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.

Towards Italy

Tuesday I travel on, taking an early morning train that departs at 7:21, towards Italy. The journey, The Tape tells me, is “fairly pleasant,” with the exception of one incident. This sits ingrained on my brain, and whilst most of the other experiences of that August 1988 are a haze with only the occasional moment or image in any kind of focus, this one is sharp and clear, and it still makes me squirm, to this day.

I was tired. I had slept for two hours. Monday night we’d decided to go to the cinema: Anne and some of her friends had gone to see some American movie I evidently did not rate or care about and so I had gone to see Le Grand Bleu: “one of the most stunningly beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” I now hear myself rave, and I remember that vividly too, though not only from this screening, but from another, much more thrilling one, later, in Paris. Jean-Marc Barr. “He is fantastic; he’s certainly a name to remember.” After the cinema, a crepe, and then to bed really late.

So, with very little sleep, I’m on a train that is completely full, though I do have a seat, by the window, near the end of the carriage. I mostly daydream and possibly doze off a bit now and then, and everything is going fine until the train stops at a spot where there seems to be nothing at all. It’s not a town, it’s not a village. It’s barely a hamlet. There’s a platform and a small building and some signs that to me in my state, which is not comatose but not alert either, are meaningless.

On board come two customs officers. I see them appear at the other end of the carriage, quite far away from where I am, and as I look up at them, I semi-consciously give a sigh of profoundest ennui, just exactly at the moment that one of them catches my eye. I think nothing more of this for the next five minutes or so and continue gazing out of the window thinking my nondescript thoughts. My sigh and my facial expression had lasted for maybe a second. But I do remember distinctly allowing that gut response to just come out: an aversion to officialdom. Almost, but almost not quite, wanting to show them I held them with a sizeable degree of post-juvenile contempt, not as human beings, of course, but as uniforms holding up the train’s so effortless glide through the artificially delineate countryside.

The two officials make their way through the carriage, checking passports, not hassling anyone. They work quite fast and I’m almost beginning to like them for being so efficient and quick about their monotonous task. Then they get to me. I am sitting by my window, resting my head on my hand, and I look up at them with an extremely tired and bored look on my face. I am wearing all black. I am twenty-three, with peroxide dyed hair. I had reacted to spotting them from a distance with a look on my face and body language that to them must have signalled not so much ennui as ‘I’m in trouble’. I am their prime suspect. Certainly of the carriage, probably of the train. Possibly of the day.

Granted, it could have been worse. They could have taken me off the train and subjected me to a strip search. Which they didn’t. They went through everything I had on me. They opened my luggage (I seem to recall this being a big holdall bag), searched through my clothes, opened my toiletry bag. They found a tiny tube of something and demanded to know what it was. It was a cream for mosquito bites. They thought that hard to believe, which was ridiculous, because it smelt like medicine and we were on the border to Italy, in the summer. My brain was not willing to argue. My Italian register brought forth: zanzare. It took about twenty minutes, it felt like two hours. It was not even humiliating so much as it was unnecessary and, I felt, vindictive. This, I now know today, is what profiling feels like, if you match the profile. This is what being exposed to low-level authority feels like if it turns against you. I understand people who complain about stop-and-search policies, or who are tired of being the ones picked out at airport entry points because of their skin tone or what they are wearing. It was, by comparison, harmless, and yet I wanted it just to end. I felt exposed and hard done by. And maybe I was.

Still. I had never in my life purchased or carried any illegal substance and so I had nothing on me and they did not find anything. They left, we departed, I arrived in Milan, where I did something really stupid. I got off the train and went into the station concourse to look at the board where all the trains were displayed. Vicenza, this told me, would next be up at 2pm. It was now getting towards half one, but, for some to me now unfathomable reason not trusting that, I decided to go to the information desk to make sure. There was only one window open: ‘Money Exchange & Information’. After queueing for half an hour, I arrived at said window, only to find that this was the wrong one. Nonetheless, they asked me what I wanted to know and I told them I wanted to know when the next train would leave for Vicenza. At 2pm they said, glancing idly at a timetable. I ran, as best I could with my luggage, to the platform, where I saw the train pull out of the station. What, I wonder, was that all about? Sometimes I just didn’t trust myself. At all.

