Redemption

I forget about Bournemouth & Boscombe and dedicate myself to other matters, other places, other subjects, other themes. The world is a wondrous sphere, I am reminded, as I travel, as I learn. As I love: I meet new people, form new connections, find myself enthralled to new ideas and smitten by new beauty. New affections, new reciprocities, new inspirations. New experiences.

Out of the blue, an email arrives in my inbox, via my website: the kind of message that comes in the shape of a contact form. I get those now and then, though rarely. Seldom enough, in fact, for me to take note and think: ah, someone has gone to the trouble of writing to me.

This one is more unusual still: it’s a letter. Not a note or an enquiry, not a compliment or a rebuke, not a proposition of a collaboration or a proposal for a project. As I read, my hopes and doubts coalesce into a balm of both comfort and pain. The pain that has been caused and that has not been forgiven, the comfort of sensing that forgiveness may, after all, be attained. It is not, however, for me to forgive. I have not been wronged. No more, at any rate, and no less, than we all have by those who trespass not against us personally but against our understanding of what it is to be human, and to be good. The two don’t always go cheek by jowl, I know, but deep down, is it not the case that we would wish them to?

We know when our sense of justice, of respect and compassion is offended, and the offence this letter speaks to is a grave one, truly, genuinely. The way this offence offends is not the kind that we hear expressed now so often when somebody faces an opinion they don’t like or encounters an expression that is outdated maybe, even archaic. It is an offence that comes from a senseless act of destruction that ended and altered lives which had no reason and no need and certainly no desire to be so altered, so ended. It is the offence of an irredeemable act of violence, a cruel and wanton incision into a community’s whole existence.

The letter offers a kind of reconciliation. It is written in a direct, unembellished style, though carefully worded and a little formal. Its authors have clearly given it thought, and, by the looks of it, rather than simply typing it into the online contact form, they have composed it, edited it, spell-checked it: it contains no trivial errors as would be attributable to haste or lack of concentration. It is purposely positioned to be read and absorbed, not fired off as a quick response. It goes like this:

Dear Sebastian

We enjoyed your piece on the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll a lot. Enough for us to feel moved to break our silence. Our silence was part self-imposed, part decreed. We felt for a long time that no-one should hear from us, ever again. The anger we caused, and the pain. The loss. We don’t talk about it, ever, and we don’t like to write about it either. Words seem weightless, when put into the balance of what we have done. At the time of our trial, we were very young. Some people have taken us saying so as an insult. ‘You were young,’ they say, ‘but you knew what you were doing.’ We did, and we didn’t. When we say we were young, we don’t mean to make an excuse for our actions. We mean to say: we had very little experience of what it is to be alive and we had very little understanding of what makes us human. We had no excuse. Nor did we have a reason. But we did something we knew at the time was deeply wrong. We knew this, we just didn’t know how not to do it. That may not make much sense to you and you may wonder, what on earth does it have do with the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

You see, the hatred we faced and the anger that was vented against us, in words that were brutal and vicious, they shocked us. What did we expect? Praise? Obviously not. We didn’t expect anything. Once what we’d done and the effect that it had had sunk in, we didn’t expect any leniency or compassion. We couldn’t understand ourselves, how could we expect anybody else to understand us? But perhaps—just perhaps—it is true to say that we were hoping for some form of forgiveness. And we were frightened and perplexed that that wasn’t forthcoming. At all. From a society steeped in a religion that has sin and forgiveness at its core, we received no indication that this society at large was prepared to forgive us. Ever. There were some exceptions. But the general tone from the people, as far as we could hear, was a clamour for revenge. Newspaper journalists—again with some notable exceptions that you are well aware of—echoed this general people’s call for us to be hanged. And damned. Or, at the very least, locked up in eternity, ‘with the keys thrown away’. We were teenagers. Yes, we had taken innocent lives, including the lives of two beautiful girls. That that was not our intention is, we realise, irrelevant. We could have known, and we were old enough to appreciate, that setting fire to hundreds of beach huts with a series of small but devastating explosions would endanger people, and do so in a way that we could not control.

At our trial—it has been noted with disgust—we did not express any remorse, let alone ask for forgiveness. It is hard to explain why: did we not realise we had wronged people, and not just the ones who were directly affected, but also everyone who knew and loved them; in fact, everyone, because who would not see and not know that destroying people’s property while risking their lives is wrong? Again, we don’t want this to sound like an excuse. But expressing your sorrow, your remorse and contrition for something that is so obviously and so categorically wrong is almost impossible. If you accidentally make a mistake and knock into someone on the pavement or spill a drink and cause a little damage: that’s easy. It’s easy to say ‘sorry’ for a mini-misdemeanour. But for a crime against society? We didn’t have the words. We didn’t have them then, we barely have them now. When today we write to you to say: we are truly and profoundly sorry for what we have done, do you accept that as our apology? Maybe you do, because maybe you can, but you are just a distant bystander, an observer: a recounter of events, a narrator. What about the parents of the girls? The grown up children of the elderly couple? Those who loved and needed and cherished them? What about the owners of the dog? And what about those who nursed and attended the injured. In the end we were responsible for the deaths of two girls aged five, an elderly couple, and the little dog; and there were seventeen injured; two, we later learnt, with life-changing injuries. Can they ‘accept an apology’? Ever? Even we don’t see how. Even we don’t see how anything we could say would ever be enough. How anything we could do would ever be enough. We are unable to atone for our crime, because the crime was so futile, so pointless, so deliberate and yet so random.

