Monday, 28 September 2015

Week 39: Everyone Can Play

Sorry there was no post yesterday. Once again, I dropped the ball. I can only apologise if you were desperately seeking

For just a minute, imagine a solitary child on a playground at a school during recess not being allowed to join a game he very much would like to play. The other children are not being mindfully mean, they are just enjoying their game as it was created and they think that adding another player will disrupt its flow. So they ignore or otherwise not let this child play, who stands alone, watching, isolated, sad.

Now imagine a different scenario, one in which there is room for every child to play. Attitudes are structured so each additional player adds to the value of the game, even if the addition changes it. The challenge I am offering you this week involves adopting this attitude, creating this world, one in which everyone can play.

To make the most of this exercise you will need to get creative. What does this look like in your life? How can YOU include others? Also, think about the benefits of doing so. Sharon Salzberg, in her book "The Kindness Handbook," wrote, "Including others (is) often like watching something unfurl and begin to flower within them." Such is my suggestion to you this week, to be part of this unfurling.

Report on your experience in your journal, much as a newspaper reporter would write an article about it.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Course

I'm reading A Course in Miracles now. Somehow, I prefer the old one, the one I read before, the one that was under the Foundation for Inner Peace. Though it has been pointed out that this is the "true" one, the one that was actually given, I don't know. I kind of miss the old one. I gave my copy away to my friend Harvinder. I don't know if she is dead or alive now.

How can you who are so holy suffer? All your past, except its beauty is gone, and nothing is left except a blessing. You can indeed depart in peace, because I have loved you as I have loved myself. You go with my blessing and for my blessing. Hold it and share it, that it may always be ours.  I place the peace of God in your heart and in your hands you hold and share. The heart is pre to hold it and the hands are strong to give it. We cannot lose. My judgment  is as strong as the wisdom of God, in Whose heart and hands we have our being. His quiet children are His blessed Sons. The thoughts of God are with you.

ACIM, Chapter 5, verse 58

Friday, 25 September 2015

MISS PYM'S DAY OUT (Patricia Routledge) (1991)

I've only recently discovered Barbara Pym but she has already become an obsession. There is a gentleness to this movie/documentary. She is a lady through and through. Nothing harsh or violent or unrefined about here. And yet it is so very sad...a movie made about a day out, as she moves through her day, thinking her thoughts, fully aware that she has cancer, and that although she is in remission, the death sentence has been pronounced and she will not live out her sixties.

Thursday, 24 September 2015


Is it time for a personal update? I moved into a new place. Something I've been wanting to do for a long time. My own space. It's near the office and not furnished as yet - a few drips and drabs of furniture here and there...but I love it.

A kitten fell into my lap. Literally. Well, into my air well, actually. My friend and colleague Li Ming named him Ebony and he is the light of my life. I hate going out at night now, or going off in the morning...because I want to be there with Ebony. To hang with him so he won't feel lonely.

So, two very good things.

My own place (with a really good bed - I can now sleep properly at night). And a little black kitten.

I should show you pictures...but maybe I'll wait for that.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

BJ Miller: What really matters at the end of life

Here is a transcript of BJ Miller's Ted Talk on dying, or rather, end of life. Miller is the executive director at Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. When he was young, he nearly died himself. So this talk was especially poignant. Since, I can't link to it, I suggest you read this:

Well, we all need a reason to wake up. For me, it just took 11,000 volts. I know you're too polite to ask, so I will tell you. One night, sophomore year of college, just back from Thanksgiving holiday, a few of my friends and I were horsing around, and we decided to climb atop a parked commuter train. It was just sitting there, with the wires that run overhead. Somehow, that seemed like a great idea at the time. We'd certainly done stupider things. I scurried up the ladder on the back, and when I stood up, the electrical current entered my arm, blew down and out my feet, and that was that. Would you believe that watch still works? Takes a licking! My father wears it now in solidarity.

That night began my formal relationship with death -- my death -- and it also began my long run as a patient. It's a good word. It means one who suffers. So I guess we're all patients. Now, the American health care system has more than its fair share of dysfunction -- to match its brilliance, to be sure. I'm a physician now, a hospice and palliative medicine doc, so I've seen care from both sides. And believe me: almost everyone who goes into healthcare really means well -- I mean, truly. But we who work in it are also unwitting agents for a system that too often does not serve.

Why? Well, there's actually a pretty easy answer to that question, and it explains a lot: because healthcare was designed with diseases, not people, at its center. Which is to say, of course, it was badly designed. And nowhere are the effects of bad design more heartbreaking or the opportunity for good design more compelling than at the end of life, where things are so distilled and concentrated. There are no do-overs.

My purpose today is to reach out across disciplines and invite design thinking into this big conversation.That is, to bring intention and creativity to the experience of dying. We have a monumental opportunity in front of us, before one of the few universal issues as individuals as well as a civil society: to rethink and redesign how it is we die.

So let's begin at the end. For most people, the scariest thing about death isn't being dead, it's dying, suffering. It's a key distinction. To get underneath this, it can be very helpful to tease out suffering which is necessary as it is, from suffering we can change. The former is a natural, essential part of life, part of the deal, and to this we are called to make space, adjust, grow. It can be really good to realize forces larger than ourselves. They bring proportionality, like a cosmic right-sizing. After my limbs were gone, that loss, for example, became fact, fixed -- necessarily part of my life, and I learned that I could no more reject this fact than reject myself. It took me a while, but I learned it eventually. Now, another great thing about necessary suffering is that it is the very thing that unites caregiver and care receiver -- human beings. This, we are finally realizing, is where healing happens. Yes, compassion -- literally, as we learned yesterday -- suffering together.

Now, on the systems side, on the other hand, so much of the suffering is unnecessary, invented. It serves no good purpose. But the good news is, since this brand of suffering is made up, well, we can change it.How we die is indeed something we can affect. Making the system sensitive to this fundamental distinction between necessary and unnecessary suffering gives us our first of three design cues for the day. After all, our role as caregivers, as people who care, is to relieve suffering -- not add to the pile. True to the tenets of palliative care, I function as something of a reflective advocate, as much as prescribing physician. Quick aside: palliative care -- a very important field but poorly understood -- while it includes, it is not limited to end of life care. It is not limited to hospice. It's simply about comfort and living well at any stage. So please know that you don't have to be dying anytime soon to benefit from palliative care.

Now, let me introduce you to Frank. Sort of makes this point. I've been seeing Frank now for years. He's living with advancing prostate cancer on top of long-standing HIV. We work on his bone pain and his fatigue, but most of the time we spend thinking out loud together about his life -- really, about our lives. In this way, Frank grieves. In this way, he keeps up with his losses as they roll in, so that he's ready to take in the next moment. Loss is one thing, but regret, quite another. Frank has always been an adventurer --he looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting -- and no fan of regret. So it wasn't surprising when he came into clinic one day, saying he wanted to raft down the Colorado River. Was this a good idea? With all the risks to his safety and his health, some would say no. Many did, but he went for it, while he still could. It was a glorious.

So much of what we're talking about today is a shift in perspective. After my accident, when I went back to college, I changed my major to art history. Studying visual art, I figured I'd learn something about how to see -- a really potent lesson for a kid who couldn't change so much of what he was seeing.Perspective, that kind of alchemy we humans get to play with, turning anguish into a flower.marvelous trip: freezing water, blistering dry heat, scorpions, snakes, wildlife howling off the flaming walls of the Grand Canyon -- all the glorious side of the world beyond our control. Frank's decision, while maybe dramatic, is exactly the kind so many of us would make, if we only had the support to figure out what is best for ourselves over time.
Flash forward: now I work at an amazing place in San Francisco called the Zen Hospice Project, where we have a little ritual that helps with this shift in perspective. When one of our residents dies, the mortuary men come, and as we're wheeling the body out through the garden, heading for the gate, we pause. Anyone who wants -- fellow residents, family, nurses, volunteers, the hearse drivers too, now --shares a story or a song or silence, as we sprinkle the body with flower petals. It takes a few minutes; it's a sweet, simple parting image to usher in grief with warmth, rather than repugnance. Contrast that with the typical experience in the hospital setting, much like this -- floodlit room lined with tubes and beeping machines and blinking lights that don't stop even when the patient's life has. Cleaning crew swoops in, the body's whisked away, and it all feels as though that person had never really existed. Well-intended, of course, in the name of sterility, but hospitals tend to assault our senses, and the most we might hope for within those walls is numbness -- anesthetic, literally the opposite of aesthetic. I revere hospitals for what they can do; I am alive because of them. But we ask too much of our hospitals. They are places for acute trauma and treatable illness. They are no place to live and die; that's not what they were designed for.

