98 Irk

The elderly lady with silver grey hair and a formidable bosom corners the festival’s Programming Director and demands that he explain himself.

Her hair is tied at the back in an elegant bow of silver and black, and her glasses suggest literacy both cinematic and literary. Her lips are glossed red, but the upper lip is quite thin and the lower lip is quite full, and at the corners these lips pull somewhat towards eighteen past eight, which gives her a permanent expression of ever so marginally lopsided vexation. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Richards who pitches up in Episode One of the second series of Fawlty Towers. This lady though is not unhappy with her view, nor is she hard of hearing; she hears all too well, and what she objects to is English.

What irks – so as not to say angers – her (anger seems too uncouth a term for her form of displeasure) is that here in Locarno, the picturesque lakeside town with the second oldest international film festival in the world after Venice, an announcement (or was it a speech? I am not entirely sure now) was made not in Italian (the language of the Canton Ticino, where we find ourselves), or any of the other official languages of Switzerland, German, French or Rumantsch, but in the language of the global village, English. She had no problem understanding it – she probably has a Swiss education and her English is likely to be better than that of two thirds of all native English speakers around the world – her objection is one of principle. One of culture, even. And a concern for what is being cultivated, the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last), or for the multilingual diversity of parochial Europe, specifically Switzerland.

This diversity has real charm and, when witnessed in action, can be seriously impressive. It’s not just the trains here which routinely make all major announcements in three languages (one of which is always English, although English is not an official language in Switzerland), or the packaging of consumer goods, which mostly (but not always) eschews English but finds room, on such everyday produce as butter and milk, for all four national languages; it’s when you see and hear people actually using their languages seamlessly and matter-of-factly across their spectrum that you realise how capable we can be if we try.

Not long before this ‘incident’ in Locarno, I’d been to the other major film festival in Switzerland, Solothurn. This, unlike Locarno, is not an international affair but focuses entirely on Swiss film making; it is therefore not of global significance, but really important to Switzerland. My friend had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with the producer and his erstwhile best friend over it, and so it was this not an entirely happy occasion. It was nonetheless memorable. Not least for the opening speeches. I don’t remember their exact sequence, but: one was held by the then Artistic Director of the festival, who happened to be from the Ticino and therefore spoke in Italian. One was held by the then President of the Federal Council (this, in the egalitarian direct democracy that is Switzerland is a nominal role rotating on an annual basis through the Federal Council, which consists of seven members who are elected by parliament and who form the government of the country as a joint cabinet; the President of Switzerland therefore only ever is in office for one year as a primus inter pares, or first among equals), who happened to be French speaking and therefore gave her address in French. And a third was held by some dignitary from the Swiss film making community, who spoke German. There were no translations, no subtitles, no surtitles, no captions. The expectation was – as it is in the chambers of the national parliament – that everyone in the audience (which here, this being an open event, is the general public) speaks at least two, but preferably three, of the four national languages.

And they do. Mostly. But you are talking about a film festival going audience with a particular interest in Swiss films. You are talking about Solothurn, not Locarno. Locarno is one of the most important and quite possibly the most beautiful film festival for independent film in the world, and so obviously not everybody attending it speaks either Italian, or German, or French, or let alone Rumantsch. (Hardly anybody in Switzerland speaks Rumantsch: it has a native speaker base of some 36,000 individuals with about another 25,000 people speaking it ‘regularly’. It’s a lovely language, though, and not at all impossible to learn, especially if you have Latin.)

The irony for my Swiss Mrs Richards in particular, and for us all, is that the one language almost all Swiss people speak to at least basic level – many to near perfection – is English. Professors often lecture in English at universities, there are kindergartens and pre-school groups conducted in English (also in Chinese, now, as it happens), and it is not unheard of for high school students to deliver their papers in English. And with so many people living and working and travelling in Switzerland from all over the world, the one language you know for certain you’ll get by in is, of course, English.

The festival’s Programming Director is patient and polite. He gives a somewhat resigned looking smile – resigned more, I think, to the fact that being accosted with these kinds of grievances is simply part of the job, even if he’s really just here tonight outside this cinema to see a film at his festival, than to the realities of globalisation – and explains the situation to his interlocutor in her seventies not unlike you would to a child of about seven. I half fear me she may feel patronised. She doesn’t. Her eyes light up, and she feels taken seriously. Her lips, at first reluctantly, but then giving themselves over to reconciliation, flatten out into almost a smile of her own. I wonder has he just charmed her. He is very charming, in a slightly headmasterly way: the kind of person who daily has to deal with unruly students and their impossible parents alike, and who just takes it all in his steady, slow-paced, long-suffering stride.

