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


Read The Tape in Paperback or as eBook:

EDEN miniatures

 

The Ice King – 3: The Thought

I feel the ice melt under my skin, I sense us slip away in the rush of torrents, surging up, then drowning into the depths; my eyes closed, I heave into his brain.

Where there were colours there is now only green and blue and that purple and the sting of the white in flashes between: I bounce and tumble and dissolve, the water rushes through me, the glacier crashes all about us as we tumble down the mountain, turn into a stream – the quicks, the pools, the depths, the shallows and the waterfalls – into the valley, then the river, the calm.

Then the meadows passing and the flowers on the hill. The trees. Is that a sun in the sky? I haven’t seen one in years. The Ice is gone, the King is no more. What have I done?

I float on the easy current along the stately swans and the comical ducks, and I wonder. Was that necessary? Was that emotion? Was that too much? The cloudlets above sing a round that lulls me into a new kind of sleep, and I dream that I am already restored to my senses, but senseless in love. I know not what that means, but it’s a feeling I have.

As we reach the towns and beyond these the cities, it is more a case of becoming a boat, or a ship, from which to greet the other farers of waterways, and nod at them gravely: the river has turned so serene. I am not sure I want this. I’m not sure I’m ready to leave him behind or to see him head off, onto land, into the streets, the multitudes, become a citizen: like everyone else. I cling on to him, but he is no longer there, has he never existed at all?

I refuse to panic and say to myself, it’s only a phase, it will pass, it’s all in my mind, soon I’ll wake up in the glacier, gazing at him by my side, and I’ll marvel at the tone of his skin and the glint in his eye, and the nearly-smile that says, I nearly get you, you’re not quite alone.

I dream that I’m not alone and for a moment feel warm, and the glow that encompasses me is enough for a while to soothe, to restore.

We yield into the wide, and buoyed by the salt, and cheered by the seagulls, we stretch our limbs, and with strong strokes make for the open, the free. I half expect a dolphin to greet us, but it seems we are heading north, which is just as well. At least we are now at sea.

Soon the seals and the icebergs. I’m not at home here, although the shades are familiar. I feel I have lost myself and I want not to mind.

He’s in my head now, I in his body, and against all odds we’re afloat, but are we together? I don’t even know who he is. He is The Ice King, but I’ve turned him into a fish. That is not true, of course, I have turned him into a captain. I have not turned him into anything, he’s still The Ice King, but like me he is out of his element now, and so he may just be a prawn. He may be a wave or a plastic bottle discarded in old Amsterdam. He may be a thought or a lover. He may be my nemesis. Can he be my salvation?

I want to say, ‘polar bear, be not afraid,’ and mean it. We’re here to help. The Ice King looks at me kindly now, maybe for the very first time, and thinks a thought of astonishing beauty. This, I know, is the noble mind. And the thought alone that thoughts can be beautiful, and merely to know that a mind may be noble, fills me with joy.


< 2: The Kiss       4: The Word >


Read The Ice King in Paperback or as eBook

 

{Detour}

The incident with the van was unnecessary.

It never really happened, of course, but that, considering how unnecessary it was, may be just as well. I had found myself on the edge of a village called Checkendon, waiting for someone to pick me up from the Cherry Tree Inn, where I had spent part of the night. The other, earlier part, I had spent in a converted barn making up words to no end. These words were then taken by four or five individuals of varying degrees of expertise, importance and relevance to the task in hand and essentially messed with, much in the way I don’t like. Since it was a job I was being paid to do and that I had no emotional investment in, I placed a half-pained smile on my lips and retained some other words within, unspoken.

By 1:30 in the morning it had been decided, by one person or another who was in some way or other involved with the project, that it was now time to call it a night. So Tommoh swung on his motorbike and I was given a lift by someone else in a car to a B&B somewhere in the countryside, where, having had only three hours sleep the previous night, I immediately went to bed but did not immediately fall asleep.