Us being unable to atone for our crime, and there being no words that we can find to say we are sorry, it took us a long time—until now—to formulate anything at all. We have lived in silence, mainly so as not to compound our offence. We’d been separated at our arrest and were kept apart for a while after sentencing. But our social workers and eventually our probation officers agreed that we were not a danger to society any longer, and we were allowed to get back together. We have been together ever since: we live together, with our new identities that we were given to protect us from the wrath of the people, in a remote part of these isles, which of course we cannot and wouldn’t wish to disclose. And we thought: perhaps there is something we can try. It was, yet again, not something we fully thought through. But at least it was harmless. And we had to break the terms of our parole, but we’d been out of prison a few years by then, and we thought, perhaps this is not going to redeem us and it certainly isn’t going to make things good for those whom we’d wronged, but perhaps we can almost run this as a test. We will either be caught and found out and probably—so we felt—torn to pieces on the spot, or we will get away with it and that will be that. The world, we will then accept, has found a way to allow us to be now. We are, after all, now completely ordinary. Really. We both have jobs in our local community. Nobody knows who we are, and they like us. We are the kindly, now soon-to-be middle aged couple who shop at Waitrose together and go for walks. We admit it: we enjoy our lives. That alone, we also understand, will to many people be outrageous. It is unfair, unjust, even.

We have done time in prison, we have undergone many hours of therapy with our workers, we have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. And we are happy. We are not light of heart or full of joy: that will never be possible. We are too conscious and too conscientious for that ever to be the case. The burden of our past and our offence will rest on our shoulders forever. But we are content. We are content that we have found a way now of being good citizens and of contributing to our community, without fuss. It is not atonement, so much, as it is a rational way of handling the day to day reality of being alive, after all. Was it worth sparing us, or would the world have turned into a better place if we’d been done away with? We can’t answer that question objectively, we’re too close to ourselves. But we like to think that the world is a slightly better place for having us in it, still. It can say: ‘These boys, they did something unforgivable, but in a way we forgave them. We rose above their crime, we allowed them not to be defined solely by their premeditated act of cruelty. Ours is a world in which that is possible.’ This, we believe, is a better world than a world that can only say: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and you wronged me so I wrong you back just the same, and your right to life is forfeit because you took life: you have no chance of redemption, ever.’

So a few years ago, when we were still quite young, but no longer the juvenile delinquents of yore, we did something we thought was worth a try. We took a train to Bournemouth. We were not strictly allowed to do so: we are not now and will never be allowed to set foot on the scene of our crime, but we did so anyway, because we wanted to test the water. Not literally, but metaphorically. We wanted to find out what the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe were really like. We’d seen so much of the ugly face of people’s understandable scorn and anger, hatred and pain, we had forgotten, we felt, what being normal, human and gracious would be. So we stripped off all our clothes. We were going to run, at first, because we were incredibly scared, as you perhaps can imagine. But within minutes we realised: these people, these good people of Bournemouth & Boscombe: they are not angry or hateful at heart. They were angry and hateful because we had wounded them so. But now, now that we laid ourselves bare and walked along that same beach in front of those same huts—the huts that had taken the places of those we’d destroyed—people smiled at us. They started talking to us. They even joined us. They had a laugh with us, and a banter. A pint and a stroll. All we’d really wanted to test was whether we’d survive the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe for half a day.

We did not mean to start a new thing. But here, and this is something we are today really glad to tell you, we were met with love. People were friendly and generous, good-humoured and kind. That’s what we will forever now cherish and what we will take to our graves. We are both not very religious, but we light five candles every night: two for the girls, two for the elderly couple, and, yes, one for the dog. That dog was somebody’s friend. It deserved not to die at our hands. And while until a few years ago that moment in the evening of honouring and remembering them was mainly filled with remorse and sorrow, since we went on our beach stroll in Bournemouth & Boscombe in the nude, it is filled now also with love. The love these people gave us—those same people whom we had so badly abused and who had therefore so understandably hated us so—sustains us today. We are grateful for it, and we appreciate it. And we love you all back.

We take no credit for having ‘invented’ the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll. If the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe didn’t have it in them to do this every year, it would not have caught on. The fact that it did and that it now attracts visitors from all over the world has nothing to do with us. Nobody even knows about us. It has everything, and only, to do with the people who make it happen each year: the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe. They own it, and for as long as they want it, they may keep and enjoy it.

So should we even tell you about us, if we don’t matter at all? We thought long and hard about this, and many times before we sent this letter to you decided against it. But there was something about your piece that convinced us, in the end, that the truth—even though it is painful and maybe unwelcome—still forms part of the picture, and the picture is only truthful if in the end, at some point, when it is ready to be so, it can be rendered complete. The colours, the layers, the light and the shade. And so we commend this letter to you to do with it as you see fit. But we thank you for having prompted us now to write it.

Yours humbly

Andrew & George

I’m struck by the fact that they’re signing it ‘Andrew & George’. Was not Andy the junior partner, drawn into the maelstrom of cataclysm by the older, more devious George? Maybe time has levelled their relationship, as it levels everything, and in all seriousness: does it matter? By sending me their letter they have given me two options only: to either be the keeper of their secret, or to be the agent of their revelation. It is a simple choice to make. I cannot be the keeper of a secret that was volunteered to me as a revelation. And as I believe in redemption, and in catharsis as a step towards it, I opt to let this stand now, here, as it is.

In my universe, hatred to love is as darkness to light: one may not exist without the other, but there is no question, ever, of which yields to which:

Love conquers all.

Insomnia [3]

Several weeks pass, during which I do my utmost to get at the Rumantschness of it all. This involves me using a long planned trip to Switzerland to traipse up into the Rumantsch-speaking part of the mountains and listen to their glorious choirs singing in small but packed churches, talking to native Rumantsch speakers (in Swiss German) about Rumantsch as a language, about their roughly half dozen dialects or ‘idioms’ (some of which don’t even understand each other), and about Rumantsch culture.

