SM: What do you do to remedy melancholy?
MF: Go for long walks in the country. Cook a meal. Read. For really serious cases, I play chess, but this is not recommended except in emergencies.
SM: If you were to pack your bags today for your destination after shuffling off the mortal coil, what would go in your suitcase?
MF: I always understood that you can’t take anything with you. It would depend on the destination. If up, I’d take a telescope. If down, some kind of flame-retardant suit, as I imagine asbestosis is not a problem after death.
SM: Please recommend a way to escape the confines of this oak barrel, normally intended to hold rum, but now sealed and speeding us toward the bottom of he sea, having been tossed overboard by our arch-nemesis.
MF: A fine time to ask me – my recommendation would have been not to get into the barrel in the first place. But now all I can suggest is the bung-hole.
SM: Besides yourself, what’s the best thing to come out of the neighborhood you grew up in?
MF: I grew up in a leafy area near Woking, suburbs of London. The best thing to come out of Woking is H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which is set there. It also has what used to be the largest mosque in Britain, with a gold dome that looms improbably out of the trees when you arrive by train. And the London Necropolis Railway used to carry Victorian corpses to be buried nearby, but of course those went into the area rather than coming out of it.
SM: Please regale us with an anecdote.
MF: The first time I went to America I was a student. I got a cab at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and asked the driver to take me to a cheap hotel. He took me to a motel on the outskirts of Baltimore. In those days, we didn’t have many motels in Britain, and I’d only seen them in the movies, like Psycho. The cabin that served as a reception area was not encouraging: the receptionist was behind a pane of what looked like bulletproof glass. As I was checking in, a man came up and spoke to me. He was about six foot two, wore a white three-piece suit and had a heavily scarred face. He spoke the way people do when they’ve had their vocal chords removed, a sort of burbling growl from which I could only make out two phrases: ‘sleep wid you’ and ‘I’ll give you half’. I didn’t understand his offer (I still don’t), but I turned it down in my best polite English manner, and that seemed to satisfy him. Then I went to my cabin, where I discovered the lock on the door was broken, so I pulled all the furniture in front of the door, checked the phone book to see how to call the police and went to bed. About 2 in the morning I was woken by the sound of breaking glass and screaming voices. The man in the next cabin had been locked out by his wife and was trying to get in again. They both seemed pretty angry about it. I pulled the pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Some time later, I was woken again: more breaking glass, more screaming and swearing. They have guns in this country, I thought, and I don’t know anyone for 3000 miles. I didn’t do any more sleeping that night: by five in the morning I was up and dressed and calling for a taxi to take me to the Greyhound station. After that, things got a bit better.
SM: What is your first reaction to the sight of your name on a piece of paper?
MF: I check to see that it’s spelled correctly (two Ts, IS, not ES), and the right way round. Then I look at the context to see that it really is me, rather than the other Matthew Francis, the theatre director and playwright who has dogged me all my life. Come to think of it, perhaps he’s the one you intended to interview.
SM: When was the last time you fell asleep in a public setting?
MF: I once fell asleep on a wall in Greece and woke up on the ground beside it (uninjured). At that age I was going to a lot of the sort of parties where everyone went to sleep chastely on the carpet at about three in the morning, apart from the contingent who would drive to Stonehenge to see the sun come up. I must have slept in public since, but only on public transport, which hardly counts.
SM: When was the last time you danced like you meant it?
MF: 1997, British Columbia. The band was playing salsa, the only person in the room who knew me was my wife, and I was wearing my Zimbabwean hat which causes complete unselfconsciousness in anyone who wears it.
SM: How do you normally feel when you’re just walking down the street?
MF: Happy. It could be that I like walking or that I like streets, or that I am generally happy when I have nothing more pressing to do, or all three.
SM: Please compose a brief poem or haiku on the subject of your choice.
For haiku I charge
by the syllable: add five,
carry one, let’s see…