{Bereavement}

This is not on The Tape, but I’m reminded of it here, and part of me thinks it doesn’t belong here, part of me thinks it doesn’t belong anywhere really, part of me wonders does everything somehow, ultimately, need to be told, and part of me knows: this is exactly where it belongs.

I hear myself overall so happy, so optimistic on The Tape. Improbably casual and emotionally understated: my delivery suggests I’m giving an account of a trip to Milton Keynes, but the words I choose—carefully, even cautiously, deliberately always—speak of a young person with everything going for himself, with abundance of confidence, and imbued with great hope. And I’m so glad to hear him thus, though in the tone of the voice and the distance to the heart, I also hear the youth from which this young person had emerged, then relatively recently.

I’ve been blessed in that I have, to this day, had to suffer the loss of three people only. And of a cat. Of these three, one was someone I’d met once, very briefly, but really didn’t know: Diana, the Princess of Wales. There is no rhyme or reason to this, but her death shook me to the core and disorientated me for a week. I cried more over her than any of my grandparents, all of whom I loved dearly. All my grandparents died over the years, but that seemed the normal course of the world: people get old, then they die. Obviously, their passing was, in each case, a loss, and felt as one, too. But you can prepare for this, you know it’s going to happen, and when it does, you deal with it, and then you honour them in your thoughts and keep their memory alive in your soul. Princess Diana being torn out of our culture was a cataclysm. Of its own kind. It came out of nowhere, and it seemed to change everything, and, irrational though this was, it left a gaping hole in my life, in a way that I, myself, never expected. It was an extraordinary experience, unique, I am certain, to her.

One was a dear friend who decided to leave us. That was both shocking and unexpected, even if it had been, in a way, predictable, sadly. I mourned her, and I knew then, as I know now, that I had to let that be as it was. It was just so. More than anything I felt I was called upon to respect her, and her decision. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I do.

Losing our cat as a boy was dreadful: I loved that cat. I was unspeakably sad when we were told he’d been hit by the tram. I got over it.

And one is still around and still a good friend, and when we see each other now we have excellent conversations, but when I first lost him—I was fifteen, he fourteen—my world fell apart. We had been best friends at school, and we were in essence together. Not as lovers, not romantically, not anything other than as friends, but as friends we were as one. People didn’t even tease us, it was just the accepted thing, that where I was there was he, and where he was was I.

It had come about over several years, and it was my normality. Of course I loved him, but I didn’t know that. I had no conception of love (and none of sexuality, for that matter), I spent no time thinking about how much I needed him, or enjoyed being with him, or relied on him always being around. That was all just the way it was. It was solid, it was dependable, it was real.

And then something happened that I hadn’t seen coming, ever: he turned away from me. It was gradual, simple, undramatic, and also in its own way normal: he just started spending time with someone else, more than with me. At first I barely noticed, there was no cut-off point, no moment I could pinpoint where it began, it just gradually dawned on me: we are no longer one.

The other boy was a good person, still is: we’re still friends as well, he and I. He wasn’t cruel, he didn’t manoeuvre, or manipulate, he just took my place, without, probably, even knowing what was happening, either. I had been the one who was always by my friend’s side, and now he was there. At first he was there too, but soon he was there more than I, and then I realised I had lost my love. I still couldn’t name it that, because I still didn’t know that that’s what it was, but the incision was brutal. I was cut off. I bled.

I was lost. Abandoned. Bereaved. I couldn’t name the way I felt any of these things, because I didn’t know what they were, I only knew that I didn’t want to live. Really didn’t. Not melodramatically, attention seekingly didn’t, just didn’t. There was no point. I was distraught, yes, but more than that I was destroyed. There was no word for it, no expression, no therapy and no remedy, there was just emptiness, complete.

This lasted for eighteen months, maybe twenty. It was a crisis so profound, so categorical, so total, I felt that it would break me. I saw no way that it couldn’t. It was absolute, the despair. And all of this over the loss of a friend? Today, with perspective, I know it was obviously more than that: losing my friend was the trigger. What his extracting himself from my life did was tear open a wound which drew all manner of complications. The insecurity. The loneliness. The mind’s confusion over the heart. The heartbreak over the part of the soul that was missing. The pointlessness. The disorientation.

What sustained me was my brother, because I could talk to him—not about this, but about everything else that was going on in my teenage life—and my mother of course, because I could not then, and I would not now be able to, bring myself to do anything deliberately that would cause her grief.

And then something happened that I also didn’t expect: I found a way out. I hadn’t been looking, not consciously anyway, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but the subconscious knows and searches and finds, and without thinking much what I was doing, I wrote.

It was going to be and started out briefly as a novel, but then I remembered something our English teacher had said: that writing plays is way more efficient than writing novels: you need far fewer words to tell your story and to create your characters.

And so I wrote my first play. I was seventeen now, I called it 19. It dealt with a young man taking his life, and how that affects everyone around him. It had an original structure, because rather than going in a linear plot from beginning through middle to end, it started with events about a year or two (I can’t remember exactly) before and after the suicide and then circled in, closer and closer, to end with the moment of no return. That structure, too, was not something I really thought about, I just wrote it that way. Although the play has never been performed, nor ever even been read in public, it achieved several things for me.

