I wake up wondering once again, as so often, how the little horse got on the boat in the first place, let alone why it voyaged so far: who let it on, was there no-one to lead it off, by its halter, for example, back onto dry land, to its own pastures, that were maybe not so green, but familiar, at least? Why was it by the pier, near the harbour even? I suppose horses do live by the seaside, it is not unheard of, but it vexes me. A horse belongs onshore, as far as I’m concerned, in my inexpertise.
I try to think this through and come up with several potential scenarios, none of which satisfies as an explanation. Perhaps the little horse accidentally strayed onto a cargo ship and was mistaken there for one of the ones that were actually being exported, by coincidence, just then. Maybe it wasn’t so much a coincidence, maybe the horse got friendly with, even enamoured of, one of the horses that—very possibly against their own will or better instinct—were being embarked right now, and just followed it, in equine loyalty and affection.
Perhaps it was being sold: it could simply be that it was ‘mine’—as in the person writing the song, thus narrating the story and lamenting the absence of ‘my’ little horse, wishing it back—only by extension, and really it belonged to the family or to my father, and he, for reasons best known to him (though there are many imaginable: economic hardship, disaffection with the beast, or having gambled it away to a foreign sailor, notwithstanding the riddle as to what a sailor, of all people, would do with a pony – perhaps sell it on?…), maybe he, my father, had exchanged it for goods or money, or forfeited it; and now, as I sit here on my own watching the waves roll in from afar, it has long since sailed away, right over the ocean, over the sea.
Then suddenly it hits me, out of the blue. It has all been a misunderstanding. Where I went to school, in Basel, we had an annual ‘bazar’. I can’t be sure any more was it at this bazar, which everybody pronounced ‘bahtzar’, and which happened a few weeks before Christmas to raise funds for the school, or was it at the summer fete, which happened every year in the summer, probably just before the big holidays, to the same end, or both, but there was a little patch of wood in the school grounds where sometimes, not always, some generous soul would bring along a couple of ponies, so the children could go pony riding for a franc or two. This was almost the only occasion that ever presented itself for me to see, or think of, or hear about, ponies. Even though they spelt ‘Pony’ the same as in English, just with a capital for being a noun, everybody called a pony ‘es Bonny’, pronouncing it with an at best half committed P and without the prerequisite diphthong, making it sound exactly like ‘Bonnie’. For years—years!—I would stand in class amongst my gschpänlis and intone with devotion a plea for someone, anyone really, to bring back, bring back, oh bring back my little horse to me. And for years—years!—I could not fathom why the little horse had ever strayed so far, there just seemed to be no plausible explanation for this. And now—now!—it turns out there didn’t ever need to be.
At last, one of the great bewildering conundrums of my childhood simply, quietly, fades away…
How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis? If so, it is mild in the extreme.
Contradictions in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself, and so I feel; and so, I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, try to forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself, and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here…
The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born, to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to kindergarten, and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.
(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story here, and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)
The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here,’ the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, of course, geography matters less and less; I am at home in London, but I can be, and be happy, almost anywhere, as long as I’m warm, have access to food now and then, and my laptop at hand with power to last, and a decent network connection.
I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current.’ It strikes me that this may be a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one thing, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another avenue soon. I am fine with that too.
It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and everyone knows, the trip alone that truly matters.
As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now, and what I expect to do in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work, lies just ahead.
We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories, and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling that counts, as my philosopher friend—not Sedartis, a friend of mine who is a real, bona fide, professional, academic philosopher—puts it.
I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because—as I have a feeling I’ve mentioned before—if you watch paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled, most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics, and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain in scientific terms things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.
‘Look at me now and here I am,’ I say to myself once again in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.
