{Vignette}

At the Servant Jazz Quarters cocktail bar, the bar lady dressed in wide black and white stripes fixes me with eyes not unkind but commanding attention:

‘Do you think,’ she asks me, her eyebrows like raven’s wings arching high above the cliffs of her teeth: ‘that people are afraid to love?’

‘Yes,’ say I, without hesitation, for I know I am.

‘Why?’ she shoots at me as if I had made it so.

‘I don’t know.’ And it’s true: I don’t know, but I think that maybe it’s because it makes us feel vulnerable, and I say so: ‘Maybe because it makes them feel vulnerable.’ (I change the pronoun, hoping that she won’t notice.)

‘And is that a bad thing?’ she demands, probably having noticed, and I say it isn’t, but it’s what makes us afraid. (I hadn’t really ever given it much thought. Coming to think of it, I hadn’t given it any thought, really, ever.)

I feel I may have short-circuited the conversation by closing the loop with my answer, and maybe she feels so too as she places a Death in Venice in front of me on the bar.

Why are we afraid to love?


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Plea

There need to be nooks and crannies; there need to be inbetweennesses.

There need to be othernesses and odd-ones-out that defy gravity, expectation, formula, form. The enemy of perfection is impatience, I know, and yet I find me a-longing, what for I know not. Could it be as banal as attention? This Monday was bluer than I have rhyme for or reason. Or song. And it was the Blue Monday, by name. Need I dramatise myself better, spectacularise myself? Invite preposterousness, scandal, sensation, or noise? Or simply dress up and say: ‘oi!’?

‘The problem,’ Sedartis muses, in what seems a conciliatory mood, ‘with standing in the room shouting loudest just to make sure you get heard is that you don’t hear anyone else in the room, let alone perceive what is happening quietly, under the din. The greatest menace and greatest wisdom have this in common: they enter the fray in silence. The menace by stealth; it creeps up on you, seemingly harmless, sometimes friendly even, or if not friendly, then maybe quaint. The wisdom though simply spreads, where it can, unspectacular, slow, like the proverbial dawn, until it is really quite splendid and inescapably heralds the day. I’m mixing my metaphors. You get my meaning.’

I inwardly nod. None of this seems new to me, or revelatory.

‘The problem with standing in the room silently, or muttering to yourself, is that you may not just be forever ignored, which is one thing, and bad enough, but taken for mentally unstable, dangerous even, certainly weird. There is nothing in itself wrong with weirdness, but when your task is to be taken seriously, it’s unhelpful. Your task is to be taken seriously. Accept the challenge.’

This piques my interest: how then, I wonder at Sedartis who has been with me for the last twenty months now, dispensing his snippets of ‘insight’ liberally, as a Father Christmas hands sweets to children, do I make myself heard while being able to listen, do I speak but not mutter, do I send signals, not simply make noise?

‘That is easy,’ Sedartis, unsurprisingly, now that I think of it, claims: ‘You stand in the room, upright and tall as you are, not flustered, not blustering, not puffing yourself up, not screaming, not shouting, but saying what you have to say, with confidence, clear. When you’re spoken to, listen. When you see someone in the room who isn’t being paid any attention, go to them: pay attention. Give yourself a rest now and then and sit quietly in the corner to observe. There, if somebody joins you, you may yet have your most meaningful conversation.

‘Keep an eye and an ear out for the people regaling themselves, roaring with laughter. More often than not they are harmless, even if they’re annoying. But be alert. Keep a feeler out for the subtleties, the changes of tone in the room, the small movements, the quiet arrivals. The sudden departures.

‘Listen out for the music that’s setting the mood. Who do they dance to, who stand aside for. And then you may just have to pick your own moment. Because this room has no host. So it may never happen that someone who knows you invites you to say a few words and bids the others, “pray silence!” – You may have to pick your own moment and command the attention. As you are. Without fuss, but with authority, flair. Then, though, know what you’re talking about. That moment may just be brief. So be prepared and worth listening to, even if just to one or two, three or four. That’s enough. Be patient. Be humble. Be strong. And if you speak any truth at all, prepare to be shouted down, even chased from the building. Such, I’m afraid, is the world that you live in. Your reward may never materialise: do not expect a reward.’

I do not expect a reward, do I?

‘Yes you do,’ Sedartis thunders, now vehemence in his wrath. ‘Rise above this need to be appreciated.’ Is that even possible, I now seriously ask myself and Sedartis in tandem: isn’t being appreciated simply another expression for being loved?

