29 September 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
I finished a chapter and realised how close I am to finishing this book. It might be another day, it might be another two. I felt tired and satisfied. We went for an early dinner to a favourite restaurant and had a very small bottle of tsiporou. The sky was a deep royal blue. I am going to miss this book very much when it’s finished.
28 September 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
A swim in the sticky late afternoon, in the city beach off the pebbles. The island of Aegina in pale silhouette on the horizon. The sea swelling and choppy, an imperfect blue, a city sea.
27 September 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
Tonia sent over custard doughnuts with coffee this morning. “You are always so smiling and happy,” she said.
26 September 2022 (Monday) – Athens
A delicious galatopita with afternoon coffee at a new place. The custard warm and not too sweet, the pastry light and sugary. Sitting counting words in my head and watching a dog solemnly watching the street from the balcony of a flat. We’re all just doing our jobs as best we can.
25 September 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
There is an elderly man, dressed well, who walks down the road in Paliofaliro, pausing at each coffee shop and cafe to greet the owners with a cheery “Kalimera!” This morning we were sitting in Tonia’s when he paused to say kalimera, but Tonia behind the bar was busy with something and didn’t see him. He waited and waited, but she was still busy ad still didn’t see him. Finally, impatiently, he tapped on the glass with the brass head of his walking stick until he attracted her attention. She looked up and beamed and stopped what she was busy with. “Kalimera!” she called. “Kalimera!” he called back, and walked on, satisfied.
24 September 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
A martini above the atrium of the Grand Bretagne Hotel. A plate of chicken wings in the James Joyce, half barbeque, half spicy. A slow tram ride in, a fast bus home. A delightful autumn day, doing nothing much, but doing it well.
23 September 2022 (Friday) – Athens
Finishing another chapter of the book, and feeling satisfied with it. Seeing, and now almost believing, that I will finish this book and that it will be something of which I am proud.
22 September 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
A rainstorm came sweeping in from the west, from the direction of the Peloponnese, rattling the windows, lashing the streets. It didn’t last all that long, but it was thrilling.
21 September 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
In the mornings we take a walk through the streets of Paliofaliro while they are still shaded and cool, down across Poseidon Highway to the seafront, and then along and back up, and a cup of coffee at a cafe, and then back to the apartment to work. Can something be called a ritual after four days? I think it can. It is a morning ritual of deep and sustaining joy.
20 September 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
In the evening we were taken to a concert at the Odion of Herodus Atticus, in the ancient theatre at the slopes of the Acropolis. It was a concert in celebration of the composer Yannis Markopoulis, and the great man himself was there, frail and sitting to my right, a few rows below, singing along to the music like a fan. The music itself was wonderful, stirring, moving. The singers and the orchestra were wonderful. The night and the lighting and the ancient stones were wonderful. The audience was glittering and wonderful. It was a privilege to be there, and when it finished at 1am we walked for an hour home, too excited to catch a cab.
19 September 2022 (Monday) – Athens
I watched two movies today that I have been wanting forever to watch – Hud (Martin Ritt, 1953) with a scoundrel Paul Newman at his most breathtaking, and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), which was as good and as gritty as I had been expecting. Two movies on my all-time watchlist in one day, and both of them splendid, feels like a swell achievement.
(I also watched Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges, 1955, which was my dad’s favourite film, but I had watched that before, back in 1993 at the UCT Film Society, so that was a pleasure, but a different kind.)
18 September 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
The last cicadas of summer singing muted from the trees lining Aphrodite Street on a Sunday morning, laundry stirring in the breeze on the balcony, the sky pale blue and resting, the grey pile of the Acropolis in the distance with its white capstone.
17 September 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
A pizza, a tub of ice-cream, the rugby peacefully late at night with no Wi-Fi interruptions.
16 September 2022 (Friday) – Poros to Athens
I was in a good mood today, and I laughed and made other other people laugh, and that is a joy and a delight to me.
15 September 2022 (Thursday) – Poros
I was sent the first version of the cover for my book, and it’s beautiful, and I am touched, profoundly touched, that someone has gone to so much trouble for something I have written.
14 September 2022 (Wednesday) – Poros
A big black dog with a wise and long-suffering demeanour who walks up and down the beach keeping an eye on things and making sure everyone is behaving themselves on the loungers, and then when it becomes hot in the sun wades in up to his chin, and stands there long enough to cool down.
13 September 2022 (Tuesday) – Poros
A moon the colour of old and beaten gold.
12 September 2022 (Monday) – Poros
Dinner with our architects on the wooden platform over the sea at Vassilis, eating red mullet and giant prawns and the traditional arm-wrestle with Nikos for who will pay. This is delightful. Even more delightful for a cheapskate like me is that Nikos always wins.
11 September 2022 (Sunday) – Sifnos to Piraeus to Poros
Because of inconvenient ferries and times, much of the day is a hot, slightly cross blur of sweating and shlepping bags on and off ferries and staring blankly at silent footage on TV screens of the Twin Towers going down again and again, 21 years later. But to arrive in the island of my heart, Poros, just at sunset on an evening when the air smells of night-flowers and the water is like deep purple velvet and Sophia at O Petros taverna greets me with a cry of happiness and three kisses and uses the familiar “sou” instead of the formal “sas” – this is a delight of the very highest order.
10 September 2022 (Saturday) – Sifnos
Lying in the shade of a pine tree on the beach, wet from the sea, and reading a novel by a Bronte sister, on a Saturday afternoon.
9 September 2022 (Friday) – Sifnos
A morning walk along a whitewashed path in the hills to a monastery. A cup of coffee and a pastry. The good clean sweat walking down to Apollonia. The sea. A ceiling fan. White curtains. The beautiful, beautiful world.
8 September 2022 (Thursday) – Sifnos
The only thing more delightful than a game of Scrabble after lunch under a pine tree on a beach, with beer, is winning the game of Scrabble.
Later, at dinner at a taverna, the waitress came to tell us that Queen Elizabeth had died. There were four of us at the table, and we fell to discussing the old dear, and her heartbreak at the loss of Prince Phillip, and duty, and all the usual things people were discussing tonight. The waitress was still hovering, nodding and listening, and one of us, realising she was still there and looking for a way to include her, said something about how Prince Phillip was connected to Greece. This was news to our waitress. She scowled and shrugged. “Pah!” she said. “Greek history, it’s a mess!”
7 September 2022 (Wednesday) – Sifnos
Last night the moon was a glow behind the hills, like a city over the horizon, and then a bright scintilla on the rim of the hill, and then as you stood in the middle of the street and watched it come up bright metal, appearing and floating like a magic trick, bright enough to throw our shadows in the street.
6 September 2022 (Tuesday) – Sifnos
I finished a chapter and the wind had dropped so I walked down the sandy path from the hotel to the beach and swam in the blue water. A ferry came across the mouth of the bay and sounded its siren and some minutes later the waves from its passing rocked me up and down. I had finished a chapter so I knew I could walk up the sandy path and have a very cold beer in a glass so cold it is frosting in the warm air. There are many reasons to write a book. Money isn’t one of them, but finishing a chapter and having a swim in the flat blue sea most certainly is.
5 September 2022 (Monday) – Athens to Sifnos
The pleasure of landing on a new island for the first time, and carrying bags down the bustle of the narrow street from the harbour, feeling like characters from The Durrells.
4 September 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
In the summer’s evening the teenagers sit on benches on the avenue outside the Acropolis, listening to the busker and chatting quietly in the darkness. The air smells of jasmine.
3 September 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
Rugby in the James Joyce, explaining the game to a suprisingly nice Scottish bloke beside me who was waiting for the football. I have never lost a rugby match in the James Joyce and I didn’t this time either.
2 September 2022 (Friday) – Athens
The sight of my friend Christos ambling down the road, in his long-sleeved white shirt and his peculiar sandals, coming for sundown drinks on the roof of the building. He is looking up at the buildings and admiring them, as he does, and he sees us on the balcony on the fourth floor and beams and waves and shouts, “My friend!” It gives me great delight.
The drinks on the rooftop are another delight, with Christos, and Jo’s mother newly arrived from Spain, and the Parthenon to our left and the orange sun dropping below the clouds to the right
1 September 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
It’s Spring Day back home, and here in Athens there is music from the restaurants and a walk around the Parthenon past the buskers (someone playing Sting’s “Fields of Gold” on the violin; a duo offering “Misirlou”) to the streets above Plaka to Onassis’ favourite taverna and a pleasant chat with a waiter with waxed moustaches.
31 August 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
The air and light of Athens again, as instantly familiar and nostalgic as a childhood memory. Walking in Thissio after the freshness of a light summer rain shower, the open-air cinema was playing Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. I was tired and needing to sleep but I hadn’t seen it before. Mr Arkadin is terrible, but terrible in the very best way.
30 August 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town to Athens
The last day in Cape Town for five months, and it is always good to leave when the wind is blowing and cold. There is a special satisfaction seeing everything in the apartment packed and clean. We are conducting an experiment in special minimalism this time: five months with only one small cabin carry-on bag each. It already feels like a lightness of body and heart and mind.
29 August 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
A final trinchado lunch at Diaz Tavern – a long happy lunch with laughter and wine. There is nothing quite so delightful as a long lunch on a Monday work-day.
28 August 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
A long walk around the mountain from Tafelberg Road to Kirstenbosch and back, with the air so remarkably clear that the city stood out in detailed relief below, and the waves broke individually on the reef around Robben Island and on the shore, and you could see the men walking on the decks of the ships at anchor out in the bay.
27 August 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
This week I sent through nearly the first third of my book to my publisher and my editor. Today I heard from them. They liked it.
26 August 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
I made a pastaA final lunch that was rich and deep and delicious, and afterwards in a long happy rest I dozed on the sofa by candlelight to the sounds of breathing and silent reading.
25 August 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
I haven’t socialised in weeks – months – but today I had lunch with a work partner who is also a friend and we ate much and drank far more, and there was much laughter and we were finally thrown out of the restaurant because the place was empty and everyone who worked there wanted to go home. It was a delight. Later I went to a cocktail party being thrown by one of my agents, and I can’t remember a thing I did or said, but I’m sure it was a delight too.
24 August 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
A walk beside the turbulent green stormy sea. There is a whale thirty metres off the back rocks, a young whale by the size of his tail, standing on his head and waving and flapping and slapping, doing tumbles and twists and showing off. What a delight to see a wild mammal, a citizen of the watery world, just metres away, right there in the middle of our lives.
23 August 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
The green buds sprouting on the black wet branches.
22 August 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale to Cape Town
A lovely swift easy drive back to the city listening to three splendid podcasts in a row: Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook talking about pigeons in history; Paul Bloom and Susan Cain talking about yearning and sorrow and motivational plurality; Meghan Daum.
21 August 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
The air is so crisp and clear today, and the light so fine, that you can see the cracks in distant mountains, everything seems nearer and there is more to see, the world seems very fine-drawn and particulate.
20 August 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
I burnt my hand on the wood-stove while absent-mindedly leaning against it after throwing in more logs. It’s not a bad burn but it hurt a lot and I knew I wasn’t likely to get to sleep until enough time had passed that it would stop hurting, or hurt sufficiently less. But then I remembered that someone had once given me some Oxycontin, because I was curious about it, but I had put them in the bottom of my travel bag and had forgotten about them. Remembering that you miraculously have a strong painkiller when you need a strong painkiller is a delight. Drifting off to sleep in a warm dozy haze is also a delight.
19 August 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
The rush of the flowing Tuis River: the water silver and strong and deep and making a low road through the reeds and rushes at the bottom of the small hill. The satisfying thought of that water falling fro the skies onto the stony mountains and heights, finding their way down to rush past me as I sit working, making their way through the pass and towards another river and the sea.
18 August 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
After the rains small droplets of water form on the long horizontal wires of the vineyard and the sunlight when it breaks through the clouds makes them shine like ice.
17 August 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
Gustav Dore’s illustrations for Coleridge’s poem, completed around 1875, have everything a Gothic pole-lover could desire: the perpetual-night gloom of the sea, the white ramparts like the walls of the universe, the spectral ice in the narrowing water, the rimed and frosted rigging, the glowing white albatross and the moonbow around an occluded light, the frozen dark cul-de-sac of the world.
16 August 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
Is this a delight? Today, as I worked at a desk in front of a glass door looking out into the vines, I watched two yellow mongooses catch a field mouse.
15 August 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
A year or so ago my totem animal seemed to be a mongoose. Everywhere I went, I saw mongooses. Mongooses in the fields, on the hillsides, on my porch. Mongooses running across the road. On one rather unpleasant day there was a long stretch of road in the Free State with dead mongooses every couple of hundred metres. This year, it seems to be field mice. I have never before to my recollection seen a field mouse, those sweet little fellows with the four stripes down their backs, but now I am seeing them all the time. There is one who lives in the woodpile outside the door who keeps trying to sneak in. I’ve seen them running through the vines, scuttling across the dirt road to the cow pasture. In Churchhaven I saw them on the walk, running between plants, balancing on leaves and bushes.
14 August 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
Back in Barrydale for a final push of solitary work. There is a fearful, dark, middle-of-the-woods feeling when you have to push to finish a creative project that feels bigger than you are capable of finishing, but there is a safe, warm delight to creeping into bed in the darkness of early evening with a book and a delightful movie (William Powell and Myna Loy in The Thin Man, 1934), knowing you will sleep early and long and that tomorrow is a different day’s problem.
13 August 2022 (Saturday) – Churchhaven
A big breakfast with friends around a big wooden kitchen table. Laughter.
12 August 2022 (Friday) – Churchhaven
The nacreous lines of water and air, and the white-and-pink pointillism of flamingoes in the lagoon. The feeling of stillness, as of being inside a vast pearl.
11 August 2022 (Thursday) – Churchhaven
Five hours of walking through the reserve, past zebras and voles, herds of sacred ibis, flocks of buck, between great grey fingers of stone and hillsides of unfurling yellow and orange and purple flowers. The feeling of rhythm and movement again, the cadence of poetry in your legs.
10 August 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale to Churchhaven
There is a small joy in movement. I am six weeks away from finishing the book, which is convenient, since I am six weeks away from deadline, and being here and still has helped immeasurably in getting this close, but at moments I need movement to shake things loose again and free – to inject energy and change. Today we drive to Churchhaven for a couple of days and then I will come back for another solo press to the end of the month. There is a thrill and a cheer in moving again, in forcing the thoughts to keep pace with the body.
9 August 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
The very first green buds of leaves have appeared on one of the vines. You can almost see the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. I love winter, I come back at this time of year i order to enjoy the winter, but it is also a delight to see in the small places, the cycle of green life returning.
8 August 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
Walking past the wide veranda of the hotel in the early evening and seeing the tables full and buzzing with people, visitors and locals enjoying the sunshine. It is a delight to see human life, to see people enjoying being here, enjoying each other, enjoying the world.
7 August 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
A fresh-made, home-made French Onion soup, a little sweeter than you would expect, because there was no dry sherry, only Old Brown sherry, but warm and lustrous and deep and delicious and had a savoury linger, eaten on a cold Sunday afternoon with toasted sourdough and melted gruyere.
6 August 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
A Saturday with a big rugby match in the afternoon is the most delightful and South African of days. Walking into the bar of a hotel and seeing people at tables, wearing green rugby shirts, all staring at the screen and smiling at each other is a small joy of community. Winning is quite delightful too.
5 August 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
Inexplicably, the spring flowers are starting to come up already. There are small carpets and splashes of yellow and orange, pin pricks of purple.
4 August 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
A little after eight in the mornings here in winter I put on a pair of shoes and walk out of the front gate and turn left and walk down a long straight road, parallel to the river, which after a short while leads directly onto a dirt road, still straight and parallel. The road leads east and as I start to walk the sun comes up over the ridge of hills ahead of me, and it warms me and washes in light and newness. I walk about ten minutes and then in a rectangle one road up to walk back again. It is a beautiful way to start the day and get the blood moving and place me into the world with its cold air and moist trees and fidgeting birds. I have been awake for a while at this point, but it is really the thing that wakes me up.
3 August 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
This is foolish and self-evident to say aloud, and the delight of it is untranslatable into words, but I saw the shadows of the vines in the early morning and they were falling in one direction and as I walked through the vineyard in the evening they were falling in the opposite direction, like stage lighting designed to indicate that time has passed, and it suddenly brought me up short with the realisation that the sun is a physical object, and that we are standing on a physical object, and that objects move and striking up new positions and that what we experience depends in part on those constantly changing positions. The world happens outside of me, not only inside my head or in some screen behind my eyes. I do not expect a Nobel Prize for this insight, but it was a wonderful moment of remembering, and clarity, and getting in touch with something.
2 August 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
The water rushing down a shallow open culvert beside the road today was fast and musical and silvery and it was a delight to stand and watch it.
1 August 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
An exchange of jokes and sympathy with a friend who is also in the fear-driven jaws of a devouring creative project. We are all alone in the vast, dark, terrifying universe until we remember or are reminded that we also distinctly are not.
31 July 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
In the early morning, when the sun has risen over the eastern ridge and the light is falling on the treetops and roofs and on the sides of the hills but it hasn’t yet reached the ground, here in the dip beside the river, and the mist is snaking through the vines and wrapping itself around the tree trunks and turning silver on top as the light reaches down to it – that is a sight I haven’t seen before, a whole new species of beauty.
30 July 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
I love isolating the fine gradations of time and space that determine whether strangers greet each in passing. In Johannesburg, when I walk the streets of a pleasant suburb, every person I pass greets me and I greet them. Of course, in a pleasant Johannesburg suburb, the only people you pass on the street are people who walk there – in gardens, in kitchens – but don’t live there. In Cape Town, you greet everyone you pass on the mountain, and they greet you. Take two steps off the mountain, and when you pass each other each of you will be doing your best to pretend you are the only person in the world alive. In Barrydale, the boundaries are more blurred. You might greet and be greeted at any hour of day, and almost anywhere, but you also might not, unless it’s early in the morning, before the shops have opened or while they are still opening. At that hour, everyone greets everyone. An hour or so later, when the sun is higher and the day has definitively begun and there are more people about, the greetings become more spotty again. There is a real pleasure to noticing the invisible rituals of human contact.
29 July (Friday) – Barrydale
The perfect cup of coffee on a cold morning, with steam rising and just the right amount of everything.
28 July 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
I sat writing outside at the table, with the sunlight warming my legs. I sprinkled bird seed all about and, as they gathered their courage, various francolins, sparrows, peacocks and doves came pecking around my feet as I sat there working virtuously like St Francis of Assisi.
27 July 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
There is a mouse who lives in the pile of wood outside my front door who is establishing a relationship with me that is part adversarial, part affectionate.
26 July 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
A morning of good hard work, followed by the earned satisfaction of a nice lunch in a sunny courtyard at the hotel.
25 July 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
A perfectly dense, perfectly moist slice of chocolate cake in the afternoon sunshine with a cup of strong coffee.
24 July 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
Sitting in the perfect silence and the limpid apricity of the morning, reading a book on the terrace in the sun.
23 July 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
The stillness of the village in the afternoon. The sound of the church bells and the chirupping of the winter birds and somewhere in the still distance, almost inaudible, a voice calling in a garden.
22 July 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
At 7.15 on a winter’s morning in Cape Town it’s still dark out, and the lights of the buildings down Bree Street are coming on. You can have that exciting, virtuous feeling of having woken up before sunrise, without actually having to wake up early.
21 July 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
The Cape light on bright winters days is soft and beautiful. Yesterday evening in the rose-coloured light of sunset washing on the mountain, this morning the diagonal gold morning rays, like sunlight through the side windows of a church.
20 July 2022 (Wednesday) – Doha to Cape Town
Sleeping pills on the flight and a glass of cold water and good ear-plugs and my familiar, trusty sleeping mask.
19 July 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens to Doha
Having the good sense to book a flight in the early afternoon, so that the travel day has a good, slow – not to say lazy – start. A good, slow – not to say lazy – start to a long couple of travel days is like being given diamonds.
18 July 2022 (Monday) – Athens
A plate of spicy chicken wings in the James Joyce bar in Monastiraki.
Writing about bears.
17 July 2022 (Sunday) – Kalloni
Today we return to Athens so we rose just after 6 to drive to the land to say goodbye, and to perform an engainion in the foundations of the house: to burn and offer meat – as well as grain and fruit and alcohol – to the domestic gods of the house and the benevolent spirits of the land and the thirsty and protective shades of our fathers, and to ask them to keep an eye on the place while we’re not here (and later when we are). The colours at dawn were soft and kind, the sea was tender, the shade was cool.
16 July 2022 (Saturday) – Kalloni
It was scheduled for a hot day in Greece – 36 degrees by mid-afternoon – so we decided to do something we never do. We found sun-loungers in the shade of the pine tree on the beach outside O Petros taverna on Poros, with books at hand, and an iPad to watch the rugby, and the sea a few steps away, and ice-cold drinks from the taverna at the wave of a hand, and we spent the day the way visitors to Greece do: lazily, reclining, immobile, idle, happy.
15 July 2022 (Friday) – Kalloni
My first visit to the ancient theatre of Epidauros, full and buzzing with people, to watch Aeschylus’ The Persians, starting in the peach glow of dusk and finishing under the bright disc of history’s rising moon.
14 July 2022 (Thursday) – Kalloni
A small boat across to Poros to watch Death on the Nile. As we watched, the full golden moon rose behind the screen, just as on-screen a full moon rose over the Nile. The moon above the screen was the brighter and bigger and more glorious. In the small boat back, the moon was bright and burnished and made a dazzling pathway across the sea.
13 July 2022 (Wednesday) – Kalloni
At about 2pm we went to a meeting at a beach bar with our architects, who had just come from the land. We discussed this and that small matter, and we are leaving next week so we made plans to meet in September. And then we thought we’d go up to the land, if it wouldn’t trouble the workers. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” said our architect. “They went home at 11, it’s too hot today.” At first, this rankled me. It was quite hot, but hardly too hot. How long will it take if the workers go home every time it’s hot? And then I thought about the fact that this very morning, faced with my book, I had stared in blank obstinacy at the screen. The cicadas were too loud, the air was too still, there was a dog barking. I didn’t want to work, I would have to force myself to work. By the time I went to the beach bar, I still hadn’t worked, and my habitual plan was to go home from the meeting and resume sitting and pacing mutinously and unhappily trying to work until the working day was done and I could officially stop not-working and start not working. Doesn’t it make more sense, I realised – isn’t it more humane, more happy-making, more human – to recognise that not every day is a working day, that not every day can be – should be – a productive one. I went home from the beach bar and with great deliberateness I didn’t work, and it delighted me.
12 July 2022 (Tuesday) – Kalloni
When you swim at midday or 1am and the sun is above you and the sea-bed about three metres below, you can stretch out on the surface and look down at your shadow, long and elegant as an angel’s. The sun on the surface makes dancing electric-edged squares and trapezoids on the ocean floor, and electric ripples around your shadow. When you slowly flap your arms, there are densities and concentrations of electricity on the sea-bed curling from your arms, as though you are trailing clouds of glory.
11 July 2022 (Monday) – Kalloni
After two hours’ work I walked four minutes down through the pine trees to the rocks and swam for twenty minutes and walked back up to the desk again. In the afternoon after several hours of work I walked down to the rock and swam for an hour, out to the headland and back, with a mask and snorkel and looking at the fish as I swam, and then back to the desk to work again. I have read about writers working like this, and have never done it before. I can recommend it.
10 July 2022 (Sunday) – Kalloni
Sunday mornings, when you do them right – when you don’t rush to do anything, when you sit around in a state of genteel disrepair, reading or staring or thinking without purpose, both in the world and at a comfortable remove – have a quality of time and of moment that is unique and delightful and unmistakeable.
9 July 2022 (Saturday) – Kalloni
The first rain I have ever seen over the bay of Epidavros – great graphite-grey massed clouds and sheets of silver rain onto the water that was dark as a pencil sketch, The rain falling on the dry hills and olive tress, the smell of earth and herbs released in the air, the distant rumble and crack of day-time thunder. Fifteen minutes later, blue skies and blue water again.
8 July 2022 (Friday) – Kalloni
Driving home through the narrow streets and small houses just outside the town of Galatas, a fox ran across the road in front of the car, large and red and wild.
7 July 2022 (Thursday) – Kalloni
The sweet, enchanted moment in the very last residual light of day when the cicadas, one by one, then all at once taper down into silence.
6 July 2022 (Wednesday) – Kalloni
Returning to a favourite taverna on a nearby island and being recognised and greeted as old friends. Slender and slight threads, small civilities and acknowledgements are what make the sense of belonging that you need in order to expand your life into other places.
5 July 2022 (Tuesday) – Kalloni
Sitting on the mounds of earth on our land that have been excavated and piled up by the big yellow digger (which now sits still and silent as a dinosaur), and watching for the progression of the sunset and the angles of light over the hills and on the sea and the directions of the evening breezes, and all the topographical and geographical information that we need but which you can’t get from a map, only by being there. The sun dips below the western ridge at 8.35pm on 5 July, and the sky stays lit a pale blue with an orange glow on the horizon until about 9.28, when the sea turns a delicate violet. The breeze is still today but it will come in evenings such as this one from the north and the east. All these things combine for an ever fuller picture of where we will live, and inform how we will make and shape the place where we will live. The summer cicadas quite down after 7pm; there are no mosquitos up on this hill.
4 July 2022 (Monday) – Kalloni
First day of a new diet. I enjoy diets, the feeling of lightness and control. I am always happiest in the early days of starting my diet again.
3 July 2022 (Sunday) – Kalloni
After the heat of the day and a nostaglic visit to Nafplio, a swim in the suede-blue sea, stirred and vexed all day by the strong, cooling winds.
2 July 2022 (Saturday) – Athens to Kalloni
We are staying now in a small house on the side of the Gulf of Epidavros. From the balcony if you look to the right you can see the hillside, dusty-green by day, dark at night, where our house is being built. At dusk the sea seems to glow with the light that has been stored up during the day. There are cicadas when there is daylight and tree frogs when it is dark. The peace and the beauty almost overcome me.
1 July 2022 (Friday) – Athens
The last day in Athens for a while, so I visit to my favourite bookshop in Kolonaki, followed by two negronis on a sidewalk table to celebrate some good professional news, then a good meal at a restaurant that is new to us, outdoors in Psirri. The first half of the year has been good, but the second half will be the half that counts, and it is a delight to sit and plan it and feel the hope growing in it and for it.
30 June 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
The grim but profound joy of finally doing some of the chores and duties that have been hanging over my head. The pleasures of remembering how easy life can be when you just do the things you say you will do.
29 June 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
To the Roman Agora in Monastiraki, under the acropolis, for the Athens Open Air Film Festival. Not only are all films free, they give you free bottles of water when you arrive. Those are delights enough, and so is to sit in the warm air under a darkening sky between the marble arches and columns, but further delights: the film tonight was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and I have never seen Modern Times before. To see it the first time in the way it was made to be seen – on the big screen, in the company of other people – is a wonder, a gift. But also, what an opportunity to appreciate the original genius of Charlie Chaplin: his cinema and his comedy and his story-telling is like music: you don’t need to speak a language to understand it. There we sat, Greeks and barbarians alike, watching a movie and experiencing precisely the same unmediated thing at the same moment, rocking with the same laughter and feeling the same sorrow and anxiety for the gamin and the tramp. It was like a miracle.
28 June 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
A long walk to a favourite coffee shop up in the city. There is a book in the shelves there that I read whenever I am in Athens and stop by, but that hasn’t been for several months. I arrived today and took up my usual table and turned to look in the shelf, but the book wasn’t there. I can only assume that since last I was there, someone sat in the coffee shop and started reading it and enjoyed it so much they took it home with them. That book must have been there for years and years – it was an old book, a first edition from the 60s – and now it is gone. I am delighted to think of the ongoing life of that book, of the circuits of literacy and of the mind that still crackle and fizz under the skin of a city.
27 June 2022 (Monday) – Athens
At 9pm the sun is setting over the gulf in a great grenadine wash of orange and red, and an older woman stands on the beach, changing out of her wet bathing suit and into dry clothes. There is no one else around now and the beach is almost dark, but she is unhurried and unworried and patiently dries her hair with a towel and slips on her sandals and makes her way undramatically up the beach and up the stairs to the promenade and past the bench where I’m sitting and makes her way home.
26 June 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
A new island – Agistri, which of course has been around for a while, but it’s new to me. After swimming I sat on the beach drying off, ready to catch the Flying Dolphin ferry back to Athens, and watched a little girl in a red bathing suit bobbing in the blue sea on a pink pool noodle. She had chubby little legs, and laughed at the bounce and swell of the water. The world was delighting her.
25 June 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
At the open-air cinema on the seafront I like to arrive an hour early, to make sure I have the seats I want, and to watch the Greeks arrive. The Greeks have inscrutable methods of selecting where they want to sit. They are randomly driven hither and thither, as though they are so many Odysseuses being blown about by the gods. This man wants to sit in the fifth row, but if there are no seats in the fifth row (although there are in the fourth and sixth rows), he will bounce back and walk off to the 27th row. Look at this couple. They stand staring out at the seats in a blank performance of flummoxedness, each struggling to formulate a philosophy that would offer some theoretical underpinning for the practical decision they are being called upon to make. He points to the far left in the front. She points to the far right at the back. They look at each other in perplexity. He starts walking to the far right at the back. She starts walking to the far left at the back. They stop again and sit more or less randomly at some place neither of them first chose to be. The open-air cinema is an x-ray of people’s minds.
4 June 2022 (Friday) – Athens
Finding a new coffee shop, with air conditioning indoors, and men playing backgammon all around. No conversation, just the slap of counters down, the hard contemptuous rattle of dice, the sudden scrape of a chair, the violent bang of a glass of iced coffee, then afterwards the warm chuckle, the slapped shoulder, the relaxed lounging, the low rolling murmur of chat like distant thunder. Backgammon is a furious contact sport in Greece, played by angry gods who like each other.
23 June 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
The shaded cool of a siesta in the heat. It’s white and yellow outside, it’s green and blue inside.
22 June 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
Showing bits of Athens to a new friend, who has come to town. That glow you get when someone enjoys your places as much as you do.
21 June 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
There are some days when nothing is more joyful than drawing the blinds on the windows and ordering a pizza and watching a cheesy old musical with Cole Porter music and Burt Reynolds (At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovitch, 1975).
20 June 2022 (Monday) – Athens
A long session of reading and finishing a good book.
19 June 2022 (Sunday) – Aegina and Athens
Of all the views in Greece, there are none so reliably lovely as sunset on a ferry in the Saronic gulf, returning to Piraeus when the light is like rose wine and the islands and peninsulas are stacked behind each other in receding blues like cardboard cutouts above the electric blue of the sea.
18 June 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
The John Craxton exhibition at the Benaki Museum, and specifically a photograph attached to the exhibition, in which Craxton, George Psychoundakis and Paddy Leigh Fermor are sitting having a drink and a chat. Paddy is listening to George tell a story, and the delight and enjoyment on his face is a treat to see. You understand why he was so beloved by his friends, and such good fun to have at a party. He told good stories, yes, but it’s far more life-enhancing to be a good listener to a story, to add joy and enthusiasm to the occasion through your enjoyment of someone else.
17 June 2022 (Friday) – Athens
The attendant at the museum said there’s no bridge over the lake, so to get to the other side “you must walk there perimetrically”.
16 June 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
Outside the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre, with the library and the opera house and the park, there is a long ornamental pond with fountains that jet and arc every half-hour on the half-hour, in time to different pieces of music. At 7.30pm, just passing by, the music was Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold”, and what a joy it was.
15 June 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
The swifts (or perhaps swallows) in the pale blue outside my apartment, that turn and swoop and dive and skim in the mornings, against a backdrop of white rooftops and blue mountains.
14 June 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
An open-air cinema beside the sea, the smell of popcorn, a strong margarita and a beer on the table beside you, and on the screen a supremely bad movie with dinosaurs.
13 June 2022 (Monday) – Athens
The flight from Istanbul to Athens last night was a memorable one, in that the airline managed to lose all the luggage on the flight. All the luggage. ALL of it. That is a remarkable achievement that I have never encountered before. Anyway, after a day without bags, and wondering where in the world the bags might be, this evening the bags were delivered to my apartment. There is something profoundly, deeply delightful about the moment when your bags finally arrive at your apartment.
12 June 2022 (Sunday) – Turkey to Athens
I sat next to former chess Grandmaster Nigel Short on the flight. Nigel Short once played Garry Kasparov for the World Championship, and in the mid-90s I thrilled to Dominic Lawson’s book about the match. It was the book that first made me interested in chess. I so seldom sit beside celebrities on flights; this was a good one.
11 June 2022 (Saturday) – Turkey
There is a delight, when you are laid low with a hangover that would fell the Mediterranean gods, to notice that today is the first windy day of the week so it really doesn’t matter that all you want to do is lie in a shady room and whimper.
10 June 2022 (Friday) – Turkey
My first long session of raki in some time: the fiery, milky, velvet-hammered sipping smooth nectar of the Mediterranean gods. How wise it makes me, how philosophical and how friendly to strangers and chatty with neighbouring tables. If only tomorrows never existed, I would drink raki every day and all day long.
9 June 2022 (Thursday) – Turkey
Lying in the cool of an air-conditioner in the hot afternoon and watching cricket: the simple pleasures of goofing off. Plus, we won.
8 June 2022 (Wednesday) – Turkey
An ice-cream – elastic and cold and sweet and salty – in the evening on a walk beside the harbour.
7 June 2022 (Tuesday) – Turkey
I had a cappuccino so that I could sit for a few hours on the side-terrace of a bar and work in the shade. At a certain point a group of English people came to discuss business with the owner of the bar. There was a young couple, engaged to be married, and their parents, and they were discussing plans for a wedding party at the bar. At a point we all started chatting and exchanging thoughts about weddings and parents and the Jubilee and Turkey and books and the future whatever it is that people who meet on a shady balcony in a hot Turkish seaside town get talking about. We share some wine and make plans to meet later to watch the football. When we leave the owner says the wine is on the house. We try to pay for cappuccino – that’s on the house too. The owner likes it when people meet in his bar and become friends.
6 June 2022 (Monday) – Turkey
A foamy shave with a straight razor from a Turkish barber, who slaps on some burning alcohol and sprays me with soothing fragrance and rubs my shoulders and gives me a glass of tea. Afterwards I have smooth cheeks for the first time in years and I feel ten years younger.
5 June 2022 (Sunday) – Turkey
I finished re-reading a book I first read some years ago. I was an adult when I read it the first time, and I thought that meant I understood it, but this time I understood it more, I saw more in it, I loved it more. It is a delight to know that growing older isn’t a waste, that the good things are still growing, that there are still more and unrealised delights inside us.
4 June 2022 (Saturday) – Turkey
Sitting up the hill from the sea in cool shade with a cool sea breeze moving across your skin. The air outside the shade is warm and heavy and yellow but in the shade it is cool like water.
3 June 2022 (Friday) – Tunbridge Wells
A farewell picnic in the park just through the door in the wall at the bottom of my sister’s garden, with a spread of French cheese and good wine and salami, with my niece climbing an oak tree and the bright sun on the green grass and my mother wearing a straw hat. It is one of those bright golden gifted afternoons that England always promises but very seldom delivers.
2 June 2022 (Thursday) – Tunbridge Wells
I caught the train into town with my mother to see the queen’s jubilee celebrations. She hadn’t been on a train in years, and she hadn’t been into London in years, and she was young on the queen’s coronation. There were many people in Trafalgar Square and up Pall Mall and there were many people in the side-streets and St James’ Park was full and it was a crush and we were jostled by people like us who didn’t know where to go or what everyone was doing, but everyone was in a good mood and people were happy and waving little paper flags and people were dressed in red and white and blue and my mother was very happy to be there, so I was too.
1 June 2022 (Wednesday) – Tunbridge Wells
The yellow buttercups in the parks and the carpet of small white flowers across the green. The five rabbits that came out of the undergrowth in the last slanting sunlight of the day.
31 May 2022 (Tuesday) – Paris to Tunbridge Wells
Arriving on the train in the rain and gloom of an English summer and spending the evening with my mother and my sister and her wife and my niece and a table groaning with roast pork and roast potatoes and seeing how happy they all are.
30 May 2022 (Monday) – Rocamadour to Paris
Meeting up with friends at my favourite restaurant, on Avenue de Gobelins, and being recognised by the manager, and being given my favourite table, and having several pichers of the most affordable wine in Paris, with laughing and eating and feeling happy.
29 May 2022 (Sunday) – Rocamadour
A final long circular walk through the valley of the Ouysse, beside the glittering malachite waters, sipping from a bottle of ruby Cahors, thinking about the week past and making plans for the year to come, feeling the legs strong andthe heart hopeful.
28 May 2022 (Saturday) – Rocamadour
Arriving in the pilgrim cliff town at journey’s end and lighting a candle in the chapel of the Black Virgin and feeling the good tired satisfaction of a long walk done, the pilgrim’s feeling of being lighter and better and truer than when you started.
27 May 2022 (Friday) – Sant Sozy
Prune brandy and beer in the village inn while listening to a local 60-year-old songstress while the old people of the village sit at outdoor tables and the children of the village run around and ply between the tables and in the courtyard.
26 May 2022 (Thursday) – Carennac
A first ever visit to the great chasm and caves of Gouffre de Padirac. What a wonderworld of Gaudi dripstone and H.R. Geiger limestone and smooth subterranean rivers and lakes.
25 May 2022 (Wednesday) – Lubressac
Confit pork and duck pate and red wine in the ruins of a chateau high over the river valley.
24 May 2022 (Tuesday) – Autoire
Lying and dozing in a grassy field in the shade of a spreading oak tree in the late afternoon.
23 May 2022 (Monday) – Gagnac
The Turkish Delight smell of roadside pink roses as you walk through the town and out into the green forested hills.
22 May 2022 (Sunday) – Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne
On a hot, hot evening, swimming in the cold Dordogne river, icy with snow-melt from the Central Massif, emerging with skin burning and head clear and happy.
Then sitting with our friends on the square in town on the evening before walking, drinking tall glasses of cold beer, the church all lit up and the roses of the town out in full bloom.
21 May 2022 (Saturday) – Paris
Two friends have arrived to join us for a walking holiday. What a joy to meet up with friends in a beloved city, showing it to one of them for the first time, picnicing and lazing in the Luxembourg Gardens on a gentle sunny afternoon with white flowers on the green lawn beside the statue of the stag, the horse-chestnuts in full green leaf.
20 May 2022 (Friday) – Paris
After wine at lunch, a deep good afternoon sleep while outside it gently rains and then stops raining and the clouds open up to afternoon sunshine.
19 May 2022 (Thursday) – Paris
The Musee Carnavalet, on Rue de Sevigne, has free entrance. I don’t understand how a place with free entrance can have such treasures and delights: Gertrude Stein’s writing desk. The original metal sign that hung outside Le Chat Noir. An entire salon preserved from the Cafe de Paris. A pair of Napoleon’s stockings. One of Marie Antoinette’s slippers. A milk jug stolen from the bedroom of Louis XVI. Marcel Proust’s bed. What a generous joy.
18 May 2022 (Wednesday) – Paris
The flight landed at 6am, but the hotel room was only available at 2pm. Now, when you arrive a little scratchy and tired, that seems like a burden, not a delight. But so many delights happen because you have no choice. When you have six hours to idle away, you have no choice but to wander through the streets of a delightful area that you have never seen before, and sit with coffee and croissant at a cafe table in front of a Metro and watch people going in and out, then find a bar and a bistro and another bar and drink rivers of rose wine, all before lunch. You have no choice but to make sure you are delighted.
17 May 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town to Paris
A sunny clear day for leaving, the clear skies with flashing silver aircraft. Nothing is more exciting than leaving day.
16 May 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
A delightful business lunch in a bougainvillea-filled courtyard for the last day in Cape Town.
15 May 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
The last Sunday night in Cape Town for a while, and in a sky of baby blue and grenadine, the yellow moon rising, round and ripe with fortune.
14 May 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
This morning, two guys were talking somewhere on the corner with Bree Street below my apartment. One of the guys was telling a long story that must have had a lot of punchlines, because the other guy was howling with laughter. Every time he had his mirth under control, the first guy would say something else and set him off again. What a joy to hear someone laughing like that in the morning.
13 May 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
All Friday the 13ths are a delight to me: Fridays the 13 are my lucky days. When I was 11 at Brighton Beach Senior Primary School, Shelley Whitfield, who I liked and who remains the most glamorous 11-year-old I’ve ever seen, told me that she liked me too, which made us, I guess, boyfriend and girlfriend. That was a first for me, and that was on a Friday 13th. It only lasted two weeks and I was too shy to actually speak to her at any point of those two weeks, but still. Even though nothing so spectacularly life-affirming has ever happened to me on a Friday 13th again, Friday the 13th always fills me with delight.
12 May 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
The rose pelargonium cheesecake at the coffee shop in the Company Gardens – not the restaurant, no one in their right mind would go there, but right next to it, in the direction of the mountain – tastes like Zoo Biscuits.
11 May 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
Jo said: “I love the sound of a dishwasher.”
“What do you love about it?’
“The soft hum. Everything. The water sound. The rhythm. Everything. And afterwards everything will be clean: the world will be a better place.”
10 May 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
Walking in the cold autumn air and emerging from the shade into the warm, weak sun. I stood still for a moment, enjoying the feel of the warmth on my skin, the yellow light, the sun like warm glass. What a lovely feeling.
9 May 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
When you write every day, the writing becomes easier. That’s a delight. But the greatest delight is when the work day is done and you can stop writing.
8 May 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
There is a deep pulse of joy that comes with checking in with a number of people I love and worry about – my mother, my first wife, various friends who have been having a difficult time – and finding them all busy being happy. What a lovely feeling on a Sunday night.
7 May 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
A session of planning our upcoming walking holiday with a couple of fellow walkers over drinks and maps and delight. The lightness of what’s ahead and the warmth of right now.
6 May 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
In an evening of delights, this was the greatest delight: my friend, who I love, seems very happy.
5 May 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
I have been commissioned to write a book and the manuscript is due later this year. I have been enjoying researching it, but yesterday I started writing it, and today I had my first glimpse, through the cloud of feathers, of the thing I am fumbling towards, and that is both a relief and a true delight.
4 May 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
A walk at sunset on the mountain path where I walked every day during the hard lockdown. I remembered what it was like to walk with one eye peeled for the police, or for fellow citizens who might report me to the police. i passed people on the path and we smiled and met each other’s eyes. It was a lovely walk, and in the dusk the lights of the city bowl shone like jewels, but the true delight was feeling that those days, those dreadful, heavy-hearted, suspicious, life-strangling days are behind us.
