In the spring of 1998, Tom Hedley, publisher of Duckworth, invited me to write a book. He had read a screenplay of mine and felt I could handle something larger. I decided I’d like to write about the 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, the trial of a schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution in defiance of Tennessee law. This was not an arbitrary choice. My great-great-grandfather was Charles Darwin, something I had given little thought to as an adult until I came to America and discovered his theories were still rabidly contested. A recent Gallup poll found that 40 per cent of those surveyed favoured teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools. In 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete virtually every mention of evolution from the state’s science curriculum.
I suggested to Tom that I should take a Greyhound bus from New York, where I live, down to Dayton, Tennessee, the small town where the trial took place. Apart from doing historical research, I would also find out what had changed in the town in the past seventy-five years, if anything. I had heard that once a year the town staged a re-enactment of the trial. I would cover the event, the largest in the town’s calendar, and this would become the hub from which I’d throw out the other spokes of the intended work. We could even call the book
The Voyage of the Greyhound
What I hadn’t taken into account was that I was on the verge of my own crisis, spiritual and otherwise. I’d been writing screenplays for ten years, two or three a year, each one overlapping the next, and had taken only one vacation during that time where my computer
had not accompanied me. Some years I made close to a million dollars but I was never more than a month or two away from bankruptcy. I was married to a beautiful and interesting woman, had a stepson I liked and admired, and a daughter I adored; but when I left New York in June, I was in a rage at my excessive life and all the obligations and stresses of middle age.
And then I was on the bus. At first I thought about the trial, then about my own connection to it. By an accident of birth, I was the descendant of one of the most influential men of the last two millennia, a man whose research and theories challenged not only Christianity but most other religions as well. How much of my sense of failure and panic, I wondered, could be traced to my freakish antecedents?
Now, when I looked out the window, what came to mind were scenes from my past, waves of them, too many to ignore. In particular, I thought about my mother, great-granddaughter of Darwin, a woman of enormous intelligence and promise whose decline into alcoholism was one of the great puzzles of my childhood. I started writing some of these memories into a second notebook. Another book, a book within a book, began to form, an accidental memoir, fragments of an overshadowed childhood. I could have suppressed this, but I began to see that what initially seemed a diversion from my main purpose might in fact be entirely part of it. The fundamentalists who tried to banish the theory of evolution from the schools did so because they feared it would destroy faith in God and leave only a vacuum in its place, and here was I, up to now a more or less cheerful and defiant atheist, suddenly overwhelmed by an inexplicable sense of spiritual emptiness.
I had fallen off the rails. Perhaps this other book would help me climb back on.
It’s a Sunday in June and I’m at the Greyhound Bus Station in New York, waiting to get on a bus. You buy the ticket but it does not guarantee a seat. For that you have to take an escalator down into the vast, clinical basement and stand in line at the appropriate gate. Two African-American women are ahead of me. One of them says, ‘I wouldn’t do that wit’ my own flesh and blood’ The other replies, ‘She did that, she did that, she did that wit’ me.’
The gate opens and we all shuffle forward, deposit our bags in a cavity beneath the bus, and climb in. The seats are tall and narrow, the windows don’t open, but the air is cool. The engine gurgles in a dull, self-satisfied way and the vehicle jolts forward and climbs a ramp into daylight. As the bus heads toward the Holland Tunnel, I look out the window and see a middle-aged man in a well-pressed beige suit, white shirt and tie, piss copiously through a chain-link fence, shake himself, and walk back toward a clean Honda with a brisk stride and a smile of accomplishment.
There are twenty-two passengers on the bus. Fifteen are African-American, four are white, two are Sudanese, and one is Hispanic. In front of me sits one of the African-Americans. It’s eighty-five degrees and humid. He wears a wool hat with the hood of a sweatsuit top pulled over it. His eyes are hidden behind menacing shades and a thick beard conceals what’s left. A wire goes in under the hood and I can hear the music from his headphones three seats back. This is not someone who wants to
intersect with reality too much, perhaps even less with his own thoughts.
We enter the Holland Tunnel and a couple of minutes later are spat out of Manhattan into New Jersey. For the next five hours we grind down the Eastern Seaboard toward Washington, D.C., through a suburban and industrial landscape so featureless it’s forgotten as it enters the eye.
I’m heading south to Dayton, Tennessee, the small town where in 1925 a schoolteacher, John Scopes, was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. The first trial ever to be broadcast live—by radio—not only to America but also to Europe and Australia, it was given the title ‘The Trial of the Century,’ and for my money it remains so. A philosophical skirmish between religion and reason, between the most famous fundamentalist of his day, William Jennings Bryan, and the most famous humanist, Clarence Darrow, it was played out in an atmosphere of hucksterism and commerce uniquely and hilariously American.