I find out that there is really not so much of a Rumantsch tradition as there are small local traditions that fall under the Rumantsch umbrella, but much as with Swiss German, which has many more dialects, some of which also find it difficult to understand each other, many people identify much more with their regional dialect than with the language overall.

The Rumantsch dialects take their names from the valleys where they are spoken, or from the nicknames their speakers were given by their neighbouring valley dwellers, and to me they sound like poetry, like characters in a mythical story about great heroes, fabulous creatures, and the eternal melancholy of the mountains: Sursilvan, Vallader, Putèr: the people who live above the forest, the people from the valley, the porridge eaters; Surmiran, Jauer, Tuatschin…

Everything about the life of the people I thus encounter is so different to my life, everything about their history so remote from my history, that I might as well have landed myself in a different world, on a different planet, but I am fascinated, intrigued. Humbled, fairly, too, to think what harshness, what overpowering awe they have, over generations, had, and learnt, to contend with, from these alps, from this seclusion, from this climate: they can be extreme.

I don’t speak to or otherwise communicate with Edgar for much of this time, seeing that he is generally busy, at least as busy as I am; and going by the convenient adage that ‘no news is good news,’ I assume him to be well; and I feel content, immersed in my new ‘project’. It isn’t so much a project as the pursuit of a trail that I happened upon (was really pointed towards, by Edgar), following it now out of sheer curiosity and that ever persistent Lure of the Alien. That which is different. The other, the new. It is not new to any of these people that I meet with and ask for accounts of their families’ histories, and they look at me with a mixture of indulgence and bemusement, but I mind it not. They are wondrous to me, even exotic. They are not exotic to themselves.

Enriched with audio recordings, video clips, and a raft of pictures of possible locations and all manner of Rumantsch paraphernalia, I return to London to start drafting my treatment, and I forget, for another several weeks, completely Edgar’s condition.

At the same time, I fall back into my own nocturnal pattern, staying up usually until three, four in the morning, or until my eyelids droop and I fall asleep, either having made it to bed around then, or occasionally also on the sofa, having watched Newsnight and intended to hang about quite a bit longer, or—this is quite rare—actually hunched over my laptop and realising I really have to get some sleep now. The worry about worrying about Edgar thus dispersed, I also don’t worry about insomnia, and so, quite naturally, my own brief flirtation with what to me had always seemed at worst a relatively minor inconvenience appears to have ended. I remind myself that to people with insomnia it is anything but a minor inconvenience, and I wonder have I been selfish, so I decide to check on Edgar:

‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m doing fine, thanks, and you? Making progress?

‘Of sorts. I should have a first draft in a couple of months or so.’

‘I look forward to reading it.’

‘What are you reading right now?’

‘I’ve been reading Chaucer and rereading Pico della Mirandola.’

‘Amazing.’

‘They are.’

‘You should read Shakespeare’s sonnets.’

‘I have.’

‘You could read them again. – Are you sleeping?’

‘Not much. Are you?’

‘Back to normal.’

‘Were you not sleeping normally before?’

‘I’d been worried.’

‘About what?’

‘You, mostly.’

‘Aw. That’s sweet, but unnecessary.’

‘I know.’

‘And why did you stop worrying?’

‘I got absorbed in the Rumantsch thing.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you getting at the Rumantschness of it all?’

‘I think so: I’ve been talking to dozens of people, including the descendants of the man who wrote the story about the brothers. They’ve been helpful.’

‘Do they mind you plundering their family annals?’

‘No, they seem a bit puzzled by my fascination with them. But they’re forthcoming, of sorts.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

I’m about to hang up, when it strikes me:

‘Have you ever considered doing some research into why it is that people cannot sleep?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Perhaps you should.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, perhaps if you understood the reasons why people have insomnia, then you could mitigate against suffering from it yourself.’

‘I don’t suffer that much, I’m taking melatonin.’

‘Melatonin?’

‘The sleep hormone.’

‘You’re taking hormones.’

‘Temporarily.’

‘I hope temporarily. – You shouldn’t be taking them regularly over the long term.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because they might do damage. Most drugs do.’

‘It’s not a drug, it’s a hormone.’

‘Well quite: it might unbalance your hormone household.’

‘It might?’

‘I’m no expert.’

‘Neither am I.’

‘You could read up on it: you’re an expert on most things.’

‘I have recently become an expert at Go.

‘Go?’

‘Yes, the game.’

‘That’s quite difficult to get expert at, isn’t it.’

‘It is. Oh and Peruvian llamas. They’re really quite whack. Did you know people use llamas to guard other animals, like sheep, for example?’

‘I did not.’

‘It’s fascinating: though it’s best to use a female llama or one single gelded male, apparently. If you use two or several gelded males they tend to hang out with each other and ignore their charges.’

‘Haha, that makes sense.’

‘And I know an awful lot about bamboo too, just in case you wondered.’

I hadn’t really wondered about anything near as specific as that, but I’m glad to hear that Edgar’s palette of expertise keeps growing, randomly, it appears.

Another two months or so go by quickly, and I hammer away at my treatment of the two mercenary brothers until I have got it in some sort of shape that I feel surprisingly happy with, and I give it another couple of days and read it through once or twice more and tweak it, and I reckon that’s it, that’s my Draft One Point Two (you never send out a Draft One Point One, to anybody; most people would advise you never to send out a Draft One at all), and I pick up the phone and call Edgar. He doesn’t answer, it goes to voicemail. He must be in the shower, I reckon, or be talking to someone in China, or cooking (though he’s not a late eater, and it’s just gone midnight here, so it will be just gone one in the morning there), or working out a problem that interests him; he’ll call me back shortly, I reckon.