I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I sense it, for sure.
a surreptitious glance in a doorway: you
had been waiting for me
but how long?
i can’t remember, i remember
seeing you at the cinema and us
(those were the days, mostly, of
and us not speaking, i was too shy, you shy too
so i started walking
across the river, there: a cafe, old style; what
was i doing in there, could it be, really, that you
outside while i was having coffee inside?
or did i pop in to see if i liked it, but didn’t, or whether you would follow (but why would you? it was an old style cafe; and you didn’t), so i
popped out again, straight away? that seems more likely, certainly it seems more
you were in the entrance as i came out and i saw you again and you me and it was clear
you’d been waiting for me, there
in the doorway
but we still didn’t speak
how was that even possible: it was obvious
you had been waiting for me, yet
we didn’t speak, i not to you, you not to me
i was incredibly young, you a bit younger,
there by the rhine, in basel, at that time
of glances, mostly, and quietly aching
you were there too maybe two, three years later
now on the southbank
you looked different, a bit, though not much
you had those same eyes, longing
querying glance, that
that i must have had too
it was the era of glances, of not saying what any of us wanted, ever, of
uncertainty, being afraid
but of what?
of being found out
of revealing too much
too much to the wrong kind of person, of being
literally, viscerally, in danger of injury, death
or afraid merely of actually having, enjoying, living a moment, such one
those were days of unspoken desires
at night time
only this time i actually asked you
for a light
or you me?
i you or you me, one of us asked the other for a cigarette or a light or for both and
another glance was exchanged and a flame lit up and in that flame we did not look at each other again, we just looked at the hands touching, cupping the cigarette, and that
just was that
how timid, how cautious, how wary i was
and yet how much i wanted to be with you
and then there you were in st james’s park: another you, another glance
i on my way home
you on your way where? i didn’t ask and you didn’t say
it was nice
to finally meet you
at night, late
by the pond, not the river
to feel your hands on me, taste your lips
such a long time ago now
such a situation between two and three, thereabouts, in the morning
when that park is not closed and not open but we both were
closed and open and there: those were the days
of such stolen moments, so
i miss them no more than i miss you
and i don’t miss you, i’m just maybe sorry
that it took me so long to pluck up the courage to finally meet you
we wasted, it seems, a few opportunities, you and i, but
you live and you learn, and nothing
can be rewound, reconfigured, restored, it can not even be really
relived, it can
of course be
in one way or another
(to what end? none other than to know that there was such a thing as a path, a trajectory,
or an arc:
a semblance of something resembling a story
a sequence of inconsequential instances, now implanted, the shapes
along which the currents of time have mostly been channelled, each curve, each bend
not just leaving traces but forming them too
there’s a torrent
and the river, the brook or the stream
floods its banks and
these patterns, these half
instinctive behaviours half
needed half wanted half detested half worn and half
because the half that sits underground under consciousness under skin under mind
remains there forever somehow, and
so be it
albeit not always appreciated not always valued not always wanted or loved
you are always
a part of me still, and
whatever became of you, i do wonder
and then i forget that i ever did
because life goes on and
there are many more rivers to cross and bridges to burn and transgressions that must be traversed and
to fathom, just
know that i never not wanted
to know you
I arrive back in Paris, and see it “properly” now “for the first time.” These mark the “last few days of a fantastic holiday,” and “those few days were wonderful.”
I feel that glow now, it expands beneath my ribs and makes my breath seem warmer. “I think my favourite building in the world for its originality is the Centre Pompidou,” I tell myself on The Tape, and for a long time, I remember, that was the case. I embraced modernity, pre-, post- and present. I was into things, such as cool architecture; they excited me then, they excite me still.
I record and recall seeing La Vie de Brian, as The Life of Brian was called there, and us laughing our heads off, the way we only could then. There was an evening, not long after I’d moved to London, when my friend Peggy and, I believe, beautiful Stefan, and maybe one or two other people were assembled in my shared living room, lounging on the grubby sofa and draped over a stained but strangely comfortable armchair, watching Airplane! on TV. We laughed so hard at this, we literally ended up on the floor. That capacity for joy, so unalloyed: we had it then, we had it in Paris—that was exactly the era—and I don’t know when or where it went. That freshness, even with an open mind as I try to keep it, has simply gone: hardly anything ever makes me laugh now anywhere near as hard. Perhaps I’ve seen it, heard it, if not all then just too much of it, to tickle me so with surprise?