Now mind you -- I am not giving up on the notion that our institutions can become more humane. Beauty can be found anywhere. I spent a few months in a burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey, where I got really great care at every turn, including good palliative care for my pain. And one night, it began to snow outside. I remember my nurses complaining about driving through it. And there was no window in my room, but it was great to just imagine it coming down all sticky. Next day, one of my nurses smuggled in a snowball for me. She brought it in to the unit. I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin; the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet in this universe mattered more to me than whether I lived or died. That little snowball packed all the inspiration I needed to both try to live and be OK if I did not. In a hospital, that's a stolen moment.

In my work over the years, I've known many people who were ready to go, ready to die. Not because they had found some final peace or transcendence, but because they were so repulsed by what their lives had become -- in a word, cut off, or ugly. There are already record numbers of us living with chronic and terminal illness, and into ever older age. And we are nowhere near ready or prepared for this silver tsunami. We need an infrastructure dynamic enough to handle these seismic shifts in our population.Now is the time to create something new, something vital. I know we can because we have to. The alternative is just unacceptable. And the key ingredients are known: policy, education and training,systems, bricks and mortar. We have tons of input for designers of all stripes to work with. We know, for example, from research what's most important to people who are closer to death: comfort; feeling unburdened and unburdening to those they love; existential peace; and a sense of wonderment and spirituality.

Over Zen Hospice's nearly 30 years, we've learned much more from our residents in subtle detail. Little things aren't so little. Take Janette. She finds it harder to breathe one day to the next due to ALS. Well, guess what? She wants to start smoking again -- and French cigarettes, if you please. Not out of some self-destructive bent, but to feel her lungs filled while she has them. Priorities change. Or Kate -- she just wants to know her dog Austin is lying at the foot of her bed, his cold muzzle against her dry skin, instead of more chemotherapy coursing through her veins -- she's done that. Sensuous, aesthetic gratification, where in a moment, in an instant, we are rewarded for just being. So much of it comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body -- the very thing doing the living and the dying.

Probably the most poignant room in the Zen Hospice guest house is our kitchen, which is a little strange when you realize that so many of our residents can eat very little, if anything at all. But we realize we are providing sustenance on several levels: smell, a symbolic plane. Seriously, with all the heavy-duty stuff happening under our roof, one of the most tried and true interventions we know of, is to bake cookies. As long as we have our senses -- even just one -- we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected. Imagine the ripples of this notion for the millions of people living and dying with dementia. Primal sensorial delights that say the things we don't have words for, impulses that make us stay present -- no need for a past or a future.

So, if teasing unnecessary suffering out of the system was our first design cue, then tending to dignity by way of the senses, by way of the body -- the aesthetic realm -- is design cue number two. Now this gets us quickly to the third and final bit for today; namely, we need to lift our sights, to set our sights on well-being, so that life and health and healthcare can become about making life more wonderful, rather than just less horrible. Beneficence.

Here, this gets right at the distinction between a disease-centered and a patient- or human-centered model of care, and here is where caring becomes a creative, generative, even playful act. "Play" may sound like a funny word here. But it is also one of our highest forms of adaptation. Consider every major compulsory effort it takes to be human. The need for food has birthed cuisine. The need for shelter has given rise to architecture. The need for cover, fashion. And for being subjected to the clock, well, we invented music. So, since dying is a necessary part of life, what might we create with this fact? By "play" I am in no way suggesting we take a light approach to dying or that we mandate any particular way of dying. There are mountains of sorrow that cannot move, and one way or another, we will all kneel there.Rather, I am asking that we make space -- physical, psychic room, to allow life to play itself all the way out -- so that rather than just getting out of the way, aging and dying can become a process of crescendo through to the end. We can't solve for death. I know some of you are working on this.

We can design towards it. Parts of me died early on, and that's something we can all say one way or another. I got to redesign my life around this fact, and I tell you it has been a liberation to realize you can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left, like that snowball lasting for a perfect moment, all the while melting away. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well -- not in spite of death, but because of it. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.

Thank you.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Week 38: Find the Positive in a Difficult Situation

For this week's action, review an event in your past that caused you to suffer at the time of it. As your comfort level allows, review the event in detail, perhaps even taking time to write or talk to a trusted friend about it.

Next, take stock of what has come since that event, specifically because of it. Be gentle with yourself as you do this, and, if necessary, be a little bit creative. If it helps, pretend the situation didn't happen to you, but to a character in a movie.

Finally, as a concluding action, allow yourself to express gratitude for the event because of what has entered your life due to it. Express this in your journal.

Perhaps you met someone you otherwise would not have met. Perhaps you learned how to respond better to a person or situation you found difficult. Please do not choose anything that causes you undue pain.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Searching for Malik Bendjelloul

I first watched Searching for Sugar Man in Texas with Mike. I had to because Alberto, the delegate from Spain had insisted. He said there are two movies that everyone should watch at least once in the course of their lives. And Searching for Sugar Man is one of them. I think the other was Smoke, which I did watch, but just once, because it did not take quite as much a hold of me as Sugar Man. I bought a copy of the movie for Sue-Ann, because she was the one person I thought would appreciate it, and bought my own copy on iTunes, so I could watch it at my leisure.

But coming back, I got caught up in all the minutiae of getting readjusted after a month-long "holiday" in the US, so to speak, and all the other little things that fill up one's life. (I tell you, without to-do lists NOTHING would get done. At ALL!). So I didn't get around to watching the movie on my iTunes until about a week ago.

It was doubly inspirational the second time around...and the thought of how if you do something, and do it properly, sacrificing nothing to commercialisation or Hollywood or fame...eventually, you succeed. This seems to have played out in so many cases.

I read Wordsworth's biography and was shocked to find that he didn't make it big until he was in his 60s or 70s. Critics blasted every new book (including those which now include his best loved poems) and he got a day job to support himself and just kept writing. Today he's an institution.

And then there's Barbara Pym who went through a dry spell of more than a decade where nobody would publish her book (read previous entry) and then suddenly, she was the storm. Today, her books are still in print and people who read her can't get enough of her. She never compromised.

It doesn't matter if it takes years and you don't strike it big. That is not what you are doing it for anyway. Your words, your so

Then, at work the next day, I was listening to Cold Fact on YouTube while clearing a story and I came across a comment that Malik Bendjelloul, who made this exquisite, magical documentary which seems more like a movie, frankly, had killed himself. Naturally I had to Google it, and came across this article which laid out his life so beautifully and also the long road to making this documentary. It was so very hard and yet, and could not explain his death. Nobody could, when he was at the height of his powers, his fame. But that's not what I am writing this for.

Two years later...what I want you to read and take inspiration from is how he lived and what he made.

This article is from Guardian and is available freely online:

Documentary feature film-making, if done well, is a long, arduous and very often thankless task. There is no script to speak of, no blueprint or guidelines. All there is to work on is the shapeless chaos of the world, or a particular part of the world, out of which the film-maker hopes to fashion a coherent structure, arresting images, compelling characters and a story that excites and touches people. In terms of reaching a large and appreciative audience, it's almost always a study in failure.

There are, though, a select group of exceptions, narrative documentaries that enjoy critical recognition and the special approval of a cinematic release. One such film was Searching for Sugar Man, a story about Sixto Rodriguez, a forgotten Detroit singer-songwriter from the early 1970s who, unbeknown to him, was a huge star in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was the debut of a young and immensely talented Swedish film-maker named Malik Bendjelloul, who had come across Rodriguez's story while travelling in Africa, looking for stories to turn into short TV pieces.

So struck was he by the tale of this lost musician that he went off on his own and gathered the material, directed, filmed some sections himself, wrote incidental music, added his own illustrations, made the title sequence and finally edited it for 1,000 days. During filming Bendjelloul ran out of money and, as he could no longer afford Super 8 film, he shot some of the remaining footage on a smartphone using the iPhone app 8mm Vintage Camera.

Several other setbacks hit the film, including a bitter dispute with the original producer. But Bendjelloul pushed on and managed to persuade Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning producer of Man on Wire to come on board. Chinn guided the film to open at the Sundance film festival in January 2012, where it won the special jury prize and audience award for best international documentary. Over the following 13 months it went on to win a string of awards across the world, including a Bafta for best documentary. Then on 24 February 2013, it cemented its success by picking up the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

A tall, thin man with beguiling brown eyes and charmingly diffident manner, Bendjelloul had reached the summit of the documentary business at his first attempt. In Sweden he became something of a celebrity, though he had little interest in fame, while in Hollywood he received a series of lucrative film-making offers. But he was intent on maintaining his independence, opting to move to New York and work on a script for a feature film he wanted to make that was inspired by the story of the South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. It was one of an unknown number of projects he was destined never to make. On 13 May this year Bendjelloul jumped in front of a train in the Stockholm underground system. The 36-year-old with a passion for life's myriad stories had elected to bring his own to an unaccountably premature close.

