The British Pen Pal

16 March 2014

Dear Churchill,

I was so looking forward to you telling me about your trip to Amsterdam. I read your letter repeatedly and left it open on my computer and every day I would come back to it. My sister has been to India, Thailand and now wants to travel to London at the end of the year. My father spent a year at the University of London in his twenties. He visited schools in the country established specifically for mentally handicapped and physically disabled children. I’ve been very lazy at working at his biography, much more interested in writing and working at my short stories which I feel I have to ‘surrender’ now, let go of and try my hand at writing a novella or novel. I feel so insecure and now wonder if this comes across in my writing. I’m filled with doubts and the thought, ‘is it ever going to be good enough?’ I know everything is a process and writing books is difficult and writing poetry is even more difficult and I often wonder how Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath did it, how did they ever accomplish all that work, that writing, that impulse? I wonder if you also feel the same way after you have completed a piece of creative writing. I have lots of journals that I have kept, and you? Do you keep a journal? I love writing at night when the house is quiet, silence fills the rooms and everyone is sleeping. It gives me a peace of mind and I am driven into action sometimes. I do not edit much you know sometimes. I have to work at that and try not to censor myself so much. My interest lies a great deal now with David Eggers and David Foster Wallace. I also like Jeanette Winterson’s books. I am in love with love. I am in love with love stories, people falling in love. In books it doesn’t matter to me what the gender is of the people involved. It is after one o’ clock in the morning. I usually fall asleep at about four when the Muslims start to pray at the mosque. I have to take sleeping tablets or else I can’t get to sleep at all. What was Paris like? I fell in love with Paris after reading Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast. After you described it as being a beautiful city that you can visit at any time I kind of wished I could do that. Creative writing I think is one of the hardest jobs you can do after acting or any job really (am thinking of social work here, working in a trauma unit of a hospital, hospice or being a clinical psychologist turned writer). I don’t know which is more difficult. I used to act as a child. Mostly supporting roles, lead roles in high school, a house play but then I preferred to work behind the scenes when I went to Johannesburg to go to film school. It was cool. I met a lot of people there I wouldn’t have otherwise met in my life if I had gone elsewhere like university to study literature, or philosophy like my father. Both my parents are retired teachers now. I used to enjoy the rehearsals, learning my lines but I don’t think I can do that now. Applause, the spotlight, stage fright, all of those faces staring up at me in the dark theatre. I got a standing ovation once for a speech I did for the SRC when I was fifteen (Students Representative Council but now I feel I have just lost my voice). I did Toastmasters when I was in high school. I don’t know if you have Toastmasters in Britain. I think I was very confident for my age, a forward-thinker but I don’t know if I still am. I think I have to have new experiences now but my past still haunts me, people from my past. I think I still have a lot of stories to write about them. My mother is supportive of what I’m doing, my writing, although she doesn’t often agree with my kind of writing. She doesn’t agree with me if I vent or go off at someone in the family but she sure loves it when I write about her. Although I don’t think she’s read anything of it because mostly it’s negative. We’ve had a difficult relationship I think because of my father and my depression. My father and I are very close and I don’t think she was close at all to her father. I think her family had a lot of problems. I think her father was an alcoholic. He was also a policeman. She disliked him a great deal. No love lost there. We’re not so big on church anymore in our household. Our ‘religion’ is more based on spirituality, of the Deepak Chopra, Carolyn Myss, the chakras, meditation, Sonia Choquette, Doreen Virtue kind. I don’t know if you find that strange or if we’re a bunch of eccentrics.  Our house is filled with books. My sister is coming to visit for two days soon. Next Saturday she will be flying down from Johannesburg to the city I live in. Our lives are so different. I love her very much but I still think there is this void between us. She refuses to see that I am happy. She thinks I have wasted my potential. I think a lot of people in the community must think so. I live like a recluse. I really, really can’t stand the outside world, the materialism and she is the complete opposite of me. I love my books, my writing grants, my creative writing, and poetry. How do you deal with rejection letters? I got a rejection letter from Wasafiri (perhaps you have heard of them, they’re based in London I think) but then I got published elsewhere but some people say it doesn’t really count if it’s published online (what do you believe?) I love Port Elizabeth. I won’t be going back to Johannesburg any time soon. Too many memories.