I remember loving the Pompidou, I remember loving and laughing at La Vie, I remember little if anything else, apart from Christian, Judith’s brother, whom I thought “great” and “quite eccentric, in his own way,” and probably fancied, just a bit. Judith, whom I loved then and still love today, though I haven’t seen her in a decade (and then under sad, troubled, circumstances concerning our friend), was my school pal whom we were visiting in Paris, where she was staying with her boyfriend, Alain. For reasons I don’t recall I spent quite some time with her brother, liking him immensely. (Maybe because Judith was with her boyfriend, Alain?)
At one point Christian and I got on a metro train together. As it arrived, we noticed that it had first and second class compartments, and he said we should ride in second class since we didn’t have first class tickets. I, having never been to Paris “properly” before, convinced him that this must be a remnant of the olden days, and that by now the metro surely only had one class for all. So we boarded the less crowded first class carriage.
Within minutes we were surrounded by about five ticket inspectors, demanding a surcharge and a fine. I was outraged: I told them they were being completely unreasonable, since it was impossible for me, a Londoner, to know that a metropolitan underground train could have two classes. They pointed at the big ‘1’ that was painted on the interior of the carriage, and mentioned the same on the outside. I was having none of it: I live in London, I said, I use the tube all the time, and we don’t have any of this nonsense. They let us off. We were made to move to second class, but no money changed hands. I can be stubborn when I need to be, that hasn’t changed…
My forever enduring memory though of these last few days of my Europe tour in 1988, and one of the best and most cherished experiences of all my years of going to the cinema anywhere in the world, was Le Grand Bleu. I had seen it before, in Grenoble, and fallen in love with it and with Jean-Marc Barr then, but this now was in a league of its own.
The film was immensely successful in France, and so Le Grand Rex, one of the largest cinemas in Paris, had put up an extra large screen in front of its existing one. It was, I tell The Tape, “a 25 metre screen,” which would make it either nearly the size of, or even slightly bigger than, the screen on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival (which today is still the largest in Europe), depending on whether that was a horizontal width or a diagonal measurement, which I can’t remember. In any case, it was huge. (They may even have ‘renamed’ the cinema for that run. It’s entirely possible, but once again I am no longer certain, that the cinema was really normally called Le Rex, and they labelled it Le Grand Rex just for Le Grand Bleu, with the big screen.)
Because the screen was so large, there were now, in the auditorium, new restricted sight lines. The stalls were fine, as was the upper balcony, but from all but the front row in the dress circle, the view was severely restricted, because you would not see the top of the screen (which was blocked off by the balcony above you) or the bottom (which was obscured by the circle in front of you), for which reason the cinema had cordoned off the dress circle altogether.
We were not young people to be told where to sit in a cinema with unreserved seating, and so while people raced, as the doors opened, to the best seats up on the balcony and down in the stalls, we opened the door to the dress circle behind the red cord, and saw it empty, with a vast screen beckoning. We snuck in, closed the door behind us, and took up the few seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle, the ones directly in the middle of the screen: your entire field of vision was taken up with The Big Blue: it was magnificent.
I to this day can’t get over how beautiful and real the sea and how close-enough-to-touch Jean-Marc Barr were. Other good actors appeared in the film, there was other fine scenery, but I remember him and the sea and the dolphins. And the party on Taormina, I believe, where he turns up dressed in a dinner suit, wearing trainers, looking sheepish and unbearably cute. I could have married him there and then.
I later met Jean-Marc Barr after a performance in the West End of a Tennessee Williams play, and he was gracious and polite; I a little timid and shy, but happy to be face-to-face with him in person, and now getting him ‘out of my system’: he was a lovely, good-looking man, and a very decent actor, and I no longer now had to pine…
“Unfortunately, on the last night” of our stay in Paris, I tell The Tape, “Judith split up with her boyfriend, Alain,” and so “went back with her brother Christian,” to Basel, I presume. I, on Sunday, which therefore must have been the next day, took the train back to London and arrived there in the evening, “about nine o’clock.”
This is not on The Tape, but I’m reminded of it here, and part of me thinks it doesn’t belong here, part of me thinks it doesn’t belong anywhere really, part of me wonders does everything somehow, ultimately, need to be told, and part of me knows: this is exactly where it belongs.
