Current location: Nafplion

Dear friends! Old friends! New friends! Hello! Thank you for visiting my website.

(Perhaps that’s a little overly effusive. I don’t know if that’s how one is supposed to start these things, but I really am very glad you made it here.)

On this website I will be building the archive of my writings, stretching back to 1997. I’ll add new new columns from the past every week, but I’ll also be writing regular long posts – at least one a month, available nowhere else – and irregular and more frequent short posts. There’ll be travel blogs and pictures and occasional audio clips and news of upcoming events and publications, and on the newsletter I’ll share resources and things I’m reading and watching. And I hope there’ll be you too – my reason for creating this website is to build a closer connection between us, to have more of a conversation than is possible in the clamour of social media. I want to share with you, and I hope you’ll share with me. 

To stay up to date, subscribe to the newsletter in the box on the right of this page. To read the most recent post, simply scroll down. To read earlier posts, scroll a little further.

My 2021 Movie list

I have been asked to post my list of movies watched in 2021. I don’t recommend all of them, of course – some were real stinkers – but feel free to contact me about individual movies, or any particular theme or thread you are interested in pursuing in your own viewing. The film noir series mostly belonged to 2020, but here are all 133 movies from the year just past:

December 2021 (20)

Sibelius 1 and 2 (Christopher Nupen)

Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1969)

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971)

In and of Itself (Frank Oz, 2020)

The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)

Old (M. Night Shyamalan, 2021)

The Many Saints of Newark (Alan Taylor, 2021)

The Guns of Navarone (Lee J. Thompson, 1961)

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, 2021)

Annette (Leos Carrax, 2021)

Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021)

Antlers (Scott Cooper, 2021)

Lamb (Valdimar Johansson, 2021)

Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021)

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minelli, 1962)

November 2021 (19)

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990)

Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softie, 1997)

The Mambo Kings (Arne Glimcher, 1992)

Stalag XVII (Billy Wilder, 1952)

The Eiger Sanction (Clint Eastwood, 1975)

Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1942)

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)

First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015)

Never Ending Story (Wolfgang Peterson, 1984)

Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1972)

The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985)

Listening Through a Lens (Christopher Nupen documentary)

A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015)

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)

October 2021 (13)

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristina Lindstrom; Kristian Petri, 2021)

Human Factors (Ronny Trockers, 2021)

Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love, 2021)

Things We Say, Things We Do (Emanuele Mouret, 2020)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

Freud (John Huston, 1961)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Halloween 2 (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)

Halloween H20 (Steve Miner, 1998)

Halloween (David Gordon Greene, 2018)

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2020)

September 2021 (8)

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954)

Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017)

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1938)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

August 2021 (13)

Midnight (Marshall Leissen, 1939)

Crossfire (Edward Dimitryk, 1947)

Mr and Mrs Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava, 1936)

Cast a Dark Shadow (Lewis Gilbert, 1955)

Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003)

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) (repeat)

The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1942)

Macao (Josef von Sternberg, 1952)

The Beckoning Silence (Louise Osmond, 2007)

Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975)

Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

Kill Bill vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)

July 2021 (5)

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973)

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)

The Celluloid Closet (Epstein and Friedman, 1995)

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

June 2021 [1]

To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

May 2021 (7)

Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1942)

The Four Seasons Motel (Andrew Jacobs, 2008)

The Truman Tapes (Ebs Burnough, 2020)

Mank (David Fincher, 2020)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940)

April 2021 (12)

Romance (Catherine Breillart, (1999)

Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, 2020)

The Dissident (Bryan Fogel, 2020)

The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1946)

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (Thom Zimny, 2010)

A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1935)

Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)

The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery, 2018)

March 2021 (12)

Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967)

The Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)

The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021)

On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke, 2017)

Mitt (Greg Whiteley, 2014)

The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1971)

Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960)

Zorba the Greek (Mikael Cacoyannis, 1964)

Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966)

February 2021 (9)

The Cameraman (Buster Keaton/Edward Sedgewick, 1928)

She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933)

I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)

Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)

Creed 2 (Stephen Caple Jr, 2018)

Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934)

The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

Pick Up on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Goin’ to Town (Alexander Ross, 1935)

January 2021 (14)

1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015)

Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019)

The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958)

Godzilla (Gojira) (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, 2014)

Café Nagler (Mor Kaplanski, 2016)

Boy on a Dolphin (Jean Negulesco, 1957)

Clue (Jonathan Lyn, 1985)

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

John McEnroe – In the Realm of Perfection (2018)

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

The Seven-Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)

Home is where the heart is

My very dear friends

I shan’t apologise for being so long in writing. Letters that start with apologies are dismal, and you have things to do and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear any more excuses from anyone this year, so instead let me just tell you that it’s good to be writing again, and this letter finds me chewing the end of my quill in a tumbledown cottage in a very small village in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor.

I came here for six weeks of rest cure, to be huddled down in a cozy den in the darkening winter, like a slightly dazed fox or chastened bear, letting things settle and wounds heal. It’s also a homecoming of sorts: before my people fetched up in South Africa, they sprang from the moist soil and dripping woods and furzy uplands that line the mighty River Bovey, that dashing artery that drains Dartmoor and feeds modestly into the River Teign.

Some years ago I made a pilgrimage to walk the length of the Bovey, which wasn’t entirely the triumphant roots tour I’d been imagining. Regrettably, the Bovey isn’t one of the world’s great watery gods. It’s no Zambezi or Don or Mississippi: it ambles prettily enough through a few miles of farmland, between sheep meadows, and splashes and tinkles down through a couple of polite narrows and rapids, but it’s hard to imagine any adventure-seeking young boys running away on a paddle steamer on the Bovey; what small islands it has could scarcely shelter a medium-sized otter, let alone Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. There is a Bovey Castle but when I presented myself optimistically at the doorstep the current inhabitants proved aristocratically reluctant to take a prodigal Bovey into their outflung arms and provide him with a four-poster bed and a butler-drawn hot bath.

On that visit I stayed in my ancestral village of Bovey Tracey but I was only there a few days and much of that time was spent squelching along muddy paths with rainwater trickling down my collar, so I never really warmed to the place. This time I wanted to spend more time in the area, the way my ancestors would have lived: in an old stone hovel, without car or horizon, wintered in and muttering to myself in a West Country grumble. So here I am, in the village of Buckfastleigh, and anywhere I go, I have to go by bus or on foot.

Buckfastleigh is a pleasant walk of three hours over the moor from Bovey Tracey, which is a walk my ancestors must have taken in some numbers because to my surprise the graveyard here is filled with Boveys, including a grand stone sarcophagus and a plaque suggesting that when Arthur Conan Doyle toured the area, gathering material for The Hound of the Baskervilles, he might have based one of the more noxious Baskerville characters on a certain hard-hearted and possibly wife-murdering John Bovey of Buckfastleigh.

Since we arrived, I’ve been examining the locals with a gimlet eye to assess my genetic heritage. It’s not entirely encouraging. I wouldn’t describe the locals as the most dynamic, out-going or attractive people I’ve encountered. They’re less a gene pool, if I’m honest, than a shallow basin of tepid water in which a weary traveller might rest his aching feet. But I suppose they’re friendly enough, so long as you take the initiative to speak first and don’t startle them with eye contact, and if you deliberately blur your vision you could argue that there’s nothing physically wrong with them that two generations’ worth of transplantation to a healthier hemisphere and a dash of choice-based genetic mixing wouldn’t cure.

Jo says she can see that part of me has roots in these people: she recognises the same interest in strangers but mistrust of neighbours, the same tranquil willingness to be silent in company regardless of how excruciatingly awkward it might be become, the same admirable capacity to walk around in short trousers and t-shirts on the coldest days of the year.

“Would you say those are attractive qualities in a person?” I mused, hopefully.

“It depends on what you think of shorts on a man over 40,” she said diplomatically, guiding my attention to a genial, badly shaven, gnome-like fellow ambling his knees towards us up Fore Street. He and I passed each other with a nod and grunt, our eyes averted.

“You could be twins,” said Jo.

I’m not sure what I wanted from Devon: answers, certainly, but to which questions? These last two years have caused many of us to ask ourselves where we belong, or why we belong there, or what “home” means. I’ve never had the slightest intimation that Devon means home, but sometimes going where you came from helps you see things that are too close to you to notice.

