My dearest friends
I never thought I would be able to write these words again, but I greet you from the road! I have flown the coop! I am stretching my wings like the dove – hopefully not the raven – that Noah sent out from the ark to see if the world is safe yet. Consider this newsletter an olive branch from my beak.
Of course, I have been entering the Daily Delights on the website every day, a practice I find increasingly helpful. It’s helpful in dark times, because what you focus on is what colours your mind, but also in times like now, when all is bright and light again, because it helps to slow down the parade of delight, to fix in your mind that which will take shape and linger. It gives shape to experience and anchors you more firmly to the source. Do feel free to join in.
And as usual, if you know anyone you think would enjoy this newsletter, do let them know. The subscriber list is edging closer to the five-figure mark, and I enjoy hearing from each and every one of you.
(Also, as usual, just a reminder that any text in the newsletter in bold blue is a clickable link to the column or video or whatever the text is referring to.)
1. This week’s letter from me to you:
Back on the Road
“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.”
2. This week’s selection from the archives:
Granadillas and living statues
“One day when I’d had enough of it all I could just coat my entire body in gold paint, leaving no open space for respiration, like Shirley Eaton in the movie of Goldfinger, and slip away in my sleep in a manner of passing both peaceful and artistically pleasing.”
Fate and the furious
Just because this was the last thing I wrote from the last time I was in Greece, and it is good to be reminded that life and travel is about making the most of what’s there, and that it isn’t supposed to be smooth, or easy, or fair.
3. I’m reading:
1. A Theatre for Dreamers – Polly Samson
My friend Nicole recommended this novel, and what a summertime delight. Set on the island of Hydra in the years that Leonard Cohen was infesting it (the years before his fame, when he was twangling his guitar and being grave and oiling up to the ladies), its gaze is more levelly focused on the Australian writer Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston and the small community of artists and deadbeats that they gathered around themselves.
2. FallingStarRisingTide – Phillip Hoare
This is one of those unclassifiable books that people tend to hesitate before recommending to their friends because they can’t say what it is, exactly, and are afraid to run the risk of seeming vague or pretentious. Is it a meditation on the power of the sea in the lives and imaginations of human beings? Is it a nature book? A memoir? A nature memoir? Is it about David Bowie and aliens and whales and art and fluid sexuality? I don’t know.
3. The Karla Trilogy – John le Carre
One great big beach-omnibus of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and then Smiley’s People: the three-part slo-mo epic battle between George Smiley of British Intelligence and his mysterious and unreachable Russian nemesis, Karla. But really, the books are Le Carre’s troubled and prophetic meditation on an England and perhaps a West in material and moral decline. “We do what we do in defense of the reasonable man,” intelligence analyst Connie Sachs tries to remind herself. “Not because we are English, but because we are reasonable. And we must remain so.”
4. The Corfu trilogy – Gerald Durrell
I haven’t read Gerald Durrell since I was the age of the young Gerald in the books. What a dream of childhood it was, back then: the island idyll, untroubled by worries of war or the world or money, without authority figures or punishments, surrounded by an exasperating and loving family, filled with creatures that do no harm, animals with personalities and inner lives, like sweeter versions of human beings. Almost all imaginary, of course, but what a gift to a ten-year-old child to be offered a dream of childhood, one painted so brightly and with such determined good nature and enthusiasm that, looking back, it lent its dewy golden aura to his own childhood.
4. I’m watching:
The wifi here in Egypt is barely strong enough to send out this newsletter, far less watch anything, and that has been all the better – it has been something of a joy to spend a fortnight without screens, rocking gently on the waves of books and the real world, but I do commend these to you:
1. Hedgehog in the Fog (Yuri Norstein, 1975).
The Russian animation studio SoyuzMultfilm started in the 1930s, partially as a response to the Walt Disney cartoons. Their animations are gentle, melancholic, slightly disturbing and dreamlike stories with no American obligations to sentiment or commercial neatness or even necessarily happy endings. They are small weird fragments of childhood itself, and perhaps the most famous is Hedgehog in the Fog, in which a little hedgehog, on his way to his friend the bear’s home to sit around a fire of juniper wood, counting the stars in the sky, is led by his curiosity into a low-lying fog. It’s only ten minutes long and I have been watching it over and over: try it yourself.
