∞² Revival

I decide that the origin is clearly not what matters. It goes against my grain somewhat to accept this, because wasn’t that what got me onto this story in the first place? Wasn’t that the intriguing question: how did it all begin? Still, nobody knows, and no-one I met and talked to about it was able to give me any more hints or pointers. There’s the legend of the two guys in their twenties and their dare, and there is the tradition that has established itself over time, and that’s all there is to it. Does there need to be more?

Of course, everything has a cause and an origin somewhere, and probably this is somehow known: in the fabric of the common consciousness, unspoken, unexplained. It just happened, we all know it just happened, we kind of understand how it happened, and we’re all right with that. Or is it a case of avoiding uncomfortable truths? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll? I decide to let it go. This obsession with clear causes and rational effects. I’ve had, against all my expectations and severe reservations, a marvellous time in the unclothed company of strangers who turned out very much to be friends I hadn’t yet met. This belief I’ve held always, borne out by experience.

We are good people.

Yes, we do terrible things – the litany of our offences against each other, against the planet, against the animal kingdom, reads like a catalogue of monstrosity, and we’re never more than an inch away from some appalling misdeed or other – and yes our history is littered with catastrophic failures of humanity, and yes: you watch your news and you feel a moment closer to despair before you’ve had a chance to change channels, but… take a Sunday afternoon like this in almost any town in England, or in any country, really, and, away from the agitation, unstirred by some cause or other, some issue or concern, given a set of basic parameters – that the fundamental needs be covered, that the fabric of the community be intact and healthy, that the framework that allows human beings to feel safe and appreciated be in place and not threatened by crime or corruption or despotic politics – you will find us getting on with each other, pretty much. Across generations, across creeds, across ideologies, across gender, across ethnicity, across religion, across our own little preoccupations, and large ones too, across the spectrum. It’s not spectacular, and it’s not difficult. It’s human, it’s normal. And yet, it still feels amazing.

This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive and deluded, I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric, simplistic solutions and the allocation of blame, guilt and shame, it may sound almost glib to say: ‘we are good people.’ But think of the alternative. Think of what it means if we decide, in the face of everything, that we are as terrible as the worst things we see? Then whatever makes whoever among us do wrong in whatever way will have won: we hand our worst version of ourselves victory over ourselves.

Because yes, the bombing of children in war zones, the dumping of plastic by the container load in the oceans, the burning down of refugee centres, and the shooting of students at high schools: they’re all done by us. People. Like you and me. That is the horrendous truth, but it’s also – and that’s much harder to comprehend and as difficult to accept – the reason there is hope yet. The people who do the most terrible things from which we recoil in disgust, they are not a different species. They are innocent when they are born and grow up with hopes and dreams of their own.

And then things go wrong. Over time, bit by bit, through circumstances, through personal choices, through the need to survive, through the culture we’re born into, through what behaviours are reinforced. Through illness. Through despair. For every person who does something destructive, violent, inhuman, cruel, there is also the person they could have become. May yet turn into, given the chance. And vice versa.

So if we give in to despair, surrender to cruelty, and accept violence and destruction as the norm, then we feed them. We give our energy to them, we make them stronger. We start to meet hatred with hatred, instead of with love. We start to build walls, instead of dismantling borders. We start to arm teachers, instead of disarming society. We crank up the tension, instead of defusing situations, we add fuel to the wildfire, instead of extinguishing it, and planting new trees. They’re simple choices, really: whichever version of ourselves we nurture will grow strong.

And so I take my leave of Boscombe & Bournemouth and its famous Nude Beach Stroll, on the last Sunday in June. I salute you, good people, there, by the coast: I thank you, you’ve given me much food for thought and made me see my world differently. I do wish you well!