Where is Copenhagen and Cologne? Have you been writing, do you ever write when you go on these trips? They all sounded like lovely places to visit and I imagine you and your wife walking hand-in-hand around these cities, window shopping, browsing. Do you usually buy anything to remember your trips by? When I was a child and teenager I loved collecting postcards of all the places that we visited by car in South Africa. I loved Swaziland. I only spent a year there but I was happy. Depressed but strangely happy as well. I wanted to go and study filmmaking at the London Film School so I thought I would study and work towards getting my O and A levels (did I write that right?) but then I came home and my father wouldn’t let me go off the following  year. I found a letter from the school months later saying I had been accepted for A levels. I was angry but what could I do? Some things in life are just left up to God. I might not go to church but I still pray, I meditate every day, I spend a lot of quiet time by myself. Poets and writers usually do as you well know. My father and I used to go for long walks but not anymore. He finds it difficult to walk now. I have to be careful what I tell my sister. I am not allowed to upset her. She works in a stressful job as I sometimes imagine you do too. I think she thinks I don’t enjoy life.

My sister introduced us all to chai tea when she came back from India. She’s big on drinking tea. And the first time I drank Earl Grey (did I spell Grey right?) I loved the taste. It was so unique and different. Rooibos is very good for you. I think it is full of antioxidants. A red cappuccino is just rooibos tea but a really strong version of it but it tastes the same. My brother loves coffee. So he is always buying these special roasts and we’d use this French press to make it. He’d buy filter coffees and stuff but I’m sticking to drinking herbal teas now. It’s near the end of the month so no Rooibos.

Do you know Dillon’s bookshop in London? My father talks about it often. He used to go there, look at all the banned books that came in from South Africa. I’ve always wanted to go to Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Have you been there? But it is funny. My sister wants to go to Peru. She complains that I do nothing with her. I felt sad and hurt when she said that. I get tired a lot (chronic fatigue syndrome) so I have to rest a lot and I have never had any inclination to travel or to see the world. But I guess it is lovely. When I was younger I was very much in love with England and the country, how green everything was, the Cotswolds (did I spell that right?), the Lake District, Stratford upon Avon, the West End but now I’d rather just sit back in my comfortable sofa and watch a DVD or listen to what my brother calls my sad music. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Sonnet” and the US-based bands Ben Folds Five and Sixpence None the Richer. I used to love Oasis, especially their tune “Champagne Supernova”. And when my siblings and I were younger, just children, and then mere teenagers, we watched a lot of age-inappropriate things. I think I should have been more protective over my younger brother, especially my sister who I adore now. I think I shouldn’t have left home at seventeen to go to Swaziland. I think they needed me. Most of it is my sister’s music. My favourite film in the whole entire world is Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” but we all watched “The Talented Mr Ripley” repeatedly. I watched “Magnolia” in which I think Tom Cruise gave such a powerful performance but I wouldn’t watch it again now. I liked “Bee Season”, “The English Patient”, most recently “August: Osage County” and “The Book Thief”. You have to watch “The Book Thief”. My brother introduced us to the singer-songwriters’ Billy Joel and Jamie Cullum. My mother would do flowers sometimes for weddings and she’d play their CD’s in the garage. He absolutely loves Michael Buble (spelled incorrectly I know). I love Robbie Williams on the other hand. I don’t know if it is just because I am a woman but I have this great fear of getting older. I used to listen to his music over and over again. I loved “Angels” and so did the rest of the world and then he became a superstar celebrity.

I’m afraid what is happening to my father will happen to me and then who will look after me? But I think this is just part of life. It’s not that I hate birthdays. I hardly celebrate them anymore properly. There’s cake and a special family supper. We’re quite close-knit and private. People don’t usually come over and we don’t receive visitors. My father says it is because of the stigma of depression and my mother. She’s a quiet woman but very strong and dangerous if you get on the wrong side of her. Sometimes we laugh and talk as if we’re best friends but I know my sister and my brother who have made something of themselves in this world are her favourites.

I can become negative and then I am not such a good person to be with. Do you ever feel that way and how do you deal with it? I watched “Blue Jasmine”. I like Woody Allen’s films but I know he is not for everyone too. It’s almost as if I am drawn to mentally ill characters. I wasn’t too impressed with “The Great Gatsby” but everyone loves Leo Dicaprio. I liked that Australian’s updated version. I have to keep busy and I have to think. Just after half past two now in the morning. I want to send this email to you tomorrow so you can tell me all about Stig’s antics, the titbits that you brought him and the writing group’s meeting. You are right about Hollywood’s propaganda machine when it comes to films and movie stars. I was just thinking about it the other day. When I was in that world, I’ll call it the entertainment industry, it wasn’t glamorous at all. Sometimes I wondered to myself how people made “it” being surrounded by the closet pornography, the sexual innuendoes, the drugs and seeing  all of it, seeing what ‘media’ really meant up front, close and personal made me feel in the end that I didn’t really want anything  to do with it at all. Funding  for films and documentaries is also hard. I watched “American Hustle” and “The Silver Linings Playbook”. Like I said before I do like love stories but I do not know why I want to feel that connection in the same way that the characters do. I know that of course it’s not for real. Everything in that world is hustle, hustle, and hustle baby. If you’re a director, writer, producer, actor, casting after casting. I can see now I could only do that in my twenties. I have no patience and a short attention span when it comes to that now in my life. My writing is my first priority next to my dad’s health issues.