3 May 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
A long talk with a man who pilots ships into the Antarctic ice, and who can tell me what it feels like when the floes take you and shake the vessel beneath you and hold you in place while a polar storm approaches. It’s like talking to someone who goes regularly, or who travels in time. I wish I could explain to him how marvelous, how extraordinary his life is to me.
2 May 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale to Cape Town
On the drive back to the city we listened to Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, and particularly her season about Polly Platt. I’ve been a Peter Bogdanovich fan for a while now, so it’s especially fascinating to hear the fuller story of Polly. How sad, how impressive, how well-researched, how beautifully told and reported. Good work is such a delight to experience.
1 May 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
Bach’s Cantata 140, especially but not limited to the fourth movement.
30 April 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
Sitting over a long breakfast with friends, watching birds and come and go and dart and swoop, and mice emerge from their homes and mongooses running by. A long breakfast with house-guests in the country, followed by a walk – what could be more delightful?
29 April 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
Friends arriving and an afternoon with birds and sparkling wine and cheese and chatting and a big wooden table and the sun moving in and out from the clouds and falling across us.
28 April 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
There is a mouse that lives in the woodpile on the porch beside the door. His body is brown and dappled, and he has black and white stripes that run the length of his back. His eyes glitter like drops of oil in the sun. Someone told me once that mice can’t see you if you don’t move, and it’s true. If you stand very still and he emerges from his woodpile, he will nose around and find little scraps of food and hold them in his front paws and nibble at them and look right at you, and it is as though he knows you’re there and will do him no harm.
27 April 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
Taking a walk at the end of the day and seeing the great arcs of water from the sprinklers in the onion fields, lit silver by the slanting sun.
26 April 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
There a francolin who comes to the glass doors between the lounge and the porch. He pecks against the glass. Opinions are divided over whether he is pecking at his reflection, or at small seeds or morsels that have blown into the crack between the glass and the wooden door frame. His beak is so curved. His body is so very square and fat.
25 April 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
The sound of rain falling hard on a slate roof.
24 April 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
I have spent the week alone here, and I enjoy being alone – there is a genuine delight in being alone – but there is also a deep and great delight when someone you love and who loves you arrives back and throws sunshine through the house.
23 April 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
I have had a mysteriously bad back all week, necessitating a lot of lying down on the floor and taking handfuls of strong medicines. It’s not over but it seems to be getting a little bette, and that is a tremendous relief, to the point of being a delight.
22 April 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
Even at the end of a week when you haven’t done much work, there is a delight in the Friday-afternoon feeling of the week and the work being over, and you can drink a beer while watching a game, and owe nothing to anyone.
21 April 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
A long bath, reading by candlelight during the loadshedding. The feeling that you are enclosed and safe and the world can wait.
20 April 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
The most delicious gin and tonic ever made – Cruxland gin that someone gave me for my birthday, a spring of rosemary from the bush growing beside the front door, two green and savoury olives. A drink that tasted green and salty and clean and like the mountains.
19 April 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
The autumnal light is so soft on the mountains in the evening, pink and red and golden as it fades. The rock seems softer, smoothed and moulded with hands and fingers rather than by time and the elements. It is the best time of year. The birds sing very sweetly.
18 April 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
The arcs from the sprinklers in the onion fields in the late afternoon making great silvery bows in the slanting light.
17 April 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
Eating hangover chocolate on the sofa and watching The African Queen.
16 April 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
Champagne in the afternoon with new friends on the terrace in the weak bright autumn sunshine, an hour-long visit that becomes seven hours,
15 April 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
The autumn colours of the vineyard as I arrive: golden and russet and brown on the leaves, the grapes the colour of embers.
14 April 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
The smell of bacon from the bagel shop that wafts up the stairwell of the apartment block in the mornings.
13 April 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
Discovering a pile of old Tintins in a cupboard in the apartment where I stay when I’m in Cape Town. The delightful nostalgia of being a boy again in Durban, thrilling to a world wider and more beautiful and thrilling than I could have imagined on my own, remembering random panels before I get to them, remembering with my skin where I was the first (or last) time I read it. But also the delight of discovering with adult eyes how good they are, how much better they are than they needed to be. The love and gratitude you feel for someone creative who makes and gives more than they need to, and the way it’s only as an adult that you truly realise how rare that it, and how generous.
7 – 12 April 2022 – The Orange River, Namibia
Five days of unending delights. The river flowing through the desert; remembering the lines from Eliot: “I do not know much about gods, But I think that the river is a strong, brown god”; the black and bronze cliffs rising on either side; the whirlpools and the reeds that clack as the water shakes them; the fish eagle flapping from the stony cliffs; the bright half-moon that throws silver across the water at night; the smell of the dry driftwood fire; the delight of meeting a family with delightful children; the delight of making two new friends; the lightning in the distance across the sand dunes; the warm fat raindrops that fall friendly and pass by; the feeling of the current under your paddle and under the hull of your canoe; the white soft sand of the river bank under your sleeping mat; the high wide ceiling of stars when you wake in the night; the cool river water on a hot day; food when you’re hungry; coffee in the morning with the skyline gold and rose and apricot; laughter at night and profound, sincere conversations around a fire with strangers you will never see again; the absence of news from the world; sleeping when you’re tired; the generosity of strangers.
6 April 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
It’s my birthday and I am leaving in fifteen minutes to drive to Namibia to spend four days paddling down the Orange River, sleeping under the stars of the sky, far from WiFi or cellphone reception or phone calls or decisions or anything
5 April 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
The sea this evening was slate grey, graphite grey, as though it had been sketched with a pencil. The silver sun lay flat on it and it felt vast and elemental and too wonderful for me to properly take it in.
4 April 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
I had a bad business call today. It was a very important call, and it was hilariously bad. And it is a genuine delight, after an hour of mortification and agony, to be able to laugh at it and sigh and shrug. That feels like freedom, and wisdom, and delight.
3 April 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
A day spent with my head in the ice and floes of the Antarctic, while sitting on my sofa in front of the cricket. Outside the autumn sunshine and the sounds of jazz drifting up from Bree Street. A delight of containment.
2 April 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
It was snowing in London and my mother – who moved there recently, at the age of 81 – called me excitedly because it was the first snow she has ever seen.
1 April 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
A new pair of shoes.
31 March 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
I did some work in a courtyard in town. At the next table was a woman, a little older than me, working remotely and obviously part of a Zoom meeting. Just to the right of the laptop, just off camera, was a large glass of wine, and every so often she would lean surreptitiously sideways and take her refreshment. It was delightful to watch. This should be the future of work.
30 March 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
We spotted Frosty the albino squirrel while walking through the Company Gardens. He was carrying an acorn to a spot on a patch of lawn beneath a tree. He dug a little hole and buried the acorn and patted the soil closed again, glancing around suspiciously with his pink eyes to make sure he wasn’t being watched. He eyed us, then decided we were the sort who could be trusted not to steal another man’s acorns. Frosty is getting ready for winter.
29 March 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
A long walk-and-talk with a good friend beside the sea.
28 March 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
I sat in The Ladder, working out in numbers the size of the work tasks ahead over the next 107 days. It was harrowing and heart-stopping. At the next table a young South African woman was having a heartfelt conversation with what I deduce to be her summer girlfriend, who is now going back to Germany where her girlfriend is waiting for her to come home. “I want to encourage her to be happy, without being too cruel to her, you know?” she was saying and the South African woman was nodding and frowning, for all the world as though she did know. At other tables, people were working or catching up. It felt good to be surrounded by the small intensities of other people’s lives.
27 March 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
After lunch, walking Hout Bay beach with children and dogs and families all about, the bright, sandy, kelpy, happy, sinister, bee-buzzing feeling of a Sunday at the beach.
26 March 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
Arriving in Cape Town and driving straight to the East Pier to visit the SA Agulhas 2 and sit with Captain Knowledge Bengu on the bridge (like the Starship Enterprise) and look out at the water and the mountain and talk about life and ice and stories.
25 March 2022 (Friday) – Lille to Paris
A final meeting then a last walk around a town that has been very good to me. A content solitary meal at a wooden table outside in the sunshine. The quiet, poignant, bitter-sweet end-of-season feeling I associate with end-of-term at old-fashioned boarding schools, or the first day of autumn at a seaside resort in 1933, when everyone has left and you are leaving too, soon, but you are still there right now and the weather’s still fine.
24 March 2022 (Thursday) – Lille
Eating a carbonnade flamande for lunch alone at a sidewalk table in the old town with a glass of beer and an Agatha Christie novel.
23 March 2022 (Wednesday) – Lille
The feeling of entering your hotel room in the afternoon after a good morning of meetings, and being able to close the door and lie on the cool cotton of the bed and know that you won’t have to talk to anyone until you choose to open it again.
22 March 2022 (Tuesday) – Lille
I had prepared and I knew the material was good, so when I walked off after the pitch I knew that I had done what I could. That was a genuine, deep and peaceful joy, the whole and untouchable feeling of not having anything to regret.
We won, and that was good, but the first joy was more important.
21 March 2022 (Monday) – Lille
I sprawled on the stairs of the Opera at lunchtime, reading a newspaper in the sun. A woman was sitting on a step above me to my right. She was an office worker on her lunch break, eating takeaway sushi with chopsticks and halfway through reading The Brothers Karamazov. For all the annoying things that France is, it’s also a place where normal people sit in the sunshine in their lunch hour, reading Dostoevski.
20 March 2022 (Sunday) – Lille
A glorious long walk in the Flanders sunshine, down to the big Sunday market and out to circle the Citadel on a white track beside the moat, with circus music drifting from a Big Top across the fields, and the birds singing from the leafless trees. I heard a woodpecker. I have never been in countryside so flat – you can walk for hours in the crisp air without noticing it. On the way back to the hotel, I walked for a while behind a couple wheeling cabin bags, complete with luggage tags, and holding hands.
19 March 2022 (Saturday) – Lille
I have never been to Lille before, but it’s charming. The right size, the right degree of interesting. I went to the Museum and saw a scary Goya. I wandered the streets in the beer-coloured afternoon sunshine and saw everyone happy and laughing. I didn’t see a single mask. I saw smiling faces.
18 March 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale to Paris
A lovely long drive to the airport. Long drives, listening to things, put me in a peaceful mood. In International departures, once you have passed through passport control, they make you fill out some sort of form.
“Why do we have to fill out this form?” I wondered.
The member of staff eyed me warily. “It’s for Covid,” she said.
“But it’s an arrival form,” I said. “And I’m departing.”
She sighed. “They like to have forms.”
We smiled in silent acknowledgment that they certainly do. It was a nice moment.
17 March 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale
Tomorrow I leave for France to do something at which I am not very good, but which if I do it well will have a big impact on my future and on people around me, and I have been very tense and anxious about it. But today as I did chores and fretted and fussed and packed, the sunlight was golden on the vineyards and a mongoose walked up onto the porch and looked at me and walked off again, unhurried as a cat. The air was soft and warm and everything will be fine.
16 March 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
At the hotel I met a man who is an enthusiast about the rain frogs that live in the sand dunes of Port Nolloth. He was so passionate about them, so filled with amphibious vim. Did you know they live under the ground during the day, in a zone of damp sand nearly half a metre beneath the surface? It was a joy to speak to someone who likes anything so much.
15 March 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
There is a mouse – a field-mouse, I suppose – who lives in the woodpile outside the door. When I am sitting on the sofa in the still of the day he might emerge and peer around and stand on the thresh-hold, looking in as though wondering if anyone’s home. If I sit on the sofa and don’t move, he doesn’t see me.
14 March 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
The straightforward South African pleasure after a day’s good work of braaied boerewors in the evening on a soft white roll with All Gold tomato sauce and Colman’s English mustard.
13 March 2022 (Sunday) – Barrydale
In the morning, having coffee on the porch with the sun nearly up, I heard a gurgling and a honking and a blatting coming from the tall tree at the bottom of the vineyard that partially obscures the view of the village church. Near the top of the tree there was a rustling and a continued honking and I saw, poking through the branches, the elegant arch and curve of an irridescent blue neck, followed by a stupid road-runner face. I have never seen a peacock in its night-time roost before, high on a swaying tree, complaining in the morning about the noise all the red-winged starlings were making around him.
12 March 2022 (Saturday) – Barrydale
Visitors and champagne and the heat on the vineyards while you sit outside on the shaded porch drinking, so that you don’t even notice that loadshedding has come and gone.
11 March 2022 (Friday) – Barrydale
The falling light and the smell of the land as you’re driving through the twilight. The purple sky and the darkening hills. Arriving and eating on the porch of a good country hotel in a warm Karoo night.
10 March 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
Catching up on messages and making a delightful discovery: a few days ago Endurance was found at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, and I am delighted that so many of my friends know me well enough that they messaged me to tell me about it. It is a genuine delight to be known as the guy who would be excited and delighted by the discovery of Endurance.
9 March 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
Beneath my apartment on Bree Street is an Asian restaurant where diners have to sit on low stools on the sidewalk, because there are only three tables inside the tiny restaurant-space, and the place is always packed. I don’t sit on low stools – I have an Anglo-Saxon back – but it was early enough that there was a free table so we sat and ate. It was a thrill to eat Asian flavours again – the chilli and the kimchi and the soy and the coriander lamb and prawn potstickers. I was tired, and the flavours woke me up.
8 March 2022 (Tuesday) – Sea Point
The cool, fine diamond-mist that comes off the sea at sunset, bright and gentle, smelling of mineral and salt.
7 March 2022 (Monday) – Tankwa Karoo
Watching footage of myself and feeling the sweet, sweet relief that I don’t look and sound quite the twerp I thought I would. Somewhat twerpy, yes, but I’ll take somewhat.
6 March 2022 (Sunday) – Tankwa Karoo
A day spent on a film set again, after a long absence. It is hot and shadeless and flinty out there in the Tankwa Karoo. A dust devil rose on one side of the road, politely crossed the tar and whirled out across the dry plain. The great joy of a film set is being with people who know what they are doing and are good at what they do. Film sets, I have always thought, bring out the best in people, especially if they are not actors.
5 March 2022 (Saturday) – Hermanus
Fried calamari with a crispy, salty batter and a hard squeeze of lemon juice, with the green, whale-dreaming sea just across the way. Making new plans and having new ideas.
4 March 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town to Hermanus
A friend turns a year older and I am there to mark it with him: this is a precious gift. Two young girls who I have known since they were four are also there in their full gorgeous flower of young adulthood: this is a dizzying gift. Their mother, another beloved friend, is visibly, radiantly happy to have her family and friends around her and at her table. This is joy.
3 March 2022 (Thursday) – Barrydale to Cape Town
A sad delight: managing to see a dear friend before she leaves with her family to Seattle. Seattle is so very far away, but it is a delight to have friends in your life, however far-flung. It is also delightful to have a net of friendship tossed across the wide face of the world.
2 March 2022 (Wednesday) – Barrydale
Once a month, on the first Wednesday, the local beer-and-pizza place has curry night. Tonight I had the second-best butter chicken I have ever had. (Does this seem like faint praise? I had had a lot of butter chicken in my life, and the best butter chicken of my life was the first ever butter chicken of my life, when Bukhara opened in the mid-1990s. The first time for anything, when it is good, is an unimprovable experience.)
1 March 2022 (Tuesday) – Barrydale
I was out walking under a fast-moving sky, watching sunlight in the west falling like water through a gap in the clouds, when it started to rain. I took shelter under an acacia tree, then decided to walk. It was a proper afternoon Karoo downpour – the raindrops like pebbles and the dirt road running red. When we were kids playing outside in the Durban rain we learnt you would be colder if you kept your shirt on than if you took it off, so for the first time in decades I walked home bare-chested and happy through the rain.
28 February 2022 (Monday) – Barrydale
The sound of thunder stealing closer. The slow rain of large drops, the smell of soil being released from itself.
27 February 2022 (Sunday) – Cape Town
Something I have been dreaming about while in England and Greece: meat over a braai fire, and laughter and blue water nearby.
26 February 2022 (Saturday) – Cape Town
The satisfaction and simple pleasure of a good haircut.
25 February 2022 (Friday) – Cape Town
The most South African of smells: water from a sprinkler on a hot day, falling on South African grass, soaking into South African soil.
24 February 2022 (Thursday) – Cape Town
Sitting in a garden with dear friends on a summer’s evening.
23 February 2022 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
The last time I was in Cape Town in summer, it was just after the drought and the Company Gardens were still barren and scrappy, but they are lush and green now, roses are out, lawns and hedges are full, tourists stroll in the green shade, a woman sits on a bench reading a book.
22 February 2022 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
I spent the morning going from one place to another to the next, in order to get documents and do chores and complete the needful. Nothing was open, available or where it was the last time I saw it. There is something charming about remembering that Cape Town is the place where you can’t get anything done, and something soothing about surrendering yourself to it.
21 February 2022 (Monday) – Cape Town
No matter how long I have been away, whenever I return to Cape Town and walk into Wordsworth Books in the Gardens Centre, the same CD is playing: a compilation of what I must assume to be the greatest hits of David Bowie. This has been going on for at least six years. For the homecoming traveler it’s very sweet and comforting, but surely it must have driven the staff quite mad by now.
20 February 2022 (Sunday) – Athens to Cape Town
Landing in Amsterdam from Athens, to connect onwards to South Africa, and looking out at the cold grey day and the flat wet land and the hunched, efficient, prosperous Northern Europeans, feeling deep joy that I only have to stay for a few hours.
19 February 20200 (Saturday) – Athens
That good feeling when everything is packed and ready, and it’s an early night before the long early flight. This time tomorrow we will be back in Cape Town, and each time I come back, I feel as though I am coming back a little better.
18 February 2022 (Friday) – Athens
The last Friday in Athens, shopping for presents for friends back home, tasting honey wine from Sparta, a final meeting with our architects, who are now our friends. The air is warmer now, spring has come to Athens, the temple is very clear against the blue sky, up on the rock. The last days in cities I love have a certain similar elegiac feel to them, a bitter-sweetness, a heightened appreciation of the gifts life gives.
17 February 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
On Thursday nights after 6pm, entrance to the Benaki Museum – in a gorgeous and expansive mansion around the corner from Syntagma Square – is free and Athenians can wander in from their work days to look at artefacts and have a glass of wine or a meal. It normally closes at 5pm but on Thursdays it stays open till midnight to make sure that everyone who wants to has a chance, every week, to be exposed to Greek history and culture and beauty. All the museums do this – Thursday just happens to be the Benaki night. There is something so simple and generous and obvious and Greek about this that it delights me deeply.
16 February 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
Boxes and furniture arrived in a truck from the UK to be packed into a storage locker in Aspropyrgos, on the western edge of the city, on the road that runs westward to the Corinth isthmus and then south to our land. There was a deep satisfaction, as the blue corrugated iron door was pulled down and locked shut, in knowing that life is being consolidated here, that energy is being concentrated, that we are a step closer.
15 February 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
There is an art gallery directly across the road, three floors down. On Tuesdays they have exhibition openings, and hip young arty things spill out onto the sidewalk to smoke and drink and argue about art. It’s delightful to hear their voices and laughter drifting up from below.
14 February 2022 (Monday) – Athens
A carafe of tsiporou and ice-cold water, sitting at at a pavement table in Riza Riza as the dusk comes slowly on, watching people coming and going.
13 February 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
A blind-date Sunday lunch in Faliro, match-made by our architects with a Greek couple who have a summer house near our land. Food and wine and discussing how to be a spy and making new friends.
12 February 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
One of the drawbacks of traveling so much – so constantly – is that we so frequently want to share what we’re experiencing with friends who we know will enjoy it too. But it’s difficult: other people’s lives are arranged differently, and perhaps their priorities are different, and personalities are different. One of the problems with having a number of Cape Town friends, for instance, is that Capetonians are slow-moving, slow-reacting and constitutionally unenthusiastic, and the only way something like that can happen is if everyone is enthusiastic and wholehearted and energised from the start. A plan hatched months ago – with, tellingly, former Durbanites – has actually come together, after much discussion across time zones and hemispheres, and in May we will fly to Paris to meet two very dear friends who will be flying from Seattle, to go walking together in the Dordogne. We’ll have the opportunity to introduce two people we love to a week-long walk that we love, in a part of the world that means a great deal to us, and this makes me happier than I can express.
11 February 2022 (Friday) – Athens
News that I’ll be traveling to France next month to pitch a show I really believe in. There are four things in that sentence that bring me joy.
10 February 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
A night walk down streets I haven’t walked down before, then wandering almost by chance up Filopappou Hill, the Hill of the Muses, up the hillside along the ancient stone path, with the only light coming from the half moon overhead, throwing our shadows at our feet, then down Pnix, the Hill of the Nymphs. I love Athens immoderately but it is sometimes difficult to recreate by daylight and the city streets the Athens of the sacred groves, the Athens of Theseus and Sophocles, but on this walk, through the silent woods and the white stones, silent, the city below, no one else around, it was all still there, right there.
9 February 2022 (Wednesday) – Athens
A shameful delight, this – shameful and shameless and shallow – but after a month or so of diet and thoughtful living, I went to Massimo Dutti on Ermou and bought two new pairs of trousers, two sizes smaller than my last one. I am now, in my head, Timothee Chalamet.
8 February 2022 (Tuesday) – Athens
Finishing a long, good book you have been reading for a while.
7 February 2022 (Monday) – Athens
My delight today is a glass of water, just tap water, not especially chilled, in a regular inexpensive column-fluted tumbler, and perhaps a metal jug with more water where that came from.
Before I first came to Athens I read Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi, which is in many years an overblown and boring book but what stuck with me was a detail he noticed on his first arrival in Athens in an August heatwave. The lights of the city were turned down as though to try cool the air but as he walked through the streets, past sidewalk tables and open windows, he noticed glasses of tap water on every table. No matter if people were eating, drinking coffee, drinking beer, just sitting to pass the time, the characteristic element of Athens for him was the glass of drinking water that was the silent, undemonstrative element of every interaction.
It must have lodged in my mind, because whenever you sit down in Athens, in a coffee shop or a restaurant, the waiter brings you a glass and a jug of water before he brings you a menu, before he even says hello, and every time he does, it makes me smile with recognition and at something that seems suggestive of something bigger and true.
Last night I arrived at the Astor Cinema perhaps an hour early for the 9.15 showing of Memoria. In the lobby of the Astor there are books and magazines, and the concession stand is also a bar, but we had just eaten and sat on the plush chairs with no intention of eating and drinking further. The guy behind the concession stand came out with two glasses of water, placed them beside us without a word and went back behind the stand to sell someone popcorn.
6 February 2022 (Sunday) – Athens
I am a great collector of and delighter in and follower of coincidences. Last week I watched a double feature of the two Murder on the Orient Express movies – the 1974 Sidney Lumet film with Albert Finney and the infinitely inferior 2017 Kenneth Branagh extravaBranza. As a result I’ve been musing and thinking a great deal about the Orient Express this week. I’ve taken two trips on the Eastern Orient Express – from Bangkok to Singapore, and once from Singapore to Bangkok – but the original Simplon Orient Express, that snaked across the skirts and mountains of Western Europe in great gusts of steam and pistons en route to Istanbul and Aleppo – that’s the real Orient Express. I once ate dinner in the dining carriage used in the 1974 movie – it’s now the dining room of a swanky hotel called Glenlo Abbey outside Galway – and how I longed to go back, but Ireland is a ways away. This afternoon we discovered a musical theatre twelve minutes’ walk from the apartment, where a jazz trio was playing classic Greek songs rendered in jazz idiom. It was beside a retired railway platform in the renovated dining carriage of the 1926 Simplon Orient Express. By the time we left it was midnight and the moon was pale over Athens as it would have been over Ruse or Constantinople nearly a hundred years ago.
5 February 2022 (Saturday) – Athens
It is enough of a delight just to be in Athens on a sunny Saturday. Athens is my favourite capital city in the world: the smell of food and coffee, the rough music of the language, the people and the streets, the light on the stone, the way there is something interesting everywhere, the energy in the air, the pleasure of sitting. But it was my first time in the Acropolis museum, and how beautiful it is, with the spaces and the vast picture windows issuing onto the Parthenon itself. And oh, the statuary and the human bodies shaped from stone. It was so beautiful it made me a little tearful.
4 February 2022 (Friday) – Athens
When I am in Athens I have a favourite coffee shop, called Riza Riza. At some point of the day I walk the marble footpath around the Acropolis from Keramikos or from Monastiraki, and cut down through Akropoli and Koukaki to Drakou Street. My regular table in the corner near the bookshelf is very often available, and I order a double coffee and each time I come here, either before or after doing some work, I take down the book I am reading from its place on the top shelf, far right. At the moment my Riza Riza read is a remarkable book that I found on the shelf the last time I was here, called “The Writing of One Novel” by Irving Wallace, a first edition from 1968, which really is just about the process of how he came to write his first, bestselling novel. I like to think that if ever a World War were to intervene, and I am kept from Athens for six years, and returned, I would be able to walk in and sit down and pick up my book from the top shelf at the right and carry on reading where I left off.
3 February 2022 (Thursday) – Athens
The first sight of the Parthenon again, rising through the mist, from Keramikos.
2 February 2022 (Wednesday) – Nafplion
It’s my last night here and in a bar in the old town there is an outside table that is an old car cut in half. I sat on the backseat of the car and ordered the Premium Zombie cocktail, whose ingredients are a secret known to none but the barman. I thought for sure that if I had a second Premium Zombie, and perhaps just a quick third, I would be able to decipher the recipe from taste alone. I put up a good fight, but some secrets keep their mystery.
1 February 2022 (Tuesday) – Nafplion
A long walk and talk, reminiscing about the distant past and the recent past, and friends and people missed. The sense of life as something spun out and woven and forming new shapes and trails of history.
31 January 2022 (Monday) – Nafplion
There are only two days left here, and we have started the usual circuit of the places that we’ve made ours: the coffee shop at the port, where the manager greets us with our usual order before we can sit down; the cafe on the square where the owner gives us free marble sponge cake no matter how much we beg him to stop; the bakery in the new town where the waitress with the gothy black hair beams and sets out the cups as we walk through the door. It is melancholy sometimes, to make a place your own for a month and then move on, but it’s also a delight to think of the threads you have left, however wispy, faint and fine, in the tapestry of other lives.
30 January 20200 (Sunday) – Nafplion
In the Byzantine Museum in Argos – empty and sunny on a Sunday afternoon in winter, just our footsteps echoing through the rooms and the sounds of plainsong played low over the hidden speakers – there is a carving in stone of a peacock eating grapes. At our house in Barrydale there is a peacock named Chickpea (daughter of Harold and Maude, mother of the sadly departed Sweetpea) that sits on fenceposts eating grapes, just as this one does. What an unlikely and delightful moment of connection across centuries and continents.
29 January 2022 (Saturday) – Nafplion
The delight of warmth and comfort on a rainy day, eating biscuits and watching Robert Mitchum.
28 January 2022 (Friday) – Nafplion
A ferry to my favourite island for the day, to look at doors and the colours of window shutters and enjoy the light of the island, which Chagall once said you could feel softly breathing.
27 January 2022 (Thursday) – Nafplion
A cup of coffee at Central Cafe in the afternoon and a warm custard bougatsa, sprinkled with cinnamon, fresh from the oven.
26 January 2022 (Wednesday) – Nafplion
A nap in the evening – just a few minutes on the sofa in the peace and silence with a book open on my chest – in the evening after dinner before going out to the 9.30pm screening of Nightmare Alley.
25 January 2022 (Tuesday) – Nafplion
A conversation with one of my favourite TV stars, from one of my favourite TV shows, who told me how very much she liked the scripts I have written for her, and how she is prepared to take a pay cut to star in the show. This in itself doesn’t mean anything – in Hollywood everyone is complimentary to everyone, which is one of the reasons it’s not the place for me – but the fact she was on the call at all meant that on at least one alternative dimension of reality it was at least partly true. It is a delight to be complimented by someone you would happily compliment yourself.
24 January 2022 (Monday) – Nafplion
The air coming down from the snowy hills around town is as cold as anything I have felt, but it’s a sharp, metallic cold that invigorates and stimulates the nerves. The cold of the air as you breathe in through your nose seems to dissolve the skin and the flesh and the sinuses, and you feel it as a clear, impersonal thing passing through the bone-tunnels of your skull, and the sunshine falls on your eyelids and it feels like a very particular and unique way of being alive.
23 January 2022 (Sunday) – Nafplion
The air was cold but the sky was sunny and blue. Through the window I saw what appeared to be pollen blowing past, swirling, dancing puffs of white pollen. Then I thought: but it’s winter. There’s no pollen in winter. I noticed the pollen was landing on the flagstones of the courtyard and dissolving. It was snow, beside the sea, on a sunny day in Greece.
22 January 2022 (Saturday) – Nafplion
A businessman in a suit, carrying a briefcase, pausing on the sidewalk to pluck a juicy orange from a tree and going on his way, eating it.
21 January 2022 (Friday) – Nafplion
Today I realised why some things take longer in Greece than they might elsewhere. We had a catch-up meeting with our architects. They picked us up in their car and drove us to various spots on the mainland to show us projects in process, to show us floors and stones and marbles, roofing and landscaping and to ponder various problems and imponderables and exhcange gossip about the son of Demetris the butcher who run away with the much older wife of the pharmacist, then caught a ferry to Poros to show us two more houses they are renovating which aren’t strictly speaking relevant to what they’re doing for us but which were very interesting to see, then gave us a gift – a brand-new book on a topic we had discussed with them before – then took us to late lunch and wine at a harbour taverna. Later we estimated that with a South African firm, that would have been a fifteen-minute or half-hour conversation, perhaps by Zoom. Instead it was a five-hour day out in which no decisions were taken, very little business was talked, and bonds of friendship were strengthened and deepened. What a delight.
20 January 2022 (Thursday) – Nafplion
It’s not the first time I’ve been in a cinema recently, but the first time in a very long time I’ve been in a cinema watching an old-fashioned fright film (Cine Nafplio for the new Scream), and there is no cinema experience quite as shared as a horror film. It was a delight to be jumping, shrieking, laughing in relief with an audience again, the way it’s supposed to be.
19 January 2022 (Wednesday) – Nafplion
Good news from Hollywood. Good news from Hollywood doesn’t really mean anything, in and of itself – you need about seventeen pieces of consecutive good news from Hollywood, in mounting orders of magnitude, before anything actually happens that will make a difference to your bank account – but after a year of no good news from Hollywood, any good news from Hollywood, especially arriving overnight and waiting for you when you arise to your desk in the morning, is the kind of thing that puts a spring in your heels for the day.
18 January 2022 (Tuesday) – Nafplion
An orange, plucked from a tree with your own hand, warm from the sun, sweet and rich and orange.
17 January 2022 (Monday) – Nafplion
I received my third emvolio in a medical office over the Navy Club, then walked into town for a coffee in the main square. Every day should have a cup of coffee like that: lounging outside at a table facing a clean wide empty marble square, on a clear sunny winter’s day in Greece, with the sunshine warm on your face and the air perfectly still, with a table of three mothers drinking coffee while their kids run around and play, with a pair of teen buskers hopefully singing 90s pop songs at the far side of the square, accompanying themselves on ukulele and a kazoo, and a ruined fortress on top of a hill keeping lazy watch over everything.
16 January 2022 (Sunday) – Nafplion
Three little Greek girls on the harbour wall, reluctantly keeping still so their father can take a photograph.
15 January 2022 (Saturday) – Nafplion
On a clear blue-sky morning, driving to the site of ancient Mycaenae to walk up through the Lion Gate and wind round and up to the citadel of Agamemnon. There was no one else around. There was an occasional thin cold breeze coming across the Argolid plain from the snowy mountains, but if you sheltered sat in the ruins on a bed of soft clover, with your back leaning against the 3000-year-old stones, you could eat lunch with the warm sun on your face and your legs, with nothing but the the silence of centuries around you.
14 January 2022 (Friday) – Nafplion
I am listening to a long – a very long – audio course intended to give me the grounding in music appreciation that I never received in a long-ago wanton and misspent youth. I listen to a session every few weeks, and then go away and listen to the music mentioned in the session and try to learn to listen to it with some growing understanding and ability to appreciate. Each session is about 45 minutes, and there are just over 28 hours left in the course. I don’t know if I have deepened my appreciation appreciably but each time I listen to a new session – on a Friday night, after dinner, during my 24 hours of digital shabat, lying on the sofa by candlelight, it feels familiar and warm. I am soothed and charmed by Robert Greenberg’s familiar voice and schtick; I am excited to encounter something new. It is an anchoring, deeply delightful experience.
13 January 2022 (Thursday) – Nafplion
We are making tentative plans with two friends to take a walking trip this year. There is very little so delightful as to send a message to a friend in another country, half the world away, to suggest a logistically complicated adventure in a far-off place, and to have the instant response, “Yes, of course!” There are some people who when presented with a proposal like this would say, “Oh, I’d like to, but I don’t think I’ll be able to.” There are some who would say, “Hmmm, let me think about it”. There are others who would say, “That sounds interesting, I’ll look into it and see if I can make it work”. All of these types of people are good and valid people, but it is truly nothing but a delight to have friends who say “Yes, of course!”
12 January 2022 (Wednesday) – Nafplion
A rain storm came over from the west last night, leaving the air cold and fresh today, and giving me the opportunity to take my first walk with my special birthday umbrella that has been waiting in storage for me for two years. Oh, it’s a beautiful umbrella, so light and sturdy, with a real walnut handle. Taking it for a jaunty walk in the afternoon sunlight was a thorough delight.
11 January 2022 (Tuesday) – Nafplion
I wrote a column again today for the first time in about a year. It was a familiar, nostalgic feeling, sitting down again to the keyboard. It was delightful to be feeling my way again, like a blind pianist, towards remembering how to do it.
10 January 2022 (Monday) – Nafplion
Heading out alone and finding a new route to the Old Town harbour. Finding a new route – blazing a new trail! – always makes me feel like David Livingstone or Indiana Jones, even though it’s really just case of going right then left instead straight then right.
9 January 2022 (Sunday) – Nafplion
I bought a map and stretched it out on the table and looked at it. There is great joy in a map – in holding the whole region in one place under your eyes, and seeing how the different parts relate, tracing a path or a route across a space. Maps on phones are too zoomed in – they show you that you’re here, but not where here is. A good map eases the spatial mind, causes it to unclench. A proper map lets you wonder and dream.
8 January 2022 (Saturday) – Nafplion
We drove to our land to see it in winter for the first time, and it was a startlement and a joy to see it so green, with carpets of clover and the olive trees in full leaf. The bay below was silver and molten and scored like brushed aluminium, and the soil was soft underfoot. It was so silent you could hear the sound of the ferry moving between Aegina and Athens, kilometres away. It was a great joy and yet in the midst of joy I was seized with an attack of desolation and sadness – the kind of attack that takes you at time, or takes me, uncontrollably and unregarding of circumstances and leaves you, leaves me, helpless. And when it happened, it was a profound joy to be with someone who understood and knew it would pass and brought me home and made me feel cared for and found just the right movie to watch: Summertime (David Lean, 1955), a true delight of a film, with Katherine Hepburn a delight and Venice a technicolour delight, and surely one of the most profoundly, gently adult love stories I’ve ever seen.
7 January 2022 (Friday) – Nafplion
The first Friday evening of the year.
6 January 2022 (Thursday) – Nafplion
It is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, so the shops are closed but all the men and women of the town are out and about, meeting for coffee at sidewalk cafes and in squares, sharing meals, strolling beside the sea. This morning the priest threw the cross into the harbour for the young men to dive in and retrieve, blessing the town. There are grumpy little girls and boys in their Sunday best being led to and from church. It feels quiet and also busy, the last day of rest before the year properly begins. The air gentle and warm. There is the sound of children’s voices and adults laughing.
5 January 2022 (Wednesday) – Nafplion
I finished a novel (Mary Renault’s Funeral Games, the third in her Alexander Trilogy) and chatted about it with a friend who had also read it. We didn’t chat much or say much of interest, but it was lovely to have a connection over something shared that we both loved.
4 January 2022 (Tuesday) – Nafplion
Walking into a store and asking for something in Greek – a bathroom scale, of all things – and being understood. What a profound delight that is, to feel yourself filling out in new dimensions.
3 January 2022 (Monday) – Nafplion
The first gyros back in Greece, eaten at the harbour, beside the flat blue sea, in the soft Greek air and the warm winter sun.
2 January 2022 (Sunday) – Milan to Greece
I’ve decided that I like the fact that travel has become a little more difficult. Travel should be difficult, and somewhat taxing, otherwise everyone would do it. At the airport today, it was difficult and a little taxing. Other countries complain about how their authorities are handling Covid regulations, but none of those countries have anything to complain about, because none of those countries are Italy. In Milan today there was only one way to have a rapid antigen test, and that was to queue at the airport. The queue was five hours long. All around us people were missing flights, gnashing teeth, swearing and threatening. Others (us) were skilfully jumping queues and then tutting at others trying with less skill to jump queues. Behind us were two American women – one was about 60 and the other was her mother. Their story was even worse than everyone else’s: they’d had a UK test but through no fault of their own the results hadn’t uploaded to their phones so they missed their connecting flight and now they had to queue. They had been standing for hours, serene, while the daughter had been wrangling with an airline on the phone. At one point – we timed it – she was on hold for an hour and fifteen minutes.They had stayed uncomplaining, polite, self-contained. I turned to the mom.
“You’re having a bad time of it,” I said.
She shrugged and smiled.
“I’ve had worse,” she said, this serene 80-year-old, “and I’ll probably have worse again.” It later emerged that she had and her 85-year-old husband live in Guatamala and that they travel several times a year, and she didn’t say it but it was plain how her stoic calmness in the face of adversity made life easier, more adventurous, more fun, and that she had passed down that approach to her daughter, who calmly held her her temper and finally finished the call successfully with good news and a smile. That old lady was my delight for the day, the gift offered to me by the queue.
She paused, and clearly she didn’t want to appear too lofty. People who smile in the face of difficulty tend to be infuriating to those who are not so accepting, and she has learnt to make accommodations for strangers.. “But I must say,” she said kindly, “I’d just as soon do without it now.”
1 January 2022 (Saturday) – Milan
The first day of a new year can only be a delight. Everything starts again, the world is fresh and new, you haven’t failed at anything, you haven’t let yourself down nor anyone else either. You can walk the streets of the city while less wise citizens are still sleeping off their night or ruing their decisions. You can eat at Biffi, in the Galleria, which is overpriced and not at all good, but it’s where Hemingway ate when he was well enough to leave the American Red Cross hospital on brief excursions while recovering from his shrapnel wounds, aged just 19 and in love for the first time (with his nurse). You can find the building on Via Armorari where the hospital used to be, up on the second and third and fourth storeys. You can wonder without purpose or direction through the city and through the Sforzesco Castle grounds and out the other side and window-shop and wonder what the year will be like. You can nap in the afternoon and vow to nap more often in 2022. The first day of a new year can only be a delight.
31 December 2021 (Friday) – Milan
The best kinds of meetings are with old friends or new friends who happen by chance and on a whim to be in the same place as you at the same time. A very fine lunch near Navigli in a red-chandeliered restaurant with laughing and Campari and hugs afterward, then walking up beside the canals to the city centre to find the mosaic of the bull in the Passagia and spin three times on your heel while making a wish, the same wish I made on the wishing step each day in Devon. And tonight has been a quiet, satisfying end to the year, with much reflection, and reading back through the daily delights of 2021, and auditing the 21 resolutions I made last year. I have finalised my list of 22 resolutions for 2022, and if I keep them – and why shouldn’t I? – it will be as good a year as I can have, regardless of those things that happen that are beyond my control. They are good resolutions, full of things I want to do – which are the only resolutions worth making – and full of fun and delight. I hope you have fun and delight this year. I hope to share it with you.
30 December 2021 (Thursday) – Malaga to Milan
I am profoundly grateful to still be able to have the experience I most love: to arrive, preferably on a train, in a city that is new to me. The train came in from the airport through watery light and mist, the sun pale through the clouds, into the enormous, shocking edifice of Milan Centrale.
29 December 2021 (Wednesday) – Malaga
We needed to buy a small padlock, which is one of those items that seem to be everywhere, but not always where you expect to find them. We went in search of a ferreteria – a hardware store, but more specifically an ironmonger, a place that sells useful things made of metal – and there wasn’t one in the old town so we had to wander far and wide to the outskirts, over low bridges and across ring roads and through squares and alleys to the less postcardy parts. It was delight to have a small task that takes you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise have had reason to take, to see parts of the city you wouldn’t otherwise see. From now on, I will make sure I always have some small task to give me a reason to walk into areas that left to my own devices I wouldn’t naturally find.
28 December 2021 (Tuesday) – Marbella
Eating an ice cream while walking in the warm Spanish sun through the streets of the old town to the promenade, people swimming in the flat sea. Gibraltar in the blue distance, floating like an island.
27 December 2021 (Monday) – Sierra de las Nieves
Walking a good dog called Maria on the mesa. The red earth is wet from the rains and usually it sticks to the soles of your shoes and makes each step heavier and heavier, as though you were on the sea-bed in a weighted suit, but a light breeze has been blowing in the afternoon, drying the mud. The olive leaves are silver and the leaves move like shoals of small fish. The grey rocks have bright green moss against the bright red soil. The hunters have been here looking for rabbits for their post-Christmas pot and they have left shotgun cartridges in bright colours on the ground. Maria is a good dog and stays at your heel but from time to time she stops and sniffs at a rock or a stick with a look of great concentration. I have to move her along sometimes, or she will lose respect for my command, but at other times I let her sniff and investigate because for a dog it is like walking through a good bookstore and not being allowed to touch. The mountains across the valley are purple. The pines around the mesa whisper and sway. Walking back up the ridge to the house, which has yellow lights in the windows and the smell of something cooking.
26 December 2021 (Sunday) – Sierra de las Nieves
Boxing Day is the best holiday of all: day of lying around reading and eating leftovers and enjoying silence and the feeling of not having to do a damn thing. A day when time itself is gentle and flows around you like soft, clear water, never tugging or pushing. Christmas Day, however happily you have arranged it, is always a day of pressure from your past and your memories and from the weight of the day. The next day is a delight.
25 December 2021 (Saturday) – Sierra de las Nieves
Last night the power went off after a lightning strike, but this morning it came back. It wouldn’t have mattered if it didn’t come back – there is a beauty in finding exactly how little you need to be happy, and how easy it is to change plans and expectations when you decide to be open to it. But it is lovely that it has come back, so that we can light candles in the dark out of choice rather than necessity.