In Ashburton, a village an hour’s walk from Buckfastleigh, where I was startled to discover a war memorial commemorating the bold deeds of another Bovey, I met a woman of about my age. She was interested, and funny, and had a clear and luminous light in her eyes. I thought: “This person belongs to a wider world.”

We fell to chatting and it turned out that she had never been out of Devon, and had never lived anywhere but Ashburton, except for a few months in Paignton, 90 minutes away by bus. I told her about the uncertainties of traveling around in the age of Covid, staying a month or six weeks at a time in different countries.

We looked at each other and she thought, but didn’t say: “What about growing through your life with the people around you? What about having roots and laying deep tracks? What about belonging somewhere and knowing who you are?”

I thought, but didn’t say: “What about the world? What about seeing as much as you can of what there is to be seen? What about never belonging, so having find out who you are?”

Neither of us understood each other. We both very deeply understood each other.

I’ve settled into a daily routine. Every morning and evening I walk down through the village to cross an old stone bridge then climb 196 steep stone steps up through a green wood to the ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was built in the 1200s – “despite much opposition from the devil” – and has been the hideout of outlaws and the centre of a graverobbing syndicate. In the last war a German bomb blew out its stained-glass windows. In 1992 it was burnt to the ground, allegedly by a local group of Satanists. Still though, the ruins are atmospheric and ring with jackdaws, and the graveyard was recently voted “Most Improved” in the 2021 Devon Churchyard competition.

194 of the stone steps are laid with horizontal oblongs of Dartmoor granite, but there are two steps where the stone is arranged vertically. Any wish made while standing on either or both of these steps will infallibly come true. Every day I make two wishes going up, and two coming down. Once, descending in the dusk, I opened my eyes after the second wish and saw a horseshoe bat flapping toward me, perfectly at eye-level. It circled my head and came back for a second leisurely pass. I like to think of it as a good omen.

“Do you make the same wish every day, or do you make as many wishes as you can to try and get as many wishes granted as possible?” Jo asked me.

“The same two,” I told her.

“Interesting,” she said.

She makes different wishes, to spread the net wider. I try to carve the same wishes deeper through repetition, into the very stone of the steps. She thought but didn’t say, because she didn’t have to, that there is more Devonian in me than I care to recognize.

My walk takes me through the ruins of the church and across a field and down through a small glade to come out at the golden sandstone of Buckfast Abbey, where the Benedictine monks make their own tonic wine – 15% alcohol and infused with caffeine, very popular – the locals say knowingly – in Scotland. There is beautiful stained glass and an axial chapel of blue and golden glass where you can sit and be silent. The Abbey has a physic garden and a poison garden and lawns with signs saying “Please feel free to walk on the grass”. Brother Adam the apiarist monk took 70 painstaking years to breed the Buckfast Bee here.

Every day I take the same walk although there are other walks, and each time it feels as though I am walking a deeper track for myself, as though entangling myself more deeply with the trees and stiles and muddy paths. Something in me responds to the depressing inward beauty of the place, the distance from the world and the proximity to loneliness, the jackdaws in the ruined church and the ravens on the tors, the bright rills of water, the way the afternoon sunlight burns the green hills a brighter green and makes the white sheep blaze as though their wool were made with magnesium. You can see across to the moor with its shaggy wild ponies, its rocks and heath, a passing storm making tendrils of mist and shapes like people.

There’s a pull to stay – the same pull to immobility that kept my ancestors here for centuries and centuries and centuries, living and marrying and making a living and dying within the same precincts and parishes, walking the same ways, doing the same things, in the same ten- or twenty-mile radius: the pull to know something – not to know much, but to know this. It’s the same self-annihilating pull, I realised this morning with a shock, that I feel when I return to the Bluff, the deep-sleepy suburb where I grew up in Durban, a place much beloved by the people who live there, a place where my schoolmates still live, in the same houses they grew up in or just down the road, and which I fled as soon as I could.

I’m very grateful for the opportunity, at this time of all times, to see where my uncomfortable nature was bred into the bones of my father’s fathers. I’m grateful for this time of stillness and to feel the granite weight of accumulated generations, the echoes and memories of thousands of years of staying sensibly and sort of safely in one place.

On Saturday I catch the train to London then fly to Spain for Christmas, and then to Milan for New Year and then onward to a part of Greece I haven’t been before. In February I’ll come back to South Africa for two months and then we’ll go somewhere else again, Jo and I, because there are those who stay and those who go, and all of us can be either of them, but I am one of those who go.

I hope you are well, and are figuring out how to make yourself happy. Some are lucky enough simply to be happy, but the rest of us need to work it out, and it takes much time and many wrong turnings. I hope we’ll all have a happier 2022. We deserve it, I think. You definitely do.

Much love Darrel

Back on the road

My dear friends

I am writing this to you on my last day beside the Red Sea in Egypt. I’ve been here for two weeks and it has been an edgy time, as I keep one eye on the news out of London, holding my breath every time Boris Johnson wombles up to the mike like a pink-eyed, unkempt Great-Uncle Bulgaria, hoping he’ll somehow continue to keep Egypt off the red list long enough for me to serve my quarantine here in peace.

Other than a bargain, there is nothing in life I love quite so much as a loophole, and Egypt is the last good loophole left open, after Kenya and various other ports of convenience closed at the eleventh hour. Egypt is the only place I know that is both on the UK amber list and welcomes South Africans without placing any restrictions on our movement. (I’m told there’s Ghana as well, but I haven’t looked into it because that would involve going back to Ghana.)

Consequently I have spent the last two weeks here on this terraced Xanadu facing the Straits of Tiran, periodically rolling my lazy carcass into the warm aquarium of the sea to bob about like an oil drum, or like a lilo that has been inexplicably moulded to resemble a pale and flabby man. I have taken one desert excursion to the Monastery of St Catherine to see the (currently unburning) burning bush and to climb Mount Sinai like some younger but less sprightly Moses, and I have ambled into town in the evenings to watch it slowly fill again over the course of the fortnight with the first happy travelers from a re-opening Europe, and for the rest of the time I have been idly engaging in the almost forgotten pleasures of people-watching.

As I look up now, I see a large shaggy man – Baloo the bear in a blue sea on a hot day – who has found exactly the sweet spot of his holiday. The sand shelves shallowly into the sea here, and there are coral reefs on either side but in the deepening channel to the bluer sea there is an orange life-ring – the kind you find on ships to throw to someone who may have fallen over the railing – tethered to a sea-bed rock by a length of rope. I’m not sure why it’s there – perhaps for a child to cling to if they have strayed unexpectedly from their depth – but this ursine gentleman has made it his personal throne. He has hauled himself up and onto it, and at first he sat there with his bottom in the doughnut hole, propped upright and surveying his kingdom like a furry Neptune. He waved regally to the folks on shore, then mimed someone bringing him a beer, which he mimed opening ceremoniously, then mimed drinking with sovereign dignity. No one on shore took this hint, which I imagine struck him bitterly as yet one more reason the land is more disappointing than the water.

Now he is spreadeagled on the lifebuoy, a grand hairy starfish, his belly pointing to the alabaster dome of the heavens, those marvelous bear limbs and bear paws thrown out to all the points of the compass. This is a man in the right place at the right time, a lord of his domain. Perhaps he slaves the long year as a – what? A foreman in a refinery in Baku? The government overseer of a nuclear reactor near Minsk? – but here he is truly what he was born to be: a creature of the sea and the salty elements, a furry Lord of the brine. Look at him! Abandoned to the sky and the deep! Behold this happy man! I love how happy he is, how entirely – right now – he is who he is in his dreams.

Many of the people I am currently watching are Russian or from one of the indistinguishable wretched former Soviet republics, although there is one other South African lurking around. I heard her at breakfast this morning telling a waiter that “This place is stunning! Byerrrrdiful, hey!” It made my heart fond to hear the purring tones of my homeland again, here on this distant desert shore. I considered hailing her, that we might chat and share some glad news and gossip about the old country, but then I thought a little harder about how that conversation might go, and I slunk a little lower in my seat and switched to ordering in Greek. Perhaps tomorrow.

(Here’s an innovation that resort hotels should pioneer: compulsory badges bearing your check-out date, so that others may carefully time their friendly overture, knowing that if it goes wrong they won’t have too many days of avoiding you.)

