Phantom

The guilty look of the winner after the loser is thoroughly beaten.

‘It is really simple,’ Sedartis suggests, which has me a-wary, but I know him better now than really to doubt him. ‘Of course it is,’ I think back at him, ‘but what?’

‘If the young people—the generation now growing up, the fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five year olds, and maybe some of their allies, who, young at heart, are older in years but still see a future and want that future to be different to the present, which is, though it may not always seem so, thoroughly different from the past; and who, good of soul, and embracing of the expansion of the universe as an indication, a hint, perhaps, an invitation even, to expand with it our minds, wherever in this universe we happen to be or be from; and who therefore, by definition, by implication also, and by both conscious and subconscious intention, seek a future that is, in definably qualitative terms better than the present, which, even though it often may not seem so, is certainly better than the past, because it is wider, with therefore more scope for both meaning and interpretation, for both substance and differentiation—if young people want a future at all, they have to demand it. Not ask for it nicely, not politely sit in the corner waiting for it to be offered, not wonder will it be offered at all, but get out on the street, get up on the box, get into the fray, whatever, wherever it may be, literally, metaphorically, passionately, and demand it, their future.

‘Because the old people will mess it up for them, for certain. There is no alternative, sadly, and no alternative outcome, because old people—with comparatively few and notable, also respectable, exceptions—are inclined (I’m inclined to say “programmed”) to maintain their status quo, for no other reason than that it is familiar, comfortable.

‘But realise, of course, that in an expanding universe there is no standing still. If you cling on to the status quo, thinking it stable, thinking it solid, thinking it, therefore, by definition and by implication, dependable and so, if nothing else, for yourself, “good,” you are in fact regressing. In a world like yours in which—as in all worlds currently known to anyone—entropy is an inescapable principle at work on everything, stagnation is a move to obsolescence. Old people—always allowing for significant, but comparatively small, numbers of exceptions—surrender to their own fate of obsolescence long before they reach it, and that is why old people cannot, in their majority, help but mess things up for the young. So unless young people get up and demand their future, there can be none. There can only be the status quo, which is in fact a regression, which is the past. Which is definitely and infinitely worse than the future. It has to be, because this whole universe was smaller, narrower, more confined than it is now and than it will be, with therefore less room, both literally and metaphorically, and less time, both literally and metaphorically, in it to think, and invent, to love, and to be.

‘How mundane it seems to me, as you can imagine, to cite for you concrete examples, but since you ask’—I didn’t think I was asking—‘take the obvious ones, the ones in your “news” right now, as we converse: If young people are in Britain and want a future in Europe they have to demand it. If they are in the United States and they want to survive their school years, they have to demand it. Demand freedom of movement. Demand education in unarmed environments. Demand the right to live somewhere affordable, clean, safe and sane. Demand free and comprehensive health care. Demand the right to speak and think freely, and to disagree with anything I, or you, or anybody else is saying. That’s the promise of civilisation, everything else is barbaric.

‘Your youth has to claim civilisation. Not with violence, of course, but with power. Their force is in their numbers and in their energy, in their ingenuity and in their spirit. Their force is their future. They must use it. You can’t do it for them. But,’ and here Sedartis changes his tone, and, for the first time ever, I hear him sound almost seductive, ‘you can help them: you can tell them you are on their side, you can let them know you want their future for them as much as they do, and they will understand; because of course they know all this already, they don’t need to be told, they just—if anything—need to be encouraged. Reassured maybe. To know that you don’t hold their rebellion against your present as directed against you, but only against your present, and that their demand, no matter how unreasonable it may be made to sound by those who oppose it, is reasonable, essential even, to the continuation of your civilisation. They instinctively know this. They need, if anything, only perhaps to be reminded. Remind them only: you are on their side. You want them to live and to thrive. You want them to stand up for their future. Because if they don’t, their misery will be great, and their death, their despair, their destruction long. And it will fall to their miserable, angry children to do what their parents failed to do: to demand—not request, not beg, not buy and not steal—to demand and so shape their own future.’


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No Compromise

When I look at pictures of myself of the time when I was as old as I am now that I am sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I don’t recognise myself any more or any better than when I listen to my voice on The Tape from the era.

It feels like an era because it is so remote in the past—so distant—that it might as well be an epoch. Thirty years, thereabouts. Just over a generation. I now could easily, comfortably, be my own father then. That messes with my mind a bit, but it literally figures: I left home, aged twenty-one, ten days before my mother’s fiftieth birthday.

It never once occurred to me, then, that it would perhaps be a good idea to stay for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and then leave home, as the last of her children to do so. My mind simply did not entertain that notion. It was not callousness or insensitivity, as such, it was a complete unawareness that that would even be a reasonable thing to do.