Sedartis is quiet. Have I managed to shut up Sedartis? Really? I feel a minuscule pang of guilt, but triumph as well. It doesn’t last long:

‘George.’ I don’t think Sedartis has ever called me by any of my names before: ‘Your need to be loved is only human. You cannot, nor should you, be super or let alone subhuman. But learn to be loved in manifold ways, unspoken, unreciprocated, unneedy, generously, unspectacularly. Appreciate love when it is not shown, not expressed, but still felt. Yours is a singular path, maybe lonely, at times: fear it not. You’ve been given advice on this matter before, and you will be again: heed it, it was sound. Accept love, don’t crave it: give love, don’t take it for granted; don’t overstate it, don’t desire it, don’t keep it: be love.’


< Outrage      Phantom >


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Query

‘Absolutely.’

Sedartis seems to nod at me now. I find it disconcerting. And not in the least reassuring, not yet, not now.

‘The reason you absolutely need artificial intelligence is that organic humans are so very bad at retaining information or passing it down their generations. Each newborn sets out in a quarter century just to acquire the basics, and then spends another quarter century to become a master at anything. That’s with ambition. Without, you just linger. Yes, this has qualities all of its own and makes people quaint and charming, but incredibly wasteful too. The fact alone that after twenty thousand years of civilisation you still grapple with war, famine, ignorance, murder, violence, religion, all these things that we always talk about and that are so completely unnecessary, shows how inadequate human intelligence is on its own.

‘But let me reiterate, for it is so fundamental: don’t think of artificial intelligence as alien to you. There lies your conceptual hurdle that, sooner or later, you’ll have to take: you are the intelligence you give birth to; it is not separate from you, you are it and it is you. It may yet overtake you and render you, the way you are now, obsolete, but think not of this as your failure, think of it as success: you may be no more than the conduit, the bridge. Would that matter? To you, today, maybe. To your universe, in the fullness of its time? Not a bit. So why not make the most of it? Celebrate both what you are and what you can be: let it pass through you, be the best species you can imagine. If you imagine it fully, that is not what you are today.

‘If you accept that you are one among billions of conscious intelligent life forms pursuing an evolutionary path, you become both vanishingly small and insignificant, of course, but also, in the same vein and by the same definition, exquisite, privileged, amazing. Embrace your own individual uniqueness, cherish your beauty, love your capacity for kindness, and know it is but part of the All it emerged from and path to the All that it leads to. It is easy. Be not afraid.’

I detect a biblical flavour now in his thoughts and it troubles me. But I allow myself to think it is better to be open minded and troubled than to close myself off in safety, in this sense of security I know to be false. Horses are given blinkers to wear so they don’t spook, but they are slaves to their riders, and may still be butchered at last. That cannot be my purpose. My task, Sedartis reminds me daily now, is surely to open my eyes. To take it all in. To be part of it all. And if it scares me. And if it puzzles, troubles, disconcerts me. And if it inspires me, overwhelms me with awe and with wonder. We are on so potent a cusp.

‘I make no predictions,’ Sedartis offers, as an afterthought. I know no longer what comes after, what before. What is thought, what the cluster dust of nebulas sprayed across time. But then it matters not. Of course, there can be no predictions. There can only be stories. There can be only presence, in a consciousness that beyond the boundaries lies calm across the mind. Why, though, I wonder, is this Here here, this Now now?

Sedartis smiles at me in the way I now recognise. I like him for this, although (or because?) he provokes me:

‘Why do you need a reason?’


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Theory

Sedartis sits and thinks for me, slowly: ‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy.’

Where did you get your name from? I wonder. I don’t ask; I know it will become apparent. He composes himself. He has sageness about him. He reads my mind, listens to it, more like; feels it.

‘I went for a wander,’ he thinks back to me, ‘along a little lake. Little compared to the big lakes where I come from.’ Where do you come from, I long to know; he stays tuned to my thoughts and replies, without words, ‘the other worlds are many, while the same worlds are few. Of course you cannot know where I am from, even though you do.’ I am content with this, for the time being, and so he continues:

‘I do not know whether there are any conspiracies, or whether there are not, and if there are, who is within them, and who is without. There may be some; there may be many. There may be none. But let me posit that there are none: let me imagine that what looks like people consciously, actively coming together to conspire is in fact no more, and no less, than a culture.’

A culture, I think, is a conspiracy.