Is it difficult not speaking the language in these wonderful, beautiful cities and places that you visit? How many languages do you speak? What is Weisses Kreuz? What is the food like in Paris? Where do you go and eat in Paris, stay, is it as romantic as everyone says it is? What is Wagner’s Gotterdammerung and the ancient myth of the ‘Lorelei’? I knew after reading your letter the first few times that I would have lots of questions for you. I just didn’t know where to begin. With the films, books or the cities you visited. There are castles in Switzerland as well, aren’t there? Is the Austrian Tyrol a hill? I must sound so ignorant. I thought I had lived before I read your letter and then I discovered that there is a whole world out there for me still to see, to find appealing, nooks and crannies and corners filled with ancient history. I am drinking more coffee these days and nights sometimes too. Before I didn’t drink as much coffee as I drink now. I loved “The Sound of Music”. I watched it when I was a little girl. Swaziland was the most beautiful place I had ever been to. Just black people, black faces everywhere almost like Port Elizabeth but I imagine it must be quite different now. I wish I could go back there but I don’t have family there anymore. Just unfortunately lots of history. I wish I could go back there and stay there forever and forever because everything was in walking distance but I have to be in a place where I am near to a psychiatrist who can write out a prescription (stuff like that gets in the way of dreams and goals sometimes. Not that I’m complaining or anything like that, that’s just how life turned out for me). I don’t want to be too depressing. I was talking to someone the other day who was depressed and I felt very depressed afterwards when I left them and came home. I feel different when I’m writing. It’s almost as if I go to a very special place. I imagine you must feel that way too. It’s intense. It’s magical. It’s mystical. It’s mysterious. It’s so many things. So many good things. It distracts me from feeling bored, if I’m feeling bored but it’s work too and sometimes it’s hard to get a page out. And when I look at it when I’m done, that one page I often look at it in wonder, sometimes awe but not too long. I loved Swaziland. I kept a diary when I was there. Some of what I wrote was pure nonsense. Just the thoughts of a girl falling in love, falling out of love and the people I met there and of course I wrote poetry in my diary as well. It’s three o’ clock on the dot. Am wondering what you’re reading now on your Kindle? I loved your poem. Where is Roscommon? Are you the middle child? Has it ever been published? I felt very emotional after reading it, and stared at the photograph for a long while. The images played repeatedly like a stuck record in my mind. Of course they were beautiful, also intensely sad, quite moving but I guess that’s what history does to you. I’ve gone back to your poem so many times and each time my eyes fell onto something else, and I felt that mourning period, or the colour of the day, or your brothers eyes, or your father’s pride as you walked through the door, his son, his son, his sons. I could taste the ash and then I thought in particular of your mother.

I enjoyed your discussion of French films. I watched “Betty Blue” also when I was much too young and didn’t really understand it until later, much later when I reached adulthood. I wasn’t really exposed to French cinema at the film school I went to. Spike Lee was our “bread and butter” although I loved his films. I loved “Malcolm X” but I wouldn’t watch Lee’s films now, that was just a phase and I grew quickly out of it watching films just for colour sake. I loved “As Good As It Gets”, “Heartburn” and “Terms of Endearment”. I loved Jack Nicholson’s roles and his characters in all of them. I like Meryl Streep. She is very talented. When I was very young, I watched that movie where she leaves her son with her husband Dustin Hoffman. For some reason the film’s name escapes my mind. I will never forget the scene where he has to prepare breakfast for his son. Hoffman makes French toast and he has absolutely no idea what he is doing. I shouldn’t have been watching these films with my brother. He was so young and impressionable but I am proud of the young man that he has become. We watched “Heartburn” together and afterwards, after this one scene where they’re eating pizza and singing songs to each other after Streep tells him that she’s pregnant he said he felt so sad. I thought that was a very mature thing for my brother to say. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. He keeps on asking me if I don’t want to go to university like he did and my father and my sister but I say no. I’m happy. Do I sound happy though? I don’t know. When I was at the production company all I wanted to do was write and now my dream has come true. I can write all day and all night if I want to. I have all the free time in the world. I have a nephew too now. He is a few months old and as cute as anything. He is gorgeous. My brother is a changed man. A different person sometimes but sometimes he is still the same and then there is still the fact that there is still so much rage, so much anger beneath the surface I think towards all of us. Am I being too honest, too vulnerable, and too open? I don’t know.

