review in The Atlantic.

Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.
Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.

Information for Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

How long should you spend at the Churchill War Rooms?

I would say, at minimum, plan for a visit of 90 minutes. For those with a great interest in WWII, you could easily spend half a day.

In addition to the War Rooms, your admission gets you into the Churchill Museum, an award winning interactive museum about the life and times of Winston Churchill. You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill Museum on your tour of the War Rooms. On my visit, due to time constraints, I focused on the War Rooms. For more information, visit the Churchill Museum information here.

If you do want to spend several hours here, the War Rooms has a Cafe that is quite good. They serve tarts, stews, a variety of salads, and sandwiches. Conveniently located partway through the War Room path, it’s a great place to rest and ready yourself for more time exploring.

Cost

Tickets to visit the Churchill War Rooms are priced two ways: purchased day of visit, most expensive £21 – Adult — (bought ahead online £18.90),  £10.50 – child, 5 – 15 — (bought ahead online£9.45), as of January 2018. There is family pricing that varies depending on the number of adults.

Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, Mohana Anton Meryl, iStock Photos.

Seeing the War Rooms for less money: If you are doing general sightseeing around London, consider buying a London Pass that gives entry t0 over 70 attractions, including the Churchill War Rooms. Also included is a one day hop-on hop-off bus pass.

You can buy the pass in 1 day up to 6 day lengths. The London Pass is sold by a number of vendors. I recommend reading about the pass on the official London Pass site and then compare prices at Viator (London Pass on Viator), where I found the best price. Viator also gives you the option of purchasing the London Pass in conjunction with an Oyster Card for travel on the red buses and London Underground.

As you compare prices, keep in mind that on the official site, prices are in British Pounds, so you’ll need to convert them to compare value.

Location

Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms, Clive Steps, London
Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 

You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms at the bottom of the Clive Steps. See the map below for directions.

Other Tips for seeing the War Rooms

During the summer and other high-travel seasons, the Churchill War Rooms will be crowded. Very crowded. It’s a tight warren-like maze of hallways and rooms, and it’s a big tourist draw, so it simply makes sense to be there when they open.

If you are a World War II buff, then the Churchill War Rooms should be on your short list of places to visit in London. If your significant other and/or children aren’t interested, do yourself a favor. DITCH THEM.  Send them off to do something they like, then go get your Churchill on! All of you will be happy you did . . .


Interested in WWII Planes?

Onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress

Beautiful: The slow drone of four radial piston engines on a crystal clear November morning as I stepped back in time with this great warbird. This morning, I drove out to a small airport north of Houston for a bucket list experience.


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Onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress

Texas Raiders B-17 Flying Fortress
B-17 Flying Fortress. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Beautiful: The slow drone of four radial piston engines on a crystal clear November morning as I stepped back in time with this great warbird.

This morning, I drove out to a small airport north of Houston for a bucket list experience.

Flying in a B-17 is something I’ve wanted to do ever since crawling around in one with my Dad when we were at the Wings Over Houston air show over ten years ago.

Texas Raiders B-17 Flying Fortress
Texas Raiders B-17 Flying Fortress. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Radio desk B-17 Flying Fortress
I sat at the radio desk for take-off and landing. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Dad has always been a big WWII buff. He was a little boy during the war, and he lived with his grandmother in a big house on Jackson Avenue in New Orleans. In order to help pay bills, she had officers room at the house throughout the war. Dad said the officers would tell stories during dinner, and often, if he could catch time with them when his grandmother wasn’t around, he’s get fuller versions to the tales — you know how little boys love gory details. My great uncle Douglas flew B-25 bombers during the war, and Dad has a photograph of Douglas’s squadron flying over New York City.

Anytime a World War II film came out, Dad took me with him. Hope and Glory is a big favorite of his — he says the young boy is the age he was during the war. Dad watched the boys playing in the bombed out ruins of houses in London, and he said, “I would have been right there with them!” If you have not seen Hope and Glory, I highly recommend it. It’s a look at the Blitz through a impish boy’s eyes, and with it a reminder that even during the worst of times, life goes on, sometimes in very funny ways.

