One summer we took an Amtrak train across America, from New York to San Francisco. Some nights we slept on board, while the train roared west, blowing its forlorn whistle as it passed lonely crossings in the darkened plains. Standard sleeping accommodation was minimal – our cat, we joked, had more room in her luxury quarters at her cats’ hotel ( ‘the Ritz’ as we called it.) We had upgraded (wise move!) though lying in the top bunk, nose inches from the carriage roof, it was no easy ride. The blanket encased me like a straitjacket, while the descent down the ladder in the middle of the night, as the train rocked and rolled, was fraught with hazard. An expedition to the ‘bathroom’ was not readily undertaken.
In the early morning, approaching Los Angeles, we breakfasted with two tartan-shirted ancients in caps: the restaurant car attendants insisted on the passengers socialising – the protocol was ‘Side by side!’ One ancient was hard of hearing, while both, it turned out, were in their nineties. Brothers, they had been back to Kansas for a college reunion. ‘Who slept on the top bunk?’ I asked empathetically. ‘Me,’ said the 90 year old, ‘He made me − I’m his kid brother.’ The older brother was 95 and had flown Catalina flying boats in World War 2. Daniel Boone was a distant ancestor. They were amazing company: charming, witty and so alive. Not for the first time, we were glad of the Amtrak custom that required eating with strangers.
Little seems to have changed on the night Pullman in America over sixty years, though our breakfast companions would have been young men then. The sleeping arrangements were the same: ‘one can book a “drawing room”… a private compartment with a sleeping berth, or a “compartment” which is smaller and private, or a “section”… top and bottom curtained bunks.’ So wrote Jenny Nicholson, the daughter of Robert Graves, on board the Pullman from Charleston to Palm Beach one night in March 1947. ‘Towards bedtime,’ she wrote in The Sickle and the Stars, a steward ‘arrived, and with a swift series of pushes, pulls, heaves and hitches the alcove was converted into the top and bottom berth.’ Like me, her dining companion was chosen by the sassy dining-car attendant. She ‘shared a table in the “diner” with a boy of twelve wearing plus fours who was behaving with proud assurance’. Reading her description, I felt I was sitting at the next table, looking out at America in the morning light, transported across both a continent and time.
I had come to The Sickle and the Stars by way of Nicholson’s husband. Alexander Clifford was a war correspondent whose account of the north African campaign, Three Against Rommel, I had read with admiration. He and Alan Moorehead were two of the most significant correspondents of the 1939-1945 conflict. They had first met in the Bar Basque in St Jean-de-Luz in 1938, both drawn to this corner of France by the Civil War over the border. It was an inauspicious first meeting, but when they bumped into each other in Athens months later, a night of ouzo turned wariness to liking. As Moorehead later wrote, they ‘agreed to continue our travels together’.
Once the world war broke out, the two of them sought to ensure that they were posted together to Cairo. In Moorehead’s poignant memoir A Late Education he describes the plan which would exploit the rivalry between their respective newspapers: ‘Alex would wire his paper: “Moorehead of the Express proceeding to Cairo stop shall I follow?’ while I warned my people that Clifford of the Mail was setting off in the same direction…. Automatically the telegrams from London came back: “Follow Clifford,” “Follow Moorehead”, and Alex and I booked our passages to Cairo’. They flew by flying boat, alighting at one point in Suda Bay, Crete, where the steward opened the aircraft door allowing the newspapermen to gaze down ‘into sparkling water that had the same colour and transparency as the sky.’ The sun’s rays illuminated deep water, shoals of fish flickered around the flying boat’s silver hull and Clifford and Moorehead stripped off and ‘dived straight into the water from the open doorway’. They became, if not inseparable, then the closest of friends. In the desert they played bridge, talked under the stars while drinking whisky nightcaps, stood on the roofs of armoured cars to watch desperate tank battles. Sharing tents, transport, danger and conversation, heat, flies, bitter winters, sandstorms, and demanding editors back in London, their friendship was a kind of marriage.
Moorehead’s despatches during the war were prolific, widely read and made him famous. My father-in-law was sufficiently excited by his presence on board a Paris-bound Dakota flight in October 1945 that he made a point of noting the great man’s presence in his navigator’s logbook. After the war was over and wanting to establish himself as a great novelist, Moorehead struggled with his writing until he found his niche. Clifford was to be denied the time to make a new career: The Sickle and the Stars was one of only two books he wrote after 1945. He had married Jenny Nicholson that year and, two years later, they both set out in opposite directions – she to the United States and he to Russia – for a two month period, charged with sending despatches to their respective newspapers. They also wrote long, wide-eyed letters to each other describing what they saw. The book is the drawing together of that correspondence. There is little sense of passion for each other in the writing, but the picture they construct of two civilisations poised on the brink of the final world war is remarkable: Clifford comments at one point about Jenny’s letters that it is as if she is on Mars.
They both write elegantly, while the contrast between the different worlds they inhabit is stark. Jenny’s Pullman journeys across the States are echoed by Alex’s Russian train which was ‘pure Anna Karenina … art nouveau brasswork … pink silk curtains and shaded lamps everywhere and a communal samovar at the end of each coach.’ Russia was flat and endless, heavy with snow-bound melancholy. America was bright and noisy, its citizens warm and hospitable, and expecting a war with ‘the Ruskies’ sooner rather than later.
