Songs & Charades

I take the “fabulous” TGV to Lyon – from said Gare de Lyon, there now safely and without further trouble arrived – and change to another, ordinary train to Grenoble where I get to Anne’s at 1pm and meet “the others.” The others are certainly Magda, my flatmate from London, whose friend Anna is, and Magda’s dancer friend Ross, who, like her, is from Glasgow, and whom I have met on one or two occasions before, fancying him ever so slightly but getting from him principally polite indifference, which doesn’t trouble me more than to about the same level: ever so slightly. There may have been other ‘others’, but I wouldn’t be certain now who and The Tape here does not elaborate, so maybe there weren’t.

What it does tell me is that I now experience a “wonderful sequence of days.” I have virtually no recollection of this. But according to myself, we spend the afternoon playing charades (this sounds entirely plausible, knowing Magda), and in the evening we hook up with some friends of Anne’s. In my still and always a tad cautious, somewhat incongruous English, I describe this as “so enjoyable, so nice”, as we “went out for a meal and had lots to eat, lots to drink.” Then, after dinner and drinks, we get back home to Anne’s and sing some songs. We go to bed “very late, at 4 in the morning, or so.” I can imagine this, vividly enough, but not remember. I do remember what comes next, a bit: it’s a very slow, very lazy but relaxing Saturday. (In my memory, it’s a Sunday, but that hardly matters…) The weather is “very cold” and it’s raining, which is a good excuse to stay indoors, I record (though this bit again I no longer remember) and play more charades. What I do remember is doing (or helping with) some washing up and looking out of the window into the cold grey weekend and feeling properly chuffed. That glow of contentment, a little hungover, I remember it well. (Only now it occurs to me that that was another occasion entirely: that was Glasgow, where we spent Hogmanay one year, possibly the same year, with essentially the same people, Magda and Ross, and quite possibly also Anne. The blurring of the past in the mind over time…) 

In the evening, more people come around and we sing more songs, play the guitar, drink a lot, and by the time I actually record my next entry it’s Sunday, “a couple of extremely pleasant days” having passed. Sunday I also have an actual recollection of. The weather had turned fine again (it was summer, after all), and we took guitars (I imagine there were at least two) out to a little pond, where we all of us sat on the jetty and sang songs in the sun. This, really, is the second enduring memory I have of the whole trip, after the friendly Parisian coming to my rescue: it’s a hazy memory, and in my mind it looks exactly like the kind of 1970s or 80s film where, to tell the audience that something is being remembered, the picture goes all diffuse and vastly overexposed: it’s a warm, light, comfortable glow, just not very clear, not at all distinct. Then again, it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve just told The Tape that Magda and Ross are going to continue their journey tonight (where to I don’t say and don’t remember), whereas I will stay on for another day and then tomorrow continue my trip to Italy. Magda walks in on me – possibly having heard me talk ‘to myself’, which in an age before mobiles is not the usual thing for someone to do – and, with that mix of curiosity and concern in her voice that makes it go a little high pitched, asks me what I’m doing. I explain to her that I’m recording an audio diary and that I’ll be able to play it to her at some point, though I don’t think I ever did play it to her. I don’t think I ever played it to anyone, and now that I’m listening to it, for the first time in twenty-eight years, I keep getting that sense of wonder. Songs and charades. Songs and charades.

It was a blissful time. I know it was because although I have hardly any recollection of it, I have a recording of me talking about it. I’m not effusive in my joy, but I know I’m living through another best time of my life. The first one, surely, was at the Gymnasium Münchenstein, where I spent one and a half years in near comprehensive, intensive, fully lived happiness. Because of the people I was at school with, because of the projects we were doing (we performed my first play and took it on a mini tour to Zürich and a place called Liestal, and it was a tremendous success with the audiences wherever we went), because of the discoveries, the newness of it all. Pain too, yes, now and then, but not much and not lasting and not beyond what you’d expect in your final years of growing up. The classic freedom of not having any responsibilities yet at all but being able to follow your inclinations. To travel, to drive (on a whim to Munich and back in a couple of days, with a girl friend who was then almost my girlfriend), to experiment, to be cool. To make a statement and feel good about it. I’m certain we knew then that we were happy and privileged and hopeful and young; and we still knew it, almost as much, in Grenoble, that weekend in August of 1988. The notion I keep coming back to: unencumbered. At ease, with ourselves, with it all.

