I find a cassette tape, unlabelled.

I’m in the process of divesting myself of accumulated clutter that has started to clog up my life, in preparation for a renovation of my flat, and most of the tapes are being at long last thrown out now. Some—those bought as albums and undamaged—go to the charity shop, practically all others, with the exception only really of some mixtapes which have memories attached to them and therefore some sentimental value, go in the bin: I hold on to less than half a dozen, which is me being ruthless. I reckon.

The unlabelled tape nearly lands in the bin liner unexamined, but it intrigues me as there are almost no tapes that don’t have anything written on them at all, even if on some of them the writing has long faded and become illegible. I take it out of its case and put it in the machine I still own to play tapes, which I haven’t used in more than a decade.

I hear a young voice with a not particularly strong but clearly discernible accent, a little measured, a little studied, a little over-enunciated, declare: “All right, here we go: Europe Tour 1988, The Spoken Diary.” I’m listening to myself, nearly thirty years ago. And I hear myself say: “This is my first experience of this kind as well, so we just have to try it out.” My language has not yet acquired any idiom, and Germanisms linger, sometimes prevail.

“Nothing of what’s going to be said is going to be edited in any way, I promise myself that, so that when I’ll be listening to it in two or three or five years, ten years, I’ll feel genuinely embarrassed.” Not embarrassed, my friend, so much as astounded. I sound to me like any young man from the past. I recognise myself, but in the way that I would recognise a friend from that time, someone I knew, a little. Not someone I knew well, let alone someone I was. I don’t remember the process of recording this, but I do recall having made The Tape. The memory is curious, brittle, alien.

The ‘Europe Tour,’ it transpires, starts in Edinburgh, with a first diary entry on Monday 14th August (which I pronounce Oggust, and that does embarrass me now a little, though it also endears me to me) at 2:15 in the afternoon, a time by which I announce, with a hint of pride lacing my voice, that I haven’t slept in about twenty-four hours. I’ve had a “very pleasant conversation” with two Americans on the train, and upon arrival availed myself of the services of the Tourist Information Office, who have booked me into this “guest house.” Saying “guest house,” I sound bemused, almost baffled at my own predicament.

Having settled into my room, which, apparently, has high ceilings and is also “pleasant,” I’ve headed out and bought myself tickets to three shows at the Fringe Festival, the first one starting at 4:15pm.

“I’ve just eaten this strange, slobbery pizza, which was incredibly cheap though,” I note, and “people here have time, and they let you know they do, which can be charming as well.”

I describe with awe the light of the city in London, pulling out of King’s Cross Station at six thirty in the morning, and call Edinburgh “wonderful” and unlike anything I’d seen before; but I also remark that the drawback of this place is the weather: I’d already spotted someone wearing a fur coat at the height of summer, though I make no reference to ‘nae nickers’ – perhaps I’m not yet familiar with the expression.

“I seem to be sounding a bit blasé, hearing myself over the headphones, but I’ll have to get used to that, I presume.” And I’m not joking. Today, I sound to me like a young arrival’s idea of a latter day Noël Coward, and it hits me: I still own the silver cigarette case I used to use at that time, quite without irony.

Hearing this now, I sense there’s a fair chance that it might get me to know me better, and I resolve to listen to myself speak to me from the past…

Origin >

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Here is how the universe aligned itself for it to happen that my young science communicator friend and I could have a wonderful night, with Morcheeba:

I had every intention of going to the Highlands for a few days in the last week of November, firstly because I love the Highlands and like to go there sometimes in the autumn when there are not many people about and there’s a good chance of rain and the walks are solitary and long, but also, secondly, I had an offer of a free first class ticket from East Coast Rail from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, which was about to expire in early December: a gift of ‘goodwill’ from the train operator by way of compensation for some long service delays the year before. I was pretty much sold on the idea of doing this because I craved the craggy hillsides and I thought on the way back I could drop in on Torben in Berwick-upon-Tweed and go for one or two more walks with him before Christmas, and for once I was not strapped for cash. So, so far so good.

The First Thing that went wrong as in right as in different to all expectations and most precedent was that Torben was going to be ‘on duty’ that particular weekend, the last weekend in November, because his wife was going to take herself off somewhere with the oldest, leaving him home alone with the two smaller children. This put a clanking big spanner into all kinds of works, since it meant that far from being able to go on extensive country walks followed by many pints in the pub, we would have to spend time mainly at home, looking after said children. Now, they are lovely children, but that was not what I’d had in mind.

