Redemption

I forget about Bournemouth & Boscombe and dedicate myself to other matters, other places, other topics, other themes. The world is a wondrous sphere, I am reminded, as I travel, as I learn. As I love: I meet new people, form new connections, find myself enthralled to new ideas and smitten by new beauty. New affections, new reciprocities, new inspirations. New experiences.

Out of the blue, an email arrives in my inbox, via my website: the kind of message that comes in the shape of a contact form. I get those now and then, though rarely. Seldom enough, in fact, for me to take note and to think: ah, someone has gone to the trouble of writing to me.

This one is more unusual still: it’s a letter. Not a comment or an enquiry, not a compliment or a rebuke, not a proposition of a collaboration or a proposal for a project. As I read, my hopes and doubts coalesce into a gel of both comfort and pain. The pain that has been caused and that has not been forgiven, the comfort of sensing that forgiveness may, after all, be attained. It is not, however, for me to forgive. I have not been wronged. No more, at any rate, and no less, than we all have by those who trespass not against us personally but against our understanding of what it is to be human, and to be good. The two don’t always go cheek by jowl, I know, but deep down, is it not the case that we would wish them to?

We know when our sense of justice, respect, and compassion is offended, and the offence this letter speaks to is a grave one, truly, genuinely. The way this offence offends is not the kind that we hear expressed now so often when somebody faces an opinion they don’t like or encounters an expression that is outdated maybe, even archaic. It is an offence that comes from a senseless act of destruction that ended and altered lives which had no reason and no need and certainly no desire to be so altered, so ended. It is the offence of an irredeemable act of violence, a cruel and wanton incision into a community’s whole existence.

The letter offers a kind of reconciliation. It is written in a direct, unembellished style, though carefully worded and a little formal. Its authors have clearly given it thought, and, by the looks of it, rather than simply typing it into the online contact form, they have composed it, edited it, spell-checked it: it contains no trivial errors as would be attributable to haste or lack of concentration. It is purposely positioned to be read and absorbed, not fired off as a quick response. It goes like this:

Dear Sebastian

We enjoyed your piece on the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll a lot. Enough for us to feel moved to break our silence. Our silence was part self-imposed, part decreed. We felt for a long time that no-one should hear from us, ever again. The anger we caused, and the pain. The loss. We don’t talk about it, ever, and we don’t like to write about it either. Words seem weightless, when put into the balance of what we have done. At the time of our trial, we were very young. Some people have taken us saying so as an insult. ‘You were young,’ they say, ‘but you knew what you were doing.’ We did, and we didn’t. When we say we were young, we don’t mean to make an excuse for our actions. We mean to say: we had very little experience of what it is to be alive and we had very little understanding of what makes us human. We had no excuse. Nor did we have a reason. But we did something we knew at the time was deeply wrong. We knew this, we just didn’t know how not to do it. That may not make much sense to you and you may wonder, what on earth does it have do with the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

You see, the hatred we faced and the anger that was vented against us, in words that were brutal and vicious, they shocked us. What did we expect? Praise? Obviously not. We didn’t expect anything. Once what we’d done and the effect that it had had sunk in, we didn’t expect any leniency or compassion. We couldn’t understand ourselves, how could we expect anybody else to understand us? But perhaps—just perhaps—it is true to say that we were hoping for some form of forgiveness. And we were frightened and perplexed that that wasn’t forthcoming. At all. From a society steeped in a religion that has sin and forgiveness at its core, we received no indication that this society at large was prepared to forgive us. Ever. There were some exceptions. But the general tone from the people, as far as we could hear, was a clamour for revenge. Newspaper journalists—again with some notable exceptions that you are well aware of—echoed this general people’s call for us to be hanged. And damned. Or, at the very least, locked up in eternity, ‘with the keys thrown away’. We were teenagers. Yes, we had taken innocent lives, including the lives of two beautiful girls. That that was not our intention is, we realise, irrelevant. We could have known, and we were old enough to appreciate, that setting fire to hundreds of beach huts with a series of small but effective explosions would endanger people, and do so in a way that we could not control.

At our trial—it has been noted with disgust—we did not express any remorse, let alone ask for forgiveness. It is hard to explain why: did we not realise we had wronged people, and not just the ones who were directly affected, but also everyone who knew and loved them; in fact, everyone, because who would not see and not know that destroying people’s property while risking their lives is wrong? Again, we don’t want this to sound like an excuse. But expressing your sorrow, your remorse and contrition for something that is so obviously and so categorically wrong is almost impossible. If you accidentally make a mistake and knock into someone on the pavement or spill a drink and cause a little damage: that’s easy. It’s easy to say ‘sorry’ for a mini-misdemeanour. But for a crime against society? We didn’t have the words. We didn’t have them then, we barely have them now. When today we write to you to say: we are truly and profoundly sorry for what we have done, do you accept that as our apology? Maybe you do, because maybe you can, but you are just a distant bystander, an observer: a recounter of events, a narrator. What about the parents of the girls? The grown up children of the elderly couple? Those who loved and needed and cherished them? What about the owners of the dog? And what about those who nursed and attended the injured. In the end we were responsible for the deaths of two girls aged five, an elderly couple, and the little dog; and there were seventeen injured; two, we later learnt, with life-changing injuries. Can they ‘accept an apology’? Ever? Even we don’t see how. Even we don’t see how anything we could say would ever be enough. How anything we could do would ever be enough. We are unable to atone for our crime, because the crime was so futile, so pointless, so deliberate and yet so random.

