My dearest friends
This is a newsletter of beginnings and returns, of stirrings and stretchings. There’s a restlessness inside of it, a delight at the world but also a longing to be more fully a part of it. We’re in the interregnum, aren’t we, between what has been and what is to come? It’s a frustrating time, a boring time, a yearning time, but I am grateful to be sharing with you.
I hope you find something in the newsletter that interests you – as ever, if there’s someone you know who might like it, do let them know, and do let me know your thoughts and suggestions, let me know what’s helpful or what works for you.
1. This week’s letter from me to you
Happy New Year
“I can feel a difference in the air, some new thrumming electrical pulse through the aether.”
2. This week’s selection from the archives
Nearly twenty years ago, in my very last piece for the Sunday Independent, just as my first incarnation as a columnist came to an end, I wrote what now appears to be a singularly impressive piece of prophecy. This is the first column from the TV reviewing days that I have included on the website.
Journals, or my life as a row of books
A new year, a new beginning, and each new beginning is the end of something.
Siberia and the life saving importance of being bored
As I start to think about traveling again, this is a good reminder to me of why I do, and the ways in which travel isn’t always as you remember it.
3. I’m reading
Mr Wilder and Me – Jonathan Coe
I have a weakness for novels involving real-life people. It’s a bad weakness to have, because so often they’re rubbish, a kind of gussied-up historical romance, very often featuring Zelda Fitzgerald. So I was terribly excited to see a book on the Wordsworth shelves about Billy Wilder as an old man in the 1970s, long past the heyday of his great movies (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, and too many more), with Hollywood turning its back on him, making one of his final films on a Greek Island, and even more excited to discover that it was written by Jonathan Coe. Jonathan Coe writes marvellous books (see What a Carve Up! in particular) and slight ones. This is a very slight one, but I quite loved it.
Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins – Jerome Charyn
Jerome Charyn can write about anything and turn it into music. He has turned himself into Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger for novels. Here, he writes about “ping-pong and the art of staying alive” , and it is a joy.
Not the Apocalypse We Wanted – Hedley Twidle
Hedley’s an academic and author, housed like Theseus in UCT, and also plays a nifty blues guitar. This is his scrapbook from the first part of the lockdown – clippings of headlines and uncertainties and the things that were seizing our attention. I think it’s a delightful time capsule of a time that seems both yesterday and a thousand years ago.
4. I’m watching
The collected films of Mae West
Mae West made only 12 films – she started late, in her 40s, which was even more astonishing in 1932 than it would be today – but the ones that count are the ones she wrote herself, some based on her Broadway plays. And of those, it’s the first couple that matter most, made before 1934, when the Production Code cracked down on saucy dialogue and racy subject matter and increasingly censored and constrained her. She made a living playing brassy, wise-cracking dames who made their own way, slept with whomever they wanted and wouldn’t let anyone tell them what to do, and in “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” she was at her fullest more glorious artificial flower. Today we nod dutifully at strong female role-models in our worthy movies, but Mae West was the strongest of them all, and she was funny and life-affirming with it.
You have to watch it, but here’s a description of one of my favourite sequences.
Call My Agent!
A French series currently on Netflix, set in the offices of a movie agency, featuring an ongoing series of guest stars playing increasingly detailed portraits of themselves. It’s warm and funny and unsentimental.
The films of Billy Wilder
As a result of Mr Wilder and Me, for the next few months I am consecrating myself to the filmography of Billy Wilder, starting with the early films that he wrote and moving through to the ones he wrote and directed. Oh what treasures there are: Ninotchka with Greta Garbo as a stern Russian official (“Garbo smiles!” shouted the marketing campaign)! Stalag 17 with William Holden! The two best Marilyn Monroe movies –The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot! Sunset Boulevard! The Apartment! Irma la Douce!
