London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


< Les Grands Amours

ISTANBUL – {Mojito} (>)


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Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to The Tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening on Thursday 18th August, from London.

In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning—aflush, aglow and awonder—from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to consider whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh,” and I note on The Tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good, if not quite a lot better, can be done, actually.”

The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. Now, listening to myself then, I sense I can maybe do what I never could at the time: indulge myself, just a little. Although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though everything came incredibly easy to me, it didn’t. I never actually indulged myself then: I was, if anything, highly critical of myself and unsure of almost everything. But I tricked myself into appearing otherwise.

Now, I feel a warmth towards me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory in Paris. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988,’ and try as I might I could not see a train listed to this place anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness that surprising, that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my still European mind was entirely reasonable then.)

So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly, and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person to start over again, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office, and here I fared a little better because while I was still profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have been travelling on Interrail (nowhere on The Tape do I specify) or at any rate have already been in possession of a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which for some reason or other must have looked plausible to me. The train was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late, and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give it much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains, and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased, and the lights went out. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station—all dark, all empty—obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night.

Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about the concourse around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacks, and I felt unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station, and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside. While some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained, and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping next to him a few feet apart on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night,’ I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again, and those of us who had, or thought we had, trains to catch were let back inside.

Now, what on The Tape in my a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep), I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at establishing how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it to be, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon, all the time.

To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so, after asking a few more people, I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle, like a mysterious lock to which no key can be known, like an impenetrable riddle in an unbreakable code.

By this time I can barely keep my eyes open, and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours’ rest on the pavement outside, and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag. I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed, and asks me if I’m lost.

‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes,’ I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days, and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of this may be, but the price flashes up on the machine, and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. Before I can explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations since have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, three decades later.

And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man—with a smile, two minutes of his time, and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money—has made the world a much, much better place.

Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…


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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 during 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 refer to it as “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 be searching a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeeding maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time—I am obviously excited to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre.

I never think of the theatre I had either already done by then, with fellow 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 to me that much of it probably was.

The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a 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 in losing yourself in a story—enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve just written, and I think: maybe I do see why some people struggle… (Though in all fairness, that’s not how I write most of my dialogue.)

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 fully 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 certainly loved my plays, but others as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres has ever put one of them on, even though some have taken pains to invite me into their office, where the Literary Manager would sit me down and profess how impressed they were with what I’d sent them to read but then seem thoroughly perplexed at the idea of doing anything with it; 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 baffles people.

I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my audio 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 cause me to get wet a lot, that will have some people so incensed at my work that they will attempt to sink me, but that, yes, will also sail me and my audiences to an island here or a bay there on occasion, where we might make a discovery that we would not otherwise have made, and I know—because sometimes they tell me—that there are indeed those who find value in that.

But perhaps the tone had already been set long before then, when we did Sentimental Breakdown…—the first of my plays ever to be staged—while I was still at school in Switzerland. One 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 found much in it to be encouraged by, much to encourage, even to praise. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. By and large, I seem to split the critics down the middle, sometimes miles apart from each other, sometimes less so, depending mostly on how conventional or not a piece of writing happens to be. And it would not be long before right here, in Edinburgh, two different reviewers would write about the exact same production that it was “the worst thing” one of them had ever seen, while it was also “the best thing” the other one had come across. He wanted, and bought, the T-shirt, he said; and I have no reason to doubt either of them. Which is why today, and for some time now, I no longer read ‘the reviews’: they really are just opinions.

Back then, in August 1988, 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”—smoking too much, and watching 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,’ still without a hint of irony, I believe, though I express doubts that Edinburgh would have the same 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 so, 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 eleven-fourteen 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 at 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 did.


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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 albums and undamaged—go to the charity shop, practically all others, with the exception only really of some mixtapes which have memories attached to them and therefore some sentimental value, 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 own to play tapes, which I haven’t used in more than a decade.

I hear a young voice with a not particularly strong but clearly discernible accent, a little measured, a little studied, a little over-enunciated, declare: “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, starts in Edinburgh, with a first diary entry on Monday 14th August (which I pronounce Oggust, and that does embarrass me now a little, though it also endears me to me) at 2:15 in the afternoon, a time by which I announce, with a hint of pride lacing my voice, 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.” Saying “guest house,” I sound bemused, almost baffled at my own predicament.

Having settled into my room, which, apparently, has high ceilings and is also “pleasant,” I’ve headed out and bought myself tickets to three shows at the Fringe Festival, the first one starting at 4:15pm.

“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 in London, pulling out of King’s Cross Station at six thirty in the morning, and call Edinburgh “wonderful” and unlike anything I’d seen before; but I also remark 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’ – perhaps I’m not yet familiar with 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 I’m not joking. Today, I sound to me like a young arrival’s idea of a latter day Noël Coward, and it hits me: I still own the silver cigarette case I used to use at that time, quite without irony.

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


(<) THE PLANET WALK — Earth

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London

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Paris

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Edinburgh

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