My queue starts to move, and I lose track of them both and their conversation. I don’t think it was his perfectly reasonable argument that won her over, I think it was just that he managed to signal to her for three minutes or four that he cared. And I’m almost certain he did, for three or four minutes. Which is probably about as much as it merited, after all.

What the film was that I saw, or what language it was in, or how it was subtitled (all films at these festivals are always subtitled), I can’t recall…

5473593 Trivia

The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away. I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own ilk and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane. 

I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks – the drinks included and obviously somehow accounted for in your airfare – and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for everything you wanted off it. In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21 the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.

There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps and porridges sounded like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the reality that by the time they got to me in row 21, they had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.

But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-enjoyment’ operators, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was, and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.

I so fondly remember a flight to Nice – not that long ago – where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the Film Festival in Cannes and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too. We naturally got talking about this, that and the other, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then, in the most agreeable way, and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.

And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was even doing in Cannes. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA. But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the Film Festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester Sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.

And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water might have been subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane. And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it? That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come – I daresay it has most likely occurred many times before – when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some other context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.

I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA – just as flying BA – feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else. It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. Yet on reflection, it turns out that it is far from trivial, after all…

 

Plea

There need to be nooks and crannies; there need to be inbetweennesses.

There need to be othernesses and odd-ones-out that defy gravity, expectation, formula, form. The enemy of perfection is impatience, I know, and yet I find me a-longing, what for I know not. Could it be as banal as attention? This Monday was bluer than I have rhyme for or reason. Or song. And it was the Blue Monday, by name. Need I dramatise myself better, spectacularise myself? Invite preposterousness, scandal, sensation, or noise? Or simply dress up and say: ‘oi!’?

“The problem,” Sedartis muses, in what seems a reconciliatory mood, “with standing in the room shouting loudest just to make sure you get heard is that you don’t hear anyone else in the room, let alone perceive what is happening quietly, under the din. The greatest menace and greatest wisdom have this in common: they enter the fray in silence. The menace by stealth; it creeps up on you, seemingly harmless, sometimes friendly even, or if not friendly, then quaint. The wisdom though simply spreads, where it can, unspectacular, slowly, like the proverbial dawn, until it is really quite splendid and inescapably heralds the day. I’m mixing my metaphors. You get my meaning.”

I inwardly nod. None of this seems new to me, none revelatory. “The problem with standing in the room silently, or muttering to yourself, is that you may not just be forever ignored, which is one thing, and bad enough, but taken for mentally unstable, dangerous even, certainly weird. There is nothing in itself wrong with weirdness, but when your task is to be taken seriously, it’s unhelpful. Your task is to be taken seriously. Accept the challenge.”

This piques my interest: how then, I wonder at Sedartis who has been with me, dispensing his snippets of ‘insight’ liberally as a Father Christmas hands sweets to children, for the last twenty months now, do I make myself heard while being able to listen, do I speak but not mutter, do I send signals, not simply make noise? “That is easy,” Sedartis, unsurprisingly, now that I think of it, claims: “You stand in the room, upright and tall as you are, not flustered, not blustering, not puffing yourself up, not screaming, not shouting, but saying what you have to say, with confidence, clear. When you’re spoken to, listen. When you see someone in the room who isn’t being paid any attention, go to them: pay attention. Give yourself a rest now and then and sit quietly in the corner to observe. There, if somebody joins you, you may yet have your most meaningful conversation. Keep an eye and an ear out for the people regaling themselves, roaring with laughter. More often than not they are harmless, even if they’re annoying. But be alert. Keep a feeler out for the subtleties, the changes of tone in the room, the small movements, the quiet arrivals. The sudden departures. Listen out for the music that’s setting the mood. Who do they dance to, who stand aside for. And then you may just have to pick your own moment. Because this room has no host. So it may never happen that someone who knows you invites you to say a few words and bids the others, ‘pray silence!’ – You may have to pick your own moment and command the attention. As you are. Without fuss, but with authority, flair. Then, though, know what you’re talking about. That moment may just be brief. So be prepared and worth listening to, even if just to one or two, three or four. That’s enough. Be patient. Be humble. Be strong. And if you speak any truth at all, prepare to be shouted down, even chased from the building. Such, I’m afraid, is the world. Your reward may never materialise: do not expect a reward.”

I do not expect a reward, do I?

“Yes you do,” Sedartis thunders, now vehemence in his wrath. “Rise above this need to be appreciated.” Is that even possible, I now seriously ask myself and Sedartis in tandem: isn’t being appreciated simply another expression for being loved?