I hear myself overall so happy, so optimistic on The Tape. Improbably casual and emotionally understated: my delivery suggests I’m giving an account of a trip to Milton Keynes, but the words I choose—carefully, even cautiously, deliberately always—speak of a young person with everything going for himself, with abundance of confidence, and imbued with great hope. And I’m so glad to hear him thus, though in the tone of the voice and the distance to the heart I also hear the youth from which this young person had emerged, then relatively recently.
I’ve been blessed in that I have, to this day, had to suffer the loss of three people only. And of a cat. Of these three, one was someone I’d met once, very briefly, but really didn’t know: Diana, the Princess of Wales. There is no rhyme or reason to this, but her death shook me to the core and disorientated me for a week. I cried more over her than any of my grandparents, all of whom I loved dearly. All my grandparents died over the years, but that seemed the normal course of the world: people get old, then they die. Obviously, their passing was, in each case, a loss, and felt as one, too. But you can prepare for this, you know it’s going to happen, and when it does, you deal with it, and then you honour them in your thoughts and keep their memory alive in your soul. Princess Diana being torn out of our culture was a cataclysm. Of its own kind. It came out of nowhere, and it seemed to change everything, and, irrational though this was, it left a gaping hole in my life, in a way that I, myself, never expected. It was an extraordinary experience, unique, I am certain, to her.
One was a dear friend who decided to leave us. That was both shocking and unexpected, even if it had been, in a way, predictable, sadly. I mourned her, and I knew then, as I know now, that I had to let that be as it was. It was just so. More than anything I felt I was called upon to respect her, and her decision. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I do.
Losing our cat as a boy was dreadful: I loved that cat. I was unspeakably sad when we were told he’d been hit by the tram. I got over it.
And one is still around and still a good friend, and when we see each other now we have excellent conversations, but when I first lost him—I was fifteen, he fourteen—my world fell apart. We had been best friends at school, and we were in essence together. Not as lovers, not romantically, not anything other than as friends, but as friends we were as one. People didn’t even tease us, it was just the accepted thing, that where I was there was he, and where he was was I.
It had come about over several years, and it was my normality. Of course I loved him, but I didn’t know that. I had no conception of love (and none of sexuality, for that matter), I spent no time thinking about how much I needed him, or enjoyed being with him, or relied on him always being around. That was all just the way it was. It was solid, it was dependable, it was real.
And then something happened that I hadn’t seen coming, ever: he turned away from me. It was gradual, simple, undramatic, and also in its own way normal: he just started spending time with someone else, more than with me. At first I barely noticed, there was no cut-off point, no moment I could pinpoint where it began, it just gradually dawned on me: we are no longer one.
The other boy was a good person, still is: we’re still friends as well, he and I. He wasn’t cruel, he didn’t manoeuvre, or manipulate, he just took my place, without, probably, even knowing what was happening, either. I had been the one who was always by my friend’s side, and now he was there. At first he was there too, but soon he was there more than I, and then I realised I had lost my love. I still couldn’t name it that, because I still didn’t know that that’s what it was, but the incision was brutal. I was cut off. I bled.
I was lost. Abandoned. Bereaved. I couldn’t name the way I felt any of these things, because I didn’t know what they were, I only knew that I didn’t want to live. Really didn’t. Not melodramatically, attention seekingly didn’t, just didn’t. There was no point. I was distraught, yes, but more than that I was destroyed. There was no word for it, no expression, no therapy and no remedy, there was just emptiness, complete.
This lasted for eighteen months, maybe twenty. It was a crisis so profound, so categorical, so total, I felt that it would break me. I saw no way that it couldn’t. It was absolute, the despair. And all of this over the loss of a friend? Today, with perspective, I know it was obviously more than that: losing my friend was the trigger. What his extracting himself from my life did was tear open a wound which drew all manner of complications. The insecurity. The loneliness. The mind’s confusion over the heart. The heartbreak over the part of the soul that was missing. The pointlessness. The disorientation.
What sustained me was my brother, because I could talk to him—not about this, but about everything else that was going on in my teenage life—and my mother of course, because I could not then, and I would not now be able to, bring myself to do anything deliberately that would cause her grief.