But truly, after thirteen months of only seeing people you know, or whose type you know, one of the great joys of being in the world again is the opportunity to watch strangers. Strangers are a great source of mystery and delight, as confusing and alien as the fish in the coral canyons.

In front of me is a young woman with a palm branch. She dragged it onto the beach a little while ago and sat regarding it thoughtfully. I know where she found it: it’s maintenance day for the palm trees on the resort and various branches are lying scattered beneath their parent trees, trimmed or pruned or crossed with silver or whatever it is you do to palms to keep them in shape. She sat in profound reverie over her branch. It isn’t often that the universe offers us a palm branch, she seemed to be thinking. There must be lots of ways to have fun with a palm branch: it requires of me only that I think of one of those ways. The universe has come calling in my one wild and precious life, and how shall I answer?

She has come up with an answer. She has roped her elderly father into her scheme. She now sits facing the sea and her father is with one hand holding the palm branch propped upright so that the sun throws its shadow onto her back, while with his other hand he is trying to one-handedly focus a cellphone and take a picture. It’s a tricky job because a gentle ocean breeze causes the shadow to wobble about, and while he is trying to exert control over that situation the phone keeps switching back to the screen-saver, so that he has to one-thumbedly punch in the access code again.

His daughter keeps barking instructions but otherwise she is being remarkably patient, although it must be hot out there. Oh, now mom has come to help. She’s holding the tip of the palm branch upright and more or less still, although the palm needles still quiver a little at the sides, causing an unsatisfactory blurring on the picture. The model is inspecting the pictures. She is dissatisfied. She jabs her finger accusingly at the screen. Now other citizens of the beach have wandered over to consult. Someone is trying to hold the frond in place from their side but even I can tell that she won’t some stranger’s fingers in shadow on her back-portrait. Ah! The mystery of her dissatisfaction is solved! It’s the strap of her bikini. What kind of photograph of a back has a bikini strap in it? An inferior photograph, that’s what! She has instructed her father to undo her bikini strap. This has taken a turn for the unexpected. It is amazing to think that when this man was born, Stalin was on the Russian throne. Could this man have imagined that a few short decades later, he would be on the shores of the Red Sea, undressing his daughter the better to photograph her with a piece of tree for Instagram? Oh, now she’s arching her back to add a touch of drama and tension to the picture. I wonder if her dad is as uncomfortable as I am. No – he is pulling down her bikini bottom to increase the canvas upon which they are making art. One does wonder about the Eastern Europeans, sometimes.

At breakfast on the terrace each morning we are stalked by Hitchcock-like gangs of ruffian birds. Sparrows and sweet little desert starlings, for the most part, but also the occasional blackbird and crow that loiter nearby with a casual air but glittering eyes. Leave your table unattended and they’ll make off with your slice of melon or your croissant with cheese and strawberry jam so fast you’ll question your own sanity. Two families came to breakfast at much the same time yesterday morning. One was Russian, I think, and the other Egyptian, and each had a little boy about ten years old. For every situation there is an individual reaction to it.

One of the little boys sat watching the birds with liquid eyes, sneaking crumbs and pieces of his breakfast to surreptitiously feed them under the table, like some underage St Anthony. He watched them with a sort of naked, lonely hunger. All he wanted was for the birds to alight on his shoulders and knees and be his friends.

The other boy saw the birds and took it upon himself to defend the terrace from the scourge. He marched around, waving his fists and expostulating, running hither and thither at every sign of an avian incursion. Oh, how he fulminated! How he roared! No birds on his patch would prosper! Two little boys, two such unpredictably different reactions. How do we keep thinking there’s one way to speak to everyone?

But perhaps underneath not so different after all. When the violent little boy’s family went inside to gather up their breakfast from the buffet, he volunteered to stand guard, and made himself a human scarecrow, singing a martial anti-bird song of his own devising and waving his arms around as though he were one of those bendy plastic figures advertising second-hand car dealerships on the William Nichol. But the more I watched him, acting out this fantasy of being an important anti-bird operative, the more it became clear that he wasn’t motivated by violent urges against the feathered underworld, he was just giving himself something to do. He was taking the lead role in the hidden drama of his inner life; he was, at long last in his short life, the hero. I remembered doing that myself when I was 10. I do that now. I had looked at the gentle little boy and rather wishfully thought he was me, but actually it was the other little boy who was me. Or rather, they were both me. They were both each other. I wished I could introduce them, and they would be friends and play on the beach together and hunt for hermit crabs and mooch about in the shallows and spy on girls that they liked, and realise that they are both lonely, and that’s okay, but for a while they don’t need to be. But the world doesn’t work that way, I suppose.

The breeze is picking up a little now, which it sometimes does at the end of the day, though not always. The sea is becoming opaque and the sky is going pale and blushing like the inside of an oyster shell. Soon there will be a golden glow over the mountains to the west, and the light will turn blue and then slide into night. I will walk up the slope now from the beach to the hotel along with the other contented pilgrims, our royal-blue resort towels over our shoulders like cult members, to our various rooms to drink gin and prepare for dinner. Tomorrow I fly to Cairo and then to London for the next step of the great zig-zag outwards. I have been hearing about the vaccinations back home – my parents-in-law walked in to the clinic at Lentegeur and were out again inside an hour. It makes me feel happy, and hopeful. The world is enough.

much love to you


Happy New Year

My dear friends

The new year is a week or so old, and already I can feel a difference in the air, some new thrumming electrical pulse through the aether … hm? what’s that you say? It’s not the new year? How wrong you are! Some several months ago, in the depths of the lockdown doldrums and the unending midday gloom of the long, steep-sided vale of lockdown, my dear friend Tanya told me something that someone had told her: “Forget January to December,” she said. “2020 runs from March to March”.

I seized on this like a hungry dog on a bag of bones that has been dressed up like a cat. Yes, I thought! 2020 runs from March to March! That will be the lost year: I’ll concede that year of my life to the force majeure of Covid, and after that I’m taking it back again.

That is the power of stories: stories don’t have to be true, they just have to make a certain sort of persuasive sense, offer us a model to live by and live for, and we’ll do the rest. Give me a story I can use, and I’ll make it true.

And so it is – March has brought a change. You can feel the world stretching and stirring again – obviously not everywhere and not for everyone, but then nothing ever happens everywhere or for everyone. I refuse to be only as hopeful or as happy as the least hopeful and happy people, so I’m here to tell you there’s a new energy afoot, and I can feel it, and I hope you can too.

There are good signs: America and the UK are vaccinating at rates bewildering to a world grown more accustomed to their blundering and incompetence (one third of UK adults already vaccinated! USA vaccinating more than half a percent of their population every day!) and even Europe, despite doing their level best in recent months to snatch the moral low-ground on Brexit, and despite a whole-hearted commitment to trying to prove every Brexiteer’s dark slanders about EU red-tape and bureaucratic inefficiency correct when it comes to the vaccination roll-out, finally seems to be stirring itself to get needles into arms. Those weirdos in Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, seem to be pursuing an alternative strategy of locking themselves down forever and letting no one in and no one out, which as far as I can see is a win-win situation for the rest of us. And we here in South Africa? Well, we need a miracle, but then we always do, and miracles have happened before.

Anyway, I’ve been allowing myself to dream about movement again, not just purposeful, horizon-driven movement, but the even more truly delightful movement of being boundlessly at large and available to be plucked and pulled by the invisible currents of the world, and that has reminded me of something I like to do when I come to a new city, or even a familiar one. Now, this is going to sound a little weird at first, and perhaps even after I’ve explained it. You may in fact think I’m a bit of creep, but we’re friends now, so that’s a chance I must take. Here’s what I do in big cities: I follow people.

The first person I followed was in Paris. Now, many people visit Paris but Paris isn’t a place to visit – the joy of Paris is in living there, however briefly: inhabiting your neighbourhood, finding your own ways and places. A year or so ago I was staying on the Rue Daguerre and one day I was looking at the people walking by, some strolling and flaneuring, others click-clicking with purpose, and I took to wondering what they were up to, where he has just come from, where she is going. There was an old man with a cane, idling down the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, past Cemetery Montparnasse. He had silver hair and baggy trousers and moved at leisurely yet with intention, and I suddenly found myself falling in behind him.