The Second Thing that offered itself up as a variation on the plan was that a dinner that had been suggested a while ago by the Swiss Ambassador and his Wife for a small group of people including me was now scheduled for Thursday 27th and although I had very mixed feelings about the circumstances in which this invitation came about – for reasons that would probably be a breach of confidence for me to enter into in anything resembling detail – I actually rather liked the Ambassador and his Wife and thought that it would be churlish or at the very least bad manners to miss their dinner, in the absence of any good reason not to do so (other than my lingering unease about what had precipitated the dinner in the first place, of which more I shall not divulge). My enthusiasm for the prospect of spending the end of a Highland week at Torben’s already dampened I now also had almost a good reason to stay in London that week and attend this dinner, signalling to the Ambassador and his Wife ‘no hard feelings’, and so all was, comparatively speaking, well…

Now newly in a position of having this whole week mostly to myself in London, I started filling in some other nights of my diary. Except not the way they turned out at all. The Third Thing that happened was that I was having coffee with Tom at the Troubadour. There was no reason or purpose to this, he just happened to be in London with a break near the end of his tour and suggested we go for coffee, which I, being a creature of habit and feeling at home at the Troubadour, in turn suggested we do there. At some point Anders, the lovely lanky waiter of Scandinavian origin whom I have never not had a bit of a soft spot for (but then I tend to have a bit of a soft spot for waiters generally, especially tall ones), came over and handed me a blank envelope. This had never happened before. It was, he said, an invitation to a private view of a local artist’s, Melinda, who had asked him to give some of these to some Troubadour regulars, of which clearly I’m one. Pleased and a little flattered, I thanked him, slid the envelope in my pocket and proceeded to more or less forget about it in an instant. When I got home after saying goodbye to Tom, I found the envelope in my jacket and put it with my unopened mail there to forget about it for a second time.

Around about that time, on the 18th November, to be precise, so actually a couple of days before having coffee with Tom, I was trying to organise a night out with Diego, who is not only adorable as well as Italian, but also fairly difficult to pin down socially, because while he’s extremely loyal and helpful, he’s also unfeasibly busy. It’s a typically ‘London’ challenge, this, which we’re all used to. I proposed two films to him (as an alternative to the theatre, simply because he hadn’t yet responded to my other suggestion, which had been Electra at the Old Vic) and while he was keen to see the film on Turing, he had already arranged to see Interstellar with some other friends. Reasoning that as an Italian he wouldn’t mind, I boldly invited myself along, asking him specifics about the date and time he had booked, which turned out to be Friday night 28th at seven forty-five. I went online straight away and found one of very few seats – mainly singletons left out to the side and very front or extreme rear of the IMAX auditorium – and booked it, triumphantly announcing to Diego that I was going to crash his night out at the cinema.

Also on the 18th November, I start chatting to this man on Grindr. He describes himself as ‘masculine looking for the same, but love a good chat regardless’ and looks like a handsome, slightly rugged early thirty-something to me. He is on his way home, past my house, it appears, after a failed encounter with a ‘weird’ Italian – no connection to my Italian friend, I hasten to add – who has spooked him a bit, and while we’re online he reaches his flat, which happens to be eight doors precisely removed from mine, on the same side of the street. We chat a while longer, find out that we share several interests and are both night owls, until I finally sign off, as I’m beginning to fall off my perch, some time after three in the morning. The next day we chat again, briefly, then we skip a day and then over the next two days (we’re now up to the 22nd November) we again have just a few brief exchanges on Grindr, except I tell him that I had entered his name in the search field on Facebook and the first person to come up was him. I offer to send him a friend request, which he suggests I do, and we banter a bit about possibly finding out too much about each other and the joys of online stalking. So from the 22nd November he and I are friends on Facebook. This is the Saturday of the weekend before the week I was going to go to Scotland, but now won’t be. Nothing else noteworthy happens over the weekend.