I’m glad now I have this tape. I shall keep it, of course, and – if I’m around and still have a machine to play it then – listen to it again in another twenty-five years or so. I have a feeling it will sound no different. It’s endearing, to me at least, to hear me like that, but it is so remote. So …unrecognisable. I’m listening to the stories of a young man I barely know at all. How strange. How fascinating too, but how odd. To not, more deeply, feel connected. As someone who thinks connection is everything and everything is connected…

Edinburgh

I like Edinburgh. I like it now, I liked it then. I love it now, I loved it then. With one or two reservations, for which Edinburgh is not to blame, nor its good people. It’s so far north, it gets undeniably miserable in winter. And dark. The upside of this is that in summer the days are long and, with its situation by the sea, the light and the air and the atmosphere are tonic.

On the tape, I call it “a wonderful city,” “beautiful” and “absolutely stunning.” I also tell my future self that, having queued up at the Fringe Box Office for an hour, and seen people advertise their shows there, “I feel very strongly that next year I will not be here as a member of the audience, but as a participant on some level or other.”

My slow delivery and often elaborate choice of words notwithstanding – I really seem to search a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeed maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time – I am obviously excited to be there and to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre. I never think of the theatre I had either already done, with students in Switzerland, or that I was about to do, in London and Edinburgh with professional actors, as ‘avant-garde’, but with hindsight it’s also clear that much of it probably was. The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a theatre writer has always baffled me, because nothing I’ve ever written has ever seemed so ‘out there’ to me that it could not be both understood and also – if you relish language and appreciate thought as much as emotion, delight in playfulness for its own sake as easily as losing yourself in a story – enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve just written, just now, and I think: maybe I do understand why so many people don’t seem to get me…

It occurs to me now, and only really now, that with all the wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm that I started out with, I propelled myself onto a trajectory that is exactly not what then I thought it was going to be. What I remember thinking it was going to be at the time – even though from today’s perspective that makes no sense at all – was that I would be heard and seen, ultimately, by everybody, by the general public: I simply assumed that people would, by and by over time, but relatively quickly, become aware of my work, and embrace it. Like it, if you like. And what I find most fascinating now is not that that hasn’t happened, that instead some people have absolutely loved my plays, but others have as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres (whose brief it is to put on new writing, after all…) has ever put on one of my plays, even though several of them have taken pains to profess how ‘impressed’ they were with what I’d sent them to read; no, what I find most fascinating now is that in spite of all that, and after three decades, I still write work that to me seems entirely ‘reasonable’, that is perhaps individual, but that certainly does not set out to baffle, and it still baffles people. They still think it’s too risky, too unconventional. Today, this very week, I still have a theatre director tell me that something that to me is an obviously bold, and maybe a bit challenging, but therefore also exciting, stroke of theatre ‘cannot be done’, not because it is ‘bad’ or ‘badly written’ – they always, always point out how ‘good’ the writing supposedly is – but because it does not sit within the convention, within the narrow confines of what traditional practitioners still seem to expect their audiences to accept.

I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my voice diary in August 1988, aged twenty-four, still only three years into living in London, but I’m about to embark on a choppy voyage that will on many occasions have me nearly keel over, that will have some people so incensed that they will attempt to sink me, that will cause me to get wet a lot, but that, yes, will also bring me to some who will get something out of it too, who will accompany me for short while and see a sight or discover a place that they would not otherwise have got to, and find value in that. Then again, the tone had maybe already been set, long before, when we did Sentimental Breakdown… while I was still at school in Switzerland. One, very conservative, local newspaper had said in its review of the piece, “if it proves anything it is that today’s youth has nothing to say.” Another, far more liberal paper gave it a really positive write up. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. Which is why, today, I no longer read ‘the reviews’, they are, after all, just opinions…

Then, in August 1988, aged twenty-four, I tell my future self that Edinburgh is “the place to do something; lively, open very free, the platform for modern new theatre; and that’s me saying this before I have even seen anything.” I’m about to see quite a bit: I spend a couple of days at the festival sleeping little – “it’s 34 hours since I’ve been to bed last, and it’s starting to show very slowly” – smoking too much and seeing seven shows. One of these leaves me cold, others I’m quite impressed by, one has me “physically shaking” it’s such an “amazing piece of work.” I take the opportunity to talk to performers and directors, and to some of the people running the venues to “get some insider views.” I see a comedy show which amuses me but I also tartly remark that “the unfortunate thing is they trap themselves a little; they are very witty, because they parody the Eurovision Song Contest, but their serious songs fall into a category fairly close to the kind they’re making jokes about…” but overall I am inspired, encouraged:

“I love Edinburgh,” I say in my last entry recorded there. “It is full of beautiful places, full of stunning views; if Edinburgh [were] blessed enough to find itself located a few degrees further down towards the south it would [be] one of the most vibrant and fantastic places to possibly even reside,” I venture, using the word ‘reside’ without, I believe, much irony; although I have doubts that Edinburgh would have the atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel outside the festival, and “it’s just simply too cold, there’s no doubt about that; it feels like April, which is all right for three or four weeks to do some work here, but to live here must be hell, it’s so depressing; but funnily enough it doesn’t seem to affect the people at all, they are nice and friendly.”