I phoned my friend Stefano in Vicenza from a public phone box, which cost me 600 lire, I record, to tell him I’ll be arriving one hour later. Stefano, once I’d arrived and had settled, took me to the beautiful piazza in the town centre, where we also met up with Giovanni.

Thus begins about a week in Vicenza, and at the hands of Stefano’s mum, I tell The Tape, I’m being fed to the point of bursting. I spend one day in Venice, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and, passing one of the many small shops, I see a leather jacket I particularly like the look of. I go inside and casually ask the shop assistant how much it costs (there being no price tag). Five million lire, she tells me, which at the time is about two thousand pounds. I see, I say, as matter of factly (or so I think) as I can, and I do this unnecessary thing of looking at it in a little more detail to signal that I’m really not perturbed at all at the price. I’m really perturbed at the price. Then I do that even more unnecessary thing of looking around the shop a bit further before I leave, just to make sure the middle-aged woman whom I will never meet again in my life and who has long since sussed that I’m in the wrong shop understands that the prices here are really no big deal for me, at all. They’re a really big deal for me…

Vicenza, I tell my self of the future, is incredibly quiet, but I like the Teatro Olympico, calling it “stunning”. Built like a Greek arena, but all indoors, I describe it as “absolutely beautiful” and venture that it may be the only one of its kind in Italy (though where I get that from I don’t know).

At one point we go to a party together which I confide to The Tape reminds me of the time when we, I and my gschpänlis from the Gymnasium Münchenstein, had our parties: the ease, the freedom. I feel charmed, I put on record, and delighted by the friendliness of these people.

I also go back to Venice on “various occasions” (there can’t have been many, unless I stayed there for much longer than I recall), and on one of these get to see a Pier Paolo Pasolini film at the festival, apparently as a matter of extreme luck: “How I ever managed to get there and get there on time, I will never know, but it worked, and it worked to the minute.” I seem to have walked into some post office (presumably having got to the Lido first), and asked where the auditorium was that I needed to get to, only to find that it just so happened to be that particular building where the film was about to start. What the film was I don’t put on record…

There are two more moments that stick in my memory from Vicenza, and although I don’t talk about them on The Tape, I am as certain as I can be that they belong to that same trip. (I’ve since been back to Vicenza a number of times and there was most likely at least one more visit within the next year or two, but the way things fit together – especially with the amount of time I seem to have on my own whilst staying with Stefano and his family – make me think that this is all one occasion.)

The first one involved me attempting to make coffee with one of these typical two-part Italian coffee maker jugs. I took the thing, which I myself had just used and which was still hot, off the hob and, wearing oven gloves, unscrewed the top from the bottom. At that point there was a loud bang and ground coffee splattered all over the immaculately clean small town kitchen. Stefano was grace personified and just helped me clean up before his mum got back home.

The other one takes place in Vicenza town. I go up to a small church which is either closed or about to close and there’s a young, good-looking, guard at the gate. This makes me think it might have been a museum or some other historic site, since churches didn’t usually have guards, as far as I can remember. He wears a uniform of the nondescript probably charcoal or dark grey variety, and to my surprise he opens the door for me and shows me around. We get to the end of a short tour at the lowest part of the building, a crypt or a vault, of which I do not recall what it contained, and there is this moment that stays in my mind. This moment when something is meant to happen. And nothing happens. I wasn’t sure then what it was that was meant to happen and I’m not even entirely sure today. Looking back I wonder: was he about to make a move on me? If so, why didn’t he? I was, then, I now see, quite attractive, though I didn’t think so then. We were alone. He had keys to the building, he had, most probably, locked the front door. I liked him. I think I would have wanted him to make a move. I certainly wouldn’t have made a move first, though. I was on foreign territory, I was far too shy and too gauche, and also nowhere near conceited enough. I never assumed people fancied me enough to want to make a move on me. Sometimes until long after they did. Maybe I was too aloof too. Looking at me now, sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I think I understand why he might not have made a move even if he had wanted to and had felt that I possibly wanted him to and the conditions were well nigh perfect for, well, at least a kiss, just to see how and where that would go. I was quite aloof, quite distant, remote. Is this a double tautology?

