Newsletter 7 – 28 May 2020

Friends! Hello!

It has been a thousand years since I have written, but here I am! And there you are! I hope there is something in here to interest you. (Don’t forget that clicking on underlined text will link you to additional material such as movie trailers, book reviews, songs etc.) It’s good to be back with you again.

  1. This week’s letter from me to you:

A three-part story

This is a story that seems to contain just about everything of the local experience of the past eight or so weeks.”


  1. This week’s selection from the archives:

I have been noodling away and adding new (old) columns to the archive. I’m highlighting these two now, but the others are there for your browsing purposes, all the time.

The ghost and the galaxy

Because winter is coming and this is about a beautiful clean coldness and about wonder and stories and the explicable and the unexplained. And about two little girls that I miss but who aren’t as little any more.

A spy in the house of love

Because it brings back a time when there were people everywhere and public spaces were dangerous for different reasons, and because it makes me laugh, I have selected this perilous journey into the Gardens Centre.


  1. I’m reading:
  1. Figuring – Maria Popova

If I had a teenaged daughter interested in science, or in poetry, or the cosmos, or in all the wonders and beauties of the world both natural and devised, I would give her this book and she would love it forever and she would always love and be grateful to me for it, even when I am grounding her or telling her that she can’t see that no-good Scanlon boy, he’s only got one thing on his mind.

Maria Popova is a polymath whose reading and writing life consists of excavating the stories of extraordinary thinkers and writers, and making visible the unseen connections between the thinkers and dreamers who make up our world and our history. This book nominally tells the stories of a number of historical figures across four centuries – mostly women, some of them queer – but it is a luminous, electrically charged celebration of the beauties and possibilities of the human experience. It’s a gorgeous, glorious ode to science, to poetry, to humanity and to connection.

  1. Rodney Trudgeon’s Concert Notes – Rodney Trudgeon (Jonathan Ball, 2020)

Rodney is the Programme Manager of Fine Music Radio and hosts the breakfast show on Classic FM. For years and years he has been writing programme notes and pre-concert talks, and here he has selected 250 of his favourite classical pieces. It is a perfect, precious discovery for someone like me, who has no background in music but who wants to deepen his response to classical music. I need context and interesting stories and tips and pointers to bring me in and help that process.

  1. “Lionel Shriver is looking for Trouble” by Ariel Levy. New Yorker, 1 June 2020

You don’t have to agree with everything Lionel Shriver says to be fascinated by her, and Ariel Levy is one of the finest profilers working in the world today. What a joy it is to read such an intelligent, well-researched, in-depth interview-profile with such a fascinating and unafraid woman.

  1. “David’s Ankles” – Sam Anderson, New York Times, 2016

For no good reason, this is a marvelous long piece about the flaw in the statue of David that might bring it tumbling down. It tells you more than you realized there was to know about Michelangelo’s masterpiece, as well as being a lovely and profound reflection on art, life, perfection, imperfection and our longing for permanence and preservation.


  1. I’m watching:

1) My hard-boiled investigation into the world of Film Noir proceeds apace. I have spent much of the two months in a world of shadows and double-dealing, of brassy broads and fatally flawed men, walking down mean streets and leaning against lampposts while chewing a toothpick. I’ve watched 18 films noir from my list so far, and there have been some duds, and some truly weird ones (eg Nightmare Alley, (Edmund Goulding, 1947), which is to be remade next year by Guillermo del Toro, which will hardly tone down the weirdness), but there have been some extraordinary pleasures too. Herewith a short list of highlights so far:

Sweet Smell of Success

(Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), with Tony Curtis at his best and Burt Lancaster at his most chilling and some of the most luminous New York-by-night cinematography you’ll see.

Night and the City

(Jules Dassin, 1950). The location scenes in a post-war London are extraordinary, easily the match of the ruined Vienna of The Third Man. It’s tense and claustrophobic – I would be very surprised if the Safdie Brothers didn’t use it as a deep genetic model for Uncut Gems – and has some truly beautiful cinematography and is a thousand times better than the 1987 Robert de Niro remake. (It’s available free on Youtube here.)

