My dear friends
I was about to apologise for not having written for a while, but let’s be frank, you haven’t written either. I don’t blame you, mind – writing is difficult, and most of us are out of practice when it comes to letters. It’s so hard to get the tone right: when you have good news you don’t want to brag and when you have bad news you don’t want to grumble, so next thing you know time has gone by and you haven’t written. Don’t worry, I’m not upset with you. We’re friends, and friends shouldn’t be a burden to each other.
What have you been doing since last we spoke? Me, I’ve mainly been walking. Jo and I have just finished a long walk through the Dordogne valley in France. It’s the same walk we did last year, but this time we did it with two much younger friends.
When we invited them, I think they were a little confused as to why we wanted to do the same walk again. When there are so many experiences still to be had, why repeat one? I explained that last year we walked in autumn, and this time in spring. In October there were ripe apples on the trees and the smell of cider vinegar and orchards of trees heavy with walnuts and almonds. In the mornings an autumn mist rose off the river and you would walk through the diamond haze and see the looming shapes of horses and cows and trees until the mist dissolved in the bright cool sunshine. This time there were wild strawberries alongside the paths and there were fields of spring flowers and each village you walked into was bright and fragrant with roses. The white and red and orange roses were vivid but scentless; the pink ones smelt of Turkish Delight.
Our friends are young and the young don’t yet appreciate the differences between seasons. Or rather they do, but they don’t yet feel it. Or rather they do feel it, but that difference doesn’t yet feel as important as it will. But that wasn’t the only reason we were happy to do the same walk again, so soon. We loved the walk last year. It came after a time of difficulty and grief: I had briefly been dangerously unwell; Jo’s father had died. The long walk from Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, for a week up and down the river valley and the ridges and hill-tracks, following sections of the Camino de Santiago along ancient stone paths through ancient forests and ancient stone villages finally to the pilgrimage town of Rocamadour was the lifting of weight. We arrived lighter of soul than we set out.
A pilgrimage is an adventure, but perhaps you can only take a pilgrimage once; after that it becomes a ritual. As I grow older I realise the equal importance of adventure and ritual. Adventure keeps us young; ritual gives us comfort. We wanted to walk to Rocamadour again, and lighten our hearts again, and this time we wanted to share it with our friends. We wanted to perform a ritual, and to give it to them as an adventure.
It is an interesting experience, walking a long path with younger people. On the first day they kindly slowed their pace uphill for fear of leaving us behind. The young are very strong and very fast: they can get there before you, so long as they can get there today. By day 5, as we waited for them at the top of a hill, pretending to examine some nettlesome shrub so as not to make them feel bad, I remembered what Ernest Shackleton said to Frank Wild on the Antarctic plain in 1910, as they leant into the icy winds of the Beardmore Glacier, walking back to fetch help for Bowers and Evans, both much younger men, incapacitated in their tents with exhaustion. “Well, Frank,” said Shackleton, with what you have to imagine was a twinkle in his eye, “it’s the old dog for the hard road, every time.”
And so we walked the same path we walked last year, walked the same tree-shaded corridor to the waterfall at Autoire, placed our feet on the same steep stone steps up to the ruins of the Chateau des Anglais, ate the same lunch of cheeses and breads between the broken walls of Taillefer before Carennac, overlooking the green valley and the silver river and the distant turrets of Castelnau, and we watched as they took the same journey we had taken: the excitement and uncertainty, the surprise of discovery, the soreness, the tiredness, the slow recognition as the path taught them how to walk, the lightness and satisfaction, the exhilaration.
Our next walk will be somewhere new: it will be a discovery again, an adventure, but we will also keep walking old paths, like returning to favourite books as an older reader, walking deeper tracks into them and also noticing what is new in them, what has changed.
From France we caught the train to England to visit my mother. My mother has two artificial knees and at least one, possibly two artificial hips. She has emphysema and has had Covid twice. She lived in South Africa for 81 years, all her life, until earlier this year when she packed up her home, sold her furniture and called me to say that she was moving to England.
“Um,” I said. “Why?”
“I thought it was time for a change,” she said. “And your sister lives in Tunbridge Wells, so I’ll move there. And you live in England, so you can come and see me.”
“I don’t live in England,” I said.
“But you go there a lot.”
“Oh well. You can come visit when you’re near to England.”
My mother lives in a ground-floor flat on a nice street in Tunbridge Wells, about twenty minutes’ walk from my sister. When I arrived I asked her what she’d like to do, and she told me that she would like to go to London for the Queen’s birthday and jubilee. She was eight years old on the Queen’s coronation, and of course she wasn’t in England then.
On Thursday morning we caught the train to Charing Cross. The train was full, and we listened to a posh man in a blazer and straw hat with a wicker picnic basket who said he was going to St James’ Park, so we thought we would try that.
When we stepped out of the train station there were flags and bunting and people everywhere. There were people in Union Jack dresses and children waving little paper Union Jack pennants. It was still early in the day so Trafalgar Square was still only 100% full. We walked between the lions where the pigeons would be if there weren’t so many people. People were sitting in deck chairs and perching on lampposts and trying to spread blankets on the cobbles. There were people having picnics between the lions’ paws.
“What are they all doing here?” demanded my mother. “You can’t see anything here.”
We tried to walk to St James’ Park and realised why they were all in Trafalgar Square. They were all in Trafalgar Square because there was no space anywhere else. Pall Mall was full. The side-streets were full. You couldn’t get to St James’ Park, but St James’ Park was full. There were great rivers of people trying to find a way to somewhere where they could see something, and turbulent counter-currents of people coming back again. You couldn’t walk without touching people and being touched by them, without bumping and jolting and stopping and shoving and being shoved. We had to walk in small agonizing shuffling steps, like penitents.
I kept losing my mom because she is not quite as tall as many other people in the crowd. I worried she would be taken by some perilous cross-current of people and end up in Shoreditch. It was madness to continue but I wanted to find her a place where she could see something, whatever there was to be seen. Finally after two hours I was starting to drown. I felt bruised and sore and my legs hurt and my back hurt. I couldn’t go on. Where was my mom? I swam back against the tide and found her walking in a different direction, chatting to a tattooed Canadian man about Meghan Markle. “Everyone is in a very good mood,” she said.
We never did see anything, no horses, no carriages, no marching bands, although we were on one side of a wall when something happened on the other side of it, and everyone cheered and waved their pennants so we cheered too. Somehow we even managed to not see the fly-past, I’m still not sure how. Finally we poured ourselves into our train seats, heading back to the south-east and Tunbridge Wells. I collapsed like a wet paper crown. My mother with her plastic joints and metal knees and her 81 years and her emphysema sat fresh as a rose, peering out of the window as Canary Wharf whooshed by. “What a lovely atmosphere,” she said. “How nice to be able to say we were there.”
I am in Turkey now, in a small town on the Mediterranean coast, where I am working on a book. I was commissioned to write it a month or so ago, and it is due at the end of September. It is a wonderful book, or it will be if I manage the impossible and put down on paper the lovely shapes that are in my head. Outside my window is a blue bay with a hazy island and a hot yellow sun, but my head is in the ice and snows of the Weddell Sea and the South Pole. Writing a book, it strikes me, is like a long hard walk that doesn’t end the same day. You have to be ready for the excitement and uncertainty, the surprise of discovery, the soreness, the tiredness, the slow recognition as the book teaches you how to write it. It’s a hard road, but hard roads need an old dog.
