Happy 2020 to you! I know you aren’t still supposed to be wishing people happy new year this far into January, but can you ever receive too many good wishes? I think not. It’s come to my attention that not everyone is aware that there are links in this newsletter. Wherever you see blue underlined and, I think, bold type, clicking on those words will take you to a link that I hope might interest you.
You are the best for signing up to this, and I’m really looking forward to living this year with you.
- This week’s letter:
“I’m sorry I haven’t written in such a long time. It isn’t that I wasn’t thinking of you, but the days run away like wild horses over the hills, as someone once said, and it was Christmas and New Year and you know how it goes.”
- This week’s selection from the archives:
I know Christmas is over, but this is my Christmas column from a few years back about a genuine Christmas miracle, when an Oscar-winner saved my life.
- I’m reading:
My big page-turning Christmas read was Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, and now that I’ve finished it everything feels as colourless and empty as the hot plains of north Texas when you’re driving a herd all the way to Montana and there’s no water to be found and Blue Duck and his renegade Kiowas are watching and waiting in the night. Larry McMurtry was depressed by the success of Lonesome Dove – he intended it as an anti-Western, demythologising the West and showing how it really was: brutal, dirty, boring, unforgiving; a place without much ease or conversation or kindness or shade. And he succeeded but he also failed because it’s a book as big and funny and joyous in its bleakness as life itself. It was 800 pages of pure living, and I miss Augustus McCrae and W.F. Call and Clara and Newt and Lorena and July Johnson more than I miss my own friends and family.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, who wrote A Gentleman in Moscow. This was his first novel, written aged 47 after a successful career becoming rich as a Manhattan investment professional. It infuriates me that he should turn out to be so effortlessly elegant, interesting and compelling, but what can you do? Rules of Civility is set in 30s New York, and while it’s fifteen years later and without the almost dreamlike silvery fever-gem style of The Great Gatsby, it finally reveals itself to be Gatsby for grown-ups and tells for my money a stronger, smarter story.
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 1910-1962. She had famous love-affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, who wrote Orlando for her. He slept with strings of handsome young men attached to the diplomatic corps during his postings to Constantinople, Rome and Buenos Aires, and during his years as a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, but they had a fifty-year marriage that was loving, passionate and supportive and altogether to be envied and admired, and their love letters from courtship till death are a joy.
- I’m watching:
Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948). Lonesome Dove is the story of the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana, undertaken by an unbending iron-willed cattleman named W.F. Call accompanied by his long-time companion Gus and his unacknowledged son Newt. Along the way they encounter bandits, Indians and have difficulties with women. Red River is a classic Western film about the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, undertaken by an unbending iron-willed cattleman played by John Wayne, accompanied by his long-time companion Groot and his adopted son, played by a gorgeous, charismatic Montgomery Clift. Along the way they encounter bandits, Indians and have difficulties with women. Some people care where ideas come from, and the degree to which one artist or idea or story is influenced by another. I do not. Lonesome Dove is wonderful and despite an ending that is pure Hollywood nonsense, so is Red River.
Marriage Story, on Netflix, directed by Noah Baumbach. You have probably seen it already, but this story of a marriage breaking up is funny, raw, ordinary, extraordinary, and contains some of the best screenwriting you’ll encounter. The art of writing an extraordinary argument is to make two people entirely opposed and both absolutely right, holding two entirely opposed truths in the mind and on the screen at the same time. Noah Baumbach does it better than anyone else. Add some committed, wholehearted acting, and I think it may be my favourite movie of 2019.
Catching a Killer: A Diary from the Grave (Jezza Neumann and Jess Stevenson) (Channel 4, 2020). If you can get hold of it, this is one of the most captivating TV documentaries I’ve seen in a while. Telling the astonishing story of an investigation into a startlingly intelligent and sadistic serial killer in Oxfordshire, focusing on the humanity of the victims and made by filmmakers embedded with the Thames Valley Police as they investigate the case, the documentary isn’t so much a whodunit as a how-do-they-prove-he-did-it. It’s also, for South African viewers, a wish-fulfilment fantasy as you watch a team of calm, highly-trained, compassionate and well-resourced investigators build a case against a bad guy.
- I’m listening to:
In her concert last Sunday Madonna performed “Sodade”, made famous by the Cape Verde morna singer Cesaria Evoria. I’m quite sure everyone has been listening to her forever, but if you haven’t, you should.
In Portugal I have discovered fado, the Lisbon music of sailors and criminals and prostitutes, the Portuguese version of remebetiko, sung in tiny bars and dark wooden-doored clubs in the old medieval Alfama district, beneath the castle of Sao Jorge. It’s a music of longing, of heartbreak and resilience and yearning, and it’s sung with the body and the soul. I went to one fado club, which closed at midnight because it wasn’t a real fado club, but the owners told me they were going to a real fado club, and paid for a taxi to take me there. The most famous fado singer was Amalia Rodriguez, who died in 1999, and whose house is preserved in Sao Bento, just around the corner from my apartment. Her sister Celeste, who introduced Madonna to fado, was still performing in Alfama in 2018, aged 95.
- What is making me happy this week:
I am, perhaps foolishly, starting a new project and new commitment on this website. I recently encountered The Book of Delights by the poet and gardener Ross Gay, which captures his attempts, every day for a year, to notice and write down one thing that caused him delight. The idea is that the act of looking for delight attunes you to delight, shapes the way you see, transforms your experience of the world. I also like that Ross Gay is a politically committed black man, and his pursuit of delight is not a withdrawal from the realities of the world but an enhancement of his commitment to it.
I’m going to steal his idea and his title and start my own catalogue of daily delights, starting on Monday. They’ll be under the tab marked “Daily Delight” on the menu bar of the website. I will try to post one every single day. Each delight will have a comment section, and you are invited to post a delight of your own underneath it. You don’t have to. You don’t even have to read them, of course. They’re just there in case they’ll help you.
Here are the rules:
- I will try not to miss any, but I forgive myself if I do.
- Some delights I may expand upon, some I’ll just leave as I found them.
- I will stamp down any thoughts I may have that I am being self-indulgent or overly personal.
- I will read every single one of the delights you post.
- This week I discovered:
The word atlal is a word from antique Arabic describing the traces of previous campfires that you might encounter when crossing the same stretch of desert, later in life. As you stand beside the stubs of burnt wood, the stones you once sat on, you remember the companions from before, and the person you were then.
(It is now one of my favourite words, and in researching it, I have just come across this song, Al-Atlal, by Umm Kulthum, the biggest singer in the Arabic world, the Madonna of the Middle East.)
This has been a long one! As always, let me know if you have any feedback.
Sending much love to you all