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 had anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George came to realise that with a few very ordinary household items 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 some firelighters or sponges doused in white spirit or petrol, 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 confided 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 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 set fire to one of their huts by accident.’
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 understood. Of course they had to do a test.
Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising eyebrows…
‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.
‘Great, where does he live?’
‘In London, 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.
Time was tight, but Uncle Edward confirmed he’d be around the following weekend; and the weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.
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 kind 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 were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut 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 seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also 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-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, 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, 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 doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. 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 to Leeds. 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 you would 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 was 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 certainly 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 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. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…
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.
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 talking to other people still, 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 who would be interesting enough in his own right to be conversed with, 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, while affectionate and appreciative enough to enjoy some time with me, sometimes.
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.’ And that was all right with me: I found it interesting, but also perhaps true.
Although sex does not, in my experience, have to ruin everything, it certainly can be or become a complicating factor, and several people I’m still excellent friends with I don’t think I would still be excellent friends with if we were still having sex, even though I personally tend to think of sex as not much more than a particularly emphatic way of saying ‘hello’. I accept that this perception is perhaps not strictly conventional, and I allow for the possibility that I might change it quite drastically too, if I were to actually find myself in a relationship.
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, whilst I’m 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 a bit 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 this.
The branch of philosophy that interests me does not yet really exist as a field of academic study, 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 forward’, or ‘out there’), they still did not think that either they could offer me anything, or I them. This jarred with me, just a tad, absolutely, not least because I believe that a university course should be open to anyone who wants to take it and fulfils some standard, agreed-upon entry requirements, not to a hand-picked group who already fit an existing institutional mould, but it did not really, in all seriousness, irk me. It would be frivolous to suggest that I had applied for an MA at King’s on a whim, but it’s also fair to say that I hadn’t thought through the implications of studying philosophy at master’s level thoroughly.
When I told a good friend from my school days in Switzerland about all this, he looked at me and said, without hesitation: ‘Academia is not for you. You’re much better off out of it.’ I reluctantly concurred, and told him I didn’t want to do an MA in philosophy to go into academia but to gain a better grounded understanding of where philosophy stands today. He counselled other avenues to obtain this. I heed his counsel, at least for the time-being…
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 of the book I am reading in the bath at the moment, which my first ex and still very good friend has given to me, Becoming a Londoner – a Diary. It’s written in an easy-going, relaxed, near conversational prose by a man who had come to London from the United States in his twenties during the early 1960s and quickly started a live-in relationship with a sophisticated Greek man of a similar age, whom he nevertheless appeared to rather revere, 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. But most enjoyable for me are the insights into the lives of people like Francis Bacon and, most particularly, Stephen Spender, with whom both he and his Greek partner had a close friendship. Each time I read in this book, I am a little reminded of my Greek Science Communicator Friend and of my fantasy of being together with him, which I know full well is all it ever was and ever will be, which is partly what makes it so enjoyable, so safe.
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, that ‘this sounds interesting,’ but already flagged up the fact that he normally had a seminar at college on a Tuesday and 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 earlier today, 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.
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.
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.
‘It is very nice, this very nice weather we’re having:’ I’m trying to work out what Sedartis thinks about simple things.
Sedartis agrees, but: ‘it is also a burden.’
‘How is it a burden?’ I ask him, though I feel I know the answer already:
‘It is also a burden because it insists on our enjoyment of it. If it were raining, or grey and drizzly, or at the very least cloudy and disagreeably damp, we would both be happiest sitting indoors and doing some work on the computer, or listening to music, or having a nap, or watching a documentary we had recorded months ago but never found the time to catch up with, or play the guitar and sing an old song, quite badly. We would be deeply content and get some of the things done that we have been meaning to do for a while. Instead, we have to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. Or go for a walk. We go for long walks anyway, there is nothing wrong with long walks, quite the opposite, we love our long walks come rain or come shine; but with this very nice weather entangled comes an inescapable obligation: it would be a terrible waste of a beautiful day now to be locked inside and not happy.’
‘It’s good to be happy, though, is it not?’
‘It’s good to be happy,’ Sedartis concurs. Yet again, I sense there’s a but… ‘but the effort of being happy can become wearisome. Sometimes it is really more agreeable to just be moderately gruntled and steep in the comfortable, undemanding moist misery that comes with being English in England. The stridency of happiness can be quite overbearing.’
I know he’s right, though I will him to be wrong, and I close my eyes and inhale the neither warm nor cold air. The city is in constant, fuel-driven agitation: cars and lorries and aeroplanes and buses and the ambulances. Always, always the ambulances.
I like the sun on my skin and the heat that expands under my cheekbones. I enjoy enjoying the weather, burdensome though it be.
A big fat cloud starts wandering across the sun, and immediately the air feels much cooler, but not quite yet chilly. I open my eyes and see it will pass ere long.
I like autumn, though it signify decay. This year, I’ve chosen to stay in London rather than go away. I like London, I love London. It troubles me, right at the moment. There is too much cold money breezing in that doesn’t do anything other than stifle the cracks that before let the light shine through; it deadens the life that makes London unruly, infuriating, endearing; but still I love it, because I know this siege, too, will be withstood; like the small cloud across my sun this very moment, it will pass, and ere long. I have an old-fashioned, daily rejuvenated love affair with ten million people, with more history than I know how to make sense of, and a generous, rebellious, untamed and untameable heart.
I sense there is a change in the air, and I know the change will be profound.
Sedartis nods in agreement; and with some slight tingle of anticipation, I close my eyes again and take it all in while it lasts, while it lasts…