Helvetia

From Milan I take the train to Chur. Chur has never been my favourite place in the world, and it’s not difficult for me to say why: it feels dour. It is, apparently, the oldest city in Switzerland, and it has, I believe, several things going for it, none of which is entirely evident to me. Mainly because it sits hemmed in by big mountains that deprive it of light, almost completely, in winter, while not being splendid enough in summer to offer any gorgeousness of a view. My sister at this time lives in Chur and I am heading towards her to spend a couple of days with her, The Tape tells me. My memory of this is, again, hazy, but I’m clearly delighted: “it is wonderful,” I narrate, “to spend time together and talk,” for the first time in years. And I have no reason to doubt this was so. To this day, I enjoy spending time with my sister, though to this day I don’t do so often enough, and on this occasion, we must have had a lot to say to each other: I was back in the country where I grew up, but which I had always struggled and never found it either necessary or entirely possible to call home, for the first time since, almost exactly three years earlier, I had left with two suitcases, both made of leather, one black and one red, neither of them with castors, and a friend’s address in my pocket, in Enfield, from thence to make London my home.

Helvetia. I like thinking of Switzerland as Helvetia. It has something sturdy, celtic, dependable to it. Unique. Firm and reassuring. ‘Switzerland’ sounds – maybe because it so much has become – like a brand, a theme park, a place you go for your holiday. Helvetia is a place you were rooted in, once. Whether you then uprooted yourself, and for whatever reasons, fades into the background, into the fabric: it does not become insignificant (nothing of that kind ever is) but it’s just there, part of the character, part of the being, part of the history, part of the substance, the core. And so is Helvetia.

The train from Milan to Chur, I relate to The Tape, “took absolutely ages,” but also “provided the most admirable views.” It’s one of these instances where I betray the fact that I’m still not on top of the subtleties of the English language. I hear myself do that a lot on this recording: I nearly get the word right, but not quite. I still, from the back of my mind, translate traces from German, maybe not so much words, as concepts, perhaps. I’m just not quite there, yet.

In Treviso I change trains and board “this incredible little red train, consisting of about three carriages, all the way up, over the San Bernardino Pass.” Here my memory suddenly kicks in again, vivid and strong. I remember this journey, this train. And with awe. I remember the windows being open and the warm summer air wafting in, I remember the noise, intermittently suddenly so much louder going through tunnels; I remember the green and red covered seats: red for smoking, green for non. I was a smoker then, I may have been travelling red. Then again, I may already have done what I did for a while, park myself in the non-smoking section and nip to the red part of the carriage for the occasional fag. The train wasn’t full, I remember it being almost empty. It’s a glorious trip, and you can do it, still. Now, they have state-of-the-art rolling stock with huge panorama windows, and smoking is a definite no-no, but the trains are no faster and the views no less stunning than they were thirty years ago.

I seem to also recall that I met up here with an old school friend whose brother, in fact, I would shortly be linking up with in Paris, but The Tape makes no mention of this, so perhaps I am wrong. Come the following Saturday, I take the train to Basel. This is where I went to school, this is where I grew up: the first twenty-one years of my life. I spend eight or nine hours talking to Peggy, my best friend then and my best friend now from our high school days, and today as then, when we meet, we find ourselves talking for hours. Eight or nine are nothing unusual: if you pitch up at six, have dinner, sit out on the balcony, keep on talking, before you know it, it’s three in the morning…

On Sunday Peggy, my mum and I go to see an exhibition (I don’t tell myself which one, and I can’t recall) and then my brother comes round with his two sons, one of whom is my godson. There is a photograph of this occasion, which takes place in my parents’ garden, with me sitting between the two boys, looking at a picture book, maybe reading them the story. My mother, a little while later, sent me this picture in a card with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, translated into German: Es ist ein ungeheures Glück wenn man fähig ist, sich freuen zu können. I try to find the English original, and so far I fail. ‘It is a tremendous fortune to be able to find joy in things,’ is more or less how I would translate it back, but it still sounds far more clumsy than it should. If it’s Shaw. Maybe it’s been misattributed, that’s possible: many things are.