The moment lasted – not very long – until it was over and he led me back upstairs into the Italian sunlight. I thanked him, I said goodbye. And I wondered: what was that? Did I miss something here? This feeling, this question: did I just miss something here, that was happening or should have been happening or could have been happening had only I been alert to it, perhaps less naive, perhaps less insecure, perhaps more attuned: it followed me for years, for decades even. Until recently. It doesn’t do so much any more: I miss things occasionally, still, but not so much as a rule. And I make mistakes, of course, who doesn’t. And sometimes I’m just not brave enough. In fact, I often, I think, am probably just not quite brave enough…

Then on the way onwards, in Milan, I actually went to some nondescript building in the outskirts of somewhere and tried to talk to somebody from Reteitalia. What on earth about, I have no idea…

Songs & Charades

I take the “fabulous” TGV to Lyon – from said Gare de Lyon, there now safely and without further trouble arrived – and change to another, ordinary train to Grenoble where I get to Anne’s at 1pm and meet “the others.” The others are certainly Magda, my flatmate from London, whose friend Anna is, and Magda’s dancer friend Ross, who, like her, is from Glasgow, and whom I have met on one or two occasions before, fancying him ever so slightly but getting from him principally polite indifference, which doesn’t trouble me more than to about the same level: ever so slightly. There may have been other ‘others’, but I wouldn’t be certain now who and The Tape here does not elaborate, so maybe there weren’t.

What it does tell me is that I now experience a “wonderful sequence of days.” I have virtually no recollection of this. But according to myself, we spend the afternoon playing charades (this sounds entirely plausible, knowing Magda), and in the evening we hook up with some friends of Anne’s. In my still and always a tad cautious, somewhat incongruous English, I describe this as “so enjoyable, so nice”, as we “went out for a meal and had lots to eat, lots to drink.” Then, after dinner and drinks, we get back home to Anne’s and sing some songs. We go to bed “very late, at 4 in the morning, or so.” I can imagine this, vividly enough, but not remember. I do remember what comes next, a bit: it’s a very slow, very lazy but relaxing Saturday. (In my memory, it’s a Sunday, but that hardly matters…) The weather is “very cold” and it’s raining, which is a good excuse to stay indoors, I record (though this bit again I no longer remember) and play more charades. What I do remember is doing (or helping with) some washing up and looking out of the window into the cold grey weekend and feeling properly chuffed. That glow of contentment, a little hungover, I remember it well. (Only now it occurs to me that that was another occasion entirely: that was Glasgow, where we spent Hogmanay one year, possibly the same year, with essentially the same people, Magda and Ross, and quite possibly also Anne. The blurring of the past in the mind over time…) 

In the evening, more people come around and we sing more songs, play the guitar, drink a lot, and by the time I actually record my next entry it’s Sunday, “a couple of extremely pleasant days” having passed. Sunday I also have an actual recollection of. The weather had turned fine again (it was summer, after all), and we took guitars (I imagine there were at least two) out to a little pond, where we all of us sat on the jetty and sang songs in the sun. This, really, is the second enduring memory I have of the whole trip, after the friendly Parisian coming to my rescue: it’s a hazy memory, and in my mind it looks exactly like the kind of 1970s or 80s film where, to tell the audience that something is being remembered, the picture goes all diffuse and vastly overexposed: it’s a warm, light, comfortable glow, just not very clear, not at all distinct. Then again, it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve just told The Tape that Magda and Ross are going to continue their journey tonight (where to I don’t say and don’t remember), whereas I will stay on for another day and then tomorrow continue my trip to Italy. Magda walks in on me – possibly having heard me talk ‘to myself’, which in an age before mobiles is not the usual thing for someone to do – and, with that mix of curiosity and concern in her voice that makes it go a little high pitched, asks me what I’m doing. I explain to her that I’m recording an audio diary and that I’ll be able to play it to her at some point, though I don’t think I ever did play it to her. I don’t think I ever played it to anyone, and now that I’m listening to it, for the first time in twenty-eight years, I keep getting that sense of wonder. Songs and charades. Songs and charades.

