I’m sorry I haven’t written in such a long time. It isn’t that I wasn’t thinking of you, but the days run away like wild horses over the hills, as someone once said, and it was Christmas and New Year and then my friend Charlie came to stay for a while and you know how it goes.
Christmas in particular is always a difficult time for me, as it is for most of us, I think, who aren’t psychopaths or Disney characters. Christmas, for adults, is premised on loss: the loss of childhood, ourselves, innocence, our parents, whatever it is. One way or another, we are always either falling sadly into that loss, or trying to repair it and make it whole for ourselves or our children or the people around us. This year I decided to try to fixate not on what’s past but what is. It seemed to work.
I’ve been in Lisbon since the beginning of December, and will be here till February. It’s lovely here. The days are bright and sunny and the evenings are clear and crisp and fine. Lisbon is a gentle, gentle city. People are handsome and calm and kind. The only areas in which I can fault them are their fondness for salted cod, and the astonishing slowness with which they walk. Lisbon has the feel of a country town, rather than a European capital.
This Christmas I had my first ever real tree, which I bought from a corner supermarket. We decorated it with red baubles and a green sparkly ornamental pickle and strings of cheap Christmas lights from a Chinese store near Estrela Park and crowned it with a hand-crafted star made from foolscap sheets from a yellow legal pad. I was dissatisfied with the lights, not because of how they looked, but because of a certain snootiness and built-in racism.
“What do the Chinese know about Christmas?” I huffed. “These things will break before Christmas Eve.”
We went to Vienna just before Christmas for a couple of days to see the lights. At a stall in a Christmas market beside the Rathaus I found a good sturdy Teutonic set of lights that cost a fortune and promised a ten-year warranty. That’s what you want! The Germans know Christmas! They know how to make a product that lasts! I carted them home and plugged them in. One of the bulbs briefly ignited, then fizzled and died away like Tinkerbell when no one believes in fairies. I stood there, snarling in a most unChristmassy way, holding three metres of German propaganda and lies. The cheap Chinese lights haven’t been unplugged in over a month, and are still flashing and glowing and twinkling, bright as hope.
My apartment in Lisbon is on Lago de Rato, at the top of one of the seven hills, and there’s a young man who sits on the cobbled sidewalk next to my front door. He’s there all day long, every weekday, from 9am till 5pm. He’s well-dressed and clean-shaven but he has a cup in front of him for coins. He doesn’t do anything for the coins, not even look needy or pitiful: he just sits reading all day long.
Let me tell you, this guy can read. He has the concentration of a man who has never seen a smartphone screen. He reads books that he either buys or borrows from the second-hand bookstore around the corner, next to the bakery. I’ve seen him reading Dickens and Tolstoy and Pessoa, and a collection of Christmas ghost stories. He moves his lips when he reads, and sometimes he reads aloud to himself in an even, pleasing cadence.
I like leaving or coming home and seeing him there reading, and I like it when he reads aloud. There was a time when we all read aloud. Some historians think it may have been as late as the mid-18th century that we started reading silently to ourselves, rather than to the people around us. They ascribe it to a growing post-Renaissance tendency towards individualism. Before that, reading was communal, to knit together a small community, to share and pass the time together.
I like to think of that man beside my door engaging in a kind of exercise of community, like a monk in a medieval refectory, reading aloud to whoever wants to listen, sharing his inner world with the outer world around him.
But here’s what I really like about this guy: I think he sees himself as a professional, as someone doing a job. He has regular working hours, and at the end of the day, shift done, he stands and brushes himself down, solemnly pockets his coins, takes out his laminated transport pass and strides off to the corner to catch his bus home. The coins in his cup aren’t charity, they’re the community acknowledging his role as a contributing member of society.
Lisbon is a place of small, daily delights – unexpected kindnesses in shop queues; sudden glimpses of the glittering river down the hill through the alleyways; the small museums and bookstores on every block – and I am feeling a little apprehensive about leaving because my next big stop is somewhere quite different.
I’ll be spending two months or so in Los Angeles, taking meetings with studios and directors – including, somehow, with the director of one of my favourite films of all time – and generally bustling and bumbling my way down the boulevard of broken dreams. No one ever makes it in Hollywood, no one at all, except for those imaginary few who do, and I’m not intending or expecting to make it. I’m just going to be going around with my script, talking to the people who are interested in it, hopefully making some new friends and having some fun. I’m nervous about it but also excited, and I’m trying to think of it as what the philosopher James Carse called “an infinite game”.
Finite games, James Carse says, are the instrumental games that exist for the purpose of winning or losing. The infinite game is premised upon authentic interactions that exist solely for the purpose of continuing the play. I guess life, lived the right way, is an infinite game, and so are its components, and I want to keep playing it, with an infinite number of participants, for as long as I can.
I hope your year has started well. I hope you’re feeling happier and that this will be a good year for all of us, and that we’ll all have fun and feel whole. My friend Craig keeps phoning me and yelling, “It’s 20-Plenty, baby!” He can be very annoying.
With very much love to you