My dearest friends
Well, here we are, after such a year. We’ve survived, and that’s reason enough to grasp each other’s forearms in the Roman style and look into each other’s eyes and say, “Well done. I love you. Good luck for 2022.”
Since last we spoke, a lot has happened with me, so no doubt to you too – Emergency operations! Traveling the world like a smuggler or a spy! Deaths of loved ones! Disappointments! Disillusionments! – but it’s time to put those to one side and breathe deeply again.
I haven’t given any detailed account of my misadventures in my letter, but the Daily Delights form a kind of daily record through the year. I’ve received many queries about why people don’t receive daily delights in their inbox, so just a reminder: I don’t send the daily delights. I have a horror of spamming people, so they’re merely posted each day on the site. Click here: Daily Delights.
I hope you find something in the newsletter that interests you – if you know someone who might like it, do let them know, and do let me know your thoughts and suggestions, what works for you and what doesn’t.
- This week’s letter from me to you:
- This week’s selection from the archives:
- I think we’re all reflecting on luck and timing and how to come back from setbacks. I wrote this in 2020 about Leonard Cohen: Leonard Cohen and how to come back
- In my letter I mention the piece I wrote in 2016 about walking the River Bovey for Getaway magazine. Here it is, with some very amateurish photographs:
- It’s Christmas, so here’s a column from the last Christmas I was away from home: Christmas in Lisbon, and a particular form of religion
- My highlighted books of the year:
- Middlemarch by George Elliot. If you haven’t read it yet I probably can’t convince you – you wouldn’t have been able to convince me – but I read it while recovering from surgery in a heatwave on an earthquake-struck Greek island this summer, and it made me care very deeply about things worth caring about: people and their inner lives, the value of art, the miracle of human sympathy. It’s rich, funny, generous, weirdly modern and searingly intelligent.
- Isle by Clare Robertson. In a year in which local literature has been overshadowed by Damon Galgut’s splendid Booker win, I would hate to neglect the latest by our most luminous and perhaps brilliant writer. Her writing offers resistance, the way hard wood offers resistance to the hand saw or the chisel, and yields the same splendid rewards.
- Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. It has been – not intentionally – a year of reading extraordinary books by extraordinary women writers. Shirley Hazzard’s prose is like a supple gem. It is simultaneously strong and infinitely subtle, offering the same quality of resistance that Clare Robertson does. It fizzes with intelligence and insight and I gasped at the ending. I can’t wait to read it again.
- A Perfect Spy by John le Carre. An autobiography disguised as a spy story: a delicate and masterful exercise in telling the truth by telling a lie. Supplement it with John le Carre, Adam Sisman’s biography, which suggests that the spy games might be deeper yet, and even more appropriate to the creator of George Smiley: a lie disguising itself as the truth being disguised as a lie.
- Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Barrett is one of the most interesting and innovative scientific thinkers of our time. Her magisterial How Emotions are Made compellingly upturns our received popular wisdom about feelings, responses and emotions. This is her quick and easy pocket guide to how the brain and the mind and the cognitive systems work. Every page has a new fascinating revelation – a science book that can be read on the beach.
Some delightful articles from the year:
- “Periwinkle, the colour of poison, modernism and dusk”, by Katy Kelleher in The Paris Review.
We are considering painting the wooden shutters on the Greek house a shade of periwinkle, so I especially loved this piece, but Katy Kelleher has a lovely and extraordinary ongoing series of essays about colours, filled with delight.
The legendary film editor Walter Murch’s extraordinary account of how he created one of the most memorable sequences in film history.
- The nature writer Barry Lopez died this year, and this is his wife’s lovely essay about him, and his death, and a remarkable scientific expedition on a Polar ship.
- My new movies of 2021:
- The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021)
I feel sad for everyone who didn’t watch it on the big screen, but it’s an exquisite work of art, funny and referential, and an ode to storytelling. It even, which is unusual for Wes Anderson, has heart. It’s gorgeous.
- The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, 2021)
Sorrentino made The Great Beauty, which is about maturity and Rome. This is about youth and Naples. Unformulaic, gorgeously filmed and funny, a kind of Italian The Durrells without animals, an adolescence told through the stylizing filter of memory and a Neapolitan bildungsroman about how a filmmaker found his voice. It’s lovely.
- Annette (Leos Carrax, 2021).
I cannot adequately convey how weird this movie is: a stylized musical with Adam Driver as a murderous stand-up comic and Marilyn Cotillard as an opera singer who returns as a ghost to haunt her husband through the voice of her baby, who is a puppet. It’s so, so odd, and so particular a vision and I nearly stopped watching halfway through, and I loved it. The final scene in particular, when the puppet turns into a five-year-old girl who sings a duet with a haggard Adam Driver while telling him she doesn’t love him somehow brought tears to my eyes and I still don’t know how.
- The Many Saints of Newark (Alan Taylor, 2021).
It’s not the greatest gangster film ever made, but it’s the prequel to the Sopranos, written by David Chase, starring James Gandolfini’s son as the young Tony. How could it cause anything but joy?
My favourite of the older movies I watched in 2021 for the first time:
- Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) Why is this movie so difficult to get hold of? An aging Burt Lancaster and a sizzling hot Susan Sarandon fall in love in a sad and crumbling seaside city while being hunted by the mob. It’s feel-good neo noir and it left me beaming. (ps. If you want to watch these or any other films and don’t know how, drop me a line.)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (William Welman, 1943) Henry Fonda in one of the most intelligent, least compromising Westerns I’ve ever seen. Genuinely shocking and affecting, a meditation on mob violence and the wisdom of crowds, sympathetically rendered and without a cliché.