Us being unable to atone for our crime, and there being no words that we can find to say we are sorry, it took us a long time—until now—to formulate anything at all. We have lived in silence, mainly so as not to compound our offence. We’d been separated at our arrest and were kept apart for a while after sentencing. But our social workers and eventually our probation officers agreed that we were not a danger to society any longer, and we were allowed to get back together. We have been together ever since: we live together, with our new identities that we were given to protect us from the wrath of the people, in a remote part of these isles, which of course we cannot and wouldn’t wish to disclose. And we thought: perhaps there is something we can try. It was, yet again, not something we fully thought through. But at least it was harmless. And we had to break the terms of our parole, but we’d been out of prison a few years by then, and we thought, perhaps this is not going to redeem us and it certainly isn’t going to make things good for those whom we’d wronged, but perhaps we can almost run this as a test. We will either be caught and found out and probably—so we felt—torn to pieces on the spot, or we will get away with it and that will be that. The world, we will then accept, has found a way to allow us to be now. We are, after all, now completely ordinary. Really. We both have jobs in our local community. Nobody knows who we are, and they like us. We are the kindly, now soon-to-be middle aged couple who shop at Waitrose together and go for walks. We admit it: we enjoy our lives. That alone, we also understand, will to many people be outrageous. It is unfair, unjust, even.

We have done time in prison, we have undergone many hours of therapy with our workers, we have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. And we are happy. We are not light of heart or full of joy: that will never be possible. We are too conscious and too conscientious for that ever to be the case. The burden of our past and our offence will rest on our shoulders forever. But we are content. We are content that we have found a way now of being good citizens and of contributing to our community, without fuss. It is not atonement, so much, as it is a rational way of handling the day to day reality of being alive, after all. Was it worth sparing us, or would the world have turned into a better place if we’d been done away with? We can’t answer that question objectively, we’re too close to ourselves. But we like to think that the world is a slightly better place for having us in it, still. It can say: ‘These boys, they did something unforgivable, but in a way we forgave them. We rose above their crime, we allowed them not to be defined solely by their premeditated act of cruelty. Ours is a world in which that is possible.’ This, we believe, is a better world than a world that can only say: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and you wronged me so I wrong you back just the same, and your right to life is forfeit because you took life: you have no chance of redemption, ever.’

So a few years ago, when we were still quite young, but no longer the juvenile delinquents of yore, we did something we thought was worth a try. We took a train to Bournemouth. We were not strictly allowed to do so: we are not now and will never be allowed to set foot on the scene of our crime, but we did so anyway, because we wanted to test the water. Not literally, but metaphorically. We wanted to find out what the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe were really like. We’d seen so much of the ugly face of people’s understandable scorn and anger, hatred and pain, we had forgotten, we felt, what being normal, human and gracious would be. So we stripped off all our clothes. We were going to run, at first, because we were incredibly scared, as you perhaps can imagine. But within minutes we realised: these people, these good people of Bournemouth & Boscombe: they are not angry or hateful at heart. They were angry and hateful because we had wounded them so. But now, now that we laid ourselves bare and walked along that same beach in front of those same huts—the huts that had taken the places of those we’d destroyed—people smiled at us. They started talking to us. They even joined us. They had a laugh with us, and a banter. A pint and a stroll. All we’d really wanted to test was whether we’d survive the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe for half a day.

We did not mean to start a new thing. But here, and this is something we are today really glad to tell you, we were met with love. People were friendly and generous, good-humoured and kind. That’s what we will forever now cherish and what we will take to our graves. We are both not very religious, but we light five candles every night: two for the girls, two for the elderly couple, and, yes, one for the dog. That dog was somebody’s friend. It deserved not to die at our hands. And while until a few years ago that moment in the evening of honouring and remembering them was mainly filled with remorse and sorrow, since we went on our beach stroll in Bournemouth & Boscombe in the nude, it is filled now also with love. The love these people gave us—those same people whom we had so badly abused and who had therefore so understandably hated us so—sustains us today. We are grateful for it, and we appreciate it. And we love you all back.

We take no credit for having ‘invented’ the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll. If the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe didn’t have it in them to do this every year, it would not have caught on. The fact that it did and that it now attracts visitors from all over the world has nothing to do with us. Nobody even knows about us. It has everything, and only, to do with the people who make it happen each year: the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe. They own it, and for as long as they want it, they may keep and enjoy it.

So should we even tell you about us, if we don’t matter at all? We thought long and hard about this, and many times before we sent this letter to you decided against it. But there was something about your piece that convinced us, in the end, that the truth—even though it is painful and maybe unwelcome—still forms part of the picture, and the picture is only truthful if in the end, at some point, when it is ready to be so, it can be rendered complete. The colours, the layers, the light and the shade. And so we commend this letter to you to do with it as you see fit. But we thank you for having prompted us now to write it.