2. Hemingway: A Life (PBS, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick)
A three-part, six-hour documentary about Hemingway. I am an extreme Hemingway fan, an obsessive. I have read every book by and about Hemingway, visited all of his homes and haunts that can still be visited.. I love him in complicated ways that don’t always have everything to do with the writing, although I love the writing too, especially the short stories. This extraordinary series, made by the team who made the remarkable Vietnam and others (see here for more) is as thorough and clear-eyed as you could hope or wish for. I thought I had seen every photograph and video clip of Hemingway – within half an hour I had seen a trove of material I’d never encountered. Heartily recommended.
5. I’m listening to:
1. 24/6 – The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain.
I am listening to the audiobook from Audible, but it’s available as a real book too. I like her framing of digital unplugging as being a Digital Shabbat. An entire culture worked out, thousands of years before the heat-waves of modern technology, that human beings need a break from a technology once a week in order to be more still, to spend more time on things that nourish us rather than diminish.
2. Cautionary Tales with Tim Hartford
A podcast by the economist and columnist Tim Harford, in which he takes off-beat and intriguing crimes, accidents and anecdotes from history and uses them like adult fairy tales to illustrate some moral that we should all have learnt. Does that sound dry? It isn’t, it’s fascinating and terribly good fun. Recent cautionary tales I’ve listened to include the great English airship race of 1929, the bank robber who thought lemon juice would make him invisible, and the time Virginia Woolf and her friends put on blackface and snuck onto a warship pretending to be the ambassador of Ghana. The moral is not always what you think it is.
6. What’s making me happy:
1. Ful mudammas at breakfast. How have I taken so long to discover this? Probably because it’s usually spelt foul me’dames in English, which sounds fun but unappetising. A delicious humus-like mix of cooked fava beans, garlic, parsley, red onion, lemon juice, chilli and pepper, eaten with falafel, flat bread and a squeeze of fresh lime over the top. Tomorrow is my last breakfast in Egypt – where will I find more?!
2. The water here is so clear that you can sit on a sun-lounger and every afternoon see two eagle rays come gliding in from the bluer depths and skirt the reefs and nose about the channel where the swimmers enter the sea, then go flapping out again. There is a bigger ray and a smaller one that follows it closely, and I have seen them up close when I was in the water – they are as elegant as birds. They come in every day around the same time, making dark shadows below the sunny surface. “Shadow” is the wrong word, of course: actually they are the opposite of shadows, they are patches of occult surface beneath a bright surface. I sit every day and watch for them.
A few days ago they happened to pass directly beneath two snorkelers, a man and a woman. She was looking at something and didn’t notice them; he saw them only at the last minute, and did a comical double-take, splashing and snorting water in his excitement to point them out to her. By the time he had her attention, they were gone – I could see them fading back into the deepness from which they had come – and he was trying to explain what he had seen. She didn’t seem to believe him. Whatever the word for eagle ray is in their language, either he didn’t know it or it didn’t mean anything to her. He was flapping his arms like a bird, pointing back into the water, flapping again, and she was looking at him as though he was mad or playing one of those stupid Kazakhstani pranks that can be so tiresome to Kazakh wives.
Later, when they had come out of the water and were toweling off, he was still trying to persuade her that he had seen a bird underwater and she was still trying to pretend this conversation wasn’t happening. I caught his eye and slowly nodded in affirmation and flapped my arms. His face broke into a beam of relief and delight. Every time we see each other now, we solemnly flap our arms in greeting, like Freemasons who have shared an esoteric experience that no one else can understand.
7. This week I discovered:
I don’t know why but I have never known the word “apophenia” before, but this week I encountered it twice. It was coined by the psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 paper on the early stages of schizophrenia, but really it seems perfectly applicable to the majority of thinkers, pundits and theorists of the modern world, especially on social media: it means “the tendency to perceive apparently meaningful connections and patterns between unrelated things.” In a way, it is the opposite of epiphany, in which the true connections between things are revealed. Everyone knows about epiphanies, but I would suggest apopheny is a word with which we should be far more familiar.