“Then we went to see Ironweed at the cinema.” I don’t remember anything about this, the film or who ‘we’ is in this instance, but my 24-year-old self puts on record that “it was like no time had passed at all.” Maybe because hardly any time had passed, a mere three years…

Tuesday I spent in Zürich, “meeting, luckily, Benjamin for the first time in absolutely years,” and also Beatrice. Benjamin. Beatrice. These two people: they are lodged in my mind, in my soul. Benjamin more than Beatrice, and in a much different way, but both register, both matter, both shaped who I was and therefore who I am today. The meeting with Benjamin I remember clearly, he was his usual, laconic self. He was the boy I most loved, for a very long time. We were in no relationship, he never, as far as I know, reciprocated my feelings, he was not even gay, he was just the boy I most loved. By this time, he would have been about twenty-two and he’d either just been released or was on day-release from prison. He’d been sentenced to prison for no crime: he was a conscientious objector, and had refused to do military service, which then carried a prison term, and a criminal record, in Switzerland. He was unfazed by his time in prison: he took this, as he seemed to take everything, in his stride. Granted, it also sounded like prison for conscientious objectors was in Switzerland by now a gentle affair. He was beautiful, as I had always seen him, and unruffled. Unexcitable, but good humoured. I’d carried him around in my heart for the entire duration I’d been living in London, and for many years later. It was only really when one day, on a Sunday afternoon, he phoned me, out of the blue, to tell me he’d received a letter I had sent him many months earlier, care of his mother, and we talked for maybe five hours or so on the phone, both getting increasingly woozy on our respective drinks, that I was able to put that love where it belonged: in the past, in my youth. In a time before even our reunion here now in Zürich. I have memories of us sitting at my parents’ home next to each other on the sofa all night long, drinking coffee, almost getting high on it, so much of it we drank; of us walking in the fields near his parents’ home on Lake Zürich on a wintry afternoon; of us first meeting at a school fete… I have everything with me still, as if it were yesterday. But only since maybe ten years ago, slightly less, am I able to think of it really as yesterday. I believe I once kissed him, I’m not even sure. I’m sure that I wanted to, always. Always.

How deeply that boy seeped into the folds of my brain. How strongly he clasped my heart; how warmly, how tenderly I longed for him, for how long. I still have his letters, of course. I no longer have this desire: I’m glad it has gone, I was able to bid it farewell. Not the memory though, not the fondness. I am over him now, but I cannot, and nor do I need to, get over how much I loved him.

Beatrice, I also remember, also fondly, but not on that day. I certainly kissed her, and she me. She was, I’m quite certain, keener on me than I was on her, but I liked her and for a short while it was as if we were together. How strange, to think of it now. But that alone, having been there, the girl with whom I was once almost together, secures her a place in my self. She, too, is part of me, was then, is now.

Wednesday a lunch with a friend. “In all,” I recount to The Tape, I “had a chance to see lots of people.” Also my grandfather. I was “very worried about grandfather, he looked very ill and weak; he was very nice, but I have an impression that any time we meet might be the last time.” So, I think, it proved, on this occasion.

Edinburgh

I like Edinburgh. I like it now, I liked it then. I love it now, I loved it then. With one or two reservations, for which Edinburgh is not to blame, nor its good people. It’s so far north, it gets undeniably miserable in winter. And dark. The upside of this is that in summer the days are long and, with its situation by the sea, the light and the air and the atmosphere are tonic.

On the tape, I call it “a wonderful city,” “beautiful” and “absolutely stunning.” I also tell my future self that, having queued up at the Fringe Box Office for an hour, and seen people advertise their shows there, “I feel very strongly that next year I will not be here as a member of the audience, but as a participant on some level or other.”

My slow delivery and often elaborate choice of words notwithstanding – I really seem to search a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeed maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time – I am obviously excited to be there and to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre. I never think of the theatre I had either already done, with students in Switzerland, or that I was about to do, in London and Edinburgh with professional actors, as ‘avant-garde’, but with hindsight it’s also clear that much of it probably was. The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a theatre writer has always baffled me, because nothing I’ve ever written has ever seemed so ‘out there’ to me that it could not be both understood and also – if you relish language and appreciate thought as much as emotion, delight in playfulness for its own sake as easily as losing yourself in a story – enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve just written, just now, and I think: maybe I do understand why so many people don’t seem to get me…