And thus, even with the cold weather, I am “so invigorated by the people, by what’s going on here, by the shows, I could,” I say, “go on for a lot longer,” but tomorrow I have to check out by 1:30pm, after which I will “then see another three shows at least, and take the 11:14 train from Edinburgh to London, and that will be my festival experience.” And even though I still have nearly a third of that experience ahead of me, I’m already able to conclude:

“Only just a couple of months ago, Edinburgh was this colossus of fantastically gifted, possibly famous, experienced, thoroughly professional beings who gathered together excelling in what they do… – but it’s an open space, it’s a platform, it’s a forum, it’s a festival, it’s a place where things can be done.” I seem to be under no illusion: “The fact that people put in vast amounts of work for what in material terms is no return whatsoever: that creates an environment which to me appears very fruitful.” And so the resolution: “If it’s the last thing I do, and if it costs me a vast amount of money, I still want to take a show up here.”

Thus, I record my own personal manifesto for the following year: “It is now high time, very necessary, very appropriate also, to proceed and do the experiment, see how it works, risk failure, risk loss, risk whatever is involved; and I shall be spending the next twelve months preparing for this experiment and will put it to the test.” And that is, of course, exactly what I then do.

Divestment

I find a cassette tape, unlabelled. I’m in the process of divesting myself of accumulated clutter that has started to clog up my life, in preparation for a renovation of my flat, and most of the tapes are being at long last thrown out now. Some – those bought as cassette albums and undamaged – go to the charity shop, practically all the others, with the exception only really of some mixtapes, go in the bin: I hold on to less than half a dozen, which is me being ruthless. I reckon.

The unlabelled tape nearly lands in the bin liner unexamined, but it intrigues me as there are almost no tapes that don’t have anything written on them at all, even if on some of them the writing has long faded and become illegible. I take it out of its case and put it in the machine I still have. I hear a young voice with a not particularly strong but clearly discernible accent, a little measured, a little studied, a little over-enunciated, say: “All right, here we go: Europe Tour 1988, The Spoken Diary.” I’m listening to myself, nearly thirty years ago. And I hear myself say: “This is my first experience of this kind as well, so we just have to try it out.” My language has not yet acquired any idiom, and Germanisms linger, sometimes prevail.

“Nothing of what’s going to be said is going to be edited in any way, I promise myself that, so that when I’ll be listening to it in two or three or five years, ten years, I’ll feel genuinely embarrassed.” Not embarrassed, my friend, so much as astounded. I sound to me like any young man from the past. I recognise myself, but in the way that I would recognise a friend from that time, someone I knew, a little. Not someone I knew well, let alone someone I was.

I don’t remember the process of recording this, but I do recall having made the tape. The memory is curious, brittle, alien.

The ‘Europe Tour’, it transpires, will have taken me from Edinburgh, where the diary starts on Monday 14th August (which I pronounce Oggust, and that does embarrass me now, slightly, though it also endears me to me) at 2:15 in the afternoon, a time by which I declare, with a hint of pride lacing my tone, that I haven’t slept in about twenty-four hours. I’ve had a “very pleasant conversation” with two Americans on the train and upon arrival availed myself of the services of the Tourist Information office, who have booked me into this “guest house”. When I say “guest house” I sound bemused. Having settled into my room, which, apparently, has high ceilings and is also “pleasant”, I’ve been out and bought myself tickets to three shows, starting at 4:15.

“I’ve just eaten this strange, slobbery pizza, which was incredibly cheap though,” I note, and “people here have time and they let you know they do, which can be charming as well.” I describe with awe the light of the city, pulling out of King’s Cross Station at six thirty this morning, and describe Edinburgh as “wonderful” and unlike anything I’d seen before, but I also note that the drawback of this place is the weather: I’d already spotted someone wearing a fur coat at the height of summer, though I make no reference to ‘nae nickers’ so perhaps I’m not yet aware of the expression.

“I seem to be sounding a bit blasé, hearing myself over the headphones, but I’ll have to get used to that, I presume.” And no joking. I sound to me now like a young arrival’s idea of a latter day Noel Coward, and then it hits me: I still own the silver cigarette case I used to use at that time!

I resolve to listen to myself speak to me from the past, as there’s a fair chance now, I sense, that this might get me to know me better…