Istanbul

We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.

George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.

Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…

I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.

Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.

We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.

There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.

We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?

I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.

George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.

I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?

We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.

Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.

I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.

But now. And here. We are.


< {Memories of the Past}


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{Memories of the Past}

a surreptitious glance in a doorway: you

had been waiting for me

but how long?

i can’t remember, i remember

seeing you at the cinema and us

exchanging glances

(those were the days, mostly, of

glances)

and us not speaking, i was too shy, you shy too

so i started walking

across the river, there: a cafe, old style; what

was i doing in there, could it be, really, that you

waited

outside while i was having coffee inside?

or did i pop in to see if i liked it, but didn’t, or whether you would follow (but why would you? it was an old style cafe; and you didn’t), so i

popped out again, straight away? that seems more likely, certainly it seems more

reasonable…

*

you were in the entrance as i came out and i saw you again and you me and it was clear

you’d been waiting for me, there

in the doorway

but we still didn’t speak

how was that even possible: it was obvious

you had been waiting for me, yet

we didn’t speak, i not to you, you not to me

i was incredibly young, you a bit younger,

there by the rhine, in basel, at that time

of glances, mostly, and quietly aching

silences

*

you were there too maybe two, three years later

now on the southbank

in london

you looked different, a bit, though not much

you had those same eyes, longing

uncertain, a

querying glance, that

glance

that i must have had too

it was the era of glances, of not saying what any of us wanted, ever, of

uncertainty, being afraid

but of what?

of being found out

of revealing too much

too much to the wrong kind of person, of being

vulnerable

literally, viscerally, in danger of injury, death

or afraid merely of actually having, enjoying, living a moment, such one 

brief encounter?

who knows

*

those were days of unspoken desires

at night time

near rivers

only this time i actually asked you

for a light

or you me?

i you or you me, one of us asked the other for a cigarette or a light or for both and

another glance was exchanged and a flame lit up and in that flame we did not look at each other again, we just looked at the hands touching, cupping the cigarette, and that

once again

just was that

how curious

how timid, how cautious, how wary i was

of you

always

and yet how much i wanted to be with you

still

*

and then there you were in st james’s park: another you, another glance 

i on my way home

you on your way where? i didn’t ask and you didn’t say

it was nice

there

to finally meet you

at night, late

by the pond, not the river

to feel your hands on me, taste your lips

such a long time ago now

such a situation between two and three, thereabouts, in the morning

when that park is not closed and not open but we both were

closed and open and there: those were the days

of such stolen moments, so

rare

i miss them no more than i miss you

and i don’t miss you, i’m just maybe sorry

a bit

that it took me so long to pluck up the courage to finally meet you

albeit briefly

we wasted, it seems, a few opportunities, you and i, but

*

you live and you learn, and nothing

but nothing

can be rewound, reconfigured, restored, it can not even be really

relived, it can

of course be

in one way or another

remembered, redeemed?

(to what end? none other than to know that there was such a thing as a path, a trajectory,

or an arc:

a semblance of something resembling a story

a sequence of inconsequential instances, now implanted, the shapes

along which the currents of time have mostly been channelled, each curve, each bend

not just leaving traces but forming them too

until

at last

there’s a torrent

and the river, the brook or the stream

floods its banks and

ignores

these patterns, these half

designs, half

instinctive behaviours half

needed half wanted half detested half worn and half

overthrown memories

only half

ever

because the half that sits underground under consciousness under skin under mind

remains there forever somehow, and

so be it

*

albeit not always appreciated not always valued not always wanted or loved

you are always

a part of me still, and

welcome

to stay

 

whatever became of you, i do wonder

and then i forget that i ever did

because life goes on and

there are many more rivers to cross and bridges to burn and transgressions that must be traversed and

comings together

to fathom, just

*

know that i never not wanted

to know you

*


< World       Istanbul >

 

London

The Tape ends in London, where I tell my future self that I had “never been on a holiday after which I found it so difficult to return home.”

It was my longest trip since leaving high school in Switzerland, after which eleven of us had gone island hopping in Greece for nearly a month. I don’t feel like coming “back to my own cooking”—which at the time, and for many, many years to come, consists mainly of pasta, fried eggs and the occasional oven-baked fish—“and my own washing up.” The only thing I do feel like is to “bring to fruition all the plans I’ve formulated about Edinburgh.”

It feels good to have “talked to so many people in so many different places;” in fact, “it feels like there’s a theatre, and friends and family are already assembled in the front rows, but the curtain hasn’t quite risen yet.” But that’s good, I emphasise: “it’s a kind of pressure—good pressure—a supportive expectation, which spurs me on to follow through on what I said I wanted to do.” Of course, I am aware, “I don’t know if it will succeed, but it’s worth a try.” And for that sentiment alone I today salute my very young and very optimistic self of 1988.

A few changes are imminent: “I feel I have to leave 14 St Alban’s Street soon, just because of the temperatures in winter.” These I remember with less pain now than I know I used to experience at the time. The place had no central heating, and while the kitchen (which was also the hall) and my bedroom were so small that you could just about get them warm with an electric blow heater or by putting on the oven and leaving its door open, that was an expensive and hardly ecological way to heat your home, and we all had no money. So in winter, we took all the food out of the fridge, put it on the grand piano in the living room, switched off the fridge and closed the door to the living room, and that was it till the spring: our own ridiculously outsized walk-in larder.