It occurs to me now, and only really now, that with all the wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm that I started out with, I propelled myself onto a trajectory that is exactly not what then I thought it was going to be. What I remember thinking it was going to be at the time – even though from today’s perspective that makes no sense at all – was that I would be heard and seen, ultimately, by everybody, by the general public: I simply assumed that people would, by and by over time, but relatively quickly, become aware of my work, and embrace it. Like it, if you like. And what I find most fascinating now is not that that hasn’t happened, that instead some people have absolutely loved my plays, but others have as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres (whose brief it is to put on new writing, after all…) has ever put on one of my plays, even though several of them have taken pains to profess how ‘impressed’ they were with what I’d sent them to read; no, what I find most fascinating now is that in spite of all that, and after three decades, I still write work that to me seems entirely ‘reasonable’, that is perhaps individual, but that certainly does not set out to baffle, and it still baffles people. They still think it’s too risky, too unconventional. Today, this very week, I still have a theatre director tell me that something that to me is an obviously bold, and maybe a bit challenging, but therefore also exciting, stroke of theatre ‘cannot be done’, not because it is ‘bad’ or ‘badly written’ – they always, always point out how ‘good’ the writing supposedly is – but because it does not sit within the convention, within the narrow confines of what traditional practitioners still seem to expect their audiences to accept.

I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my voice diary in August 1988, aged twenty-four, still only three years into living in London, but I’m about to embark on a choppy voyage that will on many occasions have me nearly keel over, that will have some people so incensed that they will attempt to sink me, that will cause me to get wet a lot, but that, yes, will also bring me to some who will get something out of it too, who will accompany me for short while and see a sight or discover a place that they would not otherwise have got to, and find value in that. Then again, the tone had maybe already been set, long before, when we did Sentimental Breakdown… while I was still at school in Switzerland. One, very conservative, local newspaper had said in its review of the piece, “if it proves anything it is that today’s youth has nothing to say.” Another, far more liberal paper gave it a really positive write up. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. Which is why, today, I no longer read ‘the reviews’, they are, after all, just opinions…

Then, in August 1988, aged twenty-four, I tell my future self that Edinburgh is “the place to do something; lively, open very free, the platform for modern new theatre; and that’s me saying this before I have even seen anything.” I’m about to see quite a bit: I spend a couple of days at the festival sleeping little – “it’s 34 hours since I’ve been to bed last, and it’s starting to show very slowly” – smoking too much and seeing seven shows. One of these leaves me cold, others I’m quite impressed by, one has me “physically shaking” it’s such an “amazing piece of work.” I take the opportunity to talk to performers and directors, and to some of the people running the venues to “get some insider views.” I see a comedy show which amuses me but I also tartly remark that “the unfortunate thing is they trap themselves a little; they are very witty, because they parody the Eurovision Song Contest, but their serious songs fall into a category fairly close to the kind they’re making jokes about…” but overall I am inspired, encouraged:

“I love Edinburgh,” I say in my last entry recorded there. “It is full of beautiful places, full of stunning views; if Edinburgh [were] blessed enough to find itself located a few degrees further down towards the south it would [be] one of the most vibrant and fantastic places to possibly even reside,” I venture, using the word ‘reside’ without, I believe, much irony; although I have doubts that Edinburgh would have the atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel outside the festival, and “it’s just simply too cold, there’s no doubt about that; it feels like April, which is all right for three or four weeks to do some work here, but to live here must be hell, it’s so depressing; but funnily enough it doesn’t seem to affect the people at all, they are nice and friendly.”

And thus, even with the cold weather, I am “so invigorated by the people, by what’s going on here, by the shows, I could,” I say, “go on for a lot longer,” but tomorrow I have to check out by 1:30pm, after which I will “then see another three shows at least, and take the 11:14 train from Edinburgh to London, and that will be my festival experience.” And even though I still have nearly a third of that experience ahead of me, I’m already able to conclude:

“Only just a couple of months ago, Edinburgh was this colossus of fantastically gifted, possibly famous, experienced, thoroughly professional beings who gathered together excelling in what they do… – but it’s an open space, it’s a platform, it’s a forum, it’s a festival, it’s a place where things can be done.” I seem to be under no illusion: “The fact that people put in vast amounts of work for what in material terms is no return whatsoever: that creates an environment which to me appears very fruitful.” And so the resolution: “If it’s the last thing I do, and if it costs me a vast amount of money, I still want to take a show up here.”

Thus, I record my own personal manifesto for the following year: “It is now high time, very necessary, very appropriate also, to proceed and do the experiment, see how it works, risk failure, risk loss, risk whatever is involved; and I shall be spending the next twelve months preparing for this experiment and will put it to the test.” And that is, of course, exactly what I then do.

18c 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, Britain and the English language.

As it was, 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 (bar the first six weeks) 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, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on 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 over 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 (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, 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, 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 a bit, 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 Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, 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: 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, my being 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 sound 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 word ‘nice’, 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 as a child. 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’, 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 provided 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 reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; 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 I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…