Sadly, Hope and Glory is not available for official streaming online  and the only second-hand DVD versions are ridiculously expensive. It can be seen here: Hope and Glory.

We went to see Memphis Belle when it came out in 1990. I loved this film, and have continued to feel this way about it, although I am keenly aware that the film is a fictionalization of the documentary of the same name. Watch the original documentary for accuracy; watch the film for good storytelling. I watched the movie again yesterday afternoon after coming home from my flight, and still love it. I’ve included links to the documentary and to the film trailer below.

Saving Private Ryan was a very big deal when it came out, and while we did not see it together, it was the topic of discussion for several phone visits. Then came Band of Brothers, my all-time favorite miniseries. I gave it to Dad for Christmas the year it was released on DVD. I felt very fortunate to have met a member of the WWII 101 Airborne during a Wings Over Houston airshow in the mid-2000’s. Charming man, and quite the flirt.

Over 12,000 B-17 bombers were built for World War II, but now only eleven of these aircraft are still flying. Houston is fortunate to have two of these airworthy B-17 planes in short driving distance: one is at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, and the other is owned by the Texas Raiders and is located at the David Wayne Hooks Airport in Spring, Texas.

Right waist gunner position in the Texas Raiders B-17
Right waist gunner position in the Texas Raiders B-17, flying over Lake Conroe. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

You can schedule flights in the B-17 bombers through both Texas Raiders and the Lone Star Museum, but typically only at airshows or other events. Check Texas Raiders or the Lone Star Flight Museum sites for scheduling information. Cost for my ride: $475. If you want either the navigator or bombardier seats in the nose of the plane, expect to pay nearly double.  I thought about this, but figured sitting anywhere on this warbird would be amazing. I took the radio operator’s seat, and I think I made the right call. Once the navigator and bombardier were seated, they had to stay there for the entire flight, while the rest of us roamed the plane once we were at cruising altitude.

I am not quite sure what I expected the flight experience to be like . . . I did think it would be much rougher. As we were given instructions before the flight, they said we would be able to walk around in the fuselage. In the catwalk over the bomb bay doors, there were ropes to hold onto — and they warned us not to grab the cables — . Yeah, that would be bad, since those cables allow the pilot to control the rudder of the plane.

Oh, and if you drop something on the bomb bay doors, just leave it there. Since, I don’t know, the doors are designed to open with a 100 lb. weight. Check. I envision a middle-age women being dropped into a back yard in the suburbs. Hhmm. If this is a rough flight, maybe I should just stay seated . . . Yeah, no. This didn’t happen 🙂 — I crawled all over the plane. Even considered getting into the ball gun turret, but it was so tight, I think I’d still be in there.

Moving around in the bomber once we were up in the air was easy — the B-17 was very stable. I walked along the catwalk over the bomb bay doors to get up to the cockpit. No concerns. The pilots seemed to have everything in hand, so I headed back to the waist gunner positions. What great views!

Left waist gunner position B-17 flying fortress
Left waist gunner position on the B-17. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Short video of the flight:

I had such a great time with the Texas Raiders and their B-17. If you are thinking about taking a ride in a World War II airplane, I highly recommend this experience — not only was the flight amazing, but it’s great knowing that the cost of the flight helps preserve this Flying Fortress.

What’s next for me? Well, I’ll be watching the Texas Raider website for their 2017 schedule . . . and I’m thinking my next flight might be in their Navy biplane trainer, the Yellow Peril . . .

Navy Canary Bi-plane
Naval N3N, often called a Canary or Yellow Peril. Open cockpit biplane trainer built by the Naval Aircraft Factory in the 1930’s. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

If you have pictures, videos, or blog posts about WWII warbirds, please feel free to share them in the comment section below!

*** Lead image of the B-17 Flying Fortress, photograph, Ann Fisher.

Post publishing note: My ride on the B-17 was a form of time travel, and the connection for me was real and very meaningful. I’ve already had emails from several people saying they are thinking about giving one of these flights as a Christmas gift. To me, experiences like this are the most wonderful gifts you can give. I hope that my review of my flight on the Texas Raiders B-17 Bomber might convince you to give it a try!


