Departures and Arrivals (part 1), The Typewriter Museum, Books and Film/TV.

Taking Stock

Last night was the winter solstice. Midwinter, the shortest day, the longest night.

A sun and earth in space

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The ancient astronomers saw the solstice as the moment the sun stood still. A long, winter’s night that even before it finishes, has given birth to the slow climb back toward longer days and a more fiery sun.

The Gemini twin-heads of endings and beginnings are on my mind as I write, waiting for the sun to come up. This year, I hurried through fifty-two airport departure or arrival gates. A little sheep, following signs that corral me through approved corridors, bleating with excitement or tiredness, anxious to get on the plane so I too can fit my case into the overhead bin, wheels pointed forward, before all the space is gone. Or off, into fresh air and waiting adventure.

A close-up of a sign

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Two of those trips were hastily booked to respond to emergencies. I made my way through a maze of connecting flights, eyes teary from a reckoning with the impermanence of life.

My mother, lost, which is how I first thought of it. Passed away. Passed through. Transitioned. Each person has their own language of death, and frankly I find all the phrases lacking. But I’ve yet to come up with a better one of my own.

She’s very much on my mind as I prepare for this holiday season, my first without her. And if I think about it too closely, the grief threatens to overwhelm. But when I just let myself feel, anxiety fades away. Because she’s everywhere in and around me – literally half my DNA, so I see her features in the mirror. In how my hands chop onions. In my snappy turtle tendency when exhausted.

But more than that, I feel myself slipping between time, my perceptions of the past and the present equally present, as if I am experiencing both vividly.

Mid-December is when we start to get inundated with year-in-review articles and best of 2023 lists. In a week, we’ll collectively cast our gaze forward into 2024, making resolutions to be kinder. Eat more vegetables. Go to the gym.

But not yet. Not yet. For now, we look backward. Try to make sense of all that happened to us this year. Ring-fence confusion. Quantify the unquantifiable. Because the unknowable is scary, is it not?

A star with writing on it

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We have Julius Caesar’s astronomers to thank for our modern twelve-month year, and for the leap year, too, designed to synchronize the seasons. Previously, there’d had been ten months in the calendar, yet twelve lunar cycles. They added January and February, and renamed July and August to honour Julius and his successor Augustus.

Astronomical events – the rotation of the Earth around its axis, an orbit of the sun – provided the structure for how humans came to mark months, years and days. But why, psychologically, are we driven to mark time? And how do we make sense of it?

A person in a top hat

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(Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, taking stock of his life through Christmases past, present and future.)

Cognitive studies argue that our human concept of time depends on metaphor. But spatial metaphors for the past and the future vary around the world. Is time a march of units in a sequential row, or a fluid movement around and between? Is the past behind us and the future ahead, or are they downhill and uphill? Turns out, that depends on the geography of where we were raised, and the culture we belong to.

This December, my sense of time and space is expansive, free-form. I’m creating my own spatial metaphors and I quite like it this way.

I suppose
if this were someone else’s story
they would have insisted on knowing
whatever is knowable – would have hurried
over the fields
to name it – the owl, I mean.
But it’s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out
my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.

–     An excerpt from Snowy Night, by Mary Oliver

Museo della Macchina per Scrivere (The Typewriter Museum)

One of the most unexpected pleasures of my recent novel research trip to Puglia, Italy was visiting the Museo della Macchina per Scrivere located in the gorgeous Palazzo Lodispoto in Trani. It houses 400 typewriters from the personal collection of Natale Pagano.

The museum is a mesmerizing walk through the history of ‘writing machines’ – from noiseless to portable, indexing to QWERTY keyboards (the one we all use now), utilitarian models to luxury.

But it’s also a cultural history tour. The development of the Nazi typewriter that had a SS key. The first Hebrew and Japanese language editions; braille keyboards as they developed. The different typewriters used by Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming (Goldfinger!), and war journalists the world over.

A typewriter and a typewriter

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Then, there was the transparent PVC Swintec model developed for the US prison system so that inmates could hid nothing inside, no part could be reshaped as a weapon and guards could inspect with ease.

A keyboard in a transparent case

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The big business of US prisons was a game changer for Swintec’s business model, which had languished after the rise of personal computers. A literally captured market – and not just hardware. Think of all those ribbons that need replaced. The correction tape. The printwheels.

This New Yorker article, “A Prisoner’s Only Writing Machine” is a fascinating look at the drive to create inside some of America’s worst prisons.

Kenneth Foster, Jr became a writer on death row, convicted of capital murder. He bought his first typewriter around 1999 and began to write letter after letter in an effort to stop his execution (he succeeded). Kept in solitary confinement, the typewriter was his only companion, his connection to the machine he called ‘baby’ visceral.

I have written with everything from pen, typewriter, marker, to my own blood. I have written on tables, floors, on walls when I only had a crack of light, in the dark, under blinding lights.

John J Lennon is serving life in Sing Sing for murder. He joined a prison writing program, which helped him process all he had done, and all that had been done to him. His cell has no chair, so he wrote sitting on a bucket until his back pain was too great. Now he sits on his bed with the typewriter on his lap. When it breaks (the model is unreliable), he writes long-hand. Writing has become so important, he got himself a typewriter tat.

I sit here, in the middle of this long night, typing away with a blankie, a cup of tea and my Apple laptop. The Christmas tree lights twinkle. I’m taking stock, reckoning with the year’s events, and with the privilege I experience in this life compared to so many in the world. But also feeling a kinship to all who put pen to paper, fingers to a keyboard, or voice to a story.

And, although dawn is yet to break, I feel the light forming inside. ☀️


Books & Film

Hello, my name is Helen and I’ve become an audiobook addict. Especially when I travel. I find it impossible to sleep on planes, even in the very rare case I’m in the pointy front with its curved pods and flat beds. But I love to put in my AirPods, pull down my eye mask and be transported into another world.

I find fiction more conducive to the audio format; I need a strongly built world, and a distinctive narrative voice to drown out other stimuli. Among the books I listened to on my travels that I’d recommend: Blood Betrayal by Dr Ausma Zehanat Khan, Resurrection Walk by Michael Connelly, The Secret Hours by Mick Herron and The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr (I was late getting to this 2022 title which won many awards).

I also partially listened to Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke, but have a harder time concentrating on non-fiction audiobooks. I made up for that this week, creating my own personal matching campaign in the bookstore. One book purchased for others, for me. I’m looking forward to digging into these next week:

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Speaking of Mick Herron, the third season of the Apple TV adaption of his books, Slow Horses, is currently streaming. And it’s stunningly good. Brit Box unveiled the new season of Shetland, based originally on the Anne Cleves novels where a whole lot of people die in a very small place. But I’m not loving the writing in season eight.

I’ve also watched Reacher on Amazon Prime based on the Lee Child novels. Formulaic for sure, but mindless escape when you need it. I’m itching to go to the cinema over the holidays, as well. We have boxing day tickets for Ferrari, Michael Mann’s biopic of the Italian innovator.  

Also on my list: the adaptation of The Colour Purple, George Clooney’s The Boys in the BoatAmerican FictionBob Marley: One Love, and two movies I had London Film Festivals tickets for but didn’t get to attend: Steve McQueen’s 4.5hour documentary The Occupied City and Zone of Interest, winner of the Grand Prix award this year at Cannes.

Next newsletter (January 5th) I look at upcoming spring 2024 books and films that I’ve been tracking.


Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this twenty-fifth edition of Letterbox. Wishing you a light-filled holiday.

Departures and Arrivals (part 1), The Typewriter Museum, Books and Film/TV.
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