It was a blissful time. I know it was because although I have hardly any recollection of it, I have a recording of me talking about it. I’m not effusive in my joy, but I know I’m living through another best time of my life. The first one, surely, was at the Gymnasium Münchenstein, where I spent one and a half years in near comprehensive, intensive, fully lived happiness. Because of the people I was at school with, because of the projects we were doing (we performed my first play and took it on a mini tour to Zürich and a place called Liestal, and it was a tremendous success with the audiences wherever we went), because of the discoveries, the newness of it all. Pain too, yes, now and then, but not much and not lasting and not beyond what you’d expect in your final years of growing up. The classic freedom of not having any responsibilities yet at all but being able to follow your inclinations. To travel, to drive (on a whim to Munich and back in a couple of days, with a girl friend who was then almost my girlfriend), to experiment, to be cool. To make a statement and feel good about it. I’m certain we knew then that we were happy and privileged and hopeful and young; and we still knew it, almost as much, in Grenoble, that weekend in August of 1988. The notion I keep coming back to: unencumbered. At ease, with ourselves, with it all.

I’m glad now I have this tape. I shall keep it, of course, and – if I’m around and still have a machine to play it then – listen to it again in another twenty-five years or so. I have a feeling it will sound no different. It’s endearing, to me at least, to hear me like that, but it is so remote. So …unrecognisable. I’m listening to the stories of a young man I barely know at all. How strange. How fascinating too, but how odd. To not, more deeply, feel connected. As someone who thinks connection is everything and everything is connected…

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…

78 Value

‘The concept of “making money”‘ – Sedartis postulates gravely, and wonders is it largely, in character, in origin even, American, although it has now so widely, so almost universally, it appears, so comprehensively, at any rate, on our little planet, been adopted – ‘is not only flawed’, (all concepts are flawed, he points out: it is inherent in human thinking that it cannot be flawless), ‘but fundamentally, principally wrong.’

I am glad to hear this, though I can’t be entirely certain why.

‘Nobody makes money, even the National Bank or the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, or any bank anywhere in the world does not “make” money, and nor does any business, nor does any person, nor does any entity ever really “make” money, unless you are thinking of the actual physical process of printing notes or minting coins, but that, as we know, is not “making money” either, that is merely manufacturing its representation; in fact, nobody “makes money,” ever.’

I’m inclined to agree and instinctively it makes sense to me what Sedartis is thinking, though I haven’t thought it through myself, and I wonder if Sedartis really has, or if he’s just doing so now on the hop, because he finds himself once again sitting next to me on a train.

I like the way Sedartis takes his seat next to me, mostly on trains, occasionally on a bench by a lakeside, rarely though, if ever on planes, and never so far that I am aware of on a bus or indeed in a cab.

‘Money is not “made”, it is simply invented and agreed upon in a compact between people and then moved from one place to another, either physically (as notes and coins or cheques or other pieces of paper or some such material as may be deemed in this compact practical and acceptable) or virtually (as digital data), and no matter which way this happens, it is always symbolic: money is nothing other than an abstraction of “value” and that in itself makes it inherently problematic because how, pray, do you define “value” and, more to the point, how do you keep sight of your values when the abstraction of value, money, becomes so prominent in your culture that you perceive it as “value” of itself?’

I have no immediate answer to that. Sedartis is not expecting me to. 

‘And so, not for moral or political or ethical reasons, though possibly for these also, but first and foremost for logical reasons, any economy that is predicated on the idea of “making money” and any culture that embraces this idea as of value of and in itself is not only flawed (as any human economy will always be), but fundamentally, principally wrong. Whereas the moment we stop thinking of “making money” and start thinking instead of “creating value”, for which, in one form or another money may (or may not) serve as an instrument, as a lubricant, so to speak, as a convenient communication tool of quantifiable entities, such, as and where they exist, no less and certainly no more, as soon as we do that we can begin to aspire to wish to become able to consider ourselves an advanced society.’

