(Apologies for the very poor picture quality of this video: recurring streaming issues.)
Five o’clock in the morning: I lie awake, worrying about Edgar. Not about Edgar himself, obviously, Edgar is the last person I need to worry about: I worry about the fact that Edgar of all people can’t sleep, and what that means for someone like me, who normally sleeps without a hint of a problem, when I thought Edgar was the kind of person who did so too; does that mean I have to worry about not being able to sleep, all of a sudden, just like Edgar?
It’s the kind of worry I least appreciate and am unable to see any sense in: it’s worrying about worrying: it’s a meta-worry. It’s a preposterousness, and that is in itself a worry: I now worry about the fact that I worry. About worrying.
My lover doesn’t notice I’m lying awake next to him, worrying, he just rasps a contented snore. He’s an uncomplicated sleeper. Sometimes he has nightmares that wake him up briefly, but he goes back to sleep easily and quickly. I think it might just be my clamping onto him that occasionally sets off a nightmare in him, but I don’t ask for fear that he’ll confirm that, yes, that’s what it is, because I like snuggling up to him: I spend the whole night resting my head on his chest, holding him; he holding me.
I arrange to see Edgar for a drink and he seems very happy. Tired, but fulfilled. In the course of our conversation—it’s been a while since we last met, so we have some catching up to do—I realise he’s become an expert in about half a dozen subjects, and he does not seem the least bit worried, about any of them, or about getting enough sleep:
‘Oh no,’ he laughs: I nap.’
‘When do you nap?’
‘When I’m tired.’
‘And then you sleep?’
‘No I nap, there’s a difference…’
‘I realise there’s a difference, but then at night, do you sleep?’
‘Oh no, at night I lie awake, reading.’
‘What are you reading about?’
‘At the moment I’m learning Rumantsch.’
‘You’re learning Rumantsch by reading?’
‘I read it at night, and practise it during the day.’
‘So you speak Rumantsch now?’
‘I read it quite well.’
I feel a little tired just listening to Edgar, as he tells me he has taken to translating a Rumantsch story into English.
‘Aren’t you tired?’
‘No, I’ve just had a nap.’
‘I mean generally: how much sleep do you get?’
‘It varies: between four and five hours a day, enough to survive.’
‘And you’re not tired? You look a bit tired.’
‘Oh that’s probably because I’ve just woken up from my nap: it takes me a while…’
‘What are you going to do with your Rumantsch story, once you’ve translated it into English?
‘I can read it to you.’
‘Yes you could: that might actually send me to sleep.’
The experiment is not a success. I am too weirded out by the fact that I have a man twice my size but effectively my age sitting in my living room, reading me a story. Also, the story is quite interesting. When I tell my lover, he suggests I read it to him: he dozes off straight away.
I sit awake, reading the rest of the story that Edgar has translated from Rumantsch into English, about an alp farmer and his three sons, who all become mercenaries, fighting wars for foreign lords in far flung countries, for remuneration. One dies, one is captured and spends a long time being held hostage because his family can’t afford the ransom, and one comes back, traumatised, but determined to bring home his brother. He sets off again on what turns into a riveting adventure of selfless bravery, Helvetian heroism, and blockheaded stubbornness. He finds and liberates his brother, and his brother is grateful but also sad: he does not want to leave his fellow prisoner of war behind whom he has become close friends with: as close as brothers, closer even. Blood brothers. I think lovers, but the story doesn’t spell that out. It was written by a descendant of the older, stronger, rescuing brother in the early part of the 18th century, and they didn’t so much go in for the gay theme, at the time. To me it’s pretty obvious. My lover is fast asleep, so I can’t ask him.
I phone Edgar, sure to find him awake: he answers the phone at once:
‘Of course, it’s obvious!’
‘Do you think the story would make a good film?’
‘Of course it would make a good film!’
‘Do you think I should write a treatment?’
‘Why not? I’m not going to!’
‘Who owns the rights?’
‘I don’t think anybody does, but I can find out for you!’
Now Edgar is full of exclamation marks, which wearies me, this time of night, but I’m glad that what keeps me awake now is no longer my meta-worry about worrying about being worried about Edgar, but thinking about how to frame this stupendous tale into a good, solid, rustic, heroic love story. Between a Helvetian mercenary and his lover in captivity. Over the next couple of weeks I write the treatment during my night time waking hours and show it to Edgar.
‘It’s quite good.’
‘Yes, but you’re missing something.’
‘What am I missing?’
‘You’re missing the Rumantschness.’