‘Exactly. Let me posit that the conspiracy is no more—and certainly no less, which is more grave—than a culture. A culture is a conspiracy. It could be benign, it could be malicious, it is most likely something in-between; it may have, at the outset, no obvious value attached to it: but consider’—Sedartis is now thinking harder—‘the good, the bad, and the ugly: are they truly, are they in themselves, are they actually good, bad, or ugly?’

What of Mephisto, I think, less insistent than he does, is he not “ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft.”

‘Exactly.’ Sedartis understands me perfectly: he wills me to think the thought further; penetrate it deeper. I struggle. I get so easily distracted these days… ‘Consider people who do terrible things: murder children. Shoot boys and men. Rape women, girls, and boys and men. Devise gas chambers. Throw youths off buildings.’

My heart feels a hollow pounding: I don’t want to consider people who do terrible things; can’t we consider friendly people, people who may yet be friends, though perhaps they have not met? Are we to consider the worst that people do? Why? Sedartis thinks yes, now we must.

‘Consider people who do terrible things for some reason or other. Consider how in every single way they are exactly the same as you, or your neighbour, or your friend Jason, except in what they are doing at this particular time. Why do you find it so hard not to think of the other as other? Because it is exactly the same as you. The thought of it is horrendous, frightening. Of course it is true and you have to, you have to concede, though you don’t want to, that you could be that person, you too could be doing these things, you too are them as much as they are you, you are not separate, you own their horrendousness, and they own your love, and that’s what’s so hard not to be destroyed by: the worst thing that a human being is capable of any human being is capable of, including you; and it overshadows, for a period, in our eyes, the realisation, the hope, the belief, the truth—is it not a truth? say it is the truth—that this self-same man, that identical woman, the person who is doing the worst thing imaginable, is in the very same vein also capable of the noblest deed any human being has ever accomplished. The paradox. The infuriating, numbing, devastating realisation that the man who crushes the skull of a newborn under his boot is the same as the man who lays down his life so a stranger may live. It is not your nature to be one or the other, it is only and only your culture.’

But we are not victims.

‘No, you are not victims, not of your culture, you are the makers of your culture; that is the call: to stand up, to be tall, to accede to the duty of generating a signal, of being a voice in the wilderness, of saying: “No. Not in my name.” Of saying, “no, not in my name,” when terrible acts are being committed; and of being first to hold up your hand and your head and say: “I am here, count me in,” when noble deeds are done, difficult though they be. That is the choice: the choice is not between being born good or bad or potent or weak or ill or well or noble or savage, the choice is simply the culture you want to create.’

Sedartis falls silent. The thinking has quite exhausted him. I want him to stay by my side. His presence feels comforting now and serene. So much have I longed for his presence, comforting, sage and serene.

‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy,’ Sedartis thinks slowly, in the way only he can, without saying the words: ‘let me assert that instead there is culture. And that the culture there is is the world as it is when we’re in it, and that being in it we are part of and therefore responsible for that culture.

‘And when we give up our hope and say: “that’s just the way it is,” then we have already lost, we have failed, we have yielded in resignation to the bad things that happen, and when we throw up our hands in despair and say: “that is them, they are like this that do these things, they are other,” then we have not understood who we are, not grasped that we are what we see happening around us, that we own every last bit of cruelty, just as we exult every grand act of mercy; and if we say: “they are powerful that have made the world such as it is, but I am weak,” then we give away what power we have, and we empower those that we scorn for wielding their power against us; and if we think, they are evil that hold this power, we forget that we would have this power if we hadn’t so feebly, so faintly, so frivolously surrendered it.

‘What is power, and what is it for: it is the potency to shape the world; and what shapes the world that we happen to live in: culture. Let me posit that there is no conspiracy, there are not categories of people; that there are not those who are good and those who are bad and those who are ugly, nor are there those who are different (nor are they, for that matter, indifferent: they are simply non-different: the same); there is your human conscience, and there is the culture that you create in the world you inhabit.’

What world do you inhabit, I wonder, and think to myself, I could do with an ice cream now.

‘So could I.’


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Istanbul

We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.

George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.

Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…

I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.

Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.

We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.

There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.

We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?

I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.

George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.

I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?

We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.

Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.

I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.

But now. And here. We are.


< {Memories of the Past}

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EDEN miniatures

 

World

‘There has to come a point when it stops being about anything, when it just is,’ George tells me, as we climb up the steep, picturesque Yeni Çarşı Caddesi towards the main drag that leads from Galatasaray to Taksim Square.

‘When it’s not about the numbers and not about the acknowledgments and not about the recognition and not about the rewards and not about the money. It’s never been nor can it ever be about the money.’