Inherit the Wind,
a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was a fictionalised account of the trial which then became a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. Not a bad piece of work, it cannot compare with reality, which is far funnier and more poignant.
Seventy-five years after the trial I’m going to see what has changed in the town, if anything. I want to find out if they still believe the world was made in six days and is only 6,000 years old. It seems incredible that they might, but word has it they do. Every year the town stages what they call a ‘re-enactment’ of the trial. As the trial lasted for several days, and as the outcome was not favourable to the fundamentalists who still dominate the region, I’m intrigued to see what gets lost in the editing. I’m going down now, a month in advance of the show, to do some research, and will then return for the play in July. My idea, although it’s not fully formed yet, is to spin the whole book out from the play. Revisionist religious history as theatre.
In my bag, I have two books, one a guidebook called
the other a biography of Darwin. I pull out the guidebook and find an essay by Tim Jacobson about the origins of the region. He says that while the North was colonised for ideological reasons, the South was always about business. Sir Walter Raleigh first tried to settle Virginia in 1584, but the settlers couldn’t take the loneliness and hardship and came home to England without having turned a profit. In 1587, Raleigh sent out another 150 who made camp on Roanoke Island, now in North Carolina. Three years later he sent a crew out to check on them. All they found was a tree with the word ‘Croatan’ carved on it, that being the name of the local Indian tribe.
In 1606, 120 men were dispatched by the London Company, also for commercial reasons. Sixteen died on the voyage. The rest sailed up the James River and settled. Within six months, all but thirty-eight of them were dead from malaria. In 1609, some women were sent out to breed with the survivors. Talk about Natural Selection.
Here on the bus I’m pondering a different but related matter: Survival of the Fattest. A black woman weighing at least 250 pounds sits across the aisle from me. She is dressed in a large, colourful dress and, were it not for her obesity, she’d be beautiful. Her face is so large it almost engulfs her humorous eyes, and her chest and stomach have merged to become a monumental, rippling hillside. She feeds constantly on potato chips and Teddy Grahams. The hand she’s not eating with holds a book. It’s held high so she can read it over her cheeks. The door to the Greyhound shitter is very narrow. Even I have to turn sideways to pass through. So far she has made no attempt to enter. If she does, I’m convinced it will end in failure or worse and I’m getting curious. Next to her is an amiable, uncomplaining child. Everyone is amiable. You leave New York—or maybe any big city—and suddenly the neurosis level drops.
Much to my disappointment, the woman doesn’t hit the WC until D.C., when she scrambles off the bus, child dangling from her arm, and plunges into the crowd, the eyes above her cheeks seeking the symbol of the skirted woman.
I have to change buses and I’ve got some time to kill, so I get my bag out from under the bus and walk outside to the parking lot behind the bus station.
A white Southern woman in tight white jeans and a tank top is trying to compact ten boxes and suitcases into six or less. It’s a comedy about futility, and it has drawn a good crowd. She and her African-American boyfriend are relocating to Virginia, where she was born. They were going to get a train from New Jersey, where they met, but
—she casts an admonishing look at the man, who, in stark contrast to her, is extremely handsome and muscular—woke up late and so they had to change their plans. On the train you can take as much luggage as you want. On the bus, there’s a limit and they’re well over it. She must be around thirty, he a few years younger, and it’s one of those pairings which is endearing if only because it seems so improbable.
She keeps saying, ‘My Lord!’ and ‘I swear!’ as she wrenches and pushes and tugs. Now she straightens up and brings her hands to the sides of her head. ‘Oh, my Lord,’ she exclaims before leaning in again with all the heft of her upper body.
He stands back, shaking his head pessimistically. ‘It’s going to be an odyssey,’ he declares, as if commenting on someone else’s life.
‘It’s going to be shitty, that’s what it’s gonna be,’ she responds.
I could take one of their bags—I only have one of my own—and I should offer to do so, but I don’t. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because I’ve been locked in a room writing for ten years. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always felt myself to be exactly what the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service describes me as: a Resident Alien. I am here but I am not here and I like it that way.
By paying an extra few dollars, they manage to get what has now become eight dense, misshapen bags onto the bus and we’re all headed for Roanoke, Virginia. It’s a new gang on a new bus with a new driver. Every time you get a new driver he gives you the rules. Each driver has his own style. This one welcomes us
aboard and then lists every single stop along the way to Roanoke. Finally, he concludes with:
‘These are the rules: no smoking, no drinking, no sex in your seats, no sex in the bathroom, and no boomboxes. If you have a Walkman don’t have it so loud it disturbs anyone. With that in mind, just lean back, close your eyes and dream about tomorrow. Or yesterday …’
I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything for any length of time. I pick up the other book,
Charles Darwin: A New Biography
, by John Bowlby, and start to read it. The big question in the early pages is whether Darwin, an invalid for most of his life, was the victim of some tropical disease or was in fact a hypochondriac. His list of maladies is awe inspiring. One of them is eczema. As a child, I too had eczema. The eczema and the eczematous forefather have made me who I am.