Yours humbly

Andrew & George

I’m struck by the fact that they’re signing it ‘Andrew & George’. Was not Andy the junior partner, drawn into the maelstrom of cataclysm by the older, more devious George? Maybe time has levelled their relationship, as it levels everything, and in all seriousness: does it matter? By sending me their letter they have given me two options only: to either be the keeper of their secret, or to be the agent of their revelation. It is a simple choice to make. I cannot be the keeper of a secret that was volunteered to me as a revelation. And as I believe in redemption, and in catharsis as a step towards it, I opt to let this stand now, here, as it is.

In my universe, hatred to love is as darkness to light: one may not exist without the other, but there is no question, ever, of which yields to which. And so I know and want this to be known to be true: love conquers all.


< Revival [6]

[INSOMNIA — {Connexum} >]


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Success

The young man I’m on a date with is really unbearably cute. ‘You’re really unbearably cute,’ I tell him. ‘I know,’ he says, with the smile of someone who really does, and an involuntary shrug: ‘I try. I succeed.’

It’s happy hour at the Troubadour, my favourite haunt and quasi home from home, and so I look forward to an early evening mojito. This, here at the Troubadour, is contingent upon the other person also wanting a mojito. Or at any rate the same cocktail: you get two for one, but only as long as they’re the same drink. Why, is a mystery to me, but not one that has ever bothered me enough to prompt me to enquire about its reason: it’s rarely a problem, since I’ve come across few people in my life who don’t like a mojito, and for those who don’t, there’s always the option of a Bloody Mary. Or any other standard you’d expect on a short, traditional menu. I worry not.

Robert, the friendly and forever charming and helpful waiter, appears, and as I propose this to start the evening by way of an almost foregone conclusion, my young and very new friend throws an unexpected spanner in the works: ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’

‘What, not at all?’

‘No, I used to, but I didn’t really like it, and I got too drunk a couple of times, so I’ve stopped altogether, but you go ahead.’

‘Are you sure?’

This is dodgy territory. If I drink and he doesn’t, doesn’t this unbalance our universe—in which, at least for the next few hours, we are meant and agreed to proceed together—and not necessarily in anyone’s favour? I’m concerned now that this date may not go so well after all…

‘Yes absolutely, I really don’t mind. Seriously.’

His smile remains confident and sincere, and so I turn to Robert who is waiting on us, patient and knowing, while this short negotiation takes place, and I order the mojito nonetheless. Robert, bless him, reads the situation just fine and innocently asks if I want the happy hour anyway. I’m stumped once again, but before I can say anything more my young friend says, ‘sure, go ahead;’ and so it comes to pass that I’m on a date with an unbearably cute young man who doesn’t drink at all, while I’m being brought two mojitos by Robert, who does not bat an eyelid.

They look incongruous on the table in front of me, these mojitos, next to his elderflower cordial, but just for about the first five minutes or so. Soon I ease into the conversation, and I bask in the glow of a man who is so comfortable with everything and with himself that I feel this is perfectly all right, I can enjoy this, I can relax…


< Perfection       Trivia >


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Perfection

That day the universe was on my side. Because for the first time ever it gave me not just a second chance, but a third; and that really had never happened before. I never even normally get the second chance, for the simple and obvious reason that it’s just very unlikely to come about, so to be given a third chance: imagine how lucky I felt, and how happy.

I was on my way to the party; that was on Monday. I was in a good frame of mind, I had just arrived in town and seen two decent films, and I’d picked up my invitation and now was determined to go to this party even though I knew nobody there, and I thought I might therefore leave it again very soon. But in my good frame of mind I started chatting to a woman on the shuttle bus that the festival laid on from the last screening in the grand piazza to the lido by the lake where the party was happening, and after seeming a little distant at first she then, as we arrived there, almost grabbed my hand, and we went to the bar and had our first few drinks together, talking a lot about this, that, and the other, and I thought this is great: I’m already not alone at the party.

When she left, I spotted a good looking man with a beard who was on his own and, buoyed by my success so far, started talking to him, and for a while we had more drinks and chatted about this and that too (though not so much about the other), and he met some people he knew, and I talked to them as well, and I quite liked him, but I also realised he probably wasn’t that interested in me, and that was fine by me too.

We’d by now drifted back towards the bar, and then suddenly out of nowhere the handsomest, friendliest, loveliest of all the men at the party—and it was a fairly big party—stood next to me and looked me in the eyes, and we hugged, and we kissed, and I don’t know why that happened so quickly or how, I only know that I’d seen him before, when he was working, taking pictures, and he had pointed his camera at me and the woman from the shuttle bus, and I had raised my glass to him and said ‘cheers,’ and now here he was, and we were kissing and hugging, and I didn’t know how or why: we must have been into each other, I suppose.

It was now nearing the end of the party, coming up four in the morning, and people were already leaving, and he simply said, ‘so to Locarno?’ and I said, ‘yes;’ and on the way to the car he told me he was staying in a flat with ten people in it, and some of them needed a lift, so we may have to wait for them, and I said that was all right, but in the end nobody wanted a lift—those who were there at the party decided to go by other means, maybe walk, or by bicycle—so we took his car, a convertible, though he didn’t put the roof down, maybe because it was coming up four o’clock in the morning. He told me he didn’t have his licence at the moment, but that that was all right, and I thought, well, he’ll be driving carefully then, and he did, and we got there without problem, but with a little help from his phone.