Thank you for being there. I think of you fondly and often. Do write some time.
With great love and affection,
This is an article that delights me because it combines two of my favourite genres:
1) Famous people being friends with other famous people who are so much more famous than them that they make the first famous person feels almost like a normal person.
2) Stories that tell me what famous people think about items of popular culture that involve them but for which they weren’t responsible.
In this piece, Carly Simon and Jackie Kennedy try to avoid seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Going to the Movies with Jackie Kennedy
By Carly Simon
New Yorker, Oct 15, 2019
What’s playing on the East Side? What’s playing on the West Side? Uptown? Downtown? What’s playing at the Roxy? Whenever we both happened to be in New York at the same time, Jackie and I made plans to go to the movies. In those days, if you didn’t have a newspaper handy, you called 777-FILM to find out what was playing and where and at what time, and that’s how I stumbled into a little inconvenient web of cross-purposes.
I’ll tell you what was playing uptown, downtown, and at the Roxy: “JFK.” It was early in 1992, a few months after the release of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-minded unpacking of the Kennedy assassination, and the movie was still playing at various theatres. How could we stay as far away as possible from a “JFK” sighting, from seeing even a poster, the one with Kevin Costner glaring through an American flag, wearing his horn-rimmed glasses? The human eye would always seek out the much smaller photo at the top of the poster, of the motorcade, the chaotic aftermath. Maybe, just maybe, the eye could redirect the moment, make things work, subvert destiny. The eye could somehow keep the shots from ringing out, and have the happy, beautiful couple return to Washington, after a day at the races in Dallas, Texas. And what about the previews? Scarier, even, would be a two-minute trailer for “JFK” inserted before the feature-length film we’d gone to see—those two minutes could end up destroying the entire afternoon.
“You pick out the movie,” Jackie had said, “and I’ll meet you there.”
I did so much homework, did so much to head off any possible encounter with “JFK.” I amused myself by imagining my extremely serious C.E.O. voice demanding to speak immediately to the owner of the Sony cinema complex at Lincoln Square, telling him I needed highly important and classified information about the posters hanging in its lobby and the previews playing before each film. Well, from all the intelligence I was able to extract, I learned that “Bugsy,” starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was the only movie in town that wasn’t surrounded by other theatres that might have been playing “JFK” and that it was playing at a time that was good for both of us. When I called her back, Jackie was happy with the choice, and she and I had a quick Warren Beatty moment, since he was a mutual acquaintance. We also talked about Annette Bening, and how interesting a person she must be. I gave Jackie the address, Second Avenue and Sixty-fourth Street, and she seemed satisfied with the arrangement.
Jackie and I usually met up at the movies in the same way. When she arrived before me, I would find her inside the movie theatre by going to the ladies’ room, where she would be waiting in one of the stalls. That afternoon, before the 4 p.m. showing of “Bugsy,” was no different. Her Gucci loafers were poking out from beneath a stall. I hummed a bar of a familiar song, in this case “How High the Moon,” which was the signal for all clear.
Jackie emerged. “I almost thought the woman who came in a minute ago was you, and I . . . it wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but . . . well, shall we go in? Oh, Carly, I see you got popcorn . . . what fun!”
We took an elevator and arrived at Theatre No. 2, finding nothing to fly in the face of a happy Thursday afternoon spent seeing “Bugsy” with your girlfriend. The theatre was mostly empty, with maybe twenty other people distributed like arbitrary commas in the semi-darkness. Yet I still felt terribly ill at ease. There hung between us a palpable silence, and for some reason I couldn’t allow it. Maybe it was only three seconds, or not even two, but the silence whipped at me like some sudden freak storm. I turned to her, this friend, this woman whose burden it was to be poised, and whose responsibility it was to set an example for the rest of us.
“So,” I said. “Have you seen ‘JFK’? I mean, the movie. I mean, the Oliver Stone movie. I mean the one that’s just out now?”
“Oh, no, Carly, no. No, no.” Jackie reacted as if she had been attacked. “It’s so awful. No.”
I continued my crash into the reef of self-destruction. “I didn’t even mean to say that,” I said. “I just . . .”
“No, Carly, NO.” She slumped backward into her seat.
That was the end of the conversation about anything and everything “JFK.” I was dead. I couldn’t live past this moment. Rewind! Oh, please, rewind!
I started to cry, and I was fortunate to be able to hide it behind the opening music of “Bugsy,” which had just started up. I sat there motionless, shocked silly. “I’m so sorry, Jackie,” I whispered.
From my diary on that day: “What sort of brain derangement sent such a signal to my wayward tongue?”
I could hardly concentrate on “Bugsy.” All the while I was thinking, I have to be so careful—she is so much more fragile than we all think. Every time a shot sounded on the screen—and the film was plenty violent—she reacted physically, dramatically, her body mimicking the victim’s. All I wanted to do was protect her, put my arms around her.
I was reminded that day of the story of Mr. Nose, which is really a story about where a person’s best intentions can land. Mr. Nose, as he came to be forever known by my family after one fateful evening, was the unsuspecting man with a prominent nose, to which we—my sisters and I—were told, by our parents, not to call attention, one night, when Lucy was five or six and I was even younger. He was one of my father’s erudite authors, and, when he showed up, it was true: his nose was not charming, and it was also way too long not to notice. That night, I watched it happen. When our father introduced the man to us, Lucy held out her hand and said in her most beguiling voice, “How do you do, Mr. Nose?”
Daddy very quickly led him away from us kids, and I have no idea what happened after that, but the story of Mr. Nose does get a lot of play in the family folklore, an old standby that gets repeated frequently at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Nothing could have been a purer repeat of the essence of the Mr. Nose story than what happened to me at “Bugsy.”
When the movie ended, Jackie gave me a lift home in her Communicar. Again and again, I thought to apologize once more, but I also knew it couldn’t be done. I knew only that I would never bring that subject up again. So many subjects to be avoided. It was the reason why it was so hard to be as close to her as I wanted to be. When I got back to my apartment, I wrote Jackie a long letter, telling her about Mr. Nose, and sent it to her office, by messenger, the next day. She called me directly after getting it. “Carly,” she said. “No one else would ever have been so upset or as sensitive as you were. I completely understand. I love Mr. Nose”—she laughed—“and someday you should write a children’s book about him.” She laughed again, and reassured me again, as a good mother would have. I still couldn’t get over how I had transgressed, even though it may have been more traumatic for me than it was for her.
Part of my relationship with Jackie was trying to stay out of harm’s way. I suffered from a terrible stutter as a child. And, though learning to sing helped keep it in check, it is an affliction I carried into adulthood. Thinking before you speak, that natural pause, turns out, for stutterers, to be a creature comfort they can’t always afford. It’s complicated, because it has everything to do with being afraid that if I don’t say something immediately, I’ll begin anticipating what I’m going to say and therefore induce my stutter. My stutter certainly casts a long shadow. Is it mechanical? Do I have certain neural connections that are shorter and stubbier than most people’s?