∞² Revival

I imagine the woman sitting across a small plastic table from me, wearing clothes. I confess I have done the reverse thing before. Of course, who hasn’t? Or hasn’t anyone, ever? I don’t even know. It’s not something I talk about to my friends: have you ever sat on a tube train or on a bench in the park or in a cafe, or stood in a pub, and imagined the people there naked? All of them? Or even just some of them? And taken the thought further into their world and wondered: how do they make love? Do they ‘make love’, or do they have untrammelled, wild, passionate sex? (Why do we have to say ‘have sex?’ Why, in a language that verbs like no other, have we not adopted ‘to sex’? As in ‘how do they sex?’) And with whom? What do they look like, and sound like, and feel like, in the shower, afterwards? What will they have for breakfast, if anything? Who or what do they see when they cast a glance in the mirror, naked? Is it normal to ask yourself these questions? Or is it weird. What isn’t ‘weird’?

Now, I’m sitting opposite a middle aged woman who has a certain amount of volume to her body – her breasts sag a little, her tummy folds over the patch of pubic hair that adorns her vagina, her arms wobble a bit as she gestures, which she does a fair bit – and I wonder what does she wear, normally? She has spread towels over a half dozen plastic chairs on which we all sit. My small backpack leans against mine, and part of me feels tempted, still, to just reach down now and take out the shorts and the T-shirt, and put them on. Part of me though feels relaxed. Quite remarkably so. Her ‘girlfriend’, the woman’s, is pouring tea from a pot into half-size colourful mugs which have on them motifs of beach life in England. They’re handcrafted and pleasant and add to the general feeling of familiarity. There is nothing remiss with this world as I see it, it seems, and I wonder why do we call our partners, if we have them, which I don’t (or still don’t, I’m hardly ever entirely sure which), ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ when they are clearly way into their forties or fifties, and what, then, is a transgendered friend. Surely not my ‘transfriend’? The ‘girlfriend’, who is certainly nearing her mid-forties if not in fact pushing fifty, is of a similar build to her partner/lover/otherhalf/technically-wife-though-they-be-not-married-even-though-now-of-course-they-could-if-they-wanted-to, while pouring tea into the mini mugs that are more sturdy than dainty, but lovable all the same (a bit like the couple themselves), recounts the story of their progeny – the mugs’ – and how they – the couple – got them from a friend of theirs who in turn had made them herself especially for their beach hut here, outside which we are sitting, as a present. But my mind isn’t on tea or on mugs or even on the extraordinarily large buttock that advances on me alarmingly as she bends down to pour the sixth mug.

Instead, my mind briefly wanders into un- or only tangentially related territory, and I wonder can we not just call this, ourselves, the Rainbow Community. We’ve adopted the flag, we enjoy the concept, it’s served us well, it does the job and it’s friendly. LGBTTQQIAAP sounds, frankly, ridiculous. It may be inclusive, but as a word it’s unpronounceable, and as an acronym preposterous. And though it list everyone anyone can currently think of, it’s bound to be incomplete. There is certain to be someone out there somewhere who does not feel their gender or sexual identity adequately represented by either ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘transsexual’, ‘queer’, ‘questioning’, ‘intersex’, ‘asexual’, ‘ally’, or ‘pansexual’. Rainbow, let’s face it, does the trick, as in: “Brighton and Hove is a haven for the Rainbow Community, there is no real reason why Bournemouth and Boscombe shouldn’t be too.” I have a feeling the idea can hardly be new, and I surmise it has probably been tried or at least aired before and for some reason or other rejected, or dismissed, by at least some. But, my mind goes: we need better than a string of letters that looks like an unsolved Enigma code and has no sound. ‘Rainbow’ is fine, seriously, it may have hippie connotations, and the peace movement of the 1990s may have a claim on it too, but so what. It’s embracing. It’s non-ethnicity specific, it’s even pretty. It’s natural. Rainbows happen all over the world. All the time. Like living, like loving. Like questioning, querying and doubting. Like being naked under the sun. For whatever reason, to whatever end.

