London

The Tape ends in London, where I tell my future self that I had “never been on a holiday after which I found it so difficult to return home.” It was my longest trip since leaving high school in Switzerland, after which eleven of us went island hopping in Greece for nearly a month. I don’t feel like coming “back to my own cooking” – which at the time, and for many, many years to come, consists mainly of pasta, fried eggs and the occasional oven-baked fish – “and my own washing up.” The only thing I do feel like is to “bring to fruition all the plans I’ve formulated about Edinburgh.” It feels good to have “talked to so many people in so many different places;” in fact, “it feels like there’s a theatre, and friends and family are already assembled in the front rows, but the curtain hasn’t quite risen yet.” But that’s good, I emphasise: “it’s a kind of pressure – good pressure – a supportive expectation, which spurs me on to follow through on what I said I wanted to do.” Of course, I am aware, “I don’t know if it will succeed, but it’s worth a try.” And for that sentiment alone I still, today, salute my very young and very optimistic self of 1988.

A few changes are imminent: “I feel I have to leave 14 St Alban’s Street soon, just because of the temperatures in winter.” These I remember with less pain now than I know I used to experience at the time. The place had no central heating, and while the kitchen (which was also the hall) and my bedroom were so small that you could just about get them warm with an electric blow heater or by putting the oven on and leaving its door open, that was an expensive and hardly ecological way to heat your home, and we all had no money. So in winter, we took all the food out of the fridge, put it on the grand piano in the living room, switched off the fridge and closed the door to the living room, and that was it till the spring: our own ridiculously eccentric walk-in larder.

That building no longer stands. A little while ago, I walked past where it used to be, and to my surprise and momentary disorientation I found that the whole block, which had housed some shops, possibly a bank, certainly a pub, and our flat as well as several others, was simply gone. I imagine a new office block, or mixed residential commercial development is going up on the site. This used to be owned by the Crown Estate, I imagine it still is. Our landlady though was an Italian poet who had been living in London for about twenty years by then, who had six grown up children, and who was not only subletting individual rooms to us flat sharers, but also ran the small music rehearsal studios downstairs, called St Alban’s Street Studios; and when these were overbooked, musicians would sometimes come up to our flat and use the grand piano in the living room to practice. I loved living there; it felt in an almost old-fashioned sense ‘bohemian’, I was still new to town, and this was a place with an unbeatable location, directly behind Piccadilly Circus, in a tiny street wedged in between Lower Regent Street and Haymarket, used mostly by taxis to change direction in the one way system, or as a shortcut. (But not every London cab driver knew of it, even though it was so central and therefore undoubtedly part of ‘The Knowledge’. On one occasion, I had one who was so surprised that there was a street in the West End he’d never heard of that he switched off the meter and offered to take me to my doorstep, just to find out…)

The terms of the lease on the flat stipulated that our landlady was not actually allowed to sublet any part of it, but was meant to use it solely for herself and her family. It can’t have been long after this, my final audio diary entry, that we were told she was going to lose the flat, unless she could convince a court that we were not really renting our rooms from her, but living there on a friendly basis, in a quasi artistic arrangement. This was utter nonsense, of course, even though two of our flatmates had, at times, been staffing the reception of the studios downstairs, for one pound an hour… No wonder, therefore, our feeble attempts at making our tenancies sound like anything other than what they were, without perjuring ourselves as witnesses in front of a judge, got absolutely nowhere, and soon the decision was made for me: I had to move out, as the Crown Estate took back the property. Ironically, a full quarter century later, the same landlady got into trouble again with her neighbours, over the flat where she had actually been living all this time. Also over subletting rooms, now on AirBnB. Again there was a court case. Again she lost…