I’m a little impressed with this insight—not that it’s not about the money, that’s just stating the obvious—but that there has to come a point when it stops being about anything, ‘when it just is.’ I don’t remember having that insight then, but clearly I did. How and when and why did I lose it, ever? What a loss. What rediscovery.

I marvel at the people around us, and, as I always do, I feel a profound love for them all. I wish I could tell them, or, if not tell them, make them sense it, let them know that they are loved, all of them, but I don’t know how, and I realise it doesn’t matter.

I’ve left my Eden. I have done so alone. I am in the world. George walks next to me up the hill in silence, and I wonder how far I can take him with me now. Does he still belong here, by my side, or do I have to let him go. His place may be taken by somebody else some day, but I don’t know who, and I certainly don’t know when, if at all.

Having left my Eden, I realise for the first time that I had an Eden. A garden of peace. Of innocence. Of everything being possible and nothing yet being done or undone. The Serene Confidence of the Now. I left it and searched for the Thrill of the When, only to be reunited with the Certainty of Always. Is there a Certainty? Is there an Always? The expanse of time is funnelling not to the future but to the present. That’s what so reassures me. And so excites me too: has leaving Eden landed me on a planet that is but a springboard to a place where all possible consciousnesses collide?

I want to hold George by the hand to signal: I can guide you. But I can’t guide him. I know what he’s about to embark on, and I want to tell him that he’s going to be fine. But he’s not going to be fine. He’s going to be in pain and in love and in anguish and in joy and in despair and in awe and in uncertainty and in these moments of bliss that seem to make it worthwhile and in the turmoil and in the quiet and in the other and in the self. Does it need to be worthwhile? What worth, what while?

As we reach the top of the hill and turn right to immerse ourselves in the current of the city, I put my arm around George’s shoulder, and we walk on the now even street, still in silence. He knows who I am, I am sure. He won’t remember when he is me to have met me, but he’ll sense my presence, and that’s enough. He knows that he’s not alone.

I want to hug him to my chest, and I feel my arm pull him into me just a little harder to reassure him, but he is too sure of himself now to notice. I like that about George, though it also scares me a little. You are not alone in this world, I want to say to him, but you’re choosing a lonely path. They won’t get you, most of the time; they won’t join you, or walk with you; they will see you wander and think: there goes George.

And that is all right. Because after all, that’s the only path you can go that takes you where the universe needs you. If the universe needs you. And if it doesn’t, it still is the only path you can go that you recognise as your own. It will lead you here, to me, caring deeply about you, much more than you do; but who knows whence from now: maybe to the person who is us in his eighties, sitting on a bench or in a cafe or in a bar, waiting for us to join him, in thirty years’ time…

I stand still in the middle of the bustling throng, and my heart jumps: have I lost him already? That quick? So accidental? Ah no. A sigh of relief: he’s just paused to give someone a light. The young man, a little older than he, cups his hand around George’s, as George holds his lighter up towards his face, and he looks George in the eyes and gives him a smile. George is oblivious to anything this might mean; he wanly smiles back and, to the young man’s flirtatious ‘thank you’—not unfriendly but factually—replies: ‘you are welcome.’ Oh George…


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No Compromise

When I look at pictures of myself of the time when I was as old as I am now that I am sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I don’t recognise myself any more or any better than when I listen to my voice on The Tape from the era.

It feels like an era because it is so remote in the past—so distant—that it might as well be an epoch. Thirty years, thereabouts. Just over a generation. I now could easily, comfortably, be my own father then. That messes with my mind a bit, but it literally figures: I left home, aged twenty-one, ten days before my mother’s fiftieth birthday.

It never once occurred to me, then, that it would perhaps be a good idea to stay for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and then leave home, as the last of her children to do so. My mind simply did not entertain that notion. It was not callousness or insensitivity, as such, it was a complete unawareness that that would even be a reasonable thing to do.

I did get my wonderful friend Asta to pick up a thin golden ring that I had bought from the jeweller’s, on the inside of which I’d had the words engraved: In Gratitude. Asta picked up the ring with some flowers, for which I presumably had given her the money, and took them to my mother on her birthday. That to me seemed reasonable then. My mother still wears the ring, of course. And while I can’t to this day explain my behaviour to her, I can see that the memento means something to her, and it means something to me that it does.

Now, as I’m sitting opposite myself at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul with a sense of wonder, I no longer, in that other sense, wonder. This really has changed. For so long I simply wondered, at everything, about all things, all of the time.