Life becomes instantly more interesting when you’re following someone. Randomness is injected, but randomness with a hidden pattern – you don’t know where you’re going, but he does, as he crosses the road here, greets that old lady there, pokes his cane at a dog in a window with the air of one renewing an ancient combat. What he is doing feels like nothing to him, but to you it is invested with mystery and revelation. Is it intrusive to follow a stranger? Maybe, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a mutual exchange of gifts. As he leads me into the world, down Paris streets I’d otherwise have no reason to see, gifting me with an adventure, with new eyes and a specific voyage I’d never otherwise take, he is like Rodriguez in the first half of Searching for Sugarman: he is no longer an ordinary man, living his normal life; in an alternate reality he is the hero of the story for at least one passionately attentive South African.

That first old Frenchman didn’t take me on much of an odyssey – he went a couple of blocks to the Monoprix for some tomatoes – but I was hooked.

I subsequently discovered Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following, in which the protagonist, a writer with writer’s block, follows people around London. He has some fundamental rules: 1) never let them know you’re following them 2) never follow the same person twice 3) any follow stops at the front door 4) never intersect with the life of the person you’re following.

Those are my rules too, but I have to say there is a part of me that longs for the person I’m following to fall into a river, or be mugged, or have a piano falling towards them from a third-floor window, so that I can cheerfully breach law 4, leaping into action to save their life or wallet like some divinely appointed guardian angel.

But enough of my overly revealing action-hero daydreams. I’ve had many delightful follows: I stepped on the metro at Denfert-Rochereau and decided on a whim to follow a black guy in his mid-30s, wearing a red checked shirt and chewing a match. We rattled down the 4 line towards Clignancourt, and got out at Chateau D’Eau, but then he asked directions from some guy working on the street, did a U-turn and went back into the metro station.

I only had a single-use ticket and he breezed through the turnstiles with a week-pass, so I lost him and had to follow a young Arab guy with a shaved head back up the stairs and down Avenue Strasbourg into the 10th arrondisement. I had never been that far into the 10th before. On Faubourg St-Denis he bought two chops at a boucherie near the arch, and carried them wrapped in brown paper down an alley and into the Cour de Petites Ecuries. He stopped to offer some advice to a guy smoking a hookah and playing dominos, then disappeared up a flight of stairs into the apartment. Next door was a small establishment called the Tuk-Tuk bar, where I had a schwarma and a pint of beer. It was the cheapest beer I had in Paris.

I once followed a man in Moscow down icy dark streets, feeling like a character in a John le Carre novel. When he boarded a tram heading east, I lost my nerve: the Russians are good at spotting a tail: they’ve been surveilled all their lives. What if it was trap? What if he was leading me to Siberia? I followed a promising couple in Rome, but when they started arguing and he sat down on the sidewalk and refused to go any further I realised they were tourists, because that’s what always happens with me in Rome too. I never follow women, unless Jo is with me. She is an even more enthusiastic follower than I am. Her eyes sparkle with the thrill of the chase. Once I even heard her mutter under her breath: “The game is afoot!”

Someone asked me once, “How would you like it if you were followed?” Following someone means reaching into the blurring mass of a crowd and turning them into an individual, making them real and whole and dimensional. Making them matter, without ever imposing on them. How would I like to be followed? I would love to be followed.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to returning to a life of chance and serendipity, of bump-ins and crossed paths and coincidences. I think that’s what’s most worn me down this last year – it’s not that the big things are suddenly uncertain and unknowable (they’ve always been unknowable – it’s just that now we can’t avoid knowing that they’re unknowable). No, it’s rather that the small things, the tiny, trivial, life-giving details of our days have become too predictable. I want to be surprised again.

Until then, I’ll be running down the days fretfully until my birthday, wringing the last pleasures from this summer, joyfully awaiting the morning mists and soft damp evenings and great green seas of autumn and winter. Hopefully next time we speak, I’ll have some news to share with you. This is going to be a good year – you mark my words.

Much love to you


Long time no see

Dear friends

I don’t even know how to start writing this. How can I write while using both hands to cover my face in shame and simultaneously rending my clothes and rubbing ashes in my hair in contrition?

I don’t know how I can have gone so long without writing to you. Or rather, I do, but I still feel bad about it. I wordlessly hang my head and look up at you with sorrowful eyes, like some weird two-legged puppy who has chewed your slippers.

It’s no excuse, but I have started writing this on a number of occasions. There have been at least four different versions of this letter over the last few months, spaced several weeks apart, and I have abandoned each of them, always with the same thought: who cares?

It’s not just letters to you that I’ve left unfinished. On a sunny afternoon not so long ago I took my editor for a walk on the promenade, deep-breathing through the sickly, heavy feeling in my chest that I more closely associate with break-ups, and explained to her that I would not be delivering the book I promised to write. She tried to persuade me that perhaps I should, but I explained that I have nothing to say, and I don’t know how to say it, and that I cannot persuade myself that anyone would want to read it anyway, especially not me. That’s the problem, you see: they tell you to always write the book you’d want to read, but I had grown so heartily sick of myself that the thought of reading anything I’d written made me want to give up reading, let alone writing.

At the beginning of the first week of the first lockdown I was told that the newspaper for which I wrote my weekly column couldn’t afford me any more. This is a disadvantage of being a good negotiator of fees: when a pandemic strikes, you’re the first one they can’t afford, and there’s a little glint in their eye when they tell you so.

Then at the end of the first week of lockdown, I was officially told what I’d already guessed: that my first play, which was scheduled to premiere in the second half of the year, would not premiere in the second half of the year.

In the second week of lockdown, I bought land in Greece. This was both surprising and not surprising. I very seldom buy things. I am by nature something of a miser and a spendthrift. My family was very poor when I was young and we seemed to be constantly teetering on the lip of the financial volcano, so for me money in the bank has always been a rope around my waist lest I start sliding towards the lava. The only time I part with money is just after a loss, and in the second week of the first lockdown I had lost my column, my play and freedom of personal movement, which, I have discovered, seems to matter disproportionately more to me than to most of the people around me, so I bought, along with my partner, a hillside on the Peloponnese: 8200 square metres of olive trees and spring flowers and views of the Saronic Gulf.

My land in Greece

I have never set foot on the land – I have never seen it real life. My partner found it on the internet, not far from an island where we spent part of last year, and within a day we had bought it. There is no house on this land, and no electricity or piped water: these are all things we’ll have to design, build and install. I can do none of these things. What we bought, more than a piece of land in a country I love immoderately, was the illusion of agency. It was an impulse-purchase assertion of the ability to make my own choices and determine my own future. Of course, none of us can really determine our own futures, but illusions are there to save your life. I decided that I would use the house as a kind of lever to learn things: how to build, how to wire things, how to speak Greek, how to make a garden, how to wrangle bureaucracy, how to keep bees, how to be patient, how to DIY, how to be happy.

We have been working with some Greek architects to design the house. We want it to be something like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli, on a peninsula of the Peloponnese not too far away. We want it to be thick-walled and cool in summer and protected from the north wind in winter, and we want shaded terraces and views of the sea and of the weather and vessels that come in from the sea. We want book-lined studies for us and guesthouses for our friends. All of this, our new Greek home-building friends inform us, costs money.

The mention of money and the prospect of parting with it caused me some concern, especially when I chewed my pencil and worked out that I’m some way short of being able to easily pay for it. There would be some cash-flow problem in about a year’s time, I calculated, unless I had some windfalls between now and then. But then my partner reminded me of something I wrote in my last book: “Of all the things we absolutely need,” she intoned, jabbing a finger at the final page, “money’s the easiest to get more of.”

It is hard to argue with your own better self, but it seemed very clear to me that that had been written at a moment when I didn’t feel quite so urgently the need to get more money. Oh well. In for a penny, in for quite a lot of euros.

I do have some irons in the windfall fire, but one of the things that made me feel better about committing is the fact that for the past twelve years I have had a day-job with a local television soap. It pays well and doesn’t take up much time and I’m good at it and the show does well – it has 5.2 million daily viewers and last year won its umpteenth South African Film and Television Award for Best Local Soap Opera. When I’m feeling melodramatic I complain about it as a form of bonded servitude, but I can work on it from anywhere, and I had made calculations of how many bricks on the Greek house each hour of work would buy, and I am very grateful for the past twelve years. On this Friday just past, for reasons that seem to involve some clash of executive personalities, the show was cancelled by the channel.

