98 Irk

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 of silver and black, 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. This lady though 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 what is being cultivated, the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last), or for 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. My friend had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with the producer and his erstwhile best friend 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, or first among equals), 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 Chinese, 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 to the realities of globalisation – and explains the situation to his interlocutor 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. 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…

12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In a multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say yes.

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’ Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case, and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night. As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well. At some point we conspire to lose them or they us and we suddenly find ourselves alone again, and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else. We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself – nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me – to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half’, when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, let alone me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

What do we ever really know…

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed yet anywhere in my brain. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’ve been in my job for six months now, it’s my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story too?)