Insomnia

Several weeks pass, during which I do my utmost to get at the Rumantschness of it all. This involves me using a long planned trip to Switzerland to traipse up into the Rumantsch-speaking part of the mountains and listen to their glorious choirs singing in small but packed churches, talking to native Rumantsch speakers (in Swiss German) about Rumantsch as a language, about their roughly half dozen dialects or ‘idioms’ (some of which don’t even understand each other), about Rumantsch culture (there is really not so much of a Rumantsch tradition as there are small local traditions that fall under the Rumantsch umbrella, but much as Swiss German, which has many more dialects, some of which also find it difficult to understand each other, many people identify much more with their regional dialect than with the language overall.) The Rumantsch dialects take their names from the valleys where they are spoken, or from the nicknames their speakers were given by their neighbouring valley dwellers, and to me they sound like poetry, like characters in a mystical story about great heroes, fabulous creatures, and the eternal melancholy of the mountains: Sursilvan, Vallader, Putèr: the people who live above the forest, the people from the valley, the porridge eaters; Surmiran, Jauer, Tuatschin…

Everything about the life of the people I thus encounter is so different from my life, everything about their history so remote from my history, that I might as well have landed myself in a different world, on a different planet, but I am fascinated, intrigued. Humbled, fairly, too, to think what harshness, what overpowering awe they have, over generations, had, and learnt, to contend with, from these alps, from this seclusion, from this climate: they can be extreme.

I don’t speak to or otherwise communicate with Edgar for much of this time, seeing as he is generally busy, at least as busy as I am; and going by the convenient adage that ‘no news is good news,’ I assume him to be well; and I feel content, immersed in my new ‘project.’ It isn’t so much a project as the pursuit of a trail that I happened upon (was really pointed towards, by Edgar), following it now out of sheer curiosity and that ever persistent Lure of the Alien. That which is different. The other, the new. It is not new to any of these people that I meet with and ask for accounts of their families’ histories, and they look at me with a mixture of indulgence and bemusement, but I mind it not. They are wondrous to me, even exotic. They are not exotic to themselves. Enriched with audio recordings, video clips, and a raft of pictures of possible locations and all manner of Rumantsch paraphernalia, I return to London to start drafting my treatment, and I forget, for another several weeks, completely Edgar’s condition.

At the same time, I fall back into my own nocturnal pattern, staying up usually until three, four in the morning, or until my eyelids droop and I fall asleep, either having made it to bed around then, or occasionally also on the sofa, having watched Newsnight and intended to hang about quite a bit longer, or—this is quite rare—actually hunched over my laptop and realising I really have to get some sleep now. The worry about worrying about Edgar thus dispersed, I also don’t worry about insomnia, and so, quite naturally, my own brief flirtation with what to me had always seemed at worst a relatively minor inconvenience appears to have ended. I remind myself that to people with insomnia it is anything but a minor inconvenience, and I wonder have I been selfish, so I decide to check on Edgar:

‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m doing fine, thanks, and you? Making progress?

‘Of sorts. I should have a first draft in a couple of months or so.’

‘I look forward to reading it.’

‘What are you reading right now?’

‘I’ve been reading Chaucer and rereading Pico della Mirandola.’

‘Amazing.’

‘They are.’

‘You should read Shakespeare’s sonnets.’

‘I have.’

‘You could read them again. – Are you sleeping?’

‘Not much. Are you?’

‘Back to normal.’

‘Were you not sleeping normally before?’

‘I’d been worried.’

‘About what?’

‘You, mostly.’

‘Aw. That’s sweet, but unnecessary.’

‘I know.’

‘And why did you stop worrying?’

‘I got absorbed in the Rumantsch thing.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you getting at the Rumantschness of it all.’

‘I think so: I’ve been talking to dozens of people, including the descendants of the man who wrote the story about the brothers. They’ve been helpful.’

‘Do they mind you plundering their family annals?’

‘No, they seem a bit puzzled by my fascination with them. But they’re forthcoming, of sorts.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

I’m about to hang up, when it strikes me:

‘Have you ever considered doing some research into why it is that people cannot sleep?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Perhaps you should.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, perhaps if you understood the reasons why people have insomnia, then you could mitigate against suffering from it yourself.’

‘I don’t suffer that much, I’m taking melatonin.’

‘Melatonin?’

‘The sleep hormone.’

‘You’re taking hormones.’

‘Temporarily.’