24 December 2021 (Friday) – Christmas Eve on the mesa in the Sierra de las Nieves
Phone calls with friends and family, made and received, with the daytime twinkling of the Christmas tree lights and a soft soaking rain falling from the mist coming over the saddle of the mountain.
23 December 2021 (Thursday) – Sierra de las Nieves
One of the great delights of my life is watching Jo making a tomato pasta sauce. She makes one wherever we go in the world, so each is subtly different with the natural variation of the local ingredients. I like to stare into the pan of onions and garlic and chillies and wine (and, here in Spain, rose harissa), and watch the tomatoes being stirred in and the mushrooms and bacon (here, a kind of smoked jamon) and smell the deep earthy scents of it – individual enough with each country to be new and exciting, but with the continuity of flavours and ingredients to be deeply comforting and nostalgic.
22 December 2021 (Wednesday) – Sierra de las Nieves
Two years ago, at the beginning of 2020, after spending December and New Year in Lisbon, we drove to Spain and left the car, loaded up with my life, parked under a carob tree on the edge of a mesa here in the Sierra de las Nieves while we flew to Los Angeles for Hollywood meetings and signings and general glorious success. The idea was that I would sign the signings that would make me gloriously successful, then come back and drive the car to Greece or somewhere else and resume our peripatetic life. While in Hollywood, first California and then shortly afterwards the world closed down and the meetings and signings were cancelled overnight, and the glorious success postponed, and we had to flee LA and abandon the car under the carob tree and flee back to Cape Town. We have finally made it back to the carob tree and the car, and it’s a delight today to be opening suitcases and packets, exclaiming with happiness at clothing and items half-forgotten. A special delight: finding the half-full bottle of Amarguinha almond liqueur, which still just as festive and delicious as did when last I took a swig, driving into Andalucia.
21 December 2021 (Tuesday) – Sierra de las Nieves
Reading in the apricity of the December Spanish sunshine on the shortest day of the year. There is a trace of woodsmoke in the air from a finca across the valley, which you can almost imagine, for a moment, is from a braai next door.
20 December 2021 (Monday) – Malaga
The green parakeets in the trees on the Paseo del Parque. Vermuth for breakfast with a slice of tortilla the size of my head. The barman at La Tranca who sings loud and lusty with the romantic Spanish songs. The trees outside the cathedral, bright with oranges like Christmas baubles. The afternoon train to the Sierra de las Nieves, with the wide plains and distant clean blue hills on either side.
19 December 2021 (Sunday) – Malaga
What a joy it is to be in southern Spain again, and to walk the streets of the old town of Malaga after midnight, filled with attractive, laughing, arguing people, and sipping dry vermouth at a barrel-table outside El Pimpi again. And now a sherry-and-tapas bar for breakfast and the Picasso Museum after that, but above all the electric charge of being once more around people who know how to live.
18 December 2021 (Saturday) – Devon to Malaga
The joy of movement and, the delight of finally managing to send off my latest newsletter, which should be arriving in inboxes around the world as we speak.
17 December 2021 (Friday) – Devon
I received good professional news over the telephone. But not just good news – truly exciting news about an international actor from one of my favourite TV shows – someone I genuinely admire – who wants to play the lead in a series I have written. It’s the kind of development that changes the future in many ways, all good, and I was happy. It seemed like a good time to celebrate but I was cautious – nothing has been signed, I explained. Everything can change. In this industry, nothing is worth celebrating until it actually happens. And Jo said to me: “We are the kind of people who celebrate every win.” And I had never heard that before, but I love it. I want to be the kind of person who celebrates every win, who looks back on a life made up of happy memories of celebrations and wins, who just buys that second bottle of French champagne, rather than thinking of reasons why he shouldn’t.
16 December 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
I was supposed to work all day, very hard, but I didn’t. I just didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel like it. Instead I watched movies. Three movies, and they were so different and so wonderful – The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, 2021) and Annette (Leos Carrax, 2021) and Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021) and afterwards I didn’t feel a little bit guilty, because I had been so delighted and fulfilled and all the parts of me had been given such a thorough, loving workout that I felt I couldn’t have spent the day better.
15 December 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
A large Christmas tree has been erected in the little square on the central street of this village – a bare tree, with bare branches, but the children of the village are invited to come and hang a bauble or a piece of tinsel on it whenever they feel like it. Bit by bit, it’s being decorated by the kids of Buckfastleigh with whatever they think looks nice, and the result is an offence to good taste and aesthetics, but it’s quite delightful.
14 December 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
I am in my final week here and so beginning the gentle process of saying goodbye to a place that has been a brief home. I have always wanted to spend some reasonable amount of time living in the place my ancestors came from, and it occurred to me today that I have received from it what I needed to receive, although I’m still not entirely sure what that is. I can’t imagine I’ll be back, certainly not soon, and if I do it will certainly not be for as long as I have been here now, but I am grateful for it, and feel somehow satisfied.
13 December 2021 (Monday) – Bath to Devon
Tea in the Pump Room where Jane Austen had tea and where Catherine Morland met Henry Tilny. It was raining lightly outside and a man in a suit was playing the piano and the rarebit was delicious and the turkey-and-ham pie tasted of Christmas. It felt like being on a ship in the afternoons, at sea, when there is nothing better to do than to sit on comfortable chairs in the saloon and feel pleased with the swaying rhythms of life.
12 December 2021 (Sunday) – Bath
My first visit to a new city is always a delight, and arriving in Bath was a double delight, the honey-blond stone, the stalls of the Christmas markets, the lit-up abbey, the beautiful v-shaped weir of the Avon river, like a perfectly fallen church arch.
11 December 2021 (Saturday) – Chiswick, London
A day of multiple delights, in chronological order:
Arriving to stay in a house beside the Thames in Chiswick, and looking out of the window to see three green parakeets sitting on pilings half in the river.
Walking beside the river at low tide, with the exposed muddy banks perfect for mudlarking and making discoveries.
The slate dusk sky and the slate river and the soft water-light that fills the windows.
A lovely evening of theatre, followed by an hour-long walk home along the night-time river, in which to talk about the theatre you’ve just seen. It made me realise how much any creative experience is enhanced by the time and space to walk and talk about it afterwards, how much we lose by driving quickly home.
A fox in a graveyard on the walk home, flitting between the stones, red and strong and healthy.
Arriving home and looking out of the window and seeing another fox nosing around in the little garden outside.
10 December 2021 (Friday) – Devon to London
A long, happy, light-as-air drive through Somerset, south Wales, Wiltshire and Hertfordshire to London to pack up a storage unit and prepare it to be moved to Greece. Movement is, as always, its own pleasure and its own reward. I have spent the past month moving at walking pace and the feeling of driving again reminds me that sometimes speed is its own reward too.
9 December 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
Driving across Dartmoor to visit Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and stopping at Hound’s Tor and Haytor to walk in the swirling grey mist and the fine drizzle, looking out across the stark, windswept uplands, the hidden marshes and quicksands, the overhangs where escaped convicts and diabolical hounds might hide.
8 December 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
I sent off Christmas cards on Monday – 15 or 20 of them, some to South Africa, some to America and Australia and Europe, some to England. Only people with whom a meal has been shared in the last year is eligible for a Christmas card. I know the antipodean and American cards will take some time to arrive, and I know the South African cards will only arrive some indeterminate time in the future, if at all, but it was a little jolt of delight to hear that my English cards arrived today.
7 December 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
Waking up to heavy rain against the panes and the skylight, the edges of a great storm that passed across the moors all morning long – the kind of weather I used to dream of as a small child in pyjamas whenever it rained: weather to give you an excuse to stay indoors and stay warm and read under the covers.
6 December 2021 (Monday) – Devon
Making home-made latkes on the final night of Chanukkah. The satisfaction of the next travel plans made and booked, and that impudent feeling of shrugging at uncertainty.
5 December 2021 (Sunday) – Devon
A Sunday roast for lunch, followed by a stroll through the bright sunny fields and the glimpse of a grey squirrel running through oak branches instead of sleeping on a pile of acorns in a hollow tree.
4 December 2021 (Saturday) – Devon
A trip around the small villages in the neighbourhood to visit their Christmas markets and drink mulled cider and gin toddies and buy a Christmas ornament for the tree I will one day have. Watching the mayor of Bovey Tracey turning on the lights of the great big Christmas tree in the main square of my ancestral village.
3 December 2021 (Friday) – Devon
Fridays from sundown till sundown Saturday are my days of digital Shabat, and they are always the deepest delight – a profound peace of of conversation and eating and music, and no screens, no distractions, no multiplicity of outside voices in my head.
2 December 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
A day of long, protracted negotiations about a project. Whenever I am in long, protracted negotiations, I become like a modernist narrator in a hard-to-follow mid-century novel: by the minute I switch perspectives, opinions, desirable outcomes. One minute I want to do this thing and I am trying to get more money for it, the next I don’t want to do this thing but now I am getting offered more money for it, the next no one wants me to do this thing and I feel bad about that, and so on and so on. And the whole time, the words of Siobhan Roy are echoing through my head: “We both know you’re going to do this. All that remains is how many times we say ‘fuck you’ to each other.” Anyway, my delight is that the negotiation is over, and both parties only hate each other slightly more than we started.
1 December 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
The Christmas decorations are up in the village – electric lights strung across Fore Street, and small trees draped with lights outside the pubs, and my favourite: twelve rather poorly painted scenes mounted on buildings around town. They aren’t nativity scenes or strike one as in any way obviously Christmassy, so they were rather puzzling – why has someone painted a pair of chickens and hung them outside the chemist? Who are those guys dancing? – until I finally spotted a weird grouse-like game bird superimposed amateurishly over what seems to be a thorn tree, from which a number of over-ripe pears seem to be sprouting. God knows who secured the council contract to paint these Twelve Days of Christmas, or what he or she had to do to prove their painterly credentials, but I am quite delighted by the results.
30 November 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
A half-shameful thing to confess but my delight today was buying physical objects: a table cloth with a pattern of large bronze bees to be spread on the terrace table in the house that hasn’t yet been built; orange cut-glass tea-light holders, solid and heavy in the hand, that glow the colour of the light-fittings in the foyer of the Baxter Theatre; a kitchen apron hand-painted with a swimming school of giant sardines; a candle that smells of Christmas. There were other things I didn’t buy but was delighted by: a beautifully restored wooden 50s tea-trolley with new, patterned formica surfacing; an elegant green velvet armchair; a simple round mirror. It was wonderful to see and touch beautiful and well-made things, and to take some of them home to delight the home I don’t yet have.
29 November 2021 (Monday) – Devon
Waking up uncongested and feeling greatly better is always a delight.
Turning down work, even though times are lean and work is always welcome, because you know this is not the work you should be doing – that is scary, and feels arrogant and self-indulgent, but it’s always a delight.
28 November 2021 (Sunday) – Devon
I have a terrible head cold of some sort, and I hold off taking a blast of decongestant up the nostril until it’s no longer bearable, for the sheer pleasure of how quickly it acts, and how quickly the world is made appreciably better. Does this strike you as a meagre and parsimonious delight? Hey, I take my delights where I find them.
27 November 2021 (Saturday) – Devon
I am sick and can’t leave the house, and when that happens there is nothing more delightful than having a thick duvet and a thick book (Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre) and a worldful of good movies to watch, and waking to a blustery moor storm that rattles the windows and blows rain and leaves against the panes.
26 November 2021 (Friday) – Devon
Keren is a producer in the movie industry in Cape Town, and she is a few weeks into prepping her first commercials shoot since February 2020. That is a long time to have gone without work, without income. Working again gives you self-respect, hope for the future, something to look at in the mirror. It also, of course, helps you eat. Today South Africa was placed on the UK red list, and the English client cancelled the shoot. I spoke to Keren this afternoon and she told me that she had to call 150 people and tell them they have lost the first work they have had in nearly two years. Drivers, cleaners, caterers, crew – 150 people and their families. She told me what it was like to hear them cry down the phone when she told them, and what it was like to have to hang up and dial the next person. It was the worst day of her life, she said, and what moved me so much, and made me so proud of her, what gave me sort of twisted hope, is that she wasn’t for one moment thinking about what losing the job meant for her.
25 November 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
There is an old steam train that runs across the hills on the far side of the valley, and at times in the afternoon you can hear the sound of its distant whistle carrying through the air.
24 November 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
I have been waking up later than usual recently, but this morning I was awake as the grey dawn broke so I heard the singing of the birds in the tree outside the window – tweets and chirrups and rills and peeps. A robin and a lark and some songbirds I didn’t recognise but they sounded beautiful and hopeful and fresh. I know so little about birds – where do they sleep at night? Do they only sing to each other? There is a whole world going on, metres from my sleeping and waking head, that I want to know more about.
23 November 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
A crow against a grey sky, landing on a bare branch, making a silhouette indistinguishable from a portrait: an identical charcoal cut-out of itself.
22 November 2021 (Monday) – Devon
On clear days when the sky is blue the air is much sharper and colder than when there are clouds, and the light is clean and bright, and when it backlights the last red remaining leaves of the beech trees beside a country lane, they glow brightly, like lozenges of stained glass.
21 November 2021 (Sunday) – Devon
You cannot watch Top Hat on a Sunday afternoon and not feel lighter than air watching Fred and Ginger. The dialogue is genuinely funny too. It’s a nonsense, a confection, a camp PG Wodehouse story sketched in tap steps and champagne bubbles. It’s a dream, a delight.
20 November 2021 (Saturday) – Devon
We walked three hours from our village through the fields and along the the river Dart to the town of Totnes to watch the Springbok match in a pub, the Lord Nelson. I met an elderly Irish couple at the next table named John and Linda who are in Devon to help their daughter run a pub after her husband died. Linda’s brother Cyril was a news photographer and she showed me his most famous photograph, of Paul O’Connell taking a line-out at Croke Park, which I remembered seeing at the time. At halftime John went out and bought a box of Kleenex which he put on the table in front of me because, he treacherously declared to a big laugh from the pub, “Oi hate to see a grown man cry!” Through the night English fans came past and offered me a Kleenex. I was roundly abused and did some abusing back. When we left to catch our bus there was much hugging and slapping of backs. It was a good, good day.
19 November 2021 (Friday) – Devon
The final plans for the Greek house arrived – the plans that will be submitted for building permission. If all goes well, construction should begin early in the new year, with the coming of spring. I stare at the plans for minutes on end, running my eyes over the lines, imagining the spaces, dreaming. It is the biggest joy. I know there are miseries and frustrations ahead – I know this because it’s what everyone who has ever built a house, and even those who haven’t, insists on telling you the moment they see your happiness, as though there is some sort of law against someone being happy about building a house – but those are ahead. Right now, when all is possibility and potential, when all is dream hovering on the fluid plasma-edge of becoming solid, it is the greatest delight.
18 November 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
I turned on the radio while I was making a cup of coffee and found myself listening to something that I wouldn’t necessarily have tuned in to listen to, and was interested enough to listen to it all the way through. When last did I encounter something purely by happenstance and serendipity? It felt immensely nostalgic, a relic of a previous age, to encounter something I hadn’t already decided that I wanted to encounter. It felt like a fresh wind blowing. It was a real delight.
17 November 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
Two friends are in Hawaii and are sending messages and pictures from their resort on Waikiki. They are so happy and excited to be there that it delights me, and it delights me even more to be remembered and included in their holiday. It is as though I am on Waikiki.
16 November 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
Watching Armand Assante in The Mambo Kings. Has ever there been a male performance on screen more charming, more elegantly life-enhancingly macho? You wouldn’t want to be married to him, but I should imagine there’s more to do in life with a man than marrying him.
15 November 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
Walking down from a ruined parish church in the gloaming, down the stone steps that lead up the hill above the village of Buckfastleigh where I am staying, a bat dropped from a tree, looking at first like one of the falling plane leaves around it. it flew towards me with jerky wings, steady at eye-level, like the bat coming in the window in the original Bela Lugosi Dracula, then circled me and flew back to the tree then back toward me again. I had just made a wish on the wishing step, halfway up, so I take this as a good omen, but even if it isn’t, it was a delightful encounter.
14 November 2021 (Sunday) – London to Devon
Lunch and laughter with friends then a rush to Covent Garden to wander through Seven Dials and enjoy the bustling dusk, then to the Odeon in Leicester Square for a live recording of the The Rest is History podcast, where I managed to cry again during a short clip of Mama Mia 2 (which Tom Holland proclaims, and I heartily echo, to be the most affecting film of the last 100 years – but perhaps the highlight of the day – nay, the highlight of my life – the true, soul-shaking joy that spoke to the grasping depths of my bargain-loving heart, came at eight minutes past midnight, when after a series of electrical mishaps my train back to Devon arrived at its station one hour and two minutes late, thus entitling all passengers to a 100% discount on their tickets. Oh, what boundless happiness, what delight unconstrained.
13 November 2021 (Saturday) – London
To the Ambassador’s in the West End to see The Shark Is Broken. The theatre is small and the seats are narrow and the house was sold out. We sat jostled in with theatre fans and Jaws lovers, a bottle of ruinously priced prosecco from the bar wedged between my knees, and laughed, and blinked back tears, and marvelled at how in the world they did the sea. I have always known that theatre is different to the other arts, that it creates something between people, that for that enchanted time we are experiencing it, it bonds us and allows us to transcend ourselves, but I had never felt it as clearly as I did tonight, back in a theatre, laughing and crying and marvelling with other people at something lovely that had been made and offered to us to share.
12 November 2021 (Friday) – Devon to London
I was walking back from Daunt Books in Marylebone to South Kensington, and my feet were sore and there was a slight drizzle and there were too many people in the streets, too many people in the shops. When last I was in London – the second half of June – lockdown was only just lifting and the streets were almost empty and Daunt Books was almost empty – it had felt as though London was mine, or as though I had been gifted a glimpse of how it was in the days before there were quite so many people – and now I felt disgruntled that everything was back and everyone was back and that I was again footsore, damp and jostled in this hateful Big Smoke.
The sun had set and it was a slate-charcoal dusk and I happened to be passing Harrods as the lights came on, picking out the building – the whole city block – in magical golden lights. In Brompton Oratory yellow lights came on in the portico and across the street in the dome of Brompton Quarter three golden lights glowed against the blurring dark sky. I stopped and stared and realised I was smiling, and in front of my a small girl in a woollen hat stared as well, and her dad smiled to see her staring. I felt a sudden flare of joy inside me, and a sudden realisation that I had it all wrong: instead of being grumpy that this London was back, I suddenly felt grateful that I had been given the gift of those three weeks in June, that short dream-like holiday, and now look: the theatres are open ! There are Christmas displays in the windows of Fortnum & Mason! There are families on the street, and lovers holding hands, and old people walking their dogs. There is life all around, and as annoying as that can be, that is also the greatest delight.
11 November 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
A slight dip in my own spirits today, so it’s good to speak to friends and hear they are doing well, and are happy and working well. You can’t always be on the swell of the wave, so it’s a delight to know that other people – good people – are.
10 November 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
My friend spontaneously decided to stay another night before going home, and it pleases me that he was comfortable enough to do that. We have only been here a week and will only be here another four weeks or so, but I’m happy that it’s enough like a home to provide a temporary home. I have known my friend for 32 years. In recent times I have started to question my capacity to be a good friend, but tonight as we sat up late in the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey, he told me how good it was to talk with a friend again, just to talk, to converse, to shoot the breeze, and it was the purest delight to hear that.
9 November 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
The smell of a roast filling the house on a chilly autumn night – the anticipation of gravy and horseradish and mustard and Yorkshire pudding. Eating it is a great delight of course, but somehow the smell of it – the expectation – is the deeper pleasure and delight, felt at the base of the spine.
8 November 2021 (Monday) – Devon
A dear old friend arrived on a train to visit for two days, and we went to the local pub quiz, just as we went together to my first ever pub quiz back in 1992. That was a delight, but a whole separate delight: winning money at the pub quiz. We are both better at pub quizzes now.
7 November 2021 (Sunday) – Devon
Yesterday I walked over the moors from the village where I am staying to my ancestral village of Bovey Tracey, and today I walked back again between high hedgerows and through woods and along stone paths where hundreds of years ago my ancestors might perhaps have walked to their neighbouring villages in order to woo or to do business or perhaps just to see what’s there. And perhaps they wore flat caps they way I did, and their feet hurt the way mine hurt, and perhaps they swore under their breath at the high Dartmoor hills the way I did.
6 November 2021 (Saturday) – Devon
Bright shiny green hedges of holly, with bright red berries. I have never seen real holly growing before, never seen how real-life holly leaves look just like shiny plastic holly leaves. As if this isn’t enough, on top of a holly bush: a small red-breasted robin.
5 November 2021 (Friday) – Devon
One of those moments when light and weather and location combine for the most delightful moment: the crisp cold clear air, the cloudless skies, sunset in the sensory garden of the Benedictine abbey of Buckfast, a pull of red wine, a Japanese maple.
the first glimpse of the first formal draft of the plans for the Greek house. So thrilling, so energising, so delightful.
4 November 2021 (Thursday) – Devon
A few years ago I had dinner with a writer friend whose previous book I had greatly admired. He seemed down and I asked him why and he told me that he hadn’t written in ages, and he didn’t think he had any more books left in him, and he didn’t know if he would ever write again. I made the usual helpless noises, half sympathy, half encouragement. Two months ago we had lunch in a Greek restaurant and I told him I was pleased he had finally managed to write the next book, because it’s encouraging to see a friend struggle and then finally do the thing he struggled to do. It sets a good example for those around him. Last night he was given the Booker Prize for it.
3 November 2021 (Wednesday) – Devon
In the late afternoons when the sky is lowered and dark with slate-blue clouds, but to the west the sun has dipped below the clouds and the light falls on a green hill east of you, the contrast of yellow light and grey backdrop is hallucinatory and cinematic: the grass glows very green, and the sheep on the hillside burn bright white.
2 November 2021 (Tuesday) – Devon
There seems to be an abundance of delights at the moment, but the one this morning that made me beam and run up and down some stairs in joy is the news that someone very dear to me, who hasn’t worked in her pandemic-hit industry in two years, has brought in a job that will take her through until at least mid-December. I am DELIGHTED.
1 November 2021 (Monday) – Devon
Walking up a narrow lane in the late afternoon, with a head-high hedge-row on my left and a border of trees on my right, with blue skies above and sunlight falling at my feet, I suddenly saw the ground getting darker ahead, and the sky ahead growing greyer, and I watched the rain move towards me, slow enough that I could open my umbrella by the time it reached me, and then to stand underneath it for two minutes, three tops, as rain pelted down and hail rattled. Then the cloud passed overhead and the blue skies opened again and the sunshine fell again at my feet.
31 October 2021 (Sunday) – Devon
It’s the day of Halloween, and in this small town there are pumpkins on almost every doorstep and windowsill, well carved and poorly carved, with tea-lights inside, glowing orange on the wet stone. I met a small child who ruefully admitted that he didn’t have a pumpkin, but that he did have a Halloween gem squash. At the ruined church on the hill above town, two teenaged girls with ghoulish make-up placed a purple flare inside a big carved pumpkin and posed for photographs beside it, with purple smoke pouring from its eyes and jagged mouth. A man in the King’s Arms was telling his mate about how he used to carve turnips with scary faces when he was a boy. I have never been much for Halloween, nor for autumnal gourds, but now I see that I was entirely wrong and that both are an entire delight.
30 October 2021 (Saturday) – Oxfordshire to Devon
My people came from Devon originally, in the late stages of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. They came from the small town of Bovey Tracey on the edge of Dartmoor, but I am not staying there now, I am staying in another small village about twenty minutes from Bovey Tracey, a strange, damp, stone-walled, almost spooky Dickensian village on another edge of Dartmoor. Venturing out to one of the three local pubs, I encountered a table of people wearing t-shirts printed with their names and the motto: “Exploring the unexplained south-west”. What’s this all about? I asked Kevin. “We’re ghost-hunters,” said Kevin. They were drinking a few pints, waiting for midnight, when they would take their measuring machines and psychic recorders into The Valiant Soldier.
The Valiant Solider is a pub that was open from the 1700s until 1965, when the owner suddenly closed up and left everything precisely as it was – even the change is still in the till. It’s preserved as a museum now, but at night faint candle-flames flicker in upstairs windows and the floorboards creak though no one walks them. This group of ghost-hunters – men and women, young and old – are enthusiasts who travel Devon and Cornwall with their instruments, looking for the supernatural. I told them that it is an unprecedented delight, to run into a band of ghost-hunters. “Sometimes we don’t find anything,” admitted Kevin.
29 October 2021 (Friday) – Oxford
Whenever I’m in Oxford, I’m always happy when there’s something playing at the Phoenix Picture House that I want to see, because the Phoenix is one of those old independent cinemas that delight me deeply. Tonight it was The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest film, and I can’t remember when last I saw a film in the cinema that delighted me more. Half an hour in I was making plans to see it again, and an hour in I was making plans to buy the Blu-Ray so that I could watch it many more times, and press pause whenever I want to sit and stare at an image. It is beautiful, and charming, and cracking story-telling and very, very funny. Jo cried afterwards, not because it was sad but because she loved it so much and felt it had been made just for her. Which is obviously ridiculous, because it was made just for me.
Plus: there is no pint better than the pint in a pub after a good movie. And no drink better than a foolish martini in a different bar, after your pint, after a good movie, on your way home.
28 October 2021 (Thursday) – Oxfordshire
I have a pair of shoes that I use for walking in nature, especially when the ground is wet and muddy. These shoes fit perfectly, and they are comfortable and hold the path, and they don’t let my toes get wet. They are just the right shoes for walking in damp, muddy nature. It is a delight to have just the right pair of shoes.
27 October 2021 (Wednesday) – Oxfordshire
Walking through the fields in the afternoon, we startled a passel of pheasants who flapped and flew and settled back down after we’d passed. An hour later we were walking back the same way and came upon a pheasant newly killed, opened up and neatly eviscerated, feathers strewn around in a small halo. What killed it? A fox? A weasel? A hawk? It was extraordinary to be made so aware of the presence of nature, red in tooth and claw, even in the green and gentle folds of Oxfordshire, reminded that life and death are impersonal and sudden and random. It seems a strange and terrible thing to say about violent death, but the experience was startling, exhilarating, a deeper delight.
[Note: a collective noun of pheasants is usually a bevy or a bouquet or a nye, but none of those sounded right or felt right. Only a lunatic would say “We startled a bouquet of pheasants”, and thus choose correct usage at the cost of losing the feel of the squawking and fluttering and motion involved. A bouquet is a static thing, an arrangement that doesn’t move. A bevy seems to me to imply a sort of languor or elegance. These pheasants were not static and they were not languorous. God alone knows what a “nye” implies.]
[Another delight, newly discovered: the pleasing symmetry of the reversal of the -uo- to -ou- in the word “languorous”.]
26 October 2021 (Tuesday) – Oxfordshire
It’s the week leading to Halloween and an empty house on the edge of the woods is the perfect place to watch the Halloween movies. Not all the Halloween movies, obviously – there are, I think, fourteen of them – but all the Halloween movies starring Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s a tremendous experience watching them in quick succession. From the chilling original film in 1978 when she is 19, through the dismal sequel in 1981, to the terrific Halloween H20, when she is 40, to the gritty 2018 Halloween reboot, when she is 60 – it’s an extraordinary opportunity to watch a single actor playing a single role through various incarnations, through the course of a life and with the culture changing around her. I am hoping that in 2038 she will be back in a new series, an 80-year-old Laurie Strode facing the old evil in old age, which is when evil really needs to be faced. And I have to say, some of the films are jolly scary, with your reflection in the glass doors that lead to the lawn and its pool of light, and beyond that the dark trees from which a pale-faced shape might emerge holding something glinting in its hand …
25 October 2021 (Monday) – Oxfordshire
There are woods outside my bedroom window, lovely, dark and deep, and in the woods are Tawny owls, who call to each other in the small hours of the morning. Ti-wit, says a female Tawny owl. Hoo-hoo, replies a male Tawny owl. Hooo, a second male chimes in, somewhere deeper in and further away. Owls in the woods outside my bedroom window: this is a childhood dream of a delight.
24 October 2021 (Sunday) – Oxford
No one is wearing face masks in Oxford, not inside nor outside, and everything is open and working as it did before. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not, and right now I don’t much care. It’s just a delight to be back in a world without face masks again.
23 October 2021 (Saturday) – Riga to Oxford
Today was a long and difficult travel day of scrambling from Latvia to England at short notice, and in difficult circumstances, complicated by my thoroughgoing and consistent hamfistedness and incompetence, and the delights of the day were many and all related to the kindness of other people:
- My taxi driver, named – I promise you – Normunds, who when I realised I had left my phone in his back seat and texted him in Google-translated Lat, turned around and drove straight back to the airport through morning traffic to deliver the phone with much beaming and laughing and slapping of shoulders and kissing of cheeks.
- The collective passengers of the RyanAir flight from Riga to Stansted who helped me in my search for my lost passport, who peered under their seats in rows that I hadn’t even walked past, who cheered when I found it, who checked on me as I disembarked to make sure that I still had it.
- Francesca and Mark, dear friends in Oxfordshire, who invited us into their home the very instant – the very instant – they heard that we had to suddenly leave Latvia and had no home for a week, and who welcomed us in and gave us dinner and emptied their wine cellar and stayed up way too late and who didn’t even mind when with an overly-exuberant gesture I knocked my full glass of red wine over their dinner table. The kindness of people today has been overwhelming.
22 October 2021 (Friday) – Riga
There is a medicinal tonic of which I had never heard before coming to Riga, and without which I cannot now live. It is called Black Balsam, the national drink of Latvia, and it was first invented in 1752 by an alchemist in the basement of a house in Kalku street, now a bar called the Black Magic Bar, in the old town, a few blocks away from where I have been living.
You can add Black Balsam to coffee or mix it with other drinks, but the best way is the traditional way: a generous measure poured into an empty tea-cup, taken in conjunction with a piece of Latvian chocolate. It’s very bitter, you see, although it’s more than that. When the bitterness is ameliorated with the chocolate it is deep-flavoured and fine, and the most warming, glowing, transporting, day-enhancing tonic ever invented. I have one in the morning to get me going and one in the afternoon as a pick-me-up. It gives protection against the chill Baltic wind and against the chill winds of life and mood. It has 24 aromatic ingredients, including birch bark, bitterwort. Valerian root, Tilia cordata blossom, Artemisia absinthum roots and leaves, ginger, St John’s Wort and other local secrets and potions. It’s terribly healthy – that’s why it makes you feel so good. And also, as I discovered today while reading the fine print, because it is 45% alcohol.
21 October 2021 (Thursday) – Riga
Latvia has suddenly and unexpectedly locked down – the first country in Europe to lock down after the great summer opening up. This makes it the fourth place we have been in on the eve of hard lockdown: first California, then Nevada, then South Africa and now here. It is a terrible blow and we’ll have to scramble to leave on Saturday morning, with all the fuss and uncertainty that goes with that. “None of this would be happening if you would just stay put!” scolded a friend down the phone, and we considered that, and weighed the inconvenience and disruption on one hand, and the sheer joy of ongoing discovery and experience on the other, and it was a delight to notice the imbalance in how much they weigh, and to be re-confirmed in what really matters to us.
20 October 2021 (Wednesday) – Riga
An unfolding day of delights in reverse chronological order:
- A walk home just before midnight in the damp night air, with the metal ferrule of my umbrella clicking on the stones, past the Freedom Monument and the dark canal with the moon floating in it and the Nouveau buildings with their gargoyles and pediments, and the middle-aged couple standing with their arms around each other at the bus-stop on Elzabet Iela, kissing and laughing and laughing.
- A delightful and funny French movie in the late-night slot at the Film Festival: “The Things We Say, The Things We Do”;
- A scamper through the rain down the slick sidewalk cobbles to the Lido for dinner between movies, with the lights of the esplanade twinkling;
- An enjoyably terrible movie – “Bergman’s Island”, a movie so bad I was tempted to joyously boo it – with a bemused-looking Tim Roth and a cast of rubbish Swedes in the early evening slot;
- Free gin at the end of the red carpet on arrival in the Splendid Palace Cinema;
- Toasted black bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with coarse salt as a bar snack, and a huge mug of cold Latvian lager with lunch;
- Browsing the Riga central produce market in an old zeppelin hanger beside the river, with the smell of pickles and fresh cabbage and cheese and fruit in the morning;
- Waking and dozing and waking and dozing in the warmth to the sound of a heavy cold rain outside, a rain that only ended when you couldn’t delay getting up for a moment longer.
19 October 2021 (Tuesday) – Riga
The seductive warm glow of a heavy tumbler of horseradish vodka in the Leningrad Bar underground on Christian Valdemar Street, with the Latvian barman scolding me to try the garlic vodka instead, before hurrying off the Splendid Palace for a terrible and arty German movie. I love those bad arty movies that make you laugh aloud in bemused incredulity and cause you to shrug expressively and make exasperated hand-gestures at the screen. The only thing better than a bad European movie, I always say, is a good European movie.
18 October 2021 (Monday) – Riga
A slice of black Baltic rye bread, with cream cheese and fresh salmon and dill and pale Latvian chilies, and a glass of Latvian sparkling wine. Food so fresh and delicious and delicate it makes you hungry for more, even as you eat it. The taste of the north, of birch trees and vodka and upturned collars and salt wind.
17 October 2021 (Sunday) – Riga
After the bright clear day on Saturday, a splendid rainy evening tonight for a walk uptown over gleaming cobblestones to the extraordinary, fresh-from-a-fantasy Splendid Palace Cinema, for a first viewing in the Riga International Film Festival. Women in silk gowns, men in thick, deep-blue coats, good shoes, cineastes – it is a dreamlike delight.
16 October 2021 (Saturday) – Riga
Drinking my morning coffee in my easy chair in the window at Vilhelms Kuze and outside under inexplicably blue skies, I have just seen a young chap with a ginger cat on a leash, taking a walk.
15 October 2021 (Friday) – Riga, Latvia
After two weeks of golden sun and alabaster skies, it’s almost bewildering to feel the Baltic wind coming up from the water, cold under the grey Russian skies and remember that winter arrives at different rates in Europe, but what a delight it is to bundle through the door of a serendipitious coffee shop and find yourself in a warm, odd, half-dreamlike place with hot coffee and sweet pastries.
14 October 2021 (Thursday) – Rocamadour to Riga
In the middle of one of those grinding days of travel – train to Paris, RER to Charles de Gaulle, wait and wait and late flight to Riga – it was a delight to spontaneously snatch an hour to hurriedly disembark in Gare d’Austerlitz, rush up the stairs and scramble across the street into the Jardin des Plantes to sit on a bench and eat a cheese-and-ham baguette surreptitiously scavenged from the breakfast table and watch the Parisians walking by in the sunshine. People sometimes tut impatiently and declare it an urban legend that Parisians and Parisiennes are chic, or chic-er than the rest of us, but they are wrong. It may be true that for every chic Parisienne there is a shlubby one, but that doesn’t matter: it’s the chic ones you notice.
13 October 2021 (Wednesday) – Rocamadour, Dordogne
Finishing the walk, and in the evening having that sudden descent of clarity and goodwill that comes down like grace once in a while, when you have been good and deserved it or lucky and deserved it – because luck is like virtue – and in which suddenly all of life and how to live it seems very clear and very simple, and can be done.
12 October 2021 (Tuesday) – Meyronne to Rocamadour
On the way up from the river we encountered a group of seven English walkers, men and women. They are 75 now and had met in university. They have been taking walking holidays together, once a year, for the past 25 years. They were smiling and chatting and cheerful. They have been walking a few days and will be walking four or five more, on the same sort of route as me, but staying at a different village tonight. They were fit and they were enjoying the golden sunshine and the rat-a-tat sounds of the black woodpeckers echoing from the woodland and they were looking forward to their gins and their wine. We discussed TV shows (especially “Call My Agent”) and the Hermitage in St Petersburg and one woman told me about a strongly worded letter she wrote to the curators of the British Museum wondering why we can’t touch the stones of the Egyptian exhibits. It’s not like we’re going to break them, we agreed. We shared wine and some delicious dried apricots, and we parted ways at a fork outside a village and as they went I looked at them with envy for their long active friendships and wished I could be their friend too.
11 October 2021 (Monday) – Meyronne, Dordogne
Idling in Meyronne on a rest day. A big breakfast in the vaulted dining room of a chateau beside the Dordogne, the mist still rising in tendrils from the river, your legs feeling strong, sipping a good coffee.
Also: the unalloyed delight of a serendipitous novel. Leaving Port de Gagnac, there was a small stone-and-wood structure to the left off the main road which, upon peering inside, revealed itself to contain wooden shelves of second-hand books, half English, half French, freely available to anyone who needs a book. I found two: Roger Deakins’ Waterlog, which I intend to read as a spur to my wild winter swimming in Devon in December, but also Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!
A whodunnit written in 1937, from just about the golden age of whodunnits, by an Oxford English don writing in pseudonym, about a high-profile murder that happens on-stage in an amateur stately home production of Hamlet, it has everything you want in an unexpected holiday read: gentle humour, quirky characters, playful self-awareness, sly references to Hercule Poirot, loads of interesting trivia about Elizabethan drama, shameless intellectual elitism, a fiendish plot (although I think I have cracked it) and a sharp and fascinating sense of what it felt like to be English in the war-gathering years of the late 1930s. Consider, as Detective Appleby gazes out at the sight of townsfolk from the nearby village, come to throng the hilltop and gaze sheep-like at the site of the murder:
“A portent, thought Appleby, of a society running down in another sense: clogged by its own mass-production of individuals who, let loose from a day’s or a lifetime’s specialised routine, will neither think nor practise any craft, but only gape at spectacle. Hence an unstable world, in which small men and their small-minded policies can have a real and horrid power.”
** UPDATE, 14 OCT: I have just finished Hamlet, Revenge! and I regret to announce the resolution is not as skilled as the build-up. Whodunnits, even in the Golden Age, are only really effortless and satisfying when it is Agatha Christie writing them. But still, a holiday read must be judged by other standards.
10 October 2021 (Sunday) – Carennac to Meyronne
Another good long day’s walk, five and a half hours with long happy stretches through woodland and meadows. The delight of passing Le Pourquois Pas, a bar in Floriac which the route directions assured me would be closed on a Sunday, and finding it open. Sitting in the sunshine beneath a flawless sky, sipping an unexpected blond pression with a stone cross on the village green across the way and the slow silence of a dozing village: this is joy.
9 October 2021 (Saturday) – Carennac, Dordogne
A rest day, and a day of lying on a grassy bank where softly flows the Dordogne, reading a whodunnit, in the bright, soft autumn apricity, and hearing myself say the words: “I feel very well-adjusted. Very mentally sound.”
8 October 2021 (Friday) – Loubressac to Carennac
Day three of walking. Peering into the the church of St Jean Baptiste, just inside the city gates of Loubressac as you set out on a new day of the pilgrim’s trail, and seeing the light of the risen sun glowing through a narrow vertical stained-glass window in the right chancel, throwing a multi-coloured beam through the gloom, painting the floor of the nave and the wooden chairs of the left aisle in red and blue and gold. You can extend your hand into the light and be washed in the colours: you can be yourself briefly glorious.
Later that night: lying in bed in the Petite Auberge listening to an owl hooting and hooting in the woods of the island in the river. Why do French owls hoot so much? Sheer arrogance.
7 October 2021 (Thursday) – Port de Gagnac to Loubressac
The second day’s walking, a long one, the longest of the trip, through the vineyards of Glanes and the walnut avenues and orchards where the fallen nuts crunch under your feet and the cows stare as you pass. More delights than you can shake a stick at – the ruins of the cliff-clinging Chateau des Anglais! The waterfall tumbling down the gorge of Autoire in a great silver silken sheet! – but perhaps the one I’ll most fondly remember: taking a lunch break on the lawn in front of the glorious rose-red castle of Castlenau, sharing the grass with a small flock of sheep, finishing a bottle of pinot noir and pondering the subtle pleasures of Rocamadour goat’s cheese: a middle-aged French couple wandered down the ramp from the castle walls and looked across and declared, beaming: “La vie est belle!”
6 October 2021 (Wednesday) – Beaulieu to Port de Gagnac
The first day’s walking, 15 kilometres from Beaulieu, where the ducks land on the river with a sound like silk softly tearing, through forests and woodlands to Gagnac-sur-Cere. A delight just to walk, climbing from the river valley and down into it again, through forests and woodlands where the air itself smells green and cool, but the delight of the day were the apple trees in the village of Fontmerle, laden red and green and yellow as though with Christmas baubles, and the apples that have fallen under the trees and perfume the air with fresh apple and with the cider-smell of fermentation.
5 October 2021 (Tuesday) – Paris to Brive (and then Beaulieu)
On a train sliding out of Gare d’Austerlitz under grey clouds, the raindrops crackling against the window pane. What is more delightful in the world than your own compartment on a four-hour train journey, with a croissant and a half bottle of red on the table in front of you for brunch, and a good book to read?
4 October 2021 (Monday) – Paris
In Parc Monceau, three French girls, aged about 7, were playing on the base of the stone pyramid. One was trying to climb a little higher and her sandalled foot slipped on the stone. “Ooh-la-la!” she cried, eyes wide, laughing. For years I have been hoping to hear a real French person saying “ooh-la-la” in the wild. I have come close over the years: many “ooh”s, a fair few “la-la”s. I am delighted that it was finally delivered by a seven-year-old playing her friends. Sank ‘eaven for leetle girls.
3 October 2021 (Sunday) – Paris
A day of many delights – including the Musee Nissim de Camondo, on the edge of Parc Monceau, where Count Moise de Camondo, in the early 20th century, built an 18th century mansion and filled it with 18th century furniture and paintings, and which Edmund de Waal writes about in Letters to Camondo – but my favourite delight was in the evening, at a restaurant on Avenue des Gobelins, watching an elderly, white-haired man with a Colonel Sanders beard walk outside to talk on the phone. Only when he had finished, and made his way back to his table and his carafe of wine and his meal, did I realise that he was dining alone. What has become of the world that it strikes me as so astonishingly elegant that someone should step outside to take a phone call, even when he is dining alone?