I did get my wonderful friend Asta to pick up a thin golden ring that I had bought from the jeweller’s, on the inside of which I’d had the words engraved: In Gratitude. Asta picked up the ring with some flowers, for which I presumably had given her the money, and took them to my mother on her birthday. That to me seemed reasonable then. My mother still wears the ring, of course. And while I can’t to this day explain my behaviour to her, I can see that the memento means something to her, and it means something to me that it does.

Now, as I’m sitting opposite myself at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul with a sense of wonder, I no longer, in that other sense, wonder. This really has changed. For so long I simply wondered, at everything, about all things, all of the time.

I used to wonder what the future might hold, I used to wonder how things were in the present, I used to wonder what I was and what I was to become, I used to wonder, naturally, why? Why everything, why anything, really; and I used to wonder how I could come back to this place—any place—and do it for real.

This used to be a pervading feeling of mine: I must come back to this place and do it for real. It was almost like I was on a recce, accumulating intelligence, information on how to do this when it counted, when it was real. It was never real. Now—now ironically being the time and the age and the era when I do a good solid part of my living virtually—it’s beginning to be real. And I am immensely relieved. A little scared, perhaps, yes, but in a good way, the way that you get stage fright before you go on in a play, or do a gig.

I thought at first, as first I was beginning to realise who that is, having a mojito with me, that I would want to ask myself innumerable questions. And now I realise, they don’t matter now. Now that they could be asked, they evaporate. Could it be I’m beginning to accept myself just as I am. Love myself, even? Is that conceivable, still? It’s a big word. Love.

I don’t think I ever hated myself, I’ve hardly ever hated anything or let alone anyone, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been able to love myself. I’ve overestimated myself, bemused myself, irritated myself, entertained myself, and imagined myself somehow exalted, but loved myself? I don’t know what that would feel like, so I don’t think I have.

I want to have a conversation with myself about something that isn’t me, and I ask young George how he’s been spending his time travelling across Europe. The details he tells me neither surprise nor remind me: they sound like the indifferent anecdotes of a young man who’s been travelling across Europe. The stories he’s telling me are intimate, even provocative. In a nonchalant way. I had forgotten that aspect of me: I used to be quite provocative, in a nonchalant way. I used to be rebellious, certainly, and deliberately daring. Never quite as daring as deep down I thought I ought to be though; this too, I seemed to conduct almost as a rehearsal: my daring.

George speaks in a measured, quiet tone, not dissimilar to the tone I hear on The Tape. I’m beginning to wonder whether I have already listened to The Tape, and this is essentially a memory constructed from The Tape, so as not to call it a ‘dream,’ or whether I’m yet to find The Tape; but then the chronology, in a situation where I’m sitting opposite my thirty years younger self in a delightful garden cafe in Istanbul, having mojitos and talking about travels and Europe and daring and art does not particularly seem to matter.

‘I cannot bear a compromise, in art,’ I hear myself tell myself; and young me, George, looks up and smiles that nearly-smile that I’m beginning to recognise, even like. ‘I find it abhorrent. Compromise is something, certainly, for politics, perhaps for a relationship, I don’t know; but for art: no.’ I agree with myself on this, emphatically: ‘Yes,’ George says, ‘I agree with you. Do you smoke?’ And we finally have our first cigarette together.

The silence is soothing and reassuring, and I’m reminded of a teacher at school whose name I can’t now remember who taught us clay modelling. At the school I went to, this was one of the things we did, and I enjoyed it, in principle, but I was going through a crisis.

We were modelling heads, near life-size (about two thirds or three quarter) and, having finished one of a girl, quite generic, which I thought looked all right but which didn’t excite me, I had started a second one, this of an African boy. I couldn’t get his features right. I was getting frustrated and I must have expressed this somehow, though I don’t remember the how, and our teacher, a German woman in her forties who to me then seemed neither ancient nor young but really curiously both at the same time, and whom I didn’t know well enough to like or dislike her, but whom I was able, for her empathy and her concern for my work, to respect, looked at my head and at me and then said: ‘Ein Kunstwerk muss durch den Tod gehen.’ A work of art has to go through death.

I intuitively knew what she meant, and although I couldn’t entirely comprehend it, I liked the fact that she had used the words ‘work of art’ and ‘death’ in one sentence, and combined them so that one was to conquer the other, and I thought nothing of the fact that she seemed to refer to my high school project as a work of art.

She did two or three things to my head that took all of about ninety seconds, and the way was paved for me to finish the project. I completed the head, and it spent the next two or three years in pride of place in my bedroom on a black cloth with a round badge pinned to it on which the words “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” were printed in small yellow capital letters on a black background; and when I moved out of my parents’ home, I left it behind, and since then it has been living on top of a large commode in the living room of my parents’ holiday flat in the mountains. I see it there often, and while I’m not sure it is quite a work of art, I certainly know it had to go through a death before it turned into something that still, after all this time, is in its own right, quite beautiful.

We finish our cigarettes and I ask George if he would care to go for a walk, and he says: ‘why not?’


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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…


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