Newsletter 8 – 22 November 2020

My dearest friends

I don’t know how long it has been since last we spoke. A week? Fourteen years? Time has no meaning any more. But I have missed you, and it’s lovely to be speaking to you again.

1. This week’s letter from me to you:

Long time no see

“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.”


2. 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 great imposter

I am currently enamoured of the thought of living many lives. When Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, I want to start arguing back: Why just one?! Says who?! Why this one?! That’s why I love Ferdinand Demara so much.

The day I became Meryl Streep

Here is a brief column from Getaway magazine, about the satisfactions and frustrations of doing something you have always wanted to do.


3.  I’m reading:

How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan

I am as skeptical of hippy-dippy drug books as you are, but Michael Pollan isn’t a hippy, and here he explores the new science of psychedelic therapy, and how therapeutic doses of psilocybin have shown astonishing results in treating alcoholism, depression, anxiety and compulsive behaviours. He examines the troubled politicized history of psychedelics, as well as his own personal research experiences. The tide is certainly turning in the cultural and scientific story of psilocybin, and this entertaining, meticulously researched and persuasive book from a highly respected science writer will make it very clear why. I’ve never been one for psychedelics, but after reading it I found my own mushroom vendor, and not to proselytize, but I consider my controlled experiments with psilocybin over this lockdown to be some of the most powerfully beneficial interventions I have ever made into my own mental wellbeing.

Seduction – Karina Longworth

Karina Longworth writes and presents one of my favourite podcasts, You Must Remember This, telling the hidden and forgotten stories from Hollywood’s first century. This is her first book, and it takes the form of a biography of Howard Hughes but really it’s a way of looking at the lives and experiences of actresses, known and unknown, in Hollywood from the silent era to the end of the studio system. It’s original, gossipy, smart, a treasure chest for movie-lovers and a cracking read. (You can combine it with a viewing of Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and The Outlaw, and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.)

The Collected Letters of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wrote a lot of letters and they are being published at a rate of one volume every eighteen months or two years. There are a projected 17 volumes in all. Volume 5 (1932 – May 1934) has just been published, but I am still busy with Volume 4 (April 1929 – 1931).  It helps that I love Ernest Hemingway – as much for his personal failings as for his professional accomplishments – but what a treat it is to be able to read your way through someone’s life, through their triumphs and defeats, their revelations and concealments, their friendships and feuds, and what a treat to know that I have – what? another 25 or so years of treats ahead of me.

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman is a sweet, funny and sharply intelligent writer. Her first book was The Possessed – a collection of allegedly non-fiction essays about her adventures in the world of Russian literature. This is an alleged novel about a sweet, funny, sharply intelligent Turkish-American language nerd at Harvard, who falls in love with a slightly older boy in her Russian literature class. The book itself is sweet, funny and sharply intelligent and I am giving it as a gift to every smart young teenaged girl I know. (There are two of them.)


4.  I’m watching:

The Criterion Channel

I subscribed to the Criterion Channel during lockdown, and what a revelation it has been. You need a VPN that will make it seem you’re in America, but you still pay your money and a world of cinema opens to you: old films, art films, foreign language films. In the last month or so I have watched all the films of Albert Brooks and Yorgos Lanthimos. I have watched all three versions of Hemingway’s The Killers. I watched Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its illicit remake, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, back to back. The four great films noir of Robert Siodmak! Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress! I don’t know how I lived so long without it.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Nothing original here: everyone is watching The Queen’s Gambit. It’s a joy and a delight, and I think for much the same reason that Schitt’s Creek was: because in these hyper-ventilating, over-heated times, it is a pure joy to simply watch a story unfold, one that isn’t jumped up by the contrivances of drama. When the young Beth goes into the orphanage, I waited in gloomy anticipation for the obligatory sexual menacing by the janitor or the male nurse, or the bullying from the older girls or the headmistress. But no! Nothing of the sort! There isn’t a villain in this story. There is no one to dread or hate. There is no obligatory swing through the clichés of our modern sense of peril. It is just a simple (and possibly simplistic) story, almost a fairy tale, beautifully told.

A Separation – Asghar Farhadi (2011)

An Iranian film, in which a couple in Teheran are divorcing and run into legal troubles. That sounds like the dullest movie in the world, but it is beautiful and true and restrained and nuanced and funny and I couldn’t have loved it more.


5.  I’m listening to

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, read by David Rintoul

One of the themes of The Magic Mountain is the nature and experience of time itself, and listening to the book being read over 36 hours adds new dimensions to the perception of time: it bends and twists and elasticates and elongates, it melts and reconfigures. I listen to it while driving long distances, and it is enchanting and mesmerizing and soothing, and David Rintoul is a joy. It is wonderful and gentle and it is very funny.

Tunnel 29

The BBC has a podcast series called “Intrigue”. Each series is a different true story, told in successive episodes, usually around ten of them, 15 or 20 minutes long. Tunnel 29 tells the story of one of the most ambitious and extraordinary of the tunnels dug under the Berlin Wall: from West Germany to East Germany, by a group of students, ultimately funded by an American television network. It’s gripping, it’s enthralling, it’s exultant, it’s better than fiction.

Revisionist History

All of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, but specifically episode 3 of season 5, “The Powerball Revolution”, in which Gladders makes the argument for replacing elections with lotteries, and I am absolutely sold on the idea.


6.  What is making me happy this week:

I was supposed to be flying to Lisbon for two months but the lockdowns in Europe have changed all that. Instead for the end of this year we will take a great South African road-trip, a nostalgic three-week odyssey from Cape Town to the various coasts of KZN, a sentimental antentwig of sea-salt and suntan cream and cheesy hotels and scuba diving and 80s music, a kind of loving farewell to my childhood and the places where I grew up and failed to grow up. It is making me happy to think of it, and to think of the hours on the road, talking or not talking, staying at places where I stayed when I was a boy, places I may not see again. My phone will be off. I intend to be happy.


7.  This week I discovered:

When the 1936 Olympic Games took place in the hot (but rainy) Berlin summer, sophisticates of all stripes gravitated to the Delphi Palast on Kantestrasse to hear Teddy Stauffer and his band – the Original Teddies – play American swing music. Swing and jazz were discouraged under the Nazis, but in that golden fortnight, with the eyes of the world turned to Germany, Teddy Stauffer and the Original Teddies gave the city a sheen of cosmopolitan cool. Teddy himself was not a Nazi; he was a Swiss saxophonist, and the Original Teddies began each set with a song called “Goody Goody”, that became the unofficial anthem of the Berlin Games. Wherever you went, someone was playing it or humming it. Isn’t it extraordinary that we can hear it today, in a version recorded in that very year.

I’d never heard of Teddy Stauffer until I read about him in Oliver Hilmes’ book about 1936 games, but how could I not? As the Nazis cracked down on decadent jazz and swing, he was forced to flee Berlin just before the war, and ended up in Acapulco, where he opened Ciro’s – the area’s first nightclub – and helped turn Acapulco into Hollywood’s playground. When Frank Sinatra sang about beating the birds down to Acapulco Bay, he was flying there to see Teddy Stauffer.

Teddy married one of the most interesting women in the world, the film star Hedy Lamarr, the first person to ever fake an orgasm on camera. She was also an inventor – she advised Howard Hughes on streamlining the aircraft with which he broke world speed records, and co-invented something called Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum, which was used in the guidance controls of torpedos during the war, which subsequently became one of the conceptual building blocks of Bluetooth and early forms of WiFi. Teddy and Hedy – someone should write a book.