He doesn’t. I wonder what might have happened to him, but before I can really worry—and having rather resolved not to worry about Edgar again, because it’s so patently unnecessary—I go back to work and do some more fiddling, until I doze off and briefly wake up again and decide it’s time to go to bed; and I go to bed and fall asleep. Edgar calls me at ten in the morning, bright and breezy:

‘Edgar! How are you?’

‘Magnificent. How are you?

‘I’m well. You had me worried last night.’

‘Why?’

‘I thought you had fallen asleep or something.’

It’s my feeble attempt at a joke. It fails:

‘I had.’

‘You had?’

‘Yes! Thanks to you!’

‘You’re welcome. What happened?’

‘Well I thought I should probably wean myself off the melatonin and allow my body to produce it itself in the required quantities at the appropriate times…’

‘Quite.’

‘…and so I stopped taking it.’

‘And that solved your insomnia.’

‘Of course not. It made it worse.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Then I thought maybe you’re right, maybe I need to become an expert on this, so I can treat myself more effectively in the long term.’

‘Oh amazing: you’re now an expert on insomnia!’

‘I am nothing of the sort.’

‘Ah.’

‘I started doing some research, at a basic, you know, Wikipedia level, and it sets out really quite interesting.’

‘I imagine.’

‘But then you realise that there are a million possible reasons and as many possible interventions, and so there’s zero scientific consensus except some pretty obvious observations about common sense behaviours and unending lists of things that may or may not be the case; and before I knew it I got so bored reading about it, I fell asleep.’

‘Result.’

‘Well yes. And the best thing about it: it’s repeatable. Like you with your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It works every time, it’s amazing. In fact, it works better now and faster, than it did three weeks ago, when I first discovered it: I now practically just have to google ‘insomnia’ and I start to feel drowsy, it’s almost Pavlovian.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘Thanks! – So, what’s new?’

‘Oh: the treatment.’

‘Ah yes?’

‘I think I’ve cracked it.’

‘You have?’

‘Well I think I’m close: I’ve got a draft.’

‘Cool. Send it over.’

‘I will.’

And I do. And I’m wondering what he’ll make of it, what will come of it, what to do with it, where to send it next, who to pitch it to, how to proceed, with what chance of success, if any; what’s ‘success’ in this context, anyway; perhaps I went about it all the wrong way, this may have to be much more dramatic. Or funnier. Or tighter, I tend to lose myself in tangents, sometimes, but I didn’t really in this case; maybe it needs to be looser; perhaps it needs to be more broadly relevant; more culturally representative, more authentic, surely; surely that: way more authentic, wittier, warmer, dryer and softer. Sharper, more humane—is it really the brothers’ story that matters? Could it not much more be the mother’s?—more diverse, more character-driven, with a more female perspective, more up-to-date, more historically accurate, and altogether much more Rumantsch.

And so yes, here I am, lying awake through the night, wondering about the Rumantschness of it all, with a picture in my mind of a posse of guardian llamas, chilling in the grass, chewing the cud, an air of sophistication about their general nonchalance, and the flock or the herd or the peep they’re supposed to look after just nowhere to be seen…


< Insomnia [2]

 

{QED}

now the problem of the giraffe taking a shower is a very serious one which has never really been solved. it is also very much doubtful whether it ever will be solved, since it is such a vexed and great one.

the giraffe taking a shower has the great problem that the water running down his beautiful long ears, down his beautiful long neck, over his delightful belly, and down his beautiful long legs, reaches his beautiful long toes when it is not likely to be quite as warm any more as it was when it rinsed over those beautiful long ears. in fact is is very likely to be rather cold.

thus the giraffe taking a shower finds himself confronted with the everlasting conundrum of an undisintangleable dilemma.

this sounds unlikely, i know, that is we all know, you and i know it sounds remarkably unlikely, but it is nevertheless very true: should he, the giraffe taking a shower, risk burning the tips of his beautiful ears, or perchance freeze to the bone his beautiful toes.

if he sets the water temperature too high, he will invariably burn the tips of his beautiful ears, or at the very least get very hot in his head, which is almost equally uncomfortable; does he, however, try to avoid this by tuning the water a little colder, he will of course not burn his ears, but by the time the water will have run down all of his beautiful long neck, his delightful belly will already shiver a little, and when the water finally reaches his beautiful long toes it will be plain cold, and he will awfully chill his sensitive foot ends.

so this, as most easily can be understood, is the problem of the giraffe taking a shower. what is he supposed to do: should he drop the idea of having a shower altogether and instead take the occasional bath? that, of course, might seem like a sensible alternative. but how complicated a thing to do. for a giraffe. no-one could expect him to just simply fold his neck when he wants to wash it, and how can he reach his beautiful ears when his beautiful long legs still are not half as long as his beautiful neck.

oh i can tell you, a giraffe has no easy life to live. his problems are many, and none of them is a small one, let alone short. he or she, the giraffe taking a shower, is a poor creature indeed, just like you and like me…

Insomnia [2]

Five o’clock in the morning: I lie awake, worrying about Edgar. Not about Edgar himself, obviously, Edgar is the last person I need to worry about: I worry about the fact that Edgar of all people can’t sleep, and what that means for someone like me, who normally sleeps without a hint of a problem, when I thought Edgar was the kind of person who did so too; does that mean I have to worry about not being able to sleep, all of a sudden, just like Edgar?