I like the way Sedartis uses the first person plural when he thinks to me. It makes me feel we’re in this together, somehow, though somehow I’m almost certain we’re not; or rather, we most likely are, but not at the level, and not in the way that is obvious, but in a deeper, more meaningful, more universal sense; and in that sense almost certainly we absolutely are in this together. Are we not one?…

‘Creating value,’ Sedartis expounds,’ is no narrow concept, it applies, of course, but not only, to making things and inventing technology and imagining art, and it equally applies to providing a service, to accomplishing a task, to building a place or exploring a thought, in such a way that it is of some value to someone somewhere sometime, even if that value can not necessarily at the point of its inception be recognised or defined or possibly even imagined.’

That makes sense to me and strikes me as almost stating the obvious just a bit. Is it?

‘Thus, being a good waiter is creating value much in the way that being a good cleaner is creating value, as being a good musician is creating value, as designing a good app is creating value, as singing and recording a good song is creating value.’

Who can decide, I wonder – who can determine – whether something is ‘good’?

‘Nobody can decide or determine, of course, what is “good”, at least not in the simple, undifferentiated terms we lazily espouse. Yes, you can agree on “good practice” or define standards, but is a waiter who is slow and a little clumsy but extremely attentive and friendly and charming and perhaps a little flirtatious, just enough to send a delicious tingle down your spine each time he tops up your glass of rosé, any less good a waiter than one who is super efficient but essentially dead behind the eyes and just doing what he has accepted as his lot or his duty for the time being? Who can say what good writing is? Or good art. Or good music. Or good anything. Nobody can, it’s almost entirely a question of taste and the prevailing consensus: the current culture. But what you can say, because you know when you see it and when you come across it and when you experience it – all of which is the same, I’m only emphasising the point, perhaps unnecessarily – is whether somebody does what they’re doing to the best of their ability and whether they seek to make that ability in the longer term greater, or whether what they do is perfunctory or indeed – and that is by some margin the worst – they are only doing it to “make money.”’

I think along, and as far as I can, I sense I concur.

‘Ask not, therefore, how you can “make money”, ask how you can create value. Expect not to be valued by money, expect that the value you create is honoured.’

I’m about to interject an inconsequential and certainly not fully formed but broadly approving thought of mine own but Sedartis is not yet done:

‘Honouring value is not a narrow concept either: value can be honoured, also, but not only, in terms of money; it can be honoured in appreciation; in kind, in gratitude, in return gesture or service, in goods, in opportunity, in experience.’

Certainly it can. That, too, though, I reckon, is hardly new…

‘It is not, of course, new. It only is sometimes, too often, forgotten. Because it means by necessity that if you are doing something that does not create value but diminishes it – for example making and selling something shoddy that will make people angry because it is not fit for purpose, or taking advantage of somebody’s situation and taking more of their time, their mind, their emotion, their being, than you deserve, in return for less than they need – then stop doing that immediately: you’re not “making money”, you’re taking from somebody under false pretences or, perhaps innocently, feeding your incompetence off their gullibility. Either way, rather than creating value and enriching the world, you deceive yourself into believing that you can enrich yourself as you destroy value and diminish the world. You unbalance the universe. And the universe, in the long term, will not be unbalanced.’

We are nearly at our destination, I forget what it is. Sedartis seems much better now. His thoughts thus afloat, thus released, thus engendered, he inwardly smiles.

{Preamble}

breakfast mojito

i had never had

a mojito

before but: why not?

i was on my last twenty pounds of which i’d just spent fourteen on breakfast, so 

a cocktail at noon

seemed 

apt

i’d got to istanbul on my own after christoph and i parted ways

back in budapest: he’d had enough and wanted to go home, i

wanted to see

amsterdam.

how i ended up in istanbul i’m not sure, i

suppose

i must have got on the wrong train

different train: what can be

wrong

about a train that takes you to istanbul, a train that takes you somewhere

anywhere

you’ve not been before –

he’d sent over the waiter. that

in itself

was

brazen

i thought. he looked maybe forty, thirty-eight, forty?

i later find out he was pushing fifty; i wasn’t meaning to flatter him though

i went across to his table and all the while he was looking at me the way your uncle who hasn’t seen you in years or a friend of your mum’s who remembers you as a baby might look at you: a familiarity that says, you don’t know who i am but i changed your nappies when you were little.

maybe

that’s why i accepted his invitation to

mojito

in the first place: he felt harmless. forlorn, perhaps, and a bit quizzical, but nonetheless harmless.

i sat down and he said: ‘don’t tell me: it’s george.’ and that made me wonder.

