I was born in Manchester in June 1964 into a Swiss family, and I have never been in any doubt that both these facts are of defining significance. Had I been born in Manchester into an English family, I would most likely have grown up either in Manchester or if not there then somewhere else in Britain, and if not that then at any rate in an English-speaking household. Had I been born in Switzerland or anywhere else, I might never have developed my powerful affinity to England, Britain and the English language.
As it was, I grew up as the ‘English Boy’ in a Swiss Family in Switzerland, because soon after my birth – a mere six weeks – I was carried aboard a plane in a red wicker basket and flown, together with my brother and two sisters, to Basel, where my arrival was greeted with jolly brass bands and a splendid fireworks display. It would please me to think that the good people of Basel were thus celebrating my homecoming, but it just happened to be Swiss National Day, 1st August; and also it wasn’t in that sense a homecoming.
Because although I was a fiercely patriotic child, my loyalties then were always almost evenly divided between Switzerland and England, with Switzerland slightly having the edge, and as I grew into my teenage years the balance began to tip in favour of England. But more important than that – and also perhaps more curious – although I had really done all my growing up (bar the first six weeks) in Arlesheim, a beautiful, picturesque and particularly peaceful and well cared-for village outside Basel, and in Basel itself, where I went to school, I never actually really felt ‘at home’ there.
I felt at home in London the moment I set foot in it when my parents took me and the younger of my two sisters, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on I returned to London every year at least once, often twice, at first staying with a friend of the family, then with friends I made there over my visits, or at a hostel or a cheap hotel, and from as early as sixteen I started talking about moving to London.
I finished school, spent a year (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, then; and I’d wanted to buy a one-way ticket to London. The slightly bored – too bored, I thought: I’m moving to London! That’s exciting! – travel agent laconically told me she could sell me a one-way ticket, but that it would be more expensive than buying a return and simply not coming back. It irked me, but I was twenty-one and I had to make the money I’d earned as a security guard over the previous few months last a bit, so I opted for the more economical offer and bought a return, the outbound on the 1st August: Swiss National Day, precisely 21 years after I’d arrived in Switzerland. Of course, I didn’t use the return leg, I let it lapse: I did not go back. Not, it seems, until now, three years later, when my ‘Europe Tour 1988’ took me, after Edinburgh, from Grenoble to Vicenza back to Chur and then Basel, where I saw first my sister, then my parents, my brother Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, and many friends from the then recent past. The way I talk about it all on the tape does not feel ‘recent’ though, I talk about having lived in London now for three years as a big chunk of my life, and it is a big chunk: it’s all of my adult life so far.
My delivery on the tape is measured, often very quiet (mostly out of consideration: I seem to be recording the majority of my entries very late at night; that’s one thing that hasn’t changed, my being a night owl…) and I choose my words carefully, though not always correctly. I refer, for example, to a part of the trip as being ‘exhaustive’ when I mean ‘exhausting’ and I keep calling things ‘well done’ when I mean they are either well made or simply good. I sound a bit bemused and a bit blasé, absolutely, and also a little in awe; I marvel but I don’t gush, I describe things as ‘fantastic’ but say the word as you would say the word ‘nice’, and often qualify things towards moderation. I sound to me now almost like someone who’s rediscovering his language, who’s searching hard, and sometimes finding, sometimes just missing, the right expression, who’s grappling, without really knowing it, for a lost code, but enjoying the process of slow rediscovery.
There is good evidence now that you pick up a great deal as an unborn child in your mother’s womb; you make out sounds and noises and you start recognising them and responding to them long before you are able to make any sense of them as a child. I always loved English as a child, and as a young teenager I became very ‘good’ at it. Though I also wildly overestimated my abilities. Perhaps – and I do mean this ‘perhaps’, it’s not here merely for a rhetorical purpose – the familiarity that nine months as a growing foetus and then six weeks as a newborn baby in an English-speaking environment provided had already firmly, irreversibly planted its seed. You have to, as an artist, aim higher than you can reach: that way you may in time extend your reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; that way you may in time overcome your fear of becoming yourself.
As I listen to myself on the tape, I realise I’m listening to a young human who has fearlessly – much more fearlessly than I would ever have imagined I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…