I’ve thought many times about that night at the movie theatre, where I watched as my foot landed in my mouth. I knew it was—it must have been—important for Jackie to keep the lustre of Camelot alive, or, at least, the version of it that she reported to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. For her own sake. For her children’s sake. For the sake of her religion. If it was true that she had persuaded Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, to convince his son that she, Jackie, would make the perfect Presidential wife, then Jackie had allowed her life and her heritage to be stamped in eternity with that light.
“JFK,” in addition to all the other crass pop-culture productions intent on dissecting and distorting her life, must have been terribly disorienting. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, almost nothing could be kept in its respectable place anymore. Perhaps the perfect diversion for her, as it was for more than a few women I’ve known well, was to abandon some relationship to the “spiritual” and veer a thousand per cent toward the material. To feel comfortable. To feel free to spend as much money as you wish, not to give a damn anymore what anyone else thinks or says. It was an issue of sheer survival. On some level, Jackie knew that I understood this, which is why, as time went on, it seemed like she felt freer and freer to talk about her past, even if only in little glimpses.
This essay is adapted from “Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie,” to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in October.
1. Joan Ashworth had a disdain for cliché. She loathed sentimentality and neat, happy endings. She rolled her eyes at lazy formulae and self-satisfaction and things that make you feel good but aren’t true.
2. A few years ago I decided to write to Joan Ashworth. I had no address for her, so I wrote to the school where she worked but they told me she didn’t teach there any more. They weren’t sure where she was now. They thought she might have gone overseas. England, they thought. They gave me the address of someone, a former colleague, who might know more. I wrote to her former colleague and asked if she knew how I could get hold of Joan Ashworth. She wrote back. Joan died, she said.
3. Joan Ashworth was my English teacher for the four most important years of high school. She was short and had orange-red hair. She had a gap in her front teeth and drove a yellow VW Beetle and lived alone except for a dog, a Labrador, I think, that had fur a similar colour to her hair and sat in the front passenger seat when she drove to the shops. George Thorne saw her once and told me about it, and I remember her in the car with the dog beside her almost better than I remember her, even though I never saw it myself. Joan Ashworth couldn’t say her Rs properly; she called me “Bwistow-Bovey”. She did not give the impression, even to teenage boys, who are not Geiger counters of emotional sensitivity, of being very happy. She and I didn’t get along very well.
4. Joan Ashworth once threw me out of her class. Someone had done something – for once it wasn’t me – and she felt upset and disrespected and demanded that everyone in the class apologise, one by one. Everyone else apologised, but I didn’t. Why should I? I didn’t do it. So she told me that I was unkind and cruel for not apologising even though I could see she was upset, and that I couldn’t return until I apologised. I sat in the school library for the rest of that class, and the next English class, and the one after that. I hope that if I were there now, I would recognise that her upset went deeper than whatever had happened, and so did the feeling of disrespect. I hope I would have apologised, not because I had done something wrong, but because it would have been kind.
5. In standard nine I wrote a play for the school talent show that I performed with two classmates and it did very well. Everyone thought I was very clever for writing it. Joan Ashworth did too. In matric I wrote another play and Joan Ashworth said, “It’s disappointing. It’s lazy and derivative. Come to think of it, last year’s play was derivative too.” I haven’t fully forgiven her for that, because she was right.
6. I was furious at myself for not writing to Joan Ashworth while she was still alive. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but she had been important to me. I would give anything to be able to tell her that, tell her that whatever her very odd methods, she had given me many gifts that I still treasured. I should have written, and now it was too late. Then one day someone wrote to me and said, “Oh, by the way, I sometimes speak to Joan Ashworth. She’s still living in Durban.”
7. Once in class Joan Ashworth mused aloud about a boy who attended another school but had done well in the English Olympiad, or some speech competition she’d been judging, or something. He was, she said, “Bwilliant. Just bwilliant.” His name was Imraan Coovadia, she said. What a mind he had. What talent. What a joy he must be to teach. She looked at me sidelong and lingered till I noticed. “I need an Imraan Coovadia in my life,” she said. I haven’t fully forgiven her for that.
8. Joan Ashworth took the class to Withnail and I in the cinema – or as many of the class as wanted to go. It was just me, and Daryl Lee, and George Thorne and maybe one or two others I don’t remember now. Afterwards she told us that it wasn’t a comedy, it was actually devastatingly bleak and sad. I rolled my eyes at that, but of course she was right.
9. When I was a teenager the world felt like a threat, so I found a way of being in the world that enabled me to get through. It involved being brilliant, and – in case I wasn’t actually so brilliant – being arrogant enough to persuade people I was brilliant. I always hoped – expected, maybe – that Joan Ashworth would see that I was scared, not arrogant. Maybe she did, but she was no better with people than I was. One day she said, “You never look anyone in the eye, Bwistow-Bovey. What are you afraid of? Look me in the eye! Can you? You can’t.” It was true – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I haven’t fully forgiven her for that.
10. After I learnt she was still alive, I had “Write to Joan Ashworth” on my to-do list for four or five years, but that was a far more manageable prospect when I thought it was too late than when I realised it wasn’t. What would I say? “Thank you for making me who I am?” That’s what ex-pupils in Facebook posts write, but who I am is somewhat damaged. I was damaged before I reached her, and it wasn’t her job to un-damage me, but she wasn’t a life-raft in my adolescence: she drove me to sharpen and bring forth whatever I have, but her method of doing it drove the damage a little deeper. What would I say?
11. Joan loved the English language, especially in its most concentrated and elemental form. She felt the rhythm of poetry, the oceanic swells and rolls. She thrummed with the cadences and martial iambs of Shakespeare (“You blocks!” she declaimed, in our very first English class in standard seven. “You stones! You worse than senseless things!”) When she read Gerard Manley Hopkins the words were like sunlight dappling on birch leaves, like water on mountain stones, like fat raindrops on a window pane. She understood poetry in her bones, and in the parts of the body deeper and older than bones; she knew the mystery of it, the darkness and light and height and depth of it. She spoke the poetry she loved and her high, rhotic, neurotic voice diminished its effect not an iota. Just the opposite. To this day I feel rhythms and echoes in my head and my hand and don’t know where they come from, conjunctions of sounds and syllables that emerge as shadows beneath what I’m writing, and which I’ll later recognise as lines from Yeats or Cummings or Marvell or Donne that I heard in Miss Ashworth’s class on the second floor of Glenwood High School on a hot forgotten Durban afternoon when I didn’t think I was really listening.
12. Her sensitivity to language made me realise the degree to which I am too. She gave me irreplaceable gifts. She gave me the sentences and stanzas and the sensibility that underlie the architecture of my inner world. We were two of a kind, but in a world of boys and men I didn’t want to be two of a kind with her, so I closed her out.
13. Why do pupils write to their old teachers? To thank them and acknowledge them, yes, but also to receive praise: “I’m so proud of you.” “I knew you were special.” They do it as an act of largesse: “See, in my glory, how I share my success with you!” They do it because they are not feeling successful, and want to be told by a childhood authority figure that they are. Perhaps there are other reasons, I don’t know.
14. Joan Ashworth thought that beneath my arrogance I was afraid of failure and only did things that came easily to me. That was true, but she thought that the way to address that was to needle and expose me. It occurs to me now that maybe she didn’t think that was the best way to do it; maybe that was just the only way she knew.
