Newsletter 3 – 22 November 2019

Friends! Hello!

1. This week’s post:  

The only piece of practical advice I have

“It’s a mystifying phenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts, and I would truthfully describe it as the closest thing to magic I’ve encountered.”


2. I’m reading:

William’s Goldman’s original script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Whenever I have some new screenwriting project and I’m struck by the usual conviction that I started too late and everyone else knows the ropes but I don’t know what I’m doing, I read Butch and Sundance again, not just because it’s funny and fun and stylish and clever, but because of the breeziness with which he ignores every rule of screenwriting, starting with formatting. It’s liberating and exhilarating and a joyful reminder that all that really matters is whether you can tell a story. 

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – Elizabeth Smart

In 1937 Elizabeth Smart bought a collection of poetry from a second-hand bookstore in Charing Cross Road and fell in love with the poet, George Barker, whom she’d never met. Using guile, subterfuge and the offer of a job, she paid his way from Tokyo, where he was miserable, poor and teaching English, to California. She intended to make him love her, and although he arrived with his wife, she succeeded. They never married but had four children together over fifteen years and were shunned by friends, family and society. On two occasions they were arrested for trying to cross state lines for immoral purposes. This short memoir of their relationship, published in 1945, is written in a highly charged poetic style, a sort of prose poetry that ordinarily I don’t much care for, but the charged emotional intensity of the writing and the sustained concentration of feeling makes the experience of reading it feel like walking across a tightrope in the middle of a lightning storm. Angela Carter thought it was a masterpiece, and confided in a private letter to a friend that a woman’s sole job as a mother is to make sure her daughter is never Elizabeth Smart.

“My Life With Face Blindess” by Sadie Dingfelder

There’s a well-known South African writer who claims to be face-blind. It’s a mysterious condition, and in her case mainly seems to apply to people of less status than whoever she’s currently talking to, but the subject is fascinating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sadie Dingenfelder’s long and lively account in the Washington Post of how she discovered, as a full-grown, functioning adult, that she’s different, and that not everyone can’t recognize their own mothers or husbands.


3. I’m watching:

The Devil Next Door (5-part series, Netflix)

A documentary series about Ivan Demjanjuk, the retired motor worker from Michigan who in 1986 was accused of once being Ivan the Terrible, the Ukrainian furnace operator at the Treblinka death camp. It’s an extraordinary examination of memory, justice and guilt, and the difficulties of balancing what we now know about the science of our fallible memories with the moral imperative of believing the witnesses to atrocities.

The Lives of Others (2006) Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

In anticipation for my trip to Berlin earlier this month for the 30th anniversary of the falling Wall, I’ve been watching all manner of Berlin-related movies, from Michael Caine in the inexplicably boring Funeral in Berlin (1963) through Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, which was slow back in the 90s and seems to have found new gears of slowness in the interim, to one of my favourite films of all time, The Lives of Others. Concerning a Stasi agent who becomes intimately involved in the emotional lives of the couple he’s spying on, and featuring a performance of exquisite, heartbreaking restraint by Ulrich Mühe, the German Mark Rylance, it won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is an extraordinary, open-hearted delight.


4. I’m listening to:

I’m afraid I still have a slight Berlin crush, so I’ve been listening to Marlene Dietrich, the album Berlin by Lou Reed, and this song, “Where are we now?”, which I’d remembered from David Bowie’s second-last album but which lodged in my head and followed me through the streets for a week like an advertising jingle. It’s his funereal reminiscence of his years living in Berlin in the 1970s, recording three of his best albums, and every time I became lost – I become lost a lot – I found myself wailing with satisfaction, “Where are we now? Where are? We now?” And then answering myself, “Just walking the dead.” I even irritated myself.


 5. Two things that made me happy:


On a crisp, cold, bright autumn morning I sat on a wooden bench beside the Neuer See in the Tiergarten in Berlin and was about to read aloud “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, like a complete and utter creep. It starts, “Margaret are you grieving/ Over goldengrove un-leaving?” and as I sat there a golden leaf fell from the plane tree and drifted down and landed perfectly, impossibly on my leg.


I’ve always wanted to write a play, mainly for the opportunity to bring it to life, to work with other people to create something that wasn’t there before and then to offer it. What could be more thrilling, more alive than looking into the eyes of your collaborators just before the first curtain, knowing you’ve done your best? It took me two years to write a play, stopping and starting and giving up and coming back, but following a meeting this week I can finally announce that in October next year my first play will have its first full theatrical run in two versions, one in English and one in Afrikaans, starting in Cape Town and touring onwards from there.


5. This week I discovered:

Certain tour guides in London explain the origin of the word “hangover”. In the days of public hangings at Tyburn the occasion would attract a great crowd, who would eat and chatter and make a terrific racket. After the main event, much like the sporting events of today, they would stream into the pubs and taverns and drink dark ale until very drunk. In those days when public houses very often produced their own alcohol, tavern-keepers would often off-load old or spoilt batches and barrels, knowing the throngs were in no state to pick up on finer points of connoisseurship. As a result, the headache the day after a hanging would be more ferocious than at any other time. There is absolutely no way that this etymology is true, but I like it as a story.