That building no longer stands. A little while ago, I walked past where it used to be, and to my surprise and momentary disorientation I found that the whole block, which had housed some shops, possibly a bank, certainly a pub, and our flat as well as several others, was simply gone. I imagine a new office block, or mixed residential and commercial development is going up on the site. This used to be owned by the Crown Estate, I imagine it still is.

Our landlady though was an American poet who had been living in London for about twenty years by then, who had six grown up children, and who was not only subletting individual rooms to us flat sharers, but also ran the small music rehearsal studios downstairs, called St Alban’s Street Studios; and when these were fully booked, musicians would sometimes come up to our flat and use the grand piano in the living room to practice.

I loved living there; it felt in an almost old-fashioned sense ‘bohemian,’ I was still new to town, and this was a place with an unbeatable location, directly behind Piccadilly Circus, in a tiny street wedged in between Lower Regent Street and Haymarket, used mostly by taxis to change direction in the one way system, or as a shortcut. (But not every London cab driver knew of it, even though it was so central it was undoubtedly part of ‘The Knowledge.’ On one occasion, I had one who was so surprised that there was a street in the West End he’d never heard of that he switched off the meter and let me guide him to my doorstep, just to find out…)

The terms of the lease on the flat stipulated that our landlady was not actually allowed to sublet any part of it, but was meant to use it solely for herself and her family. It can’t have been long after this, my final audio diary entry, that we were told she was going to lose the flat, unless she could convince a judge that we were not really renting our rooms from her, but living there on a friendly basis, in a quasi artistic arrangement. This was utter nonsense, of course, even though two of our flatmates had, at times, been staffing the reception of the studios downstairs, for one pound an hour…

No wonder, therefore, our feeble attempts at making our tenancies sound like anything other than what they were, without perjuring ourselves in court, got absolutely nowhere, and soon the decision was made for me: I had to move out, as the Crown Estate took back the property. (Ironically, a full quarter century later, the same landlady got into trouble again with her neighbours, over the flat where she had actually been living all this time. Also over subletting rooms, now on AirBnB. Again there was a court case. Again she lost…)

On The Tape, apart from sensing a move come on, I also “feel I have to change jobs just for the sake of diversity”—by which I probably mean variety—“and getting to know something new,” by which I probably mean learning it.

I record, and relate, that there’s “no hurry about that, although first initiatives will start now towards the end of the year.” Other than that, I now have “lots to do regarding Edinburgh next year,” and apparently I had been doing some workshops on Tuesdays prior to the trip, because I now tell myself that these are starting up again. Perhaps I’ll even “enrol for the City Lit course.” 

The City Lit course was a then well known—almost in a small way legendary—part time acting course; legendary not so much perhaps for the content or the teaching (though it was led by two inspiring and much loved Canadians), but for the fact that admission was granted on a purely first come, first served basis, rather than through auditions, which meant that people quite literally queued up overnight to get in. I obviously followed through on this, because I certainly did queue up all through the night, two years running, and I met in that queue people I’m still friends with today, one of whom built from scratch first the Southwark Playhouse and then Arcola Theatre, two respected London Off West End theatres today, at both of which I’ve had plays of mine staged.

The final note of this holiday, I hear myself say, “is summarised perhaps in the word ‘fantastic,’” by which I mean not so much that it had been exciting—although it had—but that I had met really good people, among them many friends of friends; that I had been able to stay with people all the way through except in Edinburgh and Paris; and that I had loved being with people I knew and knew really well.

I end The Tape by telling my future self that I had just been on a walk through St James’s Park, after coffee at the ICA, and that it now feels “a bit like decision time.” It’s a time of looking back and of looking forward, and if this was a break in-between, then the part that starts now is going to be a busy one: “I feel quite determined to finish my studies; I feel determined to do Edinburgh next year. I won’t apply for drama school, I’d rather finish the evening studies first.”

This is a degree I was taking, at what was then known as the Polytechnic of Central London and has since been renamed University of Westminster. In Social Sciences. I’ve always held this to be the most useless degree imaginable, but it was a valuable time all in its own right, and it turned out to be far from useless, but for reasons I could not really have foreseen.

Clearly, though, it was simply an extension of my general education, rather than in any way a vocation, since my heart was then already firmly on theatre, whence it has rarely ever really strayed. But the earliest possible moment therefore for me to go to a full time drama school would be “next year,” while in the meantime “I’ll try to do a City Lit course;” and everything else, I declare, is up for grabs.

It was, I say in the most languid voice that I’ve ever heard anyone, including myself, say anything, and that now brings one more smile at myself of back then to my lips, “a totally invigorating and satisfying experience. I feel very grateful for having been able to do this, and for having been received with such hospitality and friendship.”

