Rachel Johnson: The Show Must Go On
When it arrived at 13.12pm I was in the post office in Notting Hill at lunchtime, waiting to send a parcel. At first I thought, how lovely – haven’t heard from Michael Hastings, the playwright, for ages. The subject line of the email was ‘Tom & Viv’, the title of his most celebrated play. I even thought, idly, stupidly – I wonder how Michael’s getting on with ‘our play’ (I’m coming to this).
It was as my iPhone took a few seconds to open the email (it says ‘loading’, which is somehow annoying) that my brain’s one low gear engaged. The sender of the email, the kind, clever, creative genius Michael Hastings, was dead. But he was still somehow sending emails. And one had just been sent to me.
This was a shocker on several levels. It reminded me painfully that when he died, Hastings had been in the middle of adapting my last book, A Diary of The Lady, for the West End stage. I was very excited by this. In fact, it was one of the nicest things that have ever happened to me, the idea that someone as clever and gifted as Hastings, a contemporary and peer of Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter, was using my own lumpen raw material for a script. So when he died in medias res I hoped bravely that his kneading my Lady book into dramatic shape had played absolutely nothing to do with it.
But the real shocker, of course, was the possibility that Michael Hastings had sent me a message – a final stage direction perhaps – from beyond the grave.
When I read it carefully I discovered the email had been composed in June 2010, and he died in November 2011. So it was not a message from the Great Beyond. It reminded me that email is not infallible. I’d just spoken to an editor that morning. After pleasantries had been exchanged, I asked her whether she had liked my piece. “But I sent you an email,” she said. “Telling you how much I liked it. Weeks ago. You’re the third person this morning who’s said they haven’t got one from me…”
Often, of course, our minds being what they are, we forget we’ve read emails, but still, it’s amazing how many seem to go AWOL. If you are mad enough to give a party, and send out invitations by email, you have to reckon that a third won’t arrive (and three quarters of those that do will remain unanswered).
But then at 13.48pm I received another email from Michael Gerald Hastings, playwright and novelist, born September 2, 1937; died November 19, 2011. This was headed ‘cheated’ and concerned the destiny of a play Michael had written of the same name. Again, the email had not been originated in present day, again, it was not to me but to another recipient – and more than a year ago, but still. SPOOKY.
It makes me wonder whether there is a third dimension of some sort. Whether there are ghosts in the machine, a theme that has preoccupied writers as diverse as Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey was based on a 1948 story of his) and, more recently, Robert Harris, who wrote the hedge-fund thriller The Fear Index. For why was the late Michael’s defunct account sending these missives out? And why to me?
As a relentlessly positive person, I am taking today's communications as a sign that Michael and I are, in some way, still 'connected', if only by a misfiring server, somewhere up in heaven. So I duly forwarded the first email to the West End producer who bought the rights, and had the chutzpah to ask Michael Hastings to adapt, and reminded him that we had unfinished business here. “Seeing this jogged my memory,” I said. “Time for a catch up soon?”
Nothing will come of nothing, as Shakespeare said. But sometimes, something comes out of nothing, even on a rainy Monday lunchtime when you’re waiting to post a parcel in Notting Hill.
Rachel Johnson is editor-in-chief of The Lady. Follow her @RachelSJohnson. She has donated her fee for this column to the Big Issue Foundation.