On The Tape, apart from sensing a move come on, I also “feel I have to change jobs just for the sake of diversity” – by which I probably mean variety – “and getting to know something new,” by which I probably mean learning it. I record, and relate, that there’s “no hurry about that, although first initiatives will start now towards the end of the year.” Other than that, I now have “lots to do regarding Edinburgh next year,” and apparently I had been doing some workshops on Tuesdays prior to the trip, because I now tell myself that these are starting up again. Perhaps I’ll even “enrol for the City Lit course.”  The City Lit course was a then well known – almost in a small way legendary – part time acting course; legendary not so much necessarily for the content or the teaching (though it was led by two magnificent and much loved Canadians), but for the fact that admission was granted on a purely first come, first served basis, rather than through auditions, which meant that people quite literally queued up overnight to get in. I obviously followed through on this, because I certainly did queue up all through the night, two years running, and I met in that queue people I’m still friends with today, one of whom built from scratch first the Southwark Playhouse and then Arcola Theatre, two of the best known and most respected London Off West End Theatres today, at both of which I’ve had plays of mine staged.

The final note of this holiday, I hear myself say, “is summarised perhaps in the word ‘fantastic,’” by which I mean not so much that it had been exciting, but that I met really nice people, among them many friends of friends; that I had been able to stay with people all the way through except in Edinburgh and Paris; and enjoyed being with people I knew and knew very well.

I end The Tape by telling my future self that I had just had a walk through St James’s Park, after coffee at the ICA, and that it feels “a bit like decision time.” It’s a time of looking back and of looking forward, and if this was a break in-between, then the part that starts now is going to be a busy one: “I feel quite determined to finish my studies; I feel determined to do Edinburgh next year. I won’t apply for Drama School, I’d rather finish the evening studies first.” This is a degree I was taking, at what was then known as the Polytechnic of Central London and has since been renamed University of Westminster. In Social Sciences. I’ve always held this to be the most useless degree imaginable, but it was a valuable experience all in its own right, and it turned out to be far from useless, but for reasons I could not really have foreseen. Clearly, though, it was simply an extension of my general education, rather than in any way a vocation, since my heart was then already firmly on theatre, from whence it has rarely ever really strayed. But the earliest possible moment therefore for me to go for a full time Drama School would be “next year,” while in the meantime “I’ll try to do a City Lit course;” and everything else, I declare, is up for grabs. It was, I say in the most languid voice that I’ve ever heard anyone, including myself, use to say anything, and that now brings an indulgent smile at myself of back then to my lips, “a totally invigorating and satisfying experience. I feel very grateful for having been able to do this, and for having been received with such hospitality and friendship.”

Finally, I reckon that there’s “a lot of travelling to do” (which I do, over time), and “a lot of living in different places,” too, naming Paris and Italy as likely contenders, which is something I haven’t done: after St Alban’s Street I crashed with friends in Hackney for a short while, then I lived near Marble Arch for a few years, then in Ashley Gardens near Victoria in precisely the flat that our former landlady has since also lost (though that block is unlikely to be torn down any time soon, as it is a gorgeous residential two-tone brick building, in keeping entirely with the Westminster Cathedral, which stands directly next to it). After that I moved into The Anthony in Earl’s Court, where I’ve been living ever since. Always London: maybe my first, and certainly the longest love of my life…

Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to the tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening of Thursday 18th August, from London. In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning – aflush, aglow and awonder – from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to wonder whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh”, and I note on the tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good if not quite a lot better can be done, actually.” The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. I now, listening to myself then, sense I can maybe today do a little what I never could then, although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though it came incredibly easy to me: indulge myself, just a little. Now, I feel a warmth to me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988’, and try as I might I could not find a train listed to Grenoble anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness all that surprising that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my European mind was entirely reasonable then.) So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office to start over again, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have already had a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which looked plausible. It was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give this much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased and the lights went off. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station – all dark, all empty – obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night. Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacker rucksacks, and I felt laconic and unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside, and while some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping a few feet next to him on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night’, I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again and those of us who had or thought we had trains to catch were let back inside. Now, what on the tape in my still a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep) I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at trying to find out how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon. To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so after asking a few more people I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle. By this time I can barely keep my eyes open and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours rest on the pavement outside and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag, and I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed and asks me if I’m lost. ‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes’, I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of it may be, but the price flashes up on the machine and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. But before I can really explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they’d had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, coming up three decades later. And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man – with a smile, two minutes of his time and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money – has made the world a much, much better place. Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…