2 October 2021 (Saturday) – Paris
A perfect Paris moment: at 8.30 pm I walked from Place d’Italie down Boulevard Vincent Auriole towards the river. It’s a half-hour walk and I was on my way to the Cinematheque in Bercy, my second-favourite place in the world to watch a movie. All day every day the Cinematheque plays old movies and retrospectives, and I didn’t so much care which movie I was going to see (in fact it was Diane Keaton and Richard Gere in Looking for Mr Goodbar, 1977, nonsense) – what I wanted was to sit in the vast, raked Salle Henri Langlois again on a Saturday night, in the company of other enthusiasts and cinephiles, watching a film the way films should be watched.
There was a light rain and the road and sidewalks gleamed. To my left were well-lit brasseries and delicately lit bars, a tiny candlelit restaurant with one large table of ten or twelve people celebrating a beaming white-haired old lady at its head. To my right were the elevated tracks of the Metro 6 line, floating in the wet air on their pale colonnade of pillars. Trains rushed past and towards me in streaks of white fluorescent tube-lights. The rain picked up as I descended the hill and as I crossed the river great black wet gusts came sweeping down the water. It was thrilling to be alone on foot in Paris in the autumn rain, a flaneur, anonymous, unseen, unknown, an atom, an electron, the poignancy of it, the exhilarating, happy terror and loneliness of it.
1 October 2021 (Friday) – leaving Cape Town
Driving to the airport, with bags packed and the light falling beautifully on the mountain, will always be my deepest delight. It has been a brief and unplanned-for visit, run through with death and grieving and administrative impedimenta, and I haven’t seen all the people I want to see, nor for the length or quality of time that I want to see them, but still, there is that moment when you turn your eyes to the horizon and know that soon the wheels will leave the ground, and for me that is a thoroughgoing delight.
30 September 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
Something that I thought had gone away – a play that I wrote, which was scheduled to be produced last year, when there were still theatres in which to produce plays – looks like it might come back again. Who knows what might happen between now and February 2022, but at the moment that’s when my first play will be staged, and I am very delighted about it.
29 September 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
I was able to be of help to some people today – nothing special or impressive, just driving them around, waiting for them, picking them up, doing small chores to make life easier. It is a positive delight to be of help to people again. It makes one feel less like a teenager, more like an adult.
28 September 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
After a period of fairly bad luck and general stagnancy, I feel the first stirrings of things happening again, of movement and possibility. I am silly and superstitious when it comes to such things, and it’s surely all imaginary, but still: it is a delight to be imagining positive energy, rather than imagining negative energy, or no energy at all.
27 September 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
A friend has built a wonderful home cinema and I went to watch Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday one-man show, broadcast via the National Theatre Live. That was delight: the variety and vastness, the depth and breadth of writing and performance and charm and energy and connection available to a human, let alone one who is 80 years old. His performance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to close the first act was a glory in itself.
But a second delight: the show was two and a half hours long, which took us long into the evening. Driving on the empty streets half an hour home, an hour after curfew, was a laughing joy, like those dreams in which you can fly, and in which nothing of the everyday – like gravity or traffic – can hold you down.
26 September 2021 (Sunday) – Cape Town
Lying in bed in the morning, and finishing Middlemarch. What a book. Why didn’t I read it years ago? I should have read it at least twice by now.
25 September 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
A delicious, comforting, spiritually enriching macaroni and cheese, made by the only person in the world who can make macaroni and cheese the way I like it: me.
24 September 2021 (Friday) – Cape Town
Unearthing old notebooks filled with ideas and half-started stories and projects, and reading through them with the gratifying feeling of, “Why didn’t I finish this? This is good!”
23 September 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
Completing the first new creative proposal I have made in a while feels good. It is always good to put things into the world, rather than waiting for things to happen. It’s an act of faith, a sign to yourself you’re still around.
22 September 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
After a hot day everyone was at the Sea Point promenade this evening, enjoying the warm air and a sea turning gold and crimson in a spectacular sunset. Turner should have been around to paint such a sunset. Dogs chased each other around the benches good-naturedly. Courting couples sat on the grass with their legs stretched out in front of them. Joggers stopped in mid-stride to stare at the water and the sky. There was no wind. Everyone seemed to be smiling.
21 September 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
After a time during which such folks were thin on the ground, I have finally found friends again who will drink with me at lunch. Everyone knows that daytime wine is of an altogether different order to its ponderous night-time self. Daytime wine has jewels in it, and iridescence and refraction and laughter, and people who drink wine with you at lunch on a weekday are to be cherished indeed.
20 September 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
Next month I am taking a long ten-day walk beside a French river, so I have started taking early-morning walks to get back into walking shape, after a month of illness and general malaise. It is difficult, when you are a lazy slug like I am, to force yourself from your warm bed and out into the dawn, but once you’re out there it is a delight to walk with the sunlight falling on the hillside in diagonal sheets and the damp earth under your feet, and it is a delight to feel yourself getting stronger and enjoying the movement of your limbs and your lungs again.
19 September 2021 (Sunday) – Cape Town
Spending an entire morning reading, and emerging from it consolidated and refreshed and feeling more like myself again.
18 September 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
I saw an unusual number of people this week and today, for one reason and another, and it was a delight to see them, to smile and chat and connect, however briefly. My instinct in difficult times is to pull away from people, to gather myself away from other people’s eyes, but it is good to reminded that people are good and sustaining and that even short meetings with people you care about are nourishing.
17 September 2021 (Friday) – Cape Town
Meeting a friend for quick, hurried late-lunch meeting in a square under a tree that is budding with spring. At the end she said, “I feel so good for having met you. You are a real mood-enhancer.” I say this not to boast – I can’t for the life of me imagine what experience of me would cause anyone to think that I am a mood-enhancer – but that was the most delightful thing anyone has said to me in years.
16 September 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
I am not Jewish but today was a day of fasting on Yom Kippur. I take any opportunity to mark a day and make it meaningful, to interrupt the unending and blurring flow of time. I was grateful for the opportunity to be mindful, to remember and to atone, and then to walk up the road to a relative to break the fast with tea and chiffon cake.
15 September 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
Seared swordfish with tamarind dressing and green asparagus, eaten with good company in a good restaurant that doesn’t play music.
14 September 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
Being invited to something social, and deciding you don’t want to go, and saying, “No, I’m sorry, and thank you for inviting me, but I don’t want to.” What perfect, joyful freedom.
13 September 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
The arum lilies are out – great glades and vales of them, and at dusk on the path I have taken to walking recently, they seem to glow, white and ghostly.
12 September 20201 (Sunday) – Cape Town
It is a long-standing principle of mine, when seeking ease and comfort, to work opposite to the prevailing climate. One of my most enjoyable and memorable reading experiences came during a week-long beach holiday in Mauritius, when I read Roland Huntford’s thrilling biography of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, lost in the icy dark frozen seas. Today, on a cold and rainy and cloud-shrouded Sunday morning, it was a pure delight to watch Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in white linen and mopping his brow in the yellow sunshine in Death on the Nile (1978).
11 September 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
There is no wine that tastes as good as wine swigged from the bottle while you’re walking a long way in nature.
10 September 2021 (Friday) – Cape Town
A luxury of a delight: sitting alone in a coffee shop with a book and coffee and too much, too expensive cake.
9 September 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
Something I haven’t done in ages: a walk with a friend, and many laughs.
8 September 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
An evening sky, evenly and cleanly divided between pink and blue.
7 September 2021 (Tuesday) – Barrydale to Cape Town
A good drive with good listening. How often on a Monday morning do you get to cry twice, cleansingly, and for different reasons: first while listening to Edmund de Waal talking about his book Letters to Camondo, and later while listening to Purcell’s “Dido’s lament”? And all the while the clean air and glimpses of the shining sea and the rolling fresh fields.
6 September 2021 (Monday) – Barrydale
A mongoose, long and red and wary but very intelligent of eye, walked up onto the porch and watched me through the glass as I threw more wood onto the fire. I say “walk”, but mongooses don’t walk, they flow like furry water.
5 September 2021 (Sunday) – Barrydale
The next wave of movement decided and booked: two weeks of thoughtful and restorative walking through the Dordogne in the first half of October, followed by two weeks in Riga on the wintering coast of the Baltic. There is great delight in the delicate play between two equally thrilling and intimately interconnected states: the wide-open potential of not knowing where you will be next month, then the moment of decision to bring it swimming suddenly into focus. It has taken me many years to find the way of being that best suits me. It’s not for everyone, but it’s wholeheartedly for me.
4 September 2021 (Saturday) – Barrydale
A wreath made by neighbours and left waiting on the outside table to be found when we came in from a walk. Beautifully braided with local herbs and spring flowers, thyme and sage, pumpkin leaves, lavender – the local plants from a place that meant so much to Pete. Thoughtful and lovely and fragrant and perfect.
3 September 2021 (Friday) – Barrydale
Waking up in a peaceful place that I love, and listening to the brand-new Abba songs, which for some embarrassing reason made me feel a little teary and optimistic.
2 September 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town to Barrydale
Driving through the bountiful small karoo, a hillside of yellow flowers to the left, a field of ploughed red soil to the right and the road a black diagonal between the two blocs of colour. it is like driving across the flag of some small newly-declared Caribbean nation.
1 September 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
It either is or isn’t the first day of spring, depending on whether you’re a symbolist or a strict calendarist. Me, I have no great desire for spring – I am so thoroughly enjoying the crisp cold of winter, after the hellfire of the Greek summer – but I am always eager for a reason to believe in a new beginning, a starting again. I love Mondays because they’re a chance to superstitiously try again, and New Years Days and 1 Septembers are just Mondays on steroids.
31 August 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
Tafelberg Road after the rains should be designated an official Waterfall Route, especially after a summer in which there was a big fire. The old foliage and dead wood has been cleared away, and all is green and pared back so that you can see the folds of the land, the sharpness of the ravines, the full exuberant lengths of the waterfalls. Around every bend is another fall – this one a silver cascade, that one a long white ribbon coming down from the clouds, that one a kind of impossible flowing vertical river.
30 August 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
I listened to an interview with Quentin Tarantino talking about movies. He was talking about kung-fu movies, 70s action movies, prison-escape movies, William Smith, Sonny Chiba, Charles Bronson movies, trucker movies, movies, movies, movies. Quentin Tarantino isn’t to everyone’s taste and that’s fine, but it is a sheer delight to listen to anyone so thoroughly engaged with, so knowledgeable about, so passionately in love with anything as Quentin Tarantino is in love with movies.
29 August 2021 (Sunday) – Cape Town
Have you ever played Jaws – The Board Game? It’s fantastic. One player is the shark, one is Quint, one Hooper, one Brodie, and the three humans have to work together to defeat the terror in the deep. It’s exciting, it’s true to the movie, it’s the next best thing to a long summer’s day on Amity Island, suspiciously surveying the sea.
28 August 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
It’s a terrible confession, but my delight today was finding and buying a nice pair of shoes. Not just any shoes – the perfect shoes for a long walk I am planning in October. They are just right – light, water-resistant, sturdy and extremely attractive. When you are walking a long way, it’s pleasing to be able to look down and see something elegant bearing you along.
27 August 2021 (Friday) – Cape Town
Today’s delight is all about Mihaelis.
In a small, shabby municipal building on a hillside in the eastern Aegean island of Kalymnos is a government worker named Mihaelis. He works for KEP, the Citizen’s Service Centre, which is in some ways the Greek version of Home Affairs – you have to visit KEP in order to get paperwork, certificates, registrations, permissions, all the dismal impedimenta of workaday life. In order to receive a vaccination in Greece I had to receive a temporary National Health number from KEP, which duly happened, but there was some sort of administrative mishandling somewhere in Athens, with the result that I was registered on the wrong data base, which meant … the usual long boring story.
Mihaelis sits in his depressing KEP office above the port, with a 1990s-era computer connected to a network that only works for ten minutes at a time, randomly, before dropping and having to be rebooted. Any meaningful interaction he can make with KEP centre takes at least fifteen minutes, resulting in clear logistical and motivational problems. When the problem was presented to Mihaelis, he drew himself to his full height and full dignity and swore that he, Mihaelis, would solve the problem, that he would launch an appeal against the wrong data-base allocation, that he would not rest until he put the matters right and restored the honour of KEP. He begged merely that we grant him some time, since the network – he patted the computer soothingly – needed patience and a gentle hand. The next day, he telephoned in triumph. He, Mihaelis, was as good as his word! The matter was solved! Vaccination was mine to be had!
“You,” we told Mihaelis, “are not merely a noble Greek, but a Hercules, an Achilles, a Greek hero.”
I duly had the vaccination, but that very afternoon the bad news arrived from South Africa that Jo’s father had died, so we had to go scrambling back to Cape Town. This week I realised that I didn’t have my EU vaccination certificate, which I would need in order to re-enter Europe without fuss and quarantine. How does one get one’s vaccination certificate? One must go into KEP. Imagine being, say, a Greek citizen, back in Greece after a stay in SA, and having to contact our Home Affairs to ask someone there to do you a favour and email you a piece of paper that their protocols say needs to be picked up in person. How confident would you be of success? This week we contacted Mihaelis and explained the situation. Mihaelis replied with vigour and promptitude. He, Mihaelis, would not rest until he had found the certificate on-line, downloaded it, carried it off to his cousin’s personal computer in the village (since he is not allowed to use the network for personal activities) and emailed it to me. He added: “Hopefully, this time, the internet connection will show mercy to me and let me work on normal mode, not heroic“.
But that is not why Mihaelis is my delight today. The delight is the paragraph with which he opened the email. It is one thing to take the time and make the effort to go above and beyond one’s underpaid and under-appreciated job to help a stranger who isn’t even one of the citizens it’s your job to serve, but imagine first taking the time to write this:
“Of course I must help, but first and most importantly, I must please offer you my condolences for your loss. I hope you and your family recover quickly from the trauma. Since the happiness of the child is the goal of the parent, by living happily we honor their memory and their efforts to raise us. May you please live happily.”
26 August 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
The storm coming off the Atlantic and the cloud swallowing the apartment block and the heavy rain and the sound of wind through the trees and the chirping of the tree frogs while I watch The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1942).
25 August 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
I haven’t watched a DVD in a long time, but the place where I am staying has a DVD player and I have access to the DVDs I bought in the days before streaming. What a delight it is to handle something tangible again, to see the box sitting on the table, to be excited by the cover, to pick it up, open it up, slip something physical into something else physical. I re-watched The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946), the old noir they made from the Hemingway short story, with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner smouldering like a cigar left on the edge of a table. I only meant to watch the first sequence, up until the Swede gets what’s coming to him, but the afternoon slipped away in a happy daze of shadows and hats and Edmond O’Brien trying to figure out the truth.
24 August 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
An unplanned evening of drinking red wine and talking and remembering and forgetting. Sometimes getting drunk is as good as a holiday.
23 August 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
I haven’t been to the Green Point Park in a long while. I remember when it was first built, low and scrubby and requiring an act of imagination. I wandered through today and what a delight it has become – shady and dense, with hidden corners and thickets where birds and small creatures scurry, and fragrant stretches and a family of otters lurking as-yet unspotted (by me). And scattered around are people of different races and cultures and walks of life, playing and picnicking and watching their children and enjoying the public space together. It is quite, quite lovely.
22 August 2021 (Sunday) – Cape Town
A walk along a path that I have only walked once before, 30 years ago when I accompanied my grandmother and my grandfather on their daily walk after lunch, when I first internalised the importance of a walk every day.
21 August 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
There is no light as nostalgic and profoundly appealing to me as the bright crisp light of a sunny winter’s day in Cape Town, the light that smells of pine needles and damp stone.
20 August 2021 (Friday) – Cape Town
Someone in my block was taking a telephone call and stood outside my window as she chatted. I had forgotten what a delight it is to eavesdrop on other people’s calls.
19 August 2021 (Thursday) – Cape Town
A biscuit with your afternoon tea.
18 August 2021 (Wednesday) – Cape Town
Waking to the rain in the morning, and then once it has cleared, the bright winter sun lying across the grey sea like a shining ingot of silver.
17 August 2021 (Tuesday) – Cape Town
The satisfaction of sitting quietly in a room, in absolute silence and absolutely alone, reading a book.
16 August 2021 (Monday) – Cape Town
In the late afternoon, a walk on the fire break on the city-side of Signal Hill, the contour path that runs behind the apartment block where I stay and which I used for daily guerilla escapes during the first days of lockdown. The clouds are coming over Signal Hill and swirling around my legs, and there are small bright flowers in yellow and purple, like gorse or heather. It feels like being on foot in the Scottish Highlands as night comes in, like Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps. Through the haze down below the orange street lights glow like scattered camp fires.
15 August 2021 (Sunday) – Cape Town
After several months in the Mediterranean heat and summer, to take a long walk through the quiet streets in the freshness and coolness of the sunny Cape winter’s day is a profound delight. The greenness of the green, the young buds on bare branches, the crisp blue air, a squirrel.
14 August 2021 (Saturday) – Cape Town
Flowers. Messages. Food dropped off. Phone calls. The tangible, difficult, thoughtful reachings out between human beings. Laughter. Kindness. The acknowledgement that times of grief are like other times, with the same mix of different emotions – only the proportions are altered.
13 August 2021 (Friday) – Athens
I am by nature a cheapskate, a skinflint, a penny-pincher and a tightwad. I begrudge every unnecessary expenditure and celebrate every penny withheld from the rapacious claws of the world, but of all the expenses in the world, there is no expense quite so worth every penny like the expense of arriving in a city early in the morning, for a flight out later that evening, and immediately booking yourself into a good hotel room in which to pass the day.
12 August 2021 (Thursday) – Kalymnos (leaving on a ferry)
When you are scrambling to get home at very short notice during Covid times, and you need to wrangle favours, forge documents, expedite medical procedures and generally confound the law-making, rule-setting enemies of life, you will find that it is very difficult to beat the Greeks you meet on a remote island – from strangers in cafes to government officials and medical practitioners and local crime figures and high-school English teachers – all of whom are ready to break or bend the law without a second thought in order to help a stranger in need.
11 August 2021 (Wednesday) – Kalymnos
Someone I love very much died this evening. It wasn’t Covid, it was his heart, which was so full and so good and so utterly without rancour or malice, and which lasted the first four hours of the operation to save it, but couldn’t make it through the fifth. He had a good life, lived well. He raised children he loved, and raised them well. He loved his wife and he loved her well. The news came across half the world tonight and it was a shock, it felt like the world cleaving in half. He was happy with his life, and he deserved to be happy. I loved him, he was my second father, and this isn’t a delight, but I am deeply grateful that I told him so a week ago. I wrote him a letter and told him many things, and at the end of it asked him not to reply. He wrote back, “As requested, this is not a reply. XXXXX”
10 August 2021 (Tuesday) – Kalymnos
I finished a long project of work today, storylining a television series for Netflix. The project started with eight people in the (virtual) room, and through attrition and natural selection ended today, nine months later, with three people, one of us in Greece, one in Berlin, one in Johannesburg. Both those other people – two women, one from South Africa, one from Nigeria, neither of whom I’d worked with before – are so splendid and so good at their jobs that I feel honestly lighter and less lonely for having them in my professional life. The ending of the project was a delight, obviously – it’s always good when work ends – but the real delight was recognising how lucky I have been to have worked with them.
9 August 2021 (Monday) – Kalymnos
The pealing of the church bells at odd hours of the day. Someone has been born, or died, or married. Each time I hear them, I say, like an old man making his favourite joke, “I wonder who?” And Jo answers, without looking up: “Thee.”
8 August 2021 (Sunday) – Kalymnos
In the cab to Massouri, the driver explained that at Easter time, people on Kalymnos light sticks of dynamite and throw them off the sides of the cliffs. If we are here at Easter time and hear loud explosions, that’s what it is. Not fireworks – dynamite. I heard some loud explosions the other day that sounded like dynamite, I told him. It probably was dynamite, he said solemnly. But it’s not Easter, I said. “People in Kalymnos,” he mused philosophically, “don’t need an excuse to set off dynamite.”
7 August 2021 (Saturday) – Kalymnos
On my way to swim I noticed three teenaged girls – a mix of sisters and friends, I would guess – poking around the rockpools, inspecting the little fish and weeds and shells, discussing what they find. I am used to small girls being interested in the world, but when last have I seen teenagers so rapt in playing and exploring, so focused on something not inside a screen? I walked past, feeling good about it, and swam at my swimming spot and walked back that way an hour or so later, with the dusk purpling the water. They were at another rockpool, still rapt, still fascinated. I wanted to put them in my will and leave them all my worldly goods.
6 August 2021 (Friday) – Kalymnos
When the wind is right we can see on the horizon the smoke from the wildfires in Turkey, and sometimes from Rhodes. It’s a topic of conversation as you do your business in town – the heat and the fires, and always in that lazy, island-way of discussing problems – with care and sympathy and gentle humour, but without the fear and urgency and emotional investment of the mainland. “We are very lucky here,” said the man in the pharmacy cheerfully. “We have no trees on Kalymnos – there is nothing to burn!”
5 August 2021 (Thursday) – Kalymnos
Diving from a stone jetty out of the heat into the ice-blue, surprisingly cold Aegean. All along the edge of the island there are families treading water in the sea, feeling the sweat and the heat and the day rinsing off them. It is a delight to be a part of it.
4 August 2021 (Wednesday) – Kalymnos
It was 42 degrees here today – perhaps higher, the man in the pastry shop darkly grumbled – and normally I am afraid of the heat. The heat to me is like a rabid dog in the streets. But this I think is a different kind of heat to the heat I fear – this is a dry oven-heat that can cause telephone poles to burst into flames if they aren’t moistened, but in which you can survive, even if you venture out, if you stick to the shaded backstreets and sit somewhere the hot Sahara wind can’t touch you, and if you don’t move too much and eat Mihali’s delicious galaktabourikos and mastic ice-cream. I confronted my fear of the animal heat and instead of unraveling me, it almost, somewhat, invigorated me.
3 August 2021 (Tuesday) – Kalymnos
Every day, several times a day, the flat starts shaking. Books fall over in the shelves, crockery rattles, the sofa or the bed jolts and jerks beneath me as though I am back on the boat. It is funny how the mind takes facts and makes up explanations for them, either mundane or fanciful, depending on your propensity for drama. At first I thought it must be the pipes and plumbing in the building, then on one occasion at the same time as the shaking I heard a heavy vehicle pass in the street below and thought it must be something to do with that. Dull. But no – it turns out these are earthquakes, the most recent a solid 5.6 on the Richter scale. Earthquakes from the same fault line that blew up Santorini, that once caused arrogant Atlantis to sink beneath the waves! Imagine the good luck, the charm, the thrill of being on island that shakes with ancient daily quakes! Now we wait eagerly for them, and sing out to the other in another room: “Here’s another one!” and we put down our books or our work and look around with shining eyes at this new excitement that has not yet grown old.
2 August 2021 (Monday) – Kalymnos
I started writing a book.
1 August 2021 (Sunday) – Kalymnos
There is a heatwave in the eastern Aegean but it broke a little this evening, in time for me to take a wavering venture out into the world, to see the people in the streets and drinking at sidewalk tables, hearing live musicians, strolling the harbour, feeling part of the world and my surroundings again. What is more delightful than your first strong ouzo after a confinement, and sitting talking with a half-litre of cheap cold white island wine and the dropping light and the village of people resting after the heat of the day? Nothing is more delightful.
31 July 2021 (Saturday) – Kalymnos
A cup of coffee in a small white elegant cup in the morning, seated at a clean white writing desk.
30 July 2021 (Friday) – Kalymnos
Writing emails to withdraw from projects I dont want to do; to say no to invitations to which I want to say no. How freeing it is to choose more fearlessly where your energies will be directed.
29 July 2021 (Thursday) Athens – Kalymnos
I am withdrawing to the island of Kalymnos to rest and recover for a month. I am reading Middlemarch, which I have never read before, and the stately elegant, civilised human rhythms of it are wonderfully soothing and restorative. I return to it as to a cool spring.
28 July 2021 (Wednesday) – Athens
Released from the medical world, and a slow unsteady walk to the nearby apartment through tree-shaded Athenian streets. No island cicadas here, but the chirping of birds and bugs, the hot sun throwing your shadow ahead of you. Walking unaided.
27 July 2021 (Tuesday) – Athens
The surgery was longer and more difficult than expected because the infection was worse than anticipated, so I am being kept an extra day in the hospital. My room-mate is named Alexandros. He is here for ten days because he ate some village cheese made from raw milk, and it gave him an infection that spread through his whole body. He is a fisherman from Euboia, “a diver”, he clarifies proudly, which means he poaches sea cucumbers, but he tells me that being ill has given him perspective. Life is simple, he says melancholically – it is only people’s mind and thoughts that make it complicated. I have just had a large dose of pethadine, so this strikes me as cosmically true and important. Alexandros says that after this he is going to think less about chasing money, chasing what’s not important. When a Greek fisherman is telling you that he’s quitting the rat-race, that is something to consider indeed.
26 July 2021 (Monday) – Athens
I have flown to Athens to consult with a surgeon and he has booked me in for emergency surgery. He is comforting and assuring. When I am placed on a gurney, an orderly called Costas, with smiling eyes, rubs my shoulder and then my thigh and then my foot, and tells me that Doctor Pappis is very good. “You are safe,” he says. I will never forget those words, and the feel of this kind stranger’s hand on my shoulder, my thigh, my foot.
25 July 2021 (Sunday) Cephalonia – Athens
The first time stepping outside to see the blue moving bay of Agostoli, and a vast cruise ship moored. It was delightful to think of the people on board, eating their breakfasts and drinking their coffee and orange juice, excitedly anticipating their day on shore, sighing out over the beautiful green mountains of Cephalonia, living their lives. I hoped they were all very happy.
24 July 2021 (Saturday) Agostoli, Cephalonia
Unexpectedly, after five days, my temperature drops enough and I am released to return to my hotel. This isn’t a delight though. A delight is a joyful participation in life. This is a trembling, subdued, almost overwhelmed re-entry to life. This is silent, awed relief. The delight is in the coolness of the room after I enter, the warmth of the water in the shower, the cleanness of my hair, the taste of cold water that does not taste of an institution.
23 July 2021 (Friday) Cephalonia General Hospital
Two sabbaticals, one after the other, the second unscheduled. Just after writing that previous entry, I was struck down in the night – woken, actually – by terrible chest pain that finally turned out to be not the feared cardiac event but a rotten cascade of inflamations and infections, all of which will culminate, at some point to be determined once the infection is under control – with a surgical subtraction. For four days I have been languishing in this hospital bed, rigged up to morphine drips and suchlike medical esoterica, feeling generally glum. But feeling glum is no excuse for not recognising delight. The breeze, for instance, that comes from the fresh outdoors and gusts the yellow curtains before cooling me down. My partner, who sits all day at my bedside, uncomplaining and cheery and making logistical arrangements to cancel flights, take new accommodation, wrangle with the doctors to try extract an answer or an explanation. Lying before sleep listening to the old man in the far bed with his adult daughter and the long, gentle, low, interrupted rumbling rhythms of their conversation as she talks him to sleep.
19 July 2021 (Monday) Cephalonia
I was fortunate when I decided to take a sabbatical while on the boat. Firstly, because shortly after getting onto the boat, it seems that South Africa, where I am from and partially live, was seized with the fear and fury and protracted uncertainty of violent protests, and it would have wrongheaded to send a constant stream of delight back into what, from a distance, feels like a well or a wall of discontent and gloom. Being there, I have no problem with focusing on what makes me happy, and don’t much mind who doesn’t like that. But not being there changes things.
Secondly, the point of a practice of daily delight is to train the eye and the mind to focus on what brings joy, on the principle that what you focus on is who you are. The last week has been such a wash of delight, such a blue-refracted, rock-warmed, gently swaying salty extravagance of sensual ease and dissolution that picking out individual delights would have become an exercise in listing pleasures, which isn’t the point at all.
But now I am back on land again, on Corelli’s island of Cephalonia, where there are sea turtles in the harbour at Agostoli and roads through the mountains like tangles of yarn.
10 July 2021 (Saturday) Corfu
For a year and a half I have faithfully kept to my Daily Delights, a practise that has caused me at least as much pleasure as the delights themselves have, so it’s with some sorrow that I have to announce a sabbatical. It’s not a long sabbatical – only a week – but still. This evening I board a fine local boat to spend the next seven days drifting like Odysseus through the Greek seas and isles, including at last Ithaka. Perhaps I will take handwritten notes of the delights and wonders, but I won’t be turning on the screen. Thank you for voyaging with me, these past eighteen months, and I hope you will join me again in a week, when I untie myself from the mast. In the meanwhile, this is the poem I read aloud last night
(by C.P. Cavafy, translated by E. Keeley)
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
9 July 2021 (Friday) Corfu
Friends from South Africa fly in tonight. Tomorrow we will board a boat together and sail the Ionian Seas for a week to Cephalonia, but tonight we must feast, and have been combing the streets of Corfu Town for just the right place, with good lamb chops and good wine sold cheap by the jug, not too quiet and not too loud, family-run and friendly and which passes the stringent Tzatziki test. It is a delight to make yourself responsible for friends’ first night in a new place, to take on yourself the enjoyable task of introducing them to a place you have come to know, however slightly you know it. It is a creative offering, and those are always delightful to make.
8 July 2021 (Thursday) Corfu
I am delighted by the casualness with which older Greek women carry their bodies. We are used to this with men, although I suspect increasing numbers of younger men are becoming more self-conscious, but in Greece middle-aged and older women think nothing sitting at a seaside taverna in their swimsuits, with their bellies generously at ease and their thighs and arms unconcealed. These are women enjoying their lives and the bodies through which their lives are lived. There is a mental imperviousness and sensual enjoyment that pleases me deeply.
7 July 2021 (Wednesday) Athens – Corfu
Landing for the first time in a new place is the greatest delight of all, but Corfu Town is already a joy. I have always have thought of it as a mythical place, Gerald Durrell’s Eden, a place of lost childhood that couldn’t possibly exist, and then later also as an Eden ruined by the modern world, shattered by tourism. But the Old Town is a warm and happy joy – wide alleys and polished marble flagstones and laundry strung between buildings across the road; climbing walls of bougainvillea and mounds of flowering hibiscus; ice-cold beer, empty squares with fountains and benches and green shade.
6 July 2021 (Tuesday) Poros – Athens
In the day the bigger fish withdraw to the ocean depths, away from the sun and the boats and the nets. If you want to hear the big fellows breaking the water like swimmers, you have to go down to the shore in the dark hours before dawn, or, if you’re lucky and have walked in the early hours of daylight through the pine forests above Neiorio to the lighthouse and down around the headland to the Dana lighthouse on its lonely promontory, and you are sitting on the stone ledge staring at the sea, you might catch the sudden boiling on the surface of small fish panicking and scattering and then the rise and snap and splash of a big head and tail and then watch with the quiet delight of having been vouchsafed a glimpse behind the scenes as the water flattens and smooths and becomes a silvery mirror again.
5 July 2021 (Monday) Poros
Packing to leave, and the excitement of movement combined with the sweet melancholy of leaving once again a place I really love. Dinner on the quay, looking at the yachts, their lights on the water. The illuminated clock tower on the hill above. The hills of the Peloponnese across the strait. The music of Noel Coward. A glass of ouzo drunk the Greek way, refilling with ice until finally it’s totally clear.
4 July 2021 (Sunday) Poros
Walking on my land at 8pm, with the sun still dropping toward the sea, and finding where the sage and the thyme are growing wild, and the rosemary, and smelling the heat rising from the soil and the stones. Everyone loves the word “petrichor” – the smell of rain on rock – even though it is a made-up word that was coined sometime in the 1960s, but I would like to learn or coin the word for the smell of rock and stone cooling in the bluing air of the evening. It has something in it of herbs and honey and dust and wood and – uniquely – that aromatherapic sense of the body exhaling and relaxing after the heat of the day, and I think it is my favourite smell.
3 July 2021 (Saturday) Poros
A friend named Christos has come from Athens to visit for the weekend. I want to impress him with my Greek, so I try to order from the waiter – also named Christos – from whom I have been happily and easily ordering all week. Suddenly, it is as though I am invisible, a ghost. The waiter Christos can’t hear me; when I speak he can’t understand me. I am but a breath of breeze passing through the pine needles. My friend Christos watches this drawn-out saga of bafflement and despair on my part, and blank-faced incomprehension on the waiter Christos’s. Finally, conversationally, my friend Christos says in Greek to the waiter Christos: “Are you doing this on purpose?” “Of course,” says the waiter Christos, and the two of them laugh, then everyone laughs and the waiter Christos sends us a jug of wine on the house.
2 July 2021 (Friday) Poros
Outside my bedroom window in this rented apartment, a bright bank, an effulgence, an ecstatic cerise multiple inflorescence of bougainvillea.
1 July 2021 (Thursday) Poros
In a taverna on Vathi, on the Methana peninsula nearby, where I worked and had a iced cappuccino this morning, one of the waiters is deaf. The regulars all have learnt some sign-language to communicate with him, and greet him and chat as they walk by.
30 June 2021 (Wednesday) Poros
The woman who cleans my apartment left a bowl of deep red cherries in the fridge. They were cold and tart and sweet and tasted like heat and health, and I like the sound of the pits clinking in the bowl when I spit them out, and they reminded me of Tom and Tanya, who took me cherry picking in Cape Town. They made me very happy.
29 June 2021 (Tuesday) Poros
A late-night swim in the velvet-black sea with the lights from the jetty making broken beams across the surface and the pale pebbles of the sea bed gleaming. Floating in water as warm as arms.
28 June 2021 (Monday) Poros
Dinner on the quayside with Nikos and Katerina the architects in the hot evening, eating fresh anchovies and prawn saganaki and smoked aubergine and tuna pate and dolmadakia and crispy calamari and cheese in kataiafi with peach marmalade and honey, talking about Greek history and politics and telling terrible jokes that had to be translated and about finding meaning in life. This isn’t a small delight, it’s a huge one. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.
27 June 2021 (Sunday) Poros
Across to the mainland for the first visit to our land. What a delight it is to feel the yellow-bound soil under my feet, and hear the sound of a cicada in an olive tree, and look out across the scuffed-velvet blue of the bay to the distant whale-back rises of hill and island. The house will go there – there’ll be a walking path here and a narrow road over there – we can move that tree … This here is a toe-hold; this is where the roots go in.
26 June 2021 (Saturday) Athens – Poros
So many delights when returning to a place where I have been very happy before: the fridge in the apartment thoughtfully stocked before we arrived with wine and water and beer and honey and milk and cherries and peaches; Sofia at O Petros taverna recognising us as we sat; half a litre of white wine that costs 2 euros fifty and tastes like cold sunlight; a wooden table and chair on a shingle beach under the shade of a Mediterranean pine; the smell of jasmine in the evening as the heat of day subsides; floating out in the still sea with small Mediterranean fish swimming between my dangling feet and the sandy sea-floor. Tomorrow, I go to see my land.
25 June 2021 (Friday) Oxford – Athens
For fifteen months I have been planning one thing: how to get back to Greece. Everything I have done in between has been a lateral or diagonal or in some cases backwards chess move to try to get myself to Greece, where I have yet to see the land I have bought, and yet to start building. Depending on how you interpret the Greek regulations at the moment, I either am or am not strictly allowed into Greece, but I finally, armed with mountains of paperwork, some of it relevant, presented myself at Heathrow this morning and was met with frowning faces. Conversations were had, decisions were deferred. I was allowed through the security check and to the boarding gates, but I would only know when it came time to board what the final decision would be. The flight left at 12.15. At noon I presented myself at the gate and the woman in the Air Aegean uniform winked at me and said, “Ok to board.”
Athens is my favourite city in the world. I stay each time in Soula’s apartments over her pizza shop in Ermou Street, and she was there on the sidewalk beaming and bountiful, dispensing hugs and slices of free pizza. Monastiraki was abuzz with voices and music and rembetiko singers and people in the hot air eating and drinking water and small coffees and beer, laughing and arguing. The Greeks have no truck with trauma – they don’t expect everything to go well all the time, so when things are good they don’t waste it thinking about the recent past when they weren’t. Things are good right now. The night was blue and then black velvet, and the Parthenon floated over it all, illuminated, a promise cast in stone.
24 June 2021 (Thursday) Oxford
Hot sake and padron peppers in miso and chicken gyoza and braised aubergine in soy-sake and salt-and-pepper chilli squid for lunch. Japanese food is the only food that afterwards makes me feel that I have done something expansive for my soul, as though I have read a good book or seen some sort of new theatre.
23 June 2021 (Wednesday) Oxford
Whenever I am in Oxford I go to the Ashmolean to say hello to the octopus amphora, found in the ruins of Knossos in Crete, and made roughly 1500 BC. It makes me happy to know that it is there when I am gone, waiting for me to come back and pay my respects.
Plus: the clear skies and bright, cool sun and the fresh breeze, and all the surfaces shining and sparkling and the fields and Port Meadow a bright, country green. The air itself like champagne in crystal. On a bright, summery day in Oxford it is as though your blood itself has fine, newly uncorked bubbles.
22 June 2021 (Tuesday) Oxford
A Nepalese curry house on Cowley Road where the precise, light, fragrant chicken curry made with tomatoes, coriander and fresh pears – Yes! Pears! – makes me just about as happy as a man can be .
21 June 2021 (Monday) London – Oxford
A day of moving. Moving days are always happy and exciting, no matter how happy you have been where you are. Everything packed and a last-minute deadline being met on the dining room table and a hired car arriving, and the grey misty hinterland awaiting. Movement, and the moments just before moving – these are pleasures beyond measure.
20 June 2021 (Sunday) London
The smell of roast beef through the apartment, and the smell of gravy and horseradish, and the the reflection of light passing through a glass of wine and touching the wall on the other side, while the window panes speck and silver with rain.
19 June 2021 (Saturday) London
I heard about a vaccination centre in the east, in Mile End, that was offering jabs to anyone who arrived, no ID required, no questions asked. It is aimed at migrants and refugees and those, as they delicately put it, “of insecure immigration status”. The queue was a great gathering of the nations – Afghans and Argentinians and Pakistanis and Dutch and Swedish and Moroccans and at least two South Africans. Everyone was good-natured, exchanging chit-chat and pleasantries and comparing notes. It was four hours in the queue and what a delightful four hours they were. Jo stood with me even though she is vaccinated. We made friends with a Dutch guy and especially with a Mexican woman, a director of photography named Lucia, and have plans to meet up when we return from Greece. It was a glorious day, and as a bonus I have my first vaccination.
18 June 2021 (Friday) London
A rain-speckled day, relieving the heat with cool gusts of air that seemed to come straight from the English Channel. I met Ros who I haven’t seen since 2006 outside the BBC where he works, and we walked to a pub and drank pints and watched the England-Scotland match through the window while he – dressed in his broadcast suit and immaculate hair and BBC decorum – foully abused any Scot who wandered near him. Later we watched with satisfaction as Metro police rounded up drunken Scotsmen in kilts and dragged them off in the back of their vans.
17 June 2021 (Thursday) London
I spotted a wild parakeet landing on a treetop in Regent’s Park, all green bodied and crimson-beaked and long-tailed. I have seen the tree-tops full of wild parakeets in Malaga but I never thought to spot one here. Some research reveals a number of popular origin stories:
- An undisclosed number of parakeets escaped from a particular pet-shop in Sunbury-on-Thames in 1970.
- The Great Storm of 1987 apparently flung upon the gates of the aviaries in the London Zoo, setting free the ‘keets.
- Jimi Hendrix, of all people, set free a pair of parakeets on Carnaby Street in the 1960s.
- My personal favourite: during the filming of the studio-sections of the great Humphrey Bogart/ Katherine Hepburn movie, The African Queen, at Ealing Studios in 1951, some of the parakeets – imported to simulate the wildlife of Africa – managed to make a clean break.
It is a joy, a treat: a colourful flash of wildness and mystery in the city.
16 June 2021 (Wednesday) London
An unexpected sudden summer downpour to break the gathering stone heat of the day, with the smell of hot tarmac and slate and brick, and the scent of wettened soil from the nearest park.
15 June 2021 (Tuesday) London
Back in a live theatre again. The performance was compelling but the real joy was being in a room with living, breathing people again, watching a living, breathing performer giving life to words from a page. Then afterwards a parting from friends and a walk along the river with the late light falling on the water like a Merchant-Ivory film.
14 June 2021 (Monday) London
Someone around the corner, on Baker Street, was playing the saxophone, and it was the song “Baker Street”. The song, now that my attention is drawn to it, is really very sad and resigned, which is a splendid quality in a song with a soaring saxophone riff.
13 June 2021 (Sunday) London
A train into the countryside to see someone I haven’t seen in twenty years, an old love – a first love! – and her family, and the feeling of us all sitting in the beautiful sun-fondled late afternoon after a splendid lunch, drinking excellent wine and laughing and talking about the years past and about the present and the future too, and enjoying the day and our new loves and each other’s company, and the delightful feeling that time itself can be kind and give us gifts.
12 June 2021 (Saturday) London
That feeling at the end of the night, when you have entertained for the first time in a new place, when the guests have gone and you have cleaned up everything, and you haven’t drunk too much and it has been a lovely evening, and the window is open to the night and the sounds of the late-night city drifting up, and a jar of fresh flowers on the table, purple and violet and white, and all is spic and span for the morning.
11 June 2021 (Friday) London
I am writing a script for a feature – actually, the outline for a script for a feature – and have been labouring for weeks over it, trying to solve something to make the whole thing cohere. I have been frustrated and dispirited at my failure to find the big idea, the grand solution, but I realised or remembered today, as I noodled further, that very usually big creative solutions don’t often come in great Eureka-flashes that make you leap from your bathtub and run down the street naked and jubilant: they more usually come incrementally, a slight tectonic shifting of elements and pieces and perspectives so slight and small that you don’t notice until one day you look at it and think, “Oh. It’s already solved.”
10 June 2021 (Thursday) London
There are some bookstores in the world that have a peculiar and individual power of enchantment. Some of them have books you haven’t run into elsewhere, of which you haven’t even heard, but which dazzle like jewels in a grotto in a children’s story, a dazing wealth of riches. Others have the same books you might find elsewhere but through some process of arrangement or juxtaposition or bewitchment they suddenly seem more desirable and compelling, the demand to be opened and touched and taken home. Not all bookstores have these qualities, and perhaps they are as individual as fingerprints. There is a bookstore back in Cape Town that everyone else seem to like, but where I have never managed to buy a book – I find it a smug place with a dour and joyless presiding spirit, stocked with worthiness and wagging fingers, where the very thought of reading feels like a shadow thrown over the soul. But the magical bookstores are a delight in my life: Adams Bookstore in West Street, Durban in the middle-80s; the Sandton Square (later Mandela Square) Exclusive Books in the early 2000s; the Cafda bookstore on Regent’s Road, Sea Point in the early 2010s; Daunt bookstore on Marylebone High Street right now.