People generally believe they are part of an evolutionary process, either physical, spiritual or both. At an absolute minimum they note with smug satisfaction how much taller and smarter and richer they are than their forefathers. This suggests that life is, if not meaningful, at least progressive. Your average Joe goes beyond this, of course, and convinces himself that not only does life have meaning, but so too does death: God awaits him on the other side to reward him with eternal life for pushing the species along. But how could any of these assumptions work for me? In early childhood I was told how Darwin’s theory of evolution had demolished the biblical story of creation, God slapping it together in six days, Adam’s rib, and all that. And if the very first chapter of the good book was nonsensical and untrue, why would the rest be any more credible or useful? My parents made an attempt to raise me Christian but ultimately lacked the conviction to boost me over the numerous improbabilities. I went through one highly religious phase, but, wonderful as it was, it didn’t last. As for simple, earthly evolution, here too I got the short end of the stick. What was the likelihood of my evolving beyond Grandpa? Even physically, I turned out to be a lesser man. Born in 1809, he grew
to be six feet tall. Born in 1950, I barely made five-ten. I not only got the short end of the stick, I was the short end.
When Darwin called his second book
The Ascent of Man
he was thinking of his progeny. One only has to study the chronology to see the truth of this.
First there was Charles Darwin, two yards long and nobody’s fool. Then there was his son, my great-grandfather, Sir Francis Darwin, an eminent botanist. Then came my grandmother Frances, a modest poet who spent a considerable amount of time in rest-homes for depression. From her issued my beloved mother, Clare, who was extremely short, failed to complete medical school, and eventually became an alcoholic.
Then we get down to me. I’m in the movie business.
At prep school in Cambridge, where I was brought up, I could not figure out what rung I was supposed to occupy on the social ladder. It was hard to believe I was beneath the brutish offspring of titled pig farmers and Tory MPs, but they clearly thought so. When I asked my father for help in the matter, he informed me I was ‘a member of the intellectual aristocracy.’ He said it with a laugh but he was right, and like most aristocracies it is in decline. I went to a Darwin reunion a few years back and it seemed to me that the whole family tree was hopping with regression, every smile verging on the imbecilic, every suit stuffed with the same sorry cargo of morphological deterioration.
By some genetic fluke, I retained enough of Darwin’s powers of observation to be able to see clearly which way I was heading. My boyhood hero was Zozo the monkey, and when I was taken to the zoo at the age of six and saw live monkeys picking and scratching exactly as I did, and trying to have sex in public, I was convinced: evolution was a yo-yo and in my case the yo-yo had just about reached the end of the string. All I had to do was push it down another inch or two and it would rise again. If Charles was the top, I would be the bottom. If he was the beginning, I would be the end.
Simple academic mediocrity would not suffice. I had to do worse than that. I had to fight education with everything I had.
As stubborn and diligent as Charles was in collecting facts, so I would be in holding them at bay. If this was my defence against the crushing weight of family history, and if the strategy ultimately failed, you certainly couldn’t fault me for its execution on the ground: I emerged from school with an outstanding lack of knowledge.
I only took two significant exams and failed both. The first was the eleven-plus, which should have been called the eleven-plus/minus because if you passed it—at the age of eleven—you entered grammar school and had a shot at university, while if you failed you were subtracted from opportunity and condemned (unless you had money) to the purgatory of secondary modern, and life on the production line. The second exam was an O level. Most kids passed five to ten of these. I failed my solitary one and my parents and the system conceded defeat.
Thirty years later, here I am on a Greyhound bus, a screenwriter. I used to direct but now I get paid so much to write I can no longer afford to. I write for the studios in Los Angeles. They pay, I deliver, they own. Nothing I create belongs to me. The scripts I write rarely become films and a screenplay, however well written, is only a blueprint. I’m an architect whose only buildings lie in the past, each made by uncomprehending builders. Worse still, the scripts which have been made are not my best, and the rest, the unmade ones, the ones I love, have now accrued so much interest that I cannot afford to buy them back. This year I sold an idea for a million and a half dollars. It won’t get made and before you know it I’ll need two million to get it back.
And of course I won’t get it back and it will be consigned to the great necropolis of dead scripts, a massive tomb under a mountain in Utah where the air is dry and cool. A friend of mine was sent down into this awful legacy of failure to root around and see if anything was worth bringing back to light. He found a script by F. Scott Fitzgerald and for a while, the studio was looking for someone to rewrite the great man; but I’ve heard no more about it and presume it’s gone back into the darkness.