5. I’m listening to
“Unsent Love Letters” by Elena Kats-Chernin
I do not usually recommend Australians but I have to make an exception. This collection of 26 miniatures for piano is beautiful and haunting and transporting and delightful, and carries its own story with it:
The composer Erik Satie was an odd character. He only ate food with no pigmentation, never let anyone into his home and each night went to bed no earlier or later than 10.37pm. He had one serious relationship in his entire life: the artist Suzanne Valadon, who he met one night at the cabaret Le Chat Noir. She had run away at age 15 to join the circus, had modelled for Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec before taking up the brushes herself. She was the first woman accepted to the Société Nationale de Beaux-Art, fed paintings she didn’t like to her pet goat and went about town wearing a corsage made of carrots. The two had a passionate affair – he gave her a necklace made of sausages which she wore proudly – and lived in adjacent apartments until she broke off their relationship. After his death, many years later, friends entered his apartment for the first time, and discovered it to be perfectly neat and fastidious, with two grand pianos – one on top of the other – a wardrobe containing seventeen identical velvet suits … and hundreds and hundreds of love letters to Suzanne Valadon, neatly written, sealed and unsent. These 26 piano pieces are Elena Kats-Chernin’s meditations on the letters: her attempt to send them.
Here is one of them, but do listen to them all.
Christa Tippett interviewing Gordon Hempton
One of my favourite podcasts is On Being with Christa Tippett. She tries to examine what she calls the “animating questions at the centre of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?” She does this in long, civil conversation with fascinating people. Why not try a 2019 conversation with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, about the importance of silence and his attempts to record it. The conversation is intercut with his recordings of the wind in high trees, rivers running through valleys, the sounds of dawn breaking on different continents, so listen with earphones, if you can.
(And complement it with this piece by Daniel Gross on the life-saving effects of silence.)
Haruki Murakami’s Vinyl Collection
A super-fan named Mamasaro Fujiki has made a playlist of every piece of music Murakami has mentioned in his novels and essays and on his website. There are more than 3500 songs, and it lasts some 238 hours. Much of it feels like it could do double-duty as hidden tracks on Woody Allen movies eg “Dear Old Southland” by Noble Sissle and his Orchestra.
Access the playlist on Spotify, or here.
6. What is making me happy this week
The best excuse for Twitter is the account by Perseverence Mars Rover, sending back photographs of its peregrinations around the planet, its preparations for launching the Mars Helicopter, the way it’s informally naming places using the language of the Navaho (“Tsé łichí” means “red rock”; séítah means “among the sand”. “Máaz”? That means Mars.) How joyful it is, when we’re so bound to our tiny corners of Earth, to follow the adventuring of human ingenuity in search of the new and the old, expanding our knowledge. It feels like the greatest act of good faith in who we are.
There is a YouTube channel called Nemo’s Dreamscapes, where you can choose from a number of audio options, each of which, when clicked on, provides a soundtrack that you thought only existed in dreams. Basically, the genre is “Olden-day music played from another room and it’s raining outside.”
7. This week I discovered
In 1953 Samuel Fuller made Pick Up on South Street, a classic noir with Richard Widmark and Jean Peters, playing out in the subways and Hudson piers of New York. It’s an odd and unsettling noir, which I enjoyed, but then I discovered that in 1967, a movie called The Cape Town Affair was made, with James Brolin and Jacqueline Bissett in their first starring roles.
It’s filmed in Cape Town and is not just a remake of Pick Up On South Street, it’s the same movie, replicated line by line, with local actors in secondary roles. An Adderley Street bus has to stand in for the subway, and people bribe people with rands instead of dollars, but still. There it is: baffling in its origin and unspeakably bad in its execution. I watched it for the nostalgic glimpses of Gordon Mulholland and Patrick Mynhardt, and to see Cape Town before the V&A Waterfront and the Golden Acre, and Sea Point when the railway still ran along Beach Road, and just to wonder and wonder at the things into which people pour their creative energies.
My word of the month is ‘respair’: a 16th-century word – bizarrely fallen out of use but surely in need of a comeback – meaning “fresh hope”, or “the return of hope after a period of despair.”