9 June 2021 (Wednesday) London
The bright masses of pansies in the window boxes of Marylebone when the sun is out and they seem to be singing to the sky in sheer joy.
8 June 2021 (Tuesday) London
It has been a long time since I read, in broad daylight, to the end of a novel because I could not stop reading, with such hope and foreboding, and I don’t know if I have ever before gasped on the final line of the final page with shock at the exquisite, inevitable unexpectedness of it, the brutal perfection of it. That happened today, with Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus. It is hard reading, and slow. It expects much of its reader as a reader and even more as a person. I hesitate to recommend it because the world as it is is does not want us to be the kind of people who can read it with the care and patience and love it quietly requires of us. I cannot wait to read it again.
7 June 2021 (Monday) London
The roses in Queen Mary’s Garden in Regent’s Park are all in bloom. There are too many different kinds to try smell them all, so you have to try to assess by their colours whether they’ll have a scent. I don’t always guess correctly. There is something outrageous and insulting about a rose without a scent. I straighten from the rose in indignation, as though I have been the victim of a cruel hoax designed specially to make a fool of me. But the others are very gratifying. One kind smells of lemon curd. Another causes me to squeal like a child: “Ooh! Turkish delight!” It takes me a while to remember that the rose doesn’t smell like Turkish Delight; Turkish Delight smells like the rose. (A special shout-out to the Anne Boleyn cultivar, who has scent “like the icing on a Zoo Biscuit”.)
6 June 2021 (Sunday) London
My first digital sabbath. I am writing this on Monday morning because from sunset on Saturday night to the end Sunday I didn’t turn on a screen or a device or a gadget. Each week I am going to take a digital Shabbat, and this one was a purest joy, a feeling of release from the clamour and obligation of the world; a day of reading and talking and a luxury of time that isn’t broken up and sliced into smaller chunks. There was an almost constant glow of delight.
5 June 2021 (Saturday) London
I’m allowed to leave the house.
A friend said to me recently, “I hope London does what it does well while you’re there”, which I think is a very good way of putting it. Today it did what it does well. A long afternoon in the Horniman Gardens with a friend, drinking prosecco from paper cups while a a large red fox circled around like a seagull, hoping for a snack, watching the golden sun lower and glow through the flat blades of the the soft green grass, then a walk into the badlands of Sydenham to find The Golden Lion pub ,site of the axe-murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987, to find where his body was discovered in the parking lot and then to investigate the case over a couple of pints, then a long walk home from Tower Bridge along the South Bank and across Waterloo Bridge where poor Vivien Leigh became a prostitute, all for the love of Robert Taylor, and then up through the West End and Mayfair past Ian Fleming’s flat and Fitzrovia to home, with the happy buzz of people in the street and a long summer day turning into a silky night. It is a delight when a place does what it does well.
4 June 2021 (Friday) London
I have always been delighted by the absurd, and English regulations are the spiritual home for connoisseurs of absurdity. Since arriving in England from an amber-list country, I have been on home-isolation. For ten days I am not allowed to leave the house, under any circumstances. Unless of course I pay extra on day 5 to go for a test, which, if negative, will enable to me to leave the house five days early. To have my test, this morning I took a half-hour stroll through Marylebone and Kensington, caught a crowded tube all the way back to Heathrow to the testing station, caught another crowded tube back, took another long walk back to the flat. I’ll find out at midnight tonight if I’m allowed to leave the house.
3 June 2021 (Thursday) London
A delivery of books to my door: Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus; Charmian’s Clift’s memoir of her first years on Hydra with George Johnston; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book on The Sabbath. I have no time to read this morning – I am writing, which is infinitely less rewarding and less healthy – but to look up and see them on the little table in the entry hall, beneath the mirror, waiting for whenever I take my ease, is a comfort and a delight. They should have a vase of flowers beside them.
2 June 2021 (Wednesday) London
The morning light passing through white linen curtains that ripple in a light breeze, and the light striking the rim of a clear drinking glass and making a gleam that is at once both gentle and bright. Through the curtains, the outlines of the green iron railings around the balcony. It feels peaceful and proper and lovely and still.
1 June 2021 (Tuesday) (London)
Working at a table covered with a cloth given to me on my birthday, with the windows open to the cool morning air; the very pale, very sun-faded blue of a cloudless sunny English sky; the surf-roar of the traffic on Baker Street; the Mary Poppins chimney-pots of the old red-brick block across the way. One of the chimneys is shaped like an owl and every time I look up it catches me out again.
31 May 2021 (Monday) (London)
I have borrowed a flat belonging to my good friend David for the next three weeks, in Chiltern Street, around the corner from Baker Street in Marylebone. Sherlock Holmes is one of my neighbours, but looking out my living window I see another neighbour in a facing mansion, sitting outside on a facing balcony, one floor below me. She is in a red dressing gown, sitting on on a chair in the morning air, drinking a cup of coffee, deeply engrossed in a book. This is delightful.
30 May 2021 (Sunday) (Cairo – London)
You hear a lot of talk about how ultra-cautious England is with the new variants, and how the officials have thrown up a cordon of steel around the country, and how entering the UK is now a blizzard of paperwork and searching, efficient Soviet-style interrogations. This didn’t sound like my experience of the UK, so I was quite delighted to encounter the England I know and like best: a dithering and moustachioed customs guy who forgot to ask for my Covid paperwork, who asked me, “Where have you been for the last two weeks?” and when I answered “Egypt”, winked and tapped his nose humorously and said, “Good answer, mate, you’ve obviously been practising”, and who scanned the wrong visa then waved me through. The whole process took five minutes.
29 May 2021 (Saturday) (Sinai peninsula)
As a condition of traveling I have decided long ago to stop thinking about whether I have Covid or not. I assume now as a helpful mindset that I don’t have it, that I can’t get it, that I won’t get it, that I don’t care if I do get it. Still there is a kind of delight after your PCR test (in the lobby of the hotel, in swimming trunks and carrying a mask and snorkel in one hand, on your way down to the beach) to receive your negative result.
28 May 2021 (Friday) (Sinai peninsula)
A dawn swim over the reefs, with the water warm and soft and the sun patiently rising over the hills. The purple is draining out of the water as though it were squid ink, leaving it clear as the lens of an eye. Stingrays criss-cross over the sands and beside a rocky ledge there are signs of a crab dinner that something enjoyed in the night. The fish seem sleepy and dazed, like the inhabitants of a big city taking a breath after a night of drama, taking stock of each other to see who’s made it through. There is so much we don’t see.
27 May 2021 (Thursday) (Sinai peninsula)
It is truly a delight to hear the news from back home of all the people walking in to get vaccinated, and it’s a relief to see that this time, for now, common sense and compassion is being allowed.
26 May 2021 (Wednesday) (Sinai peninsula)
As one gets older, one starts becoming fretful that one’s youthful capacity for high jinks and ill-thought-out impulse-decisions is tempering and mellowing and tamping down. We are only as young as the decisions we make, I suppose, so it was a relief to notice that when the opportunity arose to drink several bottles of Egyptian white wine with a new acquaintance, one made the same terrible decision as one would always have made, and with all the foolish alacrity of stupid youth. One will have a horrible hangover in the morning.
25 May 2021 (Tuesday) (Sinai peninsula)
In the evenings as the sun dips and the shadows of the cliffs start to fall across the bay, there’s a changing of the shift underwater. The shy big-eyed red-and-white squirrel fish that hide under ledges and in overhangs during the day start to emerge and look around the purpling reef. The clouds of baby fish start to coalesce near the coral heads. Claws and tentacles start to emerge from under shells and rocks. The last sun rays make diagonal columns through the growing dusk of the water, like the beams in a cathedral. Night-time is when it all happens on the reef, when the gangs and the criminals and the wild kids come out or come in from the suburbs of the deep. As night drops it’s both a pity and a relief that it’s time for me to go in.
24 May 2021 (Monday) (Sinai peninsula)
A plate of ice-cold melon at breakfast on a hot yellow morning.
In Na’ama town there is a supermarket owned by a man who calls himself the Egyptian Lionel Richie. The supermarket itself is called “The Egyptian Lionel Richie Supermarket”. This is a strange boast, you may think, but from certain angles you can sort of see the resemblance between the Egyptian Lionel Richie and the real Lionel Richie, pictures of whom are liberally posted around the joint. He is a smooth-talker, is the Egyptian Lionel Richie, and alongside your more usual groceries he sells many products: jewellery, perfumes, herbal toothpastes, condiments, parchments. I went in to buy a Coke and left an hour later, dazed, smelling like a masculine lotus flower, clutching a tub of Egyptian Magic All-Purpose Skin Cream and two vials of what appear to be aphrodisiacal embalming oils and with a complimentary packet of washing powder. I don’t quite know what happened in there, but it was impressive. The Egyptian Lionel Richie is an artist and sometimes you need to pay to watch an artist at work.
23 May 2021 (Sunday) (Sinai peninsula)
I have decided to start practising what Tiffany Shlain calls a digital shabbat – one day a week, from at least sundown to sundown, in which I don’t turn on a screen or so much as check a message. I think in the future I will take it on the traditional shabbat – sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday (or perhaps extending all the way to the end of Saturday), but today I did it on a Sunday, lazing on a lounger under a palm-leaf umbrella and reading a John le Carre book and watching people on the beach being people. This is of course easy to say about a day on the beach but I mean it in a different way when I say that it felt a little like being released from prison.
22 May 2021 (Saturday) (Sinai peninsula)
A long walk, in hot sun, at high altitude, to climb from St Catherine’s monastery to the top of Mount Sinai, and to sit in the cave where Moses stayed for 40 days and 40 nights while he received the ten commandments, and to walk with a bedouin named Mohammad back down through the granite fields that change colour from one mountain ridge to another. The delight was in the dry desert air and the feeling of centuries under my feet, and in the clean sky and the vista of desert mountains, and in the lightness from fasting and especially in the feeling of strength in the legs as they were asked to do something they haven’t done in a long time, and pluckily agreed to do it.
21 May 2021 (Friday) (Sinai peninsula)
The blueness of the light in the hour just after the sun has set – the hour that the Yemenis call the Hour of Solomon, and the French l’heure bleue, when the whiteness and yellowness of the day’s heat is done and all is gentle and possible and enveloping and trembling with imminence.
20 May 2021 (Thursday) (Sinai peninsula)
1. I have a double who follows me around, and has done so for many years. At university, friends kept saying they had seen me here or there, at places I hadn’t been. Two teenaged girls who have known me all their lives and see my regularly were so convinced they were seeing me in Greece, on an island I have never visited, that they approached and greeted me. Several friends in Johannesburg have seen me strolling around Zoo Lake, ignoring their hellos. A man on Twitter bewailed the fact that he had seen me working as a waiter in a Shoreditch coffee shop in London. This evening I walked from my hotel into Na’ama town to buy some bottles of beer and sunblock, and a gentleman running an ice-cream stall greeted me: “Hello, Switzerland!” It is not unusual to be hailed by Egyptian vendors, but the script runs: “Hello! Where are you from?” thus giving them an opportunity to dazzle you with some item of trivia about your home country, creating a relationship they hope will lead, today or tomorrow or the next, to a commercial transaction. Once you tell them where you’re from, every time they see you after that they will say, “Hello South Africa! Bafana Bafana! Pitso Mosimane!”
“I’m not from Switzerland,” I told the ice-cream man genially. If it were a ruse, he would have replied, “Oh? Where are you from?” But instead he laughed at my little joke, and said “Haha! You are Switzerland! You are Mr Lucky!”
As I proceeded down the corniche, another man greeted me, “Hey, Switzerland! Mr Lucky!” By the third and fourth greeting, it became clear that all these fellows were greeting a person who looked just like me, who had chatted with each of them, perhaps sharing his nickname with them, or some recent piece of good fortune. It pleases me to think of another me, living a parallel life to me that sometimes intersects in place, sometimes in time. And it delights me think of him as a friendly chap, a man with many friends along the corniche and around the world, and it delights me to think of him as someone who considers himself a lucky man, the way I do.
2. Two eagle rays, a large one and a smaller one following it, that came gliding past like two birds coasting on thermals, their wings arched in elegance, and who suffered us to follow them as they arced easily out to sea and finally disappeared into the mid-water blue, a dissolving concentration of darkness.
19 May 2021 (Wednesday) (Sinai peninsula)
There are too many fish on the reef. There is so much happening and so much to catch the eye that all is in danger of becoming an indistinguishable overwhelm of movement and colour. But today a large Napoleon wrasse came drifting by, just about half as long as me and almost the same around, with electric marking on his head and a pale striped body, gliding along the reef wall, nosing into crevices, lordly and unflustered. I followed him for twenty minutes or half an hour and he took me where he was going. He showed me his route around the inner bay, and took me to a baby sting ray, and a white moray eel and a black lionfish. He wasn’t my Napoleon wrasse teacher, or anything stupid like that – animals aren’t there to teach us, they just are and that’s enough – but by narrowing my focus and becoming less distracted and following one thing, slowly and carefully and patiently, I saw far more than I would have seen without him.
18 May 2021 (Tuesday) (Sinai peninsula)
A Russian family, after dark, gathered in the empty open-air restaurant beside the pool: a fat dad, a slightly less-fat mom, their two grown children and their spouses. A babble of Russian voices, and the fat dad, wearing a white vest and cotton shorts, is standing in front of them, gesticulating wildly. At first I think it’s some sort of dark Russian family argument, the patriarch laying down the law, or perhaps an impromptu political rally decrying the perfidy of the weak-willed West, but as I walk past, in the hot night under the thin desert moon with the faint stars reflecting in the swimming pool, I see the fat dad emphatically holding up three fingers then start running on the spot, waving his arms around and miming indisputably the behaviour of someone who has just seen a ghost, or perhaps is fleeing from an Apache attack on a wagon train, or maybe someone who has stumbled upon a hive of bees, while the rest of the family yell louder and louder, and I recognise the look of exasperation on his face as he shakes his head more vigorously and runs ever faster on the spot, and I realise they are a family on holiday, playing an after-dinner family game of charades.
17 May 2021 (Monday) (Sinai peninsula)
A breakfast of fresh-baked aish baladi (Egyptian flatbread) with fresh humus and labneh with thyme and a cup of coffee and a glass of hibiscus juice and a juicy tangerine.
16 May 2021 (Sunday) (Sinai peninsula)
There is a simple delight to discovering or rediscovering the thing you’re supposed to be doing. I discovered some years ago that I am supposed to move around in the world, to have no home or perhaps to make an infinite series of temporary homes. This morning as I walked out of my room and down some whitewashed steps towards the sandy cove for a morning swim, I noticed that the sky was a faded-denim desert blue that I don’t remember seeing before, and I saw a bird on a lawn that I have certainly never seen before, and there was a breeze from the east that I have never felt before and I had applied a brand of sunscreen I had never used before and whose smell I have never smelt before, and it felt – very purely and very simply – that I was at last again living in the way that I need to live, if I want to be happy.
15 May 2021 (Saturday) (Sinai peninsula)
The sea starts out very warm and shallow here, a sandstone shelf that stretches out for twenty or twenty-five metres from the sand. There is a floating jetty that leads out over the shelf and at the end the sea turns suddenly deep blue as the shelf ends and the ocean drops away, and you can look down through the very clear water to corals and colourful reef fish – wrasse and butterfly fish and clown fish and coral groupers and metre-long electric blue parrot fish and a blue-spotted sting ray. The sun was setting and I took a swim but I had left my diving mask in my suitcase so I just swam down to them and looked at them blurrily through the salt and my stinging eyes. As I climbed up the ladder an Egyptian man who lives in Cairo, who was sitting on the jetty with his feet in the water, handed me his swimming goggles and pointed back at the water so that I could dive back in and look at them properly.
14 May 2021 (Friday)
The man across the aisle on the flight had a very small baby sleeping on his chest. Whenever the baby stirred the man would stroke its head and murmur “Sssshhhh, sssshhhhh”. The baby would wriggle a little and burrow into his chest and go back to sleep again. It was lovely to have an up-close view of their closeness, an intimate glimpse of their intimacy. That was one joy. The other joy was that the baby never woke up.
13 May 2021 (Thursday)
The last day in Cape Town, and a day for seeing family and drinking unexpected and extravagant champagne and the dim sum at Thom Son in Bree Street and a feeling of perfect conclusion and the ending of a gorgeous cycle of time, which has offered the gift of reconnection and regathering and regrounding. I have lived in Cape Town for a total of 17 years in my life, with interruptions, but it has never felt quite as much like home as it does now, on the eve of leaving. Perhaps that is why one leaves: to finally feel at home.
12 May 2021 (Wednesday)
I have said farewell to most of the people who have sustained me over the past fourteen months, since I arrived castaway on these shores, and today is a day of quiet farewell to some of the places that have sustained me: The Ladder coffee shop in Bree Street, which reminds me without trying to of a sunny Greek church, and where Nicholas the gentle-eyed owner, who is also an Orthodox deacon, taught Jo how to make stained glass windows; Tafelberg Road in the cool air, with its views of the city bowl and the harbour, curving around the shoulder of the mountain to open up the southern suburbs and the flats and the distant airport; the promenade with its kelp and rocks and changing sea and sky and the dogs and their walkers and the heartening new-laid lawns of grass. It’s a profound relief that I’ve stayed long enough to forget the people who leaned out of the windows of their Beach Road apartments during lockdown and swore at me and told me to go home and tried to call the police. Now it is a happy place again, a place to walk and think and wonder at the dark water that stretches from here to everywhere.
11 May 2021 (Tuesday)
One day in the late 1930s Virginia Woolf opened the window of the sitting room of Monk’s Cottage, her cottage in Rodmell, and called in her husband Leonard from the garden to listen to the radio, because Hitler was speaking. She wasn’t summoning him because they were Hitler fans, but in the way, I suppose, that nowadays people share with fury or indignation something with which they do not believe: “Can you believe what this person is saying NOW?!”
We know what he replied because Virginia recorded it in her diary. Leonard called back from the garden: “I shan’t come. I am planting iris. They will be flowering long after he is dead.”
10 May 2021 (Mondays)
Walking into a room in which a woman has recently been applying a good, expensive perfume, the kind of perfume that smells of cedarwood boxes and fur-lined coats and real leather car seats and blood-warmed skin.
Also: the thrilling sensuality of a fully packed suitcase.
9 May 2021 (Sunday)
A morning walk above the the green-and-black patchwork that is the mountainside right now. the new grass already springing up from the burnt. It is sad about the library but the mountain loves to burn, and the new growth season is going to be rich and glorious.
8 May 2021 (Saturday)
Walking on Hout Bay beach when the sun has dipped just far enough to throw half the day in shadow, while the other half stays in good autumn sunshine. Half the water is in a palate of yellow and green, the other half in silver and blue. And then the sunlit half turns strangely copper, the colour of a five-cent piece.
7 May 2021 (Friday)
When a parallel-timeline version of you is on a flight north but you are at home, your life becomes a secret treat, a hollow carved from from the world. I ate roast beef and drank some red wine that I hadn’t finished in time for departure, and watched Citizen Kane, and read for several hours. There is something to be said for the gift of an empty and unexpected week.
6 May 2021 (Thursday)
I was supposed to leave tomorrow on a flight to Egypt and then onwards, but the Egyptian embassy didn’t come through at the last moment, and the flight is postponed by a week. Nursing my broken Egyptian heart with a large pizza and three movies and a cold Cape day closing in felt something like delightful.
5 May 2021 (Wednesday)
I once gave a small 10-year-old girl a necklace with a small bee pendant. You never know when kids like your gifts, but tonight I saw her wearing it. Her mother says she used to be afraid of bees, but now she wears her bee pendant as a charm to avoid being stung, and now she likes them.
4 May 2021 (Tuesday)
Lying on the sofa in the mid-morning, and watching the sky through the big windows, noticing what I used to know but had forgotten – that the clouds are always moving, but they stop moving when you look at them. To see how fast they are moving you have to look at the patches of blue in between, focus your eyes on the patches of blue.
3 May 2021 (Monday)
Another farewell dinner, in the beautiful peaceful home of two wonderful friends, with white candles reflected in the black open window panes, and a very good dog sleeping on a chair, and the most extraordinary story being told, and a palpable feeling of loss when we parted. Delight and loss are always allies.
2 May 2021 (Sunday)
My mother has been in the hospital for several days, having tests and scans and MRIs and the news so far is cautiously good, so that’s a delight, as is a limpid, silent Sunday, with a high clear sky, pale as the air over a desert, with lots of reading and eating leftover lamb and enjoying the sense of time unhurriedly passing, time like the cold clear waters of a very small and slow-moving stream.
1 May 2021 (Saturday)
Another farewell dinner, celebrating the Greek orthodox Easter, with lamb and couscous and deep-fried olives and cries of “Christos anesti!” and an unholy amount of wine and Winston Churchill’s favourite champagne, that concluded with someone – me – sleeping on a kitchen counter using a bowl of lemons as a pillow.
30 April 2021 (Friday)
Discovering the work of Martin Lewis, an Australian artist and illustrator who made black and white etchings of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. How beautiful and moody they are, and don’t you wish you could walk down those lonely stairs to that subway station and catch the jolting, rattling train uptown, your face reflecting thoughtfully back at you from the window glass?
29 April 2021 (Thursday)
A farewell dinner of dim sum and too much whiskey with dear friends, with laughter and closeness and some sweet sorrow, just as a farewell dinner should be.
28 April 2021 (Wednesday)
Nine weeks and two days ago I applied for what in Casablanca was called a letter of transit – some essential item of paperwork that would enable me to travel freely through the world. I was told that it might take ten days, but I didn’t believe that. I thought it might be three weeks, or four weeks or even – and this was really just being overly demure in the face of fate – six weeks. It arrived today. Oh happy day. Oh happy and joyful. But sad too – all joys have a silvering of sadness. Over the past thirteen months, since fleeing home from Los Angeles with the doors of the world slamming closed one by one behind me, I have spent longer in one place than I have in years, and I have fallen back a little in love with my home again, and with the people here. And what an unexpected delight that is.
27 April 2021 (Tuesday)
Sitting on the grass in a Botanic Garden, drinking a sneaky cup of wine and watching a family singing happy 15th birthday to their daughter at their picnic a little way over. She blushed and her friends and family sang even louder. Soon she came over and shyly asked us if we would like a slice of her birthday cake. Her name was Tessa and her birthday cake was chocolatey and moist and had a delicious fudge icing and I hope she will have a long and happy life, full of love and singing and cake, and never lose her instinct to share her happiness with the strangers at the next picnic blanket.
26 April 2021 (Monday)
I love this season, when the sunlight and the clouds combine in the mornings, and the light on the water of Table Bay takes on the texture and sheen of a bright metal.
25 April 2021 (Sunday)
A pizza and a litre of ice-cream and a Sunday afternoon movie.
24 April 2021 (Saturday)
My first ever visit to the Harold Porter Botanic Gardens in Betty’s Bay, for a long walk up the zig-zag path to the top of the hill, through the limestone fynbos and the leopard-haunted kloofs below. The smell of honey and stone, and a raptor turning in the air below, and flights of dolphins ruffling the water of the bay and the long dark back and single low fin of a whale sunning itself.
23 April 2021 (Friday)
At the beginning of last year, I wrote this column: The Dog Who Chose Me, and today I received this letter, which made me so happy I cried a little:
Do you remember that article you wrote in THE TIMES about Rosie, the dog that arrived on your doorstep one day? I think you were in Barrydale at the time.
The title of the article was ‘The dog who chose me’. I think the same article appeared in another publication with the title something like ‘Looking at life through Rosie’s nose’.
Anyway, I thought you would like to know that I adopted Rosie who now lives with me and my young family and other dog ‘Jackie’ in Hout Bay, Cape Town.
We had to change Rosie’s name to ‘Millie’ because the dog next door is Rosie which would have caused much confusion.
Anyway, ‘Rosie’ is exactly as you describe her in your article and we love her to death. Thought you would be happy to learn that she has settled beautifully into her new home.
What a character she is – many stories to tell – but stories for another day …
22 April 2021 (Thursday)
Tea and cake in a dappled shady courtyard, with water running and bubbling from a water feature, and afterwards browsing through some antiques and admiring a beautiful 150-year-old mahogany writing desk that I covet.
21 April 2021 (Wednesday)
The fire on the mountain is out and there are many green unburnt patches on the slopes. Against the darker and blackened patches, the green stretches glow a much brighter green than before. Perhaps it’s the contrast, perhaps it’s the water from the helicopters, but they are bright and refreshing to the eyes.
and: Drinking beer at a pub quiz again, after all this time. It was fun.
20 April 20201 (Tuesday)
Working in a coffee shop, bumping into a slight acquaintance and chatting and sitting with him and shooting the breeze and doing some work together, the way people do in cities, the way cities are supposed to work. After a long time when all you can do is get to know a little better the people you already know, it’s a pure delight to better get to know someone you don’t already know.
19 April 2021 (Monday)
The city from my veranda at night is like a jewel box. There is a new spire on top of one of the buildings that lights up and changes colour and flashes and dances, the way the Eiffel Tower does. It only did it for about ten minutes, but it was a delightful discovery, a charming surprise.
18 April 2021 (Sunday)
My mother has registered for her vaccination. She doesn’t know when she’s going to receive it, but she is happy that she has managed to register. It’s the small things that lift people’s spirits: the tiny, almost incremental movements that cause people’s hearts to lift. There should be more of them.
17 April 2021 (Saturday)
Walking beside the flat sea and noticing a great arrow of ruffled water, which became a convoy of dolphins, jumping and soaring like a skein of water-bound geese.
16 April 2021 (Friday)
Reading through Vefa Alexiadou’s Greece – The Cookbook, and imagining the fava and the flatbread and the olives with thyme and the Santorini tomato fritters with onions and chopped mint and oregano, and the stuffed leeks with lemon sauce, and imagining the smell of the chicken skewers on the charcoal grill and the carafes of sunshine-yellow wine and the pine needles moving in the slight breeze and the small plashings of tiny clear waves on the pebbles of the beach. There is delight even in the mind, even in the memory.
15 April 2021 (Thursday)
A gift received: a cotton gown – not a dressing gown, exactly, but the sort of gown a man can wear on his terrace of a morning when he has houseguests, drinking a small cup of strong coffee or a glass of cold orange juice, reading last week’s English papers – in indigo, with a pattern of golden leopards. I did not know that I needed a gown until I received it, which is the best kind of gift.
14 April 2021 (Wednesday)
A lovely walk in the evening, down through town and to the Waterfront under a sunset sky of high backlit blue, studded with white round clouds.
13 April 2021 (Tuesday)
One of the delightful things about not having much sleep on Saturday night – three hours, more or less, and waking up hungry and hungover – is that for the next several nights your sleep is so deep and long that you wake each morning feeling young again.
12 April 2021 (Monday)
Gossip. Meeting a friend for coffee and getting gossip about what happened at the party on Saturday. I have missed gossip so much.
11 April 2021 (Sunday)
I haven’t eaten a pizza in two months. Today, on a day of glorious weather, I sat on a sofa in an indigo cotton dressing gown and ate a pizza and watched 13 episodes of satisfyingly terrible realty television and felt profoundly satisfied.
10 April 2021 (Saturday)
Watching a favourite movie with good old friends.
9 April 2021 (Friday)
A silver Vesta box, made in 1899. Look how the light touches it. Feel how warm it is in your hand. It is beautiful, and now it is mine, and I can keep things in it and hold it whenever I want. Delights aren’t supposed to be objects or possessions, but my delight in this object, and in owning it, is palpable and undeniable.
8 April 20201 (Thursday)
Today is the birthday of someone I love, who is just genuinely sunny and happy about life at the best of times, but is delighted about having a birthday in particular. It’s lovely and shaming – in the best way – to watch her being so uncomplicatedly happy.
7 April 2021 (Wednesday)
I woke and thought about the night before – about eating French brie and drinking cold pinot noir (not because I am a hopeless pseud, but because it was the the very same French brie and cold pinot noir that Billy Wilder eats in the novel Mr Wilder and Me, when he talks about the importance of recognising and seizing the moments of pleasure that life delivers us), and then watching a Billy Wilder film – and I thought about how all of this was made possible by someone who loves me, and I thought about being loved and what a thing it is, and I felt really tremendously lucky.
6 April 2021 (Tuesday)
A birthday. I loathe and fear my birthdays, but I had help and it was good.
5 April 2021 (Monday)
A dip in the Brandewyn river, with water from the falls tumbling on my head, and then a walk beside the river looking at paintings on rock walls made hundreds of years ago – perhaps even a thousand – by people who lived like I do, who grew old just like me, who had joys and sorrows and hopes and were impatient in traffic, just like me. From the immensity of the stars to the unfathomableness of human time and change, a good preparation for a birthday.
4 April 2021 (Sunday)
Sitting outside in the Cederberg night, on a large flat rock still warm from the day’s sun, watching the milky way materialise from the darkening sky, watching shooting stars and making wishes.
3 April 2021 (Saturday)
I am listening to some Greek music because I’m learning Greek and the more ways you can cross-reference your language exposure the better, and also because I like Greek music, especially the sad old rembetika and heart-lorn sad ballads of loss and the distance across the waters and the moonlight glistening on, I don’t know, the fishing nets. I am even loving the pop music, especially the kind delivered by dad-bodded old dudes, which makes me want to take off my shirt in the sunshine and wave it around over my head to summon the attention of the servitoros to order another potiri krasi. But this is delightful: one of the catchier tunes I am enjoying at the moment is called (in romanised letters) Kommena pia ta daneika, which is an idiomatic way of saying: “No more borrowed money” or “No more long-term loans”. Like just about every pop song it’s a love song, but it’s a somewhat genius invocation of the economic crisis to urge his lover (or perhaps just some gal in the taverna) to live in the present, to take pleasures when they are found, to gather ye rosebuds while ye may:
“Houses, cars, money/ Everything was made of dust/ Everything that they have been telling us for a long time is lost, my darling/ “I love you” was lost too/ Loans are over now/ If you want to live, Love me with what you have now”
John Donne would be proud.
2 April 2021 (Friday)
Going to an actual cinema to watch an actual film with an actual friend. Was it a good film? No. Did I love it? Oh yes.
1 April 2021 (Thursday)
My ex was terrible at April’s Fool’s jokes. She didn’t in the normal run of things play practical jokes or pranks, but on 1st April she always felt compelled to give it a go, from some sense of perverse duty to the gods of japery. I begged her to stop, or at least to temper her approach to them, but each year she would come at it from another, freshly brutal angle. No matter how many times I tried to persuade her that simply lying about something bad but plausible happening isn’t an April’s Fool’s joke, she never quite got the hang of it. One year she told me that we would have to cancel our trip to Turkey because of a work emergency. One year she told me that she had lost her wallet and that someone had withdrawn all the money from her account. One year she very earnestly told me that she had received a serious diagnosis from the doctor. You need to understand: ordinarily she was very bad at lying or pretending, but on 1 April she became Meryl Streep. After a while my nerve strengthened and I failed to be discomposed by anything she said to me on 1 April, and when she realised that, she started shifting the date of attack to 31 March or 2 April. It was absolutely horrible, but I remembered it today, and thought about how apologetic yet proud she always was when she managed to pull one over me, and it made me smile very fondly.
31 March 2021 (Wednesday
1: I went to the dentist for a root canal, and he poked around and decided that maybe I didn’t need a root canal today after all.
2: I met an old friend for wings and beer. We ate the wings and drank the beer, and then we ordered more wings and more beer.
30 March 2021 (Tuesday)
The hazy yellow moon through backlit clouds and a fresh breeze that somehow smells both of the sea and of the cold stone of the mountain.
29 March 2021 (Monday)
Just over a year ago I arrived back in Cape Town on a last-minute evacuation flight from Los Angeles, via Istanbul, for what I feared might be an internment as long as three or four months. One night around a year ago I heard the sound of a nightjar outside and below my bedroom window. I had never heard one before, and I heard it every night for several months until one night it wasn’t there any more. Where do nightjars go when they are no longer outside my window? Where did that nightjar go while I could go nowhere? I don’t know, but tonight the nightjar was back. It isn’t precisely a delight to be reminded that I have given up a whole year of my one wild and precious life to immobility and uncertainty, but there is a consolation in being revisited by an old friend, in being connected to nature itself.
28 March 2021 (Sunday)
I am waiting for some news, and the waiting has cast me down into doldrums of inertia and inactivity. I need the news to be in the affirmative, but I also need it to hurry up and arrive. Tonight I made a bargain with the devil. If the news comes this week, and it’s positive, I shall part with a little of my soul. It’s not nice to part with a little of your soul, nor is it nice to make a deal with the devil, but the feeling of doing something to influence your future, as opposed to just sitting and waiting, is a good and necessary feeling.
27 March 20201 (Saturday)
How delightful it is when what you repeatedly think is a Sunday turns out, each time, to be a Saturday.
26 March 20201 (Friday)
A good friend driving a long way to come and visit, and many laughs, and a lovely evening, and good food.
25 March 2021 (Thursday)
A pale half moon in the late daylight, rising over hills like painted scenery.
24 March 2021 (Wednesday)
A small bird came hopping into the lounge. Hopped past the furniture. Turned right to go to my bedroom. Hopped into the bedroom. I sat at the dining table, watching him. He reappeared again, turned left, hopped through the lounge, past the furniture and out onto the veranda and flew away.
23 March 2021 (Tuesday)
Just past the onion fields the dirt road dips and turns up a low ridge, past a grove of dark-leaved peach trees. It was hot today and the heat released the scent of the peaches, and the cooler dusk air allowed it to drift and hang like perfume.
22 March 2021 (Monday)
The chiming of the church bells in the village on the hour causes me deep delight. They have a distant, dreamy, unhurried, cows-in-an-alpine-meadow quality.
and: I have been feeling namelessly weak and unwell recently, and today was the first time that I felt stronger again. It was a delight to feel my legs carrying me up slight rises on my evening walk.
and: I identified a new bird today, using the Roberts’ Book of Birds that is here in this house. It was a grey wagtail. Apparently they are rare. Imagine that: me, identifying a rare bird. This is not a version of myself that I recognise.
21 March 2021 (Sunday)
There is a francolin who comes every day to stand in front of the glass sliding doors between the lounge and the patio. For hours he stands there, pecking occasionally, peering in at us like a Dickensian waif on Christmas morning. Today is a bright, sunny, autumnal day and the glass doors are open. There is no barrier between the inside and outside, but Frank is standing there, staring in. Occasionally he tries to tap his beak against the glass, but the glass isn’t there, and he nearly overbalances into the house. He walks up and down, looking for the glass. He is too polite to come inside.
20 March 2021 (Saturday)
In the loadshedding, lying on the sofa with candles flickering, listening to an audio-book of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. So spooky, so atmospheric, so genuinely unsettling and thrilling. The closest thing to being a scared, excited ten-year-old again, lying in bed and seeing how scared I could make myself with my mind, but this time knowing that sooner or later the lights will come back on.
19 March 2021 (Friday)
The smell of an onion field – savoury, rich, earthy, promising the full loam of the soil, promising adult pleasures and satisfactions on the tongue.
18 March 2021 (Thursday)
I am reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. (Why didn’t I read it before, when the rest of the world did? Probably because the rest of the world was reading it, and also because of Nicholas Cage.) It’s terrific, but every so often there is a word whose definition I sort of know, but not properly, not so that I could explain it to a small child, say, without being vague. I have been reading many years now and I sort of know what most words mean, and as we grow older, we become lazier and perhaps more defensive about not knowing things, especially words. We find ways around, we get the general gist. But I came upon the word “corybants”, which I didn’t know, and which was sufficiently specialised and unusual that it overcame my resistance to acknowledging that I don’t know it. I went to the shelf and took down a good-sized dictionary. When last did I take down a good-sized dictionary, and have the joy of thumbing through the pages, looking for knowledge? It is not the same as looking up the definition of a word online. Online, you get the answer you’re looking for and none other. Flipping through a dictionary means literally holding all the English words in your hand, it means the joy of serendipity, something catching your eye that you would never have thought of looking for. In a world temporarily characterised by stasis, it is an exercise of randomness, of adventure, a voyage of discovery. I found out what corybants are (in their archaic origins, a corybant was one of the “wild attendants of the Goddess Cybele”, so in modern usage I suppose would connote an enthusiastic pilgrim, or an energetic participant in a religious rite or festival), but I also spent a further happy half-hour lost in delight.
17 March 2021 (Wednesday)
A walk around a small town after sunset, the cuticle-moon over the hills, the southern cross over the other hills, warm air, bats eating bugs, the smell of braai smoke from the Recreation Hall, the sounds of small children playing and shrieking in the darkness while their parents braai meat and have drinks and gossip.
16 March 2021 (Tuesday)
The apartments I’ve been staying in this past year don’t have bathtubs, but tonight I am in a house with a bathtub that runs hot, clean karoo water. Bonus to the delight: loadshedding, and a warm bath while reading by candlelight.
15 March 2021 (Monday)
Cape Town is not, these days, always a city of good smells, but as I walked down between Burg Street and St George’s Mall I was enveloped first in the smell of bacon cooking and then, half a block later, the warm, steaming, earthy smell of a bakery baking bread. Purest delight.
14 March 2021 (Sunday)
I never give birthday presents, or Christmas presents either. If you know me or have ever dated me, you will know how very true this is. There are many reasons why I don’t give presents. The one I like to proclaim is that I am too cheap, but that’s not actually true, that just allows everyone make a joke about it. Another reason is that giving presents creates a reciprocal responsibility in the recipient to give you presents back, and I am genuinely uncomfortable about mutual webs of responsibility. I hate the thought of being the cause of obligation and discomfort. Another reason – maybe the biggest – is that I don’t know what to give people. Giving a gift is surely some sort of expression of your personality and taste, or your apprehension of their personality and taste, and the moment of giving is the frontline at which your personality and taste comes into first contact with theirs, like humans meeting alien intelligence for the first time. The possibility of misunderstanding and of making naked each’s incomprehension of the other is too alarming. So that’s why I don’t often give gifts: it’s a projection of my own insecurities and fear of being exposed, then being weighed and found wanting. But recently I have given two gifts. Today was the second, to a friend who turned 60, and I was sufficiently confident that he would like it that there was no anxiety, none of the crushing weight. My delight today was to have given a gift.
13 March 2021 (Saturday)
The greatest publicity picture of all time: Louise Brooks, who popularised the bob hairstyle and would be Liza Minelli’s inspiration in Cabaret, taken by Robert Richee in 1928
12 March 2021 (Friday)
Lunch with a very old friend – perhaps my friend of longest standing, with whom over the years I have had more wine-driven lunches than any mortal could count – and I managed to discover three new things about her that I have never known before. How is this possible?! There are always new things to discover.
11 March 20201 (Thursday)
The drawings made by Alphonse de Neuville for Hetzel’s editions of Jules Verne’s 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, in 1870. They thrill me.
10 March 20201 (Wednesday)
The great misty rainy winter storm that arrived in the night, so that I woke up to the sight you might see from the porthole of a ship passing through the Drake passage. A full glorious day of cold and rain and dim light, in which to feel cosy. It was a most wonderful gift.
9 March 2021 (Tuesday)
I have been in a dreadfully low mood for the past few days – drained of joy and energy, anhedonic, dead of eye and heart, unable to be of service to the world or to myself. Is it depression? Is it anxiety? Is it a physical post-viral condition? Hard to say and doesn’t really matter. It will pass, as everything does, and today it was my delight to have a partner who looked at me and told me to lie down on the sofa and watch old movies and to not feel any pressure to speak – to anyone – until I felt like it.
8 March 2021 (Monday)
Tea with my publisher at Rhodes memorial tea-room. I haven’t been up there to pat the lions in twenty years. The city looked very fine and wide. The statue of Rhodes is missing the tip of his nose. I remembered coming for scones and cream and jam with my grandmother when I was young and on holiday from Durban. They don’t seem to serve scones now, which is odd, but there was still the scent of the trees and the feel of the breeze coming down the mountain.
7 March 2021 (Sunday)
How the lights of the city shimmer and dance at night when there is moisture in the air.
6 March 2021 (Saturday)
Some relatives came for tea in the afternoon, and I bought petit fours from Limnos Bakery. Four chocolate, four pink, four white. I wanted a pink petit four – surely everyone wants the pink petit four – but you can’t make a dive for the petit fours when it’s your house, and then I became distracted by drinking champagne. By the end of the tea, I hadn’t had a petit four. Five bottles of champagne were finished, and there was one petit four left. Just one. And somehow, miraculously, it was pink.
5 March 2021 (Friday)
An unexpected invitation to do something I have always wanted to do, in a part of the world I love, I little later this year. It is a joy to feel the currents of energy starting to emerge in the world, to feel the world beginning to stir and stretch and wake again.
4 March 2021 (Thursday)
I am planning on doing something for my birthday, which isn’t for more than a month yet. I never do anything for my birthday – I shun my birthday as one would shun a seemingly sun-dozing crocodile – but this year I am doing something, and it gives me delight.
3 March 2021 (Wednesday)
My delights at the moment are mainly internal: anticipation, hope, excitement. Plans being made and a feeling in my chest like buds unfolding, like grass rising, like small birds and animals awakening after a hibernation.
2 March 2021 (Tuesday)
For the past several months I have been working on four different projects at the same time. Today I finished two of them, and tomorrow will be another one. The thought of starting my new year doing only one thing, with only one set of calls, is a deep, soothing delight. The only thing worse than having too much work is not having enough work, someone once said, but that person does not know my soul.
1 March 2021 (Monday)
A friend of mine told me that 2020 ran from March to March, which means today is New Year’s Day. That feels good.
28 February 2021 (Sunday)
I met Maria-Jose in Valencia a few years ago, with her delightful partner Mariki. MJ was once a tennis professional, and then managed professional tennis players for a living. She has a passion for opera and for collecting interesting people. She has properties around the world but they found themselves locked down in Hermanus last year, in a pair of elegant whitewashed houses side-by-side on the rocks with the sea filling half the vertical space of the lounge windows. Mariki uses one of the houses as a studio for her art. We ate crayfish tails for lunch and drank cold white wine and MJ told us about her ongoing battles with New York opera-goers and the weekends she spent visiting Patricia Highsmith in the countryside. It was a most, most delightful day.
27 February 2021 (Saturday)
I am still being haunted by mongooses. I drove down to Hermanus to spend the night, and as I left the house there I saw a gang of five francolins chasing a mongoose across the road. It kept outpacing them and pausing to look back but the francolins kept coming. They chased him across the street, across the front lawn of the house, and then up the stairs to the front door. There’s something going on with mongooses.