As we entered the flat it was dark and already quiet, and in the darkness we walked through a room with nothing much and nobody in it (maybe it was a hall?), into another room, which had a large double bed with two people in it, a man and a woman, both young, maybe the same age as he, and there was a narrow mattress on the floor, and he said: ‘this is me, but it’s all right,’ and it was all right.

We lay down on his little bed, and within seconds we were undressed and were what used to be called making love, and it felt like that, it felt like we were just making some love, and the couple in the bed did not seem to notice or mind and then we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Now and then the man from the bed would call my young lover’s name because he was snoring, and that wouldn’t help, so I would hug him closer to me, and that would.

In the morning we woke up, and he said: ‘dormi – sleep,’ but he had to get up and go to work, and I got up too though I didn’t strictly have to go to work, but I did have to go to the flat where I was staying, and do some work there. He made me a coffee, and we kissed again and hugged and said goodbye, and he disappeared, I assumed into the shower.

I got dressed in the room with the big double bed and the little single mattress, and a young woman there was also getting dressed, and I left my card on the window sill and let myself out and walked home in the happy sunshine.

He didn’t phone me or text me, or send me an email, or friend me on Facebook, and I thought, well that’s fair enough, he’d told me how much work he’s got on during the festival here, and he was young, so maybe that was just that, and that’s fair enough. But a little part of me wished and hoped and believed I would see him again; I would bump into him, I reckoned, at some point during the festival, it’s not that big a town, after all.

Nothing happened till Friday, except I was happy all week, doing some work and watching some films, and then Friday I was out with some friends, and we’d just had something to eat and decided to get an ice cream before watching a late film together, and from the ice cream stand I could see him walk towards the Piazza Grande, and I thought there he is, but he didn’t spot me, and I was too far away to call him over, and I didn’t know whether he’d want me to call him over since he hadn’t called me, and he was gone, and I thought, ah well, that’s a pity, but maybe there will be a second chance (even though I don’t normally get a second chance, as most people don’t, most of the time: the probability of circumstances arranging themselves such that one could come about being just so incredibly small).

Once everyone had their ice cream, we realised we were running late for the film, so we started to make a move towards the cinema, and there he was again, coming my way now, with a plate of food in his hand and passing at just a couple of feet distance: again I didn’t call him or stop him or say hello, it happened too quickly, we were late for our film, he had his hands full with food, and he didn’t see me, again. And again I thought, ah what a pity, but maybe there will be a third chance, even though I had never had a third chance before, or heard of anybody who had.

We went to see the film, and then on the way back we passed a bar with a big garden where sometimes they play live music, and one of the group said let’s not go in here, there’s another one which is nicer, but the other place was already closed, so we returned to the one with the big garden, and it’s a huge garden with different sections separated by old stone walls on different levels, and it would be impossible to get a view of it all, especially at night when it isn’t that brightly lit, and usually very busy, and we were going to stand in the courtyard nearest the bar, but then the same member of the group said, let’s go up there, and we went up a flight of steps, past another bar, and into another little courtyard, and we sat down at a table, and no sooner had we sat down at the table than I saw the back of the head that I recognised.

He was on the phone, stroking his short bleached hair with his free hand, and I recognised his short bleached hair in an instant, as I had stroked it too and so much liked the feel of it against the palm of my hand, and I recognised the little wrist band that looked like it had come from another festival, probably music, and I thought I should get up now and say hello to him, but he was with a group of people and so was I, and I thought, ah well, he’s here and at one point I’ll get up and say hello or he’ll get up and turn around; and then he finished his conversation on the phone and got up and turned around and there he was.

I said his name, and he said: ‘Sebastian.’ And we hugged and gave each other a kiss, and he told me he had a problem with his flat which he needed to sort, but how long was I here for now and what had happened to me Tuesday morning, and I told him I’d left him a card and didn’t want to hang around as I knew he would have to go to work, and he said he hadn’t seen the card but now that he knew where it was he would find it, but I gave him another one ‘just in case’, and he looked glad to see me, and we held each other’s hands, and we hugged again and gave each other another kiss, and then he had to go and sort his problem with the flat; and I knew that the universe had been kind to me, because it had given me not just a second chance but a third, and I had taken not the first, not the second, but the third chance, and I don’t know if we will see each other ever again, but just knowing that he was glad to see me again now, and to see that spark in his eye and feel that hair and hear him say ‘Sebastian’ and smiling at me his broadest of smiles, that alone completely made me happy that day.


< {Mystery}       Success >


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Alignment

Here is how the universe aligned itself for it to happen that my young Science Communicator Friend and I could have a wonderful night, with Morcheeba:

I’d had every intention of going to the Highlands for a few days in the last week of November, firstly because I love the Highlands and like to go there sometimes in the autumn when there are not many people about, and there’s a good chance of rain, and the walks are solitary and long, but also, secondly, I had an offer of a free first class ticket from King’s Cross to Edinburgh courtesy of East Coast Rail, which was about to expire in early December: a gift of ‘goodwill’ from the train operator by way of compensation for some long service delays the year before.

