No Compromise

When I look at pictures of myself of the time when I was as old as I am now that I am sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe I don’t recognise myself any more or any better than when I listen to my voice on the tape from the same era.

It feels like an era because it is so remote in the past, so distant, that it might as well be an epoch. Thirty years, thereabouts. Just over a generation. I now could easily, comfortably, be my own father then. That messes with my mind a bit, but it literally figures: I left home, aged twenty-one, ten days before my mother’s fiftieth birthday. It never once occurred to me, then, that it would perhaps be a good idea to stay for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and then leave home, as the last of her children to do so. My mind simply did not entertain that notion. It was not callousness or insensitivity, as such, it was a complete unawareness that that would even be a reasonable thing to do. I did get my wonderful friend Asta to pick up a thin golden ring that I had bought from the jeweller’s, on the inside of which I’d had the words engraved: In Gratitude. Asta picked up the ring with some flowers, for which I presumably had given her the money, and took it to my mother on her birthday. That to me seemed reasonable then. My mother still wears the ring, of course. And while I can’t to this day explain my behaviour to her, I can see that the memento means something to her and it means something to me that it does.

Now, as I’m sitting opposite myself at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul with a sense of wonder, I no longer in that other sense, wonder. This really has changed. For so long I simply wondered, at everything about all things, all of the time. I used to wonder what the future might hold, I used to wonder how things were in the present, I used to wonder what I was and what I was to become, I used to wonder, naturally, why? Why everything, why anything, really, and I used to wonder how I could come back to this place and do it for real.

This used to be a pervading sensation of mine: I must come back to this place and do it for real. It was almost like I was on a recce, accumulating intelligence, information on how to do this when it counted, when it was real. It was never real. Now – now ironically being the time and the age and the era when I do a good solid part of my living virtually – it’s beginning to be real. And I am immensely relieved. A little bit scared, perhaps, yes, but in a good way, the way that you get stage fright before you go on in a play or do a gig.

I thought at first, as I first was beginning to realise who that is, having a mojito with me, that I would want to ask myself innumerable questions. And now I realise, they don’t matter now. Now that they could be asked, they evaporate. Could it be I’m beginning to accept myself just as I am. Love myself, even? Is that conceivable, still? It’s a big word. Love.

I don’t think I ever hated myself, I’ve hardly ever hated anything or let alone anyone, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been able to love myself. I’ve overestimated myself, bemused myself, irritated myself, entertained myself, and imagined myself somehow exalted, but loved myself? I don’t know what that would feel like, so I don’t think I have.

I want to have a conversation with myself about something that isn’t me, and I ask young George how he’s been spending his time travelling across Europe. The details he tells me neither surprise nor remind me: they sound like the indifferent anecdotes of a young man who’s been travelling across Europe. The stories he’s telling me are intimate, even provocative. In a nonchalant way. I had forgotten that aspect of me: I used to be quite provocative, in a nonchalant way. I used to be rebellious, certainly, and deliberately daring. Never quite as daring as deep inside I thought I ought to be though; this too, I seemed to conduct almost as a rehearsal: my daring. George speaks in a measured, quiet tone, not dissimilar to the tone I hear on the tape. I’m beginning to wonder whether I have already listened to the tape and this is essentially a memory constructed from the tape, so as not to call it a ‘dream’, or whether I’m yet to find the tape, but then the chronology, in a situation where I’m sitting opposite my thirty years younger self in a delightful garden cafe in Istanbul, having mojitos and talking about travels and Europe and daring and art does not particularly seem to matter.

‘I cannot bear a compromise, in art,’ I hear myself tell myself, and young me, George, looks up and smiles that nearly-smile that I’m beginning to recognise, even like. ‘I find it abhorrent. Compromise is something, perhaps, for politics, perhaps for a relationship, I don’t know; but for art: no.’ I agree with myself on this, emphatically. ‘Yes,’ George says, ‘I agree with you. Do you smoke?’ And we finally have our first cigarette together.

The silence is soothing and reassuring and I’m reminded of a teacher at school whose name I can’t now remember who taught us clay modelling. At the school I went to, this was one of the things we did and I enjoyed it, in principle, but I was going through a crisis. We were modelling heads, near life-size (about two thirds or three quarter) and, having finished one of a girl, quite generic, which I thought looked all right but which didn’t excite me, I had started a second one, this time of an African boy. And I couldn’t get his features right. I was getting frustrated and I must have expressed this somehow, though I don’t remember the how, and our teacher, a German woman in her maybe forties who to me then seemed neither ancient nor young but really curiously both at the same time, and whom I didn’t know well enough to like or dislike but was able, for her empathy and her concern for my work to respect, looked at my head and at me and then said: ‘Ein Kunstwerk muss durch den Tod gehen.’ A work of art has to go through death. I instinctively knew what she meant, and although I couldn’t entirely comprehend it, I liked the fact that she had used the words ‘work of art’ and ‘death’ in one sentence and combined them so that one was to conquer the other, and I thought nothing of the fact that she seemed to refer to my high school project as a work of art, and she did two or three things to my head that took all of about ninety seconds, and the way was paved for me to finish my project.

I completed the head and it spent the next two or three years in pride of place in my bedroom on a black cloth with a round badge pinned to it on which the words “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” were printed in small yellow letters on a black background, and when I left my parents’ home, I left it behind, and since then it has been living on top of a large commode in the living room of my parents’ holiday flat in the mountains, and I see it there often and while I’m not sure it is quite a work of art, I certainly know it had to go through a death before it turned into something that still, after all this time, is in its own right, quite beautiful.

We finish our cigarettes and I ask George if he would care to go for a walk and he says: ‘why not?’

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