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Once Upon a Time

Clint Bolton letter for Ann Fisher narrow

Clint Bolton’s letter to Ann Fisher, August, 1979.

(Clint Bolton’s author’s note: This may or may not be fiction. There are those who live in the City Beside the Big River who will say of this or that character . . . “That is Soando.” And there are men . . . and women . . . with long memories who may say, “Yes, there is such a man and in a certain time and place he did thus and so. And there was that time down on the Malabar Coast . . .”

And another may say, “we were in Manila and that was possibly forty years ago and he said, very casually, over a drink, ‘In the end it will be the Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon in the real death fight. Japan may start a war. They will not finish it because they can’t. There is that vast land mass, gents, the huge area of Europe and Asia. Alexander could not do it. Genghis Khan could not do it and Napoleon failed, utterly. A nightcap, old man? Good . . . and with that it’s goodbye. My gear’s on a freighter, mixed cargo to Singapore. Just care of Raffles Hotel for the next few months.'” There are men and women who will recall things like that should they read this.

The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, circa 1921.
The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, circa 1921.

The very fine actress who is now like the man we will read about. There are no more parts for her to play . . . “My dear, they keep sending me scripts. I read very few of them. Yes, he is right. I knew him when we and the world were a lot younger. Lovers? . . . . How odd you should think that important for either of us now. We could meet and perhaps we would play the scene with some small grace . . . a slight touch of love among the ruins. There was that . . . we played the scene with grace notes . . . and if he built me a sand castle in Spain on the beach at Malibu, what difference that the next tide took it away? . . .  Was that important, really?”

“No, if we were to meet again we would greet each other with outstretched hands and silly people would say, ‘Were they?’ . . . ‘Did they?’ and make all sorts of guesses and speculations. And what would he say to them? My dears, I think he would smile. We’d touch the rims of our glasses just one more time and he would say, ‘That was once-upon-a-time . . . and once-upon-a-time never comes again . . .'”

Clint Bolton, journalist from New Orleans
Clint Bolton, a journalist who lived the final part of his life in the French Quarter in New Orleans

So, in what is most certainly an autumnal summer for a certain story teller, it is time for him to remember some times that were Once-Upon-A-Time for someone who is very lovely, very young and whose own once-upon-a-times are still ahead of her. Promissory notes on a bright and happy future.

It is not immodesty of the writer on an ego trip, but the modesty of a man who, on occasions, writes something sheerly as a small gift for a friend. The writer of this bit of midsummer fancy needs no more “glory times.” The bylines on the big stories, the moments of the awards . . . They are, in the end, as Kipling once wrote . . . “as one with Nineveh and Tyre” . . . . He has sailed Homer’s wine dark sea and he has written of the offshore, dawn breezes from Columbo heavy laden with the scent of cinnamon. So, at this time and place he writes what may or may not be fact or fable. But it will be a remembrance thing and like all rememberances it begins . . . . “Once Upon a Time” . . . cb).

To understand this post, you must start with “To Miss New Orleans,” an article that  tells the story of Clint Bolton and his friendship with me when I was fourteen.
Embed from Getty Images

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After they had gone, Brandon’s wife said, “I’m so glad her mother joined us. And she really is a darling!”

“Let’s make it the plural they. But you are very right. I regretted after the phone call I did not make sure young Jan’s mother would do more than drop her off. I could have called the club for their phone number. I wanted to but . . . another good intention down the tube . . . Well, it worked out fine. Yet, ever since we made the date for Jan to wheel me around the Quarter, I had one of those half feelings it would be good to tell her mother or her father not to worry too much. Until they gave us their address, which, incidentally, I am delighted to have, I didn’t know where they lived. Except I knew it was not the Quarter. Any parents have the right to need some reassurance that their daughter is not gonna get into some messy situation here in the Quarter.

Decatur Street in the 1970's, nearing Jackson Square.
Decatur Street in the 1970’s, nearing Jackson Square.

“Yes, dear, I know, the Quarter is much maligned and very few non-Quarterites and, for that matter, a ton or two of actual Quarterites don’t know the clout I carry down here. It is not something to tell about. To boast about. I told Jan when we were out a little bit. Not a lot because there is no need for that and she is young and could, possibly, make it something larger than life . . . a little bit over dramatic. That young lady is perceptive as hell. I’ve known women three times her age who are four times as foolish.”