And then something happened that I also didn’t expect: I found a way out. I hadn’t been looking, not consciously anyway, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but the subconscious knows and searches and finds, and without thinking much what I was doing, I wrote.
It was going to be and started out briefly as a novel, but then I remembered something our English teacher had said: that writing plays is way more efficient than writing novels: you need far fewer words to tell your story and to create your characters.
And so I wrote my first play. I was seventeen now, I called it 19. It dealt with a young man taking his life, and how that affects everyone around him. It had an original structure, because rather than going in a linear plot from beginning through middle to end, it started with events about a year or two (I can’t remember exactly) before and after the suicide and then circled in, closer and closer, to end with the moment of no return. That structure, too, was not something I really thought about, I just wrote it that way. Although the play has never been performed, nor ever even been read in public, it achieved several things for me.
Firstly, it was my catharsis. By abstracting the youth’s self-inflicted death and putting it on a character in a play, I was able to ‘deal with’ what I was going through, and absolved myself from actually having to do the same thing for real.
Secondly, it showed me I had a new friend. I gave this piece—which was really very revelatory, open and incredibly honest—to somebody I had started spending time with at school, and his reaction was perfect: he took it seriously, but he didn’t panic. He just talked about it as a piece of writing, and encouraged me to show it to other people, which I did. I knew now I had someone again I could trust.
Thirdly, it made me realise I was able to write. I gave the piece to my German teacher at school who, unbeknownst to me, gave it to a man who happened to be my favourite actor at the Stadttheater Basel, where we routinely saw maybe a dozen plays each season. Henning Köhler. He was invited to our school to give a talk about theatre and acting generally, and at the end of that talk he said: “and one of you has written a really good play.” I went up to him afterwards and said: “that may have been me.”
Nothing happened with or to the play, he was quite apologetic about that—‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do anything for you in terms of getting it on at the theatre’—but for Henning Köhler, to my mind the best actor in town, to have read my play and to have made a point of mentioning it, that was enough. That was something I could hold on to.
And it also paved the way for me to lose my virginity, at last. There was a man whom I knew well and liked and respected a lot, a writer, actor, performer, who lived in St Gallen, of all places, and I sent him the play. I knew he was gay, he was a few years older than me, in his early twenties. He was cool. And nice. And in an unspectacular way attractive.
He read the play and asked me if I wanted to come and talk about it, and I said yes. I went to visit him, and we talked about the play, and at the end of the evening, I went to sleep on the sofa, and he came over and said: “If you want to you can come to my bed?” And I said, “yes.”
The doors were finally flung open. It wasn’t quite the proverbial floodgates, though in a Hollywood rendering of the story there would probably have to be strings; but it was good. I was happy. I’d pulled through.
And I knew then, and I’ve known ever since, that having coped with that period of my life, and survived it, I’d be able to cope with anything. That was one great big case of something that could have killed me, but didn’t, and so made me stronger. A lot.
My enduring memory of this handsome man is on stage. He was singing a version of Es liegt was in der Luft—‘there’s something in the air’—to which he had written new lyrics. He’d turned it into a satirical number, as part of an environmental cabaret revue. It was glorious. And a roaring success. He was so alive, so in it, so buoyed by the love from the audience, so overjoyed about doing this, and doing it well.
Many years later—not on this trip, another eight years or so after that—I was in Basel where I’d heard he had since taken on a job as Artistic Director of a small theatre.
It was a sunny afternoon, and I walked into the foyer, to see if he happened to be around, just to say hello, on a whim. I asked a young man who was doing something to the display. “Oh,” he said. And I can still see the look on his face, of surprise and regret: “No. I’m sorry. He died a few months ago.”
I salute you, my friend, and I thank you for the time, the patience, the generosity and the inspiration: you genuinely helped me find my way – your spirit lives.
From Milan I take the train to Chur. Chur has never been my favourite place in the world, and it’s not difficult for me to say why: it feels dour. It is, apparently, the oldest city in Switzerland, and it has, I believe, several things going for it, none of which is entirely evident to me. Mainly because it sits hemmed in by big mountains that deprive it of light, almost completely, in winter, while not being splendid enough in the summer to offer any type of gorgeousness in terms of a view. My sister at this time lives in Chur, and I am heading towards her to spend a couple of days with her, The Tape tells me.