‘Yes. You’ve got the Helvetianness all right, which is not surprising, seeing you’re Helvetian yourself, but you’re missing the Rumantschness.’
‘How do I get the Rumantschness?’
‘I don’t know: go there, talk to the clan, learn Rumantsch…’
‘You want me to learn Rumantsch?’
‘I don’t want you to learn it, I want you to get the Rumantschness of it: if you want someone to finance this project for you so you can turn it into a film that will be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, and be owned by the people you’re talking about at the same time, then you’ve got to get the Rumantschness of it all.’
I hadn’t thought anywhere near as far ahead as that, but of course he is right: this is exactly the kind of film that should be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, preferably on the Piazza Grande, and it should both be good enough to be able to win a jury award and have enough of a broad appeal—with its Helvetian 17th century prisoners-in-captivity-and-brothers-in-arms-but-beyond-that-love-story—to have a fair crack at the audience prize too. It has to be thoroughly Rumantsch.
‘What if we shoot it in Rumantsch?’
‘That would go a long way to getting the Rumantschness of it, yes.’
‘But it would obviously entail you having at least a working knowledge of Rumantsch.’
The prospect seems daunting, but I speak fairly decent Italian, workalike French, and a little Portuguese. I once studied Putonghua for a while. And, it occurs to me now, a little Latin, back at school, which I didn’t enjoy then, but that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with my teacher, except when we both agreed I should probably cease coming to his Latin class…
‘I think the film needs to be trilingual,’ Edgar offers into the silence that has briefly settled over my brow as I am contemplating my linguistic predisposition towards learning Rumantsch (I tried Spanish once too, but that didn’t get me very far: the Italian kept interfering).
‘What, Italian, French, and Portuguese?’
‘No, of course not: English, Swiss German, and Rumantsch.’
‘Why would anybody in this story speak English?’
‘Because it’s an English researcher or journalist or distant relative who happens upon it and tells it, from his perspective, today.’
‘Like a meta-story.’
‘A bit like a meta-story.’
‘It’s been done before.’
‘Everything has been done before.’
‘It’s probably less of a meta-story, this, than a straightforward framework device.’
‘It could work: you can write the English and the Swiss German dialogue, and I can translate the Rumantsch bits.’
‘Is your Rumantsch good enough for that?’
‘It will be by the time you’re done with your script.’
‘But you’re not a writer.’
‘No, you are.’
That’s true. I am. It’s a fascinating idea. I could write the script in English and Swiss German, and he could translate the parts of the dialogue that need to be in Rumantsch into Rumantsch, and then we’d obviously need somebody whose mother tongue is Rumantsch to check it for its overall Rumantschness, maybe one of the descendants: one of the clan.
I am beginning to imagine the kind of conversation I would be having with an alp farmer descendant of a Helvetian 17th century mercenary who goes to rescue his brother from captivity in a foreign land, only to find that his brother doesn’t really want to leave because he doesn’t want to abandon his lover, because he is concerned for his safety, and fears, quite reasonably, that he will never see him again if he now joins his brother and escapes back to his village high up in the mountains, across the St Gotthard Pass. It sounds like an intriguing story to me. Has it got legs, though?
I think I’d need to sleep on it. Ah, there’s a snag…
The elderly lady with silver grey hair and a formidable bosom corners the festival’s Programming Director and demands that he explain himself.
Her hair is tied at the back in an elegant bow, and her glasses suggest literacy both cinematic and literary. Her lips are glossed red, but the upper lip is quite thin, and the lower lip is quite full, and at the corners these lips pull somewhat towards eighteen past eight, which gives her a permanent expression of ever so marginally lopsided vexation. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Richards who pitches up in Episode One of the second series of Fawlty Towers, but this lady is not unhappy with her view, nor is she hard of hearing; she hears all too well, and what she objects to is English.
What irks—so as not to say angers—her (‘anger’ seems too uncouth a term for her form of displeasure) is that here in Locarno, the picturesque lakeside town with the second oldest international film festival in the world after Venice, an announcement (or was it a speech? I am not entirely sure now) was made not in Italian (the language of the Canton Ticino, where we find ourselves), or any of the other official languages of Switzerland—German, French, or Rumantsch—but in the language of the global village, English.
She had no problem understanding it—she probably has a Swiss education, and her English is likely to be better than that of two thirds of all native English speakers around the world—her objection is one of principle. One of culture, even. And a concern for how what is being cultivated—the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term itself reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last)—on the multilingual diversity of parochial Europe, specifically Switzerland.