The Night of the Hunter

(Charles Laughton, 1955). It’s haunting, it’s beautiful, it’s weird, it’s unlike any other film I’ve seen. It was Charles Laughton’s directorial debut and it did so poorly he never directed another. It’s one of my favourite films of all time.

Double Indemnity

(Billy Wilder, 1944). It’s Billy Wilder, it’s a murderous adulterous scheme, it has Barbara Stanwyck being so seductive it’s hard to think of anyone I wouldn’t bump off just to please her.

Next up:

Pick Up on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

I Want to Live (Robert Wise, 1958)

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

2) Would I be loving Schitt’s Creek (Netflix) so much if we weren’t in lockdown? Possibly not. It’s a weird little fish-out-of-water sit-com, uncool and irritating and unfunny at first, but by the time the second season comes round, it finds its odd, almost embarrassing place in your heart. It’s just so damn charming. Despite their apparent surface awfulness, everyone is so good and loving and lovable that to spend time with them becomes an analgesic joy, a soothing balm to the soul.


  1. I’m listening to:
  1. “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”

Nate di Meo (of the excellent podcast “the Memory Palace”) and Karina Longworth (of the even better “You Must Remember This”) have teamed up to produce a podcast for the lockdown. Each week they invite a guest (and us) to watch a movie that they’ve heard is great but which they’ve somehow never seen, then discuss it. The first movie was Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000), which somehow I’d never seen either. I expected it to be a heart-warming Tom Hanks aw-shucks cornfest, but it was gritty and hard and an extraordinarily precise exercise in visual storytelling . The invited guest was Rian Johnson, who directed Knives Out, the most recent Star Wars movie and the extraordinary Brick.

Episode 2 was From Here to Eternity, and upcoming movies include The Grapes of Wrath, 3 Women, The Eyes of Laura Mars. Nate and Karin are smart and interesting and they love movies and they’re good company, and watching and rewatching in their company has been one of my lockdown joys.

  1.  Bix Beiderbecke

I encountered Bix Beiderbecke in a Clive James essay about Louis Armstrong. Specifically, he wrote about “I’m Coming, Virginia”: “the coherence of its long Bix solo still provides me with the measure of what popular art should be like: a generosity of effects on a simple frame.”

How can you not investigate music that inspires writing like this? “I loved the spareness of his technique: a wordless song with one note per syllable and no lapses into mere virtuosity … Always there is a piercing sadness to it, as if the natural tone of the cornet, the instrument of reveille, were the first sob before weeping.”


  1. What is making me happy this week:

I rewatched Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) this week for the umpteenth time. It gets better every time and is clearly – how could I not have noticed this before? – a metaphor for America’s response to Covid-19. See! The sudden arrival of the remorseless natural phenomenon posing an existential threat to the community! See! The blowhard mayor of the town, a bullshit-artist with weird hair that blows around comically in the wind as he tries to urge townsfolk to get back into the water! See how he ignores the concerns of the worried scientist, and explains that if they close the beaches the economy will collapse! And see our three heroes, forced into isolation together in a small enclosed space on the sea, waiting for death to come find them!

One of the great joys of Jaws is Robert Shaw as Quint, who has a moustache like my father had, and a grin of charm of devilry like my father had, and who is given to singing sea shanties. I have spent the last week annoyingly singing “Spanish Ladies”

This week, in one those meaningless coincidences that always simply delight me, I discovered that the best known modern version of “Spanish Ladies” was recorded fifteen years before Jaws was made, on an album of sea shanties recorded by – yes! – the (unrelated) Robert Shaw Chorale!


  1. This week I discovered:

On Greek islands, in genteelly run-down graveyards, headstones of anonymous graves very often have a single word on them: “Xaipe”. (Pronounced “ghear-re”, like the Afrikaans name “Gerrie”, but rhyming with “ear” in the first syllable, and with “eh” in the second.)

You also say it in greeting sometimes, like “hello”. It isn’t quite translatable, but I have seen it rendered as “Rejoice!”, and Lawrence Durrell gives it as “Be happy”. He says it is both a salutation and an admonition, a reminder of the bright, fleeting intensity of life, and he sighs that English “lacks a word whose brevity and grace could paint upon the darkness of death the fading colours of such gaiety, love and truth as Xaipe does upon these modest gravestones.”

To you, my friends, I say in salutation, Xaipe.