I was pretty much sold on the idea of doing this because I craved the craggy hillsides, and I thought on the way back I could drop in on an old friend in Berwick-upon-Tweed and go for one or two more walks with him before Christmas, and for once I was not strapped for cash. So, so far so good.

The First Thing that went wrong, as in right, as in different to all expectations and most precedent, was that my old friend in Berwick was going to be ‘on duty’ that particular weekend—the last one in November—because his wife was going to take herself off somewhere with the oldest, leaving him home alone with the two smaller children. This put a clanking big spanner into all kinds of works, since it meant that far from being able to go on extensive country walks followed by many pints in the pub, we would have to spend time mainly at home, looking after said small children. Now, they are lovely children, but that was not what I’d had in mind.

The Second Thing that offered itself up as a variation on the ‘plan’ was that a dinner that had been suggested a while ago by the Swiss Ambassador and His Wife for a small group of people including me was now scheduled for Thursday 27th, and although I had very mixed feelings about the circumstances in which this invitation came about—for reasons that would be inappropriate for me to enter into in anything resembling detail—I actually rather liked the Ambassador and His Wife and thought that it would be churlish or at the very least ill mannered to miss their dinner, in the absence of any good excuse for doing so (other than my lingering unease about what had precipitated the occasion in the first place, of which more I am honour-bound not to divulge).

My enthusiasm for the prospect of spending the end of a Highland week at my friend’s in Berwick already dampened, I thus now also had an almost perfectly good reason to stay in London that week and accept this invitation, signalling to the Ambassador and His Wife that, certainly on my part (I couldn’t speak for the other people concerned) there were no ‘hard feelings’, and so all was, comparatively speaking, well…

Now newly in a position of having this whole week mostly to myself in London, I started filling in some other nights in my diary. Though not the way they turned out at all, because the Third Thing that happened was that I was having coffee with TomTom at the Troubadour. There was no reason or purpose to this, he just happened to be in London with a break near the end of his tour and suggested we go for coffee, which I, being a creature of habit and feeling at home at the Troubadour, suggested we do there.

At some point Anders, the lovely lanky waiter of Scandinavian origin whom I have never not had a bit of a soft spot for (bearing in mind though that I tend to have a bit of a soft spot for waiters generally, especially tall ones), came over and handed me a blank envelope. This had never happened before. It was, he said, an invitation to a private view of a local artist, Melinda, who had asked him to give some of these to some Troubadour regulars, of which clearly I’m one. Pleased and a little flattered, I thanked him, slid the envelope in my pocket and proceeded to more or less forget about it in an instant.

When I got home after saying goodbye to Tom, I found the envelope in my jacket and put it down together with my unopened mail of the last few days, possibly weeks, there to forget about it for a second time. (There was no noteworthy reason why I had at least several days’— possibly several weeks’—worth of unopened mail: I just don’t like opening my mail. Nobody these days writes me poetic epistles or missives of undying love: what comes through the letterbox are mainly bills, unsavoury bank and credit card statements, and ‘special offers’ that have nothing special about them from companies with little or nothing of interest to offer.)

Meanwhile, around about the same time, on the 18th November, to be precise, so actually a couple of days before having coffee with TomTom, I was trying to organise a night out with Diego, who is not only adorable as well as Italian, but also difficult to pin down socially, because while he’s extremely loyal and helpful, he’s also unfeasibly busy. It’s a typically ‘London’ challenge, this, which we’re all used to.

I had proposed two films to him (as an alternative to the theatre, simply because he hadn’t yet responded to my other suggestion, which had been Electra at the Old Vic), and while he was keen to see the film on Turing, he had in fact already arranged to see Interstellar, my other option, with some other friends in the very near future. Reasoning that as an Italian he wouldn’t mind, I blithely invited myself along, asking him specifics about the date and time he had booked, which turned out to be Friday night 28th at seven forty-five. I went online straight away and found one of very few seats—mainly singletons left to the side and very front or extreme rear of the IMAX auditorium—and booked it, triumphantly announcing to Diego that I was going to crash his night out at the cinema with his friends.

Also on the 18th November, I start a conversation with a man on Grindr. He describes himself as ‘masculine looking for the same, but love a good chat regardless’ and looks like a handsome, slightly rugged early thirty-something to me. He is on his way home, past my house, it appears, after a failed encounter with a ‘weird’ Italian—no connection to my Italian friend—who has spooked him a bit; and while we’re both online he reaches his flat, which happens to be eight doors precisely along from mine, on the same side of the street. We chat a while longer, find out that we share several interests and are both night owls, until finally I sign off because ‘I’m starting to fall off my perch,’ as I tell him, some time after three in the morning.

The next day we chat again, briefly, then we skip a day, and then over the next two days (we’re now up to 22nd November) we again have just a few brief exchanges on the app, except I tell him that curiosity has got the better of me and I’ve entered his name in the search field on Facebook, and the first person to come up was he. I offer to send him a friend request, which he suggests I do, and we banter a bit about possibly finding out too much about each other and ‘the joys of online stalking.’

So from the 22nd November he and I are friends on Facebook. This is the Saturday before the week I was going to go to Scotland, but now won’t be. Nothing else noteworthy happens over the weekend.