And with that fourth loss – the column, the play, the book, the day-job – I felt a great weight lift from me, an easing of a nagging psychic burden. There is a lightness to the worst happening, because the worst is never as bad as you think it is. Nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it will be. Things change because they always change, and there is nothing to do but to continue, not with the donkey-trudge of a dumb beast going uphill, but with a new nimbleness in the heels. I feel a sort of lightness now, a clarity of mind and heart. I honestly feel – and I don’t think this is just the denial-phase of grief – a kind of joy, a sense of possibility. I feel somewhat liberated from myself. I feel as though I can write to you again.

I’m sorry this letter has taken so long, and I’m sorry about all your troubles and worries. I’m sorry that the world is uncertain and hard right now. (I’m sorry that it is always uncertain, and often hard, but that it feels even more so now.) I can offer nothing except this fine and perhaps fleeting feeling I have that it’s going to be okay.

Shall we stay in touch? I would like to. I have a feeling that I’ll be better company in the future. In a year or so, maybe you can come and visit on our hillside, and we can sip retsina in the cool of the evening and watch the sea turn purple and we can remember 2020 and how it could have been worse.

Much love to you


En route to New Orleans

En route to New Orleans, William Egglestone, c.1971-1974 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I am currently a little in love with this photograph, by William Egglestone, taken around the time I was being born. The 70’s fabric on the seat back that I somehow remember, and can imagine running my thumbnail between the ridges; the bright starburst of sunlight passing through the drink, the white clouds bobbing below on a blue sea of sky. You can feel the warmth of the light coming through the high air. You can feel the humming weightlessness of the moment.

A to-do list

Say, are you feeling as though you don’t have enough to do right now? Or are you feeling inordinately proud of how busy you are? This is a page from Leonardo da Vinci’s to-do list from a day in the 1490s, when he was in his 40s and busily painting and sculpting things and inventing helicopters and just generally being a renaissance man. These are from his hobbies notebook, so there’s a lack of work-related chores: no “Complete ‘The Madonna of the Rocks’ by Tuesday”, or “File tax returns” or “Reply to Jon’s snippy email”. These are just the extramural interests that were occupying him – books to read, fun tasks to complete, people to meet who might teach him things.

  • [Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
  • [Find] a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio
  • [Discover] the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke’s palace).
  • [Discover] the measurement of the castello (the duke’s palace itself)
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
  • Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.
  • Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)
  • [Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes (no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this)
  • Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders
  • Draw Milan
  • Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
  • [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • [Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
  • Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.

Still locked down after all these years

Dear friends

I’m sorry it has been so long since I wrote. I haven’t written because I have been depressed. A lot of us have been depressed, probably most of us, so I make no special claim there. I don’t even really know why I’ve been depressed – I’m in a comfortable home, with enough alcohol. I have been walking far and eating well. I have lost some kilograms and watched good things and read good books and I feel loved and capable of loving. I have earned less money than usual but then again I haven’t spent as much as I normally do, and my life hasn’t changed as much as other people’s lives have changed, and yet for a couple of weeks a wave of glumness and bleakness came upon me, so long and steady that it affected my work and the balance of my heart and the quality of my living, and there was nothing I could do about it.

(I know it is one of the modern stations of the cross that a middle-class person living in relative comfort should preface everything they say with “I know how lucky and privileged I am”, but if you don’t mind, I won’t. I have a few reasons for this:

  • It has become an inert part of any utterance, neither clarifying nor truly qualifying. I think of it as a prefix that doesn’t modify the word that follows it, like the “in” in “inflammable”.
  • It feels like reciting a script of such crushing and formulaic unoriginality that any juice or value in the sentiment have long since been squeezed out, and I become itchy when I’m expected to do or say things for no better reason than that they’re expected of me.
  • I prefer to do people the courtesy of assuming they are adult enough to assume that I am adult enough to be aware of my position in the class hierarchies.
  • At this stage, it really just feels like a pointless superstitious ritual, a kind of verbal clove of garlic to protect you from the vampires of social media criticism: “If I acknowledge my privilege, no one will be able to accuse me of having unexamined privilege!” This seems to me a waste of time. I’m not saying the vampires of social media criticism don’t exist; I’m saying they’re not afraid of garlic.
  • In this context in particular, it would seem to be implying that there is some sort of necessary correlation between mental health and material wellbeing, and that furthermore, depression is only legitimate if its sufferer fails some sort of economic means test. I don’t agree with either of these thoughts.
  • If anyone has ever genuinely made themselves feel less miserable by the thought that other people have it worse than they do, I’m not one of those people.)

But it’s not good enough just to say you don’t know why you were depressed. Being depressed suggests something is out of whack, and what’s the point of having been depressed at all, if you don’t formulate some theory as to what that was?

This is my theory: when I was a younger man I was prone to these same bouts of helplessness and hopelessness and despair. I associate them, looking back, with a sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of circumstance and not being able to control my responses to those circumstances, and furthermore to not having the emotional resources and wherewithal to shape life in such a way as to de-emphasise the everyday opportunities for psychic drag.

I think part of the cause of this depression has been a kind of sense-memory of adolescence: the struggling, half-defeated awareness that my life, in small, niggling, trivial-yet-important everyday ways, is not my own any more, that it is being dictated by rules I do not always understand, with which I do not always agree, and administered by individuals I do not necessarily respect, playing out in the larger context from which there is currently no escape.

Of course, that’s not the reason why I was depressed – that’s the reason why things went out of whack with me, and when things go out of whack, a cascade starts that has its own momentum. But it’s simpler and not untrue to say that think I have been depressed because on some molecular level I am sixteen again, except now it’s even worse because I am an adult and so have had a taste of what life should be, and also, being an adult I can’t even paint my bedroom walls black or listen to The Doors. No one, over the age of eighteen, is allowed to listen to the Doors.

So there it is, I’ve been depressed. No big deal. I am sure you have too, for your own reasons, and I’m sorry that you have been feeling depressed. I hope you are not as depressed any more, or if you haven’t been depressed yet, that when it starts it won’t last too long. I think mine is lifting, and while it has done possibly irreparable damage to a couple of deadline-driven projects, well, I’ve done that before without being depressed, so who’s to say?

So not much has been happening, but here’s something I want to tell you about:

This is a story that played out partially in the media, but which I had stumbled upon myself. It’s a story that seems to contain just about everything of the local experience of the past eight or so weeks.

I have a number of routes I regularly walk, and one of those routes is along Beach Road in Mouille Point, from Three Anchor Bay to the Waterfront and back. It is very peaceful and quiet, and you are beside the sea and breathe the salty air. Every time I passed that way, I would see a man and sometimes a woman sitting in a car, a Mini Cooper, or sometimes leaning against it. I wondered what they were doing there, but these were the early days of the lockdown, when people still weren’t speaking to each other in the street.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I worked out that food must be involved. Sometimes I would see homeless people clutching food in small plastic containers, walking away, in both directions, from the man and the woman and the Mini Cooper.

This man and this woman, it turned out, were feeding people who had no food. But their neighbours were not pleased about this. They would call the police to complain, and the police would come by and tell the couple to stop feeding people. The couple would respectfully acknowledge the instruction, then continue to give food to hungry people. Soon enough a video appeared on social media, depicting a confrontation between a policeman and the couple. It is a difficult conversation to watch, because it becomes increasingly clear that the policeman does not want to be enforcing this regulation, but it is equally clear that as a working man with a boss and a job, he has no real choice. Here is the video:

It made me sad, that clip, because everyone involved in it is trying their best to do the right thing in an impossible situation. The cop is doing everything he can to avoid doing anything. The guy is trying everything he can to feed hungry people. The only villains in the story are, as usual, the ones you can’t see, the curtain-twitching neighbours who put in phone calls to the police because someone in their neighbourhood is feeding hungry people.

A week or so later, this story appeared:


The man and the woman woke in the early hours of the morning and looked through their window to see the flames from their burning car reflecting on the sea. Someone had thrown a petrol bomb underneath the vehicle. Someone at that moment was congratulating themselves, perhaps getting a proud kiss from their wife, saying, “That will teach those people not to feed hungry people in our neighborhood.”