Firstly, it was my catharsis. By abstracting the youth’s self-inflicted death and putting it on a character in a play, I was able to ‘deal with’ what I was going through, and absolved myself from actually having to do the same thing for real.

Secondly, it showed me I had a new friend. I gave this piece—which was really very revelatory, open and incredibly honest—to somebody I had started spending time with at school, and his reaction was perfect: he took it seriously, but he didn’t panic. He just talked about it as a piece of writing, and encouraged me to show it to other people, which I did. I knew now I had someone again I could trust.

Thirdly, it made me realise I was able to write. I gave the piece to my German teacher at school who, unbeknownst to me, gave it to a man who happened to be my favourite actor at the Stadttheater Basel, where we routinely saw maybe a dozen plays each season. Henning Köhler. He was invited to our school to give a talk about theatre and acting generally, and at the end of that talk he said: “and one of you has written a really good play.” I went up to him afterwards and said: “that may have been me.”

Nothing happened with or to the play, he was quite apologetic about that—‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do anything for you in terms of getting it on at the theatre’—but for Henning Köhler, to my mind the best actor in town, to have read my play and to have made a point of mentioning it, that was enough. That was something I could hold on to.

And it also paved the way for me to lose my virginity, at last. There was a man whom I knew well and liked and respected a lot, a writer, actor, performer, who lived in St Gallen, of all places, and I sent him the play. I knew he was gay, he was a few years older than me, in his early twenties. He was cool. And nice. And in an unspectacular way attractive.

He read the play and asked me if I wanted to come and talk about it, and I said yes. I went to visit him, and we talked about the play, and at the end of the evening, I went to sleep on the sofa, and he came over and said: “If you want to you can come to my bed?” And I said, “yes.”

The doors were finally flung open. It wasn’t quite the proverbial floodgates, though in a Hollywood rendering of the story there would probably have to be strings; but it was good. I was happy. I’d pulled through.

And I knew then, and I’ve known ever since, that having coped with that period of my life, and survived it, I’d be able to cope with anything. That was one great big case of something that could have killed me, but didn’t, and so made me stronger. A lot.

My enduring memory of this handsome man is on stage. He was singing a version of Es liegt was in der Luft—‘there’s something in the air’to which he had written new lyrics. He’d turned it into a satirical number, as part of an environmental cabaret revue. It was glorious. And a roaring success. He was so alive, so in it, so buoyed by the love from the audience, so overjoyed about doing this, and doing it well.

Many years later—not on this trip, another eight years or so after that—I was in Basel where I’d heard he had since taken on a job as Artistic Director of a small theatre.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I walked into the foyer, to see if he happened to be around, just to say hello, on a whim. I asked a young man who was doing something to the display. “Oh,” he said. And I can still see the look on his face, of surprise and regret: “No. I’m sorry. He died a few months ago.”

I salute you, my friend, and I thank you for the time, the patience, the generosity and the inspiration: you genuinely helped me find my way – your spirit lives.


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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 during 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 refer to it as “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 be searching a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeeding maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time—I am obviously excited to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre.

I never think of the theatre I had either already done by then, with fellow 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 to me that much of it probably was.

The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a 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 in losing yourself in a story—enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve just written, and I think: maybe I do see why some people struggle… (Though in all fairness, that’s not how I write most of my dialogue.)

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 fully 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 certainly loved my plays, but others as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres has ever put one of them on, even though some have taken pains to invite me into their office, where the Literary Manager would sit me down and profess how impressed they were with what I’d sent them to read but then seem thoroughly perplexed at the idea of doing anything with it; 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 baffles people.

I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my audio 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 cause me to get wet a lot, that will have some people so incensed at my work that they will attempt to sink me, but that, yes, will also sail me and my audiences to an island here or a bay there on occasion, where we might make a discovery that we would not otherwise have made, and I know—because sometimes they tell me—that there are indeed those who find value in that.

But perhaps the tone had already been set long before then, when we did Sentimental Breakdown…—the first of my plays ever to be staged—while I was still at school in Switzerland. One 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 found much in it to be encouraged by, much to encourage, even to praise. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. By and large, I seem to split the critics down the middle, sometimes miles apart from each other, sometimes less so, depending mostly on how conventional or not a piece of writing happens to be. And it would not be long before right here, in Edinburgh, two different reviewers would write about the exact same production that it was “the worst thing” one of them had ever seen, while it was also “the best thing” the other one had come across. He wanted,  and bought, the T-shirt, he said; and I have no reason to  doubt either of them. Which is why today, and for some time now, I no longer read ‘the reviews’: they really are just opinions.

Back then, in August 1988, 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”—smoking too much, and watching 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,’ still without a hint of irony, I believe, though I express doubts that Edinburgh would have the same 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 so, 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 eleven-fourteen 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 at 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 did.


< Origin       Paris >


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12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In my multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say, ‘yes.’

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’

Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and I gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case; and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night.

As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well.

At some point we conspire to lose them or they us, and we suddenly find ourselves alone again and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly, and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else.

We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, and so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself—nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me—to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work, and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half,’ when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, let alone me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time to do so, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

What do we ever really know…

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed anywhere in my brain yet. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’d been in my job for six months now, it was my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story as I do?)