Finally, I reckon that there’s “a lot of travelling to do” (which I do, over time), and “a lot of living in different places,” too, naming Paris and Italy as likely contenders, which is something I haven’t done: after St Alban’s Street I crashed with friends in Hackney for a short while, then I lived near Marble Arch for a few years, then in Ashley Gardens near Victoria in precisely the flat that our former landlady has since also lost (though that block is unlikely to be torn down any time soon, as it is a gorgeous residential two-tone brick building, in keeping entirely with the Westminster Cathedral, which stands directly next to it, and probably listed).

After that I moved into The Anthony in Earl’s Court, where I’ve been living ever since. Always London: maybe the first and certainly the longest love of my life…


< Les Grands Amours


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Les Grands Amours

I arrive back in Paris, and see it “properly” now “for the first time.” These mark the “last few days of a fantastic holiday,” and “those few days were wonderful.”

I feel that glow now, it expands beneath my ribs and makes my breath seem warmer. “I think my favourite building in the world for its originality is the Centre Pompidou,” I tell myself on The Tape, and for a long time, I remember, that was the case. I embraced modernity, pre-, post- and present. I was into things, such as cool architecture; they excited me then, they excite me still.

I record and recall seeing La Vie de Brian, as The Life of Brian was called there, and us laughing our heads off, the way we only could then. There was an evening, not long after I’d moved to London, when my friend Peggy and, I believe, beautiful Stefan, and maybe one or two other people were assembled in my shared living room, lounging on the grubby sofa and draped over a stained but strangely comfortable armchair, watching Airplane! on TV. We laughed so hard at this, we literally ended up on the floor. That capacity for joy, so unalloyed: we had it then, we had it in Paris—that was exactly the era—and I don’t know when or where it went. That freshness, even with an open mind as I try to keep it, has simply gone: hardly anything ever makes me laugh now anywhere near as hard. Perhaps I’ve seen it, heard it, if not all then just too much of it, to tickle me so with surprise?

I remember loving the Pompidou, I remember loving and laughing at La Vie, I remember little if anything else, apart from Christian, Judith’s brother, whom I thought “great” and “quite eccentric, in his own way,” and probably fancied, just a bit. Judith, whom I loved then and still love today, though I haven’t seen her in a decade (and then under sad, troubled, circumstances concerning our friend), was my school pal whom we were visiting in Paris, where she was staying with her boyfriend, Alain. For reasons I don’t recall I spent quite some time with her brother, liking him immensely. (Maybe because Judith was with her boyfriend, Alain?)

At one point Christian and I got on a metro train together. As it arrived, we noticed that it had first and second class compartments, and he said we should ride in second class since we didn’t have first class tickets. I, having never been to Paris “properly” before, convinced him that this must be a remnant of the olden days, and that by now the metro surely only had one class for all. So we boarded the less crowded first class carriage.

Within minutes we were surrounded by about five ticket inspectors, demanding a surcharge and a fine. I was outraged: I told them they were being completely unreasonable, since it was impossible for me, a Londoner, to know that a metropolitan underground train could have two classes. They pointed at the big ‘1’ that was painted on the interior of the carriage, and mentioned the same on the outside. I was having none of it: I live in London, I said, I use the tube all the time, and we don’t have any of this nonsense. They let us off. We were made to move to second class, but no money changed hands. I can be stubborn when I need to be, that hasn’t changed…

My forever enduring memory though of these last few days of my Europe tour in 1988, and one of the best and most cherished experiences of all my years of going to the cinema anywhere in the world, was Le Grand Bleu. I had seen it before, in Grenoble, and fallen in love with it and with Jean-Marc Barr then, but this now was in a league of its own.

The film was immensely successful in France, and so Le Grand Rex, one of the largest cinemas in Paris, had put up an extra large screen in front of its existing one. It was, I tell The Tape, “a 25 metre screen,” which would make it either nearly the size of, or even slightly bigger than, the screen on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival (which today is still the largest in Europe), depending on whether that was a horizontal width or a diagonal measurement, which I can’t remember. In any case, it was huge. (They may even have ‘renamed’ the cinema for that run. It’s entirely possible, but once again I am no longer certain, that the cinema was really normally called Le Rex, and they labelled it Le Grand Rex just for Le Grand Bleu, with the big screen.)

Because the screen was so large, there were now, in the auditorium, new restricted sight lines. The stalls were fine, as was the upper balcony, but from all but the front row in the dress circle, the view was severely restricted, because you would not see the top of the screen (which was blocked off by the balcony above you) or the bottom (which was obscured by the circle in front of you), for which reason the cinema had cordoned off the dress circle altogether.

We were not young people to be told where to sit in a cinema with unreserved seating, and so while people raced, as the doors opened, to the best seats up on the balcony and down in the stalls, we opened the door to the dress circle behind the red cord, and saw it empty, with a vast screen beckoning. We snuck in, closed the door behind us, and took up the few seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle, the ones directly in the middle of the screen: your entire field of vision was taken up with The Big Blue: it was magnificent.

I to this day can’t get over how beautiful and real the sea and how close-enough-to-touch Jean-Marc Barr were. Other good actors appeared in the film, there was other fine scenery, but I remember him and the sea and the dolphins. And the party on Taormina, I believe, where he turns up dressed in a dinner suit, wearing trainers, looking sheepish and unbearably cute. I could have married him there and then.

