Letter from London: Given and Creed

The Shipwreck by JMW Turner. (1805).

Intent and sincere, former actor and later politician Glenda Jackson, who died last week after a short illness aged 87, was a neighbour of sorts. Our hearts always lifted whenever we saw her out. She would peer at the sky, clock the traffic, then cross the road by the lights, before quietly entering the local newsagent or semi-crowded supermarket, always elegant, always interested.

The fact she began two years of her working life at Boots, the chemist, in the north-west of England, then attended RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) down here in London, then in 1964 worked with Peter Brook in Peter Weiss’s play-within-a-play Marat/Sade (plus its 1967 film version), then won an incredible two Academy Awards, then became a Labour MP for 23 years for goodness sake, struck everyone as extraordinary. Never for a second was she subservient. Never for a moment was she less funny than comedians Morecambe and Wise. She was as up to speed on politics as pundit son Dan, and as knowing as a don when it came to the Bard. As film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote recently, ‘With her fierce presence, her unselfconscious physicality, her spiky, tactlessly sensual and cerebral force, Jackson made the weather of any picture she was in.’ She was even a thorn in Tony Blair’s side over the Iraq war. And seven years ago, of course, well into retirement, she elected to play King Lear, arguably the most demanding role in the Shakespeare canon: ‘Speak what we feel,’ as the Stratford playwright wrote in Lear, as if inspired by Jackson herself, ‘not what we ought to say.’ Now in the neighbourhood, it is as though Glenda Jackson has slipped quietly from her moorings under cover of darkness.

Talking of which, even if granite-like dispositions can scuttle boats, even if yachts called ‘Wrack’ can invite riffs on ‘wrack and ruin’ or ‘wreck’, I like everything I know about Creed and Given O’Hanlon. (Their sailboat is called ‘Wrack’ by the way.) Even though young Grace Darling drowned rescuing survivors from SS Forfarshire after hitting the rocks, I feel confident about them both. Even when up to 750 migrants have capsized and many people have died off Greece, I still applaud Given and Creed. They would never seek to compete with a headline and have plenty compassion aboard.

This is because they are rocks themselves. Yes, I realise the deliberate awkwardness of the analogy, and their natural modesty would forbid them from seeing themselves as rocks. But I suspect we are drawn to them for this reason. Even their marriage is some kind of inspiration, and their family with their nutritious cameos on social media come across as super-talented and bold. Given that Given and Creed O’Hanlon can teach us a thing or two about real and metaphorical safe harbours as well as choppy seas, check out CC O’Hanlon — as in Creed O’Hanlon — on Twitter, and read some of his nugget-like tweets. (It is also where we find out how to help them.)

Some of these read like haikus chiselled under star-pocked skies. Emblematic of so many of us struggling to keep our heads above water, what I most like about them is their honest creaking of hulls, so to speak, their sudden slaps of wet rope — the picture presented is just as engaging as the reality must be tough. Everything is real. A late Danish relative of mine looked after Danish author Karen Blixen during the last years of her life in Denmark before Blixen died at Rungstedlund. She once wrote: ‘The cure for anything is saltwater — sweat, tears, or the sea.’ Both Given and Creed have experienced dramatic health scares of late. Maybe the saltwater while they repair can do its thing.

With Given and Creed with their sailboat Wrack experiencing sea trials on the English Channel, Rishi Sunak has been peering with uncharacteristic weariness at the continued harmful algal blooms of new Daily Mail columnist Boris Johnson, the report by the privileges committee having already been dismissed by Johnson as a ‘deranged conclusion’. It is as though Sunak has only the so-called ‘scaling up’ of the UK’s AI programme to distract him. AI was certainly the central thrust in reported discussions across the pond with Biden last week, though Ukraine will have featured, especially now with support guaranteed for as long as it takes.

Upon his return to Blighty, he was on stage discussing AI specifically and computer sciences in general while mentioning his time in a previous working life in California. In fact, one well informed friend reckons Sunak will be back there one day. This same friend is in discussion with his extended family over here about all of them upping and leaving these shores: there is a gathering brain drain, AI or not.

Sunak genuinely reckons AI and its associated technology is capable of leading this country to an economic transformation that could ‘surpass the Industrial Revolution in speed and breadth’. I hate to be a spanner in the works — old technology, I know — but I find it difficult to be entirely enthusiastic about what in essence is a constant identification of AI as first and foremost a money-making machine. The scope for manipulation and/or error within this type of technology remains. A quick buck here can be a wrong move there.