On Monday 24th, and we’re now into the week in question, JayJay, more or less out of the blue, and also perhaps a tad surprisingly since we had only just seen each other a couple of times in a row when often we go without catching up for months, suggests I join him and some friends at a tiny North London fringe theatre to see a piece either by or adapted from Gogol. I have no pronounced interest in either the piece or the theatre, but I’ll go and see anything more or less any time and I am again pleased and a little flattered to have been asked and so of course I say yes. The night at the theatre is Wednesday, which tangentially reminds me that I have an invitation also to a private viewing at the Troubadour on that evening, but naturally JayJay and the theatre take precedent over a local artist whom I don’t know, and so I say yes to JayJay and prepare to forget about the invitation I received through Anders for a third time.

On Tuesday all is quiet and nothing unusual occurs.

Then, on Wednesday 26th the Fourth Thing flicks a new switch, retroactively: my friend David reposts an item of his girlfriend Alex’s on Facebook, in which she offers two tickets to see Morcheeba on Friday. The reason the tickets have become available is that she had bought them mistaking the date of the gig for the previous Friday, so she had rolled up at the venue then, only to be told that she was a week early. This coming Friday she can’t do. (Whether she was going to see Morcheeba with my friend David or somebody else, I don’t know.) I respond to David’s forwarded post, saying that I have use for one ticket, so if any of his other friends also has use for one then we could have ourselves a night out with Morcheeba “tomorrow”. This is a slip of the mind, as the tickets are actually for the day after tomorrow, but I don’t notice that. I do, however, look up my diary correctly for Friday, because in the diary for Thursday is the Ambassador and his Wife’s Dinner, and on Friday there is nothing.

This is the Fifth Thing, and it’s decidedly odd: I have three Apple devices, which are all using the latest, up-to-date operating systems and which ordinarily synch all my diary entries across devices via iCloud, so I pretty much trust my diary. Since my diary is free then, I think I can go and see Morcheeba on Friday – the fact that I talk in my reply to David’s forwarded post about “tomorrow”, when tomorrow would be Thursday, turns out to be a red herring. But my diary isn’t free on Friday. As I’m only to realise later, I have a cinema ticket booked, crashing Diego’s party on Friday. But this doesn’t show on the laptop I’m using. Later I am to find out that the diary entry exists, perfectly accurate, on my other laptop. When I notice this and run several tests to see whether my diary isn’t synching properly, I find that no such problem exists, my diary synchs wonderfully, within seconds; and if a device happens to be offline (I test this too) the entry gets pushed through at the earliest possible moment, no problem. So why, of all my diary entries, this particular one did not feature on my laptop at this time, is and remains an unsolved mystery.

Almost at exactly the same time, the Sixth Thing that happens is that JayJay texts me to say that he’s feeling poorly and won’t be making it to the theatre tonight. I read this as a cancellation of the outing as a whole, since I don’t know his colleagues or friends and had made no other arrangements and left it to JayJay to book the tickets. So I think: no worries, I will go to this art viewing instead. Also at the same time approximately, my new friend originally from Grindr gets in touch again for the first time since the weekend, this time on Facebook, where he says: “so we’re facebook friends now.” Having previously mentioned the Troubadour and the possibility of a coffee there in our earlier chats on Grindr, I take the opportunity, offered by the Sixth Thing, to tell him that I’ll be heading down there later today and that there’ll be free vodka cocktails, a fact which Anders had alerted me to from the start, and which had stuck in my mind as a particularly attractive incentive, because how can you say no to a vodka cocktail when it’s on offer. To my absolute delight, my new friend says he could do with a free drink and agrees to come down and see me there, exactly as I’d hoped, because that would give us a chance to meet really informally in a relaxed setting and it would only have to last half an hour if it didn’t go well. He had promised his flatmates he would cook some chicken soup for them beforehand, so we agreed to meet down there at seven, which gave me a chance to also have some chicken soup beforehand, though I didn’t make mine from scratch, I poured mine out of a Waitrose tub.