15. They made fun of her, the boys at school. The so-called men did as well, the Maths teachers and Afrikaans teachers, even fellow English teachers. I can’t remember doing it myself but that is self-protection: I have no doubt I did. I think Joan Ashworth was lonely, and I think she was brave, and I wish she had had an Imraan Coovadia in her life.
16. Joan Ashworth sometimes – often – wore a white short-sleeved cotton dress like a smock. It had lacework around the edges of the sleeves and the hem. It was a little like a nightgown. It felt somehow bridal, something to be taken from a trousseau on a wedding night. She taught us Wuthering Heights. She loved the elemental parts of it – the moors, the storms, the cruelty. She understood the attractiveness of Heathcliff. She hated Thrushcross Grange and Cathy’s marriage to the milksop Edgar Linton. “Thrushcross Grange!” she said with disdain. “Edgar Linton.” The words conveyed the meaning: finicky, pernickety, cloistered. She sneered as she said them, they were sticky in her mouth. She wanted Cathy to throw open the windows to the wild night and let the black wet wind blow in a Demon Lover.
17. I did finally write to Joan Ashworth. It was last year, during lockdown, when people finally did some of the things they knew they should do, because they weren’t able to do other things. My letter was circumspect and hedged but I tried to avoid saying anything untrue. I tried to avoid cliché. I was guarded and contingent, and I was more formal than I usually am in writing personal letters.
18. Joan Ashworth replied. She was formal too. “Thank you,” she opened, “for acknowledging me.” She wrote that she once asked her mother why her mother didn’t write to her more. Her mother had replied that she knew Joan would correct her spelling and grammar. “So sad,” said Joan. “All I wanted was her love.”
19. I am not proud of who I was as a teenager. I am not fond of that boy, although I have learnt to feel sympathy for him. Not many of the people who met him liked him, and I can’t blame them for that. The thing that makes me saddest is that of all the people who had the misfortune of knowing him, the ones who liked him and wanted to help him suffered most by the acquaintance.
20. In her reply, Joan Ashworth concluded with these words: “Just in case I was too nice and you were thinking about throwing up, let me tell you that you were difficult, arrogant, hard-headed, unfriendly, unyielding.”
21. I have been meaning to reply to Joan Ashworth’s letter. At first it felt like a closed door, and I rolled my eyes, the way I did when I was a teenager. Sometimes, when we go back to childhood figures, hoping to impress them with our adulthood, we only learn what children we still are. Reading it now, perhaps she would have liked a reply. But what would I have said? Last week, in her nursing home in Durban, she died.
I love mosaics, especially floor mosaics, and I like Medusa, and this is a Medusa mosaic, currently in the Archeological Museum of Madrid, that I particularly like. Many Medusas in mosaics thoughtfully look away so as not to turn you or your guests into stone, but this pouty lady, who looks like she’s holding her breath to try contain her rage, isn’t going to let you get away with anything. The birds on the oblique sides of the hexagon each represent a season. I like that spring, in the bottom right, seems to be a hadeda.
I have been asked to post my list of movies watched in 2021. I don’t recommend all of them, of course – some were real stinkers – but feel free to contact me about individual movies, or any particular theme or thread you are interested in pursuing in your own viewing. The film noir series mostly belonged to 2020, but here are all 133 movies from the year just past:
December 2021 (20)
Sibelius 1 and 2 (Christopher Nupen)
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1969)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971)
In and of Itself (Frank Oz, 2020)
The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)
Old (M. Night Shyamalan, 2021)
The Many Saints of Newark (Alan Taylor, 2021)
The Guns of Navarone (Lee J. Thompson, 1961)
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, 2021)
Annette (Leos Carrax, 2021)
Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021)
Antlers (Scott Cooper, 2021)
Lamb (Valdimar Johansson, 2021)
Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021)
Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minelli, 1962)
November 2021 (19)
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990)
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softie, 1997)
The Mambo Kings (Arne Glimcher, 1992)
Stalag XVII (Billy Wilder, 1952)
The Eiger Sanction (Clint Eastwood, 1975)
Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1942)
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)
First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015)
Never Ending Story (Wolfgang Peterson, 1984)
Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1972)
The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985)
Listening Through a Lens (Christopher Nupen documentary)
A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015)
When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)
October 2021 (13)
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristina Lindstrom; Kristian Petri, 2021)
Human Factors (Ronny Trockers, 2021)
Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love, 2021)
Things We Say, Things We Do (Emanuele Mouret, 2020)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
Freud (John Huston, 1961)
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween 2 (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween H20 (Steve Miner, 1998)
Halloween (David Gordon Greene, 2018)
The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)
The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2020)
September 2021 (8)
The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954)
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017)
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1938)
Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
August 2021 (13)
Midnight (Marshall Leissen, 1939)
Crossfire (Edward Dimitryk, 1947)
Mr and Mrs Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava, 1936)
Cast a Dark Shadow (Lewis Gilbert, 1955)
Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003)
The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) (repeat)
The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1942)
Macao (Josef von Sternberg, 1952)
The Beckoning Silence (Louise Osmond, 2007)
Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975)
Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Kill Bill vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
July 2021 (5)
The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973)
California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)
The Celluloid Closet (Epstein and Friedman, 1995)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)
June 2021 
To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
May 2021 (7)
Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1942)
The Four Seasons Motel (Andrew Jacobs, 2008)
The Truman Tapes (Ebs Burnough, 2020)
Mank (David Fincher, 2020)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940)
April 2021 (12)
Romance (Catherine Breillart, (1999)
Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, 2020)
The Dissident (Bryan Fogel, 2020)
The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1946)
The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (Thom Zimny, 2010)
A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1935)
Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)
The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery, 2018)
March 2021 (12)
Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967)
The Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021)
On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke, 2017)
Mitt (Greg Whiteley, 2014)
The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1971)
Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960)
Zorba the Greek (Mikael Cacoyannis, 1964)
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)
The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966)
February 2021 (9)
The Cameraman (Buster Keaton/Edward Sedgewick, 1928)
She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933)
I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)
Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)
Creed 2 (Stephen Caple Jr, 2018)
Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934)
The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)
Pick Up on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)
Goin’ to Town (Alexander Ross, 1935)
January 2021 (14)
1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)
Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015)
Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019)
The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958)
Godzilla (Gojira) (Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, 2014)
Café Nagler (Mor Kaplanski, 2016)
Boy on a Dolphin (Jean Negulesco, 1957)
Clue (Jonathan Lyn, 1985)
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
John McEnroe – In the Realm of Perfection (2018)
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
The Seven-Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)
My very dear friends
I shan’t apologise for being so long in writing. Letters that start with apologies are dismal, and you have things to do and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear any more excuses from anyone this year, so instead let me just tell you that it’s good to be writing again, and this letter finds me chewing the end of my quill in a tumbledown cottage in a very small village in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor.
I came here for six weeks of rest cure, to be huddled down in a cozy den in the darkening winter, like a slightly dazed fox or chastened bear, letting things settle and wounds heal. It’s also a homecoming of sorts: before my people fetched up in South Africa, they sprang from the moist soil and dripping woods and furzy uplands that line the mighty River Bovey, that dashing artery that drains Dartmoor and feeds modestly into the River Teign.