I later met Jean-Marc Barr after a performance in the West End of a Tennessee Williams play, and he was gracious and polite; I a little timid and shy, but happy to be face-to-face with him in person, and now getting him ‘out of my system’: he was a lovely, good-looking man, and a very decent actor, and I no longer now had to pine…

“Unfortunately, on the last night” of our stay in Paris, I tell The Tape, “Judith split up with her boyfriend, Alain,” and so “went back with her brother Christian,” to Basel, I presume. I, on Sunday, which therefore must have been the next day, took the train back to London and arrived there in the evening, “about nine o’clock.”


< {Bereavement}       London >

 

{Bereavement}

This is not on The Tape, but I’m reminded of it here, and part of me thinks it doesn’t belong here, part of me thinks it doesn’t belong anywhere really, part of me wonders does everything somehow, ultimately, need to be told, and part of me knows: this is exactly where it belongs.

I hear myself overall so happy, so optimistic on The Tape. Improbably casual and emotionally understated: my delivery suggests I’m giving an account of a trip to Milton Keynes, but the words I choose—carefully, even cautiously, deliberately always—speak of a young person with everything going for himself, with abundance of confidence, and imbued with great hope. And I’m so glad to hear him thus, though in the tone of the voice and the distance to the heart, I also hear the youth from which this young person had emerged, then relatively recently.

I’ve been blessed in that I have, to this day, had to suffer the loss of three people only. And of a cat. Of these three, one was someone I’d met once, very briefly, but really didn’t know: Diana, the Princess of Wales. There is no rhyme or reason to this, but her death shook me to the core and disorientated me for a week. I cried more over her than any of my grandparents, all of whom I loved dearly. All my grandparents died over the years, but that seemed the normal course of the world: people get old, then they die. Obviously, their passing was, in each case, a loss, and felt as one, too. But you can prepare for this, you know it’s going to happen, and when it does, you deal with it, and then you honour them in your thoughts and keep their memory alive in your soul. Princess Diana being torn out of our culture was a cataclysm. Of its own kind. It came out of nowhere, and it seemed to change everything, and, irrational though this was, it left a gaping hole in my life, in a way that I, myself, never expected. It was an extraordinary experience, unique, I am certain, to her.

One was a dear friend who decided to leave us. That was both shocking and unexpected, even if it had been, in a way, predictable, sadly. I mourned her, and I knew then, as I know now, that I had to let that be as it was. It was just so. More than anything I felt I was called upon to respect her, and her decision. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I do.

Losing our cat as a boy was dreadful: I loved that cat. I was unspeakably sad when we were told he’d been hit by the tram. I got over it.

And one is still around and still a good friend, and when we see each other now we have excellent conversations, but when I first lost him—I was fifteen, he fourteen—my world fell apart. We had been best friends at school, and we were in essence together. Not as lovers, not romantically, not anything other than as friends, but as friends we were as one. People didn’t even tease us, it was just the accepted thing, that where I was there was he, and where he was was I.

It had come about over several years, and it was my normality. Of course I loved him, but I didn’t know that. I had no conception of love (and none of sexuality, for that matter), I spent no time thinking about how much I needed him, or enjoyed being with him, or relied on him always being around. That was all just the way it was. It was solid, it was dependable, it was real.

And then something happened that I hadn’t seen coming, ever: he turned away from me. It was gradual, simple, undramatic, and also in its own way normal: he just started spending time with someone else, more than with me. At first I barely noticed, there was no cut-off point, no moment I could pinpoint where it began, it just gradually dawned on me: we are no longer one.

The other boy was a good person, still is: we’re still friends as well, he and I. He wasn’t cruel, he didn’t manoeuvre, or manipulate, he just took my place, without, probably, even knowing what was happening, either. I had been the one who was always by my friend’s side, and now he was there. At first he was there too, but soon he was there more than I, and then I realised I had lost my love. I still couldn’t name it that, because I still didn’t know that that’s what it was, but the incision was brutal. I was cut off. I bled.

I was lost. Abandoned. Bereaved. I couldn’t name the way I felt any of these things, because I didn’t know what they were, I only knew that I didn’t want to live. Really didn’t. Not melodramatically, attention seekingly didn’t, just didn’t. There was no point. I was distraught, yes, but more than that I was destroyed. There was no word for it, no expression, no therapy and no remedy, there was just emptiness, complete.

This lasted for eighteen months, maybe twenty. It was a crisis so profound, so categorical, so total, I felt that it would break me. I saw no way that it couldn’t. It was absolute, the despair. And all of this over the loss of a friend? Today, with perspective, I know it was obviously more than that: losing my friend was the trigger. What his extracting himself from my life did was tear open a wound which drew all manner of complications. The insecurity. The loneliness. The mind’s confusion over the heart. The heartbreak over the part of the soul that was missing. The pointlessness. The disorientation.

What sustained me was my brother, because I could talk to him—not about this, but about everything else that was going on in my teenage life—and my mother of course, because I could not then, and I would not now be able to, bring myself to do anything deliberately that would cause her grief.