We could call ourselves the Turing Community, with a reference to the unsolved enigma that is being LGBTTQQIAAP, and to honour a human being who has done more for humanity than most others and suffered terrible injustice as his reward. I resolve to try it out on my new friends here, at the next opportunity and say something like: ‘The Turing Community has really made great strides this century, but the struggle is by no means over.” Upon which they are bound to ask: “What’s the Turing Community,” to which I’ll reply: “us, the Rainbow Community,” and there’ll no doubt be a long discussion about what we should call ourselves, and whether we can even think of ourselves in any way as a ‘community’. And that could be fun, or at least diverting. Or stimulating, who knows…

Before I can do so, we are joined by another friendly couple who are participating in the Bournemouth and Boscome Nude Beach Stroll together with their little dog. The dog is panting a bit in the heat now, so he gets a bowl of water as a priority. Everybody gets up – that is my big burly new friend, who’s effectively adopted me as a Nude Beach Stroll newbie, his somewhat demur friend who has not been saying much since I tagged along with them, and their sunny woman friend whose welcome it was that convinced me and won me over so quickly. The British ritual of kissing friends and close-enough friends of friends even if you have never met them before on the cheek, once, takes on an additional layer of ‘slightly awkward’, because parts of peoples’ bodies that are usually unnoticeable enough, wrapped in some clothing, now dangle and wriggle, and you just have to get used to the odd nipple or tip of a cock brushing against you, and make nothing of it. As do these kind folk, whom to be with I feel happier and more comfortable about all the time.

There is now a veritable plethora of people represented around this little impromptu tea party, and instead of toying with gender nomenclature, I imagine them going about their ordinary business during the day naked. That’s just as entertaining, I quickly realise, as imagining them clothed. The host couple, it transpires, are both social workers of some sort, though one, it appears, in the statutory, the other in the voluntary sector. The mixed couple who have just arrived are semi-retired, it seems, but I can’t quite disentangle their various community involvements and interests from their part time professional activities which lie broadly in the region of ‘consultation’. My burly new friend is a carpenter, and his partner – the one who strikes me as a little suspicious, or possibly simply wary of me – a lawyer. Their woman friend works for a big company on the outskirts of town. In personnel.

I imagine being employed by her big company on the outskirts of town and needing to see her about my annual leave or my P45, and wandering through a large open plan office full of naked people sitting at computers doing things that to me are incomprehensible in the way, say, cricket is, but not quite as fascinating or soothing, and knocking on Sarah’s door and hearing her friendly, warm, sunny voice call, ‘come in!’, and finding her sitting there at her own desk with her big broad smile, and her very red lips and her quite strawberry hair and her freckled nose and her large-nippled breasts, and her necklace that has a Buddhist, I reckon, symbol on it, or maybe it’s just generically spiritual, and her interesting silver green-shade coloured nails, and her offering me a seat.

There are many things inherently impractical indeed about being naked. You don’t want to, for example, sit down in a leather chair where you know someone else has just sat, for maybe half an hour or longer, talking to their Human Resources manager about a recurring health issue. What exactly is the issue, you wonder, and is it contagious?… Or the carpenter. Now, in some respects that makes a little more sense: making furniture is proper physical exertion, and why should he not do so free from textiles, but perhaps, for reasons of personal safety, no more than topless. I like his chest, Paul’s, as it bounces when he laughs at a joke I wasn’t quite listening to and therefore didn’t quite get, and I like his magnificent belly which doesn’t seem fat so much as voluptuous. He is wholly, and wholesomely attractive, though not in a classical, or traditional, or obvious way. His personality beams and bestows on the people around him assurance. I like that. His living partner (of many years, it turns out) is the exact opposite. Dry and wry and analytical. They obviously complement each other, and although he, the partner, hasn’t warmed to me yet, I sense his underlying suspicion, if that’s what it is, slowly ceding. It’s maybe the tea, maybe the realisation I am not going to be a threat to him or his relationship, ever; or perhaps it’s the cookies. I wonder could it possibly have happened that we’ve been served hash cookies, without being told, but then dismiss that idea as absurd. I would have fallen asleep by now, because my tolerance of dope is practically zero.

