{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, 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…


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5 Surrender

There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a pan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practise and practise and practise the piano, and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and you love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist: if you are God’s Gift to Steinway you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests some people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.

Leonard [who’s not really called Leonard, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this] does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself – unless I suffer from a substantial streak in narcissism – the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, be by definition the infatuator. With the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Leonard is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe.

Leonard [and I like the name Leonard, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to], is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged 7, most of us then aged 8. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and benign. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight, very nearly wisdom to give you now and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship with love of the friendship kind, love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free. You idiot, says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty-one are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking buddy Ralph. (I like the idea of Leonard having a grandfather with a drinking buddy called Ralph and feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am in this moment…)

There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too. Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: it’s not causing any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.

Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than I. And he’s roundly lovable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…

George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Really?’ I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.

‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’

‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.

‘Why don’t you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to my self, aged twenty-one.

‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them; for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re just comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’

‘Not because they need someone?’

‘Maybe that. But isn’t needing someone the same as being able to bear someone more than being able to bear being alone?’

‘If you put it that way. – And you?’

‘Oh, I can bear being alone.’

I thought as much, but:

‘And you’re not afraid?’

‘Afraid? Of what? I love being on my own. I love being with people and I love being on my own. I need people around me and I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’

That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…