It’s the kind of worry I least appreciate and am least able to see any sense in: it’s worrying about worrying: it’s a meta-worry. It’s a preposterousness, and that is in itself a worry: I now worry about the fact that I worry. About worrying.

My lover doesn’t notice I’m lying awake next to him, worrying, he just rasps a contented snore. He’s an uncomplicated sleeper. Sometimes he has nightmares that wake him up briefly, but he goes back to sleep easily and quickly. I think it might just be my clamping onto him that occasionally sets off a nightmare in him, but I don’t ask for fear that he’ll confirm that, yes, that’s what it is, because I like snuggling up to him: I spend the whole night resting my head on his chest, holding him; he holding me.

I arrange to see Edgar for a drink and he seems very happy. Tired, but fulfilled. In the course of our conversation—it’s been a while since we last met, so we have some catching up to do—I realise he’s become an expert in about a half dozen subjects, and he does not seem the least bit worried, about any of them, or about getting enough sleep:

‘Oh no,’ he laughs: I nap.’

‘You nap?’

‘Yes.’

‘When do you nap?’

‘When I’m tired.’

‘And then you sleep?’

‘No I nap, there’s a difference…’

‘I realise there’s a difference, but then at night, do you sleep?’

‘Oh no, at night I lie awake, reading.’

‘What are you reading about?’

‘At the moment I’m learning Rumantsch.’

‘You’re learning Rumantsch by reading?’

‘I read it at night, and practise it during the day.’

‘Rumantsch?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you speak Rumantsch now?’

‘I read it quite well.’

I feel a little tired just listening to Edgar, as he tells me he has taken to translating a Rumantsch story into English.

‘Aren’t you tired?’

‘No, I’ve just had a nap.’

‘I mean generally: how much sleep do you get?’

‘It varies: between four and five hours a day, enough to survive.’

‘And you’re not tired? You look a bit tired.’

‘Oh that’s probably because I’ve just woken up from my nap: it takes me a while…’

‘What are you going to do with your Rumantsch story, once you’ve translated it into English?

‘I can read it to you.’

‘Yes you could: that might actually send me to sleep.’

The experiment is not a success. I am too weirded out by the fact that I have a man twice my size but effectively my age sitting in my living room, reading me a story. Also, the story is quite interesting. When I tell my lover, he suggests I read it to him: he dozes off straight away.

I sit awake, reading the rest of the story that Edgar has translated from Rumantsch into English, about an alp farmer and his three sons, who all become mercenaries, fighting wars for foreign lords in far flung countries, for remuneration. One dies, one is captured and spends a long time being held hostage because his family can’t afford the ransom, and one comes back, traumatised, but determined to bring home his brother. He sets off again on what turns into a riveting adventure of selfless bravery, Helvetian heroism and blockheaded stubbornness. He finds and liberates his brother, and his brother is grateful but also sad: he does not want to leave his fellow prisoner of war behind whom he has become close friends with: as close as brothers, closer even. Blood brothers. I think lovers, but the story doesn’t spell that out. It was written by a descendant of the older, stronger, rescuing brother in the early part of the 18th century, and they didn’t so much go in for the gay theme, at the time. To me it’s pretty obvious. My lover is fast asleep, so I can’t ask him.

I phone Edgar, sure to find him awake: he answers the phone straight away:

‘Of course, it’s obvious!’

‘Do you think the story would make a good film?’

‘Of course it would make a good film!’

‘Do you think I should write a treatment?’

‘Why not? I’m not going to!’

‘Who owns the rights?’

‘I don’t think anybody does, but I can find out for you!’

Now Edgar is full of exclamation marks, which wearies me, this time of night, but I’m glad that what keeps me awake now is no longer my meta-worry about worrying about being worried about Edgar, but thinking about how to frame this stupendous tale into a good, solid, rustic, heroic love story. Between a Helvetian mercenary and his lover in captivity. Over the next couple of weeks I write the treatment during my night time waking hours and show it to Edgar.

‘It’s quite good.’

‘Quite good.’

‘Yes, but you’re missing something.’

‘What am I missing?’

‘You’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘The Rumantschness?’

‘Yes. You’ve got the Helvetianness all right, which is not surprising, seeing you’re Helvetian yourself, but you’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘How do I get the Rumantschness?’

‘I don’t know: go there, talk to the clan, learn Rumantsch…’

‘You want me to learn Rumantsch?’

‘I don’t want you to learn it, I want you to get the Rumantschness of it: if you want someone to finance this project for you so you can turn it into a film that will be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, and be owned by the people you’re talking about at the same time, then you’ve got to get the Rumantschness of it all.’

I hadn’t thought anywhere near as far ahead as that, but of course he is right: this is exactly the kind of film that should be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, preferably on the Piazza Grande, and be both good enough to be able to win a jury award and have enough of a broad appeal—with its Helvetian 17th century prisoners-in-captivity-and-brothers-in-arms-but-beyond-that-love-story—to have a fair crack at the audience prize too. It has to be thoroughly Rumantsch.

‘What if we shoot it in Rumantsch?’

‘That would go a long way to getting the Rumantschness of it, yes.’

‘But?…’

‘But it would obviously entail you having at least a working knowledge of Rumantsch.’

The prospect seems daunting, but I speak fairly decent Italian, workalike French and a little Portuguese. I once studied Putonghua for a while. And, it occurs to me now, a little Latin, back at school, which I didn’t enjoy then, but that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with my teacher, except when we both agreed I should probably cease coming to his Latin class…

‘I think the film needs to be trilingual,’ Edgar offers into the silence that has briefly settled over my brow as I am contemplating my linguistic predisposition towards learning Rumantsch (I tried Spanish once too, but that didn’t get me very far: the Italian kept interfering).