And then something happened that I also didn’t expect: I found a way out. I hadn’t been looking, not consciously anyway, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but the subconscious knows and searches and finds, and without thinking much what I was doing, I wrote.

It was going to be and started out briefly as a novel, but then I remembered something our English teacher had said: that writing plays is way more efficient than writing novels: you need far fewer words to tell your story and to create your characters.

And so I wrote my first play. I was seventeen now, I called it 19. It dealt with a young man taking his life, and how that affects everyone around him. It had an original structure, because rather than going in a linear plot from beginning through middle to end, it started with events about a year or two (I can’t remember exactly) before and after the suicide and then circled in, closer and closer, to end with the moment of no return. That structure, too, was not something I really thought about, I just wrote it that way. Although the play has never been performed, nor ever even been read in public, it achieved several things for me.

Firstly, it was my catharsis. By abstracting the youth’s self-inflicted death and putting it on a character in a play, I was able to ‘deal with’ what I was going through, and absolved myself from actually having to do the same thing for real.

Secondly, it showed me I had a new friend. I gave this piece—which was really very revelatory, open and incredibly honest—to somebody I had started spending time with at school, and his reaction was perfect: he took it seriously, but he didn’t panic. He just talked about it as a piece of writing, and encouraged me to show it to other people, which I did. I knew now I had someone again I could trust.

Thirdly, it made me realise I was able to write. I gave the piece to my German teacher at school who, unbeknownst to me, gave it to a man who happened to be my favourite actor at the Stadttheater Basel, where we routinely saw maybe a dozen plays each season. Henning Köhler. He was invited to our school to give a talk about theatre and acting generally, and at the end of that talk he said: “and one of you has written a really good play.” I went up to him afterwards and said: “that may have been me.”

Nothing happened with or to the play, he was quite apologetic about that—‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do anything for you in terms of getting it on at the theatre’—but for Henning Köhler, to my mind the best actor in town, to have read my play and to have made a point of mentioning it, that was enough. That was something I could hold on to.

And it also paved the way for me to lose my virginity, at last. There was a man whom I knew well and liked and respected a lot, a writer, actor, performer, who lived in St Gallen, of all places, and I sent him the play. I knew he was gay, he was a few years older than me, in his early twenties. He was cool. And nice. And in an unspectacular way attractive.

He read the play and asked me if I wanted to come and talk about it, and I said yes. I went to visit him, and we talked about the play, and at the end of the evening, I went to sleep on the sofa, and he came over and said: “If you want to you can come to my bed?” And I said, “yes.”

The doors were finally flung open. It wasn’t quite the proverbial floodgates, though in a Hollywood rendering of the story there would probably have to be strings; but it was good. I was happy. I’d pulled through.

And I knew then, and I’ve known ever since, that having coped with that period of my life, and survived it, I’d be able to cope with anything. That was one great big case of something that could have killed me, but didn’t, and so made me stronger. A lot.

My enduring memory of this handsome man is on stage. He was singing a version of Es liegt was in der Luft—‘there’s something in the air’to which he had written new lyrics. He’d turned it into a satirical number, as part of an environmental cabaret revue. It was glorious. And a roaring success. He was so alive, so in it, so buoyed by the love from the audience, so overjoyed about doing this, and doing it well.

Many years later—not on this trip, another eight years or so after that—I was in Basel where I’d heard he had since taken on a job as Artistic Director of a small theatre.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I walked into the foyer, to see if he happened to be around, just to say hello, on a whim. I asked a young man who was doing something to the display. “Oh,” he said. And I can still see the look on his face, of surprise and regret: “No. I’m sorry. He died a few months ago.”

I salute you, my friend, and I thank you for the time, the patience, the generosity and the inspiration: you genuinely helped me find my way – your spirit lives.


< Helvetia       Les Grands Amours >

 

Helvetia

From Milan I take the train to Chur. Chur has never been my favourite place in the world, and it’s not difficult for me to say why: it feels dour. It is, apparently, the oldest city in Switzerland, and it has, I believe, several things going for it, none of which is entirely evident to me. Mainly because it sits hemmed in by big mountains that deprive it of light, almost completely, in winter, while not being splendid enough in the summer to offer any type of gorgeousness in terms of a view. My sister at this time lives in Chur, and I am heading towards her to spend a couple of days with her, The Tape tells me.

My memory of this is, again, hazy, but I’m clearly delighted: “It is wonderful,” I narrate, “to spend time together and talk,” for the first time in years. And I know this was so. To this day, I enjoy spending time with my sister, though to this day I don’t do so often enough, and on this occasion, we must have had a lot to say to each other: I was back in the country where I grew up, but which I had always struggled and never found it either necessary or entirely possible to call home, for the first time since, almost exactly three years earlier, I had left with two suitcases, one red and one black (and neither of them with castors) and a friend’s address in my pocket, in Enfield, thence to make London my home.