‘I hope temporarily. – You shouldn’t be taking them regularly over the long term.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because they might do damage. Most drugs do.’

‘It’s not a drug, it’s a hormone.’

‘Well quite: it might unbalance your hormone household.’

‘It might?’

‘I’m no expert.’

‘Neither am I.’

‘You could read up on it: you’re an expert on most things.’

‘I have recently become an expert at Go.

‘Go?’

‘Yes, the game.’

‘That’s quite difficult to get expert at, isn’t it.’

‘It is. Oh and Peruvian llamas. They’re really quite whack. Did you know people use llamas to guard other animals, like sheep, for example?’

‘I did not.’

‘It’s fascinating: though it’s best to use a female llama or one single gelded male, apparently. If you use two or several gelded males they tend to hang out with each other and ignore their charges.’

‘Haha, that makes sense.’

‘And I know an awful lot about bamboo too, just in case you wondered.’

I hadn’t really wondered about anything near as specific as that, but I’m glad to hear that Edgar’s palette of expertise keeps growing, randomly, it appears.

Another two months or so go by quickly, and I hammer away at my treatment of the two mercenary brothers until I have got it in some sort of shape that I feel surprisingly happy with, and I give it another couple of days and read it through once or twice more and tweak it, and I reckon that’s it, that’s my Draft One Point Two (you never send out a Draft One Point One, to anybody; most people would advise never to send out a Draft One at all), and I pick up the phone and call Edgar. He doesn’t answer, it goes to voicemail. He must be in the shower, I reckon, or be talking to someone in China, or cooking (though he’s not a late eater, and it’s just gone midnight here, so it will be just gone one in the morning there), or working out a problem that interests him; he’ll call me back shortly, I reckon.

He doesn’t. I wonder what might have happened to him, but before I can really worry—and having rather resolved not to worry about Edgar again, because it’s so patently unnecessary—I go back to work and do some more fiddling, until I doze off and briefly wake up again and decide it’s time to go to bed; and I go to bed and fall asleep. Edgar calls me at ten in the morning, bright and breezy:

‘Edgar! How are you?’

‘Magnificent. How are you?

‘I’m well. You had me worried last night.’

‘Why?’

‘I thought you had fallen asleep or something.’

It’s my feeble attempt at a joke. It fails:

‘I had.’

‘You had?’

‘Yes! Thanks to you!’

‘You’re welcome. What happened?’

‘Well I thought I should probably wean myself off the melatonin and allow my body to produce it itself in the required quantities at the appropriate times…’

‘Quite.’

‘…and so I stopped taking it.’

‘And that solved your insomnia.’

‘Of course not. It made it worse.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Then I thought maybe you’re right, maybe I need to become an expert on this, so I can treat myself more effectively in the long term.’

‘Oh amazing: you’re now an expert on insomnia!’

‘I am nothing of the sort.’

‘Ah.’

‘I started doing some research, at a basic, you know, Wikipedia level, and it sets out really quite interesting.’

‘I imagine.’

‘But then you realise that there are million possible reasons and as many possible interventions, and so there’s zero scientific consensus except some pretty obvious observations about common sense behaviours and unending lists of things that may or may not be the case; and before I knew it I got so bored reading about it, I fell asleep.’

‘Result.’

‘Well yes. And the best thing about it: it’s repeatable. Like you with your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It works every time, it’s amazing. In fact, it works better now and faster, than it did three weeks ago, when I first discovered it: I now practically just have to google ‘insomnia’ and I start to feel drowsy, it’s almost pavlovian.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘Thanks! – So, what’s new?’

‘Oh: the treatment.’

‘Ah yes?’

‘I think I’ve cracked it.’

‘You have?’

‘Well I think I’m close: I’ve got a draft.’

‘Cool. Send it over.’

‘I will.’

And I do. And I’m wondering what he’ll make of it, what will come of it, what to do with it, where to send it next, who to pitch it to, how to proceed, with what chance of success, if any; what’s ‘success’ in this context, anyway; perhaps I went about it all the wrong way, this may have to be much more dramatic. Or funnier. Or tighter, I tend to lose myself in tangents, sometimes, but I didn’t really in this case; maybe it needs to be looser; perhaps it needs to be more broadly relevant; more culturally representative, more authentic, surely; surely that: way more authentic, wittier, warmer, dryer and softer. Sharper, more humane—is it really the brothers’ story that matters? Could it not much more be the mother’s?—more diverse, more character-driven, with a more female perspective, more up-to-date, more historically accurate, and altogether much more Rumantsch.