"It's deeply shocking for everyone. Totally unexpected," a still dumbfounded Chinn told me a few weeks after the suicide. The film-maker's brother, the journalist Johar Bendjelloul, gave a statement in response to media speculation that his younger brother had been depressed for a short period. "But the question of why," he said, "no one can answer. It will ache in my chest the rest of my life."

As far as his friends are aware, Bendjelloul had no known history of mental illness. Aside from the buoyant state of his career, he was also happily in a relationship with the American film-maker Brittany Huckabee. "They met during the awards season," says Chinn. "He was with her right up until the end. I've spent time with her recently and she's obviously devastated. They were working on projects together. They were going to co-direct…" He trails off, shaking his head.

Nearly all suicides are a mystery, but some are more mysterious than others. And as none of the main aspects of Bendjelloul's life seemed anything less than extremely promising, his death has left his friends, family and the film world struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible.

"Someone said, 'If you spoke five words to Malik, you fell in love with him,'" the director's close friend Bobo Ericzen told me when I met him recently in Stockholm. "He had a tremendous personal aura."

"He was the very opposite of the gorilla alpha male type," says Karin af Klintberg, a leading figure in Swedish television. Klintberg says she first met Bendjelloul when he came to work for her at Kobra, an arts programme on SVT (Sweden's equivalent to the BBC), and she liked him immediately because he put her in mind of Bambi. "He was so very humble," she says.

The humility, shot through with playful humour, was in evidence in a video interview Malik gave to a reporter before he won the Oscar. Asked what his plans were for the future, he said: "Either I go travelling again looking for a story the same way I found this… or I'll go with the best Hollywood offer… or I will become a Hollywood casualty!"

That last comment was said in jest, though the irony may now seem prescient. Yet it's unlikely that Bendjelloul was a victim of success or public exposure, not least because his life had consistently featured both. The son of an Algerian-born doctor, Bendjelloul was a child star at 10, when he appeared in a much-loved Swedish TV show called Ebba och Didrik, directed by his uncle, Peter Schildt, who was a mentor to the aspiring director.

He clearly made an impact – when he arrived at Linnaeus University seven years later to study journalism and media production, his course leader, Per-Axel Gjöres, told him how much he admired the series. Very quickly Gjöres realised that Bendjelloul was not just a former child star, but an exceptional student, and they formed an abiding friendship.

Although a well-liked presence on campus, where he deejayed and played in a band, Bendjelloul was not someone other students wanted to work with. "They thought it was too much work and too much time because his levels of ambition were so very much higher," says Gjöres. In what might be seen as a dry-run for his film on Rodriguez, Bendjelloul tracked down a Swedish rock star named Jakob Hellman who had made one bestselling album and disappeared. The resulting interview was broadcast on Swedish TV's premier music show. Before his final year, he worked as a summer intern for Ericzen's Barracuda production company. So impressed was Ericzen by Bendjelloul's precocious talent that he sent the novice off with a camera to make a documentary about the Royal Swedish Ballet on a six-week tour of America. It was shown on SVT, and Gjöres now teaches the programme to his students as a first-rate example of one-man film-making.

There followed a first job at Barracuda, followed by a position as a reporter on SVT's leading culture show, Kobra. In the course of this work he interviewed major stars like Elton John, Björk and Kraftwerk. "He looked like a young boy who had seen a hot-air balloon for the first time whenever he went into a room," says Ericzen. "When you talk to people with big egos they have a tendency to walk all over those kinds of people but that didn't happen with him because if he did a profile, and someone was rude to him, he'd just keep going. He saw things in people they didn't know themselves. That's not something you can acquire."

At Kobra he demonstrated not only a ferocious appetite for work but also a distinctive ingenuity, always looking for new and entertaining ways to present ideas. One example is a cleverly put together analysis of hidden meanings in the work of the Beatles that Bendjelloul created himself through an idiosyncratic use of paper and scissors that became something of a trademark.

"He went away and he was cutting and glueing for days," recalls Karin af Klintberg, his producer on the show. "Then he came up from the basement, having not seen sunlight for a long time, with something he'd made all himself. And it's a brilliant little piece. I knew that whatever came out would be wonderful." In 2006 he decided to quit Kobra and go travelling in search of stories. Over the course of six months he travelled to 16 countries across South America and Africa.

In her office on the island of Lilla Essingen, featuring a panoramic view of central Stockholm, Klintberg tells me about Bendjelloul's relentless foraging for stories. Apparently he would collect them from the radio, from conversation, anywhere he came across interesting tales. "He always has to find new ways of telling, new angles," she says, lapsing into the present tense and wiping a tear from her cheek. "He sent me postcards from his travels with a long, long story – across 10 postcards – all about a new colour that had been invented. They would arrive every few weeks."It was while he was in Cape Town that he met a record shop owner called Stephen "Sugar" Segerman who told him about Sixto Rodriguez, a folk-rock singer who had recorded two albums, Cold Fact in 1970 and the following year Coming from Reality. These were huge hits among white South Africans, particularly liberals opposed to apartheid. Though in a divided country, Rodriguez meant little to the black population, it is said that the black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was also a big fan.

In any case, Rodriguez made a kind of protest music that struck a chord with a frustrated generation to whom he was the equal of Cat Stevens or even Bob Dylan. When apartheid was at its height in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa was quite cut off from the rest of the world and, in the pre-internet era, information was not easy to gather. In such a climate rumours flourished. The word went around that Rodriguez never recorded a third album because he had killed himself – on stage.

But in the mid-1990s Segerman and a friend began to investigate what had really happened, and they discovered that Rodriguez was still alive and living in obscurity in Detroit. What's more they learned that he was unaware of his fame in South Africa, and he had received no royalties or payment on the hundreds of thousands of records he sold. In 1998 Segerman helped organise for Rodriguez to tour South Africa and, in an emotional introduction to the post-apartheid nation, he played to sell-out crowds.

When Bendjelloul learned of all this, he couldn't believe it. He'd never heard of Rodriguez and assumed that no one else had either. He took to the streets of Cape Town asking random strangers if they knew of Rodriguez. People looked at him as if he was crazy, as if, he later explained it, he had asked them if they had ever heard of Jimi Hendrix.

Bendjelloul returned to Sweden raving about the story. Gjöres remembers Bendjelloul coming to see him in Kalmar, shortly after his return. "He was out of work and he didn't have much money but he was so enthusiastic. His eyes, they were so bright. He was literally jumping up and down. 'This is the best story I've ever heard!' he was saying. 'Listen to this!'" For a while there were plans to make just a small piece for Kobra, which then turned into a one-hour special. Finally a friend in the business suggested that perhaps he should seek funding to make a feature documentary. So after securing backing from SVT and the Swedish Film Institute, Bendjelloul set about putting a film together.

He paid his first visit to Detroit to get what he expected to be the key element of his film – an interview with Rodriguez. But the singer, who had spent much of the previous four decades working in construction, was reluctant to speak, and when he did finally accede to talk on film, he gave stilted, monosyllabic answers.

Bendjelloul returned several times over the next few years but on each occasion Rodriguez was no more forthcoming. Only towards the end of the process did he realise that he might be able to make a virtue out of a necessity, by allowing the singer to retain his almost mythic quality.

Better still, he was able to turn interviews with Rodriguez's grownup daughters into highly emotional testaments to the integrity of the singer's life and beliefs. They said what their father couldn't. They articulated all the difficulties and ideals of which Rodriguez was too private and proud to speak.

The film briefly points a suggestive finger at an American record company owner who may have been less than assiduous in paying the South African royalties to Rodriguez, but it's not a journalistic investigation. It's much more interested in warming emotions than cold facts.

Inspired by the structure of Citizen Kane, Bendjelloul lets the story unfold from the perspective of Segerman and his fellow South Africans. Sugar Man refers to the title of one of Rodriguez's most popular songs, about a tormented man looking for the eponymous drug dealer. We watch them talk about what Rodriguez meant to them, how his lyrics, born on the streets of Detroit, seemed to crystalise the meaning of their own struggles thousands of miles away.

One of the film's many strengths is that it stands back from aesthetic fashion or political judgment and affords the opportunity for white South Africans – who have hardly been the most popular of tribes – to express their feelings about a period in time in which their minor countercultural revolt was overshadowed by the monumental injustice visited on black South Africans. Yet with a bunch of middle-aged Afrikaners rock fans, Bendjelloul shows us how we all construct the stories of our lives from shared moments and experiences, songs, myths, heroes, dreams and disappointments.