Helvetia. I like thinking of Switzerland as Helvetia. It has something sturdy, Celtic, dependable to it. Unique. Firm and reassuring. ‘Switzerland’ sounds—maybe because it so much has become—like a brand, a theme park, a place where you go on holiday. Helvetia is a place you were rooted in, once. Whether you then uprooted yourself, and for whatever reasons, fades into the background, into the fabric: it does not become insignificant (nothing of that kind ever does), but it’s just there, part of the character, part of the being, part of the history, part of the substance, the core. And so is Helvetia.

The train from Milan to Chur, I relate to The Tape, “took absolutely ages,” but also “provided the most admirable views.” It’s one of these instances where I betray the fact that I’m still not on top of the subtleties of the English language. I hear myself do that a lot on this recording: I nearly get the word right, but not quite. I still, from the back of my mind, translate traces from German, maybe not so much words, as concepts, perhaps. I’m just not quite there, yet.

In Treviso I change trains and board “this incredible little red train, consisting of about three carriages, all the way up, over the San Bernardino Pass.” Here my memory suddenly kicks in again, vivid and strong.

I remember this journey, this train. And with awe. I remember the windows being open and the warm summer air wafting in; I remember the noise, intermittently suddenly so much louder, going through tunnels; I remember the green and red covered seats: red for smoking, green for non. I was a smoker then, I may have been travelling red. Then again, I may already have been doing what I used to do for a while: park myself in the non-smoking section and nip to the red part of the carriage for the occasional cigarette. The train wasn’t full, I remember it being almost empty. It’s a glorious journey, and one you can still do. Now, they have state-of-the-art rolling stock with huge panorama windows, and smoking is a definite no-no, but the trains are no faster, and the views no less stunning, than they were then.

I seem to also recall that I met up here with an old school friend whom I would shortly be linking up with again in Paris, but The Tape makes no mention of this, so perhaps I am wrong. Come the following Saturday, I take a train to Basel.

This is where I went to school, this is where I grew up: the first twenty-one years of my life. I spend eight or nine hours talking to Peggy, my best friend then and my best friend now from our high school days, and today as then, when we meet, we find ourselves talking for hours. Eight or nine is nothing unusual: if you pitch up at six, have an apéro, have dinner, sit out on the balcony, keep on talking, before you know it, it’s three in the morning…

On Sunday Peggy, my mum and I go to see an exhibition (I don’t tell The Tape which one, and I can’t remember), and then my brother comes round with his two sons, one of whom is my godson. There is a photograph of this occasion, which takes place in my parents’ garden, with me sitting between the two boys, looking at a picture book, maybe reading them the story. My mother, a little while later, sent me this picture in a card with a quote in German: Es ist ein ungeheures Glück wenn man fähig ist, sich freuen zu können. German websites attribute this to George Bernard Shaw. I try to find the English original, and so far I fail. ‘It is a tremendous fortune to be able to find joy in things,’ is more or less how I would translate it back, but it still sounds more clunky than it should. If it’s Shaw. Maybe it’s been misattributed, that’s possible: many things are.

“Then we went to see Ironweed at the cinema.” I don’t remember anything about this, the film or who is ‘we’ in this instance, but my 24-year-old self puts on record that “it was like no time had passed at all.” Maybe because hardly any time had passed, a mere three years…

Tuesday I spent in Zürich, “meeting, luckily, Benjamin for the first time in absolutely years,” and also Beatrice. Benjamin. Beatrice. These two people: they are lodged in my mind, in my soul. Benjamin more than Beatrice, and in a much different way, but both register, both matter, both shaped who I was and therefore who I now am.

The meeting with Benjamin I remember clearly. He was his usual, laconic self. He was the boy I was most in love with, for a very long time. We were in no relationship, he never, as far as I know, reciprocated my feelings, he was not even gay, he was just the boy I most loved.

By this time, he would have been about twenty-two, and he’d either just been released or was on day-release from prison. He’d been sentenced to prison for no crime: he was a conscientious objector and had refused to do military service, which in Switzerland at the time carried a prison term and a criminal record. He was unfazed by his time in prison: he took this, as he seemed to take everything, in his stride. Granted, the way he talked about it, it also sounded like prison for conscientious objectors in Switzerland was by now a gentle affair.

He was beautiful, as I had always seen him, and unruffled. Unexcitable, but good humoured. I’d carried him around in my heart for the entire duration I’d been living in London, and I continued to do so for many years after. It was only really when one day, on a Sunday afternoon, he phoned me, out of the blue, to tell me he’d received a letter I had sent him many months earlier, care of his mother, and we talked for maybe five hours or so on the phone, both getting increasingly woozy on our respective drinks, that I was able to put that love where it belonged: in the past, in my youth. In a time before even our reunion here now in Zürich.

I have memories of us sitting at my parents’ home next to each other on the sofa all night long talking, drinking coffee, almost getting high on it, so much of it we drank; of us walking in the fields near his parents’ home on Lake Zürich on a wintry afternoon; of us first meeting at a school fete… I have everything with me still, as if it were yesterday. But only since maybe ten years ago, slightly less, am I able to think of it really as yesterday. I believe I once kissed him, I’m not even sure. I’m sure that I always wanted to. Always.

