{Trivia}

The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away. I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own ilk and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane. 

I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks – the drinks included and obviously somehow accounted for in your airfare – and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for everything you wanted off it. In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21 the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.

There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps and porridges sounded like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the reality that by the time they got to me in row 21, they had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.

But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-enjoyment’ operators, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was, and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.

I so fondly remember a flight to Nice – not that long ago – where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the Film Festival in Cannes and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too. We naturally got talking about this, that and the other, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then, in the most agreeable way, and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.

And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was even doing in Cannes. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA. But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the Film Festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester Sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.

And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water might have been subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane. And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it? That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come – I daresay it has most likely occurred many times before – when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some other context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.

I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA – just as flying BA – feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else. It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. Yet on reflection, it turns out that it is far from trivial, after all…

 

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 ePub:

EDEN miniatures

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 on 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 consider 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. Now, listening to myself then, I sense I can maybe do what I never could at the time: indulge myself, just a little. Although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though everything came incredibly easy to me, it didn’t. I never actually indulged myself then: I was, if anything, highly critical of myself and unsure of almost everything. But I tricked myself into appearing otherwise.

Now, I feel a warmth towards 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 in Paris. 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 see a train listed to this place anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness 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 still 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 to start over again, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office, 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 been travelling on Interrail (nowhere on The Tape do I specify) or at any rate have already been in possession of 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 for some reason or other must have looked plausible to me. The train was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late, and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give it 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 out. 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 the concourse around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacks, and I felt 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. 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 next to him a few feet apart 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 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 establishing 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 to be, 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, all the time.

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, like a mysterious lock to which no key can be known, like an impenetrable riddle in an unbreakable code.

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. 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 this may be, but the price flashes up on the machine, and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. Before I can 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 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 since have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, 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…


< Edinburgh       Songs & Charades >

 

{The Silk Road}

How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis? If so, it is mild in the extreme.

Contradictions in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself, and so I feel; and so I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, try to forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself, and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here…

The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born, to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to kindergarten, and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.

(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story here, and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)

The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here,’ the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, of course, geography matters less and less; I am at home in London, but I can be, and be happy, almost anywhere, as long as I’m warm, have access to food now and then, and my laptop at hand with power to last, and a decent network connection.

I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current.’ It strikes me that this may be a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one thing, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another avenue soon. I am fine with that too.

It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and everyone knows, the trip alone that truly matters.

As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now, and what I expect to do in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work, lies just ahead.

We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories, and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling that counts, as my philosopher friend—not Sedartis, a friend of mine who is a real, bona fide, professional, academic philosopher—puts it.

I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because—as I have a feeling I’ve mentioned  before—if you watch paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled, most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics, and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain in scientific terms things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.

‘Look at me now and here I am,’ I say to myself once again in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I sense it, for sure.


< Value       Design >

 

Entreatment

I see my Science Communicator Friend next at a party I drag him along to where we have a long and involved conversation and where I introduce him to the hosts and to some other people and it is so easy to talk to him and so comfortable, and he’s so easy and comfortable with talking to other people while I’m distracted, that I begin to formulate in my mind a fantasy that features him and me together. This, I think, is what I would want in a ‘boyfriend’: somebody I could be so comfortable, so perfectly at ease with, who could hold his own but when he didn’t need to would find me interesting enough to converse with me and would be interesting enough to be conversed with himself and who had enough going on in his life and thoughts to think and friendships to maintain to be effectively self-sufficient, most of the time.

In retrospect this fantasy grows stronger, not weaker. For a good long while I forget about it, not least because Christmas comes around and I go to Switzerland, while he has his brother staying over from Greece. Then we see each other once or twice briefly and then not again because he’s off to Greece himself. This may or may not have been Easter. By the time he comes back he has brought me a tea that he has made himself. It’s a jar of leaves and it’s my favourite infusion straight away, not just because it’s from him, but because it has sage in it and I love sage. It has one or two other ingredients, maybe three, but I don’t now remember what they were. I am touched that he thought of me while away, not least because we’re not actually ‘together’ in any way, we don’t even really have sex. One of the first things he’d said, after a bit of what could easily have turned into sex, was: ‘let’s not get onto sex, it just ruins everything’.

I found that interesting, but also perhaps true. Although sex does not, in my experience, have to ruin everything, it certainly is a complicating factor. And many people I’m still excellent friends with I don’t think I would still be excellent friends with if we were still having sex.

We then don’t see each other again for a while, this time because I’m away from London for two months while my flat is being renovated and he’s traipsing around Europe, I believe.