Some years ago I made a pilgrimage to walk the length of the Bovey, which wasn’t entirely the triumphant roots tour I’d been imagining. Regrettably, the Bovey isn’t one of the world’s great watery gods. It’s no Zambezi or Don or Mississippi: it ambles prettily enough through a few miles of farmland, between sheep meadows, and splashes and tinkles down through a couple of polite narrows and rapids, but it’s hard to imagine any adventure-seeking young boys running away on a paddle steamer on the Bovey; what small islands it has could scarcely shelter a medium-sized otter, let alone Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. There is a Bovey Castle but when I presented myself optimistically at the doorstep the current inhabitants proved aristocratically reluctant to take a prodigal Bovey into their outflung arms and provide him with a four-poster bed and a butler-drawn hot bath.
On that visit I stayed in my ancestral village of Bovey Tracey but I was only there a few days and much of that time was spent squelching along muddy paths with rainwater trickling down my collar, so I never really warmed to the place. This time I wanted to spend more time in the area, the way my ancestors would have lived: in an old stone hovel, without car or horizon, wintered in and muttering to myself in a West Country grumble. So here I am, in the village of Buckfastleigh, and anywhere I go, I have to go by bus or on foot.
Buckfastleigh is a pleasant walk of three hours over the moor from Bovey Tracey, which is a walk my ancestors must have taken in some numbers because to my surprise the graveyard here is filled with Boveys, including a grand stone sarcophagus and a plaque suggesting that when Arthur Conan Doyle toured the area, gathering material for The Hound of the Baskervilles, he might have based one of the more noxious Baskerville characters on a certain hard-hearted and possibly wife-murdering John Bovey of Buckfastleigh.
Since we arrived, I’ve been examining the locals with a gimlet eye to assess my genetic heritage. It’s not entirely encouraging. I wouldn’t describe the locals as the most dynamic, out-going or attractive people I’ve encountered. They’re less a gene pool, if I’m honest, than a shallow basin of tepid water in which a weary traveller might rest his aching feet. But I suppose they’re friendly enough, so long as you take the initiative to speak first and don’t startle them with eye contact, and if you deliberately blur your vision you could argue that there’s nothing physically wrong with them that two generations’ worth of transplantation to a healthier hemisphere and a dash of choice-based genetic mixing wouldn’t cure.
Jo says she can see that part of me has roots in these people: she recognises the same interest in strangers but mistrust of neighbours, the same tranquil willingness to be silent in company regardless of how excruciatingly awkward it might be become, the same admirable capacity to walk around in short trousers and t-shirts on the coldest days of the year.
“Would you say those are attractive qualities in a person?” I mused, hopefully.
“It depends on what you think of shorts on a man over 40,” she said diplomatically, guiding my attention to a genial, badly shaven, gnome-like fellow ambling his knees towards us up Fore Street. He and I passed each other with a nod and grunt, our eyes averted.
“You could be twins,” said Jo.
I’m not sure what I wanted from Devon: answers, certainly, but to which questions? These last two years have caused many of us to ask ourselves where we belong, or why we belong there, or what “home” means. I’ve never had the slightest intimation that Devon means home, but sometimes going where you came from helps you see things that are too close to you to notice.
In Ashburton, a village an hour’s walk from Buckfastleigh, where I was startled to discover a war memorial commemorating the bold deeds of another Bovey, I met a woman of about my age. She was interested, and funny, and had a clear and luminous light in her eyes. I thought: “This person belongs to a wider world.”
We fell to chatting and it turned out that she had never been out of Devon, and had never lived anywhere but Ashburton, except for a few months in Paignton, 90 minutes away by bus. I told her about the uncertainties of traveling around in the age of Covid, staying a month or six weeks at a time in different countries.
We looked at each other and she thought, but didn’t say: “What about growing through your life with the people around you? What about having roots and laying deep tracks? What about belonging somewhere and knowing who you are?”
I thought, but didn’t say: “What about the world? What about seeing as much as you can of what there is to be seen? What about never belonging, so having find out who you are?”
Neither of us understood each other. We both very deeply understood each other.
I’ve settled into a daily routine. Every morning and evening I walk down through the village to cross an old stone bridge then climb 196 steep stone steps up through a green wood to the ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was built in the 1200s – “despite much opposition from the devil” – and has been the hideout of outlaws and the centre of a graverobbing syndicate. In the last war a German bomb blew out its stained-glass windows. In 1992 it was burnt to the ground, allegedly by a local group of Satanists. Still though, the ruins are atmospheric and ring with jackdaws, and the graveyard was recently voted “Most Improved” in the 2021 Devon Churchyard competition.
194 of the stone steps are laid with horizontal oblongs of Dartmoor granite, but there are two steps where the stone is arranged vertically. Any wish made while standing on either or both of these steps will infallibly come true. Every day I make two wishes going up, and two coming down. Once, descending in the dusk, I opened my eyes after the second wish and saw a horseshoe bat flapping toward me, perfectly at eye-level. It circled my head and came back for a second leisurely pass. I like to think of it as a good omen.
“Do you make the same wish every day, or do you make as many wishes as you can to try and get as many wishes granted as possible?” Jo asked me.
“The same two,” I told her.
“Interesting,” she said.
She makes different wishes, to spread the net wider. I try to carve the same wishes deeper through repetition, into the very stone of the steps. She thought but didn’t say, because she didn’t have to, that there is more Devonian in me than I care to recognize.
My walk takes me through the ruins of the church and across a field and down through a small glade to come out at the golden sandstone of Buckfast Abbey, where the Benedictine monks make their own tonic wine – 15% alcohol and infused with caffeine, very popular – the locals say knowingly – in Scotland. There is beautiful stained glass and an axial chapel of blue and golden glass where you can sit and be silent. The Abbey has a physic garden and a poison garden and lawns with signs saying “Please feel free to walk on the grass”. Brother Adam the apiarist monk took 70 painstaking years to breed the Buckfast Bee here.
Every day I take the same walk although there are other walks, and each time it feels as though I am walking a deeper track for myself, as though entangling myself more deeply with the trees and stiles and muddy paths. Something in me responds to the depressing inward beauty of the place, the distance from the world and the proximity to loneliness, the jackdaws in the ruined church and the ravens on the tors, the bright rills of water, the way the afternoon sunlight burns the green hills a brighter green and makes the white sheep blaze as though their wool were made with magnesium. You can see across to the moor with its shaggy wild ponies, its rocks and heath, a passing storm making tendrils of mist and shapes like people.
There’s a pull to stay – the same pull to immobility that kept my ancestors here for centuries and centuries and centuries, living and marrying and making a living and dying within the same precincts and parishes, walking the same ways, doing the same things, in the same ten- or twenty-mile radius: the pull to know something – not to know much, but to know this. It’s the same self-annihilating pull, I realised this morning with a shock, that I feel when I return to the Bluff, the deep-sleepy suburb where I grew up in Durban, a place much beloved by the people who live there, a place where my schoolmates still live, in the same houses they grew up in or just down the road, and which I fled as soon as I could.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity, at this time of all times, to see where my uncomfortable nature was bred into the bones of my father’s fathers. I’m grateful for this time of stillness and to feel the granite weight of accumulated generations, the echoes and memories of thousands of years of staying sensibly and sort of safely in one place.