Jenny Nicholson flits from one social whirl to the next, and travels by plane, train and car with an unbounded energy. Men flirt with her. She likes drugstores − ‘remarkably attractive corner places where they sell everything from a fried egg to a hot water bottle.’ America! Juke boxes, chocolate sundaes, Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun, … ‘the lighted hulk of Brooklyn’ and the ‘mysterious silky waters of the Hudson’, bubble gum – ‘a new form of chewing gum which you can blow out of your mouth like a soap bubble. Very nasty.’ The US is bright, shining and efficient, or so Clifford is persuaded by his wife’s bubbling account. She is wary though of some aspects of American life: advertising is regarded with great suspicion: ‘With a well-advertised campaign you would persuade all the mothers in the country …to feed their children on a diet of orange peel and vodka.’
Nicholson’s journey takes her across a rolling Atlantic bound for New York (she is distinctly queasy and wonders why ‘If Britain rules the waves – why doesn’t she rule them straight?’); then Washington (‘gentle and pretty and I wish you were here’); and on to South Carolina and Palm Beach. In New Orleans she hears a ‘roguish businessman from Pittsburgh’ tell a ‘spinsterish-looking lady…: “Now we don’t ever need to go to Europe – can’t be nothing gives in Europe any better’n we’re seeing tonight – this is genuwine Paris – take it from me – I was in Paris, France.”’ She heads up the Mississippi to Natchez, then west for Dallas and El Paso. In Los Angeles she visits the film studios and sees Michael Redgrave, Alfred Hitchcock – a friend who sends her red roses, and is seen hard at work on a movie (‘All right, then. How about us making a moving picture?’); and Gregory Peck, her favourite film star who ‘is even more attractive eating a sandwich’. And so, at roughly the same time as Clifford is contemplating a flight to war-battered Stalingrad, she is moving on from Beverley Hills to Salt Lake City and Denver.
Alexander Clifford’s attitude to Russia is wary, cautious, watchful. His flight to Stalingrad he dreads, writing on 12 April, 1947, ‘This may be my last letter to you, if it is true about Russian aeroplane engines never being warmed up, and the pilots being dumpy little ex-schoolmistresses, and freight-loads being simply a matter of testing whether or not the plane will leave the ground.’ For the most part, he remains in Moscow, staying in a tenth floor hotel room – ‘small and clean and bare, with the double windows cemented up for the winter.’ It is cold, expensive and strange. The conference he is attending – of foreign ministers – begins drearily and doesn’t improve; the weather is grim; dinner doesn’t usually happen till eleven at night.
Early in April, Clifford took the night sleeper to Leningrad – it prompted more thoughts of Tolstoy. The sleeping car attendant spoke of the hardship of the city’s siege during the war and held the prevailing Russian view that the west made little serious effort to win it. Post-war propaganda, it seemed, suggested that the British ‘were basically in sympathy with Hitler.’ For someone like Clifford, who travelled ceaselessly in acute discomfort, waiting for mines to explode or the Luftwaffe to sweep in low, this must have been particularly galling.
Sixty four years after Clifford caught the Red Arrow sleeper from Moscow to Leningrad, I followed him, arriving in St Petersburg at a time of the year when the sun scarcely sets. The train from Helsinki was sleek and modern, more Eurostar than Anna Karenina, while the journey was through a remorseless landscape of forests and lakes. In 2011, the Russian border was still marked with wire and watchtowers. I stepped out on the same platform as Clifford, and later stared in awe, like him, at the city’s ‘vast space and magnificence’.
Clifford wrestles too with the nature of communism and what was to become of the world. In Stalingrad he sees, outside his hotel window, a large family living in the ruins of a cellar, its roof long gone, replaced by a web of machine gun belts. Nearby is another family living in a hole covered by the shell of an old taxi-cab. He ends his final letter by noting that Russia knows where it is going and how, while America has no such plan or objectives: ‘she makes a programme of not having a programme.’ The day after Clifford wrote that, Jenny is homeward bound, flying in a BOAC Constellation, looking forward to meeting Alex in London and a life together, a resumed marriage, with no need to write such letters again. She suggests the idea of a book: ‘We seem to have written a great deal to each other in these past months.’
Their book was duly published in January 1949. Its cover is a communistic red, with merged stars and stripes. Jenny Nicholson, pictured on the inside flap, looks pert, glossy-haired, poised – conclusively pretty. Alexander Clifford is in uniform, bespectacled, with a high forehead. He looks unassuming, mild, warm-hearted, and, yes, handsome. You hope for a long, happy life together for them. It was not to be. Clifford died in 1952 of Hodgkin’s disease, while Jenny Nicholson married again – another war correspondent − but also died young. Even the glittering Moorehead was treated cruelly: a stroke denying him the ability to write and talk in the way he once he had.
The Sickle and the Stars provides a bright window on a world where Russians and Americans thought that the next war was just a fleeting moment away. Reading it, I warmed to Clifford’s seriousness and humanity. Having followed his wartime progress, I felt I knew him well. Jenny Nicholson was the surprise − that youthful energy and evident joy in living! I imagine the two of them, each holding a copy of their new book in that spring of 1949, arms around each other and careless of the future. If occasionally they saw dark clouds, they weren’t for their own lives, but for the world. It was just three short years before Alan Moorehead found himself at Clifford’s deathbed: ‘What was there to say except that I loved him?’
Jenny Nicholson and Alexander Clifford’s book The Sickle and the Stars is out of print. If you want more on the two of them, and Alan Moorehead, you’ll find their detailed story in my book The Trio published in 2015 by The History Press.