On Monday 24th—and we’re now into the week in question—JayJay, more or less out of the blue, and also perhaps a tad surprisingly since we had only just seen each other a couple of times in a row when often we go without catching up for months, suggests I join him and some friends at a tiny North London fringe theatre to see a piece either by or adapted from Gogol. I have no pronounced interest in either the piece or the venue, but I’ll go and see anything more or less any time, and I am again pleased and a little flattered to have been asked, and so of course I say yes.

The night at the theatre is Wednesday, which tangentially reminds me that I have an invitation also to a private viewing at the Troubadour on that evening, but naturally JayJay and the theatre take precedence over a local artist whom I don’t know, nor have ever heard of, and so as I confirm with JayJay, I prepare to forget about the invitation I received through Anders at the Troubadour for a third time.

Tuesday all is quiet and nothing unusual occurs.

Then, on Wednesday 26th, the Fourth Thing flicks a new switch, retroactively: my friend David reposts an item of his girlfriend Alex’s on Facebook, in which she offers two tickets to see Morcheeba this coming Friday. The reason the tickets have become available is that she had bought them mistaking the date of the gig for the previous Friday, so she had rolled up at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire then, only to be told that she was a week early. This coming Friday she can’t do. (Whether she was going to see Morcheeba with my friend who is her boyfriend, David, or somebody else, I don’t know.)

I respond to David’s forwarded post, saying that I have use for one ticket, so if any of his other friends also has use for one, then we could have ourselves a night out with Morcheeba ‘tomorrow’. This is a slip of the mind, as the tickets are actually for the day after tomorrow, but I don’t notice that. I do, however, look up my diary correctly for Friday, because in the diary for Thursday is the Ambassador and His Wife’s dinner, and on Friday there is nothing.

This is the Fifth Thing, and it’s decidedly odd: I have three Apple devices, which are all using the latest, up-to-date operating systems, and which ordinarily synch all my diary entries across devices via iCloud, so I pretty much trust my diary. Since my diary is blank on Friday, I think I can go and see Morcheeba then – the fact that I talk in my reply to David’s forwarded post about ‘tomorrow’, when tomorrow would be Thursday, turns out to be a red herring.

But my diary isn’t free on Friday. I have a ticket booked, crashing Diego’s cinema-going party at the IMAX. Yet this doesn’t show on the laptop I’m using. Later I find out that the diary entry exists, perfectly accurate, on my other laptop. When I notice this and run several tests to see whether my diary isn’t synching properly, I find that there is no such issue, my diary synchs wonderfully, within seconds; and if a device happens to be offline (I test this too), the entry gets pushed through at the earliest possible moment, no problem. So why, of all my diary entries, this particular one did not come up on my laptop at this time, is and remains an unsolved mystery.

At almost exactly the same time, the Sixth Thing that happens is that JayJay texts me to say that he’s feeling poorly and won’t be making it to the theatre tonight. I read this as a cancellation of the outing as a whole, since I don’t know his colleagues or friends and had left it to him to book the tickets. So I think: no worries, I will go to this art viewing instead. Also at the same time approximately, my new friend from Grindr gets in touch again for the first time since the weekend, this time on Facebook, with the opening gambit: “so we’re facebook friends now.”

Having previously mentioned the Troubadour and the possibility of a coffee there in our earlier chats on Grindr, I take the opportunity, offered by the Sixth Thing, to tell him that I’ll be heading down there later today and that there’ll be free vodka cocktails, a fact which Anders had alerted me to from the start, and which had stuck in my mind as a particularly attractive incentive, because how can you say no to a vodka cocktail when it’s on offer. To my absolute delight, my new friend says he could do with a free drink and agrees to come down and see me there, exactly as I’d hoped, because that would give us a chance to meet really informally in a relaxed setting, and it would only have to last half an hour if it didn’t go well. He has promised his flatmates he would cook some chicken soup for them beforehand, so we agree to meet down there at seven, which gives me a chance to also have some chicken soup beforehand, though I didn’t make mine from scratch, I poured mine out of a Waitrose tub.

The art at the viewing is decorative and nice with quite a bit of character, and as I’m there before my friend arrives, I chat a short while to the artist, who thinks she knows me, but when I tell her that we don’t know each other, although she may have seen me at the Troubadour, she seems to lose interest and becomes almost a bit weary, though not impolite, notwithstanding the fact that I also tell her, of course, that I had been invited by Anders.

The vodka cocktails on offer are Sea Breezes, generously poured by Hugo (I think – I’m never entirely sure if  his name is Oscar or Hugo or something else entirely), and I find two elderly ladies who are locals and friends of the artist’s to chat to while holding out for my friend who’s since messaged to say he’s running a tad late.

By half past I tell him that I’m more or less done with the art now, but he says he’s just on his way, so I take advantage of my two elderly ladies hanging around near the entrance talking to an attractive and artistic looking woman whom I estimate to be around halfway between my age and theirs, and I effectively crash their conversation, which leads to me and that very attractive and somewhat artistic woman talking to each other—me facing the open door—as my friend bounds up the stairs. I recognise him instantly from his picture, and we greet each other like we’ve always known each other, which in a way I feel we have.