On Saturday I catch the train to London then fly to Spain for Christmas, and then to Milan for New Year and then onward to a part of Greece I haven’t been before. In February I’ll come back to South Africa for two months and then we’ll go somewhere else again, Jo and I, because there are those who stay and those who go, and all of us can be either of them, but I am one of those who go.
I hope you are well, and are figuring out how to make yourself happy. Some are lucky enough simply to be happy, but the rest of us need to work it out, and it takes much time and many wrong turnings. I hope we’ll all have a happier 2022. We deserve it, I think. You definitely do.
Much love Darrel
My dear friends
I am writing this to you on my last day beside the Red Sea in Egypt. I’ve been here for two weeks and it has been an edgy time, as I keep one eye on the news out of London, holding my breath every time Boris Johnson wombles up to the mike like a pink-eyed, unkempt Great-Uncle Bulgaria, hoping he’ll somehow continue to keep Egypt off the red list long enough for me to serve my quarantine here in peace.
Other than a bargain, there is nothing in life I love quite so much as a loophole, and Egypt is the last good loophole left open, after Kenya and various other ports of convenience closed at the eleventh hour. Egypt is the only place I know that is both on the UK amber list and welcomes South Africans without placing any restrictions on our movement. (I’m told there’s Ghana as well, but I haven’t looked into it because that would involve going back to Ghana.)
Consequently I have spent the last two weeks here on this terraced Xanadu facing the Straits of Tiran, periodically rolling my lazy carcass into the warm aquarium of the sea to bob about like an oil drum, or like a lilo that has been inexplicably moulded to resemble a pale and flabby man. I have taken one desert excursion to the Monastery of St Catherine to see the (currently unburning) burning bush and to climb Mount Sinai like some younger but less sprightly Moses, and I have ambled into town in the evenings to watch it slowly fill again over the course of the fortnight with the first happy travelers from a re-opening Europe, and for the rest of the time I have been idly engaging in the almost forgotten pleasures of people-watching.
As I look up now, I see a large shaggy man – Baloo the bear in a blue sea on a hot day – who has found exactly the sweet spot of his holiday. The sand shelves shallowly into the sea here, and there are coral reefs on either side but in the deepening channel to the bluer sea there is an orange life-ring – the kind you find on ships to throw to someone who may have fallen over the railing – tethered to a sea-bed rock by a length of rope. I’m not sure why it’s there – perhaps for a child to cling to if they have strayed unexpectedly from their depth – but this ursine gentleman has made it his personal throne. He has hauled himself up and onto it, and at first he sat there with his bottom in the doughnut hole, propped upright and surveying his kingdom like a furry Neptune. He waved regally to the folks on shore, then mimed someone bringing him a beer, which he mimed opening ceremoniously, then mimed drinking with sovereign dignity. No one on shore took this hint, which I imagine struck him bitterly as yet one more reason the land is more disappointing than the water.
Now he is spreadeagled on the lifebuoy, a grand hairy starfish, his belly pointing to the alabaster dome of the heavens, those marvelous bear limbs and bear paws thrown out to all the points of the compass. This is a man in the right place at the right time, a lord of his domain. Perhaps he slaves the long year as a – what? A foreman in a refinery in Baku? The government overseer of a nuclear reactor near Minsk? – but here he is truly what he was born to be: a creature of the sea and the salty elements, a furry Lord of the brine. Look at him! Abandoned to the sky and the deep! Behold this happy man! I love how happy he is, how entirely – right now – he is who he is in his dreams.
Many of the people I am currently watching are Russian or from one of the indistinguishable wretched former Soviet republics, although there is one other South African lurking around. I heard her at breakfast this morning telling a waiter that “This place is stunning! Byerrrrdiful, hey!” It made my heart fond to hear the purring tones of my homeland again, here on this distant desert shore. I considered hailing her, that we might chat and share some glad news and gossip about the old country, but then I thought a little harder about how that conversation might go, and I slunk a little lower in my seat and switched to ordering in Greek. Perhaps tomorrow.
(Here’s an innovation that resort hotels should pioneer: compulsory badges bearing your check-out date, so that others may carefully time their friendly overture, knowing that if it goes wrong they won’t have too many days of avoiding you.)
But truly, after thirteen months of only seeing people you know, or whose type you know, one of the great joys of being in the world again is the opportunity to watch strangers. Strangers are a great source of mystery and delight, as confusing and alien as the fish in the coral canyons.
In front of me is a young woman with a palm branch. She dragged it onto the beach a little while ago and sat regarding it thoughtfully. I know where she found it: it’s maintenance day for the palm trees on the resort and various branches are lying scattered beneath their parent trees, trimmed or pruned or crossed with silver or whatever it is you do to palms to keep them in shape. She sat in profound reverie over her branch. It isn’t often that the universe offers us a palm branch, she seemed to be thinking. There must be lots of ways to have fun with a palm branch: it requires of me only that I think of one of those ways. The universe has come calling in my one wild and precious life, and how shall I answer?
She has come up with an answer. She has roped her elderly father into her scheme. She now sits facing the sea and her father is with one hand holding the palm branch propped upright so that the sun throws its shadow onto her back, while with his other hand he is trying to one-handedly focus a cellphone and take a picture. It’s a tricky job because a gentle ocean breeze causes the shadow to wobble about, and while he is trying to exert control over that situation the phone keeps switching back to the screen-saver, so that he has to one-thumbedly punch in the access code again.
His daughter keeps barking instructions but otherwise she is being remarkably patient, although it must be hot out there. Oh, now mom has come to help. She’s holding the tip of the palm branch upright and more or less still, although the palm needles still quiver a little at the sides, causing an unsatisfactory blurring on the picture. The model is inspecting the pictures. She is dissatisfied. She jabs her finger accusingly at the screen. Now other citizens of the beach have wandered over to consult. Someone is trying to hold the frond in place from their side but even I can tell that she won’t some stranger’s fingers in shadow on her back-portrait. Ah! The mystery of her dissatisfaction is solved! It’s the strap of her bikini. What kind of photograph of a back has a bikini strap in it? An inferior photograph, that’s what! She has instructed her father to undo her bikini strap. This has taken a turn for the unexpected. It is amazing to think that when this man was born, Stalin was on the Russian throne. Could this man have imagined that a few short decades later, he would be on the shores of the Red Sea, undressing his daughter the better to photograph her with a piece of tree for Instagram? Oh, now she’s arching her back to add a touch of drama and tension to the picture. I wonder if her dad is as uncomfortable as I am. No – he is pulling down her bikini bottom to increase the canvas upon which they are making art. One does wonder about the Eastern Europeans, sometimes.
At breakfast on the terrace each morning we are stalked by Hitchcock-like gangs of ruffian birds. Sparrows and sweet little desert starlings, for the most part, but also the occasional blackbird and crow that loiter nearby with a casual air but glittering eyes. Leave your table unattended and they’ll make off with your slice of melon or your croissant with cheese and strawberry jam so fast you’ll question your own sanity. Two families came to breakfast at much the same time yesterday morning. One was Russian, I think, and the other Egyptian, and each had a little boy about ten years old. For every situation there is an individual reaction to it.
One of the little boys sat watching the birds with liquid eyes, sneaking crumbs and pieces of his breakfast to surreptitiously feed them under the table, like some underage St Anthony. He watched them with a sort of naked, lonely hunger. All he wanted was for the birds to alight on his shoulders and knees and be his friends.