Instead, I lay awake for a few minutes pondering what my life had come to and wondering whether Tommoh felt, as I did, that it would be comforting and reassuring now to hold on to each other, to curl up in one bed instead of the two in two different rooms, and to rest in each other’s arms for a while. The option existed of knocking on his door and asking him outright, but I was too tired, and also as so very often before and since, I felt that doing so might just jeopardise an easy and uncomplicated friendship.

I woke up amazingly refreshed. I am not good in the morning. I do not get up and trill a summery tune. I do not sing in the shower. I don’t yoga and I don’t jog. The only time I get to see dawn is when I’m still up from the night before. But the job in the barn appeared to demand that having left there barely six hours earlier, we now return and continue the dance of irrelevance we had so fruitlessly started the day before. Tommoh and I sat down to a hearty breakfast which – it later turned out – I enjoyed more than he did, and he then swung himself back on his bike, while I waited for the shortish man with the blonde eyelashes to drop by and take me back to the barn in his car, as he’d promised he’d do the night before.

This took a little longer than I expected because apparently he forgot all about me, and so after breakfast I checked out and sat myself on a wooden garden table outside the pub, enjoying the early sunshine and continuing my pondering on the stark insignificance of my own existence.

I was just getting to the point where I thought there’s only so much pondering you can do without anything actually happening, when a rather large man in a larger-still van appeared, not quite out of nowhere, but still unannounced. He drove up to nearly as near to the house as he could across the gravelled parking lot – otherwise empty – and purposely decabbed; he opened the back, took from it what looked like a plastic tray of something or other and carried it, his protruding belly leading the way, to what I imagined must be the tradesmen’s entrance or the kitchen or possibly the larder, if people still have them. (I imagine they do, in the country…).

What happened next is, of course, pure fantasy, but what do you do when you’re in the middle of nowhere, called upon to go back to the outskirts of somewhere to pursue the pointless depletion of your brain at the hands of people you have nothing in common or store with (except, I emphasise, Tommoh) and who drain your soul, talking and thinking and living in terms of things that are ‘key’ – what do you do when you’re stuck there and trapped and in front of you is a van: stuff in the back, probably food, engine running. Cab door open. Driver at least twenty, maybe thirty seconds off guard. Possibly more. He’d never dream of somebody doing what I was about to do. A few seconds passed. Tic. Tic. Tic. Tic. No sign of him yet. A van with supplies. Cab door open. Engine running. I would be caught within minutes. Or would I? I could make it to Oxford. At least there would be some punting to do there. I might make it right down to Dorset where I could visit my friends and give them something from out of the back of the van for their freezer, probably. Fair wind prevailing, I might even make it all the way out to Cornwall, where I could abandon the van but pick up some loaves of bread (I felt pretty certain by now that that’s what was in the back of the van) and swap some of them for some fish and make friends with a man with a boat and go out to sea with him and have some fish stew and some bread and decide that living was good by the sea and that that’s where I was going to stay now, together with my fisherman friend…

I slid off the pub bench on which I had perched and picked up my backpack, not very large. I took two paces towards the van, maybe three. No sign of the driver. What was he doing? Having a chat with the chef. Or with the girl at reception. Twenty paces, twenty-four. Thirty. I wasn’t really counting. I stepped up to the seat, passenger side, on the left. Sliding across to the driver’s seat would be awkward, but hey. I unslung my backpack, when: ‘Oi!’

Large man loomed even larger as he strode towards me red-faced with rage. For once, my brain cells didn’t desert me. Cool as a cucumber I reached across the wheel and turned off the engine. Slid back down, re-slinging the backpack, and looked at him frankly: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you might be a while; you left the engine running…’

‘Fucking this bloody that and the usual,’ but my boldness, I believe, stunned him, into submission. He slammed the back shut, heaved himself into his driver’s position and, revving loudly, took off. He could have crushed me. Decked me or punched me. He did none of the sort. He just made his departure as loud as he could.

I felt a little prouder that morning than I had done before not for infuriating a simple bloke going about his daily job, but for daring myself a tiny bit to the edge. And I thought of Tommoh and his motorbike and that we could always elope together, to Scotland. Or to the South of France. That would be lovely. Perhaps, I then thought, I just have to adopt a style of more dangerous living…