Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
Ann slowed her borrowed car into second gear as she turned into the side road that led to the village of Framlingham.
The car, a Peugeot convertible, belonged to the fiancée of Doris Hilder, one of the journalists at Sketch, where Ann had been working for the last few months. Ann didn’t have a car of her own, yet. She’d only recently returned to London from Europe and before that, North Africa and the East – a wandering tour that had taken her through Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Iraq.
Ann still worked for Nash, but supplemented photo-essays for American View with occasional work for the London-based magazine. It was mainly indoor work – fashion and celebrities. At least Sketch had a bigger staff than American View, and she didn’t have to write copy, just take photographs. Ann still had her mother’s Diana, its cream case less immaculate now, and the corners slightly scuffed, but since coming to London she’d only taken it out to write letters home. Sometimes she wondered when she would use it again.
Ann worked hard to transform a strapless evening gown into a study in sublime simplicity, or capture the modern spirit in the sleek lines of the latest swimwear. Already she felt restless. She dreamed of travelling again, of landscapes devoid of cities and people, the challenge of fitting a mountain range into the viewfinder, or conveying the deep silence of forests. If she shut her eyes she saw the desert – the unearthly landscape of sculpted dunes that were as much monuments as the pyramids, and that made anything of human scale seem both insignificant and transient.
Ann had returned from Europe with a brand new Leica, which used 35mm film. She was excited about its possibilities. It was carefully stowed in the back of the Peugeot, together with the rest of her photographic equipment.
In the front passenger seat Doris was holding a compact mirror in front of her face while she patted her hair into place with her fingers.
‘This wind is terrible for my hair, Dex,’ she complained. ‘Can’t we pull over and put the roof up?’
Since stopping just outside London to change a tyre, Ann had been driving faster to make up the lost time.
‘We’re nearly there,’ she said. ‘Besides, you don’t need to worry – you’re not the one being photographed.’
‘But Margrethe Nord’s a film star. She’s awfully glamorous! Isn’t that right, Sabine?’ Hilda tilted her head to address Sabine Duvallier, who worked for Sketch as a dresser and make-up artist. Sabine was squeezed in the tiny back seat with the luggage. Fortunately, she was petite.
‘Miss Nord is très élégante,’ the Frenchwoman agreed.
Still holding the compact before her face, Doris carefully applied a pinkish lipstick.
‘Does this make me look fast?’ she asked Ann doubtfully.
‘Not really. It’s a nice colour.’
Doris squeezed her lips together, then smiled into the mirror. She snapped the compact closed, and put it back in her handbag.
Ann was driving to Suffolk to photograph Margrethe Nord, the Norwegian aviatrix who’d catapulted to fame after she and her English co-pilot, Peter Favanger, had made a pioneering flight across Greenland.
Ann had been in North Africa when Nord flew out of the Northern skies and into the headlines. A former film actress, the aviatrix exuded a cool glamour that both the Press and the public found irresistible. Since arriving in England, her every move had been reported and photographed – whether to the country house party where the Prince of Wales was said to have talked with her for at least fifteen minutes about flying, or the club in Soho where she and the Favangers had gone to hear a Negro jazz band. She and Peter Favanger were rumoured to be in negotiations with the Horlicks company to promote a variety of malted milk.
The prospect of Nord and Favanger gazing from tins of Ovaltine didn’t seem to detract from the fascination that Nord exerted over a more select group – the coterie of artists, poets and photographers who published in small journals and limited editions, or showed their work at out-of-the-way galleries.
Ann had a copy of the latest edition of The Dial, which Hubert had sent her from the States. It featured a photograph of Nord in Garboesque pose, shot in profile, her face and hands startlingly pale against the dark backdrop of her leather flying coat and helmet. The aviatrix’s gaze was directed to an imaginary point somewhere beyond the margins of the page, as if she were scanning an invisible horizon. The photograph was supplemented by a brief prose tribute. Deliberately mysterious, it aimed to evoke a mood and a feeling rather than to tell a story. The story was there, of course, but only hinted at, like a continent concealed by a layer of mist or buried beneath snow.
Who is Margrethe Nord? A descendent of Vikings and pioneers, ardent and elusive, a new kind of heroine for an age dedicated to making time and space disappear. One of those rare beings for whom the sky is no longer a limit, but only a frontier. For whom the world shrinks too rapidly, forcing them to roam further in search of the unknown and the impossible.
Ill at ease in cities and crowds, she is at home amid solitary peninsulas, icy solitudes, endless twilights, and mornings lightly veiled in mist. An enigma and a mystery…
The aviatrix hadn’t spoken publicly about her reasons for visiting England, but there was speculation that she had set her sights on the controversial Northcliffe Prize – $25,000 offered by the owner of the Daily Mail for the first successful long-distance Antarctic flight. Peter Favanger was said to be building another aircraft, a successor to the Vespertine that he and Nord had used for their Greenland flight. To Ann it made sense that Nord would be visiting England to discuss using the new aircraft to compete for what the papers were calling ‘the suicide prize’.
In the passenger seat, Doris was jotting down last minute notes for her interview. Ann glanced at the notepad, saw that Doris had written a list of questions. Do the Arctic regions provide particular challenges for the female complexion? Is there any beauty product that you would recommend to readers of Sketch?’