The other boy saw the birds and took it upon himself to defend the terrace from the scourge. He marched around, waving his fists and expostulating, running hither and thither at every sign of an avian incursion. Oh, how he fulminated! How he roared! No birds on his patch would prosper! Two little boys, two such unpredictably different reactions. How do we keep thinking there’s one way to speak to everyone?
But perhaps underneath not so different after all. When the violent little boy’s family went inside to gather up their breakfast from the buffet, he volunteered to stand guard, and made himself a human scarecrow, singing a martial anti-bird song of his own devising and waving his arms around as though he were one of those bendy plastic figures advertising second-hand car dealerships on the William Nichol. But the more I watched him, acting out this fantasy of being an important anti-bird operative, the more it became clear that he wasn’t motivated by violent urges against the feathered underworld, he was just giving himself something to do. He was taking the lead role in the hidden drama of his inner life; he was, at long last in his short life, the hero. I remembered doing that myself when I was 10. I do that now. I had looked at the gentle little boy and rather wishfully thought he was me, but actually it was the other little boy who was me. Or rather, they were both me. They were both each other. I wished I could introduce them, and they would be friends and play on the beach together and hunt for hermit crabs and mooch about in the shallows and spy on girls that they liked, and realise that they are both lonely, and that’s okay, but for a while they don’t need to be. But the world doesn’t work that way, I suppose.
The breeze is picking up a little now, which it sometimes does at the end of the day, though not always. The sea is becoming opaque and the sky is going pale and blushing like the inside of an oyster shell. Soon there will be a golden glow over the mountains to the west, and the light will turn blue and then slide into night. I will walk up the slope now from the beach to the hotel along with the other contented pilgrims, our royal-blue resort towels over our shoulders like cult members, to our various rooms to drink gin and prepare for dinner. Tomorrow I fly to Cairo and then to London for the next step of the great zig-zag outwards. I have been hearing about the vaccinations back home – my parents-in-law walked in to the clinic at Lentegeur and were out again inside an hour. It makes me feel happy, and hopeful. The world is enough.
much love to you
My dear friends
The new year is a week or so old, and already I can feel a difference in the air, some new thrumming electrical pulse through the aether … hm? what’s that you say? It’s not the new year? How wrong you are! Some several months ago, in the depths of the lockdown doldrums and the unending midday gloom of the long, steep-sided vale of lockdown, my dear friend Tanya told me something that someone had told her: “Forget January to December,” she said. “2020 runs from March to March”.
I seized on this like a hungry dog on a bag of bones that has been dressed up like a cat. Yes, I thought! 2020 runs from March to March! That will be the lost year: I’ll concede that year of my life to the force majeure of Covid, and after that I’m taking it back again.
That is the power of stories: stories don’t have to be true, they just have to make a certain sort of persuasive sense, offer us a model to live by and live for, and we’ll do the rest. Give me a story I can use, and I’ll make it true.
And so it is – March has brought a change. You can feel the world stretching and stirring again – obviously not everywhere and not for everyone, but then nothing ever happens everywhere or for everyone. I refuse to be only as hopeful or as happy as the least hopeful and happy people, so I’m here to tell you there’s a new energy afoot, and I can feel it, and I hope you can too.
There are good signs: America and the UK are vaccinating at rates bewildering to a world grown more accustomed to their blundering and incompetence (one third of UK adults already vaccinated! USA vaccinating more than half a percent of their population every day!) and even Europe, despite doing their level best in recent months to snatch the moral low-ground on Brexit, and despite a whole-hearted commitment to trying to prove every Brexiteer’s dark slanders about EU red-tape and bureaucratic inefficiency correct when it comes to the vaccination roll-out, finally seems to be stirring itself to get needles into arms. Those weirdos in Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, seem to be pursuing an alternative strategy of locking themselves down forever and letting no one in and no one out, which as far as I can see is a win-win situation for the rest of us. And we here in South Africa? Well, we need a miracle, but then we always do, and miracles have happened before.
Anyway, I’ve been allowing myself to dream about movement again, not just purposeful, horizon-driven movement, but the even more truly delightful movement of being boundlessly at large and available to be plucked and pulled by the invisible currents of the world, and that has reminded me of something I like to do when I come to a new city, or even a familiar one. Now, this is going to sound a little weird at first, and perhaps even after I’ve explained it. You may in fact think I’m a bit of creep, but we’re friends now, so that’s a chance I must take. Here’s what I do in big cities: I follow people.
The first person I followed was in Paris. Now, many people visit Paris but Paris isn’t a place to visit – the joy of Paris is in living there, however briefly: inhabiting your neighbourhood, finding your own ways and places. A year or so ago I was staying on the Rue Daguerre and one day I was looking at the people walking by, some strolling and flaneuring, others click-clicking with purpose, and I took to wondering what they were up to, where he has just come from, where she is going. There was an old man with a cane, idling down the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, past Cemetery Montparnasse. He had silver hair and baggy trousers and moved at leisurely yet with intention, and I suddenly found myself falling in behind him.
Life becomes instantly more interesting when you’re following someone. Randomness is injected, but randomness with a hidden pattern – you don’t know where you’re going, but he does, as he crosses the road here, greets that old lady there, pokes his cane at a dog in a window with the air of one renewing an ancient combat. What he is doing feels like nothing to him, but to you it is invested with mystery and revelation. Is it intrusive to follow a stranger? Maybe, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a mutual exchange of gifts. As he leads me into the world, down Paris streets I’d otherwise have no reason to see, gifting me with an adventure, with new eyes and a specific voyage I’d never otherwise take, he is like Rodriguez in the first half of Searching for Sugarman: he is no longer an ordinary man, living his normal life; in an alternate reality he is the hero of the story for at least one passionately attentive South African.
That first old Frenchman didn’t take me on much of an odyssey – he went a couple of blocks to the Monoprix for some tomatoes – but I was hooked.
I subsequently discovered Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following, in which the protagonist, a writer with writer’s block, follows people around London. He has some fundamental rules: 1) never let them know you’re following them 2) never follow the same person twice 3) any follow stops at the front door 4) never intersect with the life of the person you’re following.
Those are my rules too, but I have to say there is a part of me that longs for the person I’m following to fall into a river, or be mugged, or have a piano falling towards them from a third-floor window, so that I can cheerfully breach law 4, leaping into action to save their life or wallet like some divinely appointed guardian angel.
But enough of my overly revealing action-hero daydreams. I’ve had many delightful follows: I stepped on the metro at Denfert-Rochereau and decided on a whim to follow a black guy in his mid-30s, wearing a red checked shirt and chewing a match. We rattled down the 4 line towards Clignancourt, and got out at Chateau D’Eau, but then he asked directions from some guy working on the street, did a U-turn and went back into the metro station.
I only had a single-use ticket and he breezed through the turnstiles with a week-pass, so I lost him and had to follow a young Arab guy with a shaved head back up the stairs and down Avenue Strasbourg into the 10th arrondisement. I had never been that far into the 10th before. On Faubourg St-Denis he bought two chops at a boucherie near the arch, and carried them wrapped in brown paper down an alley and into the Cour de Petites Ecuries. He stopped to offer some advice to a guy smoking a hookah and playing dominos, then disappeared up a flight of stairs into the apartment. Next door was a small establishment called the Tuk-Tuk bar, where I had a schwarma and a pint of beer. It was the cheapest beer I had in Paris.