‘What, Italian, French and Portuguese?’

‘No, of course not: English, Swiss German and Rumantsch.’

‘Why would anybody in this story speak English?’

‘Because it’s an English researcher or journalist or distant relative who happens upon it and tells it, from his perspective, today.’

‘Like a meta-story.’

‘A bit like a meta-story.’

‘It’s been done before.’

‘Everything has been done before.’

‘It’s probably less of a meta-story, this, than a straightforward framework device.’

‘It could work: you can write the English and the Swiss German dialogue, and I can translate the Rumantsch bits.’

‘Is your Rumantsch good enough for that?’

‘It will be by the time you’re done with your script.’

‘But you’re not a writer.’

‘No, you are.’

That’s true. I am. It’s a fascinating idea. I could write the script in English and Swiss German, and he could translate the parts of the dialogue that need to be in Rumantsch into Rumantsch, and then we’d obviously need somebody whose mother tongue is Rumantsch to check it for its overall Rumantschness, maybe one of the descendants: one of the clan.

I am beginning to imagine the kind of conversation I would be having with an alp farmer descendant of a Helvetian 17th century mercenary who goes to rescue his brother from captivity in a foreign land, only to find that his brother doesn’t really want to leave because he doesn’t want to abandon his lover, because he is concerned for his safety, and fears, quite reasonably, that he will never see him again if he now joins his brother and escapes back to his village high up in the mountains, across the St Gotthard Pass. It sounds like an intriguing story to me. Has it got legs, though?

I think I’d need to sleep on it. At the moment, that’s problematical…


< Insomnia [1]       Insomnia [3] >

 

Insomnia [1]

I never lost much sleep over losing sleep. Doing so seemed, well, counterintuitive. Illogical. Self-defeating.

Those friends—one or two—who complained of restless nights, of tossing and turning, of simply not switching off, baffled me: why not just get up, if you can’t sleep, and do some work, I would wonder. Or if you don’t do the kind of work you can pursue in the small hours of the night or the morning, why not, maybe, read? Or watch a film? Watch a documentary for example, or a history programme? Phone a friend in New Zealand, or in Australia: there’s bound to be one you’ve mostly forgotten about, because they never comment on social media. They’re actually there: just call them up out of the blue and say: ‘hey! How is it all hanging with you?’ It will be a lovely surprise.

‘Oh, but then I’ll be tired in the morning,’ my sleepless friends would say. But you’ll be tired in the morning anyway, I’d think and say: ‘I see. That’s inconvenient, certainly.’ I didn’t really see. Though I realised it would be inconvenient to be tired in the morning. Then again they were tired in the morning anyway, because they couldn’t sleep, so why not be tired having done something useful, or interesting?

A very good friend of mine who often found it difficult to sleep told me she worried a great deal about it, because it made her feel neurotic. I half bethought me there was perhaps a seed of self-knowledge contained in this sensation. I didn’t think it friendly to say so, so I said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ She would go to bed at nine thirty, ten at the latest, and then lie awake. She used to use earplugs and a sleep mask and close the heavy curtains of her bedroom. And not sleep. ‘You never have that problem?’ I never had that problem.

I can sleep in any kind of setting, light or dark; I have a high background noise threshold (I mostly just zone out of it), I sleep any time, day or night; my window, except during coldest winter, is always ajar, my blinds don’t darken the room, they just afford a bit of privacy; I usually go to bed about three, three thirty in the morning (sometimes, if it’s been a heavy day or an early start, or an early start is impending, an hour or so earlier), I sleep until ten, maybe nine-thirty; I don’t set an alarm unless I absolutely have to: my body appears to require seven hours of sleep now, almost exactly, to wake up, slowly and a little reluctantly, always, but essentially to fully functioning order restored. So long as I’m warm enough, I am fine. I don’t even mind my lover snoring. I simply clamp onto him and fall in with his breathing, no problem.

The problem started when Edgar, my most sensible friend, told me he couldn’t sleep. ‘Why not?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he just couldn’t. It was annoying. Beyond annoying, it was tiring: he’s a university lecturer, he needs to be awake during the day, to do his thinking, his preparing of lectures, his reading, and his lecturing. Being tired is not just inconvenient for him, it’s debilitating. Suddenly that made sense. And now I was worried. If Edgar, my least neurotic and quite possibly most intelligent friend, suddenly, out of the blue, simply can’t sleep, and for no particular reason, but to the point where it interferes with his operability, then who is safe from this menace? I decided, uncharacteristically, to probe further:

‘Has anything happened to make you lose sleep over it?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Your relationship is going well.’

‘Splendid. Except we sleep in separate rooms at the moment, because I can’t sleep. And I snore.’

‘Aw. – Ah well, many couples sleep in separate rooms.’

‘They do.’

‘Your children are healthy?

‘They’re excellent, thanks.’

‘Your daughter-in-law has calmed down a bit.’

‘A bit. It’ll take her a while, I suppose.’

‘I suppose. – University not undergoing too many changes, no upheavals?’

‘Just the bureaucracy, it’s creeping in, it’s taking over. It’s a nightmare.’

‘Ah! There you go! You are worried about the bureaucrats taking over!’

‘No I don’t worry about them, I’ve got tenure. They just annoy me, they have no imagination.’

‘Of course not, they’re bureaucrats. How about… how about… food? You eat well, don’t you?’

This is an unnecessary question: Edgar eats exquisitely: he is one of the best chefs I know.

‘There really is no obvious reason,’ he says, a tone of resignation in his voice.