I suddenly long for a prosecco and wonder is that an option, when I’m pulled out of my disjointed but pleasurable reverie (in the nude) by hearing my name spoken, loud and a little provocative: ‘and what is it you do, Sebastian?’ Clare asks me with a look of frank expectation. She’s the girlfriend of the host couple and the one, I believe, whose social work is more statutory. I’m momentarily startled and before I can prevent myself from thinking the thought I wonder, but for a fraction of a second, what happens when nudists get involuntary erections, but I gather my senses and I reply: ‘I am a writer.’

Origin

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…


< Divestment       Edinburgh >

 

4 Maxl (Still Here)

I wake up to a horrible dream. It’s so horrible I don’t want to think about it, it could well be the second most horrible dream I’ve ever had, and I take issue with horribleness, so I go back to sleep once again and I don’t continue to dream, which I’m glad on.

Maxl knocks on the door and wakes me up; I’m already half awake but that means I’m also half asleep and I’m hugging a cushion for comfort. He asks if I’m all right; I am puzzled: he’s never been this concerned about me before. He says he’s concerned about me.

Maybe I made horrible noises in my horrible dream, it’s possible. I blink at him and say ‘yes’ and I’m about to go back to sleep once again; he says ‘it’s nearly half two’, which in German means half one, but means nothing to me at the moment because they’ve put the clocks forward last night and I don’t do mornings at the best of times.

Maxl rustles about in my room while I drift back off to sleep. He keeps much of his stuff in my room, so it’s a bit like having a live-in partner, without the partner, it’s a bit like a lose-lose situation: the worst of both worlds. The good thing I suppose: we don’t argue. Though he moans at me.

Maxl moans at me about England.

Every day he comes back from college or from the bank or from the tube or from the post office or from the supermarket or from the park or from the cafe or from the pub or from the pavement, moaning at me. Every day.

He is German so he’s used to hyper-efficiency; he also lives in Berlin when he’s not here, so he’s used to an agreeable level of anarchic socialism. Objectively, I agree with most of what he complains about but the complaining itself bugs me, every day, about everything.

That and the fact that he moans at me in German: he makes it sound as if I were responsible. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe my quiet acquiescence to all things British, to all things English, to all things London, has made me complicit in bringing about a college that charges an arm and a leg but that has embarrassingly poor facilities and a bunch of students who, instead of standing up for their ideas and their rights and their freedoms, do everything they’re told, as they’re told, and for a bank that charges an arm and a leg in fees and makes opening a bank account as much of a deal as if you were asking the Emperor of China for a slice of Tibet, and a tube that charges you an arm and a leg but shuts down for weekends at a time and that runs late because one of their drivers has a bout of the sniffles and that goes on strike at the whiff of a comma in a staff manual being changed and that stops running at midnight when half the population is still about town enjoying themselves, and for a post office that I can’t think of what they might be doing wrong off the top of my head but I can easily imagine that in Germany they run their post offices in a way that is altogether more, well, German, and for a supermarket that installs machines that talk at you instead of employing people who serve you, and for a park that is actually pretty much perfect if you ask me but that if you’re German you’ll probably nevertheless find something to moan about, and for the cafe that I can’t I’m losing my will to live…

The pubs close too early I know and the trains are a nightmare, get over it, it’s London, this, innit.