How deeply that boy had seeped into the folds of my brain. How strongly he clasped my heart; how warmly, how tenderly I longed for him, for how long. I still have his letters, of course. I no longer have this desire: I’m glad it has gone, I was able to bid it farewell. Not the memory though, not the fondness. I am over him now, but I cannot, and nor do I need to, get over how much I loved him.

Beatrice, I also remember, also fondly, but not on that day. I certainly kissed her, and she me. She was, I’m quite certain, keener on me than I was on her, but I liked her, and for a short while it was as if we were together. How strange, to think of it now. But that alone, having been the girl with whom I was once almost together, secures her a place in my self. She, too, is part of me; was then, is now.

Wednesday a lunch with a friend. “In all,” I recount on The Tape, I “had a chance to see lots of people.” Also my grandfather. I was “very worried about grandfather, he looked very ill and weak; he was very nice, but I have an impression that any time we meet might be the last time.” And so, I believe, it proved, on this occasion.


< Towards Italy       {Bereavement} >

 

Towards Italy

Tuesday I travel on, taking an early morning train that departs at 7:21, towards Italy. The journey, The Tape tells me, is “fairly pleasant,” with the exception of one incident. This sits ingrained on my brain, and whilst most of the other experiences of that August are a haze with only the occasional moment or image in any kind of focus, this one is sharp and clear, and it still makes me squirm, to this day.

I was tired. I had slept for two hours, again… – Monday night we’d decided to go to the cinema: Anne and some of her friends had gone to see some American movie I evidently did not rate or care about, and I had gone to see Le Grand Bleu: “one of the most stunningly beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” I now hear myself rave, and I remember that vividly too, though not only from this screening, but from another, much more thrilling one, later, in Paris. Jean-Marc Barr. “He is fantastic; he’s certainly a name to remember.” After the cinema, a crepe, and then to bed really late.

So, with very little sleep, I’m on a train that is completely full, though I do have a seat, by the window, near the end of the carriage. I mostly daydream and possibly doze off a bit now and then, and everything is going fine until the train stops at a spot where there seems to be nothing at all. It’s not a town, it’s not a village. It’s barely a hamlet. There’s a platform and a small building, and there are some signs that to me in my state, which is not comatose but not alert either, are meaningless.

On board come two customs officers. I see them appear at the other end of the carriage, quite far away from where I am, and as I look up at them, I semi-consciously give a sigh of profoundest ennui, just exactly at the moment that one of them catches my eye.

I think nothing more of this for the next five minutes or so and continue gazing out of the window, thinking my nondescript thoughts. My sigh and my facial expression had lasted for maybe a second. But I do remember distinctly allowing that gut response to just come out: an aversion to officialdom. Almost, but almost not quite, wanting to show them I held them in a sizeable degree of post-juvenile contempt, not as human beings, of course, but as uniforms holding up the train’s so effortless glide through the artificially delineate countryside.

The two officials make their way through the carriage, checking passports, not hassling anyone. They work quite fast, and I’m almost beginning to like them for being so efficient and quick about their monotonous task. Then they get to me. I am sitting by my window, resting my head on my hand, and I look up at them, extremely tired and bored. I am wearing all black. I am twenty-four, with peroxide dyed hair. I had reacted to spotting them from a distance with a look on my face and body language that to them must have signalled not so much ennui as ‘trouble.’ I am their prime suspect. Certainly of the carriage, probably of the train. Possibly of the day, maybe the month.

Granted, it could have been worse. They could have taken me off the train and subjected me to a strip search. They didn’t. They went through everything I had on me. They opened my luggage (I seem to recall this being a big holdall bag), searched through my clothes, opened my toiletry bag.

They found a tiny tube of something and demanded to know what it was. It was a cream for mosquito bites. They thought that hard to believe, which was ridiculous, because it was clearly labelled, smelt like medicine, and we were on the border to Italy, in the summer. My brain was not willing to argue. My Italian register brought forth: zanzare. 

It took about twenty minutes, it felt like two hours. It was not even humiliating so much as it was unnecessary and, I felt, vindictive. This, I now know, is what profiling feels like, if you match the profile. This is what being exposed to low-level authority feels like if it turns against you. Today, I understand people who complain about stop-and-search policies, or who are tired of being the ones picked out at airport entry points because of their skin tone or what they are wearing. It was, by comparison, harmless, and yet I wanted it just to end. I felt exposed and hard done by. And I was.

Still. I had never in my life purchased or carried any illegal substance, and so I had nothing on me, and they did not find anything. They left, we departed, I arrived in Milan, where I did something really stupid.

I got off the train and went into the station to look at the board where all the trains were displayed. Vicenza, this told me, would next be up at 2pm. It was now getting towards half one, but, for some to me now unfathomable reason not trusting that intelligence, I decided to go to the information desk to make sure. There was only one window open: ‘Money Exchange & Information.’ After queueing for half an hour, I arrived at said window, only to find that this was the wrong one. Nonetheless, they asked me what I wanted to know, and I told them I wanted to know when the next train would leave for Vicenza. At 2pm they said, glancing idly at a timetable. I ran, as best I could with my bag, to the platform, where I saw the train pull out of the station. What, I wonder, was that all about? Sometimes I just didn’t trust myself. At all.