I introduce him to the attractive woman, whose name I can’t now remember though it may have been Yvonne, and he, realising that I’m mid-conversation and aware that he’s very late, proposes to find himself a drink; I ask him to bring me one too and continue talking to ‘Yvonne’ until she reckons it’s time to look in on her sixteen year old at home, and since my friend has not got back yet with or without drinks, I go looking for him to see if he’s all right.

I am massively pleased to find him talking to another random gallery-goer, though for reasons that don’t strike me as obvious, but not important enough to enquire about either, he hasn’t got me a drink, he’s only picked up one for himself, so I get me my second one too, and I join them.

For the second time, I feel like I’m here with him, of course, who else: although we only now really speak our first few sentences to each other, we may as well, for the level of familiarity I feel, have been together for years. And I say ‘together’ here, even though we’re not even friends yet, and it is absolutely clear to me even now that we we may never, in that sense, or any other, be ‘together’.

The woman he has been talking to eventually makes her way off too, and we’re finally left to speak to each other, which doesn’t change anything; we have one more drink each, and although I feel tempted to eke out another, he is attuned to the fact that the place is emptying out and suggests we make our way home as well. As we get to his front door, we embrace and nearly give each other a peck on the cheek but not quite, and I go home thinking, well that was just entirely perfect.

I’m home shortly after nine, where I find David has replied to my post in response to his post on Facebook with: “You must have a friend seb or just crack a grinder one out! Haha.”

Now, as I’m about to explain to my brand new friend in a new message on Facebook, I’ve never been one not to “take a random gag as a proper suggestion,” and so I offer the Morcheeba night out to him. It’s a long shot in every sense: it’s at just two days’ notice, we’ve only ever had a couple of drinks together and hardly actually spoken to each other, and it’s Morcheeba, who create a wonderful sound but who are something of a throwback to the nineties. But once again he surprises me in the best possible way and says, yes, he loves Morcheeba, he’s up for it. I tell David, David promises he’ll email the tickets. Everything is hunky, except…

The next morning—Thursday—I wake up with a mildly suspicious feeling that I may have messed up a bit. I check my diary and that’s when I find out about the synching issue. I resolve, of course, to stick with the new arrangement and blow out Diego, simply because he’s already got several people to be going to the cinema with, whereas I’ve now promised to take David’s girlfriend Alex’s Morcheeba tickets off her, and of course I can get to see that film any time.

In the evening, I go to the dinner the Ambassador and His Wife are hosting at their residence, and it is very civil, even friendly. Of the small group who had been invited, two or three had decided they were busy elsewhere, so it feels even more intimate than it would have done if everyone had attended, and as the evening draws to its close, the Ambassador’s Wife again thanks us all for all we have done for the Swiss Embassy over the last few years and hands us each a bottle of champagne as a final gesture of conciliation and appreciation.

Friday comes, and there’s a Seventh Thing. Having effectively written off my booked ticket for Interstellar at the BFI IMAX, I do feel it’s a shame that that should just go to waste, especially as it’s a sold out screening. So I look up my email confirmation, on which of course it says “no refunds and no ticket exchange,” but I phone up the cinema anyway and say to the charming man who answers the phone, ‘I realise this is not your policy, but seeing that you have a full house I wonder is there any chance you can resell my ticket?’ Without dropping a beat he says: ‘You can’t make it tonight?’ I confirm, no, I can’t. ‘I’ll refund your ticket for you straight away, would that help you enormously?’ – ‘Yes, that would help me enormously, thanks!’

I’m wondering is it a coincidence, or have I manipulated my memory, or is it just the beauty of the universe that it has aligned Seven Things so my new friend, who I’m about to learn is a science communicator, and I could have a wonderful time with Morcheeba. After the gig we go for another drink, and after that we pass by my door, now coming from this direction, and I don’t even have to really ask, we both just go up together, and because it was partly the Ambassador’s Wife who was to blame for the fact that I didn’t go up to Scotland, I pop the bottle of fizz she gave me at the dinner the night before.

It tastes all the more lovely for everything that has brought us to this moment right here and right now.


< Ponderage       {Vignette} >


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Critical Mass

‘What if,’ Sedartis muses, ‘consciousness is not a matter of characteristics or substance or physics or chemistry or biology or the nature of the configuration of brain cells or the genetic make-up or the design, divine or otherwise, of the brain or its configuration with the rest of the body, but merely a matter of connective concentration: get enough nodes on the network—in your case, the brain—to connect with each other at high enough speed and frequency, and you reach the point at which the network—in your case still the brain—becomes aware of itself and can start making decisions that are self-conscious.

‘Apply that principle to any other network capable of processing information—computers, chips, civilisations, planets with technological infrastructure and already conscious entities on them—and you enter the exponential acceleration of intelligence. Why? Precisely because it is networked to the level where it can become conscious. What if Consciousness is nothing but this: enough capable nodes on the network, Critical Mass.’

I’m inclined, unsurprisingly, to consider that a real possibility…


< Phantom

ENCOUNTERS — Ponderage (>)


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Phantom

The guilty look of the winner after the loser is thoroughly beaten.

‘It is really simple,’ Sedartis suggests, which has me a-wary, but I know him better now than really to doubt him. ‘Of course it is,’ I think back at him, ‘but what?’

