Stuff as American dreams are made on
You see I have this fantasy about being a writer. That one summer I'll go away on holiday and never come back. That I won't have to give that soul-shuddering groan in the last week of August and resign myself to just being an English teacher who pretends that one day he might be a writer but in the mean time gets this masochistic buzz from teaching the successes of other writers. No! One day the prostitution will be over and I'll be a bona fide writer myself. That's the sneaking fantasy I carry around with me. That's my secret route out. No escape committees for me. I'll go it alone.
So each summer I go on holiday like everyone else, but I pretend I'm grooming myself for my writing career. And last year I almost convinced myself that I'd arrived. I went with American friends to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where real writers have lived - Eugene O'Neill had his first play performed in Provincetown; Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Thoreau - all the literary boys and girls have stayed there at some time or other. I was on promising territory this time. Maybe this was the summer it would all happen.
Now on this particular day we went by ferry across to Martha's Vineyard. If you're a child of the Sixties you must have heard of Martha's Vineyard. It's an island about the size of the Isle of Wight just off the south coast of Cape Cod. It's the playground of the beautiful and famous - James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackie Onassis and now Bill Clinton.
We cross Nantucket Sound by ferry to Vineyard Haven and there are yachts and power-boats and lighthouses called East Egg and West Egg and I can see Daisy and Robert Redford waving to Scott Fitzgerald across the water and it's all so exciting - a great place for a writer. There has to be a best-selling article or short story in all this, I tell myself.
So here I am taking notes like writers do; recording impressions on my little Sony tape recorder, snapping photographs; doing the kind of "research" that writers do. The ferry docks and we all clamber off eager for adventure. Well, we get on this bus to go round the island but I suddenly realise my 16-year-old son is having trouble with his co-ordination. He is dribbling and panting and behaving in a very strange manner. We think it's sun stroke, but then it transpires he's just spotted Michelle Pfeiffer in a car across the street and he doesn't know what to do about it. "Michelle Pfeiffer? Are you sure?" I ask. He nods, points and slavers some more.
I spend some time hunting round the shops doing a little more research, looking at blondes, taking notes, that sort of thing but Miss Pfeiffer seems to have escaped me.
Anyway, we get on this bus heading for a place called Gay Head. Sounds kind of interesting. The bus is driven by a young fellow called Dave who proceeds to give us a commentary on the history of the island, from glaciation to Bill Clinton's golf problems. There are anecdotes such as how this year Carly Simon's annual concert sold out in 18 minutes. He points out the field where the great event is to take place. How Diana Ross likes to be incognito but rides around in a white chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. I'm scribbling madly in my notebook as I imagine real writers do. And I'm fizzing inside. This is it! On my way down the escape tunnel. Sorry kids - couldn't finish the syllabus. Decided to become a writer instead.
It's all going swimmingly when suddenly Dave comes up with a real howler. Get this! He says that Martha's Vineyard was the inspiration for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Well, as you can imagine, my English teacher's hackles rose. It was like the first shot of the War of Independence being fired all over again. The cheek of it! So Dave goes on with his smug little tale . . . and I have to confess it begins to sound vaguely plausible.
You see, the first Englishman to claim territory on Martha's Vineyard in 1602 was Bartholomew Gosnold who came from Falmouth. It was he who named the island after one of his daughters. The "Vineyard" refers to the wild grapes which grow on the island. Well, apparently a number of recent Harvard PhDs have claimed that when Gosnold returned to England he met up with Shakespeare in London. Shakespeare read his notes on the trip and was inspired to write The Tempest which was published in 1611.
It was a teasing theory all right. The sort of novel idea which a real writer could use. I was on to something here. What private detectives call a "lead". While the rest of the family were gorging on clam chowder and choc-chip ice-cream I was playing Philip Marlowe or maybe Raymond Chandler. I was sniffing around for more information.
I went to the bookshop in Vineyard Haven and browsed the history section. I was after Bartholomew Gosnold's original diaries. They would hold some clues to the veracity of this theory. The book clerk checked the computer. Not in print since 1605. He suggested I went to the Vineyard Museum in Edgartown - 15 miles away. I checked my watch and then noticed the family going towards the ferry back to the mainland. "C'mon dad, your ice-cream's melting," my son yelled. He was still gawping around for Michelle Pfeiffer. Surely real writers didn't have to worry about ferry times and ice-creams. Didn't they just drift around cafes and the salons of wealthy widows?
On the ferry I decided I'd phone the museum in the morning. In the meantime the hunt continued. That evening I got hold of a copy of The Tempest and started looking for clues: you know, references to people called Martha, subtle references to "vineyards", that type of thing. My pulse rate quickened when I found Prospero talking about "the green sea and the azur'd vault". That certainly matched the colours of sea and sky around the island.
And then I found Caliban referring to "all the qualities o' th' isle, The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile". Hadn't we passed such places on the bus-ride earlier in the day! And what was this - Stephano referring to "Indians" when he says to Caliban in Act Two - "D you put tricks upon us with savages and men of Ind?" Now I'd read that the early Plymouth settlers had many encounters with local Indians and reported them to be rather weird looking. It mirrored Stephano's meeting with Caliban exactly!
This was dynamite. I had here the nugget of a notion which could set the academic world alight. Shakespeare inspired by the Americans! It was as sacrilegious as Eurodisney doing an animatronics version of Rodin's "The Thinker". All I needed now was some solid data from the Vineyard Museum and my writing career was launched.
Early the following morning I phoned the Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. I heard the curator's voice. First I enquired about Bartholomew Gosnold's diaries. "Gosnold's diaries? Sorry, not available". Then, I played my trump card. "I'm doing a little academic research into a new theory that there's some connection between Shakespeare's Tempest and Martha's Vineyard." There was a pause. He was clearly impressed. Then I heard him clear his throat, or was it a chortle? "Pure fantasy", he quipped. "But . . . " I mumbled. "Some American academic wish-fulfilment," he added, rubbing salt into my ears. "A little myth-making. Nothing in it."
I put the phone down. I was mortified. He had exploded my material. the most original lead I'd ever had. My escape route. The start of my career as a real writer. All gone, my fantasy vaporised in an instant. Like a summer romance fading and in its place the dark cavern of the September classroom beckoning, gremlins at the helm once more.
So I give in, Prospero buddy - we are the stuff that dreams are made on. But then let's face it, writers don't live happy lives either. There are the critics, they're never satisfied You write a best-seller and they're waiting to guillotine you on your next effort. Then there's the paparazzi at your gate - I couldn't do with that, all those telescopic camera lenses ruining my dahlias.
And then the gloom began to lift as I remembered 3B on a Friday afternoon. The most appreciative audience for stories you could get. I pictured the scene. "Stop writing. Did I ever tell about the time when I was on this bus with Michelle Pfeiffer. We were going to visit Carly Simon and talk about Shakespeare."
Their mouths are open, eyes agog. And for the moment I'm king of the story-tellers.
Who needs to be a writer?
Barrie Day teaches English in Kirkbride, Cumbria.