11 Death (Imagined)

I noticed I was dead when I saw myself lying dead in my bed, looking down on myself from a great height: there I was. Gone. A lifelong flirtation with significance, over. And nothing dreadful in consequence. No pain, no loss, no uncertainty. Just the remorseless ease of an expired existence. Of almost failure. Of having nearly been. Something or other. Someone? Then I woke up and realised that it had been a dream. I don’t like to say ‘only’, but it had been ‘only’ a dream. I had dreamt my self dead. What new joys. Wait on me.

It’s hard now to say what perplexed me more. Being dead (in my dream), or being alive (after all). But finding myself thus among the quick in a hitherto slow existence, I believed I had heard, and was minded to heed, a call for action: I got out of bed and made coffee.

Mug in hand I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, naked. I do that a lot these days, I examine my body. I marvel at it, not admiringly: bemused. I don’t look for blemishes or signs of decay, I look for signs of familiarity; for something that says: this is you. I don’t find it. The person standing naked in the mirror in front of me could be anybody. It’s not that I’m alien to myself or strange, just: unfamiliar. I’m roughly fifty and not beautiful. What I marvel at is not beauty. What I marvel at is the fact that I don’t recognise myself in the shape I’ve become. I’m not even unattractive. In fact, I may be more attractive now than I’ve ever been. And I’m not even sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not sure it’s a thing. Any more. ‘Attractive’. To what and to whom and to what end. Nevertheless, I’m a little alarmed because it seems late in the day to suddenly start feeling attractive. Alarmed but a little reassured too, because perhaps it just means I’m not over the hill. What is the hill? Going down is supposed to be easier than going up. What ride am I in for? Now?

Mug in hand I stand in front of the mirror naked, looking for signs of familiarity. The eyes maybe. Or the nose. Maybe the lips. I’m stubbly, and I like it. There. That’s something to hold on to: seeing as it is that I’m alive, there’s one thing that I’m happy with and that’s worth holding on to: my stubble.

I remind myself I am sitting opposite my young self and I had promised my young self—not so much promised, perhaps, as enticed him over by means of the prospect of—a question. My mind goes blank. The memory of imagining my own death, even just as a dream, and the image of my standing in front of the mirror naked, mug in hand and content that I have inexplicably become ‘attractive’, possibly owing to stubble (which has since grown somewhat into a near-mature beard), sends a shudder down my spine, and I put down my mojito too firmly.

‘George,’ I say, sensing that something—anything—is required from me at this point, ‘what are you doing in Istanbul?’

This is not, obviously, the question I’d had in mind for him, but then I can’t begin to conceive of what question I might have had in mind for him, and since it’s a question that is playing on my mind about myself (what am I doing in Istanbul?) I feel it is pertinent, or if not pertinent then perhaps justified, or if not justified then at least maybe useful, useful in as much at least as it might open the conversation; and at this point in the proceedings (are these ‘proceedings’, and if so what are they?) I yearn for a touch of conversation.

I startle myself at realising I also yearn for a touch, his touch, any touch, some contact beyond verbal, visual, aural, and I want to place my hand over his in a fatherly gesture. I don’t. But there are now two versions of us sitting at this table in the garden of the Limonlu Bahçe: one, the ‘real’ one, in which he still holds his glass in both his hands and has his eyes not exactly fixed but nevertheless on it, whereas I look at him in my ongoing state of bewilderment, and one, the ‘imagined’ one in my mind, where he has put down his glass and I have cupped my left hand over both his hands and I look him in the eyes and he looks back into mine.

‘Not exactly sure,’ he says—in one version examining the glass in his hands and twisting it slightly, in the other holding my gaze with a blend of confidence and the uncertainty his words imply—’I was doing Interrail with a friend, I had no intention of coming here really, but maybe circumstances conspired…’

I know at once that they did, even though I still don’t remember this scene from my past, and I am immeasurably relieved; he is, although he doesn’t know it, similarly displaced from his own reality: we are on the same page, more or less.

I imagine squeezing his hand and cupping my right hand around his neck and pulling him close so he can rest his head for a while on my shoulder, but instead I pick up my glass and lift it up to him and say, as if I had any authority to do so: ‘welcome to Istanbul,’ to which, in both versions, he too raises his glass and clinks it with mine and, once again gamely, says: ‘welcome to Istanbul.’

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 >


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11 Death (Imagined)

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