“But I really didn’t think you needed to reassure her parents. After all, her father and you belong to the same club . . . ”

“And that is like getting commisioned in the armed forces. We are automatically gentlemen. My very dear, I have known a helluva lot of non-gentlemen by the classic definition who I could tell, “This is Jan. She is under my protection” . . . and she’d be a damn sight safer in their care or custody than if surrounded by a squad of National Guardsmen. In all truth, I’ll take my riffs and raffs over the young Guardsmen. My guys would know what to do and do it. A young Guardsman might think, “Well, next week I’m home in Alex. Who’s to know?” . . . and I remind you that until they began taking that house apart up in Illinois, a guy named Gayce was a so-called good citizen.

Despite the fact I never sired any children and ours is a late marriage, I am almost feudalistic in terms of my relationship toward my own kin and those souls who come under my own umbrella. I am a clansman, and I don’t spell that with a “K.” The heritage is Scottish, Irish, Norman and French. Yeah, some so-called “English” down the line but the roots, to use a word lately made popular, are Celtic and the Celts know the feud, the vendetta as thoroughly as they know it in Sicily or the Balkans. You have in me a one-legged cardiac cripple who is still, in the ancient way, “The Head of the House of Brandon.”

Al Hirt's Club on Bourbon Street, around 1977.
Al Hirt’s Club on Bourbon Street, around 1977.

The major point is Jan’s parents have every right to know what kind of people we are. U-S, darling . . . W-E, darling. You and me, dear, with a nod to Cole Porter, are the ones with whom that delightful young female will spend some time. Fine. We are all dressed up and very good with the manners department at Pendennis. But at home, and in the suspect French Quarter . . . well, how are things in the Glocca Mora this fine day? So it is all to the good. In the near future, Jan and BOTH parents ought to spend a little time with us. Nothing elaborate. Some decent cold cuts, your own very good potato salad, a little wine and some good talk . . .

“Boy . . . I can’t wait until Jan starts back to school.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

“Why?”

“Well, she has a mild high on Shakespeare. Saw Olivier in Hamlet on the tube and liked it. I can make the whole Elizabethan period come alive for her . . . and given the chance . . . her classmates.”

“Darling, I can’t help laughing. I know you can. I’ve seen much older people than Jan enthralled by you and Shakespeare. You could teach a course in it.”

“Yeah, and I can hear the ivy rustling, very scandalized, in the Groves of Academe when I point out that Lady Macbeth was too smart to hire a hit man. I can hear myself sayin’ . . . ‘In the end, you’re better off doin’ the job yourself.’ Shakespeare knew that. You hire a hit man and then maybe you have to knock off the hit man to prevent blackmail. Then you have to get the man who hit the hit man bounced. Lady Macbeth would have had to have all hands at court knocking off each other.”

Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar in the series Rome.
Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar in the series Rome.

“The same holds true of the murder of Julius Caesar. This update is strictly high class Mafia. The capos, the dons all agree Julie has gotta go. But the smart way to do that is to have all of them, the top hands, knock off the head honcho. And they do it right out loud. They cop a beautiful plea. They tell all the people, “We done it for yer own good. Julie was a helluva general, yessir. But he really took the Big Job like he thought he was an ackshul god.”

You can see me making Shakespeare as hot as any script in Hollywood. His plays are classics, and deservedly so. But take away Elizabethan speech and costumes and you’d have all the PTAs in the whole country screaming, “Foul.” Take Hamlet and that darling 14 year old Jan. Of course that’s only chronological age. Some people are 64 and remain not much over 14. Jan IS 14, but she is, thanks to any and all Deities, a little older . . . and a little wiser. But take this very Hamlet she saw and liked. It is a tale of fratricide, incest, murder, poor Ophelia has gone daft and there isn’t a shrink around. Not even Shakespeare was smart enough to invent Freud, Adler, and Jung. But do I tell Jan and her classmates, “this stuff is not for you?” I do not. Earlier this week a brother-sister are in a jam according to the Times-Picayune. They live up in Pennsylvania. They want to get married. That, Sweetie, is incest. Two brothers in Tulsa quarrel. One is jealous. His sibling gets more parental attention, he thinks. So he shoots and kills his brother and both parents. Patricide, fratricide. Shakespeare deals with these subjects.”