We see that Rodriguez, as mysterious and absent as he was, animated these people's lives in a period of despair and isolation. What might have seemed provincial or self-indulgent becomes in Bendjelloul's sensitive hands powerfully life-affirming. He crafts a deeply poignant narrative that's unafraid of personal sentiments but never succumbs to sentimentality. There is no cynicism or back-covering irony. Instead the unusual sincerity of the storytelling casts an enchanting spell over the viewer.Unfortunately, although the filming had gone well, the funding had turned into a disaster. Bendjelloul felt unsupported by the producer assigned to him by the SFI, and she had not managed to sell the film rights to anyone abroad. The pair entered into a dispute as Bendjelloul tried to get back control over his film. To make matters worse, he showed an early version to the SFI, which told him that it was hardly worthy of a half-hour TV show, and promptly withdrew funding.None of Bendjelloul's friends had a good word to say about the SFI (although the main person responsible later left and the institute went on to provide further backing for the film ). "The SFI are full of shit," says Gjöres. "Malik was so sad and frustrated by their response."

"He was mad as hell," says Ericzen. "He was just destroyed."With no money, having devoted three years to the project, and locked in a failed relationship with his producer, Bendjelloul realised he needed someone to extract him and his film from the financial morass. So he phoned up Simon Chinn's office and left a message saying that he had a film that was better than Man on Wire."He sort of bounded in," recalls Chinn. "He kind of had this incredibly puppyish sort of charm and enthusiasm and sort of naivety, in a way, but you know, incredibly likable.

Chinn describes himself as a natural sceptic, and he knew that music-based documentaries had a bad track record at the box office. But when he met Bendjelloul a few weeks later in his London office, he found his defences falling away. "I remember thinking at the end of the meeting that I'd really like to work with this guy."

But it was seeing the film that clinched the deal.

"I definitely had a kind of goosebump moment, when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a bit teary. It was extraordinary to me that nobody who had put seed money into the film had felt that it was worthy of further financing."

As Chinn started to unpick the contractual tangle, and sever Bendjelloul's ties to his original producer, he also put out the feelers to the Sundance film festival. The same day that the deal to free Bendjelloul was completed, Sundance told Chinn they wanted Searching for Sugar Man to open the festival.

From that moment onwards the film snowballed towards the Oscars, though first of all the perfectionist director had to be persuaded to stop working on the film. One of the jury members at Sundance was Nick Fraser, who as series editor of the BBC's celebrated Storyville strand has probably been responsible for the commission and dissemination of more first-rate documentaries than anyone else on the planet.

"I thought the film was a fairytale," he says. "That's not a criticism. It's very shaped and very interesting. It's terrifically edited. You have to imagine how boring the film could have been had it been made by someone without his tenderness and inspiration. You get swept along in this great strange story."

Fraser was not alone. Not only were his fellow jurors unanimous over awardingSearching for Sugar Man's special jury prize, but pretty much every audience and judging panel that saw the film was similarly swept away.

There were critics, of course. Some pointed out that the documentary was not the whole story – as if the whole story was ever a viable option. Rodriguez, they noted, had not been consigned to oblivion in Michigan. He had enjoyed some success in Australia, where he toured in 1979 and 1981. In omitting these details from the film, Bendjelloul was accused of manipulating the picture to provoke greater sympathy for Rodriguez. But the point was how Rodriguez was perceived in South Africa – a situation of which he'd been entirely ignorant – and how he dealt with rejection in his homeland of America.

To Bendjelloul, Rodriguez represented the ideal of a committed artist, someone who maintained his self-respect and dignity despite the indifference of the world around him. "I think he was inspired by Rodriguez," says Chinn. "I think he decided to turn the absence of money to his advantage."

Chinn believes that in turn Bendjelloul has become an inspiration to aspiring film-makers struggling with a lack of funds. Fraser agrees. "Making feature documentaries is incredibly hard. You either have to have a massive trust fund or take this existential risk. You can't have a family. You can't have a mortgage. The idea that you could turn a 10-minute film on a Swedish arts programme into an Oscar-winning documentary, it's either folly or extraordinary bravery."

But having lived from hand to mouth for years in pursuit of the film's realisation, Bendjelloul was then confronted with a very different set of problems: what to do now that everyone was looking to support him?

"You can't reliably find another story as good as that," says Fraser. "That's the problem with documentary films. Of course you can't say that had anything to do with his death – suicide is normally caused by other things. But the pressure must have been enormous."

During his year-long hoovering up of prizes, Bendjelloul befriended the American film-makers Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin, who had won the Oscar for best documentary the previous year for their film Undefeated. The three men struck up a close relationship. Lindsay recalls how from time to time during lulls in the creative process he and his partner would raise the possibility of doing something a little more conventional for the money. "And Malik was always like 'No, no, you have to stay with what you want to do!'"

The pair put Bendjelloul in touch with their manager and agent, but he decided he didn't want representation. "He was like 'I'm just going to make the movies I want to make, so why do I need to read other scripts and all that stuff?'"

They admired Bendjelloul's independent stance but wondered if it wasn't too isolating, especially going from the intense experience of makingSearching for Sugar Man and all that the post-production entailed to the solitary endeavour of writing a script.It's not hard to imagine Bendjelloul rejecting material blandishments. "You know he's a bit of an ascetic man," says Chinn. "He didn't need much to live on."

"He didn't want expensive clothes, a big apartment or a big car," says Ericzen. "He didn't even have a driving licence." LA was never going to be his kind of town.The last time Lindsay and Martin met up with Bendjelloul was in New York in March this year, and they thought that they detected a drop in his confidence level. "Maybe it's just in retrospect and adding more significance than at the time," says Lindsay, "but that night he just seemed a bit off, not weird or crazy or anything, just not himself."

In April Bendjelloul returned to Stockholm. Klintberg met up with him to discuss some short-term work while he was in town. In the end, he decided to withdraw from the project. "He was himself. For me he was calm and happy," she says.

Gjöres received an email that was out of character towards the end of April, in which the film-maker complained about insomnia, but he had further contact that was quite normal. His friends are reluctant to speak in detail about the final few weeks of his life, because they don't want to indulge in or encourage empty or misplaced speculation. But after some reflection, his girlfriend, Brittany Huckabee, told me this:

"Malik and I were together almost constantly for the past year. I've retraced his steps from the moment I saw him off to Sweden this spring with plans to join him a few weeks later. And I have seen absolutely no evidence he was planning or had ever considered suicide. He wasn't disengaged from life. Quite to the contrary: in his final week he was making plans to move forward with his screenplay and to travel for a new documentary project.

"He was anything but a tortured artist. His creativity came from a place of light, never darkness, and he truly sought to uplift and inspire the world with his work."

Among the many sorrows stemming from Bendjelloul's early death is the knowledge that there will be no more of that work. As Gjöres says: "I have to confess that after the first personal reaction, I really felt so sad because of all the films and all the things he would have been doing and creating and we will never, ever see them. Because he made such magical stuff."

Gjöres agrees with Klintberg, who said she believed that Bendjelloul would have become the next Ingmar Bergman. "Not the same kind of artist," he explains, "but of the same level artistically. He had it. He had that special thing."

What Bendjelloul might have gone on to achieve is of course another form of speculation. What we do know is that, almost single-handedly, he made a film that touched people all over the world. And in doing so he reanimated the career of a musician many of his fans believed was dead. At the age of 70, Rodriguez played at last year's Glastonbury festival as part of a global tour. Rodriguez got it right when he said in a statement in response to Bendjelloul's death: "He was a very talented man and a hard-working artist." The thing, though, that most compounds the loss is the resounding sense that he was a lovely human being too.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A Radio Talk On Finding A Voice by Barbara Pym

This was recorded on February 8, 1978 for a BBC series and transmitted on BBC Radio 3 on April 4th.

I've sometimes wondered whether novelists like to be remembered for what they've said or because they've said it in their own particular way - in their own distinctive voice.  But how do you acquire your own voice or indeed any kind of voice? Does it come about as inevitably as your height or the colour of your eyes or do you develop it deliberately, perhaps in imitation of a writer you admire?

I've been trying to write novels, with many ups and downs, over more than forty years. I started as a schoolgirl, when I used to contribute to the school magazine -- mostly parodies, conscious even then of other people's styles. Then in 1929, when I was sixteen, I discovered Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow. I came across this sophisticated masterpiece in the wilds of Shropshire, through that marvellous institution Boots' Library, now, alas, as much of a period memory as the seven and sixpenny hardback novel.  I was a keen reader of all kinds of modern fiction, and more than anything else I read at that time Crome Yellow made me want to be a novelist myself. I don't suppose for a moment that I appreciated the book's finer satirical points, but it seemed to me funnier than anything I had read before, and the idea of writing about a group of people in a certain situation -- in this case upper-class intellectuals in a  country house -- immediately attracted me, so I decided that I wanted to write a novel like Crome Yellow.

And so my first novel -- unpublished, of course -- was started in the same year, 1929. It was called Young Men in Fancy Dress and was about a group of 'Bohemians' -- I must put that word in quotes -- who were, in my view, young men living in Chelsea, a district of which I knew nothing at that time. The hero wanted to be a novelist and, as one of the characters put it, "If you want to be a proper novelist, you must get to like town and develop a passion for Chelsea."