That worries me: if Edgar, of all people, quite possibly the most up-for-it, can-do person I know, is sounding resigned over being unable to sleep, then who can fight this disease. Disease!

‘How is your health?’

‘My health is all right, thanks, how is yours?’

‘Mine is just dandy, thanks. Do you take any exercise?’ I’ve recently latched on to the need to take exercise, it’s an age thing; has Edgar?

‘Of course not.’

‘Maybe that’s the cause of your inability to sleep.’

‘I have never taken any exercise in my life, I burn all my calories in my brain.’

This is probably true. The brain uses a lot of energy, and Edgar is one of the most avid thinkers I know; but thinking doesn’t aid circulation.

‘You maybe should go for a walk now and then.’

‘I go for short walks all the time.’

‘Maybe you should go for a long walk, every day.’

‘You do that, don’t you?

‘I do. And I sleep like a baby.’

‘What, wake up every few hours and scream your head off, until somebody rocks you and gives you some oral gratification.’

‘I walked right into that, didn’t I.’

That’s why I like Edgar, he doesn’t take any nonsense from me, or from anyone. And he’s brought up a whole brood of children, he knows what he’s talking about.

‘Have you thought about therapy?’ (Of course he hasn’t.)

‘Of course not.’

‘Then I don’t know what I can recommend. Read, maybe. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People rave about it. I tried reading it five times, I fell asleep every time. It’s like a switch: I get to about page three, four, maximum five, then I’m out. Just like that.’

‘I’ve read it. It was entertaining.’

‘Maybe try reading it again… – or: maybe try reading about something you’re really not interested in, at all.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like the Spanish Civil War.’

‘The Spanish Civil War?’

‘Yes: are you interested in the Spanish Civil War?’

‘I have never given it a moment’s thought.’

‘Try that.’

I meet Edgar for coffee about two weeks later, as we are both in town. (We are not that often both in town at the same time, we lead busy, cosmopolitan lifestyles that involve being out of and in other cities and towns respectively all the time.)

‘How is it going?

‘Fine thanks. Just very tired.’

‘Still no joy with the sleep?’

‘It’s getting worse.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Thanks. You are, of course, to blame.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘How come?’

‘Well, I started reading about the Spanish Civil War: it’s fascinating!’

‘Oh, but that’s great, isn’t it?

‘Yes and no: I’m learning about European history, which, frankly, I knew little about, but the books now keep me awake even longer.’

‘Ah. Well. That was an unintended consequence. Maybe you have to find something less stimulating to read, and less likely to be of random tangential relevance to you. How about botany?’

‘Botany?’

‘Yes, you don’t have a garden, do you.’

‘No.’

‘And you don’t want one, do you.’

‘Absolutely not.’

‘Well there you go: why not read about botany, that will send you to sleep.’ (If that doesn’t send him to sleep, I think, then nothing will. Then again, there are botanists, so who knows…)

It’s nearly the end of June and I’m about to go on a lengthy trip, so I forget about the business of sleep for a while as I cruise around Europe in an open top car. This feels both extravagant and romantic. I’m doing it on my own, because I don’t at that point have a partner, and I’m enjoying the freedom, the spirit, the air. I sleep in a different b’n’b every night, almost, and most of the time on my own. Only on one occasion is the host so flirtatious, so attractive, so sexy that we end up spending the night together. In Bordeaux. I eat well, I drink well, I sleep well.

Edgar and I are having dinner, on my return. He’s cooking, the way he usually does, in passing. He has the knack for rustling up something delicious as if it weren’t happening, while we’re talking. It’s fascinating, and a little disconcerting. When I cook (which I only do since recently, thanks to an online service that sends me all the ingredients in a box, together with clear instructions, which I follow to the letter and get annoyed with if they are even remotely vague, which thankfully happens extremely rarely), I have to give it my full concentration. I follow the steps. My cooking is in essence a connecting of dots: it’s reading the sheet music and making it work. With some success, I might add. Edgar’s cooking is all jazz and improvisation. The steak is particularly juicy on this occasion, and the roasted vegetables with fresh herbs are out of this world!

‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Edgar! This food is amazing!’

‘Thanks.’

‘The vegetables, they are so tasty!’

(I notice I’m discoursing in exclamation marks, all of a sudden! But they’re warranted!)

‘Thanks.’ Edgar is humility personified. ‘I grew them during the summer.’

‘You what?’

‘I grew them, in the garden.’

‘You don’t have a garden. – Do you?’

‘I do: I asked the neighbour down on the ground floor who tended the garden and he said nobody does, it’s a crying shame, and so I said: let me.’

‘But you know nothing about gardening.’

‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot about botany lately, and it’s really quite the most interesting thing. And stimulating.’

‘O-oh.’

‘I know, it doesn’t send me to sleep, of course; it keeps me awake, but hey: we have exquisite vegetables now, and those herbs.’

I fear me I may have to change me my strategy…


Insomnia [2] >

 

{The Fire Breather}

Though he be strong, he is not fierce; though he be powerful, he is not violent. Although he be dependable, righteous he can’t be; though he be wise, he is not heard. He is a Fire Breather: his word burns like a torch; like Elijah’s does it purify – but can it ever be understood? By whom?

He casts a curious figure in the wilderness, as he stands by the shore, by the riverbank, on the mountain, on the traffic island in the city; in the square; shadowless, peerless, ageless. The inner beauty of his mind obscured and masked by the dust on his brow and the mud round his ankles. His hair all a-tangle, his white beard streaked now only with the occasional charcoal, with a strand of dark blond here, or there ginger. His scent is not sweet, nor is he a joy to behold, at first glance. 