I once followed a man in Moscow down icy dark streets, feeling like a character in a John le Carre novel. When he boarded a tram heading east, I lost my nerve: the Russians are good at spotting a tail: they’ve been surveilled all their lives. What if it was trap? What if he was leading me to Siberia? I followed a promising couple in Rome, but when they started arguing and he sat down on the sidewalk and refused to go any further I realised they were tourists, because that’s what always happens with me in Rome too. I never follow women, unless Jo is with me. She is an even more enthusiastic follower than I am. Her eyes sparkle with the thrill of the chase. Once I even heard her mutter under her breath: “The game is afoot!”
Someone asked me once, “How would you like it if you were followed?” Following someone means reaching into the blurring mass of a crowd and turning them into an individual, making them real and whole and dimensional. Making them matter, without ever imposing on them. How would I like to be followed? I would love to be followed.
So, yes, I’m looking forward to returning to a life of chance and serendipity, of bump-ins and crossed paths and coincidences. I think that’s what’s most worn me down this last year – it’s not that the big things are suddenly uncertain and unknowable (they’ve always been unknowable – it’s just that now we can’t avoid knowing that they’re unknowable). No, it’s rather that the small things, the tiny, trivial, life-giving details of our days have become too predictable. I want to be surprised again.
Until then, I’ll be running down the days fretfully until my birthday, wringing the last pleasures from this summer, joyfully awaiting the morning mists and soft damp evenings and great green seas of autumn and winter. Hopefully next time we speak, I’ll have some news to share with you. This is going to be a good year – you mark my words.
Much love to you
I don’t even know how to start writing this. How can I write while using both hands to cover my face in shame and simultaneously rending my clothes and rubbing ashes in my hair in contrition?
I don’t know how I can have gone so long without writing to you. Or rather, I do, but I still feel bad about it. I wordlessly hang my head and look up at you with sorrowful eyes, like some weird two-legged puppy who has chewed your slippers.
It’s no excuse, but I have started writing this on a number of occasions. There have been at least four different versions of this letter over the last few months, spaced several weeks apart, and I have abandoned each of them, always with the same thought: who cares?
It’s not just letters to you that I’ve left unfinished. On a sunny afternoon not so long ago I took my editor for a walk on the promenade, deep-breathing through the sickly, heavy feeling in my chest that I more closely associate with break-ups, and explained to her that I would not be delivering the book I promised to write. She tried to persuade me that perhaps I should, but I explained that I have nothing to say, and I don’t know how to say it, and that I cannot persuade myself that anyone would want to read it anyway, especially not me. That’s the problem, you see: they tell you to always write the book you’d want to read, but I had grown so heartily sick of myself that the thought of reading anything I’d written made me want to give up reading, let alone writing.
At the beginning of the first week of the first lockdown I was told that the newspaper for which I wrote my weekly column couldn’t afford me any more. This is a disadvantage of being a good negotiator of fees: when a pandemic strikes, you’re the first one they can’t afford, and there’s a little glint in their eye when they tell you so.
Then at the end of the first week of lockdown, I was officially told what I’d already guessed: that my first play, which was scheduled to premiere in the second half of the year, would not premiere in the second half of the year.
In the second week of lockdown, I bought land in Greece. This was both surprising and not surprising. I very seldom buy things. I am by nature something of a miser and a spendthrift. My family was very poor when I was young and we seemed to be constantly teetering on the lip of the financial volcano, so for me money in the bank has always been a rope around my waist lest I start sliding towards the lava. The only time I part with money is just after a loss, and in the second week of the first lockdown I had lost my column, my play and freedom of personal movement, which, I have discovered, seems to matter disproportionately more to me than to most of the people around me, so I bought, along with my partner, a hillside on the Peloponnese: 8200 square metres of olive trees and spring flowers and views of the Saronic Gulf.
I have never set foot on the land – I have never seen it real life. My partner found it on the internet, not far from an island where we spent part of last year, and within a day we had bought it. There is no house on this land, and no electricity or piped water: these are all things we’ll have to design, build and install. I can do none of these things. What we bought, more than a piece of land in a country I love immoderately, was the illusion of agency. It was an impulse-purchase assertion of the ability to make my own choices and determine my own future. Of course, none of us can really determine our own futures, but illusions are there to save your life. I decided that I would use the house as a kind of lever to learn things: how to build, how to wire things, how to speak Greek, how to make a garden, how to wrangle bureaucracy, how to keep bees, how to be patient, how to DIY, how to be happy.
We have been working with some Greek architects to design the house. We want it to be something like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli, on a peninsula of the Peloponnese not too far away. We want it to be thick-walled and cool in summer and protected from the north wind in winter, and we want shaded terraces and views of the sea and of the weather and vessels that come in from the sea. We want book-lined studies for us and guesthouses for our friends. All of this, our new Greek home-building friends inform us, costs money.
The mention of money and the prospect of parting with it caused me some concern, especially when I chewed my pencil and worked out that I’m some way short of being able to easily pay for it. There would be some cash-flow problem in about a year’s time, I calculated, unless I had some windfalls between now and then. But then my partner reminded me of something I wrote in my last book: “Of all the things we absolutely need,” she intoned, jabbing a finger at the final page, “money’s the easiest to get more of.”
It is hard to argue with your own better self, but it seemed very clear to me that that had been written at a moment when I didn’t feel quite so urgently the need to get more money. Oh well. In for a penny, in for quite a lot of euros.
I do have some irons in the windfall fire, but one of the things that made me feel better about committing is the fact that for the past twelve years I have had a day-job with a local television soap. It pays well and doesn’t take up much time and I’m good at it and the show does well – it has 5.2 million daily viewers and last year won its umpteenth South African Film and Television Award for Best Local Soap Opera. When I’m feeling melodramatic I complain about it as a form of bonded servitude, but I can work on it from anywhere, and I had made calculations of how many bricks on the Greek house each hour of work would buy, and I am very grateful for the past twelve years. On this Friday just past, for reasons that seem to involve some clash of executive personalities, the show was cancelled by the channel.
And with that fourth loss – the column, the play, the book, the day-job – I felt a great weight lift from me, an easing of a nagging psychic burden. There is a lightness to the worst happening, because the worst is never as bad as you think it is. Nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it will be. Things change because they always change, and there is nothing to do but to continue, not with the donkey-trudge of a dumb beast going uphill, but with a new nimbleness in the heels. I feel a sort of lightness now, a clarity of mind and heart. I honestly feel – and I don’t think this is just the denial-phase of grief – a kind of joy, a sense of possibility. I feel somewhat liberated from myself. I feel as though I can write to you again.
I’m sorry this letter has taken so long, and I’m sorry about all your troubles and worries. I’m sorry that the world is uncertain and hard right now. (I’m sorry that it is always uncertain, and often hard, but that it feels even more so now.) I can offer nothing except this fine and perhaps fleeting feeling I have that it’s going to be okay.
Shall we stay in touch? I would like to. I have a feeling that I’ll be better company in the future. In a year or so, maybe you can come and visit on our hillside, and we can sip retsina in the cool of the evening and watch the sea turn purple and we can remember 2020 and how it could have been worse.
Much love to you