By the time we’re both back in London, he is enrolled for his MA, and I am not because I had failed to sufficiently toe the line or impress the course convenor at King’s College, London, or both. I am not unhappy about this, though I am of course marginally peeved, but I’ve since been told, by my Philosopher Friend that this is not in the least bit surprising since what interests me in philosophy does not, apparently interest philosophical academia, in fact ‘they resent it’, she tells me. I feel reassured by that. The branch of philosophy that interests me doesn’t yet exist, and although I made that clear in my ‘submission’ to King’s (I don’t so much like the idea of ‘submitting’ my work or my thinking to start with, I would consider it more a ‘putting it out there’, or ‘on the table’), they still did not think that either they could offer me anything or I them; this peeved me, just a tad, absolutely, but it did not surprise, nor really in all seriousness did it irk, me.

The fact that my Greek Science Communicator Friend is now doing his MA is neither good news nor bad news as far as I am concerned, it just means he’s now back in London, and so am I. I am reminded of him, partly because he gets back in touch and proposes a catchup, and partly because I am reading a book which Stevie, my first ex and still very good friend, has given to me. It’s called Becoming a Londoner – a Diary and it’s written in an easy-going, relaxed, near conversational prose by David Plante, who had come to London from the United States in his twenties during the early sixties and quickly started a live-in relationship with Nikos, a sophisticated Greek man of a similar age, whom he nevertheless appeared to somewhat look up to, if nothing else intellectually. The diary is rich in anecdotes about the London literary and art world of the day and although I came to London nearly twenty years later, much of what he writes about and much of the way he writes about it resonates with me strongly. Also, he visits places that I have been to, in some cases frequently, such as Lucca, or Paris.

The insights into the lives of people like Francis Bacon and, most particularly, Stephen Spender, with whom both he and Nikos had a close friendship, makes Becoming a Londoner not only an enjoyable read but possibly also an invaluable historical document.

I read this book – as I read most books – in the bath, because only in the bath do I really have the peace of mind and composure to sit down with a book while also being awake enough not to fall asleep over it. And each time I read in this book I am a little reminded of my Greek friend and my fantasy of being together with him. Today, I was hoping to see him for an event at Lights of Soho, which I’ve recently become a member of. I’d suggested to him that we go there and he’d said, in his usual, non-committal way ‘this sounds interesting’, but already flagged up the fact that he normally had a seminar at college on a Tuesday and he didn’t know when this would end. I’d parked the idea more or less assuming he wouldn’t come out with me Tuesday, and indeed, when I sent him a message on Tuesday, he declined, saying he couldn’t get away. I was a little deflated but also quite relieved, since by then I had decided that unless he were to come along, I myself wouldn’t go either and had started to hope, almost, that my assumption would prove correct and he wouldn’t come out, so I didn’t have to go either.

Instead, I had a bath and read in my book, which reminded me of him, and then sat down in my white towelling dressing gown which I hardly ever wear and when I do then only ever after I’ve had a bath, and poured myself a glass of white wine and put on an old vinyl record with Eugen Bochum conducting Mozart and realised that I am very content, almost happy. I discover a message from him, in response to mine saying not to worry as I was getting too comfortable on my sofa and might not go out myself, in which he says: “Yeah, you should be one with the sofa.” And I agree, I am fairly much one with the sofa, right now.

The funniest line so far that I’ve read in David Plante’s book is about Auden, staying with the Spenders: “Stephen said that once, when Auden was staying at Loudon Road, Natasha rang him up to say she would be late, and would he put the chicken in the oven? Auden did – he simply put it in the oven, didn’t put it in a pan, didn’t put the heat on.”

I so relate to Auden.

And I adore Stephen Spender who at this point “is teaching at the university, but feels he is doing so badly he wants to go into the loos and write on the walls SPENDER MUST GO!”

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 and the English language.

As it turned out, 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 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 there for the first time: this, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on in, 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 during 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 enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red—neither of them had castors back 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, this, 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, 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 and his two sons (the older my godson), my other sister, 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 at that time: 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: I’m still 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 forever seem 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 words ‘flower bed,’ 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. 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’ as a distinct possibility, 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 engendered in me 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 range and eventually land further than you thought you could see. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without care; 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 myself dare—stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly starting, to formulate in it a role for himself now. And this fills me with a new sense of wonder…


< Divestment       Edinburgh >

 

∞ Pyromania

What little George needed to know about incendiary devices he learnt very quickly, and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily and determined, Andy was swift, small and silent, and quite original in his thinking.

The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George reckoned that with a few items of very ordinary household goods and some basic physics, he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and if he could do that he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.

Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confined this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:

‘Yeah you can run a test.’

‘Where would I run a test?’

‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’

That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.

‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.

‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’

‘Exactly. It’s miles away and nobody there would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to accidentally set fire to one of their huts.’

The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly realised. Of course they had to run a test.

Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising suspicion, or let alone alarm…

‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.

‘Great, where does he live?’

‘In London, of course.’

‘Of course.’

George told his dad, Andy his mother, they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them. Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.

There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely – though still wildly improbable – to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.

Bank Holiday was to be avoided, because of everything, there was just too much of a muchness about it, but Uncle Edward was around the following week and nobody minded.

The weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.