26 February 2021 (Friday)
There were fires somewhere in the east and that is of course not a delight, but the effect was a vermillion moon, a moon in changing shades of red and orange, late into the night.
25 February 2021 (Thursday)
The wind was blowing everywhere except in Sea Point. After dark, the moonlight lay on the sea like magnesium and shimmered like Mae West.
24 February 2021 (Wednesday)
I didn’t have a single work call today. Not a single call. Not a Zoom, not a check-in, not a conference, not another person’s voice telling me things I have no interest in hearing, no one else’s face unwelcome in my home. Not a single forced smile or polite “Mmmm!” I didn’t have a single work call today.
23 February 2021 (Tuesday)
I went to the dentist this afternoon and there was a small girl reading a magazine in the waiting area. She was frowning very intently at whatever she was reading. It is a delight to see small girls reading anything. It is a delight to see someone in a waiting room reading a magazine, and to think about the days when people used to do that all the time.
22 February 2021 (Monday)
I have been planning something, a move, an action that will bring about a new beginning and a new phase of life. Today I paid a lot of money to begin the process. It isn’t a delight to pay a lot of money, but when it is to start something big, it feels like a necessary toll, a commitment to action, a step that cannot be taken back – and that is a delight.
21 February 2021 (Sunday)
There is a red bottle-brush tree below my window, and suddenly it is surrounded by white butterflies that blow about like scraps of white paper. As I watched, one of them danced onto my balcony and out again. When you go to puppet shows, like the Handspring Puppet Theatre, say, there are often puppet-butterflies on wires that dance about and cause delight. I often think that real butterflies are imitating them.
20 February 2021 (Saturday)
A delightful afternoon with the family of a dear old friend whose son I have seen grow from a child to a young almost man, and just about managing not to drink too much. It has always been a source of internal debate, how much is too much, especially with old friends. Sometimes in my life too much has been just right, but I think this time I had it right.
19 February 2021 (Friday)
It has been a lovely summer, and remains one, but I could feel, in the evening breeze off the mountain last night, that undercurrent of cool that tells you that winter, while far from here, is coming. I like winter.
18 February 2021 (Thursday)
I went for a walk alone and finished listening to a podcast series about James Le Mesurier, the former leader of the Syrian White Helmets. It was a good walk and a good series, but the greatest delight is that I made the effort and time to finish it. I have noticed lately how I have fallen out of the habit of finishing things I start. This is good when it’s a dessert, but bad when it’s a project or a programme of action or even a TV series. I have a growing fear of finishing things, and it’s a delight that I have recognised that, and have started taking steps (however small) to fix it. I didn’t notice much of my surroundings, of course, and was strangely cut off from the physical experience of walking, which was less delightful, but there will be other walks.
17 February 2021 (Wednesday)
Receiving email letters from from faraway friends. It is of course gratifying and heart-warming and meaningful to receive a text, say, which offers proof that someone has just been thinking of you, but there is something about sitting down to read something longer from a friend that feels like it roots me to this world and to life. I am not always a great correspondent – not many people are, these days, unfortunately – but it delights me so.
16 February 2021 (Tuesday)
Whenever Nancy Mitford was invited to a party or a function she didn’t want to attend, requested for an interview she didn’t want to give, offered any kind of distasteful chore or job or responsibility, she sent the enquirer the following card:
15 February 2021 (Monday)
I was walking back from the shops and it was hot and I was tired so I sat down on the kerb for a while. I hadn’t heard it while I was walking, but as I sat there I noticed the wind was making the telephone wires over my head hum and vibrate as though there was something sliding along them, like a train running on wires. There is so much you miss when you drive a car, but it turns out there are even things you miss when you’re walking.
14 February 2021 (Sunday)
This is the best thing I have ever done, perhaps: woken in the morning with clouds and mist around my windows, and turned up the air-conditioning very high to simulate an icy Siberian winter, then watched Doctor Zhivago again. Oh, it gets better each time. What a film. And oh, Julie Christie’s diaphenous beauty and oh, Omar Sharif’s moustache and eyes as deep and soulful as the moon on a midnight pond. And the Siberian landscapes and the candles illuminated in ice-crystalled windows and Lara’s theme and – oh, it’s all so beautiful and Robert Bolt’s writing is so good.
13 February 2021 (Saturday)
To Alan Committie’s garden for an evening of socially-distanced comedy on his lawn, beneath spreading illuminated trees and a starry sky. It was good to be with people, laughing, our attention all focused on the same thing at the same time together in the same physical space, the way human beings are supposed to be. And Alan Committie is very funny and very clever.
12 February 2021 (Friday)
This morning there was a fog bank over the ocean. The sky was clear and bright and blue, but the fog was on the sea and it was the colour of the sea and the horizon, so that you couldn’t tell where water ended and air began. There were heavily laden ships anchored in the bay, and the tops of them poked up from the fog, looking as though they were sinking, or floating in the sky.
11 February 2021 (Thursday)
There is a blind in my apartment and it is being stirred by a slight breeze. It’s a very slight breeze, the sort you would find on a hot flat sea in the doldrums, and it causes some part of the blind to click very gently against the window, over and over, softly, slowly, like a beetle in a wood, or a pulse, or the eccentric second hand of a clock.
10 February 2021 (Wednesday)
Driving up Buitenkant Street this morning, after a walk on the promenade, the sky was so deep and blue, and the trees were so green and the blocks of flats suddenly burnt a bright Greek white. It was very lovely.
9 February 2021 (Tuesday)
I watched The Cameraman, Buster Keaton’s first film after signing his life away with a contract at MGM. Imagine laughing out loud at a film made in 1928. And has there ever been someone who runs on screen better than Buster? It was a genuine delight.
8 February 2021 (Monday)
Something in the house broke, and I fixed it myself. I am not a handyman, but now I can understand why some people are.
7 February 2021 (Sunday)
The last light falling on the tops of the tall trees, at the end of a clear, still dusk, and at the end of a calm Sunday in which I have adequately prepared for the week ahead.
6 February 2021 (Saturday)
A lovely afternoon spent with someone who matters the world to me, drinking champagne and white wine in the courtyard in which we used to host annual Hemingway parties, laughing and remembering and being happy and knowing that everything is fine and that everything will be for the best.
5 February 2021 (Friday) (Johannesburg)
A morning walking around the Johannesburg Zoo: the spider monkeys and the long-armed gibbons and the effortless grace of the puma with her cubs. It was raining a little, but the animals seemed happy and I was happy to spend time with them.
4 February 2021 (Thursday) (Johannesburg)
Driving the highways of Johannesburg and Pretoria in the easy, trafficless present. It reminded me of many dreams I had when I lived in Johannesburg of driving fast and unimpeded along the freeways. In those days, before Covid, you had to wait until the Christmas holidays, when everyone left for the coast, to drive the highways the way they were designed to be driven. To do so in the middle of the day was a joy.
And then dinner with my old friend David, whose life, like mine, has changed a lot and not at all since last we met. There are people with whom it doesn’t matter how much time has passed. Those are precious people.
3 February 2021 (Wednesday) (Johannesburg)
My first flight in almost a year. It’s only a domestic flight, but still, it feels like a stretching of the wings, a loosening of the joints..
2 February 2021 (Tuesday)
A swim in the sea without having to look around to see if I’m about to be arrested.
1 February 2021 (Monday)
Any day is a delight when you do something for the first time, and go somewhere you haven’t been before. Unfortunately the somewhere new was the Parow Shopping Centre, and the something new was spending three-and-a-half hours having a TB scan for a visa application. So they weren’t unalloyed delights, but still – you must take your delights where you can find them.
31 January 2021 (Sunday)
The film Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937), which made me cry with genuine, profound, unignorable sadness and heartache. It is a delight to made to cry by the real sadness of a piece of art: it makes it easier to live the sadness of real life. Real life is not currently sad for me, but one day it will be.
(Make Way for Tomorrow was written by the novelist/ screenwriter Vina Delmar. There are a number of things about Vina Delmar that delight me:
- She was actually a pair of writers – Vina herself and her husband Eugene, who worked as a duo, and surely the only husband-wife writing team in history in which the wife received all the credit.
- They insisted on only working at home, refusing to go to the studio, go on set, or speak to any actors.
- They only wrote two screenplays. Make Way for Tomorrow is one of my favourite sad movies of all time, and the other, The Awful Truth, also directed by Leo McCarey, and made in the very same year as Make Way for Tomorrow, is one of my favourite comedies of all time. It stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.
- Vina Delmar won the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Awful Truth, and the pair promptly gave up writing screenplays, saying they didn’t enjoy the business, and far preferred writing novels.)
30 January 2021 (Saturday)
After a lovely evening, after everyone has gone home, sitting in the dark beneath a tree and watching a golden globe of a moon rising over the golden lights of the city.
29 January 2021 (Friday)
The wedding is today! And I am going to be a witness! That is delight in itself. Another delight: I am wearing a jacket for the first time in months.
28 January 2021 (Thursday)
Two of my favourite people are unexpectedly getting married! Tomorrow! I am being sincere when I say that marriage-for-an-exit-visa is my favourite and most romantic form of marriage.
27 January 2021 (Wednesday)
Another walk, another whale, but this whale caused a different kind of delight: the delight of watching other people notice the whale, and point and beam and squeal, and call their friends to tell them to hurry down to the promenade, near the big statue of the sunglasses, to see the whale!
26 January 2021 (Tuesday)
A walk along the water’s edge to ponder an important life decision, and there was a whale, ten metres away, just past the rocks, swimming up and down, close enough that you could look it in the eye and almost see your own reflection.
25 January 2021 (Monday)
A bowl of ice-cream – always a delight in itself – drizzled with the juice from a jar of brandied cherries, made and given by friends.
24 January 2021 (Sunday)
Listening to William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices for the first time. Especially the Credo and the Agnus Dei, but all of it, really.
Also: dinner with friends, and a good movie.
23 January 2021 (Saturday)
Watching the whole of Boy on a Dolphin (1957, Jean Negulesco) – which, despite Sophia Loren and the islands of Poros and Hydra and Delos, is not a good movie – just to try find one moment that I remembered from when it was shown in the school hall at the end of a hot summer’s term when I was ten years old. I began to doubt that it was there. Had I just imagined it, like that shot of Purdey being menaced by the shadow of the giant rat in that old episode of The New Avengers? And then finally, in the very shot of the film, just before “The End” – there it was.
22 January 2021 (Friday)
A night-time swim, slow so as not to make a sound. The moon seen from underwater; the call of an owl.
21 January 2021 (Thursday)
My 80-year-old mother, who has emphysema and COVID, called me this morning to tell me she still doesn’t have any symptoms, a week after her positive test. “I feel like a fraud,” she complained.
20 January 2021 (Wednesday)
On a Zoom call with a director in Los Angeles, talking about a plot point, he dialled in a friend from New York, a top-level political image consultant, and he regaled us for an hour with humorous stories about prepping dictators and sheiks for their media campaigns, and the time he had to flee Saudi Arabia at twenty minutes’ notice, taking off from Riyadh, looking down to see cars with flashing lights pulling up at the airport, like the scene at the end of Argo. It was just a delight to be connected to the world again, to hear interesting people telling interesting stories, to feel bigger than the four walls around me.
19 January 2021 (Tuesday)
I had a fifteen-minute screaming match over Zoom with an executive producer in another country. Both of us were filled with righteous rage at the other, and both of us yelled at the top of our voices, simultaneously, until it felt like the walls were going to collapse. Two adults in different countries, shouting at their computer screens. Then we hung up and stomped around, no doubt yelling at no one or each other or ourselves in our separate rooms. Then we got back to work. I wouldn’t say those fifteen minutes were a delight, precisely, but afterwards we both felt much better.
18 January 2021 (Monday)
A lunchtime swim on a hot day. The taste of chlorinated water and the smell of hot stone at poolside and the towel you are using to dry yourself.
17 January 2021 (Sunday)
I have always wanted to be in a book store when someone asks a member of staff for one of my books. I have spent enough time skulking around bookshops that you would think that might have happened before, but no, not until today.
“Do you have Bristow-Bovey’s latest book?” I heard a splendid lady saying.
I popped up my head over the shelf like a meerkat. A dream fulfilled!
“It’s just been published,” she was saying. “Something about bees.”
This gave me pause. I have not, so far as I can remember, written a book about bees. Plus, come to think of it, I haven’t published a book lately.
The staffmember was equally baffled. “No,” she said, squinting at the computer screen, “I can’t see anything here.”
“Yes, yes,” said the customer with admirable certitude. “It’s by Bristow-Bovey, and it’s about bees. ‘The secret of the bees’, or ‘Busy as a bee’ – something like that.”
But the staffmember was not to be moved. “Bristow-Bovey has not written any book about bees,” she said, “and in fact he hasn’t written much of anything lately, the loathesome, idle, good-for-nothing worm.”
Perhaps she didn’t say that last part, but I definitely heard it in my head.
I wanted to jump in on the side of the stalwart member of the paying public, to back her up and protect her right to buy my book about bees. I racked my mind for a book I might have forgotten … bees? Insects? The wonders of nature … oh.
With a sinking heart I stepped forward. “Pardon me, ” I said. “I think you mean David Bristow.”
The two women glanced at me as you might glance at a piece of chewed gum on the sidewalk.
“Yes, of course, David Bristow,” said the member of staff to the customer. “I have it right here.”
16 January 2021 (Saturday)
I have started packing up, and it’s a delight to pack up, not only because of the increasing order and spareness in your life, but because packing up means that something is soon enough going to happen.
15 January 2021 (Friday)
After the beautiful bright summer’s days, to wake up to mist and cloud, like being inside a ship in a fog bank.
And: the agapanthus are all in bloom, lilac-coloured and dripping with late summer.
14 January 2021 (Thursday)
Meeting with good friends who produced the most perfect and thoughtful gift, the kind of gift that makes you a little wordless and flustered and distracted because you don’t quite know how to express how touched you are. And then a lovely late afternoon at their table under trees drinking whiskey and surrounded by green. I feel very lucky and happy.
13 January 2021 (Wednesday)
I treated myself to a delightful monster double-feature. First The Blob (1958), Steve McQueen’s first starring role, in which he is out-emoted by a blob from outer space, and then the original Japanese Godzilla (Ishiru Honda, 1954) which, I have to stress, is in every way a superior movie, and superior to the American versions as well. I don’t know why I am suddenly watching monster movies during the day, but most delights have no reason or utility.
12 January 2021 (Tuesday)
The light blue of the sky in the morning, around 8.47am, with the sun up and some clouds on the horizon. It is deep blue that usually gets all the headlines, but today I noticed the delicate paleness of the blue, the receding emptiness and lightness of it, like fine icing on a pastry.
11 January 2021 (Monday)
A necessary walk and consolidation, in which I resolved to stop the en-slobment of this terrible stasis, and to make an effort once more to live a more elegant life.
10 January 2021 (Sunday)
Laughing first thing in the morning – about the name a friend has given their child, about what shape your legs would have to be if you wanted to move around like a grasshopper, about the word “fungible”about a pizza shop on a Greek island in 2018 that had a sign in which a hungry-looking slice of pizza holding a chef’s knife and riding a chicken chased a cluster of terrified ingredients over a hillside – is the richest luxury, the most profound delight.
9 January 2021 (Saturday)
There were a lot of very silly small dogs on the promenade tonight, just terribly silly and sweet.
8 January 2021 (Friday)
Michael Lewis is for my money the best non-fiction writer working today (The Big Short, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Undoing Project), and I am delighted, DELIGHTED, to discover that when he was a young boy, his father convinced him that there was a Lewis family crest, emblazoned with the Lewis family motto: “Do as little as possible, and that unwillingly, for it is better to receive a slight reprimand than to perform an arduous task.”
7 January 2021 (Thursday)
Even though I have people clamouring for work from me, I managed to spend the entire day without doing a scrap of it. This, looked at the wrong way, would be a source of shame and anxiety. I choose not to look at it that way.
6 January 2021 (Wednesday)
I am not someone who worries much, but for some reason I was worried about someone going on a journey, but they arrived safely where they were going. That was a delight.
5 January 2021 (Tuesday)
I love this first week of the year, when enough people aren’t back to work yet, so that the city still has that suspended, dozing air of stillness, and no one is phoning you and there are no emails in your inbox. Wouldn’t life be something splendid if this would be how it always is?
4 January 2021 (Monday)
My neighbours in my block of flats are in their seventies, but they know how to live. As I came walking into the block I spied them on their balcony, dressed in crisp white shirts, eating an elegant pasta with a bottle of red wine, and music playing from inside their apartment. He was wearing sunglasses with blue lenses and looked jaunty enough to be wearing a captain’s cap. They looked like a couple taking the evening light on the balcony of their stateroom on an elegant cruise, looking contentedly across the water at Rio or Macao. I greeted them happily, and it made me happy to see them.
3 January 2021 (Sunday)
Day 18 of Delights on the Road (the road back to Cape Town):
1. Tea at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein in the clean air and dry heat, beside the burbling fountain in the courtyard that froze the last time I was there, in mid-winter on my way to Sutherland, and I stood on the ice and tap-danced to impress the two young girls I was with.
2. Finishing the Summer of Bruce as we drove down out of the karoo towards the city. After 18 hours of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography and having now made the acquaintance of all twenty of his albums, I would not say I am a Bruce super-fan, but I feel enriched by having sunk so deeply into someone’s life and self-presentation and artistic strivings. I feel greatly edified, and somewhat inspired, and I will miss his company.
3. Arriving in the city and driving down to the promenade for a walk and finding it so … normal. There were people strolling and enjoying the evening, and there were spinner dolphins leaping and twisting from the water, and the air was warm and still and the sea turned purple after the sun went down. It was calm and lovely and beautiful, and I am renewed in my conviction that 2021 will be a pretty good year.
2 January 2021 (Saturday)
Day 17 of Delights on the Road (Karoo National Park):
1. A walk around Bethulie in the cool of the morning, nodding hello to the small gaggle of geese making their way across a field, saying my good mornings to a mare eating a bale of hay and feeding her foal, touching the brim of my hat to the small and excitable dog so happy to greet me he threw himself off his feet.
2. Driving into the Karoo National Park, and feeling filled with the space and the emptiness and the silence.
3. Diving out of the heavy dry heat and into cold clean water. It feels like being a child again – the pure simple pleasure of warm air then water on your skin, your swimming trunks drying almost as soon as you leave the water again.
4. Sitting on the porch in the evening and watching an ostrich on a rocky hillside across the valley pleasuring a lady ostrich, with a great flapping of wings and gyrating of bodies, then afterwards trotting off like a man who has remembered it’s ten minutes to closing time and if he hurries to the pub he can still get a round in.
5. Sitting on the porch at night and watching the silent lightning in the north flashing in sheets across the sky, lighting up hidden banks of cloud, making the sky flicker like a malfunctioning screen.
1 January 2021 (Friday)
Day 16 of Delights on the Road (Bethulie)
1. I start every New Year’s day with a swim in nature, and this year was the dam in Clarens, slipping down a clay bank into the beautiful cool water, watched by a white-faced coot bobbing between the reeds. One of my intentions for 2021 is to swim naked in nature at least 21 times, and this was a good start.
2. Driving along a rutted, pot-holed, orange-earthed Free State backroad towards storm clouds and lightning, with no cellphone reception and fuel running low. In two hours there had been no other car on the road, coming or going. There was no sign of life except for occasional abandoned homes or rusted-out roadside wrecks. It felt like the first act of a horror movie. It was thrilling and delightful.
3. Not a delight, this, but a certain kind of mystery. The whole of 2020, I was crossing paths with mongooses. In Cape Town in my garden, on the mountainside, in Barrydale, in Hermanus, everywhere I went, there was a mongoose a little way ahead of me. I have seen them on foot and from my car and out of my lounge window. The mongoose became my familiar. I have never before seen a dead mongoose in my life, but today, driving between Clarens and Bethulie, I saw five or possibly six dead mongooses in the middle of the road or beside it. What does it all mean?
31 December 2020 (Thursday)
Day 15 of Delights on the Road (Clarens):
1. A walk along the river to a bookstore where once, years ago, I found a signed early copy of The Jungle Book.
2. The quiet contentment of preparing for the end of the year – getting yourself in order, gathering up your reflections and hopes and lessons learnt and still to be learnt. Making decisions and hoping hopes. I have drawn up a list of 21 things I want to do in 2021 – fun things, work things, general things, specific things. They aren’t resolutions, they are yardsticks, targets, direction-finders. They are articles of faith.
3. I measure my emotional well-being by my first internal response to sudden loss or disappointment. A full bottle of whiskey broke so thoroughly that I couldn’t even save any of the amber ichor from the bottom of the bottle. I looked at it and smiled philosophically. It is a delight to end the year in a good place in your heart,
30 December 2020 (Wednesday)
Day 14 of Delights on the Road (Durban to Clarens):
1. Meeting my dear friend Winston, who I haven’t seen in person in twenty years, and meeting his wife and the children who are the same age and older than we were when we first met. There is something remarkable about meeting old friends whose memories of you are unmuddied by intervening years: he remembered things that astonished me to hear. I said that?! I did that?! It was a delight.
2. Driving through the great honey- and tea-coloured rocks of Golden Gate National Park, with great white banks of cloud massing in a hard blue Free State sky.
3. Sitting under a gazebo outside, reading back on my journal for the year by candlelight with a glass of raki, while all around the sky lights up with silent flickers and strobes of distant sheet lightning, through the Maluti mountains into phosphorescent relief. Then the the cracks and peals of distant thunder, rolling nearer, then the first tinkling of a wind chime suspended from a tree branch as the breeze reaches us, and then the first spatterings of rain.
29 December 2020 (Tuesday)
Day 13 of Delights on the Road (Sodwana and Durban):
1. A final dive of the year in the clear, clean water of the upper Agulhas current, with the sunlight spreading itself across the surface and great schools of shoaling fish and coral and anemones.
2. Checking in to the Balmoral Hotel on the Marine Parade, where I have stayed for the last fifteen years, each time I have been drawn back to Durban. The Balmoral looks out across the permanent beachfront fun-fair and the cable-car seats that terrified me when I was young. I remember the smell of melting soft-serve and candyfloss and the burnt ozone of the dodgems, and I remember the carnival sounds through the loudspeakers. It’s all silent now. A red moon rose over the sea.
3. Walking the beachfront, between the piers and remembering being young. There was a blue light descending with dusk over the beach and the sea and my memories. The air was warm and salty, the way it must have been when my dad was young and pretending to be a lifesaver here to meet girls. It was wistful and melancholic, and there is a strong possibility I will never be in this hotel again and never walk here again, never be in this city again, but melancholy can have its delights.
28 December 2020 (Monday)
Day 12 of Delights on the Road (Sodwana):
A gin and tonic on the porch after Cyril’s speech, silently watching the moon rise and bats flit in front of it.
27 December 2020 (Sunday) (St. Lucia)
Day 11 of Delights on the Road (St Lucia):
1. Snorkeling in Cape Vidal, in warm, shallow water surrounded by fish large and small, like dropping into an aquarium.
2. Arriving back to our towel to find an Afrikaans family standing guard over picnic basket, because monkeys has descended from the trees in search a sandwich. “I nearly had to punch one!” said the elder son proudly.
3. Prawns and garlic and cold beer in an open-sided restaurant and a test match fuzzy and silent on the television and the cool evening breeze stirring off the lake.
26 December 2020 (Saturday)
Day 10 of Delights on the Road (St Lucia):
1. The cry of a fish eagle echoing across water.
2. Sitting on the edge of a wooden jetty, looking down into the clear, shallow waters of Lake St Lucia, and the fish nudging through the river grass, and the cool breeze across the blue and grey water, and the distant blue hills and the palms and the hippos blowing and the high, high sky with perfect white clouds against the blue.
3. The smell of fresh grilled prawns in a Portuguese restaurant as you drink a Catemba in the heat.
4. Dusk on the water of the lake – the great, peaceful silence and emptiness of the wild world and how it eases the eyes and the heart.
25 December 2020 (Friday)
Day 9 of Delights on the Road (St Lucia):
1. Waking to vervet monkeys outside and the twinkling lights of the tree in the milky KZN dawn.
2. Taking a swim on Christmas Day. It has been a long time since I have had a swim on a warm, sticky Christmas Day.
3. Taking a walk before lunch and hearing, not far away, the sound of a hippo with its barking-laughing call, and somewhere far away on the other side of town, hearing one reply.
4. Taking a swim on Christmas night.
24 December 2020 (Thursday)
Day 8 of Delights on the Road (St Lucia):
1. Christmas is always a tricky time – it is one of those marker days that throw out buoylines which your mind can follow down through the years into the depths of the past. “On this day when I was 12 …” “On this very day in the year 2000…” But Christmas Eve now finds me in a place I have never been, the St Lucia estuary up the north coast of KZN, where street signs warn of hippo crossings and you are counselled not to go out after dark for fear of bumping into them. As we sit on the upstairs balcony of this lodge, rag-tag travellers and Christmas misfits drift in to take their rooms and hunker down in the steamy green Christmas forest.
2. I came into the room and Jo had produced a Christmas tree and decorations from their hiding place in the boot of the car and was assembling the tree and trying to disentangle the lights. A Christmas tree on the road, in the middle of the estuarine forest: that is an unexpected delight.
3. Late at night on Christmas Eve, after several glasses of festive cheer, going out hippo-hunting in the silent streets, trying to guess where a hippo might hide.
23 December 2020 (Wednesday)
Day 7 of Delights on the Road (Umkomaas):
The delight of rediscovering what I have always known and sometimes forget: that the best holiday days are always the days when you do nothing at all, reading on your porch then lazing and reading beside a pool you don’t even bother to swim in, barely stirring except to fetch more ice for your drink, watching the sudden subtropical descent of dusk and darkness behind the banana fronds. This afternoon I made myself take off my shirt as I lay there on a recliner in the blue shade: it wasn’t a good sight when I looked down, but it was a good feeling, and summer holidays are about the feelings.
22 December 2020 (Tuesday)
Day 6 of Delights on the Road (Umkomaas):
1. The feeling of pride when you take someone under the Indian Ocean for the first time, someone new to diving and to the wild southern sea and its strength and currents, someone afraid of sharks, and you watch them gather themselves briefly at the surface then smile bravely and point their head toward the sea floor and go swimming towards a cave full of fins and teeth.
2. Diving with sharks on Aliwal Shoal. It has been a while since I did it, and it was a joy all over again – the thrill of the encounter, the long dark figures emerging from the overhang cave, the sense of being connected to the vast unseen world.
3. Taking someone who means so much to you now to show them the place where you grew up, the mundane, haunting, poisonous, bitter-sweet place that you just can’t quite shake from your system.
4. As part of the Summer of Bruce we watched Blinded by the Light, an autobiographical film based on the memoir by Sarfraz Mansoor, a kid of Pakistani heritage growing up in 80s Luton who discovers and is saved by the music of Bruce Springsteen. I can’t remember when last I watched a movie that bad and stayed with it all the way through to the end. What could be more delightfully summery and holidayish than to watch a terrible movie with its heart in the right place?
21 December 2020 (Monday)
Day 5 of Delights on the Road (Umkomaas):
1. A morning walk through an indigenous coastal forest. As you step into it the air becomes cooler and more fresh, there are insects and beetles calling from the trees in frequencies and volumes like car alarms, changing their call as you approach or move away from them. Through the undergrowth a flash of red-brown and a fleeing buck.
2. Reaching the coast of my old home province and seeing the Indian Ocean hazy and blue, the way I remember it, between the hills and behind the banana trees.
3. Sitting beside the pool in the guest house of a south coast diving town that I used to visit with my dear old friend Evan, when we were younger and still friends, and watching a small family of vervet monkeys swing through the trees on their afternoon outing, and a watching a small, rapt, earth-bound daschund staring at them longingly, as though seeing a vision of himself with opposable thumbs.
4. A good, long, drowsy afternoon read on the bed with the dozing coast of memory outside, feeling like a summer holiday.
20 December 2020 (Sunday)
Day 4 of Delights on the Road (KZN coast):
1. On the beach at Morgan Bay, taking a long walk before leaving, encountering two girls carrying an enormous fish. They were carrying it as though it was a sleeping dog, or a ten-year-old child. They showed it to me and I admired it for a while – it was a Kob, they told me, and its scales still gleamed silver, so freshly had it been hauled from the sea. They were beaming with pride and delight. “We’ve been coming for years and years,” said the girl carrying it, “and we never catch ANYTHING!”
2. Just past Kokstad, we have checked into the Ingezi Forest Lodge, all surrounded by forest and hills and the sound of breeze through the leaves. My mother and father stayed here many years ago, when I was a very small child, when it was a motel for business travellers and sales reps. I know very little of their lives, and it is delight to have crossed paths with theirs.
3. For no clear reason, we have decided to use this road trip to familiarise ourselves with the life and career of Bruce Springsteen. I have never been a fan and have certainly never listened to a full album, but all twenty of them are queued up in chronological order, and so is all fifteen hours of Bruce reading his autobiography. As he gets to each new album we pause the audiobook and listen to that album a couple of times, then listen to him talking about it, then listen a few more times again. We have made it through the first two somewhat sketchy albums and have reached Born to Run. It was raining when we arrived at the lodge this evening, so as the thunder rolled and cracked and rain came down we watched a documentary, Wings for Wheels – The Making of Born to Run, which besides being an extraordinary look at what it demands of someone to painstakingly make their art, also gave me the pleasing sense of conducting in-depth, multi-source research into Bruceology.
19 December 2020 (Saturday)
Day 3 of Delights on the Road:
1. On a long empty beach in the Eastern Cape I encountered a middle-aged woman who looked at me with the look that formerly law-abiding folks greet each other with nowadays: acknowledgement and fellow-feeling.
“It’s good to see other people out here,” she said.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I am an undercover policeman and I am here to arrest you.”
“Please do,” she said. “I could do with a break.”
2. Checking into the worst guesthouse in the world, and then laughing for a while and checking out of the worst guesthouse in the world and hitting the road again.
3. A long swim in the cool sea, and then an evening on the terrace of the Morgan Bay Hotel, drawing up lists of 21 things we want to do in 2021, and the feeling of slowing down to a stop, and taking stock, and looking forward to the future again.
18 December 2020 (Friday)
Day 2 of Delights on the Road:
It’s dreadful for the people who have to make a living, but for people like me who are only passing through, the quietness of the Garden Route is a joy. In the Tsitsikamma Forest I walked to the big yellowwood tree, 800 years old, and sat in the green shade and listened to birds calling and responding in the canopy above, then walked five or six kilometres around on the circular path, and never saw another person.
In this Port Alfred guesthouse we are the only people in a sprawling, multi-roomed mansion. I roam the corridors like William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon. The empty sea throws itself against the empty shore outside my window.
17 December 2020 (Thursday)
Day 1 of Daily Delights on the road:
A day of multiple joys:
1. Finding the most beautiful dirt road between Nowhere in the Klein Karoo and Garcia Pass.
2. Stopping for a drink with friends in Wilderness that became several drinks on their veranda, between the forest and the sea, and lunch and much laughter and much talk of the future.
3. Taking a sunset walk beside the lagoon in Knysna and seeing a Pied Kingfisher hover over the shallows, its beak pointing down a rapier of Damocles, and watching it plunge down and disappear underwater and emerge with its evening meal glistening and silver.
4. Checking into a hotel again. I hadn’t realised quite how much I love hotels. Hotels mean transience and movement and change. They mean energy and nothing lasting forever, or even very long.
16 December 2020 (Wednesday)
It is a hot sunny day out there and I am packed and ready to depart on my antentwig-length road trip. The journey will take me to beaches where I am not allowed to swim and beaches where I am, to parts of the country I have never seen and parts where I grew up and have faded into the hazy status of uneasy myth. I am loaded up with audio books and music and podcasts and real books, and above all I am pre-emptively rich in endless unaccounted-for hours. I was scheduled to be in Lisbon now, bunkering down for a couple of months before going across to Greece to begin building my house: that all fell away with the gusts of chance and global circumstance, and this is the last-minute back-up plan, but I am as happy and delighted as a person could be.
15 December 2020 (Tuesday)
Sending my last email, and knowing that no matter what happens, I am not going to open another email or take another call or do another word of work this year.
14 December 2020 (Monday)
A splendid call with a producer in Hollywood who agreed with me when I said, “To hell with this year. Let’s start this up again in January.”
13 December 2020 (Sunday)
I was watching a film with my partner. It was a French movie directed by a well-regarded female director about a female astronaut who is also a single mother and who has been selected for a year-long trip away to space but she feels very guilty about leaving her child behind and she wonders if she should stay but she really should go because she has broken many glass ceilings to be a female astronaut and she wants to show her daughter that the sky is the limit but she feels very guilty because she loves her daughter and there’s a male astronaut also going but he can leave his kids with his wife and not feel guilty, and Eva Green is the female astronaut and she’s a very good actress and it’s good that movies like this get made and not all space movies have to be exciting and … my partner looked across at me and said, “This is boring. Let’s watch something else.”
12 December 2020 (Saturday)
Even though I haven’t quite finished my work, I woke up today with that holiday feeling of not having to do anything. I felt time and leisure stretching out ahead of me. I realised: even if I don’t finish all my work this year before I stop working, so what?
11 December 2020 (Friday)
I am leaving on Tuesday on a three-week road trip, and I packed my suitcase today. I am traveling light so it’s a small suitcase. I never usually manage to pack in advance, but I should because this was a revelation. I could take my time instead of rushing and fretting and stressing; each item was carefully chosen, carefully folded and arranged and inserted. The result is a work of practical art, a gorgeous model of efficiency and aesthetic satisfaction. It sits there whispering to me: “If only you did everything in good time, your whole life could be like me: beautiful and elegant and functional.”
10 December 2020 (Thursday)
I saw a red hibiscus on a TV programme and was pondering the redness of that hibiscus and wondering if I had seen a red hibiscus in real life, or if you only find them in Hawaii, and promptly drove past a bush of red hibiscus.
9 December 2020 (Wednesday)
Dinner with friends under a spreading tree in a square, and he had received some good news that day about his future. Good news! On 9 December 2020! It was a delight to hear it.
8 December 2020 (Tuesday)
The rain at 10.15pm.
7 December 2020 (Monday)
I have been unwell for the last while, and feeling weak, so today was the first day in a long time that I took a long walk, along the promenade with the tide low and the sea glinting just beyond the dark rocks and the gulls crying and a small flotilla of kayakers crawling across the blue.
6 December 2020 (Sunday)
Myprodol. And Ernst Lubitch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932).
5 December 2020 (Saturday)
A good long drive through mountains that glow blue in air that is clear, but also soft – as though the air itself is a very clear liquid, as clear as clear air.
4 December 2020 (Friday)
Entering with regret into another business negotiation – no one should be negotiating business in December of 2020; this is the time to put down our screens and internet connections and feverish, fearful, calculating minds – and discovering afresh the great advantage your own apathy and indifference can give to your negotiating position.
3 December 2020 (Thursday)
I have started reading a detective series by Steven Saylor, involving a Roman private investigator named Gordianus the Finder who, in this first novel, Roman Blood, is helping Cicero defend Sextus Roscius against a charge of patricide. It is a delight to read a good detective series again, especially one so lovingly, intimately historically persuasive. It is as convincing and gripping as Thomas Harris’ Cicero trilogy, but the real moment of delight came when I read a very simple sentence. Night has fallen over ancient Rome, on a very hot summer’s night, and Gordianus notices that although the glow of the city has extinguished the minor stars, the major constellations still turn high in the night. Coming as it does after the accumulation of small details that have persuaded me, reading away in my bathtub, that I am experiencing Rome during the dictatorship of Sulla precisely as it was and would have been, this suddenly was the final simple detail that opened it up, and I could see the sky, and the yellow haze from the world’s greatest city, so blasphemously bright as to extinguish the stars but not yet so bright as to extinguish the Big Dipper or the Bear or Orion. It was a moment of transport and delight.
2 December 2020 (Wednesday)
A book recommendation from an old friend.
An impulse decision to book a flight to Athens.
Watching a mongoose being chased by two peacocks in a field.
A francolin who keeps pecking at the glass door, like a short sales rep trying to persuade you to open up and buy some of his motor oil.
So many delights.
1 December 2020 (Tuesday)
A walk through an onion field and I saw a large hare running across the dirt road in front of me and bounding like a small buck through the onion plants.
30 November 2020 (Monday)
Some bad news arrived on the telephone in the afternoon, and I knew I had to engage with it, but instead of engaging with it right at that moment, I had a ninety-minute nap. When I woke up, the bad news was still there and I still had to engage with it, but I had already had my nap, and that couldn’t be taken away from me.
29 November 2020 (Sunday)
A pair of doves are making a nest on a crossbeam above the patio. I can sit on my sofa and watch them. She is sitting in a small tangle of twigs, and he flaps down to the ground and pokes around trying out little twigs, rejecting some, choosing a nice bendy one and flying it up to her, handing it over and then looking around for another one. I have just seen this for the first time this morning. Were they there yesterday? I don’t think so. What a delight to watch them, building their little home, pleasantly industrious.
28 November 2020 (Saturday)
I watched Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955), and it was a delight to be able to ponder again the ineffable something that made her light up a screen with her presence. They call it star quality but there are too many movie stars for that to cover it. The air around her seems to shimmer with a new kind of illumination. It also occurred to me that I never have any sense of how old she is at any given moment: it seems as though she could be any age. (It turns out that she was 29, but I would not have been surprised it she had been 19 or 46.)
(Also, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which is the seduction theme song of the film, really is very good on a soundtrack, and I remembered, while watching the film, that when I was twelve or thirteen and watched The Seven-Year Itch on television, it was that piece of music that made me think there might be something in this classical music malarkey, and that one day I should find out more.)
27 November 2020 (Friday)
The particular quality of sleep you have after taking two Corenza Cs.
26 November (Thursday)
A cocktail of blackmarket Ritalin and various decongestants containing ephedrine is the closest to delight a man with this degree of debilitating flu can achieve.
25 November 2020 (Wednesday)
I woke up with the flu which made me think about being well, which made me appreciate it keenly. Illness is given to us, it sometimes feels, so that we are reminded to appreciate health. That sounds like the kind of desperate guff positive-thinkers make up to try force a tortured smile on their miserable faces, but it honestly is the thought that occurred to me, and the thought was strangely and honestly happy-making.
24 November 2020 (Tuesday)
The star jasmine outside my office is in full bloom.
23 November 2020 (Monday)
The wind is blowing hard across the vineyard and the petals from all the white roses are being scattered across the ground in clouds of large confetti, as though left over from some giants’ wedding. The sight is sad and lovely, but the real delight of today has been receiving the long and personal letters from so many people who read my newsletter today, and who are writing to share their own lives and their own fears and intimacies. It is a genuine joy, and I want to sit down and write in full response to each of you. I am grateful, and happy.
22 November 2020 (Sunday)
One of my best friends works on the same TV show as I do. We both constantly complain about it and promise each other that this will be our last year, but on Friday we were informed that the channel is cancelling the show, for reasons that have nothing to do with the performance of the show. This represents quite a substantial material blow to both of us. Each of our expected incomes for 2021 has declined overnight by some seven digits. But we discussed the matter on the phone, and we laughed and joked and everything felt good and light and possible. It is a delight to have friends, especially friends with whom one can laugh.
21 November 2020 (Saturday)
There was a bat in the house, flying around in the darkness at 2am. When it comes to opening doors so that the bat will recognise the open space and fly out, bats are about as smart as birds are. But far more exotic.
20 November 2020 (Friday)
This day was, in a year distinguished by a number of bad days, one of the worst. But the sea was curiously and gorgeously flat and still, and the blue of the deep parts was a deep fathomless blue like a melted sapphire and the blue of the shallow parts over the white sand was Grecian and clear, and to look at it from the coast road was to think of the all the water and all the secrets and all the romance of the oceans of the world. It was to think of shipwrecks and pearl divers and scuba and the old Peter Stuyvesant adverts and giant clams and Polynesian atolls and the Mainstay adverts and Atlantic liners and palm-fringed islands and jewelled bracelets lost and found in the shallows and treasure chests and shoals of colourful fish and small children in shallow harbours diving for glittering silver coins. The sea was very lovely, and offered delight.
19 November 2020 (Thursday)
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. Oh, what a delight to spend time with someone sane, interesting, funny and good company. The drive between town and the karoo, which I am making regularly these days, every ten days or so, will forever be associated with his voice and his companionship and the reassurance he provides that not everyone – right and left – has gone quite mad.
18 November 2020 (Wednesday)
On most days I stop off for an hour or so at a coffee shop in Bree Street which I like because it is white and airy and high-ceilinged and reminds me in a vague and imprecise way of Greece. The chap who owns it is an artist and is currently teaching someone to whom I am close how to make stained glass window. Every now and then I look up from my work and catch a glimpse of them through the doorway to the workshop in the back, bent over a work table, cutting lozenges of dark blue or light blue or yellow glass or poring over designs, focused in medieval concentration. It is a very delightful sight.
17 November 2020 (Tuesday)
I have discovered a French phrase. It applies to the waiting area in French train stations, but also the large spaces in French courts where lawyers and clients can confer and wait for their time in court, or for airport concourses or suchlike areas where people spend time waiting before doing something or going somewhere, and pace up and down, walking to that side then turning and walking back again. It is “La Salle de Pas Perdus” – the hall of lost steps. That is a wonderful name. (And, with a different emphasis, it can also mean “the hall of the un-lost”, which is just as delightful.)
16 November 2020 (Monday)
On the promenade at 10pm the lampposts drop yellow cones of light through which haze and particles of moisture pass like plankton. The red sliver of ghostly moon has already set and the black sea glitters under a black sky. It smells of iodine and shell and steel.
15 November 2020 (Sunday)
It is always an astonishment to discover how the mind works in subterranean caverns and corridors. Shortly before bed I was thinking about Donald Trump, which honestly isn’t something I often do. I was thinking with some curiosity about the tortured mental processes with which he (or my idea of him) might be making sense of the world right now, turning over what he had and what he did and what he lost, trying to process it. I wasn’t thinking deeply about it, just idly. When I woke up this morning, I found myself humming a song that took me some time to recognise, because I hadn’t listened to it for probably 20 years. It was the REM song, “World Leader Pretend”, from the 1998 album “Green”, and as it came slowly back to me I started half-remembering the lyrics, and looked them up, and it as if Michael Stipe sat down in 1998 to ventriloquize the inner anguishing and fulminations of Donald Trump right now:
“I raised the wall, and I’m the only one who can knock it down!”;
“I demand a rematch! I decree a stalemate! I recognise the weapons, I’ve practised them well, I fitted them myself!”
