Songs & Charades

I take the “fabulous” TGV to Lyon – from said Gare de Lyon, there now safely and without further trouble arrived – and change to another, ordinary train to Grenoble where I get to Anne’s at 1pm and meet “the others.” The others are certainly Magda, my flatmate from London, whose friend Anna is, and Magda’s dancer friend Ross, who, like her, is from Glasgow, and whom I have met on one or two occasions before, fancying him ever so slightly but getting from him principally polite indifference, which doesn’t trouble me more than to about the same level: ever so slightly. There may have been other ‘others’, but I wouldn’t be certain now who and The Tape here does not elaborate, so maybe there weren’t.

What it does tell me is that I now experience a “wonderful sequence of days.” I have virtually no recollection of this. But according to myself, we spend the afternoon playing charades (this sounds entirely plausible, knowing Magda), and in the evening we hook up with some friends of Anne’s. In my still and always a tad cautious, somewhat incongruous English, I describe this as “so enjoyable, so nice”, as we “went out for a meal and had lots to eat, lots to drink.” Then, after dinner and drinks, we get back home to Anne’s and sing some songs. We go to bed “very late, at 4 in the morning, or so.” I can imagine this, vividly enough, but not remember. I do remember what comes next, a bit: it’s a very slow, very lazy but relaxing Saturday. (In my memory, it’s a Sunday, but that hardly matters…) The weather is “very cold” and it’s raining, which is a good excuse to stay indoors, I record (though this bit again I no longer remember) and play more charades. What I do remember is doing (or helping with) some washing up and looking out of the window into the cold grey weekend and feeling properly chuffed. That glow of contentment, a little hungover, I remember it well. (Only now it occurs to me that that was another occasion entirely: that was Glasgow, where we spent Hogmanay one year, possibly the same year, with essentially the same people, Magda and Ross, and quite possibly also Anne. The blurring of the past in the mind over time…) 

In the evening, more people come around and we sing more songs, play the guitar, drink a lot, and by the time I actually record my next entry it’s Sunday, “a couple of extremely pleasant days” having passed. Sunday I also have an actual recollection of. The weather had turned fine again (it was summer, after all), and we took guitars (I imagine there were at least two) out to a little pond, where we all of us sat on the jetty and sang songs in the sun. This, really, is the second enduring memory I have of the whole trip, after the friendly Parisian coming to my rescue: it’s a hazy memory, and in my mind it looks exactly like the kind of 1970s or 80s film where, to tell the audience that something is being remembered, the picture goes all diffuse and vastly overexposed: it’s a warm, light, comfortable glow, just not very clear, not at all distinct. Then again, it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve just told The Tape that Magda and Ross are going to continue their journey tonight (where to I don’t say and don’t remember), whereas I will stay on for another day and then tomorrow continue my trip to Italy. Magda walks in on me – possibly having heard me talk ‘to myself’, which in an age before mobiles is not the usual thing for someone to do – and, with that mix of curiosity and concern in her voice that makes it go a little high pitched, asks me what I’m doing. I explain to her that I’m recording an audio diary and that I’ll be able to play it to her at some point, though I don’t think I ever did play it to her. I don’t think I ever played it to anyone, and now that I’m listening to it, for the first time in twenty-eight years, I keep getting that sense of wonder. Songs and charades. Songs and charades.

It was a blissful time. I know it was because although I have hardly any recollection of it, I have a recording of me talking about it. I’m not effusive in my joy, but I know I’m living through another best time of my life. The first one, surely, was at the Gymnasium Münchenstein, where I spent one and a half years in near comprehensive, intensive, fully lived happiness. Because of the people I was at school with, because of the projects we were doing (we performed my first play and took it on a mini tour to Zürich and a place called Liestal, and it was a tremendous success with the audiences wherever we went), because of the discoveries, the newness of it all. Pain too, yes, now and then, but not much and not lasting and not beyond what you’d expect in your final years of growing up. The classic freedom of not having any responsibilities yet at all but being able to follow your inclinations. To travel, to drive (on a whim to Munich and back in a couple of days, with a girl friend who was then almost my girlfriend), to experiment, to be cool. To make a statement and feel good about it. I’m certain we knew then that we were happy and privileged and hopeful and young; and we still knew it, almost as much, in Grenoble, that weekend in August of 1988. The notion I keep coming back to: unencumbered. At ease, with ourselves, with it all.

I’m glad now I have this tape. I shall keep it, of course, and – if I’m around and still have a machine to play it then – listen to it again in another twenty-five years or so. I have a feeling it will sound no different. It’s endearing, to me at least, to hear me like that, but it is so remote. So …unrecognisable. I’m listening to the stories of a young man I barely know at all. How strange. How fascinating too, but how odd. To not, more deeply, feel connected. As someone who thinks connection is everything and everything is connected…

Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to the tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening of Thursday 18th August, from London. In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning – aflush, aglow and awonder – from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to wonder whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh”, and I note on the tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good if not quite a lot better can be done, actually.” The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. I now, listening to myself then, sense I can maybe today do a little what I never could then, although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though it came incredibly easy to me: indulge myself, just a little. Now, I feel a warmth to me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988’, and try as I might I could not find a train listed to Grenoble anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness all that surprising that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my European mind was entirely reasonable then.) So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office to start over again, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have already had a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which looked plausible. It was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give this much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased and the lights went off. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station – all dark, all empty – obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night. Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacker rucksacks, and I felt laconic and unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside, and while some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping a few feet next to him on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night’, I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again and those of us who had or thought we had trains to catch were let back inside. Now, what on the tape in my still a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep) I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at trying to find out how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon. To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so after asking a few more people I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle. By this time I can barely keep my eyes open and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours rest on the pavement outside and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag, and I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed and asks me if I’m lost. ‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes’, I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of it may be, but the price flashes up on the machine and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. But before I can really explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they’d had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, coming up three decades later. And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man – with a smile, two minutes of his time and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money – has made the world a much, much better place. Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…

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, Britain and the English language.

As it was, 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 (bar the first six weeks) 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, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on 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 over 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 (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, 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, 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 a bit, 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 Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, 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: 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, my being 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 sound 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 word ‘nice’, 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 as a child. 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’, 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 provided 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 reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; 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 I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…