Reading the manuscript again, I detect almost nothing in it of my mature style of writing, except that the Bohemian young men aren't taken entirely seriously, and that there's a lot of detail -- clothes, makes of cars, gold, and drinks (especially descriptions of cocktails -- which i'd certainly never tasted). I've  always liked detail  -- in fact  my love of triviality has been criticised  -- so perhaps that was something I developed early. And  obviously at that time I read a lot -- if a bit indiscriminately. In this early novel all the 'best' or at least the most fashionable names are dropped, from Swinburne and Rupert Brooke to D.H. Lawrence and Beverley Nichols.

When I was eighteen, I went up to Oxford to read English. Most aspiring novelists write at the University, but I didn't, though I did start to write something in my third year, a description of a man who meant a lot to me. I tore it up, but this person did appear later in a very different guise as one of my best comic male characters.

There was nothing comic to me about him at the time, but memory is a great transformer of pain into amusement. And at Oxford, as well as English Literature, I went on reading modern novelists.

I particularly enjoyed the work of 'Elizabeth', the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Such novels as The Enchanted April and the Pastor's Wife were a revelation in their wit and delicate irony, and the dry, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between men and women which touched some echoing chord in me at that time. I was learning; these novels seemed more appropriate to use as models than Crome Yellow -- perhaps even the kind of thing I might try to write myself.

It must also have been about this time -- still in the 1930s -- that I was introduced to the poems of John Betjeman. His glorifying of ordinary things and buildings in his subtle appreciation of different kinds of churches and churchmanship made an immediate appeal to me. Another author I came across at this time was Ivy Compton-Burnett -- I think More Women than Men, her novel about a girls' school, was the first I read; then  A House and Its Head, one of her more typical family chronicles. Of course I couldn't help being influenced by her dialogue, that precise, formal conversation which seemed so stilted when I first read it -- though when I got used to it, a friend and I took to writing to each other entirely in that style. Another book we imitated with all the humour and pathos of her poems.

So all the writers I've mentioned played some part in forming my own literary style. But of course I'd also been reading the classics, especially Jane Austen and Trollope. Critics discussing my work sometimes tentatively mention these great names, mainly, I think, because I tend to write about the same kind of people and society as they did, although, of course, the ones I write about live in the twentieth century. But what novelist of today would dare to claim that she was influenced by such masters of our craft? Certainly all who read and love Jane Austen may try to write with the same economy of language, even try to look at their characters with her kind of detachment, but that is as far as any 'influence' could go.

The concept of 'detachment' reminds of the methods of the anthropologist, who studies societies in this way. The joke definition of anthropology as 'the study of man embracing woman' might therefore seem peculiarly applicable to the novelist. After the war, I got a job at the International African Institute in London. I was mostly engaged in editorial work, smoothing out the written results of other people's researches, but I learned more than that in the process. I learned how it was possible and even essential to cultivate an attitude of detachment towards life and people, and how the novelist could even do 'field-work' as the anthropologist did. And I also met a great many people of a type I hadn't met before. The result of all this was a novel called Less Than Angels, which is about anthropologists working at a research centre in London, and also the suburban background of Deirdre, one of the heroines, and her life with her mother and aunt. There's a little church life in it too, so that it could be said to be a mixture of all the worlds I had experience of. I felt in this novel that I was breaking new ground by venturing into the academic scene, although in many ways that isn't unlike the worlds of the village and parish I'd written about up to then,

I admire those people who can produce a new book regularly every year. I've found it more difficult as time goes on. I suppose it's easy for anyone to produce their first novel -- it's all there inside you and only needs to be written down. Also a second and third may be just under the surface and comparatively easy to dig out. After that it becomes more difficult, unless you're prepared to go on writing exactly the same book with only slight variations, over and over again. And people are always very ready to tell you anecdotes from their own experience -- which, in their opinion, would be just the thing for one of your novels. Readers who don't like your kind of story sometimes suggest plots or subjects for you in the hope that you may write something different. And sometimes, especially when things aren't going well, it's tempting to give it a try.

In the early 1960s I sent my seventh novel to my publishers. And to my horror they wrote back saying they didn't feel they wanted it. I offered it to several others but the manuscript still came thudding back through the letterbox. One publisher said, "We think it's very well written but there's an old-fashioned air about it." Another thought that it wasn't the kind of book to which people were turning -- I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that -- while a third said curtly that their fiction list was full up for the next two years. I had never made my living as a writer so I still had my job, but my books had been published regularly and now it seemed that nobody wanted them. It was an awful and humiliating sensation to be totally rejected after all those years, and I didn't know what to do about it. I did seriously consider trying to write something different -- perhaps a thriller or a historical novel -- but I never got very far with the idea.

Maybe it was too late to change my voice. I wrote two more novels in my own style and sent them round, but they still came back with the same kind of comments. Then, when I was on the verge of retiring from my job at the African Institute, the idea for my last novel, Quartet in Autumn, came to me. And again, I started writing it with no real hope of getting it published. It's about four people in their early sixties -- two men and two women -- working in a London office. During the course of the story, the women retire and one of them dies. I wanted to write about the problems and difficulties of this stage of one's life and also to show its comedy and irony -- in fact, I'd rather put it the other way round: my main concern was with the comedy and irony, the problems and difficulties having been dealt with almost excessively, one might say, elsewhere.I think some readers have been disappointed in this novel because it seems less light-hearted than some of my earlier ones, yet I enjoyed the writing of it almost more than any of the others, perhaps because I felt that I was writing for my own pleasure with no certain hope of publication at that time.

But then, at the beginning of 1977, both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil wrote of me as 'an under-rated writer' in The Times Literary Supplement. As a result of this, Quartet in Autumn was accepted for publication, and two of my earlier books were re-issued. It was marvellously encouraging to be brought from the wilderness. But it was disquieting too. I wonder how many other novelists have suddenly been told their work is not fashionable or saleable any more, and never been lucky enough to have the generous praise I had from the right people in the right place.

And this leads me on to the question of why we write at all. Is it enough just to write for ourselves if nobody else is going to read it? As Ivy Compton-Burnett said in a conversation with her friend Margaret Jourdain, "Most of the pleasure of making a book would go if it held nothing to be shared by other people. I would write for a dozen people...but I would not write for no one." This is what I feel myself -- it is those dozen people that spur me on, even when it seems that I'm writing for myself alone. So I try to write what pleases and amuses me in the hope that a few others will like it too.

So I did go on writing, even in the face of discouragement. For the last thirty years or so I have kept a series of notebooks like a kind of diary, in which I also write down all sorts of other things -- possible scenes or turns of plot for novels, quotations that appeal to me, occasional overheard scraps of conversation, anything. Doing this is often more of a pleasure than the actual writing. To jot down an idea for a scene and then to imagine it filled out is immensely satisfying, but, as everyone knows the final result invariably falls short of the original conception.

I'm fascinated by the notebooks of great writers -- Hardy, for example. Let me quote this entry for Sunday, February 1st 1874: "To Trinity Church, Dorchester. The rector in his sermon delivered himself of mean images in a sublime voice, and the effect is that of a glowing landscape in which clothes are hung up to dry." Or another entry, for October 25th, 1867, more likely to have inspired a poem: "Martha R --, an old maid whose lover died, had his love letters to her bound, and keeps them on the parlour table."

To descend from these heights, here's an example from my own notebooks. In September 1948 I described a visit to Buckfast Abbey:

...much commercialised, teas, car park etc, shop full of Catholic junk as well as books. Abbey very clean and new looking, inside bright and light, tiled effect; incense smells almost hygienic. Not thus would one be sentimentally converted to Rome, though perhaps rationally. Very young priests in the parties of sightseers, mostly in pairs like little beetles, from the seminary in Paignton. The herds of people -- the monk showing us round says: "I don't suppose any of you are Catholics' and explains about Our Lady -- makes one feel inferior.

This passage seems to have found its way, very little changed into my novel Excellent Women. At about the same time I noted down something seem from the top of a bus -- 'A woman and a clergyman sitting on chairs (hard) in the Green Park and talking with animation' - and this gave me the idea for an important twist in the plot of the same novel.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the novelist will seek his material more deliberately. Robert Liddell, in his book A Treatise on the Novel, describes the experience of Flaubert who went to a funeral. "Perhaps I shall get something for my Bovary," he wrote to a friend before he went. But when he got there, all he met with was a bore, who asked him foolish questions about the public libraries of Egypt, a country which he had lately visited. Whatever Flaubert had hoped to gain from experiencing the funeral was quite put in the background. So in this way we may not always get what we expect or hope from an experience, but we shall probably get something, though I don't know whether Flaubert ever made use of that bore. Ivy Compton-Burnett, on the other hand, laimed not to have the notebook habit, but admitted that some sort of starting-point is useful and that she got it 'almost anywhere'. This starting off, the point where to plunge in, as it were, is often more difficult than might be imagined from the finished work. I usually think of several beginnings and try them out before the right one emerges. I find it's sometimes necessary to go further back in the story or to look at things from a different standpoint.