And so yes, here I am, lying awake through the night, wondering about the Rumantschness of it all, with a picture in my mind of a posse of guardian llamas, chilling in the grass, chewing the cud, an air of sophistication about their nonchalance, and the flock or the herd or the peep they’re supposed to look after just nowhere to be seen…


< Insomnia

 

Earth

And so, back. Down. To Earth. Where I belong? This, my home? This desert wilderness of beauty and voluptuousness, this abundance of colour, vegetation, insects and beasts; these cities, these people, these civilisations? This art, these quantities of stuff and rubbish; these tears, these cruelties, these abominations? This joy? These excellences, these wonders? These tastes, these smells, these flavours, these sensualities, these sweet transgressions, these experiences? This catharsis? This messiness, these quarrelsome foibles; these imperfections, these obstacles? And this weather? 

This air that I breathe, this need to do so; these urges, this hunger, this thirst for immersion, this drowning, these rocks on the road, these symbols, these signs? These abstractions? These metaphors, this poetry, this song and this dance? That we make? About what? This love.

Everything suddenly feels disconcertingly real again, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m sure I don’t dislike it, not as such, but I find these certainties confusing. These obligations to respond. These figures of speech, these formulations. These competitions for superlatives. These hyperboles. These headlines, these star-ratings, these ceremonies, these awards. These absurdities. These traumas of rejection or attraction, of interpretation of behaviour of looks and of glances, these whispered words, these games I refuse to play. These rules. These obediences, these categories, these schedules, these expectations. These parochial wordlinesses. This world.

This world perplexes, awes and bewilders me. Here I am, stunned to find myself on it, in it, part of it, and I am momentarily paralysed. This will not last, I feel sure, though why I should feel so I don’t know.

For a long time now I have felt like wading through treacle, slowly, cumbersomely, glued to the ground by a sticky morass that would not let go. There is no escape from gravity in this place, except perhaps on aerial silks or on skis. The former are not for me, the latter very much so. I think me on the mountain, gliding down the glorious white, with the Alps in the distance and the molecules in my lungs, and I know what it is to be free. That I know; that, I can relate to. Everything else does not quite make sense. Which is strange: I’ve been learning and trying to understand, but it still is mostly as alien to me as the planets from which I’ve returned, richer in mind yet not much the wiser. At the end of the day there is always the here and now to make something of, and now that I’m here, I might as well make the most of it. Thus I tell myself, over again.

‘Most’ meaning ‘best’: meaning all I can do. What could that possibly be? If I allow my youth up to say about eighteen, nineteen – why not twenty-one: if I allow that to be my formative phase that doesn’t yet count as my adult existence, then I’m now halfway at least through what my adult existence can reasonably be expected to be: I can still look forward, but as much can I, must I, look back. That frightens the hell out of me. That I’m here on Earth, effectively halfway through—way over, if you’re counting from birth—feeling pretty much as I felt right at the beginning, and not having made any impact at all. Not having really moved from the spot. Not having done more than tried, but without ever really succeeding, to take flight. Does that mean it’s too late? Is it ever, can it ever be simply too late? But for what? For some sort of attainment, of what? Of acclaim, recognition, notoriety, ‘fame’? Or even just love? Can love be attained?

“Be not afraid of moving slowly, be only afraid of standing still.” I want to know what the soul is. At a quantum level: the science, the understandable, perceptible, conceptualisable part of existence that is not material, not intelligent, not rational, not emotional; intangible, insubstantial but essential and real. A Quantum Philosophy. I want to know what that is.

That part of me that I can’t see when I look in the mirror and that I can’t choose one of my names to put an identity to, that I can’t express in words—and if I write another million or ten—that I sense is forming and taking shape (without shape, of course), that is there and that others, some others, recognise in an instant (others, of course, never will): that is what interests me, makes me curious to go further, encourages me, yet to delve.

And so I take my cue, once again, and affirm: I’m here now. I might as well make the most of it. Whatever that turns out to be: it probably really doesn’t matter at all, but for my soul—if nothing else—it’s better to sense me alive than just there; more joyful than to reject, to embrace; more gracious to receive what is given with thanks; and wiser to do what I can, but leave for someone else or another time what I can’t; more courageous to take the challenge, than to say no; more human, altogether, after all, to say ‘yes.’


< Mars


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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 still, after all this time, is 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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