“It’s strange. You talk about Shakespeare as if you were contemporaries. You know him, his London and the people, the street people, the aristocracy. I’ve heard you on the subject with people who teach Shakespeare and they never contradict you, but you seem to go at Shakespeare in different ways.”

“They will be better able to quote this line or that. And they would be able to prattle to a classroom about some goop like the structural implication of Good Will’s use of iambic pentameter or whatever the hell it is. But what they don’t seem to understand is that this was not an engineering exercise in English. Shakespeare wrote with a certain rhythm. It was the rhythm, the sound of his times. Who writes waltzes these days? Can you waltz to the take-off scream of a jet? Times, man’s inventions change cadences. We live faster. A kid growing up in the Newark ghetto and spending a night on our couch might wake up and hear the clop-clop of the surrey horse going by. That’s cadence, a beat he doesn’t know. He knows the disco beat. The slowest is about 120 to the minute . . . which will probably produce a lot of very youthful cardiac cases in the next few years.”

‘Well, I won’t bother to Jan about disco. Maybe some afternoon we’ll play some Ellington and she will feel good about it. Or I may put on that record of Viennese waltzes. Before the gods and goddesses of disco take it all away from her.”

“I think her parents will feel good about you.”

Scrimshaw pendant
A scrimshaw pendant, similar to the one Clint bought for me.

“I hope so . . . .” Brandon started laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“You know, I always like to browse around the Mariner’s shop. So that was one of our stops. Frank Sellers, the owner, was there. He went to the Coast Guard Academy but I don’t think he graduated. Anyway, he’s not local — but from coastal New England. We get along fine. That’s why I got that bit of scrimshaw for Jan. He doesn’t deal in phonies, like a couple of trick plastics that are almost bone, but ain’t. In Hawaii and up in whale hunting Eskimo country there are still some people who know old scrimshaw art. Jan’s piece is modern, but it’s legit.

“That’s another part of you. Your passion, almost obsession . . . that anything BE REAL.”

“I guess so. Well, anyone Jan’s age may still believe in Camelot or that lovely misty place called Avalon. Nothing wrong with that. But also nothing wrong with the realization that the road to Camelot is very long.”

“We rest here the night, here and there, and in the cold reality of the moonlight, that is just one more silly coyote howlin’ my darling, and this is not Transylvania, and if Count Dracula comes messing around, I take this tent peg and wave it at him. The  wooden stake through the heart? No. An old Yiddish adage says it is better to run away than get poked in the eye with a sharp stick. So both Count Dracula and the coyote have one thing in common. They are cowards. The moonlight is very real, Jan, my darling. And for now we have some champagne, the good glasses, and some pleasant music.”

“That is very real, dear . . . but once upon a time on a tropic beach there was moonlight and very damn little romance . . .  ”

“Two Japanese snipers. I moved in and out of the shadows and, Sweetheart, my rhythm was not waltz time. I made it an uneven pattern. I held these two Japanese on me, m’dear. No romance in that. Moonlight and shadows, but it was very damn real, the grey fear in me. Just stay still a fraction too long. Just let those dummies figure your pattern, and the tune is Death March from Saul, if anyone should ask you. But with some luck those two will be hooked on me. The bleating of the sheep attracts the tiger. And our guys will nail them. Quietly, efficiently with knives. No noise. And our guys will come back, not only with enemy IDs and other useful stuff, but with two heads in a gunny sack. Before dawn the heads will be on long poles on the fringe of the beach.”

Japanese bunker in Papua New Guinea.
Japanese bunker in Papua New Guinea.