Perhaps I've been influenced by something I was once told about Proust -- that he was said to go over all his characters and make them worse. Regrettably -- I think, and I daresay others would agree with me -- it's more interesting to write about people's less admirable qualities than to chronicle their virtues.

After having published seven novels and written a great many more, I suppose I can be said to have found a voice of sorts. I hope so, anyway. But whether it's a distinctive voice must be left to others to judge.

One of my favourite quiz games on television some years ago was that one in which panellists were asked to guess the authorship of certain passages which were read out to them, and then to discuss various features of the author in question. There were no prizes for guessing, no moving belt or desirable objects passing before their eyes, just the pleasure and satisfaction of recognising the unmistakable voice of Henry James or Henry Greene, or whoever it might be. I think that's the kind of immortality most authors would want -- to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them and by nobody else. But of course, it's a lot to ask for!

Friday, 18 September 2015

And To Round It All Off

And here is the letter that John O'Connell (from my first letter post) ended up writing:

Dear Jane,

You probably don't remember but back in was it October (?) you wrote me a wonderful letter. I want to call to a condolence letter but it did so much more than condole and I've meant ever since to reply in a manner that felt worthy - that acknowledged not just what you wrote but the effort you put into writing it when I know how much else you've got going on. That it's taken me so long is faintly shameful. I can only plead lack of perspective - it vanishes after a death, as you know, and so much has happened since the funeral, events which demand their own letter and will get one at some point.

I remember you saying it took you a long time to rid yourself of the image of the moment of death. That has now receded for me, thank God, and it's the background, ambient details that haunt me, if that's not too strong a word: the ping of alarm bells, the rumble of trolley wheels on lino. Hospice life. The other day I was hoovering round the sofa when I suddenly remembered the electric recliner armchair beside her bed - the way the children, when they came up to Macclesfield to say goodbye for the last time, spent the whole afternoon playing with it, as if that had been the whole point of the trip.

I do feel very strongly that life is different now. The worst of it, apart from the obvious loss, is the way the death of a parent forces you to confront the abandonment of your children your own death will entail, and your partner's death, and your siblings' deaths, and your friends'...I'm lucky I suppose that it happened this way round.

A lot of what I'm feeling is just the first stirrings of midlife angst. I'm reading Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair at the moment -- a lovely Folio society edition -- and there's a bit where she talks about the way 'childhood's attitude of something -- wonderful -- tomorrow persisted subconsciously in a man as long as it was capable of realisation, and it was only after forty when it became unlikely of fulfilment, that it obtruded itself into conscious thought; a lost piece of childhood crying for attention'. That's great, isn't it? If you have them, then your children become your something -- wonderful -- tomorrow. But it can be anything -- a sporting goal, a project. The hard bit about the conscious/subconscious thing is that noticing states of mind e.g. 'I am happy' can lead you into overthinking them, e.g. 'why am I happy?' When will I stop being happy?'

How long did it take you to delete your mum's number from your contacts list? I still haven't. Maybe in a few month's time.

Are we seeing you soon? I think so. I hope so.




Thursday, 17 September 2015

A Letter from Barbara Pym

What can I say? When I am obsessed, I am obsessed. But her letters are well worth reading. Just read and tell me if you think so too:

To Robert Liddell in Helsingfors

                                                                                                                                                  early 1938

Friends and Relations

'You and Janie have been asked to lunch at Bryn Tirion,' said Mrs Pym, one Sunday morning. 'I hope I did right to accept the invitation for you, Barbara?'

'Yes, you did right,' said Barbara, in careful, considered tone. 'It would have been impolite to refuse when I had no previous engagement. I think Uncle Frank and Aunt Helen would have thought it so.'

'Well, dear, I daresay they would have thought nothing,' said Mrs Pym absently. 'We will have a boiled fowl for lunch with some hame.'

'We shall not need much supper, Irena,' said Aunt Janie in a prudent tone. 'I expect we shall get a good lunch and tea at Bryn Tirion.'

'Yes,' observed Mrs Pym. 'Helen keeps a very good table.'

'Well, well,' said Barbara in a bright, elderly tone. 'Here we are. Well, Uncle Frank how are you, and Cousin Charlotte I saw you at Oxford but it is a long time since I saw Cousin John. How tall he has grown.'

'Yes, he must be as tall as Emily's second boy,' said Aunt Helen, in a full, satisfied tone.

'No, John is much thinner than Billy,' said Barbara. 'Billy is very broad.'

'I expect John will fill out,' said Aunt Janie.

'Yes,' said John.

'Are Charlotte's eyes quite well again?' asked Barbara in an interested tone.

'Oh yes, I am all right now,' said Charlotte, 'but I missed a term's work. I shall not be able to get anything better than a third now.'
'We got £250 compensation from the Insurance Company,' said Uncle Frank.

'We were very pleased about it.'

'It was not enough,' said Barbara firmly. 'Charlotte would probably  have got a second if it had not been for this.'

'Oh, no, Charlotte is not clever,' said Aunt Helen in a full, sensible tone, 'she would never be able to get a second. She does not work as hard as you did, and you are not as clever as Barbara, are you Charlotte?'

'No, mother,' said Charlotte.

'And Hilary has gone to Greece,' said Aunt Helen. 'Has she gone alone?'

'No, she has gone with a young man she knows, a fellow of Magdalen, an archaeologist, we have met him, he has been to the house,' said Barbara in a high, hurrying tone.

'Ah,' said Aunt Helen. 'I expect there will be something between them after this. You mark my words.'

'Oh, I think Mr Hunt is just a friend,' said Aunt Janie quickly.

'I do not think there is any likelihood of an engagement,' said Barbara.

'Ah, but you never know,' said Aunt Helen hopefully.

'But I do not think...

'Well, lunch is ready. We will go in,' said Uncle Frank.

'What do you think about Austria and Germany?' said Aunt Helen.

'Well, I always like the Germans,' said Barbara.

'Oh, Barbara, surely you do not like the Germans,' said Aunt Helen.

'The ones I have met have been very nice,' said Barbara in a firm, level tone. 'I have a friend in Dresden...

'Ah I expect it is  young man,' said Aunt Helen in a triumphant tone, 'that is what it is.'

'Well, yes,' said Barbara, 'it is a young man, but that is not why...

'Oh, Barbara, you surely would not marry a German?' persisted Aunt Helen.

'No, I have no intention of marrying a German,' said Barbara firmly.

'Well, it would be something to talk about if Barbara married a German, would it not?' said Aunt Helen brightly. 'Personally I could not marry a foreigner.'

'Neither could I,' said Barbara in a hopeless tone - 'As I said I have no intention...

'You would have to live in Germany,' continued Aunt Helen. 'You would not be able to live in Oswestry. I wonder how you would like that.'

'How quickly time goes,' said Mrs Minshall, 'it seems only yesterday that you were married.'

'I have been married twenty six years,' said Mrs Pym, in a firm, clear tone.

Mrs Minshall looked surprised - 'But Barbara, she is how old - eighteen?'

'Barbara is twenty four,' said Mrs Pym in a clear, ringing tone.

'Yes, I am twenty four,' said Barbara in a low, mumbling tone.

'Well, well,' said Mrs Minshall.

'Have you heard that Greenfields is to be sold?' asked Mrs Pym.

'Poor Louisa Richards,' said Mrs Minshall, 'I suppose she is dead now.'

'No,' said Barbara, 'I saw her walking into the town yesterday.'

'Well, fancy, I thought she was dead. Your brother Ridley and his wife, are they still living?' asked Mrs Minshall, turning to Mrs Pym.

'Yes,' said Mrs Pym, 'They are very well.'

'And Janie - is she still single?'

'Yes,' said Mrs Pym smiling. 'Janie is still single.'

'Mrs Minshall seems to want us all to be either dead or married,' said Mrs Pym to her daughter as they drove home in the car.

'Well, I do not see what else we can be,' said Barbara in a thoughtful tone. 'I suppose we all come to one state or the other eventually. I do not know which I would rather be in.'

'Oh, there is plenty of time for that,' said Mrs Pym comfortably. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Griffin Replies


I am an honourable man (most of the time), and although I could spend this whole letter asking you more questions. I will hold back, do the right thing and spill my life story. But it's going to seem awfully dull compared to your colourful existence. I see what you mean about getting shy...I feel like climbing under the carpet.

My mother was Italian-Irish, my father Hungarian-Scottish I was born in Dublin and when I was one, we moved to England. As you might guess, I wouldn't know my nationality if it came up and bit me.