At second glance the wrinkles around his eyes show as laugh lines, and they are merry with wisdom. At third glance the light in his eyes shines bright as a flame: the oxygen of an insight beyond.

Through meditation and study and practice he has mastered the art of putting his mind above matter, and so he has learnt to walk on water, but he can only do so when nobody watches because he knows that if anyone were to see him, they would turn him into a miracle worker, a prophet, a freak. A messiah. A wonder of no more worth than that it defies the simple laws of contemporarily understood physics.

He will not have it. He will not be entertainment. He will not speak of his understanding, nor will he surmise his premonitions other than to those who are able and willing to pause. And stay silent, but for a while. Ere they ask questions. Those who are capable of phrasing these questions from a hunger for knowledge, a desire to learn. They are not many. The shouting, the screaming, the screeching, the demands for explanations, the sarcastic tones and the jibes, the heckling, the laughter, the desire—the instinct—for tearing him down, the lust for his failure, for his destruction, for him to be hung drawn and quartered, for his undoing, are great.

He knows this, and he inwardly smiles. He has the capacity in his heart to forgive. He is magnanimous in his disposition towards those who hate him, who wish him silenced, who relish him misunderstood. Because he knows: one day something or someone will catch fire from his word and the fire will spread and will cause a great conflagration from which the lands will emerge purged and fertile for new thought to grow.

That is not his aim nor his goal nor his intention, that is just his purpose. His purpose is to quietly whisper into the din of the crowd that will not heed him, and plant the seeds he was given to sow. Until one takes hold. Until from just one or just two or just three or four, and then four or five more, some thing starts to grow.

He doesn’t even know what that could be. He has no certainty that it will not be dangerous, poisonous even, or be made such by others who will take what they find and turn it upside down, inside out; who pervert him and his gentle teachings into dogma and strife. He cannot prevent this from happening, if it must. He can only be true to his purpose, his purpose being his word.

Fear not the Fire Breather, but neither dismiss or ignore him. And doubt not the might of the Word.

Revival [6]

I decide that the origin is clearly not what matters. It goes against my grain somewhat to accept this, because wasn’t that what got me onto this story in the first place? Wasn’t that the intriguing question: how did it all begin? Still, nobody knows, and no-one I met and talked to about it was able to give me any more hints or pointers.

There’s the legend of the two guys in their twenties and their dare, and there is the tradition that has established itself over time, and that’s all there is to it. Does there need to be more? Of course, everything has a cause and an origin somewhere, and probably this is somehow known: in the fabric of the common consciousness, unspoken, unexplained. It just happened, we all know it just happened, we kind of understand how it happened, and we’re all right with that. Or is it a case of avoiding uncomfortable truths? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

I decide to let it go. This obsession with clear causes and rational effects. I’ve had, against all my expectations and severe reservations, a marvellous time in the unclothed company of strangers who turned out very much to be friends I hadn’t yet met. This belief I’ve held always, borne out by experience. We are good people. Yes, we do terrible things—the litany of our offences against each other, against the planet, against the animal kingdom, reads like a catalogue of monstrosity, and we’re never more than an inch away from some appalling misdeed or other—and yes our history is littered with catastrophic failures of humanity, and yes: you watch your news and you feel a moment closer to despair before you’ve had a chance to change channels, but… take a Sunday afternoon like this in almost any town in England, or in any country, really, and, away from the agitation, unstirred by some cause or other, some issue or concern, given a set of basic parameters —that the fundamental needs be covered, that the fabric of the community be intact and healthy, that the framework that allows human beings to feel safe and appreciated be in place and not threatened by crime or corruption or despotic politics—you will find us getting on with each other, pretty much. Across generations, across creeds, across ideologies, across gender, across ethnicity, across religion, across our own little preoccupations, and large ones too, across the spectrum. It’s not spectacular, and it’s not difficult. It’s human, it’s normal. And yet, it still feels amazing.

This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive and deluded, I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric, simplistic solutions and the allocation of blame, guilt and shame, it may sound almost glib to say: ‘we are good people.’ But think of the alternative.

Think of what it means if we decide, in the face of everything, that we are as terrible as the worst things we see? Then whatever makes whoever among us do wrong, in whatever way, will have won: we hand our worst version of ourselves victory over ourselves. Because yes, the bombing of children in war zones, the dumping of plastic by the container load in the oceans, the burning down of refugee centres, and the shooting of students at high schools: they’re all done by us. People. Like you and me. That is the horrendous truth, but it’s also—and that’s much harder to comprehend and as difficult to accept—the reason there is hope yet. The people who do the most terrible things from which we recoil in disgust, they are not a different species. They are innocent when they are born and grow up with hopes and dreams of their own. And then things go wrong. Over time, bit by bit, through circumstances, through personal choices, through the need to survive, through the culture we’re born into, through what behaviours are reinforced. Through illness. Through despair. For every person who does something destructive, violent, inhuman, cruel, there is also the person they could have become. May yet turn into, given the chance. And vice versa.

So if we give in to despair, surrender to cruelty, and accept violence and destruction as the norm, then we feed them. We give our energy to them, we make them stronger. We start to meet hatred with hatred, instead of with love. We start to build walls, instead of dismantling borders. We start to arm teachers, instead of disarming society. We crank up the tension, instead of defusing situations, we add fuel to the wildfire, instead of extinguishing it, and planting new trees.

They’re simple choices, really: whichever version of ourselves we nurture will grow strong. And so I take my leave of Bournemouth & Boscombe and its famous Nude Beach Stroll, on the last Sunday in June. I salute you, good people, there, by the coast: I thank you, you’ve given me much food for thought and made me see my world differently. I do wish you well!


< Revival [5]