Sedartis is quiet. Have I managed to shut up Sedartis? Really? I feel a minuscule pang of guilt, but triumph as well. It doesn’t last long.

“George.” I don’t think Sedartis has ever called me by any of my names before: “Your need to be loved is only human. You cannot, nor should you, be super or let alone subhuman. But learn to be loved in manifold ways, unspoken, unreciprocated, unneedy, generously, unspectacularly. Appreciate love when it is not shown, not expressed, but still felt. Yours is a singular path, maybe lonely, at times: fear it not. You’ve been given advice on this matter before, and you will be again: heed it, it was sound. Accept love, don’t crave it: give love, don’t take it for granted; don’t overstate it, don’t desire it, don’t keep it: be love.”


< Outrage       …

 

{Success}

The young man I’m on a date with is really unbearably cute. ‘You’re really unbearably cute’, I tell him. ‘I know’, he says, with the smile of someone who really does, and an involuntary shrug: ‘I try. I succeed.’

It’s happy hour at The Troubadour, my favourite haunt and quasi home from home, and so I look forward to an early evening mojito. This, here at The Troubadour, is contingent upon the other person also wanting a mojito. Or at any rate the same cocktail: you get two for one, but only as long as they’re the same drink. Why is a mystery to me, but not one that has ever bothered me enough to prompt me to enquire about its reason: it’s rarely a problem, since I’ve come across few people in my life who don’t like a mojito and for those who don’t, there’s always the option of a bloody mary. Or any other standard you’d expect on a short but traditional menu. I worry not.

Robert, the friendly and forever charming and helpful waiter appears, and as I propose this to start the evening by way of an almost foregone conclusion, my young and very new friend throws an unexpected spanner in the works: ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’

‘What, not at all?’

‘No, I used to, but I didn’t really like it, and I got too drunk a couple of times, so I’ve stopped altogether, but you go ahead.’

‘Are you sure?’

This is dodgy territory. If I drink and he doesn’t, doesn’t this unbalance our universe – in which, at least for the next few hours, we are meant and agreed to proceed together – and not necessarily in anyone’s favour? I’m concerned now that this date may not go so well after all…

‘Yes absolutely, I really don’t mind. Seriously.’

His smile remains confident and sincere and so I turn to Robert who is waiting on us, patient and benign, while this short negotiation takes place, and I order the mojito nonetheless. Robert, bless him, reads the situation just fine and innocently asks if I want the happy hour anyway. I’m stumped once again, but before I can say anything more my young friend says, sure, go ahead; and so it comes to pass that I’m on a date with an unbearably cute young man who doesn’t drink at all while I’m being brought two mojitos by Robert, who does not bat an eyelid. They look incongruous on the table in front of me, these mojitos, next to his elderflower cordial (or whatever it was), but just for about the first five minutes or so. Soon I ease into the conversation, and I bask in the glow of a man who is so comfortable with everything and with himself that I feel this is perfectly all right, I can enjoy this, I can relax…

16082015 Perfection

That day the universe was on my side, because for the first time it gave me not just a second chance, but a third; and that really had never happened before, I never even normally get the second chance, and for obvious reasons, it’s just very unlikely to come about; so to be given a third chance: imagine how lucky I felt, and how happy.

I was on my way to the party, that was on Monday. I was in a good frame of mind, I had just arrived in town and seen two decent films, and I’d picked up my invitation and I was determined to go to this party even though I knew nobody there and I thought I might leave it again very soon. But in my good frame of mind I started chatting to a woman on the shuttle bus that the festival laid on from the last screening in the grand piazza to the party, and after seeming a little distant at first she then, as we arrived there, almost grabbed my hand, and we went to the bar and had our first few drinks together, talking a lot about this, that and the other, and I thought this is great: I’m already not alone at the party.

When she left I spotted a good looking man with a beard who was on his own and, buoyed by my success so far, started talking to him, and for a while we had more drinks and chatted about this and that too (though not so much about the other), and he met some people he knew and I talked to them as well, and I quite liked him but I also realised he probably wasn’t that interested in me, and that was fine too.

We’d by now drifted back towards the bar, and then suddenly out of nowhere the handsomest, friendliest, loveliest of all the men at the party – and it was a fairly big party – stood next to me and looked me in the eyes, and we hugged and we kissed, and I don’t know why that happened so quickly or how, I only know that I’d seen him before, when he was working, taking pictures, and he had pointed his camera at me and the woman from the shuttle bus, and I had raised my glass to him and said cheers, and now here he was and we were kissing and hugging and I didn’t know how or why: we must have been into each other, I suppose.