The art is decorative and nice with quite a bit of character, and as I’m there before my friend, I chat a short while to the artist, who thinks she knows me, but when I tell her that we don’t know each other, though she may have seen me at the Troubadour, she seems to lose interest and becomes almost a bit weary, though not impolite, even though I also tell her, of course, that I had been invited by Anders. The vodka cocktails are Seabreezes, generously poured by Hugo (I think, I’m never entirely sure his name is Hugo), and I find two elderly local ladies and friends of the artist to chat to while holding out for my friend who’s since messaged to say he’s running a tad late. By half past I tell him that I’m more or less done with the art now, but he says he’s just on his way, so I take advantage of my two elderly ladies hanging around near the entrance talking to an attractive and artistic looking woman whom I estimate to be around halfway between my age and theirs and I effectively crash their conversation which leads to me and the very attractive and somewhat artistic woman talking to each other; me facing the open door. My friend bounds up the stairs and I recognise him immediately from his picture and we greet each other like we’ve always known each other, which in a way I feel we have. I introduce him to the attractive woman, whose name I can’t now remember though it may have been Yvonne, and he, realising that I’m mid-conversation and he’s very late, proposes to find himself a drink; I ask him to bring me one too. I continue talking to ‘Yvonne’ until she reckons it’s time to look in on her sixteen year old at home, and since my friend has not got back yet with or without drinks, I go find him. I am massively pleased to find him talking to another random gallery-goer, though for reasons that don’t strike me as obvious but not important enough to enquire about either, he hasn’t got me a drink, he’s only picked one up for himself, so I get me my second one too and I join them. For the second time, I feel like I’m here with him, who else: although we only now really speak our first few sentences to each other, we may, for the level of ‘strangeness’ I feel, as well have been together for years. And I put here ‘together’, though we’re not even friends yet and we may never, in that sense, or any other, be ‘together’. That is also a little strange but not entirely unpleasant.

The woman he has been talking to eventually makes her way off too and we’re finally left to talk to each other, which doesn’t change anything; we have one more drink each and although I feel tempted to eek out another, he is attuned to the fact that the place is emptying out and suggests we make our way home as well. As we get to his front door, we embrace and nearly give each other a peck on the cheek but not quite, and I go home thinking, well that was just entirely perfect.

I’m home shortly after nine, where I find David has replied to my post in response to his post on Facebook: “You must have a friend seb or just crack a grinder one out! Haha.” Now, as I’m about to explain to my brand new friend in a new message on Facebook, I’ve never been one not to “take a random gag as a proper suggestion,” and so I offer the Morcheeba night out to him. It’s a long shot in every sense: it’s just two days’ notice, we’ve only ever had a couple of drinks together and it’s Morcheeba, who create a wonderful sound but who are something of a throwback to the Nineties. But once again he surprises me in the best possible way and he says, yes, he loves Morcheeba, he’s up for it. I tell David, he promises he’ll email the tickets. Everything hunky, except…

Next morning I have a mildly suspicious feeling that I may have messed up a bit. I check my diary and that’s when I find out about the synching issue. I resolve, of course, to stick with the new arrangement and blow out Diego, simply because he’s already got somebody to be going to the cinema with and I can see that film any time.

In the evening, I go to the dinner the Ambassador and his Wife are hosting at their residence, and it is very civil, even friendly. Of the small group who had been invited, two or three have obviously decided they were busy elsewhere, so it feels even more private than it would have done if everyone had attended. As the evening draws to its close, the Ambassador’s Wife again thanks us all for all we have done for the Swiss Embassy over the last few years and hands us each a bottle of champagne.

Friday comes, and there’s a Seventh Thing. Having effectively written off my booked ticket for Interstellar at the BFI IMAX, I do feel it’s a shame that that should just go to waste, especially as it’s a sold out screening. So I look up my email confirmation, on which of course it says no refunds and no ticket exchange, but I phone up the cinema anyway and say to the nice man who answers the phone, I realise this is not your policy but seeing that you have a full house I wonder is there any chance you can resell my ticket. Without dropping a beat he says: “You can’t make it tonight?” I confirm, no, I can’t. “I’ll refund your ticket for you straight away, would that help you enormously?” – “Yes, that would help me enormously, thanks!”

I’m wondering is it a coincidence or have I manipulated my memory or is it just the beauty of the universe that it has aligned Seven Things so my new friend, who I’m about to learn is a science communicator, and I could have a wonderful time with Morcheeba. After the gig we go for another drink and after that we pass my door now and I don’t even have to really ask, we both just go up together and because it was partly the Ambassador’s Wife who was to blame for the fact that I didn’t go up to Scotland, I crack open the bottle of fizz she gave me at the dinner the night before. It tastes all the more lovely for everything that has brought us to this moment right now.