Even his cry of self-soothing pain as he sits down in front of his TV to watch Fox News and pretend it’s going to be okay:
“This is my life – And this is my time – I have been given the freedom – To do as I see fit! This is my world and I am – world leader pretend! Let my machine talk to me, let my machine talk to me …“
The delight isn’t the song, although it’s a good song from a good band on a good album that I am happy to listen to again. The delight is getting that small peek into the world of connections and memories and creative workshops that takes place in the depths of one’s head beneath the conscious, knowing surface. I didn’t even know that I knew the lyrics to that song from 32 years ago, but they were there all along, hidden beneath the waters, and when I started wading nearby, they somehow came to the surface.
14 November 2020 (Saturday)
I was reading back on some of the delights from this year and was surprised to notice one word recurring more than others: “friend”. I don’t consider myself a person with a lot of friends – I don’t have friend groups or circles, and seldom see any one person more than once or twice a month – and I don’t consider myself a person for whom company or the lineaments of friendship is as important as it is for other people. But over this year I seem to have made a number of new friends, and maintained a number of old friendships, and it’s remarkable how often the thing in a day that has given me most pleasure and delight is the company of someone I care about and am interested in and with whom I can laugh. A friend, in other words. Today I made two new friends, and had a happy two hours sitting at their home, laughing.
13 November 2020 (Friday)
At midnight on Thursday night my Wifi went down during an important call to LA, and I was distressed and defeated and exhausted and inclined to weeping and raging and gnashing and rending my clothes. Everything was urgent and important and cataclysmic, it had to be fixed right now, life itself was unendurable. Then I was reminded of how at night everything is urgent and important and cataclysmic, and that when things are urgent and important and cataclysmic, the best thing to do is go to sleep. I woke this morning and relief warmly bathed me as I remembered again what I have discovered to be true so many times yet keep forgetting: that nothing is ever as bad as it seems late at night.
12 November 2020 (Thursday)
I have just killed a fly with a fly-swatter, and it gave me great delight. Why should it be less creepy to enjoy killing flies, than it would be to enjoy killing sparrows, say, or butterflies? I don’t know, but it’s very satisfying, partially because the well-made fly-swatter may be one of humanity’s greatest inventions: a perfectly efficient and durable machine that demands no upkeep and makes no ongoing claim on the Earth’s resources and adds only to the sum of human happiness. Some would vote for the bicycle, but people on bicycles are annoying. People with fly-swatters are doing God’s work.
11 November 2020 (Wednesday)
I was sitting on an armchair in my bedroom in the morning, not looking at anything in particular and thinking about something else altogether. The light through the French doors to my right was falling across the bed to my left, which I had just made to my specifications: neat, but not militarily precise. There was nothing in my field of vision that was out of the ordinary, nothing of which to take notice. But I became gradually or perhaps suddenly aware of the exceptional beauty and interest of the scene. If it had been painted just as it was, I could have stood for hours before the painting, enjoying the colours – the bright titanium-white of the counterpane, the brown-yellow wood of the bedside tables, the muted yellow lampshades, the tiny black shadows on the leeward ridges of the counterpane, the bright sun-flash on the metal rim of a round steel pillbox, as if on the rim of a metal goblet in a Vermeer. Put a frame around that scene and hang it on a wall and I would have been moved and delighted and my heart would have swelled and my mind raced as I looked at it. But it was only everyday life, so I was lucky to have noticed it at all.
10 November 2020 (Tuesday)
Lamb chops and tzatziki and Greek lemon potatoes.
9 November 2020 (Monday)
I have decided that the mongoose is my familiar. A mongoose ran across my path this morning, and as I was pondering whether or not to make anything of this, another mongoose, this one a striking russet-red, ran across the path ahead up a small rocky rise, and stopped and looked back at me as though encouraging me to follow, or to make sure I wasn’t following, or to somehow ensure I was getting some sort of message.
8 November 2020 (Sunday)
The wintry day over the semi-desert and a glass of porter for breakfast. In The Magic Mountain Hans Castorp has a glass of porter for breakfast, and I can confirm he knew what he was doing.
7 November 2020 (Saturday)
A deep hour-long nap on a Saturday afternoon, followed by a thoughtful gin and tonic in the dropping warmth of the day.
6 November 2020 (Friday)
My mother came to visit me in Barrydale. She drove three and a half hours in heavy rain, up Sir Lowry’s Pass and across Tradouws Pass, unable to see further than the sheet of rain on the windscreen. She is 79 years old – 80 in December – has emphysema and is booked for cataract operations on both eyes in January. That night she drank her share of four bottles of champagne between three of us. For four decades she has been a single mother. I don’t know if I know a stronger person.
5 November 2020 (Thursday)
Europe has locked down, so my flight to Lisbon has been cancelled and the apartment has been cancelled too. Gloom might have descended, but then we decided to make this December the time of a valedictory South African road trip, a tour of my childhood, a three-week odyssey into the past and the present. It will be cheesy and care-free and sweaty and fun. There is a delight in turning disappointment so swiftly into a new idea.
4 November 2020 (Wednesday)
In Barrydale, where I am staying, on the edge of the Karoo, there are masses of roses in full early summer bloom – great banks and clouds of white and red and pink, waves of roses, fields of roses, sweet-smelling and heady. I had no idea there were this many roses in Barrydale, or in the world.
3 November 2020 (Tuesday)
I have a friend who works in management for a company somewhere. He has a boss who has a Bar One every day at precisely 3pm, presumably as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. If you can’t have a nap in the office – a very good reason to abolish offices, I would have thought – you may as well have a Bar One. But my friend is a man of sudden passions and annoyances. Yesterday he decided that he couldn’t bear to sit through another 3pm nosh, hearing his boss unwrapping his Bar One, listening to him chew it. (My friend actually sits quite a distance from his boss, so I imagine it’s more of a case of knowing that he’s chewing it, rather than actually hearing it.) So this is what he did – he went down to the canteen of their office building, and then after that to the cafe across the street, and bought all the Bar Ones in stock. It caused me immense delight to hear that story.
2 November 2020 (Monday)
A stand of riverside rushes that is filled with red bishops and masked weavers and cape weavers and some other kinds of birds, all filling the hot air with non-stop chirping and singing and sweetness.
1 November 2020 (Sunday)
The sound of a light breeze moving through pine needles in the tree over the driveway when you step out of the car after a long happy drive.
31 October 2020 (Saturday)
Walking five hours along the side of a mountain, through sunlight and shadow and the smell of the earth, and coming upon corners of ravines where sudden banks of purple flowers grow.
30 October 2020 (Friday)
A bottle of champagne opened in the early afternoon for no good reason whatsoever.
29 October 2020 (Thursday)
There is a magic second-hand bookstore in Sea Point that I sometimes consult like an oracle. Whenever I am trying to decide on something I go and look in the window, and very often there’s a book there that will, through the power of coincidence or suggestion, tip me the direction to choose. I went to consult it today, looking in through the window to the display, and the first book I saw told me exactly what I needed to know.
28 October 2020 (Wednesday)
The wind rustles the green, green leaves of the trees shading Maria’s in Dunkley Square at lunchtime, but below it is still and cool.
27 October 2020 (Tuesday)
The pleasure of waking up after a long, good sleep. Not a special sleep, or an especially unusual sleep, just a good, sound sleep that was long enough.
26 October 2020 (Monday)
Nearly 40 years ago a kid in my neighbourhood borrowed my bicycle and tried to ride it down Beacon Road, the steepest road on the Bluff. Fifteen years ago I used that incident in a book I wrote for young readers, called SuperZero. Today, I signed a copy of that book and walked down the road and posted it off to the ten-year-old son of the ten-year-old boy who borrowed my bike and inspired the moment inside it. It made me very delighted to think about that.
25 October 2020 (Sunday)
A roast leg of lamb and mint sauce and crispy potatoes and rich gravy.
24 October 2020 (Saturday)
Sitting with friends over the umpteenth bottle of wine and watching the late sun falling like a sentimental memory over the Constantia valley.
23 October 2020 (Friday)
A cold-water swim in Camps Bay – floating in the flat, milky water and staring up at the blue sky and the salt haze, feeling that perfect moment when all thinking stops.
22 October 2020 (Thursday)
The contrast between walking from the sunshine into the cool shade of a tree. The relief, and the realisation that in this world of heat and glare there are pools of shade and cool and refuge, and that even when they disappear, they will come back again.
21 October 2020 (Wednesday)
Looking down from the Kirstenbosch canopy walkway onto the tops of trees. There is nothing that gives me such a sense of being let in on a peaceful, sun-washed sight that I wasn’t meant to see, as looking at the tops of trees.
20 October 2020 (Tuesday)
I was talking to someone very close to me and discovered that she once went to a Big Lebowski-themed fancy dress party dressed as the rug that tied the room together. That delighted me. (Bonus delight: she also once went to an 80s party dressed as a Rubik’s Cube. Apparently a drawback of being a Rubik’s Cube is it’s impossible to sit down.)
19 October 2020 (Monday)
Watching someone sit alone, drinking a cup of tea and reading a book. The absorption, the self-sufficiency and wholeness. It’s perfectly delightful to observe.
18 October 2020 (Sunday)
A warm croissant in my living room with strawberry jam and a good cheese and hot coffee.
17 October 2020 (Saturday)
A day of delights: the smell of honey rising from the fynbos on the Hermanus cliffpath;
the mother whale and her calf drifting continentally a few metres from the shore;
the frozen Bellini at Lizette’s Kitchen on 8th Street;
walking a good ten kilometres or so after a week with too much work and not enough movement;
listening to David Rintoul reading the surprisingly funny misadventures of Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain on the drive back to the city (four hours down; 33 hours still to go).
16 October 2020 (Friday)
Some of my greatest delights are coincidences. Today I watched The Women (George Cukor, 1939), which is a pure delight and in which Rosalind Russel says of Joan Crawford: “She’s a beazel!” What’s a beazel, I wondered? Actually, I didn’t wonder – the meaning was pretty clear from the context – but it struck me that I hadn’t heard the word beazel before. Straight after finishing The Women I watched another film, one I have been meaning to watch for years and which I selected randomly. It was Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941), which was just as much of a pure delight. Around halfway through, Joel McCrae says to Veronica Lake, who is disguised as a boy, that her disguise won’t fool anyone. She replies, using a word – “frail” – that was once 20s slang for a young girl, but Burrows the valet corrects her:
SULLIVAN TO THE GIRL: You look about as much like a boy as Mae West.
THE GIRL: All right, so they’ll think I’m your frail.
BURROWS: I believe it’s called a “beazel”, miss, if memory serves.
Two uses of the word “beazel”! In quick succession! Is that the coincidence? No! I decided to look up the etymology of the word beazel – it’s old flapper slang for a girl who is prepared to proceed to a stage beyond mere flirtation – and in the very first article about it, i discover that the first two cinematic uses of the word “beazel” (and the only ones, until The Women was remade in 1956), were in The Women and Sullivan’s Travels. Does this astonish and delight you as much as it does me? Probably not. Coincidences are like dreams – they are only astonishing, interesting and delightful to the person having them. But that is my delight for today.
15 October 2020 (Thursday)
I have been in the same apartment since the beginning of lockdown, almost seven months, which is the longest I have spent in any one place in the last several years. I moved today, packed up my suitcase, packed the books I have accumulated, and moved to another apartment, where I will be for a much shorter time. The apartment I have been in has been lovely – almost perfect, in fact – and the apartment I am in now doesn’t please me nearly so much, but just the physical act of packing and movement, provides an energy that is inseparable from joy.
14 October 2020 (Wednesday)
I had too much work to take any time off, which is precisely the right time to take the afternoon off. I and sat under a tree on Bree Street and drank beer and champagne in the warm air and watched the sun go down, and that was a delight.
13 October 2020 (Tuesday)
Spring is measured on the mountainside by the ticking of an inscrutable flower clock, that shows itself in colours rather than sounds. Some while ago the flowers of the hillside were yellow, then they were orange. Today I see the clock has moved to purple.
12 October 2020 (Monday)
My mind felt boiled and over-strained and tired and dull, so I walked along a footpath on the side of Signal Hill and lay down in some long grass under a tree and stared up at the blue sky and watched faint wisps of white cloud passing very high, so diaphanous I could see more blue sky on the other side of them.
11 October 2020 (Sunday)
When you finish the third six-hour story-conference day in a row, and you walk out into the last sunlight of the weekend, and there is still some golden light touching the sandstone crest of the mountain, and the sea is layers of silver-blue atop darker blue, and there are birds singing and the air is cool and fresh – that is an honest delight.
10 October 2020 (Saturday)
When, halfway through the fourth hour of the second six-hour story-conference call in two days, you figure out how to stop everyone endlessly talking around in circles, without even using any swearwords, that is what will have to pass for a delight.
9 October 2020 (Friday)
When you can turn a six-hour story-conference call into a five-hour story-conference call, because you are the one running the story-conference call, that is a delight.
8 October 2020 (Thursday)
The shade under the trees on Government Avenue, as you walk through the Company Gardens, is green and cool. There is something specifically restful about the shade there.
7 October 2020 (Wednesday)
The yellow flowers that covered the hillside two or three weeks ago are all gone. They are like the Japanese sakura, or cherry blossoms. They are beautiful but fleeting, and their beauty is tied to their fleetingness, and their transience is what makes them so precious. It seems odd to say that the flowers disappearing is my delight, but it is so.
6 October 2020 (Tuesday)
After a warm walk on the hillside through the sudden long grass of early summer, and between the fallen trees from the storm – to return home and drink an ice-cold beer.
5 October 2020 (Monday)
A vase of spring flowers in my sitting room. The purple that is something other than purple, the orange that isn’t so much orange as it is the centre of a flame, the yellow like sun-enriched butter.
4 October 2020 (Sunday)
An afternoon spent with friends, in which I laughed a lot. Laughing with friends is a purest delight.
3 October 2020 (Saturday)
Some walks are worthwhile just in themselves. They are restful and give you access to beauty and to the rhythms of your body and of your species, but other walks are good for thinking or talking things through and solving a problem. The solution always comes not on the walk out, but the walk back, and it it doesn’t come as a Eureka, it comes like something you’ve already thought of but have forgotten, or like something so obvious you think you must surely already have considered it. Today on my walk I solved a problem.
2 October 2020 (Friday)
In my Greek lesson tonight I discovered that the Greek word for weather is precisely the same as the word for time. This was baffling and alarming (how will someone know whether I’m asking if they have time for a drink, or the weather for a drink?) and a little delightful, and it made me curious. I have now discovered that in many other languages, including Vietnamese, the words for weather and time are intertwined. This is also true, if you look carefully enough, of English. (The word “season” originally meant the right time to do something, and the meaning devolved to mean the season of the year – ie. the right time to sow, to reap, to lie fallow. Weather is the specific day-to-day condition that it makes it the correct season).
In ancient Greek there were two words for time: Kairos (time as a generality) and Xronos (the correct time to do something). Xronos was the equivalent of the earlier English meaning of “season” (and its more granular relation, “weather”), but in modern Greek it has dropped away and Kairos now takes on both sets of meaning. So the word for weather and the word for time are quite logically the same. Does this delight you? It delights me.
(Also, I would imagine for parents in the Western Cape, stuck indoors in this wind without being able to go outside, “weather” would be especially synonymous with “time” right now.)
1 October 2020 (Thursday)
There was a crushing disappointment yesterday in the realisation that although the international airports have nominally been opened, it will be almost impossible to leave, and the flights I had booked to Lisbon – where I have an apartment paid and waiting for the months of December and January – might not ever take off. But after the first fast wave of frustration and annoyance, there grew a calm and steely will to find a way out, whether through Rwanda or Windhoek or Nairobi, through Addis Ababa or stowing away in the leaky lifeboat of a Taiwanese trawler. There was a quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that life finds a way, and that I still have regained the will to be led by life.
30 September 2020 (Wednesday)
A cold front comes in to the Western Cape, and it fills me with delight to have experienced an old-fashioned Cape winter again, a rainy, chilly, sunny, cloudy. intermittent Cape winter, like i remember them being years ago. After the last dry years of winter being a kind of half-hearted limbo, it feels wonderful to experience real weather again, real seasons.
29 September 2020 (Tuesday)
I have been learning Greek since the beginning of lockdown, at a rate of half an hour a day. Today I watched Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), which is a weird and unsettling and quite remarkable film, but at a moment halfway through I suddenly jumped and yelled, “She just said, ‘Unfortunately I have to leave!’ ” Of course, I could see that in the subtitles, and of course, I had identified words here and there, but it was the first full sentence I had understood without the subtitles. When you are learning a language, there is a rich delight in spotting a full sentence in the wild.
28 September 2020 (Monday)
I wrote the first column that I have written in five months. When you don’t write columns you forget how to write columns, which is to say the column no longer writes itself, you have to write it. The words come out lumpen and without light or lightness and there is no music in the writing. It was a terrible column. Normally a column takes me an hour, perhaps two, but this one took four days, and they were unhappy, defeatist, self-disgusted days. I wanted to stop but I didn’t, or at least when I did I later started again, and the delight isn’t with the column I wrote – it’s a terrible column – but with the fact that I wrote it, that it’s finished.
27 September 2020 (Sunday)
After a long weekend of feeling grizzly and shut-in – a walk around sunset with my favourite companion on the side of the mountain, with the fresh green foliage and the cold water running down in streams and rivulets from higher, and the slanting dusk sun making the city look more beautiful than any city deserves to look. It was a relief and a delight.
26 September 2020 (Saturday)
Listening to Esther Perel talking about relationships, and feeling that warm glow that comes when someone says something you have long privately thought, but now you are hearing it said aloud by someone else for the first time and realising with relief that it sounds even more true than when you were thinking it.
25 September 2020 (Friday)
Being indoors in the rain, and finally giving up the attempt to work, and surrendering to a long, good book.
24 September 2020 (Thursday)
There are some days – and this is not necessarily to say anything too negative – when the most delightful thing is getting into bed at the end of it.
23 September 2020 (Wednesday)
As I was circling the block, just beginning to darkly glower about the fact that there’s no parking to be had downtown any more, unlike the glorious days of lockdown, a car pulled out of the bay right in front of me, and right in front of the lunch restaurant.
22 September 2020 (Tuesday)
On a bright, warm spring day all the greens were very green and the flowers were very bright and all the people I encountered were all friendly and happy and chatty. On the hillside path behind my apartment block there were three old people sitting on the grassy bank among the flowers like a trio from an Impressionist painting. They were eating sandwiches and sipping tea from a flask and enjoying a picnic. We greeted them as we passed and the old lady waved jovially. “Come join the party!” she said.
21 September 2020 (Monday)
Friendly Siebert drove out from Langebaan to start my car and I drove home on the open road in the bright sunshine at a time when I was scheduled to be in a weekly story meeting, and it felt like a gift and delight to be given this time outside of the usual routine, to be free and moving with salt still on my skin and sky high and wide above.
20 September 2020 (Sunday) (Churchhaven)
Supposed to be driving home at 5 but an unexpected flat car battery meant another night, which was time enough for a sunset swim in the lagoon with two seventeen-year-olds girls who I love very much, and their delightful friend, and a competition to see who could stay in longest which ended in the utter darkness beneath a sickle-moon, after an hour, with an honourable draw.
19 September 2020 (Saturday) (Churchhaven)
A walk along the lagoon’s edge, poking at hermit crabs with my toes in the clear edge-water, discovering whelks and prawns in the shallows, swimming out towards a a mirage of white flamingos.
18 September 2020 (Friday) (Churchhaven)
The diaphanous light on the Langebaan lagoon, seen from Churchhaven. The shades of milky blue on the water, as though seen through a sheer screen of silk, followed by the unending chirping of birds and the nighttime calling of an owl.
17 September 2020 (Thursday)
Two muscular fresh oysters that taste of the sea and rock pools and salt and iodine, touched with pickled chopped red onions and a squeeze of lemon, washed down not with champagne but with a cold crisp beer.
16 September 2020 (Wednesday)
This is the first time in a long time that I have been in one place long enough to notice the changes of the seasons. The fiery-necked nightjar who was calling outside my window for two months has vanished, and each night suddenly there is a chirping chorus of tree-frogs.
15 September 2020 (Tuesday)
Since the last time I walked on the slope of Signal Hill behind my apartment block, the spring flowers have come out, and today there were hillsides of yellow flowers turned toward the sun, and purple and orange flowers, and tiny white daisies. It felt like walking through an alpine meadow.
14 September 2020 (Monday)
At 8 this morning I went down to Camps Bay to float in the water for half an hour. I am told there are some physical and psychological benefits to cold swimming, and I am interested in discovering them for myself, but what delighted me afterwards, driving home with salt water in my hair, shirtless and barefoot, with shining eyes and fingers that couldn’t quite turn the key in the ignition without the assistance of the other hand, was the knowledge that I had stood with my feet in the 9-degree water, with grey clouds and rain overhead, and instead of walking back out I had walked forward. There is a powerful delight in doing something you don’t want to do, and perhaps didn’t think you could do. You think: Oh, I can do that. I can do it again. I wonder what else I can do.
13 September 2020 (Sunday)
The music of Ennio Morricone while the rain rattles the window and there is a smell of frying onions and garlic and black pepper and the lights are yellow and warm.
12 September 2020 (Saturday)
Taking one of my oldest and dearest friends on his first walk on the mountainside and being able to show him the mountain water and the green slopes and the city from above and the ocean a flat blue like a Japanese print.
11 September 2020 (Friday)
I have been for a while at a house in the countryside and drive back to the city this morning. I love it here and have no urgent desire or reason to be in the city – besides seeing some friends – but I woke with a lightness and an excitement this morning, because of the prospect of going somewhere. Motion is a principle in itself, one that not everyone thrills to, but which causes me great delight.
(The pleasure of packing, with Johnny Cash playing, and puttering about, thinking happily about the work you cam’t possibly be expected to do now, because you have to get ready to be in motion.)
10 September 2020 (Thursday)
On a cloudy morning, a good cup of coffee and the music of Burt Bacharach.
9 September 2020 (Wednesday) (Barrydale)
It is the 140th birthday of the church in the village where I am staying. The bells are also 140 tears old, and chime on the hour and once, briefly, on the half-hour. It is a delight to be working or reading on the sofa, in the drowsy afternoon, and to look up at the sound of the bells that have been chiming just like that while generations have come and gone.
8 September 2020 (Tuesday) (Barrydale)
A walk through onion fields in the evening after the heat of the day has faded and the sunlight is golden and there’s a cool breeze coming down from the mountains, when you haven’t worked hard but you’ve worked enough to enjoy the pleasure of stopping.
7 September 2020 (Monday) (Barrydale)
When recent rains have moistened the soil sufficiently that when you pull out a weed the roots grip the ground just enough to give that satisfying feeling of resistance then submission to your god-like will.
6 September 2020 (Sunday) (Barrydale)
A good deep bath on a Sunday night after a good weekend, turning my mind to the week ahead with high hopes and good intentions and the quiet optimism of starting again.
5 September 2020 (Saturday) (Barrydale)
A wood fire and sleepily watching a horror movie with friends on a cold night.
4 September 2020 (Friday) (Barrydale)
In Barrydale for a couple of weeks. Two friends drove up from Cape Town today to spend the weekend, and ordinarily hosting is a cause of vague anxiety but the feeling of pleasure and happiness to see them arrive was a source of much genuine delight.
3 September 2020 (Thursday) (Barrydale)
Listening to an audio book in a dark house lit with yellow candles through two hours of loadshedding, feeling disappointed when the lights came back on.
2 September 2020 (Wednesday) (Barrydale)
The sensation of calm and clarity when your mind, which has been in some turmoil, finally settles again,
1 September 2020 (Tuesday) (Barrydale)
A red bishop, feathers full and bright and ready for spring and for mating, perched on a single dangling twig outside the front door, seemingly floating in the air like a red, bird-shaped balloon.
31 August 2020 (Monday) (Barrydale)
The green and old-gold robe that Alain Delon wears in Mr Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976). I want it but don’t know where to find it, but just knowing it once existed is delight enough for me. We don’t need to possess the things that give us delight.
30 August 2020 (Sunday) (Barrydale)
The thrilling crispness of air that has touched snow before touching your face.
29 August 2020 (Saturday)
Packing to go away for a week. I have always known I feel joy when going away, at the prospect of sleeping somewhere else tonight, waking up somewhere else tomorrow, breathing other air, but this lockdown has honed and sharpened that appreciation into a keen edge, and has caused it to gleam as though oiled.
28 August 2020 (Friday)
The good strong winter rain and a cold evening, and an Agatha Christie mini-series to watch on TV.
27 August 2020 (Thursday)
Swimming with seals in the cold green surging sea near Duiker Island, watching them swim around me trailing strings of silver bubbles, whiskers bristling, eyes wide as dogs.
26 August 2020 (Wednesday)
Signing a contract that caused me to open a bottle of champagne at 11.30am.
25 August 2020 (Tuesday)
As much as I dislike gym, and as many excellent reasons as I had for not going to gym today, still, it impresses me that I didn’t not go to gym today.
24 August 2020 (Monday)
There is a mongoose living on the hillside below my apartment block. I was watching it and it scampered into some long grass and poked its head up to look at me, like a meerkat.
23 August 2020 (Sunday)
Driving down the West Coast highway, I looked to the left and saw first one then two and three giraffes.
22 August 2020 (Saturday)
I went to an outdoor screening of some short films at a friend’s house, and the films were lovely and the company was good and at one point I tilted back my head and looked up at the bright crisp clean stars directly above. We do not, it feels, look enough at stars.
21 August 2020 (Friday)
Last year, living in an apartment in Istanbul, over the space of two hot, airless summer’s days just before the election, with the help of a good woman and doses of illicit Ritalin scored from a shifty-eyed Turk off the Istiklal Caddesi, I plotted out an eight-part crime series, which subsequently sold to a German distributor. Today I wrote “Cut To Black” on the final page of the final episode. It’s only the first draft of the series that’s finished – there are still two drafts to come – so it’s not the end, but it’s the end of the hard part. Normally when finishing a big project it’s a relief, not a delight, but this is a delight, because I think I have done a good job.
20 August 2020 (Thursday)
The mist was thick this evening, just at sunset, walking on the road that runs around the mountain. It felt like walking through time and heather and into Brigadoon. In the west the mist and cloud thinned enough to show the sun as first a white disk, then glowing orange and red as the mist thinned, then back to white as it thickened again, and the disk sank into the fog and the sea. The birds were singing louder than usual and the lights of the city below gleamed in the gloaming. I have never seen the city like that before. It was beautiful.
19 August 2020 (Wednesday)
Playing a general knowledge quiz against 40 strangers, and winning. It’s definitely true that winning isn’t everything, and that merely competing is its own reward. Very true. But if it’s delight you’re after, you really do need to win.
18 August 2020 (Tuesday)
After the rain, the mountainside runs with silver rushing waterfalls, the water falling from tiny ledge to ledge down the sheer face, throwing of sprays or drops and haze.
17 August 2020 (Monday)
A proper cold daytime winter’s storm, with rain on the daylight panes and a snow-touched wind and lying on the afternoon bed reading something interesting and feeling lucky and happy.
16 August 2020 (Sunday)
An eagle – or perhaps a hawk, I am no good at birds – came gliding over the ridge of the mountain, too near a place where two crows have a roost. First one crow then both the crows went out to meet it, and I watched as they harried and harrassed it high into the sky, their black bellies darting and buzzing at its white belly,. They chased it far away and then came gliding back – one to the nest, the other turning and turning high in the sky, keeping watch.
Also: A rainbow
15 August 2020 (Saturday)
I am struggling with a plot, how to structure the final episode of an intricate crime series. I was defeated by it, it felt as though I was sitting with my face pressed up against a blank stone wall, and then I remembered the advice I always tell others: take a walk. I walked in the cold wind beside the green sea and looked at the birds skimming off the breaking waves, and felt that mysterious miracle, coalescing to the rhythm of my steps, of the shape of the idea taking form in my head, who knows from where, or how?
14 August 2020 (Friday)
I am always delighted by coincidences, especially when they come in cascades, like dominoes. Last night I watched The Aviator, Scorcese’s biopic of Howard Hughes. In bed afterwards I finished reading Frank Wynne’s I Was Vermeer, an account of Hans van Meegeren, who he declared to be “the greatest art forgery of the 20th century”. It was late by now and time to sleep, but newly re-interested in the subject of art forgery, I started watching Orson Welles’ F for Fake, knowing nothing about it, to discover that it was a documentary he made about Elmyr de Hory, whom he called “the greatest art forger of the 20th century”. Not much coincidence there – a book led me to a documentary in the same overall genre – but a key character in the documentary is one Clifford Irving, who was a neighbour of de Hory’s on Ibiza and wrote a book about him called Fake!, but who then, a few short years later, became famous the world over for faking the autobiography of … Howard Hughes. A neat little circle, but the coincidence falls more fully into place this morning when I take my morning walk and listen to the latest episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I knew nothing of the content before it began, but it was about … Clifford Irving and his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.
13 August 2020 (Thursday)
The Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos has passed away. This, from an obituary, rather delights me: “He was against everybody, mainly the establishment, and also all ideologies of the left and right. He was grumpy and kind.”
12 August 2020 (Wednesday)
I went into a bookstore and found a book I have been looking for.
11 August 2020 (Tuesday)
A friend arrived at my door at 7pm, delighted because she had been to a restaurant in town and had summoned up her courage to ask the question, and had been rewarded by being served wine in a tea-pot. I was delighted by her delight.
10 August 2020 (Monday)
I am learning Greek, and at times it feels like getting into a boxing ring for the first time. A few days ago I was a little disconsolate about ever being any good at it. Today’s lesson was hard and came at me fast, and it was landing body blows and swinging for my head, but suddenly, unexpectedly, it felt as though I could take the blows, and I could roll with some of them and even start to throw some punches back. It feels the way it does when you train enough at something to take a step forward, when you break past the first barrier and suddenly on the other side of it some things that were very hard have become easy, and that frees you up to run forward into the next barrier, when things become very hard again. It’s exhilarating to be learning something new, to feel the expanding and contracting rhythms of struggle and mastery.
9 August 2020 (Sunday)
It’s wet and grey and the sky moves between grey-bright and silver-dark and it’s the perfect day to be indoors and watching Visconti’s Death in Venice, surely the most beautiful film ever shot, and the best portrait of Venice with its water and soft stone and watery light, and its Mahler music and its exquisite textures and its sadness and beauty and plague.
8 August 2020 (Saturday)
Today I was invited to join a group of people I don’t know very well for a weekend at Burgh Island Hotel, on the small island just off the south coast of Devon, in January next year. It’s the island where Agatha Christie stayed and where she set Evil Under the Sun. I have always wanted to visit it but this invitation is purely coincidental. It fills me with the thrill of invitation, and the thrill of discovery, and the deep joy of suddenly, unexpectedly being able to look forward to something specific that I have never done before. I don’t know if the borders will open by then; I’ll swim there if necessary.
7 August 2020 (Friday)
A swim in the clear, cold, Camps Bay ocean. I had forgotten how it wakes you up and restores you, and makes you ready to live again.
I have been going to a seaside restaurant to work for the past week or so. Today the owner came up and introduced herself and thanked me for the help and support, and shook my hand. It was the first time in four months someone has offered to shake my hand. Two adults, meeting each other, shaking hands. It was a delight.
Sundowners on the rocks with friends, and the sun setting over the purple sea, and people all around, laughing and talking, and some people on a different rock celebrating someone’s birthday, and the gorgeous, heady feeling of people living their lives again.
6 August 2020 (Thursday)
I had a Zoom call with two other people, in which we were intensely discussing a story idea. Shortly after the call began, my WiFi connection started playing up and their images froze and I could only make out an average of one word in three. I considered stopping the call, but then we would just have to have the call some other time, and the only thing worse than a call right now is a call that’s hovering in the future, so I just carried on, guessing what they had just said then saying something of my own. Forty-five minutes later, the call ended. Apparently it was a good call, and we sorted out many important issues.
5 August 2020 (Wednesday)
Just before dawn there was a bright morning star glimmering above the orange horizon in the east, and for an unthinking, happy moment I thought it was an aeroplane, and that everything was free again, that people could come and go.
4 August 2020 (Tuesday)
After the rain the sea and the sky were a flat two-dimensional plane of shades of silver and grey, and the island looked like a patch of scuffed water. In the cold, crisp air, the world was etched on a plate of tin and pewter.
3 August 2020 (Monday)
I am listening to a podcast called Tunnel 29, about an extraordinary attempt to dig a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, from West to East. For months on end, a group of fellows – who were themselves free, who had no need to escape or to risk themselves – dug in eight-hour shifts, lying flat on their backs in the very close, suffocating darkness, digging with their feet. It’s a thrilling podcast, an extraordinary story told grippingly and well, and that is cause enough for delight, but what really gave me the thrill of joy today was the thought that always there are people who are brave and ingenious and who risk themselves for no more selfish reason than the deep satisfaction of defying unjust authority. It thrills me to know that whatever else we humans may be, we are also at times splendid.
2 August 2020 (Sunday)
Sharing a bottle of wine with my mother who, like some 1920s bootlegging Ma Baker, has gone off on her own and sourced it from a wine estate.
1 August 2020 (Saturday)
A bright springtime field of orange daisies growing between the empty winter vines of our vineyard in Barrydale, a delight to the eyes, and a delight to be reminded that seasons overlap, that there is new life blooming while the old is still dying.
31 July 2020 (Friday)
Lazing like a lizard in the long warm golden sunset, lounging on a rock on the side of a mountain with a friend and several beers produced from a backpack.
30 July 2020 (Thursday)
I went through a closet of my clothes, and threw out most of them, including some items I have been wearing for 30 years. It is a feeling of movement and lightness and, increasingly, a feeling of delight.
29 July 2020 (Wednesday)
Someone close to me received good news today. It was news about a job, money, but it doesn’t really matter what the news was about. It feels as though it has been so long since anyone had good news, just the act of receiving good news was delight enough.
28 July 2020 (Tuesday)
I finally found a place where I can work, where I could sit happily all this morning and drink coffee and occasionally order food, and look up at the lovely jade waves breaking onto the smooth sand.
27 July 2020 (Monday)
I decided over the weekend that I would learn to identify more birds by their calls. By “more”, I mean birds other than owls and sea gulls and hadedas. I don’t know exactly how to develop this skill, but small victories should be celebrated and I can tell you that I have just, after some detective work and some searching, identified my first bird by its call. Somewhere on the hillside outside my apartment is a Fiery-Necked Nightjar, just sitting and calling in the darkness.
26 July 2020 (Sunday)
A very long walk along a very long West Coast beach, with mussel shells crunching under my bare feet and the green cold sea which wasn’t as cold as at first I thought, and gulls finding whole mussels and carrying them into the air and dropping them on the hard sand to open them. A tennis ball on the water’s edge, which I kicked along for half an hour or so, then let it return to its natural habitat in the wild.
25 July 2020 (Saturday)
When you’re terribly hungover, and a delivery guy arrives with an order of lots and lots of ice cream.
24 July 2020 (Friday)
Finishing the work you have to do before lunch on a Friday, then deciding that you won’t do the work the work you should do.
23 July 2020 (Thursday)
There were good moments today, involving walking, reading, talking, planning, watching, listening, but probably the best moment of the day was when I didn’t listen to the address by the president, and did something else instead.
22 July 2020 (Wednesday)
I watched They Live by Night (1948), an old Nicholas Ray movie, which reminded me of a university friend with whom I haven’t spoken since university, and I messaged him out of the blue in Edinburgh, where he’s a professor in film studies, and we discussed Nicholas Ray movies for a while, just two old buddies shooting the breeze about Nicholas Ray, and that was a real delight.
21 July 2020 (Tuesday)
The same person has cut my hair for the past twenty-two years – even when I lived in a different city – except for a brief period when he had a midlife crisis and gave up haircutting in order to go live sustainably off the land. The good thing about people going off to live sustainably off the land is that it seldom lasts long. In those 22 years we have never had a conversation, I don’t think. He is the perfect haircutter, and with each snip today, I felt younger and happier.
20 July 2020 (Monday)
This photograph by William Egglestone, taken somewhere between 1971 and 1974, and titled “En route to New Orleans”. Look at the clean, thin, clarity of the air and the light, the bright starburst on the fold-down tray, the 70’s fabric on the seat back and how you can run your thumbnail along those ridges, the white clouds bobbing below on a blue sea of sky. You are aloft, you are going somewhere. You can feel the joyful, heart-dissolving, care-free weightlessness of the moment.
19 July 2020 (Sunday)
A 16-year-old girl whom I have known since she was four recently decided she wanted to listen to whole albums, instead of individual downloaded songs. She asked me to suggest five of my favourites. Today she sent me a message saying how much she is loving one of them, and sent a picture of her and her sister listening to it. To have successfully recommended music to a sixteen-year-old isn’t just a miracle, it is a delight.
a drive out to the countryside with wine, listening to an audiobook of Woody Allen reading his autobiography.
18 July 2020 (Saturday)
I am about to leave on a five-hour walk in nature with my very best friend. There is a delight in the anticipation of leaving, the thought of what might be there and what might be seen and felt and talked about and resolved. There is a delight in knowing that for the next half a day at least, I will be in motion, going somewhere, that I will be in process toward a receding horizon. Moving – going – is a human need, and the delight I feel now is worth more than anything.
17 July 2020 (Friday)
In the past two weeks, four different mongooses have run across four different paths in front of me. Just one mongoose would have been delight enough, but four feels like a downright plethora. What do mongooses signify? Is there a culture in which a mongoose crossing your path is recognised as being good luck and fair fortune? I feel I should study that culture and learn its ways.
16 July 2020 (Thursday)
My first day in several weeks in which I didn’t have to make a business call or have a Zoom meeting. There is a freedom, a joy, a delight in waking to a day without a business call or a Zoom meeting. How sweet the air, how full and rich and ripe the hours.
15 July 2020 (Wednesday)
While walking on Tafelberg Road this evening, a man came jogging past me, accompanied by a dog with a speaker tied on its back, playing music like a four-legged boom-box. Normally, someone playing music on the mountain would annoy me, but a dog playing music on the mountain? That’s a delight.
14 July 2020 (Tuesday)
After the rains, the mountain is filled with the wooden-wind-chime chirrups of tree frogs.
13 July 2020 (Monday)
While the wind blew and the rain fell today I lay on the sofa, taking a break from work, and watched Robert Mitchum in Blood on the Moon, a very fine old noir Western, and it felt as good as life could be. Until I had to go back to work.
12 July 2020 (Sunday)
A long walk – very long, all the way to the top of the mountain, where we sheltered from the icy wind behind a rocky outcrop and tried to eat a meagre lunch – with very good friends, with opportunities for sharing personal news and shooting the breeze about impersonal things. It made me very happy, and made my legs hurt, which is also a good feeling.
Also: an hour after the President’s address I decided that I would try a month without social media, and just the decision filled me with hope and with contentment.
11 July 2020 ( Saturday)
A long Saturday lie-in in bed, reading a good book while the bright cold sunshine came in through the window. Knowing I have work to do and choosing not to do it is a good and liberating and delightful feeling.
10 July 2020 (Friday)
A long solitary walk on Tafelberg Road in the arctic wind and no one else around. The waterfalls cascading down the stone faces of the mountain. A mongoose ran across the road in front of me. The sea was the colour of a knife, except in the harbour, where it was a frozen green. Earlier this week I watched Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is eerie and unsettling, and the mountain loomed over me, humming and vibrating slightly, like some more impressive Hanging Rock.
9 July 2020 (Thursday)
I went to a coffee shop for the first time in months. I have never been one of those fellows who like working in coffee shops – I work better at home – but to sit there and tap away and be served a cup of coffee and to be able to look up and see people working or talking or just walking by – it was a deep and simple and profound delight.
8 July 2020 (Wednesday)
My cup of coffee this morning – the Royale, the first coffee of the day – was inexplicably good. What could be different? It’s the same ingredients, in the same proportions, as every day, yet today it tasted not just a little better, but unrecognisably better. It’s nice to think that for no good reason, on some days, something can just be unimaginably more delightful.
7 July 2020 (Tuesday)
I went to a high school to speak to the matrics. It has been a long time since I have had the delightful experience of making a joke and hearing a roomful of strangers laugh. It’s even better – because more difficult – to make a roomful of teenagers laugh. It was an hour of my life very well spent.
6 July 2020 (Monday)
By mid-morning most of the low-lying blanker of cloud had burnt off, and the mist was covering only the bay and the docks, where the tips of two cranes poked up from the white blanket like a pair of giraffes.
5 July 2020 (Sunday)
I watched Anatomy of a Murder (1948, Otto Preminger) tonight, which is one of the most thorough and authentic courtroom dramas ever made, but the real delight is the jazzy, sexy, finger-snapping score by Duke Ellington, who himself appears in a scene and swaps some lines with Jimmy Stewart.
4 July 2020 (Saturday)
It has been a very long time since I have managed to have an entire day without speaking. I used to schedule them, once a week, and keep to them, but in the past while it has become for one reason and another increasingly difficult. Today I woke in perfect silence and spent the day and went to sleep in perfect silence, and it was restorative and re-energising, and gave me time to spend with myself with my mind a pool instead of a stream.
3 July 2020 (Friday)
I have taken to having regular walks with a new friend, and we laugh a lot. It feels good to make a new friend when you’re older, someone who hasn’t heard all your jokes yet. And I like the increasing popularity of walking as a social activity.
2 July 2020 (Thursday)
The smell of onions and garlic in olive oil, softening in a pan, and an opened can of tomatoes standing nearby.
1 July 2020 (Wednesday)
I opened a book and found a bookmark made of cork, in the shape of a sardine, that I was given in Lisbon last December at the bookstore in Chiado. Anything shaped like a sardine is a delight, but it was a special delight to be unexpectedly reminded of that sunny cold day walking the hills, and the scowl of the grumpy cashier as she slipped it into my bag.
30 June 2020 (Tuesday)
Walking on the promenade and a large wave, a leftover from the storm surge, slapped itself against the sea wall and threw up a fine mist of sea. What can be more thrilling, more romantic than to have your drab everydayness brushed with ocean water that might once have touched the flukes of a whale or the belly of a shark, a mermaid’s tail or a pearl-clutching oyster, a giant clam or the hull of some deep-running submarine? Who knows where that water has been and what wonders might have passed through it, and here it is on my lips and eyelashes and cheek.