It was now nearing the end of the party, coming up four in the morning, and people were already leaving and he simply said, “so to Locarno?” and I said, “yes,” and on the way to the car he told me he was staying in a flat with ten people in it and some of them needed a lift, so we may have to wait for them, and I said that was all right, but in the end nobody wanted a lift, those who were there at the party decided to go by other means, maybe walk, so we took his car, a convertible, though he didn’t put down the roof, maybe because it was coming up four o’clock in the morning.

He told me he didn’t have his licence at the moment, but that that was all right, and I thought, well he’ll be driving carefully then, and he did, and we got there without problem, but with a little help from his phone.

As we entered the flat it was dark and already quiet and we walked through a room with nobody in it, into another room which had a large double bed with two people in it, a man and a woman, both young, maybe the same age as he, and there was a narrow mattress on the floor and he said: “this is me, but it’s all right,” and it was all right.

We lay down on his little bed and within seconds we were undressed and were what used to be called making love and it felt like that, it felt like we were just making some love, and the couple in the bed did not seem to notice or mind and then we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Now and then the man from the bed would call my young lover’s name because he was snoring and that wouldn’t help, so I would hug him closer to me, and that would.

In the morning we woke up and he said: “dormi – sleep,” but he had to get up and go to work and I got up too though I didn’t strictly have to go to work, but I did have to go to the flat where I was staying, and do some work there. He made me a coffee and we kissed again and hugged and said goodbye and he disappeared, I assumed into the shower.

I got dressed in the room with the big double bed and the little single bed, and a young woman there was also getting dressed, and I left my card on the window sill and let myself out and I walked home in the happy sunshine.

He didn’t phone me or text me, or send me an email, or friend me on Facebook, and I thought, well that’s fair enough he’d told me how much work he’s got on during the festival here and he was young, so maybe that was just that, and that’s fair enough. But a little part of me wished and hoped and believed I would see him again; I would bump into him, I reckoned, at some point during the festival, it’s not that big a town, after all.

Nothing happened till Friday, except I was happy all week, doing some work and watching some films, and then Friday I was out with some friends and we’d just had something to eat and decided to get an ice cream before watching a late film together, and from the ice cream stand I could see him walk towards the Piazza Grande and I thought there he is, but he didn’t spot me and I was too far away to call him and I didn’t know whether he’d want me to call him since he hadn’t called me, and he was gone and I thought, ah well, that’s a pity, but maybe there will be a second chance (even though I don’t normally get a second chance).

Once everyone had their ice cream, we realised we were running late for the film so started to make a move towards the cinema, and there he was again, coming my way now, with a plate of food in his hand and passing at just a couple of feet distance: again I didn’t call him or stop him or say hello, it happened too quickly, we were late for our film, he had his hands full with food and he didn’t see me, again. And again I thought, ah what a pity, but maybe there will be a third chance, even though I had never had a third chance before, or heard of anybody who had.

We went to see the film and then on the way back we passed a bar with a big garden where sometimes they play live music, and one of the group said let’s not go in here, there’s another one which is nicer, but the other one was already closed, so we returned to the one with the big garden, and it’s a huge garden with different sections separated by old stone walls on different levels, and it would be impossible to get a view of it all, especially at night when it isn’t that brightly lit, and usually very busy, and we were going to stand in the courtyard nearest the bar, but then the same member of the group said let’s go up there, and we went up a flight of steps, past another bar, and into another little courtyard and we sat down at a table, and no sooner had we sat down at the table than I saw the back of the head that I recognised.

He was on the phone, stroking his short bleached hair with his free hand, and I recognised his short bleached hair in an instant as I had stroked it too and so much liked the feel of it against the palm of my hand and I recognised the little wrist band that looked like it had come from another festival, probably music, and I thought I should get up now and say hello to him, but he was with a group of people and so was I, and I thought, ah well, he’s here and at one point I’ll get up and say hello or he’ll get up and turn around, and then he finished his conversation on the phone and got up and turned around and there he was.

I said his name, and he said: “Sebastian.”

And we hugged and gave each other a kiss and he told me he had a problem with his flat which he needed to sort, but how long was I here for now and what had happened to me Tuesday morning and I told him I’d left him a card and didn’t want to hang around as I knew he would have to go to work and he said he hadn’t seen the card but now that he knew where it was he would find it, but I gave him another one and he looked so glad to see me and we held each other’s hands and we hugged again and gave each other another kiss and then he had to go and sort his problem with the flat, and I knew that today the universe had been kind to me, because it had given me not just a second chance but a third, and I had taken not the first, not the second but the third chance, and I don’t know if we will see each other tomorrow or ever again, but just knowing that he was glad to see me again today and to see that spark in his eye and feel that hair and hear him say “Sebastian” and smiling at me his broadest of smiles, that alone completely made me happy that day.