It shocked me. It made my heart very heavy to think of some of the people we live among. I didn’t return to Beach Road for a while. I didn’t want to see the burnt-out car and I didn’t want to look up at windows and wonder if on the other side of that window lurked the kind of person who could do this.

But all good stories come in three acts. I returned to Beach Road earlier this week. It was a cloudy day and winter, while not yet here, was coming nearer. When I reached the block where the Mini Cooper had been parked, I saw it was still there. The wheels had burnt out and the plastics had all melted and the windows had shattered. The car was a husk, and I expected to feel sad, or angry, or something like defeat, but the car did not look like a symbol of defeat. There were flowers on the back seat, and it had been decorated with bright colours and words of encouragement. People had written notes of sorrow and appreciation, and placed them under the wipers and wedged into the doors. Someone has scattered the inside with bright gold stars.

Nearby, at the bus stop, I recognised the woman who owned the car. She was handing out food to hungry people, and now she had people helping her. She told me that since the car had been burnt, she had been overwhelmed by the outpourings of support and donations. She said the children from the block came down and painted rainbows and flowers on the car. She said she had been upset on the night of the attack, but ever since then the car has become a source of hope and deep joy to her, a source of pride every time she sees it, something that reminds her that people are more good than bad. She said that to her, it is like a flower blooming.

I told her that I thought the car should be cast in bronze and turned into a permanent memorial at the side of the road, something to remind us all of this time and to make us think about how we responded to it. She said she has been approached by an artist who wants to turn it into a sculpture. I suppose what I’m saying about this is that good things can come from bad things. I’m glad I went back to Beach Road, to be reminded of that.

It rained here this morning – a brief flutter of rain that came from the sea and has already passed by, bringing thin warm sunshine behind. The air is good and cold and clean, and I am looking forward to it being winter again.

I am very happy that you are there, and that I can write to you. Thank you for being there. I send you my very warmest love.


Hilary Mantel on Madonna

If you are in the mood for reading Hilary Mantel, writing about Madonna (and a Madonna biography) in 1992 – and who isn’t? – this is the place to be: The London Review of Books (Vol. 14 No. 8 · 23 April 1992), to remind you of the joy of Mantel’s writing when she is feeling unburdened and unrestrained, and to rediscover the luminous, indelible pleasures of a truly funny, vicious book review.


Plain girl’s revenge made flesh

Hilary Mantel

Madonna Unauthorised 
by Christopher Andersen.
Joseph, 279 pp., £14.99, December 1991, 0 7181 3536 9

Christopher Andersen’s book begins, as it should, with the prodigal, the violent, the gross. But what do you expect? Madonna’s wedding was different from other people’s. The plans were made in secrecy, and backed by armed force. ‘Even the caterer ... was kept in the dark until the last minute.’ You also, you may protest, have been to weddings where the caterer has seemed to be taken by surprise. But we are not talking here about a cock-up with the vol-au-vents. We are talking about something on the lines of Belshazzar’s feast: but more lavish, and more portentous.

When Madonna married the misanthropic actor Sean Penn, ‘reporters were stopped at the curb by a guard armed with a .357 magnum handgun ... an army of journalists descended on 6970 Wildlife Road, the palatial $6.5 million cliff-top home of property developer and Penn family friend Dan Unger. Armed security guards scanned the horizon with infrared binoculars.’ Overhead, press helicopters competed with the ocean’s roar. Inside the steel gates, sushi and champagne were served – sometimes by journalists impersonating waiters. No writing appeared on the wall. Instead, Penn ran down to the beach, and scrawled his message to the world in twenty-foot letters in the sand: FUCK OFF. Madonna wore a ten-foot train and a bowler hat. They exchanged vows on the brink of a cliff: ‘Prophetically,’ says the author. He is not a man to let a symbol give him the slip.

The unblushing bride was born in 1958. Her mother, also called Madonna, was a French-Canadian X-ray technician; her father, the son of Italian immigrants, was an engineer. The family was large but affluent, and Madonna grew up in pleasant suburbs: the blue-collar upbringing she claims for herself is one of her inventions, it seems. Andersen makes Madonna’s early years sound like those of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Surely Catholic childhood in Sixties America was not quite so stifling and bizarre? We can be sure it featured crucifixes and rosary beads, all the jolly props which Madonna would later find so useful, but when the author quotes Madonna on her formative influences, he doesn’t try to discriminate between what she thought then and what she says now. ‘Crucifixes are sexy; there’s a naked man on them.’ If Madonna went to a post-mortem, would she find the corpse sexy too?

Is there any point in trying to write about Madonna’s life in the conventional way? One thing everybody knows about the woman is that she has invented herself: it is a commonplace. When constant revisionism and re-invention is under way, what does it profit a biographer to drag the weary ‘facts’ before us? Something Sterner is required: whole blank pages, paragraphs of exclamation marks. Andersen’s mode is conventional, his style good enough for his subject-matter and appropriate to it. His technique, though, is sneakier than at first appears. You may grow infuriated by what seems an uncritical, gormless narrative: but if you stop reading for five minutes and rehearse what you have learned, you realise that anything you now know about Madonna is entirely to her discredit. Yet this is as it should be. Didn’t the girl herself, in high school, ask her friends to call her ‘Mudd’?

Still, let’s truffle with Andersen on his dogged path. When Madonna was five years old, her mother died of cancer, and her father married again. Cue self-examination on the superstar’s part: ‘Like all young girls I was in love with my father, and I didn’t want to lose him. I lost my mother but then I was the mother; my father was mine.’ Andersen refers us – as he often must – to the film In Bed with Madonna, in which his subject explains how she would often crawl into bed with her father. ‘I fell right to sleep after he fucked me.’ Inane giggle. ‘Just kidding.’ The pause is fractional, not long enough for a reaction from the viewer. The girl knows when she’s gone too far. At the age of six or so she would say to Papa: ‘If you ever die, I’m going to get buried in the casket with you.’ This Donne-ish sentiment Tony Ciccone found ‘really disgusting’. Poor man! His disgust threshold will have to rise. When he reaches 59 his daughter will drag him onto a stage to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, her navel exposed and a pattern of laces, like evil stitching, covering her private parts.

The pages concerning Madonna’s childhood are far more interesting than those which follow: but is this not often the case with biography? The relation of mature achievement, in any contemporary life, becomes a dreary procession of dates and places and figures; even the potential excitements of a life like Madonna’s seem to melt away under scrutiny – another day, another million dollars. Madonna Unauthorised is full of names of people who were forgotten by the time they reached the page, or which belong to people who were never more than a footnote in the subject’s great narrative. And most people are a footnote to Madonna, who is no nurturer of other people’s reputations. A great many people who have passed through her life have been famous for 15 seconds; or less, if she could manage it.

It would be good to feel human while you read her life; it would be good to feel pity where pity’s due. But you are prevented. Here is Madonna on her mother’s death and its implications:

It was then that I said, okay, I don’t need anybody. No one’s going to break my heart again. I’m not going to need anybody. I can stand on my own and be my own person and not belong to anyone.

Each line of this sounds like a trawl for a song title: sounds like some awful, thumping, monotonous chart-topper.

Until she was 12, Andersen tells us, Madonna wanted to be a nun; and he tells us in a way that makes it clear that he expects us to throw up our hands and say ‘Lawdie me!’ In fact, most intelligent Catholic girls go through a phase in which they would rather be like Mother than like mother: but then their eyes are opened to wider possibilities. (Besides that, Madonna naturally feels that ‘nuns are very sexy.’) One feels that Madonna’s onstage antics with Romish paraphernalia have never brought her quite the odium she craves. Perhaps we all recognise that the faith lends itself readily to vaudeville productions. Catholic vaudeville is divisible: Waugh and Greene purveyed the intellectual version, and Madonna has done it for simple souls.

In her early teens, by Andersen’s account, Madonna gives up on Thérèse of Lisieux and turns into a Tyson. When she chases a boy, it’s no figure of speech. ‘At one point she ripped off her blazer and blouse and began pursuing a boy named Tommy around the playground.’ Still, sex and religion are very much confused, as she tries to fathom the still unfathomable riddle of her gender.

You know how religion is ... Guys get to do everything. They get to be altar boys ... They get to pee standing up.