My memory of this is, again, hazy, but I’m clearly delighted: “It is wonderful,” I narrate, “to spend time together and talk,” for the first time in years. And I know this was so. To this day, I enjoy spending time with my sister, though to this day I don’t do so often enough, and on this occasion, we must have had a lot to say to each other: I was back in the country where I grew up, but which I had always struggled and never found it either necessary or entirely possible to call home, for the first time since, almost exactly three years earlier, I had left with two suitcases, one red and one black (and neither of them with castors) and a friend’s address in my pocket, in Enfield, thence to make London my home.
Helvetia. I like thinking of Switzerland as Helvetia. It has something sturdy, Celtic, dependable to it. Unique. Firm and reassuring. ‘Switzerland’ sounds—maybe because it so much has become—like a brand, a theme park, a place where you go on holiday. Helvetia is a place you were rooted in, once. Whether you then uprooted yourself, and for whatever reasons, fades into the background, into the fabric: it does not become insignificant (nothing of that kind ever does), but it’s just there, part of the character, part of the being, part of the history, part of the substance, the core. And so is Helvetia.
The train from Milan to Chur, I relate to The Tape, “took absolutely ages,” but also “provided the most admirable views.” It’s one of these instances where I betray the fact that I’m not yet on top of the subtleties of the English language. I hear myself do that a lot on this recording: I nearly get the word right, but not quite. I still, from the back of my mind, translate traces from German, maybe not so much words, as concepts, perhaps. I’m just not quite there, yet.
In Treviso I change trains and board “this incredible little red train, consisting of about three carriages, all the way up, over the San Bernardino Pass.” Here my memory suddenly kicks in again, vivid and strong.
I remember this journey, this train. And with awe. I remember the windows being open and the warm summer air wafting in; I remember the noise, intermittently suddenly so much louder, going through tunnels; I remember the green and red covered seats: red for smoking, green for non. I was a smoker then, I may have been travelling red. Then again, I may already have been doing what I used to do for a while: park myself in the non-smoking section and nip to the red part of the carriage for the occasional cigarette. The train wasn’t full, I remember it being almost empty. It’s a glorious journey, and one you can still do. Now, they have state-of-the-art rolling stock with huge panorama windows, and smoking is a definite no-no, but the trains are no faster, and the views no less stunning, than they were then.
I seem to also recall that I met up here with an old school friend whom I would shortly be linking up with again in Paris, but The Tape makes no mention of this, so perhaps I am wrong. Come the following Saturday, I take a train to Basel.
This is where I went to school, this is where I grew up: the first twenty-one years of my life. I spend eight or nine hours talking to Peggy, my best friend then and my best friend now from our high school days, and today as then, when we meet, we find ourselves talking for hours. Eight or nine is nothing unusual: if you pitch up at six, have an apéro, have dinner, sit out on the balcony, keep on talking, before you know it, it’s three in the morning…
On Sunday Peggy, my mum and I go to see an exhibition (I don’t tell The Tape which one, and I can’t remember), and then my brother comes round with his two sons, one of whom is my godson. There is a photograph of this occasion, which takes place in my parents’ garden, with me sitting between the two boys, looking at a picture book, maybe reading them the story. My mother, a little while later, sent me this picture in a card with a quote in German: Es ist ein ungeheures Glück wenn man fähig ist, sich freuen zu können. German websites attribute this to George Bernard Shaw. I try to find the English original, and so far I fail. ‘It is a tremendous fortune to be able to find joy in things,’ is more or less how I would translate it back, but it still sounds more clunky than it should. If it’s Shaw. Maybe it’s been misattributed, that’s possible: many things are.
“Then we went to see Ironweed at the cinema.” I don’t remember anything about this, the film or who is ‘we’ in this instance, but my 24-year-old self puts on record that “it was like no time had passed at all.” Maybe because hardly any time had passed, a mere three years…
Tuesday I spent in Zürich, “meeting, luckily, Benjamin for the first time in absolutely years,” and also Beatrice. Benjamin. Beatrice. These two people: they are lodged in my mind, in my soul. Benjamin more than Beatrice, and in a much different way, but both register, both matter, both shaped who I was and therefore who I now am.