Outrage

‘Stupidity’, Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt – never have had a chance to learn – to be less so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society: as long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst, as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened, although I have no answer. Sedartis does not expect me to: ‘You talk about inequality. You talk about democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into stupidity and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to an intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them and you dread what they should do if they ever they latched on to how they were enslaved by you.’

I sense a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what they already know and shore up their prejudices, you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half” and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. (How can you even hold on to an expression like that?) How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

Is knowledge power, still? ‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Flossing is a pain, but we do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to our gums. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend,’ Sedartis hears me well before I speak, ‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and make do. At the quick quote, soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. You constantly ask: what is the story, what is the narrative. Because you are too lazy to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan. Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you’ve elevated to a tiny emperor and allow to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect somebody else to bend down and pick them up for you and hand them back to you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrant’s fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so close to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life. Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you in their development. But that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can not take credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. That’s what you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings. How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating. When you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

What is the thing that matters, I ask Sedartis.

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long long time and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it unknowing but yearning to understand and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see’, says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters because you have no control over anything else. You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take it just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’


< Query       Plea >

 

305834590834590 Whist

‘My girlfriend is getting texty,’ the man who ticks every box and makes me go aglow inside tells me. He’s a trombonist and that alone should tell me everything I need to know. Except he’s also tall and blond and a bit Scandinavian looking and exceptionally friendly, and he has that borderline cute proportion of a long torso and comparatively short legs that make him simply adorable.

I have nothing to say about this. Therein lies the ‘interesting’ realisation. It’s ‘interesting’ in so far as I normally have something to say about things. I pride myself – not ‘pride myself’ so much as find a certain degree of satisfaction that I take pains not to let seep into smugness – in being able to find words. I like words, I love – nay, adore! – them. I use more words than necessary. What is necessary? I get admonished for being verbose. What, pray, is verbose? I say things for the sake of saying them. Thrice. I use language people don’t understand, but I get tasked with making things understandable, as a job. I like that. I like ironies, I like perplexities, I like conundrums and calling them conundra. I have said so before, but I like saying things again. I like repetition. Repetition.

In the game of love & chance – I like ampersands! And I love interjections, or little asides… –  I am particularly useless, but I have of late started to enjoy that fact. It used to trouble me. Astonishing men like my trombonist right here and right now used to send me down a spiral of remorse and regret, about what I knew not. About not having loved. About not having lived. About not having taken the chance. Now that I’ve taken the chance once or twice and then thrice or several times more, and notwithstanding the fact that this has sometimes but certainly not always paid off, and now that I realise that a ‘girlfriend getting texty’ is just exactly the kind of thing that would drive me up the wall, even if it were a boyfriend as handsome and delectable as her boyfriend right now, I can smile at the man’s beauty and charm and listen to the resonance of his torso and admire the sounds he produces from his instrument and say to myself: that has nothing whatever to do with me. It’s wonderful, and wonderful for him too. And I wish him to really, and genuinely, fare well.

I love that kind of love. It’s taken me maybe thirty-five years – five heptades! – to get to this point, but I’m now at a point where I can absolutely love a man like that and know his life has absolutely nothing to do with me beyond the set of fortuitousnesses that brought us together in this context, at this moment, for this short period and then let that be as it may. And should our paths cross again, then so much the better, but it would still not mean anything else or anything more or anything less. And should we become friends through our paths crossing further, that too would be just that, and it would be just fine. Trombone man shows me that I am all right. He is marvellous, in my mind; and let that forever be so: I am perfectly all right about that.

We part and go our separate ways and I think of it or of him no more and I am where I once was and where for a long time I longed to be anew: unencumbered and free. I use these words a lot, I now find, it must mean they have become important to me. I see on the social network that he’s doing something exciting with his trombone and his musician friends and the band somewhere, and I am deeply happy and unreasonably proud. I have no cause and no reason to be proud, I have nothing to do with his or any of his colleagues’ achievements, but I still feel a little proud of him and of them as if it had something to do with me. And maybe it has something to do with me in as much as I know him and we’ve once tangentially worked together (worked on the same piece, at least, for a very short while), and so at least in as much as everything is really connected and this therefore perhaps really also connects us a little, it may have a tiny little something to do with me, and that thought alone makes me happier still.

And now the words are there and they are no better and no worse than any other, and that too is just fine and dandy. All words need not be weighty and grave. Some could do with being a bit more poetic probably than they are, but mostly they merely need to ring true.