“It is their fate this should happen this way and my fate I should be part of this. I do not like it, but their Emperor has surrendered. They will not. So we must teach them and the other hold-outs on this crumby little island that it is over. The killing time is over. And the only way we can do that is to kill a few more of them. And put their heads on bamboo poles. Seabirds will pluck at them . . . the heads . . . their naked, unburied, headless bodies . . . spiders, insects, rodents. And that is a great shame. Tell me not about the Geneva Convention. Did they observe the Geneva Convention? And now, as I said, the time for killing is over.”

“But it is not over and we will kill these two snipers and degrade them. I don’t like it. But it is something I decree and we will not tell our officers about it because mostly they would tell us not to do this thing. But it is something that must be done and two days after those heads are up on the long, bending poles, the other hold-outs will come in. This they will understand. It is a very primitive thing but ancient. To defile the enemy’s body. To dishonor it. That is terrible and the great curse.”

“For when it is done, it is as if I say, ‘I killed you. But I did not kill you in honor. Because you have no honor. Therefore the seabirds . . . and the wasting headless body in the jungle. No burial at home. You are nothing. Not a warrior. Lost . . . forever.'”

“So I may tell you such things because there was this lovely tropic isle, moonlight, shadows, and the scent of exotic flowers in the air . . . and no coyote howled. Nor did Count Dracula prowl. Yes, real and unreal . . . I did the Shadow Waltz . . . an airy arabesque with a smiling partner who was Death. But I will also say to that darling girl . . . it was a very long time ago . . . . Once upon a time. And once upon a time never comes again.”

Clint Bolton, New Orleans, August, 1979

Ann’s thoughts: Clint Bolton was larger than life. He was my Hemingway. I’ve kept this letter for thirty-seven years, and I don’t keep many things.

I carry Clint close. Had he been younger, and I older, we would have been lovers. He was elemental. He was REAL, and not afraid of much. My first husband was jealous of the place this one-legged-72-year-old-cardiac-cripple had in my life, and at one point he told me that he never wanted me to mention Bolton again. I thought about that for two years. And when I moved out into my own apartment, I had a scotch and toasted Clint and thought of my soon to be ex, “To hell with you and the horse you rode in on — I will live my life my way.”

Another thing I would say is this. Asking me to forget Clint would be much the same as saying I could never talk of my grandmother or grandfather. And what I mean is this. Without Clint, I would not be Ann.

When I finally met the love of my life, my Drew, he got Clint. We enjoyed each other’s stories. We amused one another with tales of former lovers and our lives — it was what made me, me and him, him. Never any jealousy. One trip to New Orleans we went to 1231 Decatur and then over to the Richelieu Hotel bar. It was one of Clint’s favorite watering holes. We sat under Clint’s poem at the bar and drank to him and to having story-worthy lives. The Richelieu Hotel has taken down Clint’s poem. That’s what happens when there are no longer people who understand and know . . . 

For anyone who missed my story about Clint Bolton, “To Miss New Orleans,” this letter from Clint will make so much more sense if you go have a read.

 

March 10, 1945: U.S. troops in the Pacific islands continued to find enemy holdouts long after the main Japanese forces had either surrendered or disappeared. Guam was considered cleared by August 12, 1944, but parts of the island were still dangerous half a year later. Here, patrolling Marines pass a dead Japanese sniper. These Marines may belong to the Fifty-second Defense Battalion, one of two black units sent to the Pacific. (Charles P. Gorry, AP Staff/AP Archives)
March 10, 1945: U.S. troops in the Pacific islands continued to find enemy holdouts long after the main Japanese forces had either surrendered or disappeared. Guam was considered cleared by August 12, 1944, but parts of the island were still dangerous half a year later. Here, patrolling Marines pass a dead Japanese sniper. These Marines may belong to the Fifty-second Defense Battalion, one of two black units sent to the Pacific. (Charles P. Gorry, AP Staff/AP Archives)

 

An article Clint wrote about Mardi Gras in 1979.

The Mardi Gras crowd watching the Krewe Of Endymion parade on Canal Street. Photograph, Joel Carillet from iStock Photo.
Bolton reminisces about Mardi Gras in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Photograph, Joel Carillet from iStock Photo.

 

St. Louis Cathedral in the morning fog. Photograph by Ann Fisher
Memories of Bolton, who taught me to love New Orleans. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

 

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Ann Fisher.