I watched Kubrick’s “Lolita” and was much more impressed with his version than the one that Jeremy Irons was in. I don’t know why I’ve carried Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita in the back of my mind for years now (ever since I was seventeen). Is there a book in your head like that that you just can’t let go of? I loved “Good Will Hunting”, which was a firm family favourite, by family I mean me, my sister and my brother. And I watched “Eyes Wide Shut”. Didn’t really understand it. Watched “Oblivion” and absolutely loved it. Loved it. All those clean lines and spaces and I loved Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” which he also wrote. I don’t know what you’ll think of Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium”, he did that “District” movie but I found it too disturbing and did not watch the whole thing.

It is bad in the location (sub-economic area) and it is even worse than you can imagine or wrap your head around. I don’t know what they show you in the media over on your side of the world. It’s apartheid’s dirty little secret and it stems directly from the promulgation of the Group Areas Act and the forced removals. (I think I am going to owe you maybe another letter about that and my father’s book). I used to write to someone in Kenya, also a female writer, but I could not really confide in her as she was sending her work to be edited to my brother. It’s not to say I felt uncomfortable telling her things about my family life. It was just a privacy issue. Yes, my father and I have had long discussions about the book and he has told me some ‘wild’ things. The first woman he was ever in love with, being invited or rather recruited into the ANC when he was in London and other things.

Is Fiks short for something? What is the Sorites paradox? I loved the book Catcher in the Rye. It was on the school curriculum and then I wanted to read everything Salinger ever wrote. I only got as far as the short stories written as a kind of novella Franny and Zooey. I did some research on him. I wanted to get his memoir written by his daughter. I loved Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” (truly heart-breaking, gut-wrenching stuff) and “Hilary and Jackie”. I did not know Catcher was banned in South Africa. Are the Curlew Mountains in Kent? And now I’ve reached eight pages and you wrote seven and I didn’t even put a whole lot of paragraphs  in this letter like you did when you started a new idea. Oh, there is a magazine in South Africa that publishes international writers’ work as well. I can send you a link to it if you want. Did you see Lonmin on the news? I wrote a poem about that. The magazine is called Itch and it’s linked up to the University of the Witwatersrand. I put off writing this letter to you for a few days (hope it did not turn into longer than a week).

What you were saying about creativity and that feeling of separation was wonderful. I enjoyed reading that and your thoughts about it. Usually I want to completely distance myself from my writing. I still sometimes feel so wired, fired up after writing something. And then I put it away and forget about it. I hate the waiting part. The forgetting of what I wrote comes so easily to me.

My mother and I will never have an easy relationship. In some ways I feel I must have disappointed her but she is very happy with the new baby in the house, can’t stop oohing and aahing over him. My brother’s girlfriend has also moved in with us. We are like one big happy family. She cooks in the evening, sometimes in the afternoon. We all have ‘chores’. We all have to pull our weight. It’s the big family I’ve always wanted. Suppers at the kitchen table, the dining room table. But nothing is perfect.

Sometimes I can’t wait for that feeling of detachment to settle in and when I’m through with writing the story I often wonder if I can carry it off again or was that my last chance. We must have more discussions about this. Sometimes especially now I think to myself I really am losing my brother. He is going, going, gone in front of my eyes. I can see the light, and that brilliant energy that used to be there before some of it is leaving him. And then the world begins to feel very cold around me, winter settling in, inside my heart and I feel closed off from the rest of the picturesque landscape of the world and numb but I can’t afford to break down. It always used to be me and daddy and I’m afraid like Alice in her fairy-tale wonderland I haven’t even begun to grow up yet into this promising, progressive, independent, feminist woman. A feminist woman with a husband and children in tow living off ‘the fat of the land’, with things that filled me with excitement like books and films and literature and science and breakthroughs and of course receiving your letters. I haven’t really been anywhere and I haven’t travelled as extensively as you and your wife have but still in the early hours of the morning sometimes before I go to bed finally and the light of the computer shines on me I feel a peace of mind, I feel as if I finally belong in the world. It has taken me decades to get to this place. I am with the two men in the world that I love and respect the most in the world, my father and my brother.

I don’t know about teaching creative writing. I’ve never given much thought to teaching it.

Of course, looking forward to hearing from you. Will reread your poem. Thank you in advance for your reply. Signing off just after four o’ clock in the morning. Don’t forget to post your comments on my latest book Winter In Johannesburg up on the Goodreads website. I have actually been looking out for it every day. And thank you for sharing aspects of your own life, your humanity and goodness, friendship and creative writing with me.

Kind regards,

Abigail

Abigail George
Abigail George
Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated shortlisted and longlisted poet Abigail George is a recipient of four writing grants from the National Arts Council, the Centre for Book and ECPACC. She briefly studied film, writes for The Poet, is an editor at MMAP and Contributing Writer at African Writer. She is a blogger, essayist, writer of several short stories, novellas and has ventured out to write for film with two projects in development . She was recently interviewed for Sentinel, and the BBC.