The meeting with Benjamin I remember clearly. He was his usual, laconic self. He was the boy I was most in love with, for a very long time. We were in no relationship, he never, as far as I know, reciprocated my feelings, he was not even gay, he was just the boy I most loved.
By this time, he would have been about twenty-two, and he’d either just been released or was on day-release from prison. He’d been sentenced to prison for no crime: he was a conscientious objector and had refused to do military service, which in Switzerland at the time carried a prison term and a criminal record. He was unfazed by his time in prison: he took this, as he seemed to take everything, in his stride. Granted, the way he talked about it, it also sounded like prison for conscientious objectors in Switzerland was by now a gentle affair.
He was beautiful, as I had always seen him, and unruffled. Unexcitable, but good humoured. I’d carried him around in my heart for the entire duration I’d been living in London, and I continued to do so for many years after. It was only really when one day, on a Sunday afternoon, he phoned me, out of the blue, to tell me he’d received a letter I had sent him many months earlier, care of his mother, and we talked for maybe five hours or so on the phone, both getting increasingly woozy on our respective drinks, that I was able to put that love where it belonged: in the past, in my youth. In a time before even our reunion here now in Zürich.
I have memories of us sitting at my parents’ home next to each other on the sofa all night long talking, drinking coffee, almost getting high on it, so much of it we drank; of us walking in the fields near his parents’ home on Lake Zürich on a wintry afternoon; of us first meeting at a school fete… I have everything with me still, as if it were yesterday. But only since maybe ten years ago, slightly less, am I able to think of it really as yesterday. I believe I once kissed him, I’m not even sure. I’m sure that I always wanted to. Always.
How deeply that boy had seeped into the folds of my brain. How strongly he clasped my heart; how warmly, how tenderly I longed for him, for how long. I still have his letters, of course. I no longer have this desire: I’m glad it has gone, I was able to bid it farewell. Not the memory though, not the fondness. I am over him now, but I cannot, and nor do I need to, get over how much I loved him.
Beatrice, I also remember, also fondly, but not on that day. I certainly kissed her, and she me. She was, I’m quite certain, keener on me than I was on her, but I liked her, and for a short while it was as if we were together. How strange, to think of it now. But that alone, having been the girl with whom I was once almost together, secures her a place in my self. She, too, is part of me; was then, is now.
Wednesday a lunch with a friend. “In all,” I recount on The Tape, I “had a chance to see lots of people.” Also my grandfather. I was “very worried about grandfather, he looked very ill and weak; he was very nice, but I have an impression that any time we meet might be the last time.” And so, I believe, it proved, on this occasion.
I was born in Manchester in June 1964 into a Swiss family, and I have never been in any doubt that both these facts are of defining significance.
Had I been born in Manchester into an English family, I would most likely have grown up either in Manchester, or if not there then somewhere else in Britain, and if not that then at any rate in an English-speaking household. Had I been born in Switzerland or anywhere else, I might never have developed my powerful affinity to England and the English language.
As it turned out, I grew up as the ‘English Boy’ in a Swiss family in Switzerland, because soon after my birth—a mere six weeks—I was carried aboard a plane in a red wicker basket and flown, together with my brother and two sisters, to Basel, where my arrival was greeted with jolly brass bands and a splendid fireworks display. It would please me to think that the good people of Basel were thus celebrating my homecoming, but it just happened to be Swiss National Day, 1st August; and also it wasn’t in that sense a homecoming.
Because although I was a fiercely patriotic child, my loyalties then were always almost evenly divided between Switzerland and England, with Switzerland slightly having the edge, and as I grew into my teenage years the balance began to tip in favour of England.
But more important than that—and also perhaps more curious—although I had really done all my growing up in Arlesheim, a beautiful, picturesque and particularly peaceful and well cared-for village outside Basel, and in Basel itself, where I went to school, I never actually really felt ‘at home’ there.
I felt at home in London the moment I set foot in it when my parents took me and the younger of my two sisters there for the first time: this, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on in, I returned to London every year at least once, often twice, at first staying with a friend of the family, then with friends I made there during my visits, or at a hostel or a cheap hotel, and from as early as sixteen I started talking about moving to London.