Determined to do something about this Vatican-sponsored inequity, Madonna ‘experimented with ways to urinate without sitting down’. Andersen does not go into much detail, or tell us what success she had. But he describes with diligence her early sexual relationships with boys and girls: in one case, a beau ‘asked her if she wanted to take a walk through Samuel A. Howlett Municipal Park’. And she did, it seems; she did not deem it too exciting. One of her swains reports: I realised I’d actually kissed a girl, though in my case it happened to be Madonna.’ However, when party-going, ‘she guarded her virginity by sometimes wearing a purple turtleneck leotard.’ There is a point where the reader loses interest in Madonna, and becomes ambitious only to meet the man who can paint such a word-picture.

There is nothing else in Andersen’s book that comes near to the pleasure he gives the reader in these early pages. The account of Madonna’s defloration is an anti-climax in every way. Notoriously, she has described the loss of her virginity as a ‘career move’, which one took to mean that she had preserved her hymen until she met someone prepared to pay to shred it. But if Andersen is to be believed – and why not? – the fateful evening began at Knapp’s Dairy Bar, and Madonna yielded to the caresses of a 17-year-old schoolboy who had trouble with her bra-strap; a veil is drawn over what he made of the rest of her. He is quoted as saying: ‘I had this great urge to laugh, but Madonna was pretty methodical about it.’

Madonna was now missing Sunday Mass in favour of trysts at Dunkin’ Donuts. Soon, too, she would meet the gaiety, in the shape of a dance teacher, who took her to museums, concerts, art galleries, and also to places where ‘she felt strangely at home as the only female among hundreds of writhing men.’ Andersen may mean they were dancing, but perhaps it depends at what point in the evening she arrived. Madonna has a prurient fascination with male homosexual activity. The film In Bed with Madonna (the film, if you need to know, of her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour) shows how she likes to encourage it amongst her friends and co-workers. One of her other biographers, Douglas Thompson, quotes her as saying that she thinks of homosexual men as her ‘alter ego’. This is interesting, but Andersen does not pursue it. He is more concerned at this stage to describe her intellectual development. She had decided to grow the hair on her legs, he tells us, believing that this indicated a bohemian cast of mind. She won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan: ‘Keeping herself to herself, Madonna devoured the dark poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.’

An axe-murderer couldn’t carve up the girl more efficiently. But is it a case of diminished responsibility? One would like to think Andersen is of sound mind, that he writes with premeditation and intends the consequences – but then again, who wants to brand a family man a killer? The blurb tells us that the author ‘lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters’. He has previously written ‘highly-praised’ works on Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. This does not seem adequate preparation. Perhaps life’s ambiguity has passed him by, or he has come by praise too cheaply?

So: Madonna went to New York. Her dance teacher persuaded her she needed the larger stage, and so she took herself off in search of fame, living in slums and foraging in dustbins for her food. Andersen brings tears to the eyes with his account of her early struggles, but does not feel for her so much that he suppresses the verdicts of her various teachers and colleagues. No one seems to have liked Madonna, or seen anything in her, or thought she had much talent. But – unaccountably – she was taken up by two French music producers, who spirited her off to Paris in the hope of turning her into a disco queen. But Madonna wanted to be a punk: so when they gave her a car, a maid, a secretary and a voice-coach, she sulked and sulked until she found herself back in New York.

And then ... but come now, if we go at this pace we’ll be here all day. When Madonna got back to New York she joined a band. There was a female vocalist who performed in her underwear. Madonna got her sacked, and took her place. From there she made the progress of which we are all aware. The received wisdom is that even if you have talent, you still need luck; even if you’re lucky, without talent you’ll be found out. Madonna shows that energy can be a substitute for talent; and she has made her own luck. She is thorough: ‘she asked me,’ says one of her friends, ‘to teach her how to spit.’ And spit and spit she did, over and over, till she spat like a veteran. Someone else taught her how to smoke. From Michael Jackson she learned how to grab her crotch. Are these not accomplishments, hard-won for a girl from a nice family? So often Andersen seems to miss the point. He will, persistently, describe Madonna as a transcendent beauty, when, as everyone can see, she’s the plain girl’s revenge made flesh. Madonna has cultivated ardently – apparently without humour or irony – her identification with Monroe: he mentions that she is said to have purchased an adjacent crypt, so that their dust may mingle, but he does not insist on this as fact.

If he recognises pastiche, he never says so. If he identifies id-in-boots, he doesn’t let on. His book has photographs, but he is almost perversely unable to set down, in words, what Madonna is like. And the truth is that three hundred pages, however well-composed, could not convey what three minutes of In Bed with Madonna make explicit. Our heroine is charmless, foul-mouthed, will admit the camera and the sound-recordist everywhere, except into a business meeting. We know that in this film we are seeing the real Madonna – for we know from her other films that she cannot act. And also, that she sees no need to: for she has tapped, somehow, into a rich deep vein of fantasy and cash, and all she needs to do is mine it. A proper enquiry might be instituted, into what Madonna means: perhaps a joint enquiry, to look into the question of Michael Jackson too, for they seem of a kind. Their appeal is to children ten or twelve years old, too young to know who or what they are, aware of sex as a waiting, empty arena, desperate perhaps to burrow back into a childhood of fantasy and irresponsibility. Madonna has always wanted to be black, if we are to believe Andersen, and she looks like a female impersonator. Michael has transformed himself from a black man into a white-ish female-child. They have dined together (‘vegetarians are paler,’ Madonna says) and appeared together at award ceremonies. But it seems they are locked in competition, about who has the more formidable publicity machine.

The most interesting moment of In Bed with Madonna shows the star before a mirror, her make-up lady hovering at her shoulder. Face white, blank, hair-piece cosied on her skull like the top of a cottage loaf, she waits for experience to be layered over the impersonation of innocence; she could, you think, become anything at all. Madonna says: ‘I will be a symbol of something ... Like Marilyn Monroe stands for something. It’s not always something you can put a name on, but she became an adjective.’ For anyone who wishes to become an adjective, Madonna is an inspiration. On stage, her little muscly body twists itself in a parody of sensuality: her mini-soutane rides hip-high, her voice wavers on and off-key; up and down she dips, over the supine body of a spreadeagled semi-man. It all happens too fast for words, and it repels or excites at too deep a level for any writer who has offered his services so far. Madonna is not a subject for easy writing. She is a commentary on something, but God knows on what. Andersen doesn’t, that’s for sure.

Michael Sorkin’s 250 things

The architect and author Michael Sorkin died in New York this week, aged 71, of complications related to Covid-19. He once wrote this list of the 250 things an architect should know. It’s a kind of manifesto of humanity through experience and through learning, and I think we should all create such a list for our own professions, and ourselves:

  1.    The feel of cool marble under bare feet.
2.    How to live in a small room with five strangers for six months.
3.    With the same strangers in a lifeboat for one week.
4.    The modulus of rupture.
5.    The distance a shout carries in the city.
6.    The distance of a whisper.
7.    Everything possible about Hatshepsut’s temple (try not to see it as   ‘modernist’ avant la lettre).
8.    The number of people with rent subsidies in New York City.
9.    In your town (include the rich).
10.    The flowering season for azaleas.
11.    The insulating properties of glass.
12.    The history of its production and use.
13.    And of its meaning.
14.    How to lay bricks.
15.    What Victor Hugo really meant by ‘this will kill that.’
16.    The rate at which the seas are rising.
17.    Building information modeling (BIM).
18.    How to unclog a Rapidograph.
19.    The Gini coefficient.
20.    A comfortable tread-to-riser ratio for a six-year-old.
21.    In a wheelchair.
22.    The energy embodied in aluminum.
23.    How to turn a corner.
24.    How to design a corner.
25.    How to sit in a corner.
26.    How Antoni Gaudí modeled the Sagrada Família and calculated its structure.
27.    The proportioning system for the Villa Rotonda.
28.    The rate at which that carpet you specified off-gasses.
29.    The relevant sections of the Code of Hammurabi.
30.    The migratory patterns of warblers and other seasonal travellers.
31.    The basics of mud construction.
32.    The direction of prevailing winds.
33.    Hydrology is destiny.
34.    Jane Jacobs in and out.
35.    Something about feng shui.
36.    Something about Vastu Shilpa.
37.    Elementary ergonomics.
38.    The color wheel.
39.    What the client wants.
40.    What the client thinks it wants.
41.    What the client needs.
42.    What the client can afford.
43.    What the planet can afford.
44.    The theoretical bases for modernity and a great deal about its factions and inflections.
45.    What post-Fordism means for the mode of production of building.
46.    Another language.
47.    What the brick really wants.
48.    The difference between Winchester Cathedral and a bicycle shed.
49.    What went wrong in Fatehpur Sikri.
50.    What went wrong in Pruitt-Igoe.
51.    What went wrong with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
52.    Where the CCTV cameras are.
53.    Why Mies really left Germany.
54.    How people lived in Çatal Hüyük.
55.    The structural properties of tufa.
56.    How to calculate the dimensions of brise-soleil.
57.    The kilowatt costs of photovoltaic cells.
58.    Vitruvius.
59.    Walter Benjamin.
60.    Marshall Berman.
61.    The secrets of the success of Robert Moses.
62.    How the dome on the Duomo in Florence was built.
63.    The reciprocal influences of Chinese and Japanese building.
64.    The cycle of the Ise Shrine.
65.    Entasis.
66.    The history of Soweto.
67.    What it’s like to walk down the Ramblas.
68.    Back-up.
69.    The proper proportions of a gin martini.
70.    Shear and moment.
71.    Shakespeare, et cetera.
72.    How the crow flies.
73.    The difference between a ghetto and a neighborhood.
74.    How the pyramids were built.
75.    Why.
76.    The pleasures of the suburbs.
77.    The horrors.
78.    The quality of light passing through ice.
79.    The meaninglessness of borders.
80.    The reasons for their tenacity.
81.    The creativity of the ecotone.
82.    The need for freaks.
83.    Accidents must happen.
84.    It is possible to begin designing anywhere.
85.    The smell of concrete after rain.
86.    The angle of the sun at the equinox.
87.    How to ride a bicycle.
88.    The depth of the aquifer beneath you.
89.    The slope of a handicapped ramp.
90.    The wages of construction workers.
91.    Perspective by hand.
92.    Sentence structure.
93.    The pleasure of a spritz at sunset at a table by the Grand Canal.
94.    The thrill of the ride.
95.    Where materials come from.
96.    How to get lost.
97.    The pattern of artificial light at night, seen from space.
98.    What human differences are defensible in practice.
99.    Creation is a patient search.
100.    The debate between Otto Wagner and Camillo Sitte.
101.    The reasons for the split between architecture and engineering.
102.    Many ideas about what constitutes utopia.
103.    The social and formal organization of the villages of the Dogon.
104.    Brutalism, Bowellism, and the Baroque.
105.    How to dérive.
106.    Woodshop safety.
107.    A great deal about the Gothic.
108.    The architectural impact of colonialism on the cities of North Africa.
109.    A distaste for imperialism.
110.    The history of Beijing.
111.    Dutch domestic architecture in the 17th century.
112.    Aristotle’s Politics.
113.    His Poetics.
114.    The basics of wattle and daub.
115.    The origins of the balloon frame.
116.    The rate at which copper acquires its patina.
117.    The levels of particulates in the air of Tianjin.
118.    The capacity of white pine trees to sequester carbon.
119.    Where else to sink it.
120.    The fire code.
121.    The seismic code.
122.    The health code.
123.    The Romantics, throughout the arts and philosophy.
124.    How to listen closely.
125.    That there is a big danger in working in a single medium. The logjam you don’t even know you’re stuck in will be broken by a shift in representation.
126.    The exquisite corpse.
127.    Scissors, stone, paper.
128.    Good Bordeaux.
129.    Good beer.
130.    How to escape a maze.
131.    QWERTY.
132.    Fear.
133.    Finding your way around Prague, Fez, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Kyoto, Rio, Mexico, Solo, Benares, Bangkok, Leningrad, Isfahan.
134.    The proper way to behave with interns.
135.    Maya, Revit, Catia, whatever.
136.    The history of big machines, including those that can fly.
137.    How to calculate ecological footprints.
138.    Three good lunch spots within walking distance.
139.    The value of human life.
140.    Who pays.
141.    Who profits.
142.    The Venturi effect.
143.    How people pee.
144.    What to refuse to do, even for the money.
145.    The fine print in the contract.
146.    A smattering of naval architecture.
147.    The idea of too far.
148.    The idea of too close.
149.    Burial practices in a wide range of cultures.
150.    The density needed to support a pharmacy.
151.    The density needed to support a subway.
152.    The effect of the design of your city on food miles for fresh produce.
153.    Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes.
154.    Capability Brown, André Le Nôtre, Frederick Law Olmsted, Muso Soseki, Ji Cheng, and Roberto Burle Marx.
155.    Constructivism, in and out.
156.    Sinan.
157.    Squatter settlements via visits and conversations with residents.
158.    The history and techniques of architectural representation across cultures.
159.    Several other artistic media.
160.    A bit of chemistry and physics.
161.    Geodesics.
162.    Geodetics.
163.    Geomorphology.
164.    Geography.
165.    The Law of the Andes.
166.    Cappadocia first-hand.
167.    The importance of the Amazon.
168.    How to patch leaks.
169.    What makes you happy.
170.    The components of a comfortable environment for sleep.
171.    The view from the Acropolis.
172.    The way to Santa Fe.
173.    The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
174.    Where to eat in Brooklyn.
175.    Half as much as a London cabbie.
176.    The Nolli Plan.
177.    The Cerdà Plan.
178.    The Haussmann Plan.
179.    Slope analysis.
180.    Darkroom procedures and Photoshop.
181.    Dawn breaking after a bender.
182.    Styles of genealogy and taxonomy.
183.    Betty Friedan.
184.    Guy Debord.
185.    Ant Farm.
186.    Archigram.
187.    Club Med.
188.    Crepuscule in Dharamshala.
189.    Solid geometry.
190.    Strengths of materials (if only intuitively).
191.    Ha Long Bay.
192.    What’s been accomplished in Medellín.
193.    In Rio.
194.    In Calcutta.
195.    In Curitiba.
196.    In Mumbai.
197.    Who practices? (It is your duty to secure this space for all who want to.)
198.    Why you think architecture does any good.
199.    The depreciation cycle.
200.    What rusts.
201.    Good model-making techniques in wood and cardboard.
202.    How to play a musical instrument.
203.    Which way the wind blows.
204.    The acoustical properties of trees and shrubs.
205.    How to guard a house from floods.
206.    The connection between the Suprematists and Zaha.
207.    The connection between Oscar Niemeyer and Zaha.
208.    Where north (or south) is.
209.    How to give directions, efficiently and courteously.
210.    Stadtluft macht frei.
211.    Underneath the pavement the beach.
212.    Underneath the beach the pavement.
213.    The germ theory of disease.
214.    The importance of vitamin D.
215.    How close is too close.
216.    The capacity of a bioswale to recharge the aquifer.
217.    The draught of ferries.
218.    Bicycle safety and etiquette.
219.    The difference between gabions and riprap.
220.    The acoustic performance of Boston Symphony Hall.
221.    How to open the window.
222.    The diameter of the earth.
223.    The number of gallons of water used in a shower.
224.    The distance at which you can recognize faces.
225.    How and when to bribe public officials (for the greater good).
226.    Concrete finishes.
227.    Brick bonds.
228.    The Housing Question by Friedrich Engels.
229.    The prismatic charms of Greek island towns.
230.    The energy potential of the wind.
231.    The cooling potential of the wind, including the use of chimneys and the stack effect.
232.    Paestum.
233.    Straw-bale building technology.
234.    Rachel Carson.
235.    Freud.
236.    The excellence of Michel de Klerk.
237.    Of Alvar Aalto.
238.    Of Lina Bo Bardi.
239.    The non-pharmacological components of a good club.
240.    Mesa Verde National Park.
241.    Chichen Itza.
242.    Your neighbors.
243.    The dimensions and proper orientation of sports fields.
244.    The remediation capacity of wetlands.
245.    The capacity of wetlands to attenuate storm surges.
246.    How to cut a truly elegant section.
247.    The depths of desire.
248.    The heights of folly.
249.    Low tide.
250.    The Golden and other ratios.