‘If the young people—the generation now growing up, the fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five year olds, and maybe some of their allies, who, young at heart, are older in years but still see a future and want that future to be different to the present, which is, though it may not always seem so, thoroughly different from the past; and who, good of soul, and embracing of the expansion of the universe as an indication, a hint, perhaps, an invitation even, to expand with it our minds, wherever in this universe we happen to be or be from; and who therefore, by definition, by implication also, and by both conscious and subconscious intention, seek a future that is, in definably qualitative terms better than the present, which, even though it often may not seem so, is certainly better than the past, because it is wider, with therefore more scope for both meaning and interpretation, for both substance and differentiation—if young people want a future at all, they have to demand it. Not ask for it nicely, not politely sit in the corner waiting for it to be offered, not wonder will it be offered at all, but get out on the street, get up on the box, get into the fray, whatever, wherever it may be, literally, metaphorically, passionately, and demand it, their future.

‘Because the old people will mess it up for them, for certain. There is no alternative, sadly, and no alternative outcome, because old people—with comparatively few and notable, also respectable, exceptions—are inclined (I’m inclined to say “programmed”) to maintain their status quo, for no other reason than that it is familiar, comfortable.

‘But realise, of course, that in an expanding universe there is no standing still. If you cling on to the status quo, thinking it stable, thinking it solid, thinking it, therefore, by definition and by implication, dependable and so, if nothing else, for yourself, “good,” you are in fact regressing. In a world like yours in which—as in all worlds currently known to anyone—entropy is an inescapable principle at work on everything, stagnation is a move to obsolescence. Old people—always allowing for significant, but comparatively small, numbers of exceptions—surrender to their own fate of obsolescence long before they reach it, and that is why old people cannot, in their majority, help but mess things up for the young. So unless young people get up and demand their future, there can be none. There can only be the status quo, which is in fact a regression, which is the past. Which is definitely and infinitely worse than the future. It has to be, because this whole universe was smaller, narrower, more confined than it is now and than it will be, with therefore less room, both literally and metaphorically, and less time, both literally and metaphorically, in it to think, and invent, to love, and to be.

‘How mundane it seems to me, as you can imagine, to cite for you concrete examples, but since you ask’—I didn’t think I was asking—‘take the obvious ones, the ones in your “news” right now, as we converse: If young people are in Britain and want a future in Europe they have to demand it. If they are in the United States and they want to survive their school years, they have to demand it. Demand freedom of movement. Demand education in unarmed environments. Demand the right to live somewhere affordable, clean, safe and sane. Demand free and comprehensive health care. Demand the right to speak and think freely, and to disagree with anything I, or you, or anybody else is saying. That’s the promise of civilisation, everything else is barbaric.

‘Your youth has to claim civilisation. Not with violence, of course, but with power. Their force is in their numbers and in their energy, in their ingenuity and in their spirit. Their force is their future. They must use it. You can’t do it for them. But,’ and here Sedartis changes his tone, and, for the first time ever, I hear him sound almost seductive, ‘you can help them: you can tell them you are on their side, you can let them know you want their future for them as much as they do, and they will understand; because of course they know all this already, they don’t need to be told, they just—if anything—need to be encouraged. Reassured maybe. To know that you don’t hold their rebellion against your present as directed against you, but only against your present, and that their demand, no matter how unreasonable it may be made to sound by those who oppose it, is reasonable, essential even, to the continuation of your civilisation. They instinctively know this. They need, if anything, only perhaps to be reminded.

‘Remind them only: you are on their side. You want them to live and to thrive. You want them to stand up for their future. Because if they don’t, their misery will be great, and their death, their despair, their destruction long. And it will fall to their miserable, angry children to do what their parents failed to do: to demand—not request, not beg, not buy and not steal—to demand and so shape their own future.’


< Plea       Critical Mass >


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Outrage

‘Stupidity,’ Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt—never have had a chance to learn—not to be so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society. As long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst; as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened; Sedartis is on a roll: ‘You talk of equality. You talk of democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into ignorance and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them, and you dread what they should do if ever they latched on to how you enslave them.’

There is a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what scraps they already know, and shore up their prejudices; you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half”—how can you even hold on to an expression like that?—and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are really schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

That’s a crass exaggeration, and unlike Sedartis, I want to protest.

‘All right, so that may be a crass exaggeration, I concede: you educate more people now, in absolute terms as well as relative, than ever before, but you’ve had so much time to make so much more progress than you have, you should be embarrassed that so many of you are still struggling so much.’

That, I find hard to argue with. Is knowledge power, still, though?

‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Brushing is a pain, but you do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to your teeth. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

Stink? I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend’—Sedartis hears me well before I speak—‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and at the way you make do. At the quick quote soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. The infantilisation of your discourse. You constantly ask: what is the simple story, what the three-act moral narrative. Because you are too torpid to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” – You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your metaphorical teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan.

‘Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you have elevated to a tiny emperor and given permission to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect someone else to bend down and pick them up for you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so near to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life.

‘Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you on their evolutionary path, but that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can take no credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. What you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings.

‘How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating, when you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

‘What is the thing that matters?’ I ask Sedartis.

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long, long time, and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean, ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it, unknowing but yearning to understand, and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see,’ says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters, because you have no control over anything else.

‘You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand, and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’


< Query       Plea >


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