29 June 2020 (Monday)
Every Monday I have a story meeting with several colleagues, some of whom are friends. It is a good, useful, productive meeting. necessary for the writing and integration of storylines and for keeping the production of our television show running smoothly. It is good to check in with the people you work with and to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices and share ideas. We all grow and learn and become better because of these meetings. My delight today was that this meeting was cancelled.
28 June 2020 (Sunday)
The sight of a squirrel running through rain from one tree, along a low stone wall, and up into another tree, somehow carrying something that looked like but couldn’t have been an acorn. Do squirrels hibernate in the southern hemisphere? is it cold enough for that? Or do they just settle down into a long, lazy drowse until September?
27 June 2020 (Saturday)
Rain against the window and on the roof and running down stone.
26 June 2020 (Friday)
A walk around Rondebosch Common with a new friend;
the smell of lamb roasting, while sipping a fine, dry, fragrant gin and tonic.
25 June 2020 (Thursday)
I don’t know if you have had a prego roll from Fabrica do Prego in Sea Point, on Main Road in the Adelphi building, but it is without question the finest prego roll in the world.
24 June 2020 (Wednesday)
I went to drinks in a very elegant apartment with an older couple in my block. We sat on fine furniture and drank champagne and talked about this and that and ate finger snacks, and after 90 minutes it was over, and it all felt delightful and as though I had been for an hour and a half in a more lovely time.
23 June 2020 (Tuesday)
The delight, reminding me of being a child in school again, of going to bed tired after a full day and reading a few pages of a book and then being unable to stop. Such a good, good guilt.
22 June 2020 (Monday)
A conversation on the phone with my favourite director in Los Angeles, in which I learnt more about stories and making stories than in the previous twenty years.
21 June 2020 (Sunday)
The effects of sun and cloud are dazzling at this time of the year. The sun lights up the steel-grey clouds from behind and breaks through in Renaissance shafts to fall on the steel water of the bay in a silver blaze like magnesium catching fire.
20 June 2020 (Saturday)
I decided on the spur of the moment this morning to fast for the day, to eat nothing until sundown. I have never done it before, but so many other people in the world do it as part of their religious traditions, and the motto of my school was Nihil Humani Alienum, so I gave it a go. It isn’t quite sundown yet, as I write this, and I have kept the fast, but I thought it might not be cheating if I had a 4.30 pm gin and tonic. I can report that the post-fast gin and tonic is one of the great delights I have discovered.
19 June 2020 (Friday)
I went to pick up a pizza at the end of the day, after a long week’s hard work and good work, and while I waited for the pizza to be prepared, I sat at the bar and ordered a beer and drank it. It was a such a small thing that we used to do all the time, but it was the first time I have done it in many weeks, and it was one of the best beers I have ever had.
18 June 2020 (Thursday)
A good walk and a laugh with a funny friend.
17 June 2020 (Wednesday)
A friend publishing a book, and seeing him being pleased with it and proud of it, is a feeling of great delight to me.
16 June 2020 (Tuesday)
The very rare and almost unfamiliar delight of having worked very hard and without any personal psychological drama.
15 June 2020 (Monday)
The extreme greenness of the plants in the garden this morning, and the glowing yellowness of the lemons on the lemon tree. The feeling of freshness and crispness in the air.
14 June 2020 (Sunday)
Listening to Schubert’s Quintet in C major for the first time in my life, in a particularly receptive frame of mind, and understanding some things about music for the first time.
13 June 2020 (Saturday)
A hearty meal on a cold night and a walk in the country air under a sky powdered with mica stars.
12 June 2020 (Friday)
A road trip.
11 June 2020 (Thursday)
The post-storm morning light is slatey blue, like being inside a mussel-shell.
10 June 2020 (Wednesday)
Waking to the great storm – the wind bending the trees and the rain against the windows. Each new gust pulled leaves from an oak tree and threw them through the air like swifts or swallows. It was exhilarating.
9 June 2020 (Tuesday)
Last night I looked up from watching an old movie and the moon was drifting like gold from the side of the mountain, a deep glowing yellow, ribboned with clear strips of cloud. This morning the sun through the clouds is striking the water of the bay in bright metallic disks and the air has a feel of soft old metal – bronze and pewter and battered iron. It feels like a real gift to be around to see it.
8 June 2020 (Monday)
I listened to a recording of the English poet Alice Oswald giving a lecture about the Poetry of Decay, and it was quite lovely, particularly when she demonstrated what Samuel Beckett meant when he asked the actors rehearsing one of his plays to speak “with moonlight in your voices”.
7 June 2020 (Sunday)
I saw a mongoose on the wall in front of my apartment block. It was brown and had a long tail that looked as soft as smoke. I have never seen a mongoose in the city before.
6 June 2020 (Saturday)
An ice-cold old-fashioned full-sugar Coke, when you have a terrible hangover.
5 June 2020 (Friday)
Making an important and scary decision – a big purchase – that will affect the rest of my life, and doing it with hope and good faith. Then celebrating it with new friends.
4 June 2020 (Thursday)
Seeing the proposed cover of my new book, and deciding I am going to finish writing it after all.
3 June 2020 (Wednesday)
The smell of good perfume rising in passing from the alchemical warmth of a woman’s skin. Among the many small and almost unnoticeable absences during this lockdown has been the scent of a good scent. In this case, it was Chanel Allure, I believe.
2 June 2020 (Tuesday)
Doing some work with a friend on a creative project – good work, with a good friend – and afterwards feeling that those were two hours well spent.
1 June 2020 (Monday)
It made me feel very happy to see other people feeling happy today – walking around, enjoying the light and the air, opening bottles of wine with their families. It felt good to see people feeling happier than they have been.
31 May 2020 (Sunday)
Feeling free to drink as much of this gin as I damn well please, knowing more will be arriving this week.
30 May 2020 (Saturday)
Sea birds and a great arrow of dolphins ruffling the ocean, sunlight falling in bright burning silver disks through the clouds onto the sea.
29 May 2020 (Friday)
Reading a book in bed (“The Trip to Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing, about writers and alcohol) and moving from an appreciation of the clean elegance of the writing to a sudden realisation of what it is doing differently – that feeling of reading something that is, if not unique, at least unique to my experience, and which opens possibilities I haven’t considered.
28 May 2020 (Thursday)
I took delivery of a new set of journals, their spines a wonderful ruffed leather, their pages clean and white and containing all the world that’s still to come to fill them.
27 May 2020 (Wednesday)
I found my old Scrabble set, which I haven’t used since 2004. Opening it up, I came upon a small wire-bound notebook in which I kept the scores of games, and kept a running count of the matches I played against someone who was either my girlfriend or my fiance at the time. 83 games in 2004 alone, the last one just before New Year’s Eve, in which I clinched the year 42-41. Oh, it was a delight to relive that moment of sweet victory.
26 May 2020 (Tuesday)
A walk in nature and a shared bottle of red wine, sitting on stumps under a pine tree.
25 May 2020 (Monday)
Waking up to the drumming rain and then standing and watching it sweeping up the hillside and down the hillside. A great nautical buffeting rainstorm, the wind bending the trees and throwing birds around in the sky. It was thrilling. It was the best way to start a day.
24 May 2020 (Sunday)
Lying in bed after you have woken up, and reading a book you are enjoying. That is a rare delight, one of those delights you can’t enjoy too often, for fear of blunting it.
23 May 2020 (Saturday)
I watered a friend’s garden this evening, and the smell of the plants and flowers, and the wet soil releasing the day’s heat, and the smell of the hosepipe and the cool arc of the water all made me feel very happy.
22 May 2020 (Friday)
Tonight, to celebrate finishing this week – not finishing it well, just finishing it – I had a braai. The braai wasn’t the delight although it was delightful:
What was delightful was after I had finished, and was sitting in the fallen darkness, listening to plaintive Cuban music, an owl flew down from a tree and stood on the grass, three metres away, looking at me. It was a big owl. If I hadn’t seen it fly, I would have thought it was a cat. It was so silent and still, if I hadn’t seen it fly, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. This is the owl:
21 May 2020 (Thursday)
Completing a tricky 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle during a break in an all-day story meeting.
Discovering a tree this morning that I have never seen before, with great sprays of extraordinary yellow flowers that seemed too bright and too yellow to be real.
20 May 2020 (Wednesday)
I thought I had lost something, but then I found it. The delight of finding something is far greater than the sorrow of having lost it.
19 May 2020 (Tuesday)
A little under two years ago I experienced a dreadful upheaval in my life, which caused a lot of pain to me and more importantly to another person that I loved. It is a common enough experience, and it all ended for the best but the experience was pretty miserable. Today I sat with a friend who is going through precisely the same experience, and I was able to know with great precision which particular rung of hell he is currently passing through. I don’t think it helped me say anything useful – there is nothing useful to be said – but it helped me know that what he needed wasn’t advice, it was companionship that didn’t judge. It felt good – it felt very good – to be able to help him.
18 May 2020 (Monday)
I have been learning Greek during lockdown. Greek is a terrible, chaotic, cataclysmic syllable-soup of a language. It makes no sense and doesn’t sound good and requires you to break every bone in your mouth and reset them in different configurations, but this morning after I woke up, I realised that I was thinking a thought in Greek. It wasn’t a complicated thought – it was about lunch, and when I might eat it – but it was a thought in another language, a language that is spoken every day by people I adore and admire and miss, and it felt like stepping through an invisible door into a much wider universe. It gave me much delight.
17 May 2020 (Sunday)
The sky at dawn was tangerine today, then lightening to peach and apricot and other dry deciduous colours. It took me a while of standing lost in thought and frantic memory to remember where I had seen a sky like that before. I say frantic, because as time goes by I have increasing waves of anxiety at the prospect of losing what I have – the small wooden steamship trunk of experiences and memories that I have accumulated instead of other things. I did remember. The last time I saw a sky like today’s morning sky was 22 years ago, at sunset, over the Nile between Aswan and Luxor. I don’t know which gave me more delight – seeing it or being able to remember it.
16 May 2020 (Saturday)
Walking on the promenade this morning. Two policemen were on horses, and a family stopped so that the kids could pat the horsies, and have a long conversation with the policemen about what they (the horses) liked to eat (apples) and how fast they could run (very fast, but they can be quite lazy early in the morning) and whether they have lots of straw in their stables (yes, and a lovely warm blanket) and whether they have baby horsies (not yet, but maybe one day, when they don’t have to work so hard). It was a model for how so much of this could have been.
15 May 2020 (Friday)
This is an actual, literal, word-for-word conversation I had today:
Receptionist: It’s funny, this no kissing rule.
Me: (a bit puzzled) Um, yeah, I suppose so …
Her: My mother never kissed me on the lips.
Me: (interested, despite myself) Never?
Her: No, she hated it. Don’t know why. So after she died, when she was in the coffin, we all just came and went mad on her. We kissed her and kissed. We really got our fill.
14 May 2020 (Thursday)
After several days of feeling myself sliding back down the hill again, of feeling bad habits creeping over me, today I remembered what Mathieu Ricard once said: “Simply, gently, begin again” he says. He was talking about meditation, when you find your mind has wandered, but it is even better advice for life. You don’t have to keep sliding until you reach rock-bottom. At any point, without any fuss, without any dramatics or big speeches, you can simply, gently, begin again.
13 May 2020 (Wednesday)
A homecoming and a reunion.
12 May 2020 (Tuesday)
Watching Richard Widmark in Night and the City (Jules Dasson, 1950), and recognising where the Safdie Brothers first found the tension and rising dread in Uncut Gems.
11 May 2020 (Monday)
The pleasure of buying a new book that I have been looking for for a long time. Flipping through the pages and smelling the air rising up from the pages.
10 May 2020 (Sunday)
A doorway wreathed in jasmine; noticing again how jasmine smells most strongly from a few steps away, how it perfumes the air without itself being perfume.
9 May 2020 (Saturday)
That sweet moment when the haze of the pineapple beer hangover finally starts to lift.
8 May 2020 (Friday)
Pineapple beer with a friend.
7 May 2020 (Thursday)
The moon full and fuzzy (after the astonishing clarity and size of it last night), looking like an aspirin seen from above, dissolving in a glass of water.
6 May 2020 (Wednesday)
Standing in the street and hearing very joyful, very personal news from friends, who called it down from the balcony of their flat. It is a delightful thing to see delight in others, to be reminded that life keeps going.
5 May 2020 (Tuesday)
A wonderful long walk and a good talk with a new pal who needed to get outside and see someone. The light was lovely. Walking and talking with a pal is very good for the heart, in many different ways.
4 May 2020 (Monday)
After the days of rain and mist this weekend, the hillside of Signal Hill is suddenly green and grassy. It smells fresh and is springy underfoot. A week ago it was the dry dog days of summer, but now there is hope, and some delight.
3 May 2020 (Sunday)
On the Greek island where in normal years I spend part of my year, they are going back outside again. They are walking on the hills and picking sprigs of lavender and wild rosemary and tucking them behind their ears. They are taking out their boats again. It makes me very happy, even though I can’t be there myself, because of all places that should be free, and all places should be free, Greece should most be free.
2 May 2020 (Saturday)
Walking through bookshops again, picking up books, flicking through them, buying books again.
also: Moonstruck (1987) with Cher and the most perfectly Nicholas Cagey Nicholas Cage.
1 May 2020 (Friday)
Seeing dogs again.
30 April 2020 (Thursday)
The mist hanging over the city last night, lit from behind by unearthly orange light. It was industrial and spectral and futuristic and anachronistic and supernatural and lovely, all at once.
29 April 2020 (Wednesday)
It’s not precisely delight when finally it starts to lift and it feels again as though you are at least alive in the world, that you are not looking at the world though a muffling of water and gauze curtain and distance, that there is future as well as an interminable present, but it is a relief, and relief is nothing to disregard. You feel capable of loving again, and that is a delight.
Also: someone is mowing grass in the sunshine, and the smell of it is the smell of a sunny Durban afternoon in the early 1980s.
28 April 2020 (Tuesday)
27 April 2020 (Monday)
Today I’m afraid I found nothing that delighted me. The delightful things were all there, no doubt, but I couldn’t see them, or if I could see them, I couldn’t feel them. Delight happens in the mind, and today, however I tried, my mind wasn’t open for the business of delight. It happens sometimes. I wish it wasn’t, but here it is again.
26 April 2020 (Sunday)
Finding a way to make vanilla vodka taste good.
25 April 2020 (Saturday)
The feeling after you have cleaned your house, when everything is, just for that brief moment, clean. When all around you sparkles and shines, and you can imagine a world and a life in which you make no mess and just live forever in this gleaming bubble.
24 April 2020 (Friday)
Gogglebox, on Channel Four (UK) is a television show in which we watch people – a regular cast of ordinary people and families – the Sidiquis, the Malones, Giles and Mary, Lee and his best friend Jenny, Peter and his little sister Sophie, Stephen and his husband Daniel – watching television. Does this sound dismal? It does, but actually it is the most delightful, heartwarming, funny, comforting and connecting thing to watch at the end of a day. It brings me great delight.
23 April 2020 (Thursday)
Today I bought a flight to Lisbon for later this year. There is a dizzy relief, an ineffable lightness in giving yourself a date in which to have faith, giving yourself something in the future in which to believe and towards which to move.
22 April 2020 (Wednesday)
The sequence in The Night of the Hunter (directed by Charles Laughton, 1955), when the kids have escaped Robert Mitchum and are drifting down the dreamlike river and the stars are turning in the phosphorescent sky above them and the little girl is singing her lullabye while the little boy sleeps in the bow of the boat. It is unearthly and unnerving and quite unbearably beautiful.
21 April 2020 (Tuesday)
Bumping into a friend on the street.
20 April 2020 (Monday)
Walking in the fine veil of Cape rain, more like a lowering cloud than actual precipitation, and combing it through my hair with my fingers and turning my face very happily to the sky.
19 April 2020 (Sunday)
Reading the letters that you have written to me, following my last mailing.
18 April 2020 (Saturday)
Two years ago I was in a small village in Ikaria in Greece for Easter, and it was a time of joy and hope and togetherness, when the people of the village came together for the midnight mass and lit their candles from the holy fire and rang the bells and walked three times around the church afterwards to honour the dead. It is lockdown in Greece now, and they are not allowed to do it, and of course no one is doing it, of course not, but someone from the island has just sent me the sound of the bells tolling and I know if there were a video attached I would see the people of the village walking three times around the church, the way they have done for hundreds of years, and all the children with their candles will be walking the way they will walk in all the years of the future, and it fills me joy and delight, because that is not merely what will survive, but that is the point of surviving at all.
17 April 2020 (Friday)
This afternoon I found a bottle of gin that I had forgotten about.
16 April 2020 (Thursday)
Suddenly swifts in the air all around my window this morning. Swifts everywhere, darting and larking and whizzing and shooting. You don’t really get a sense of the airiness of air until you see swifts being swifts in it.
15 April 2020 (Wednesday)
Walking with bare feet at night on grass under the night sky, with the sound of a night bird in the tree, is a feeling very much like the best parts of being very young.
14 April 2020 (Tuesday)
A long sprig of rosemary plucked from the bush and tucked behind my ear in the sunshine, the way the old men on Ikaria wear them.
also: Bix Beiderbecke’s “I’m coming Virginia”
13 April 2020 (Monday)
There is a person in the block where I am staying, an elderly woman who is very independent and resourceful and lives alone. I see her every day, walking around the grounds and getting exercise. There is another woman in the block, a young woman, who sometimes greets her from her balcony, and they pass the time of day. The other day the older woman confessed that she is doing fine in the lockdown except for the fact that she is very tactile, and she misses being able to touch people – her friends, her children, anyone. Every day since then the young woman has been going to her flat and giving her a long hug. I know some people think that’s wrong, or illegal, but just knowing about it causes me slight tears of delight.
12 April 2020 (Easter Sunday)
An Easter Egg hunt. I am EXCELLENT at Easter Egg hunts. No eggs hidden from me shall prosper.
11 April 2020 (Saturday)
Just at sunrise there is a deep scrim of mist or cloud. I can see the trees in front of my apartment but nothing beyond that; it’s like waking on a Scottish highland hillside. And although there is dawn light somewhere, it’s not down here on the ground, which means it’s dark enough that the owl who lives around here is still softly hooting, although the sun is technically risen. This is a deep, deep delight.
(And then later the foghorn drifting up from the lighthouse at Mouille Point, a long, mournful rhyming hoot, like the monstrous, solitary, sea-going cousin of my owl.)
10 April 2020 (goodish Friday)
Again, I don’t mean to be soppy, but your messages of support and fellow-feeling and plain old under-rated sympathy have been a genuine delight. Thank you.
9 April 2020 (Thursday)
I received a letter from the parent company of Times Select and the Sunday Times terminating my column, and it wasn’t the termination that annoyed me, it was the tone of the letter. I wrote to the person who wrote it, explaining my objections, and was astonished to receive a letter from her in reply, a human letter, words from a human person. We exchanged a number of messages through the day, and it feels quite delightful to have achieved what we have achieved – a mutually respectful enmeshing of our experiences, a genuinely human recognition of the other. It makes me feel quite happy.
8 April 2020 (Wednesday)
A full orange moon rising just after dark, heavy and glorious, and forget what you know about it reflecting the light of the sun – this moon was lit from within, as by a flame through a sphere of alabaster.
7 April 2020 (Tuesday)
Leftover birthday cake for breakfast. Moist almond and rose sponge fairy cakes with a rose and lemon glazed icing, to be specific. None of your butter cream nonsense here.
6 April 2020 (Monday)
Mondays are always my favourite days. They are like mini New Years, opportunities to start again and be refreshed. Mondays are always my most productive days – I do at least 50% of the work I get done in any given week on the Monday of that week. Mondays are when I feel most optimistic and happiest with myself. Today is my birthday, and for my birthday to fall on a Monday is an auspicious thing indeed, a source of much quiet delight. I shall do some work this morning, and then I have several bottles of cold champagne and several bottles of cold pouilly fume, and by God I shall wring the life from them.
5 April 2020 (Sunday)
Two delights: Table Bay under the clouds this morning, in the low morning light, was like a great sheet of beaten silver, striped and rippled with more silver. It reminded me of the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins about how the world is charged with grandeur: “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
The second: tomorrow is my birthday, and the day before my birthday is always delightful. Birthdays themselves less so, but to day is delightful.
4 April 2020 (Saturday)
There are three (or possibly by now more) rabbits living wild in my neighbourhood, very sleek, very glossy and healthy, and tonight in the gloaming I came upon one of them sitting on a patch of grass, chewing over something thoughtfully.
3 April 2020 (Friday)
Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944, written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler). Oh, I am going to concoct a fool-proof plan for murdering husbands, just in case I am ever selling insurance door-to-door, and am both lucky and unlucky enough to knock on her door.
2 April 2020 (Thursday)
On Main Road in Sea Point a young woman on a balcony, drinking a glass of what looked like iced lemonade and wearing a swimsuit because she had just risen from a session of sunbathing on her balcony, started shouting down at the people on the sidewalk, “Go home! What’s so hard to understand?” The people on the sidewalk, mostly the people working in the supermarkets who had sold her the lemonade, turned as one and with varying degrees of politeness told her to go inside. It delighted me to see them do so.
1 April 2020 (Wednesday)
The feel of short grass and earth underneath my bare feet.
31 March 2020 (Tuesday)
Fresh-roasted asparagus with olive oil and parmesan and lemon juice, slightly charred and caramelised.
30 March 2020 (Monday)
Just before the sun came up over the band of horizon-cloud this morning, the hills in the direction of Blaauwberg were limpid and milky blue, a cut-out of denser blue in front of a lighter blue, as simple and flat as one of Matisse’s paper collages.
29 March 2020 (Sunday)
Someone nearby is making lamb curry, and it smells so good that I don’t even need to be able to eat it. The smell – so spicy, so savoury, so rich and warm, mmm, is that dried lime leaves? I bet it is – is delight enough.
28 March 2020 (Saturday)
This is a woodblock print on paper called “Spring Dream”, by Suzuki Harunobu, “The print depicts a couple having the same dream while sleeping. They appear in the dream to be traveling together perhaps later in the Summer.”
27 March 2020 (Friday)
Someone in Cape Town is playing “Don’t Worry be Happy” very loudly, perhaps to enliven and arouse their fellow citizens. The sound travels so far today, with no traffic, that it’s unclear where they are. They might be in Stellenbosch, or Port Elizabeth. They are far enough away for me that I only hear little bursts, distantly and intermittently. If I close the door I don’t have to hear them at all, so I am able to be delighted by this.
26 March 2020 (Thursday)
My neighbour is stockpiling plants. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to tend my garden,” she told me. Stockpiling is not the right word – it implies hoarding something, keeping it locked down, inert, for your own use only. She is going to spend the next three weeks working in her front garden, putting in plants and vegetables, footling with her herbaceous borders. She is going to grow things, add life to the world, and since there is only a low wall in front of the garden, it will be shared with everyone who passes. Because, of course, people will be passing again.
25 March 2020 (Wednesday)
Receiving a message of encouragement from a person I greatly admire, who has concerns and worries and troubles of her own. It is not a delight that she has those worries – it makes me unhappy, to be honest – but it is a delight that a person can find it in themselves, in those moments, to act with such generosity.
24 March 2020 (Tuesday)
Waking up after nine hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep is a glorious feeling, suffused with latent strength and unexpressed joy. It’s a delightful feeling, and you are tempted to fear that it will be the best part of your day, but it casts a halo of delight through everything.
23 March 2020 (Monday)
An elderly neighbour, who doesn’t know me very well, sent me a message asking me if she could buy me any groceries. If she could buy me groceries.
22 March 2020 (Sunday) (Cape Town)
The sounds of the birds outside my window as I woke this morning. The swallows darting about. The stillness of a Sunday at rest.
21 March 2020 (Saturday)
Landing in Istanbul to discover that my flight to Cape Town has been cancelled is a bad feeling, but securing a flight to Johannesburg is such an intense delight by contrast that the bad feeling is worth it.
20 March 2020 (Friday)
A walk in Rustic Canyon in the Pacific Palisades with one of my favourite movie directors, who tells me the inside story about one of my favourite scenes in one of movies of all time. Later, when we part, he tells me, “Stay in touch. Let’s get into some trouble together.”
19 March 2020 (Thursday)
At a filling station on the way back to LA, Herbie, the Love Bug is on display. Is it the very same Herbie that was in the movies? They say it is, and I believe them. Even if it isn’t, it delights me.
18 March 2020 (Wednesday)
At midnight in an empty Caesar’s Palace, a woman who comes every year with her adult son on her birthday gives me a penny and we all throw our pennies over our shoulders into the fountain to make our wishes.
17 March 2020 (Tuesday)
A drive through the Mojave towards Las Vegas, with the broken light on the mountains and the rain falling on the desert in great curved blue veils. Filling up at what is proudly announced as “the biggest Chevron station in North America”.
16 March 2020 (Monday)
Taking a long walk through half-empty boulevards of downtown LA, feeling like Charlton Heston in the opening scenes of Omega Man. (I love that soundtrack.) (This is a link to the opening of Omega Man.)
15 March 2020 (Sunday)
This message on my phone: “Hey, if you need anything, from toilet paper to company to hang out with, we’re here. Literally and figuratively. It must be disorienting to be in unfamiliar surroundings under the best of circumstances, let alone these. So please don’t hesitate to reach out.”
14 March 2020 (Saturday)
Pizza and whiskey while outside Los Angeles goes quietly crazy.
13 March 2020 (Friday)
Lunch with my agent in a deli on Wilshire. Nothing especially good happened in that lunch – the studios have all shut down – but just to be able to say I once had lunch with my agent in a deli on Wilshire.
**PS Two days later the deli on Wilshire, along with every other restaurant, was closed by the city. A double delight to have managed to do it, then.
12 March 2020 (Thursday)
In the lobby of a fancy Santa Monica hotel, while I was defiantly drying a pair of socks over the grate in front of the fire at three in the afternoon because of the apocalyptic rainstorm outside, there was a Canadian woman with three small children. She had brought them on holiday to go to Universal Studios and Disneyland, and both had just been closed because of the coronavirus. The kids were shattered, but staying brave. Their mom was mock-stern with them. “Only one of you can be my favourite child,” she told them. “The first one to complain about Disneyland falls out of the running.” They amused themselves by asking each other what their biggest regret in life was. “Is yours crashing the car, mommy?” asked the eight-year-old. “Sure,” said mommy. “Let’s go with that one.” That family delighted me.
11 March 2020 (Wednesday)
Jeff Goldblum playing jazz piano in a bar in Los Feliz, that you can only enter through an alley out back, just past the Starbucks.
10 March 2020 (Tuesday)
Someone I have never met, a friend of a friend, called me up and took me out to breakfast and drove me around and offered his help and advice, which is an extraordinary thing for strangers in a busy city to do. I made a new friend.
9 March 2020 (Monday)
“I love your accent,” said someone to me today. For a South African to be told that anyone likes their accent is a rare delight to be cherished.
8 March 2020 (Sunday)
A visit to The Last Bookstore on Spring Street in downtown LA, where I found three books I have been looking for forever, and where I was surrounded by books and book-lovers in this seemingly most unbooky of cities.
7 March 2020 (Saturday)
Taking a walk through the neighbourhood at night and the smell of rosemary and lavender and jasmine, which no one told me were the smells of Los Angeles. There is more rosemary growing in West Hollywood than there is grass.
6 March 2020 (Friday)
Setting up my pomodoro fifteen-minute hour glass this morning in the West Hollywood Public Library, a stranger exclaimed “That’s so cool!” I looked at him in surprise. “Is that for writing? That’s so cool!” he said. It’s quite delightful to be told by a cool stranger that you’re so cool.
5 March 2020 (Thursday) (Los Angeles)
Three hummingbirds that come at dusk to drink sugar water and dart about. One has a pink face, another crimson, another a sunset orange. I always knew they hovered but I had no idea how still and stable they stand in the air, as though hopping from one invisible branch to another.
4 March 2020 (Wednesday)
I watched a woman eating a croissant and reading a book. As she read, her brow furrowed in disapproval then cleared with relief. Her eyes widened in surprise and narrowed in suspicion. She shook her head slowly in disagreement and her shoulders grew tense. I couldn’t see what she was reading, but whatever it was, it was a pure delight to see someone living her inside on her outside, right there in public, oblivious to any part of the world not happening inside her book. It was quite wonderful.
3 March 2020 (Tuesday)
The perfect delight when you have noticed that the passport number on your American visa doesn’t match the actual number of your passport, but the people checking your passport at Heathrow do not.
Also: The smell of perfume in duty-free is the last most glamorous thing about international travel. It smells expensive and sensual and heady, the minglings of Guerlain and Chanel and Jean Patout. It smells like furs and brooches and driving to the theatre in an expensive car with your grandma and grampa when you are ten years old. I sometimes just stand there with my eyes closed, breathing deeply.
2 March 2020 (Monday)
The simple, secret delight of being tired in a hotel room and turning on the television and finding through sweet serendipity the perfect comforting movie, that started only ten minutes ago, that you have seen before but not too recently, that brings back memories and offers present pleasure in equal quantities, that makes you feel that there is nowhere in the world you would rather be right now than here in this cosy, impersonal room with a city outside and – in this case – Goldfinger on TV.
1 March 2020 (Sunday)
Breaking the journey in London: a jacketless walk in the icy cold air beside the Thames at Hammersmith in the bright heatless sun, feeling sufficiently alive and joyfully hungry again for a dish of the best macaroni-and-cheese in the world, other than my mother’s, at Bill’s.
29 February 2020 (Saturday)
Arriving at the airport for the first of a long series of flights to Los Angeles, expecting it to be a hotbed of dread and anxiety about germs and face-masks, but finding instead a perfectly ordinary day. I made a joke about the coronavirus with one of check-in women, and she laughed then rolled her eyes and said, “People are too dramatic.”
28 February 2020 (Friday)
My first afternoon highveld thunderstorm in many years, and what a thunderstorm. The sky all water and lightning, the thunder shaking branches from trees. I had forgotten the visceral effect of being so close to the elements when they are being so elemental.
27 February 2020 (Thursday)
Arriving at a friend’s house to smell the first braai fire I have been near in probably three years.
Also: holding a rabbit.
26 February 2020 (Wednesday)
Every morning I try to meditate for fifteen minutes. This doesn’t look like much – just me sitting silently with my eyes closed, catching myself thinking and gently trying to stop. I don’t know how, but this does make me a better version of myself. In the ground-floor apartment where I’m staying in Rosebank, in Johannesburg, there is a small private courtyard and I took the opportunity to sit on a bench in the shade. When I sat down there was a ladder leaning against the wall of the apartment block next door. When I opened my eyes fifteen minutes later there was a man on the ladder, in overalls, painting the third floor. He looked at me guiltily.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I wasn’t sleeping.”
“You were just sitting?” he said.
“You could say that, yes,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s good to just sit,” he said. “I like to just sit sometimes.”
“Everyone should just sit sometimes,” I agreed.
“You should tell my boss that,” he said.
25 February 2020 (Tuesday)
A white gown with blue birds printed on it.
24 February 2020 (Monday)
At a roadside burger place on the highway running past Barrydale there is, for no good reason, one of those metal speaker stands that you would park next to when you went to the drive-in. You would clip the metal speaker onto the driver’s side window to hear the movie. I was eating a toasted chicken sandwich and looked up and saw it, and for the next half hour I was lost in Proustian reverie of the drive-in and all that went with it: food brought from home wrapped in tin foil inside empty plastic ice-cream tubs; never being allowed to have a slush puppy, no matter how we begged; that one time when the family was flush and we had a KFC bucket; hiding under a blanket on the floor to be snuck into an age-restricted movie; wearing a red tracksuit with white stripes down the arms; Roger Moore in Octopussy; Bud Spencer and Terence Hill; the stars in the hazy humid sky above the screen; the trailers for movies I have still never seen; my mom; my sister; my dad.
23 February 2020 (Sunday)
A dog walked up through the vines to introduce herself. She is perhaps eight months months old and has no home but she has the best manners and decorum of any dog I have have ever met. She is dignified and attentive and sensitive, and she chose me. We went for walks and she trotted along at my ankles, and stayed brave and guarded me even when cows lowed at her and guinea fowl ran across our path. I wondered if she would leave overnight, but I put down a towel outside the front door and she was still sleeping there faithfully in the morning. She is my delight of the year so far. Tomorrow I leave for Johannesburg and then Los Angeles, and can’t take her with me. Every delight has a side where the sun doesn’t reach.
22 February 2020 (Saturday)
A view over some hills to a very wide, high, blue sky with great white mountains of cloud moving fast enough that you could see them move. Vast expanses of endless very blueness and masses of gorgeous very whiteness. Each time you looked up, a different world in the skies above you. The astonished thought came to me – this is happening every day, for free.
21 February 2020 (Friday)
The deep joy of not doing something you are supposed to be doing.
20 February 2020 (Thursday)
A business call over a potentially tricky matter, both creatively and financially, and I am halfway through before I suddenly realise, with a feeling of such deep relief and joy that I almost begin to cry, that I did not feel anxious about this call, that I do not feel inadequate, that I do not feel I do not belong.
19 February 2020 (Wednesday)
At 3pm there was a rumble like a drum being rolled down the road. The rumble moved across the rim of the hills and the sky turned very grey and dark and some fat heavy drops of rain fell on the dust between the vines and then as I watched great curtains of rain blew first one way then the other and silver water ran in streams down the furrows and the birds all took shelter under the eaves and in the trees. Rain in the karoo.
18 February 2020 (Tuesday)
Bats at dusk, three or four of them, silent and darting as though on wires against a sky the colour of rock.
17 February 2020 (Monday)
In a dark room on a hot afternoon, with the white sunlight showing around the edges of the floor-length wooden shutters, drinking an ice-cold glass of water and eating a cold, diced peach.
16 February 2020 (Sunday)
After a long hot drive: a swim in a cold, clean, green sea, to emerge new-born and alive.
15 February 2020 (Saturday)
Sitting on the sofa in silence, in an empty apartment, with the rugby coming on soon but with nothing on my mind and nothing needing my attention.
14 February 2020 (Friday)
The road leading up the apartment block where I’m staying is lined with rows of hibiscus trees. I didn’t know that’s what they were until they all suddenly came into bloom today.
13 February 2020 (Thursday)
At a long story meeting, stretching over three days, where everyone sensibly wears their dreariest, most comfortable clothing, one of my colleagues today was wearing a pair of crisp, high-cinched, parachute-styled bright red trousers that were like a burst of red poppies on a grey day. They filled me with delight whenever I saw them, and made me resolve to do better.
12 February 2020 (Wednesday)
After a day’s work, sitting on a terrace having a slightly awkward three-way work conversation in which tricky things and relationships had to be resolved. As we sat there a pea-hen walked by with her two small pea-chicks, just pecking and noodling around our feet, and as I watched them I had the deep and complete knowledge that everything was fine and everything is exactly as it should be and everything will work out its own perfection.
11 February 2020 (Tuesday)
An afternoon nap.
10 February 2010 (Monday)
I walked on the promenade and looked at the dogs, all the dogs that passed, every single one, and there were big ones and small ones and hairy ones with fringes in their eyes and little skinny ones whose legs were like sandpipers and every single one of them made me smile.
9 February 2020 (Sunday)
On the promenade the waves were breaking a light glassy green and the sunlight behind them made seem as though they had been painted by Aivazovsky.
8 February 2020 (Saturday)
The sweet, sweet delight of deciding to cancel a meeting tomorrow.
7 February 2020 (Friday)
My dear friend Elsa’s meatballs and Sicilian red sauce and a huge bottle of red wine while her daughter explains to me that Patti Smith is the greatest artist of all time, and I remember being sixteen, especially the fun and passionate parts, and I dearly love everyone around the table and this is perfect.
6 February 2020 (Thursday)
A palm tree in a Cape Town wind, seen through a clear glass window, each frond trembling and drawn in different directions by the application of the same invisible force, looks like seaweed on a shallow reef in the tidal surge.
5 February 2020 (Wednesday)
A mist came over the city from the ocean, like a sea-level cloud, and it made the air suddenly cool and the light suddenly silvery and it speckled the windows as though with a fine rain.
4 February 2020 (Tuesday)
In a restaurant in the evening, the cricket was on the television. Temba Bavuma was approaching a century but the electricity was scheduled to go out at 8pm with the loadshedding. It was 7.50 and Temba had 90 runs. It was 7.55 and Temba had 95. Everyone in the restaurant, even people who don’t care about cricket, was willing Temba to reach his 100 before the lights go out. It felt like the most South African moment.
3 February 2020 (Monday)
On a hot, still day, after a long walk up the hill to the apartment where I’m staying, a glass of very cold water. What does cold water taste like when thirsty on a hot day? Like delight.
2 February 2020 (Sunday)
It was very hot and still in town and when all the lights went out at 8pm we went down to the Sea Point promenade where there was a fine haze of sea-mist and the air was suddenly cold and salty and smelt of iodine and wet stone. There were people walking on the promenade, and groups and couples sitting on benches or on blankets on the grass. It was so dark you couldn’t see their faces, or even if they were black or white. There were children playing on the swings. You could see the stars in the sky and the half-moon glinted on the very black sea.
1 February 2020 (Saturday)
A walk with a very good dog named Maria, who owes me no love or loyalty or obedience, but who walked close to my heels and who always came when called, even though she wanted to go running and snuffling and making a nuisance of herself. A lovely walk in the lovely sunshine and the cool shade with a very good dog indeed.
31 January 2020 (Friday)
I was meeting someone this afternoon and she was there already and talking to two good mutual friends who also happened to be there, and all three of them were laughing and when they turned and saw me they were all happy to see me. It felt indescribably wonderful to see three people I care about, all laughing and happy and to know that by arriving I wasn’t ruining anything.
30 January 2020 (Thursday)
I went into the bank to retrieve the final document needed for my tax return. There were no queues, and the document, which I’ve been struggling to retrieve online, was emailed to my accountants in thirty seconds, and the woman behind the counter smiled at me when I smiled, and we had a conversation, the two of us, and we agreed how morally indefensible it is to tax the interest on a person’s savings, and we agreed that the world would be altogether better if people like us were running it, and then I went on with my day and she went on with hers.
29 January 2020 (Wednesday)
After a very long series of flights: a warm strong soapy shower that washes away all the invisible dirt of the world. A clean towel afterwards. Brushing my teeth.
28 January 2020 (Tuesday)
An evening stroll and this statue on a street corner in the Spanish border town of Moguer, sculpted by someone called Chiqui Diaz. The old man has a splendid round belly, the belly of a life lived full and well and with good appetite, and in his left hand at his side he carries a shining horseshoe. He is a lucky man. But what mosts delights me is his face as he looks at the butterfly that has landed on his fingertip. It is deep, simple pleasure, an appreciation of a moment that matters, calm in the knowledge that life has many such pleasures, and isn’t about to run out of them. There are many kinds of delight, and this is one of them.
27 January 2020 (Monday)
The final scene in Roman Holiday. The restraint of the writing , the worlds that pass silently between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in that vast hall with all those people around. And afterwards Gregory Peck’s slight smile and slow walk out into the daylight, with his footsteps echoing through the grand emptiness. I have watched it three times now, and each time it is a perfect fresh delight.
26 January 2020 (Sunday)
Walking through a forest. It has rained recently and the soil is dark and wet and loamy. The air smells clean and green and cool. I read an article recently about how contact with soil might boost your immune system and your happiness, so we start rubbing our hands experimentally in the soil. “This,” she says, after a few minutes of soil-rubbing, “is where full eccentricity begins.”
25 January 2020 (Saturday)
On the roof of the Convent of San Francisco is an immense nest, and on it, right now, its head and shoulders poking over the side of the nest, like an old man in a bath, is a stork. It looks down at me and I look up at it. It is the middle of the night, and it is magnificent.
24 January 2020 (Friday)
I have stopped for the night in a Spanish town on the banks of the Rio Tinto, on my way from Lisbon to Malaga. Walking at 10pm, after dinner, a gang of six or seven children come running past me. They are boys and girls, short and tall, in warm coats and good shoes, the eldest probably 11, the youngest probably 9. Why are they running? Are they afraid? Are they being chased? They reach the square outside the church and scatter in different directions. Moments later another girl comes running down the road after them, stops in the middle of the square and starts peering around parked cars and up alleys. They aren’t afraid. They aren’t at home or on their phones or playing video games. Late at night on a Friday in their home town, they are playing hide and seek.
23 January 2020 (Thursday)
The smell of Creme de Cassis de Bourgogne, bought in Dijon a year ago while driving to Spain, and opened now for the first time in months to make a kir royale. Dark and intense and fruity and somehow also umami and rich and loamy like moist forest earth. It is thrilling. It smells the way I imagine blood does to a wolf.
22 January 2020 (Wednesday)
The sidewalks of Lisbon are made up of small square stone cobbles, the colour of old ivory. No sidewalk here is perfectly smooth or flat – the cobbles are set in earth, so parts of them subside slightly, forming gentle troughs and rises. When it has been raining, like today, they are at their most beautiful because the light catches them unevenly and they gleam and undulate like the surface of the sea.
21 January 2020 (Tuesday)
A warm cafe that smells of coffee and cinnamon on the green square of Fielho de Almeida. There is an afternoon rain shower, and the raindrops are fat and heavy but the shower is light enough that you can hear each raindrop distinctly striking the canvas with a lovely deep sound, like a knuckle rapping against a wooden box.
20 January 2020 (Monday)
In the Pingo Doces supermarket this morning I was standing in the queue for the till with a litre of milk for the morning cup of coffee when the elderly man in front of me turned, looked at my litre of milk, looked at his own large basket of groceries, and ushered me in front of him in the line. I thanked him, and he waved it away. By going in front of him, I was doing him a favour, he said, because “I must do one good deed every day.”
19 January 2020 (Sunday)
Reading the messages and emails from people who have received my most recent newsletter is a delight that feels very warm and almost troublingly deep, and it’s a delight that lasts far longer than the reading itself.
18 January 2020 (Saturday) (Lisbon)
From the window of my apartment I can see across the road to a bus stop, where this morning a man stood with his daughter, waiting for the bus. The daughter was about four, and it was a bright but cold morning so she was bundled up in a puffy pink jacket, and she was swinging slowly round the streetlight, with one hand on the pole, round and round and round, slowly, purposefully, completely absorbed in her thoughts and in the motion of going round and round and round, absorbed in the way only a small girl can be. I stood and watched her and watched her and I was sorry when the bus came.