We lived off the Holloway Rd, in darkest London. Our small back-to-back Victorian house was as dismally predictable as the others in the row, at least from the outside. The inside was slightly different. Our house was a temple to The Book. We owned thousands, nay millions of books. They lined the walks, filled the cupboards and turned the floor into a maze far more complex than Hampton Court's. Books ruled our lives. They were our demi-gods. Occasionally I'd come home to a re-enactment of the Battle of Britain in the front room. My beloved parents would be flying around like a pair of demented fighter planes, shrieking and spitting venom at one another. My father would be wearing his traditional uniform of socks and moth-eaten dressing gown and my mother her lemon carpet slippers and housecoat. My entrance would make no difference to their dogfight, but when one of them accidentally (and inevitably) knocked over a pile of books, they'd stop instantly and unite to examine the extent of the damage.

Life continued in this pleasant vein until the day my parents got run down by a newspaper van that thoughtlessly mounted the pavement in Islington High St. It sounds heartless, but looking back, I would say that this was my great salvation, because at 15 I was whisked off to live with my mother's stepsister in Totnes, Devon. Vereker was a potter, and the kindest person I'd ever met. The first thing she asked me was whether I wanted to carry on with school or learn to pot. No one had ever asked me what I wanted to do before. I would have made her my idol if she'd let me. Instead, I became her apprentice.

Some people find it hard to move from the big city to the country, but for me it was a piece of cake. Not only did I fall for Vereker, but also for the town of Totnes. In that green and pleasant land the cider is so strong you have to hold on to the bar as you drink it. I spent 3 blissful years in Vereker's house quietly being instructed on how to use my hands and my eyes. Eventually she convinced me that I needed to broaden my skills and my horizons and packed me off to Bristol Art College to become a fine artist.

At college everyone was painting big flat canvasses and becoming wizards with masking tape. To my discredit, I joined the geometric sheep, when all I really wanted to do was become a cross between Leonardo and Rembrandt. I'm probably saw for yourself how dazzlingly dreary my stuff was. My spell at college wasn't totally wasted, because I met Sarah, my first real girlfriend, and in the six months we were together, my horizons became broader.

When I left Bristol, I returned to Totnes, even though Vereker by then had moved to the States, I'd only been back a couple of weeks when someone called to tell me that Vereker had died suddenly, of a brain tumour, in New York.I stood in that cold little hall for ages, paralysed with loneliness. Losing my parents had barely touched me (they were only cartoon characters) but Vereker was a real person. I didn't understand how she could leave me like that.

If I had grieved, I'd have probably been okay. Instead, I sunk into a dark, drowning depression and stayed there for almost three months. Remembering it now still makes me numb. It was a lawyer's letter that finally made me surface. Vereker had left me her money, and the combination to dealing with practicalities and realising how much she cared for me forced me on to dry land. I came back to the world changed. I had an inner drum and I was going to march. I decided to use my inheritance to move back to London and set up GRYPHON CARDS, which was to be dedicated to my idiosyncratic vision of the universe.

I presume you can't see my writing as well as my pictures, or posting this letter would be superfluous. Any idea why it's only my images you see? And why I can't see yours? Tell me more about your islands, and tell me what you do. Did you become your dad's official illustrator? I can't express to you how pleased I am that you're out there. Since Vereker died, I've been alone. Now that you're there and have been all along, I feel whole again.

You don't think we're twins seperated at birth, do you? Or is that too simple?



Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Letter from Sabine to Griffin

My friend Adelina sent me this exquisite book, Griffin & Sabine for Christmas. It arrived in late January and I read it in one sitting.

This is the book she sent me and the letter that accompanied it.

And this is what the book actually looks like:

Anyway they talked on postcards until Sabine sends Griffin this long letter, explaining how, though separated by thousands of miles, she "sees" his art...


Now that it comes to answering your questions and telling you about myself, I feel oddly shy. Not that this is a reason to hold back; in fact I deem it a sign to press on.

I know nothing of my real parents. I was handed to my father and mother by an old picker who'd found me on the slopes of Pillow Mountain, "bellowing among hot black metal and broken grass."

My after (who was at that time the only European on the island) went with neighbours to search the area. But it was the rainy season, the mountain was deserted and one of the regular mud slides had obliterated everything. Later he tried in vain to find a record of a plane crash -- but I had, it would seem, appear from nowhere. I must have been six months old when I arrived, hungry but otherwise unharmed. In this way, I became Sabine, daughter of Gust and Tahi Strohem, and by their kindness and caring have grown to my present age of 28 years.

During my early childhood, I spent most of my time with my mother, who is a native of Katin and Sicmon's only midwife. She's fun and wise, but by the age of 7, I'd grown bored with babies and birth. I decided to trade her company for that of my father, who'd once been a curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris and had a mind that retained information like flypaper. He and I would go on wandering in search of specimens for his 'Catalogue of the Islands' (a book that would document every species on the Sicmons). I'd skip along by the side of him, clutching his canvas bag and clinging to his every word. He loved to talk as much as I loved to listen. Sometimes it would be about Paris or Amsterdam or the other cities he'd lived in, but mostly he spoke of the islands and the things we saw and heard. He encouraged me to draw those things, promising me the position of official illustrator to 'the Catalogue' when I grew up.

I remember one time when we'd just come up to the village from hunting shells on Polemy Beach and I dropped a monstrous conch on my foot. I howled with pain, and a tree ahead of us exploded with blue and yellow macaws. My father, who could see that I didn't know whether to attend to my toe or the feathered fireworks, laughed and whispered, "Pain and beauty, our constant bedfellows." Young as I was, I understood. On the dawn of my fifteenth year I was lying in that easy state between sleep and wake when the image of a half-dream flower came into my head. I was entranced. Gradually, it grew and changed, lines appeared and disappeared - it was so real and clear. I could see the picture but not the hand that created it. Eventually, a noise form outside broke my concentration and the image evaporated. It was your drawing, Griffin -- the first of hundreds of pictures I witnessed without knowing who made them. For 13 years I've waited for a clue, anything that would help me locate the artist. You seemed destined to be an enigma forever, when a few months ago, I came across and article in Grafica about a one-man postcard company. It said that the art was "all Moss's own work," and there was a photo of your fish card. It was the same piece I'd seen being drawn 3 years before. Finally, I knew who you were. I counselled myself to be cautious and find out what you were like before revealing myself fully. Please don't feel invaded -- it's not like that, I promise. But I am impatient to hear about you. Write soon. Yes I can only see you.


Monday, 14 September 2015

Week 37: Give Away Something That You Value

Think about the various material possessions that you've acquired over the years, paying special attention to those that you've had for a long time, remain important to you and have value. In your journal, make a list of these items, continuing until you have at least 15 items on your list. If it helps you get to 15, include things that you might not normally consider, like a favourite book.

Next, review your list and imagine who you'd like to inherit each item on your list if you were to die soon. To solidify this, write each person's name next to the item in your journal. Having done that, choose one of these items and give it to your person of choice. Do so in a way that honours the significance of the gift, be it over dinner, or in some private manner.

In your journal, reflect on the experience of letting go of something you value by giving it away. Can you identify any benefit of having done so?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Letter from Juliet

This letter made me laugh for hours when I got it 22 hers ago. Now, it just makes me sad...

Dear Jennifer,

Hi! How are you? Oh I'm okay. How's K.L.? How's work? How are your friends? How is this and that? Fine I hope.

I'm writing to tell you what a PAIN Jackie is at night. People try to sleep also cannot. Now, yesterday, was my turn to feed the dogs. Okay, the rice was boiling. So while it was boiling I thought I could sleep. But noooo. Somebody haaad to keep me awake by singing sweet lullaby's. I was covering my face with a cushion while she was singing "Hey wolf face it's your worst nightmare. Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang. So the wolf is dead as you can plainly see, So thats the end of the story for you and me." So you can imagine what it was like, right? Hearing a walkman that's batteries are going wearing. Hearing "Let me lay my healing hands on you" and then feeling icy cold hands touching my face. I'm telling you. It's not the wolf's worst nightmare! It's MINE! JACQUELINE C. JACOBS. I fell like running for cover, raising the alarms, calling the police, calling the ambulans. Okay enough about Jackie. Let's talk about me. How am I you ask? Okay let's give you an update. A new batch of trainees have arrived. Yeech! Lot's of exams coming up. Yeech. Lots of activities coming up. Yeech. Lot's of competitions. Yeech. Lots of music lessons. Yeech and Yeech. You know after you left, holidays were over, and our birthdays were over. It was kind of boring and I've nothing to look forward to at all. Except you coming down in a while. Oh dear! 6.20 already better go now. Todalloo, Adios, Selamat tinggal. See you soon. Don't be a stranger and lastly Bye BYE.