I finished school, spent a year enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red—neither of them had castors back then—and I’d wanted to buy a one-way ticket to London. The slightly bored—too bored, I thought: I’m moving to London! That’s exciting!—travel agent laconically told me she could sell me a one-way ticket, but that it would be more expensive than buying a return and simply not coming back. It irked me, this, but I was twenty-one and I had to make the money I’d earned as a security guard over the previous few months last, so I opted for the more economical offer and bought a return, the outbound on the 1st August: Swiss National Day, precisely 21 years after I’d arrived in Switzerland.
Of course, I didn’t use the return leg, I let it lapse: I did not go back. Not, it seems, until now, three years later, when my ‘Europe Tour 1988’ took me, after Edinburgh, from Grenoble to Vicenza back to Chur and then Basel, where I saw first my sister, then my parents, my brother and his two sons (the older my godson), my other sister, and many friends from the then recent past.
The way I talk about it all on The Tape does not feel ‘recent’ though, I talk about having lived in London now for three years as a big chunk of my life, and it is a big chunk at that time: it’s all of my adult life so far.
My delivery on The Tape is measured, often very quiet (mostly out of consideration: I seem to be recording the majority of my entries very late at night; that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: I’m still a night owl…), and I choose my words carefully, though not always correctly. I refer, for example, to a part of the trip as being ‘exhaustive’ when I mean ‘exhausting,’ and I keep calling things ‘well done’ when I mean they are either well made or simply good. I forever seem a bit bemused and a bit blasé, absolutely, and also a little in awe; I marvel, but I don’t gush; I describe things as ‘fantastic,’ but say the word as you would say the words ‘flower bed,’ and often qualify things towards moderation. I sound to me now almost like someone who’s rediscovering his language, who’s searching hard, and sometimes finding, sometimes just missing, the right expression, who’s grappling, without really knowing it, for a lost code, but enjoying the process of slow rediscovery.
There is good evidence now that you pick up a great deal as an unborn child in your mother’s womb; you make out sounds and noises, and you start recognising them and responding to them long before you are able to make any sense of them. I always loved English as a child, and as a young teenager I became very ‘good’ at it (though I also wildly overestimated my abilities). Perhaps—and I do mean this ‘perhaps’ as a distinct possibility, it’s not here merely for a rhetorical purpose—the familiarity that nine months as a growing foetus and then six weeks as a newborn baby in an English-speaking environment engendered in me had already firmly, irreversibly, planted its seed.
You have to, as an artist, aim higher than you can reach: that way you may in time extend your range and eventually land further than you thought you could see. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without care; that way you may in time overcome your fear of becoming yourself.
As I listen to myself on The Tape, I realise I’m listening to a young human who has fearlessly—much more fearlessly than I would ever have imagined myself dare—stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly starting, to formulate in it a role for himself now. And this fills me with a new sense of wonder…
This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.
So often have I tried to find him in others—repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself—that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a break and then either give it another go, or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.
Still, it mystifies me.
Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically, and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned, and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’
This now saddens more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. A wave of abject sadness washes over me. He is, has always been, so alive to me.
Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenaline and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?
I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind, and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.
I wrote him a letter, and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time; and I remembered—as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter—the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich then, I outside Basel; his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower—I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was, but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose—and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box, and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of this at the time.
I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother, and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t, but I know it now.
We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there.
And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of Benjamin. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through addiction and rehab and back, and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son.
‘You’ve done a good thing here,’ he said, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.
After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time, although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of doing so, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee has moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside cafe and spend a whole day talking, maybe getting drunk a little. On whatever.
I look at George looking at me, and I remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times; he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I now know everything I need to know about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.
I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet, or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived, and most likely we’d said: in the cafe, around then. The cafe is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a small hall. I remember the feel of a converted class room. The room is full, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. To the others, we introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: ‘Ich bi dr Benjamin.’ My world has never been the same again.
‘Tell me, George,’ I finally say, the mojito giving me licence to talk: ‘what do you make of the heart?’