Who is Margrethe Nord? Ann had seen two of Nord’s films, both directed by the Danish director Pers Anders. The Valkyrie, Nord’s first film with Anders, was a mist-infused tribute to Nordic mythology in which the actress played a swan-maiden who falls in love with a knight. In The White Abyss, also directed by Anders and shot in location in Greenland, Nord played a nun who leaves her order to rescue her former lover, an explorer who has become stranded on an unstable iceberg. The film, which featured spectacular footage of glaciers, ended with an exciting aerial rescue.
At the time, Ann had recently made her first flight in an airplane. Her brother had decided to train as a pilot for the United States Mail Service, and he had taken her up in his newly restored Jenny. She’d experienced the excitement of the horizon suddenly tilting and the gradual change of perspective as, viewed from the air, familiar objects – houses, barns, roads and fields – became abstract compositions of angles, lines and curves. She’d tried to take photographs, but the wing had obscured her view, and the vibration of the engine prevented her from holding the camera steady.
Ann thought she recognised similar perspectives in Anders’ films. The director favoured aerial views: panoramic landscapes that alternated with vertigo-inducing plunges into clefts, chasms, and valleys. Ari had told her that Anders, despite his Danish nationality, had flown reconnaissance missions behind French lines during the war. If the inspiration for Anders’ roving camera lay in his experiences as a pilot, Ann reflected, then Nord’s life had been influenced by aviation even before she learned to fly.
Ann pushed the thought of Ari away. He had been supposed to come to Egypt with her, but at the last minute his plans had changed. Thanks to chance, and Robert Prestrud.
It was entirely by chance that Prestrud, an Arctic explorer, had come across an old copy of American View in a railway waiting room in Saskatchewan. As luck would have it, it was the edition with the photographs that Ann and Ari had taken at Thunder Creek.
Prestrud was an ethnographer as well as an explorer, and held some unorthodox views. The idea of Arctic scarcity, he argued, was a myth. On the contrary, the Arctic regions were a paradise of plenty, where the Inuit lived in harmony with nature. At the same time, Prestrud also believed that the Arctic was as treasure-trove of undiscovered minerals. Prestrud was on his way to New York to find a backer for an expedition that would prove his theories about the Alaskan Inuit, while also – with less public fanfare – prospecting for mineral wealth. Prestrud understood the value to an expedition of a photographic record. He knew the public needed images if it were to be persuaded of the value of an expedition and the truth of its discoveries.
Prestrud’s secretary contacted Ari to arrange a meeting with the explorer. By the end of the meeting, which took place in the bar of a New York hotel, Ari had been hired as expedition photographer.
Ann was hurt and angry. Not so much by Ari’s desire to go to Alaska, but by the way she’d been bypassed. After all, the photographs that had impressed Prestrud had been hers as well as Ari’s.
She and Ari fought, made up, quarrelled again, finally reached a kind of truce. Then Ann found out that Ari was having an affair with Prestrud’s wife.
She sailed for Egypt a week later, buried her disappointment beneath an avalanche of new impressions and sensations. Since arriving in London, though, she’d found the memories of Ari resurfacing. Last time Ann had heard from Nash, he told her that Prestrud’s expedition had returned and that Ari was planning a book of his photographs of Inuit. He was planning to call it Northern Light.
Ann’s thoughts swung back to Margrethe Nord. She was curious to meet the aviatrix who was determined to prove that the Polar Regions were within the grasp of a woman. She thought about the films she’d seen featuring Nord’s skill as an actress – besides a certain effortless athleticism – had seemed to lie in appearing not to act, but rather to inhabit the characters she played. Ann wondered whether the aviatrix had stopped acting, or whether she had simply thrown herself into a new role and – if the latter – what genre she thought this new role belonged to.
Ann had studied the map before leaving London. A few miles after leaving Framlingham village, she turned into a narrow lane with hedgerows on either side. They passed fields full of unripe corn, a small copse, and an airfield with a hangar at one end of a grassed runway.
Doris craned her neck. ‘They say Peter Favanger owns the airfield,’ she said. ‘It’s where he designs and tests his airplanes.’
‘He must have a lot of money,’ Ann observed.
‘Apparently he gets it from his wife.’
‘And she doesn’t mind him using it to build airplanes?’
Doris wasn’t listening. ‘Oh look!’ she exclaimed. ‘There’s a plane on the runway – perhaps it’s the one that Favanger and Nord used for their Greenland flight.’
‘The Vespertine,’ Ann said. She risked a quick look. ‘No – the Vespertine is an amphibian monoplane. That one’s got wheels and two sets of wings.’
‘You like machines, don’t you Dex?’ Doris said.
The Favanger’s home lay at the end of a curving drive of raked gravel. Abbots Wood was a Jacobean manor house with subsequent extensions that had, over time, merged with the original building to the point where they were indistinguishable to all but an experienced eye. Ann drew the car to a stop beside a converted stable where she could see the taillights of at least two automobiles. She switched off the ignition, shook thoughts of Ariel Kolonz from her mind as if it were winter, and they were loose snow.
‘We’re here,’ she announced.