Mind you, as Thomas L. Knapp said in these pages only last week, ‘I’d rather spend my time building a better humanity than ineffectually trying to stop AI from getting really good.’

Back when the world was scented with hope and the movies in our minds were full of slow reveals, Creed O’Hanlon and I lived in the old walled city of Perugia. This was in Umbria in Italy, in my case with cavalier Mexicans, creative Iranians, troubadour Italians, an endearing Italo-American, a Northumbrian, two strident Aussies. (Creed is himself Australian and Given American.) I did not know Creed in Perugia and do not know him now; I should rephrase that: we have not met in person. I feel I do know him, though. I feel I know them both. They have allowed for that. What I know for example is that Given and Creed feel utterly stateless, as well as under-equipped for a sea journey undertaken as much out of necessity as choice. The situation will keep changing, and some day, everyone hopes, for the better. They say the sea has boundless patience and a French aircraft carrier was successfully avoided a few days ago in the English Channel.

Right now, they have just sailed to Plymouth from where they plan to reach Falmouth before crossing a sometimes tempestuous Bay of Biscay by the end of the month. As Creed himself wrote for Sirene magazine recently: ‘I have come to terms with the unarguable benefits of GPS chart plotters, AIS transponders, compact radars, digital weather maps but I can’t afford them. I will also have to do without high-priced protective clothing strung with buoyancy aids, safety harnesses, lights, and personal GPS locator beacons.’

He messaged me to say he is NOT a writer, which from him is not an uncommon refrain. In fact, it is part of his fierce modesty. But such finite terms — of who we are and what we do or want to do — mean less and less today. (The world, too, has slipped its moorings.) He has also just tweeted: ‘The first 100-mile leg of our long voyage west, then south, was uneventful. We gained confidence in our old boat and ourselves. But we are still in a desperate situation — zero funds, still inadequately equipped for the voyage ahead, and huge uncertainties in our future.’ The poetry is in the pity.

I was thinking while reading this tweet that by sublimating our egos we can get on with the important business of appreciating others. The key here is that those of us still alert enough on the mainland do not allow for Given and Creed to feel man, in fact, is an island. Isn’t there that line on ‘A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You Shortly’ by Jefferson Airplane saying ‘No man is an island! Do it do it do it do it! No man is an island! He’s a peninsula!’ Creed and Given did not ask to have to ask for help. Just as they did not ask for me to write this.

More locally, someone has been arrested in a nearby London beauty spot after cutting down over 130 protected trees, for the most part self-seeded young oaks 20 to 25 years old. The land was bought for £10,000 in 2013 by people connected to a Singapore-based firm, it has been reported. It also enjoyed the equivalent of ‘green belt’ status, whatever that means now. Felling was stopped. Then, despite a protective order, it resumed. Regularly we complain about South America and land erosion from deforestation affecting 60% of the continent’s soil there, but felling like this in London for apparent commercial gain? Wise owls, choppy woodpeckers, sprightly kingfishers, stag beetles, slow worms, could not hold the line. Nor could locals, now helplessly describing the scene as a massacre.

This was one of Creed’s last tweets just before their latest departure: ‘Today, we bent on sails, cleared running rigging, patched some hull dings, and did some passage planning. We also took on 60 litres of water and some stores (bought by a friend). A long shower, then an early night.’ Then this: ‘We set sail westwards in the graveyard hours tomorrow.’ Creed has sailed the North Atlantic and Med, plus the South China Seas, and US and Mexican Pacific coasts. Nomadic lives are knackering — I know this — and sometimes come without choice. The desert is not the sea but on several levels is the same. Bedouins I spent time with in the Middle East used to say to me that when we sleep in a house our thoughts are as high as the ceiling but when we sleep outside, our thoughts are as high as the stars. Given and Creed must have felt they had found a real long-term port in a storm when they settled in southern Italy and brought an old stone-built house lovingly back to life. But they were obliged to leave Italy because of problems over permits and visas, as I understand it. Cruelty is sometimes reserved for the good. The smug often survive. I don’t understand it either.

Creed has described himself as a seaman, smuggler, gambler, photographer, magazine editor, and film-maker — ‘to name but a few’ — but he is also one half of an amazing crew. Another recent tweet: ‘A sunrise all to ourselves on the English Channel.’ Then this, accompanied by a wonderful photograph of Given: ‘My wife was, to say the least, very fearful before our first long passage. But we’d been on the open sea for less than half an hour when she announced, “I’m really loving this!”’

I feel oddly sure Glenda Jackson would have liked that.

Peter Bach lives in London.