PS: The other paper is your early birthday present. Happy early Birthday!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Letter from Jackie

This is a letter Jackie sent me, more than 10 years ago, when she had just gone to England and was studying. I think it was in her first year. Although it may be in her second. The words you are finding difficult to read in speech bubble from the head of God is: "Something tells me this thing's only half-baked". It was a cartoon by Gary Larson, of course, which Jackie copied and sent to me. Why? Here's the letter:

Dear Jennifer,

I thought and I thought and I thought...and then I thought some more and I came to the conclusion that what the world needs to be happier place, is for people to receive Gary Larson cartoons in the mail.

This is what I was up to on Saturday, after I hung up the phone and when I was supposed to be working on my seminar.

I even considered putting up a cartoon on the OHP and explaining it. I'd call it comic appreciation class.

Anyway hope this brightens up your day, or its back to the drawing board again.

Lots of love,

Friday, 11 September 2015

A Letter From Me, On Arnold's Death

Dear XXXX,

I put Arnold to sleep today. I called the vets from Gasing, they came over and did it as gently as possible as I held him. And right to the end, I don't know if I was doing the right thing,

He had been failing for a while.First, his back legs...they became was spinal I think, and his legs started to atrophy, shrink. And then, maybe because of the same spinal injury he could no longer pee on his own...I didn't know this until he started overflowing everywhere and when I took him to the vet, they catheterised him and syringed out three whole kidney bowls of pee. And Dr Adda told me I would have to "express his bladder" three times a day. Have you ever tried to express a bladder? I don't mind the fact that when I actually press something relevant, the pee shoots out straight at me, drenching my hands or legs or clothes. What I do mind is the fact that I don't know how to do it need to do it until all the pee has been expressed. I was crap at it.

And then his bowels stopped moving as well. One night we were away for a memorial and came back to Arnold having purged all over...that was Saturday. And then, nothing. I could feel the revolutions in his tummy every time I fed him, but he was not able to push all the stuff out. And for the past few days, it has been chicken rice, the char siew and when it was available, the siew yok. When I first found him...that was his favourite food...and it had been such a long time since I had given it to him. I tried the raw food thing and although Arnold responded at first....he soon started turning his face away. He lost so much weight.

And he was failing...his breathing was laboured and he couldn't sleep. I would wake up to find him staring at me, or staring straight ahead. I would pat him, stroke his soft black fur and he would look at me...suffering.

It was like my mother all over again. I was helpless. I didn't know what to do. The acupuncture I took him for worked for one session...and then his decline accelerated. Nothing worked.

And yet, when the vet called today to say she was ready to come over, Arnold, who had been resting his head peacefully on my lap, got agitated. He didn't want to go. Not yet. He wanted to go in his own time. And I had gone back and forth so much about this...watching him so carefully, trying to do what was best for him, not what was convenient for me.

And last night, when his breathing got bad, and he was suffering so...I decided to stop faffing around. I would do it, I would carry it through. A friend told me it was not distressing..he would just fall asleep. And he did...although I don't think he liked having the vet and her assistant over. But he went peacefully.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. I don't know how to be dignified when my dog is dying and my heart is breaking.

And so, he's gone. I hope to a better place, I hope he's running free somewhere, finally, reuniting with all those people he loved, perhaps, his old mistress who may have died (I don't think anyone could abandon this dog) or Sabrina, who ran the shelter he was at for a month (he loved Sabrina to the point of obsession), maybe my mother will lean over and pat his little head (can dogs talk in heaven?) and then, there's Maggot, who died on May 1.

I loved him so much and I did my best. It was an inadequate best but it was my best.


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Letters To A Young Poet

Paris, February 17th, 1903


YOUR LETTER only reached me a few days ago. I want to thank you for its great and kind confidence. I can hardly do more. I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

After these prefatory remarks, let me only tell you further that your verses have no individual style, although they do show quiet and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, "My Soul." There something of your own wants to come through to word and melody. And in the lovely poem "To Leopardi" there does perhaps grow up a sort of kinship with that great solitary man. Nevertheless the poems are not yet anything on their own account, nothing independent, even the last and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them, does not fail to make clear to me various shortcomings which I felt in reading your verses without however being able to specifically name them.

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all -- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and earnest "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult for it takes a great and fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty -- describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses -- would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention thither. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away. -- And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world, verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone if they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps from which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

But perhaps after this descent into yourself and into your inner solitude you will have to give up becoming a poet; (it is enough, as I have said, to feel that one could live without writing: then one must not attempt it at all). But even then this inward searching which I ask of you will not have been in vain. Your life will in any case find its own ways thence, and that they may be good, rich and wide I wish you more than I can say.

What more shall I say to you? Everything seems to me to have its just emphasis; and after all I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your innermost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.

It was a pleasure to me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I keep for that loveable and learned man a great veneration and a gratitude that endures through the years. Will you, please, tell him how I feel; it is very good of him still to think of me, and I know how to appreciate it.

The verses which you kindly entrusted to me I am returning at the same time. And I thank you once more for your great and sincere confidence, of which I have tried, through this honest answer given to the best of my knowledge, to make myself a little worthier than, as a stranger, I really am.

Yours faithfully and with all sympathy:


Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Letter From Virginia Woolf To Her Sister, Nessa

To Vanessa Bell
52 Tavistock Sqre [W.C.1]
May 19th [1926]
I have done your commissions so far as posting the letters go—not very
arduous so far. You seem almost as maltreated as we are—it is a good deal
colder than February, generally raining, and now and then a black fog. One
came on as I was starting for your show—so I gave it up, and you must
wait for criticism which will I know profoundly interest you. Meanwhile I
hear that your still life is greatly admired; I hope, bought. probably you
have heard from better sources however. The only papers I have seen say
nothing about Adeney and compare Duncan to Fragonard—but this is the
spiteful [Evening] Standard man.
We should be grateful if you could have some talk with Angus. I think
you could make him see the sort of difficulty that arises better than we could
—it is mainly the languor and slowness, I think; I can't help feeling some-
times that the irregularity of the Press and the strain of its being such a
gamble (I suppose we are certain now to have a loss next year) will always
be more worrying to him than to most people. And that of course reacts
upon us. But we leave it to your tactful nature.
We are having rather a grind at the moment to get Viola [Tree] going
again. Twenty four sandwichmen are parading the West End today, and
I have just travelled Kensington High Street—which almost made me
vomit with hatred of the human race. Innumerable women of incredible
mediocrity, drab as ditchwater, wash up and down like dirty papers against
Barkers and Derry and Toms. One was actually being sick or fainting in
the middle of the street. All our past—George Gerald Marny and Emma
—rose about me like the fumes of cabbage. And I had to sit next a man in
the tube who picked his ears with a large pin—then stuck it in his coat
again. Meanwhile you are in Venice—Rain or no rain, Duncan with a sore
throat or not (I hope he's better—please give him my fondest love)—its
better than this.
But to the Keynes'—Maynard has decided not to stand for the Provostry.
He says he would always be called the Provost and not Keynes: he would
become respectable; he would sink and disappear. Also the more you refuse,
the more you are requested. So he is not lost to Bloomsbury. But as every-
one agrees that he would almost certainly have failed, the arguments do not
convince me. Leonard said he seemed greatly depressed. I have seen nothing
of them. On the other hand I sat next Mrs Gilchrist of Cardiff last night at
Figaro, and she told me that her husband had not a dram of ambition.
Needless to say, she had known Saxon when he was in Eton collars. One
could have told that far off to look at her. Also she asked me how many
people Covent Garden seats. I said roughly 6,000; but advised her to ask
the attendant. And there was Ralph and Frances [Marshall], connubial,
furtive; James [Strachey] and Noel, both grey as badgers and sleek as
moles (I have just been to the Zoo, and noted these facts accurately.) And
Adrian and Karin are inseparable; and are re-arranging the house, beds
being now only one wall off—I mean, bedrooms next door. Morgan
[Forster] came to tea yesterday; but we argued about novel writing, which
I will not fret your ears with—his mother is slowly dispatching him, I
think—He is limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow. Mr
Brace came—the American publisher. He says they would most warmly
welcome a children's story illustrated by Mrs Bell. Do for Gods sake bestir
yourself. What other news? Mary has rung up to ask me to go and see
her rooms, with the "lovely new decorations." Shall I thrust her through
with a few home truths?—I didn't go—couldn't face Jack on a sofa
recovering from tonsilitis. And she joins the parrokeet in France soon, I
I'm panting to pull up my [bath and lavatory] plugs at Rodmell, and
when poor old Angus comes back, I suppose we shall at last get there
for 5 days. God knows if we shall motor with Gwen—here's Hubert
Waley—come to discuss his infernal pamphlet—and you are safe at
Venice; how happy you are—and you dont want anybody—and you
don't have electric light at half cock, as we do since the strike. But then you
never saw armoured cars convoying frozen meat along Oxford Street. I
shall have lots of stories to tell you about that.
Love to Angus and D[uncan].