I can’t be doing with this much moaning and I realise that much as I love him, if Maxl were my husband I would have to ask him for a divorce now. That would be terrible. Fortunately he’s only a very good friend, and I can love him even though he moans at me because I know I don’t have to own any of this beyond the level to which I just have to own my share of this culture that so irks him. Better still, much as I love Berlin – and I love Berlin, and I always, always still keep a metaphorical suitcase there – I don’t have to move to Berlin with him just because he doesn’t like London. I actually think he quite likes London, which makes me also think that maybe he moans about Berlin! At his girlfriend! (Phew!) I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate because I’m troubled by my horrible dream which I don’t want to think about, and I also don’t want to seem ungrateful or ungracious or ungenerous. I don’t want to seem or to feel un-anyhing. I love Maxl [I’ve changed his name here, by the way, because I don’t want to get him into trouble nor do I want him to think that I don’t love him just because he moaned at me] and I am grateful to him for being a good, loyal friend, and I graciously accept the gift of insight that even someone you love can get on your nerves to the point where you are quite prepared to wrestle them to the ground and slap them with a very wet fish, and I want to retain and hold on to the generosity of spirit that says live and let live, love and let love, be and let be. And I realise I am actually moaning about somebody moaning at me. Which is a little ironic. And I like little ironies. Though I still don’t like moaning. Which I suppose makes it doubly ironic… And the whole experience reminds me acutely why I so much enjoy being single. 

I feel tempted to tell George about this, but obviously I don’t because I don’t want to prejudice him against Maxl or against me. And I certainly don’t want to tell him about the horrible dream, which he’d be bound to want to know more about, if I did, because George is interested in virtually anything that’s put in front of him, this much I know.

Autumn

‘It is very nice, this nice weather we’re having.’ I’m trying to work out what Sedartis thinks about simple things. Sedartis agrees, but: ‘it is also a burden.’

‘How is it a burden?’ I ask him, though I feel I know the answer already:

‘It is also a burden because it insists on our enjoyment of it. If it were raining, or grey and drizzly, or at the very least cloudy and disagreeably damp, we would both be happiest sitting indoors and doing some work on the computer, or listening to music, or having a nap, or watching a documentary we had recorded months ago and never found the time to catch up with, or play the guitar and sing an old song, maybe quite badly. We would be deeply content and get some of the things done that we have been meaning to do for a while. Instead, we have to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. Or go for a walk. We go for long walks anyway, there is nothing wrong with long walks, quite the opposite, we love our long walks come rain or come shine, but with this very nice weather entangled is an inescapable obligation: it would be a terrible waste of a beautiful day now to be locked inside and not happy.’

‘It’s good to be happy, though, is it not?’

‘It’s good to be happy,’ Sedartis agrees. I sense there’s a but.

‘But the effort of being happy can prove just too much. Sometimes it is so much more agreeable to be moderately gruntled, and enjoy the undemanding low-level misery that comes with being English in England. The stridency of happiness can be quite overbearing.’

I know he’s right, though I will him to be wrong, and I close my eyes and inhale the neither warm nor cold air. The city is in constant, fuel-driven agitation: cars and lorries and aeroplanes and buses and the ambulances. Always, always the ambulances.

I like the sun on my skin and the heat that expands under my cheekbones. I enjoy enjoying the weather, burdensome though it be.

A big fat clouds starts wandering across the sun, and immediately the air feels much cooler, but not quite yet chilly. I open my eyes and see it will pass ere long.

I like autumn, though it signify decay. This year, I’ve chosen to stay in London rather than go away. I like London, I love London. It troubles me, right at the moment. There is too much cold money breezing in that doesn’t do anything other than stifle the cracks that before let the light shine through; it deadens the life that makes London unruly, infuriating, adorable; but still I love it, because I know this siege, too, will be withstood, like the small cloud across my sun this very moment, it will pass, and ere long. I have an old-fashioned, daily rejuvenated love affair with ten million people, with more history than I know to make sense of and a generous, rebellious, untamed and untameable heart.

I sense there is a change in the air and I know the change will be profound.

Sedartis nods in agreement and some slight tingle of anticipation; I close my eyes again and take it all in while it lasts, while it lasts…


< Lesson       The Sedartis Effect >