I phoned my friend Stefano in Vicenza from a public phone box, which cost me 600 lire, I record, to tell him I’d be arriving one hour later. Stefano, once I’d got there and had settled, took me to the beautiful piazza in the town centre, where we also met up with our mutual friend Giovanni.

Thus begins about a week in Vicenza, and at the hands of Stefano’s mum, I tell The Tape, I’m being fed to the point of bursting.

I spend one day in Venice, mostly at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and, passing one of the many small shops, I see a leather jacket I particularly like the look of. I go inside and casually ask the shop assistant how much it costs (there being no price tag). Five million lire, she tells me, which at the time is about two thousand pounds. ‘I see,’ I say, as matter of factly (or so I think) as I can, and I do this unnecessary thing of looking at it in a little more detail to signal that I’m really not perturbed at all by the price. I’m really perturbed by the price. Then I do that even more unnecessary thing of looking around the shop a bit further before I leave, just to make sure the middle-aged woman whom I will never meet again in my life, and who has long since sussed that I’m in the wrong shop, understands that the prices here are really no big deal for me, at all. They’re a really big deal for me…

Vicenza, I tell my self of the future, is incredibly quiet, but I like the Teatro Olympico, calling it “stunning.” Built like a Greek arena, but all indoors, I describe it as “absolutely beautiful” and venture that it may be the only one of its kind in Italy (though where I get that from, or whether it is true, I don’t know).

At one point we go to a party together, which I confide to The Tape reminds me of the time when we, I and my gschpänlis from the Gymnasium Münchenstein, had our parties: the ease, the freedom. I feel charmed, I put on record, and delighted by the friendliness of these people.

I also go back to Venice on “various occasions” (there can’t have been many, considering how long I was in Vicenza for), and on one of these get to see a Pier Paolo Pasolini film at the festival, apparently as a matter of extreme luck: “How I managed to get there and get there on time, I will never know, but it worked, and it worked to the minute.” I seem to have walked into some post office (presumably having got to the Lido first), and asked where the auditorium was that I needed to get to, only to find that it just so happened to be that particular building, where the film was about to start. What exactly the film was I don’t put on record…

There are two more moments that stick in my memory from Vicenza, and although I don’t talk about them on The Tape, I am as certain as I can be that they belong to that same trip. (I’ve since been back to Vicenza a number of times, and there was most likely at least one more visit within the next year or two, but the way things fit together—especially with the amount of time I seem to have on my own whilst staying with Stefano and his family, who are presumably out working—makes me think that this is all one occasion.)

The first one involved me attempting to make coffee with one of these typical two-part Italian coffee jugs. I took the thing, which I myself had just used and which was still hot, off the hob and, wearing oven gloves, unscrewed the top from the bottom. At that point there was an almighty bang, and ground coffee splattered all over the immaculately clean small town kitchen, covering every available surface in fine specks of wet brown sediment. Stefano was grace personified and just helped me clean up before his mum got back home…

The other one takes place in Vicenza town. I go up to a small church that is either closed or about to close and there’s a young, good-looking guard at the gate. This makes me think it might have been a small museum or some other historic site, since churches didn’t usually have guards, as far as I can remember. He wears a uniform of the nondescript charcoal or dark grey variety, and to my surprise he opens the door for me and shows me around.

We get to the end of a short tour at the lowest part of the building, a crypt or a vault, of which I do not recall what it contained, and there is this moment that stays in my mind. This moment when something is meant to happen. And nothing happens. I wasn’t sure then what it was that was meant to happen, and I’m not even entirely sure today.

Looking back I wonder: was he about to make a move on me? If so, why didn’t he? I was, then, I now see, quite attractive, though I didn’t think so then. We were alone. He had keys to the building, he had, most probably, locked the front door. I liked him. I think I would have wanted him to make a move. I certainly wouldn’t have made a move first, though. I was on foreign territory, I was far too shy and too gauche, and also nowhere near conceited enough: I never assumed people fancied me enough to want to make a move on me; sometimes until long after they did. Maybe I was too aloof too.

With hindsight maybe I understand why he might not have made a move, even if he had wanted to and had felt that I possibly wanted him to, and the conditions were well nigh perfect for, well, at least a kiss, just to see how and where that would lead. I had a barrier up, then, practically always; I was not just aloof, but also distant, remote. What a pity…

The moment lasted—not very long—until it was over, and he led me back upstairs into the Italian sunshine. I thanked him, I said goodbye. And I wondered: what was that? Did I miss something here? This feeling, this question: did I just miss something here, that was happening, or should have been happening, or could have been happening, if only I’d been alert to it, perhaps less naive, perhaps less insecure, perhaps more attuned: it followed me for years, for decades even. Until recently. It doesn’t do so much any more: I miss things occasionally, still, but not quite so much as a rule. And I make mistakes, of course, who doesn’t. And sometimes I’m just not brave enough. In fact, I often, I think, am probably just not quite brave enough.

And then on the way onwards, in Milan, I actually went to some nondescript building in the outskirts of somewhere and tried to talk to somebody from the Italian TV network Reteitalia. What on earth about, I have no idea….


< Songs & Charades       Helvetia >