This diversity has real charm, and, when witnessed in action, can be seriously impressive. It’s not just the trains here which routinely make all major announcements in three languages (one of which is always English, although English is not an official language in Switzerland), or the packaging of consumer goods, which mostly (but not always) eschews English but finds room, on such everyday produce as butter and milk, for all four national languages; it’s when you see and hear people actually using their languages seamlessly and matter-of-factly across their spectrum that you realise how capable we can be if we try.
Not long before this ‘incident’ in Locarno, I’d been to the other major film festival in Switzerland, Solothurn. This, unlike Locarno, is not an international affair but focuses entirely on Swiss film making; it is therefore not of global significance, but really important to Switzerland. A close friend of mine had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with his erstwhile best friend, who was the producer, over it, and so it was this not an entirely happy occasion.
It was nonetheless memorable, not least for the opening speeches. I don’t remember their exact sequence, but: one was held by the then Artistic Director of the festival, who happened to be from the Ticino and therefore spoke in Italian. One was held by the then President of the Federal Council (this, in the egalitarian direct democracy that is Switzerland is a nominal role rotating on an annual basis through the Federal Council, which consists of seven members who are elected by parliament and who form the government of the country as a joint cabinet; the President of Switzerland therefore only ever is in office for one year as a primus inter pares), who happened to be French speaking and therefore gave her address in French. And a third was held by some dignitary from the Swiss film making community, who spoke German. There were no translations, no subtitles, no surtitles, no captions. The expectation was—as it is in the chambers of the national parliament—that everyone in the audience (which here, this being an open event, is the general public) speaks at least two, but preferably three, of the four national languages. And they do. Mostly. But you are talking about a film-festival-going audience with a particular interest in Swiss films. You are talking about Solothurn, not Locarno.
Locarno is one of the most important and quite possibly the most beautiful film festival for independent film in the world, and so obviously not everybody attending it speaks either Italian, or German, or French, or let alone Rumantsch. (Hardly anybody in Switzerland speaks Rumantsch: it has a native speaker base of some 36,000 individuals with about another 25,000 people speaking it ‘regularly’. It’s a lovely language, though, and not at all impossible to learn, especially if you have Latin.)
The irony for my Swiss Mrs Richards in particular, and for us all, is that the one language almost all Swiss people speak to at least basic level—many to near perfection—is English. Professors often lecture in English at universities, there are kindergartens and pre-school groups conducted in English (also in Putonghua, now, as it happens), and it is not unheard of for high school students to deliver their papers in English. And with so many people living and working and travelling in Switzerland from all over the world, the one language you know for certain you’ll get by in is, of course, English.
The festival’s Programming Director is patient and polite. He gives a somewhat resigned looking smile—resigned more, I think, to the fact that being accosted with these kinds of grievances is simply part of the job, even if he’s really just here tonight outside this cinema to see a film at his festival, than resigned to the realities of globalisation—and explains the situation to his questioner in her seventies not unlike you would to a child of about seven. I half fear me she may feel patronised. She doesn’t. Her eyes light up, and she feels taken seriously. Her lips, at first reluctantly, but then giving themselves over to reconciliation, flatten out into almost a smile of her own. I wonder has he just charmed her. He is very charming, in a slightly headmasterly way: the kind of person who daily has to deal with unruly students and their impossible parents alike, and who just takes it all in his steady, slow-paced, long-suffering stride.
My queue starts to move, and I lose track of them both and their conversation. I don’t think it was his perfectly reasonable argument that won her over, I think it was just that he managed to signal to her for three minutes or four that he cared for her irk. And I’m almost certain he did, for three or four minutes. Which is probably about as much as it merited, after all.
What the film was that I saw, or what language it was in, or how it was subtitled (all films at these festivals are always subtitled), I can’t recall, but the introduction, I’m almost certain, was given in English…
The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away.
I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own kind and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane.
I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks—the drinks were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut off it.
In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21, the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.
There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps, and porridges seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.
But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.
I so fondly remember a flight to Nice—not that long ago—where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the film festival in Cannes, and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too.
We naturally got talking, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew, who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one, which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary, I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then (in the most agreeable way), and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.
And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA.
But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the film festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train to Leeds. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than you would if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.
And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water was subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane? And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it?
That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come—I daresay it has most certainly occurred many times before—when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.
I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA—just as flying BA—feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else.
It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…
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This post has moved. You can now find it here.
Thanks & enjoy.
This post has moved. You can now find it here.
Thanks & enjoy.