‘isn’t it?’

‘yes.’

‘good to meet you george, my name is sebastian.’

i’d always liked

sebastian

as a name.

he looked at me with his nearly-a-stare that spoke of

curiosity, even

wonder

i asked him: what are you doing in

istanbul?

if only i knew, he laughed, and there was a silence

how about you?

soon

the waiter

ahmed

arrived

with mojitos

{Threesomes}

The conundrum of the three bed room. Every standard business hotel seems to have them. I don’t get to stay in business hotels that often since I rarely ‘do business’ as such, but occasionally somebody needs me to be somewhere and they put me up in a hotel and while it’s normal for the room I stay in to just be an ordinary double bedroom with an ordinary king or queen size bed, every so often – probably because all the ordinary double bedrooms are booked – they put me in a three bed room and my mind fairly boggles. It’s usually not a very big double bed and a single bed.

Who stays in these rooms, I wonder, and how? What do they do there? I try to imagine the scenario, but it doesn’t stay salubrious for long, and then I take a step back and I try not to imagine the scenario, but instead the moment somebody says to themselves: well, there are three of us anyway, why don’t we share a room. Who are these three people? Are they parents and their one, lone and lonely child? That would make some sort of sense, if the child weren’t very small any more but not yet grown up enough to want to stay in a room of their own, but why stay in an ugly business hotel, why not go to a nice seaside or mountainside hotel or a charming B&B? Maybe they’re visiting the grandparents in this particular city, but the grandparents’ house isn’t big enough to put up all of them. But that surely can’t account for the number of these three bed bedrooms these standard business hotels have? Who else travels in threes? Probably not the managers, that would seem unlikely. The more lowly personnel who are expected to share rooms, like the sales people? But then how do they do this: do two of them share the double bed and one lonely creature has to sleep alone in the single bed, hugging a pillow? How do they choose who gets to sleep with whom? Do they rotate, if they’re there for more than one night? Are they there for more than one night? What are they there for? The staff conference? Some sales training? An illicit adventure? A chance to experiment with their respective gender and sexual identities? And how do they cope with the bathroom situation? The questions are virtually endless…

I keep my door ajar, habitually. Not when I’m staying at hotels, of course, business or otherwise, but when I’m at home or when I’m staying at a friend’s house. I like the idea of my bedroom not being closed. It’s not as if I expect anybody to come and join me in my bed, it’s just that I like the idea of the air circulating and my sleeping self not being entirely confined to a closed room. I also sleep with the window slightly open and the blinds or curtains open. I like seeing a bit of the night time sky as I’m falling asleep, especially if there’s a cool moon, and I like being woken up by the rays of the sun alighting on the tip of my nose. I may make an exception to all and any of these behaviours, as that is sometimes advisable. For example should one be having a threesome…

I like to read in the bath and in fact I almost exclusively read books in the bath, because I daren’t take my phone or my laptop to the bath lest I should drop them or they should get wet, and I hardly ever get around to reading books anywhere else, since by the time I usually go to bed I’m too tired to read and I just maybe post a picture of the day to Instagram or watch a video someone has posted to Facebook; and I don’t commute and when I do use the tube I like to play Jass on my app from Samschtig and when I’m on a train during the daytime I like to look out of the window and ponder the imponderables (such as the conundrum of the three bed bedroom), or if it is night time, I’m more likely to be doing some work on my laptop.

In the book I am reading in the bath at the moment, Becoming a Londoner, the diarist David Plante says “the unintended is truer than the intended.” He in one succinct sentence answers one of the most enduring questions I’ve had as a writer and as a human being: how is it that I so avoid the plan and favour the detour, that so I value serendipity over completion, that I so relish the random more than I delight in the foreseeable and foreseen? Because it’s true, truer at any rate than that which we think we control.

Abandon. (Gay or otherwise.) Non-sequiturs. This most pertinent of questions: why do you need a reason?