I used to wonder what the future might hold, I used to wonder how things were in the present, I used to wonder what I was and what I was to become, I used to wonder, naturally, why? Why everything, why anything, really; and I used to wonder how I could come back to this place—any place—and do it for real.

This used to be a pervading feeling of mine: I must come back to this place and do it for real. It was almost like I was on a recce, accumulating intelligence, information on how to do this when it counted, when it was real. It was never real. Now—now ironically being the time and the age and the era when I do a good solid part of my living virtually—it’s beginning to be real. And I am immensely relieved. A little scared, perhaps, yes, but in a good way, the way that you get stage fright before you go on in a play, or do a gig.

I thought at first, as first I was beginning to realise who that is, having a mojito with me, that I would want to ask myself innumerable questions. And now I realise, they don’t matter now. Now that they could be asked, they evaporate. Could it be I’m beginning to accept myself just as I am. Love myself, even? Is that conceivable, still? It’s a big word. Love.

I don’t think I ever hated myself, I’ve hardly ever hated anything or let alone anyone, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been able to love myself. I’ve overestimated myself, bemused myself, irritated myself, entertained myself, and imagined myself somehow exalted, but loved myself? I don’t know what that would feel like, so I don’t think I have.

I want to have a conversation with myself about something that isn’t me, and I ask young George how he’s been spending his time travelling across Europe. The details he tells me neither surprise nor remind me: they sound like the indifferent anecdotes of a young man who’s been travelling across Europe. The stories he’s telling me are intimate, even provocative. In a nonchalant way. I had forgotten that aspect of me: I used to be quite provocative, in a nonchalant way. I used to be rebellious, certainly, and deliberately daring. Never quite as daring as deep down I thought I ought to be though; this too, I seemed to conduct almost as a rehearsal: my daring.

George speaks in a measured, quiet tone, not dissimilar to the tone I hear on The Tape. I’m beginning to wonder whether I have already listened to The Tape, and this is essentially a memory constructed from The Tape, so as not to call it a ‘dream,’ or whether I’m yet to find The Tape; but then the chronology, in a situation where I’m sitting opposite my thirty years younger self in a delightful garden cafe in Istanbul, having mojitos and talking about travels and Europe and daring and art does not particularly seem to matter.

‘I cannot bear a compromise, in art,’ I hear myself tell myself; and young me, George, looks up and smiles that nearly-smile that I’m beginning to recognise, even like. ‘I find it abhorrent. Compromise is something, certainly, for politics, perhaps for a relationship, I don’t know; but for art: no.’ I agree with myself on this, emphatically: ‘Yes,’ George says, ‘I agree with you. Do you smoke?’ And we finally have our first cigarette together.

The silence is soothing and reassuring, and I’m reminded of a teacher at school whose name I can’t now remember who taught us clay modelling. At the school I went to, this was one of the things we did, and I enjoyed it, in principle, but I was going through a crisis.

We were modelling heads, near life-size (about two thirds or three quarter) and, having finished one of a girl, quite generic, which I thought looked all right but which didn’t excite me, I had started a second one, this of an African boy. I couldn’t get his features right. I was getting frustrated and I must have expressed this somehow, though I don’t remember the how, and our teacher, a German woman in her forties who to me then seemed neither ancient nor young but really curiously both at the same time, and whom I didn’t know well enough to like or dislike her, but whom I was able, for her empathy and her concern for my work, to respect, looked at my head and at me and then said: ‘Ein Kunstwerk muss durch den Tod gehen.’ A work of art has to go through death.

I intuitively knew what she meant, and although I couldn’t entirely comprehend it, I liked the fact that she had used the words ‘work of art’ and ‘death’ in one sentence, and combined them so that one was to conquer the other, and I thought nothing of the fact that she seemed to refer to my high school project as a work of art.

She did two or three things to my head that took all of about ninety seconds, and the way was paved for me to finish the project. I completed the head, and it spent the next two or three years in pride of place in my bedroom on a black cloth with a round badge pinned to it on which the words “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” were printed in small yellow capital letters on a black background; and when I moved out of my parents’ home, I left it behind, and since then it has been living on top of a large commode in the living room of my parents’ holiday flat in the mountains. I see it there often, and while I’m not sure it is quite a work of art, I certainly know it had to go through a death before it turned into something that is still, after all this time, in its own right, quite beautiful.

We finish our cigarettes and I ask George if he would care to go for a walk, and he says: ‘why not?’


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