- The Jamie Lee Curtis Halloween series. This October we started with the 1978 John Carpenter film, jumped up to Halloween H20 (1998), then to the recent, same-titled sequel to the original (Halloween, 2018) and its sequel Halloween Kills (2021). There are other Halloween movies and evolutionary dead-ends of the timeline, but this is the path through the thicket that allows you to follow Jamie Lee Curtis as she and her character age over the course of four decades, and these are also the best of the films.
- Never On Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960). In some ways, this is the movie that everyone thinks Zorba the Greek is. Zorba is dark, depressing, a little distasteful, but this is a sunshiney celebration of the Greek genius for living, a genius that is as real as it is by now cliched.
- Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run (Thom Zimny, 2005). An extraordinarily inspiring and sobering documentary about the making of the Born to Run album, and the torture and discipline of making art.
- Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) The kind of movie that hasn’t been made in a very long time: a genuinely touching, ultimately unsentimental film about age and love, and the heartbreak of growing old. It shook me and made me cry.
- I’m listening to:
- Jon Ronson has a BBC radio series excavating the unknown and invisible stories and histories of the culture wars, asking, “How did we get to this point?” Humane, funny, thoughtful and sane: “Things Fell Apart”.
- I read John Gielgud’s collected letters this year, which led me to various Gielgud ephemera, and this especially delights me: one of the greatest stage Hamlets of the 20th century talking about how he approached it, his anxieties of influence, his doubts and faith, and about his understanding of the text itself, rolling out in the languid, luxurious voice..
- I watched Christopher Nupen’s two documentary films about Jean Sibelius, whose music I’d never really discovered before. As a consequence, the sound of my house this December has been an almost non-stop soundtrack of his symphonies, especially the second movement of the 3rd symphony and the third movement of his 5th. It works best in the melancholy northern winter, but give them a try. Find Christopher Nupen films on Allegro Films’ channel on YouTube
- I’m a sucker for old guys singing about time having passed: John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, “Wasted Days”.
- What’s making me happy:
- On Foot Holidays
This isn’t a paid advert, more’s the pity, but I’ve been on four walking holidays with On Foot – in Turkey, Croatia, Italy and this year to the Dordogne. Each time the walk itself has been a joy, but more than that: the experience of dealing with this small and personal company has been like a reunion with an old and trusted friend. They offer self-guided walking holidays, with a carefully planned route from village to village and a service to carry your bags ahead each day. Meticulous service, personal care – they make me very happy.
- An umbrella
For my birthday two years ago I was given a splendid umbrella from a splendid old umbrella shop in Montpellier. (I wrote a column involving that umbrella here). But that umbrella is in a car parked under an olive tree in Andalucia, and I’ve been separated from it since the beginning of 2020, so I’m making do with an umbrella I bought for five euro in Riga last month, a cheap, rickety affair, you would think, unsuited for the rigors of a northern winter, especially on the Baltic. But it stood up to the icy blasts and came with me to the UK and is still going strong. I’ve never till now realised how happy an umbrella makes me. I love everything about it: the pattering and pocking of soft rain on the canvas; the heft and swing in my hand when it is furled and I use it as a swagger-cane; the little click of the metal ferrule on the tarmac or the small giving thud on an earthen path. I like the way you can use it to test the depth of a puddle, or to create distance between you and the more hoi of the poloi on a crowded pavement. I like hooking the shepherd’s crook end of it over my arm as I pause to window shop; I like hanging it on a hat rack as I enter a pub. I love an umbrella, and it is making me very happy.
- I have always wondered precisely how oddly incompetent English bureaucracy is, and now I’m in a position to see for myself. In the village where I’m staying there’s a little fellow named Ed who is hired by the council to do odd-jobs around town: sweep sidewalks, paint traffic lines, etc. (I say “little fellow” because that’s the politically correct term for a midget. I don’t know what was wrong with midget, but apparently little fellow is less offensive, and I don’t want to cause any offence, especially to midgets, who I’m told can be very vengeful.)
At any rate, there are Christmas lights to be hung around town, including a series of badly painted wooden boards illustrating the twelve days of Christmas. The council needs these to be hung high on lampposts, on eaves and from three-storey rooftops. For the purpose, they have a council stepladder that, remarkably for an English village, is only slightly too short for the job. They also have at their disposal any number of full-sized fellows, with more or less the right dimensions for the job. Can you imagine how happy it made me to walk down the street last week and see Ed, frowning with serious intent, a sackful of decorations over one shoulder, dragging the stepladder along behind him.
As you can imagine, I was keen to see if Ed would also crack the nod to be the village Santa. Last night was the night Santa rides through town on the back of a tractor, waving at the glum huddled kids of Buckfastleigh before taking them on his lap and presenting them with some rubbish gift sponsored by the Rotary Club. The disappointing news is that Ed was not our Santa (he wasn’t even an elf). The good news is that, with a village of full-bellied and red-cheeked men to choose from, the local council gave the Santa gig to a skinny 14-year-old boy whose voice kept breaking so that his Ho Ho Ho came out as He Hi Hoi.
- This is a video of Grace Jones, aged 62, singing “Slave to the Rhythm” live on stage in Belgium and hula-hooping unbroken through the whole song. How could this not make you happy?
I’ll see you next year.
Much love, Darrel