Though he be strong, he is not fierce; though he be powerful, he is not violent. Although he be dependable, righteous he can’t be; though he be wise, he is not heard. He is a Fire Breather: his word burns like a torch; like Elijah’s does it purify – but can it ever be understood? By whom?
He casts a curious figure in the wilderness, as he stands by the shore, by the riverbank, on the mountain, on the traffic island in the city; in the square; shadowless, peerless, ageless. The inner beauty of his mind obscured and masked by the dust on his brow and the mud round his ankles. His hair all a-tangle, his white beard streaked now only with the occasional charcoal, with a strand of dark blond here, or there ginger. His scent is not sweet, nor is he a joy to behold, at first glance.
At second glance the wrinkles around his eyes show as laugh lines, and they are merry with wisdom. At third glance the light in his eyes shines bright as a flame: the oxygen of an insight beyond.
Through meditation and study and practice he has mastered the art of putting his mind above matter, and so he has learnt to walk on water, but he can only do so when nobody watches because he knows that if anyone were to see him, they would turn him into a miracle worker, a prophet, a freak. A messiah. A wonder of no more worth than that it defies the simple laws of contemporarily understood physics.
He will not have it. He will not be entertainment. He will not speak of his understanding, nor will he surmise his premonitions other than to those who are able and willing to pause. And stay silent, but for a while. Ere they ask questions. Those who are capable of phrasing these questions from a hunger for knowledge, a desire to learn. They are not many. The shouting, the screaming, the screeching, the demands for explanations, the sarcastic tones and the jibes, the heckling, the laughter, the desire—the instinct—for tearing him down, the lust for his failure, for his destruction, for him to be hung drawn and quartered, for his undoing, are great.
He knows this, and he inwardly smiles. He has the capacity in his heart to forgive. He is magnanimous in his disposition towards those who hate him, who wish him silenced, who relish him misunderstood. Because he knows: one day something or someone will catch fire from his word and the fire will spread and will cause a great conflagration from which the lands will emerge purged and fertile for new thought to grow.
That is not his aim nor his goal nor his intention, that is just his purpose. His purpose is to quietly whisper into the din of the crowd that will not heed him, and plant the seeds he was given to sow. Until one takes hold. Until from just one or just two or just three or four, and then four or five more, some thing starts to grow.
He doesn’t even know what that could be. He has no certainty that it will not be dangerous, poisonous even, or be made such by others who will take what they find and turn it upside down, inside out; who pervert him and his gentle teachings into dogma and strife. He cannot prevent this from happening, if it must. He can only be true to his purpose, his purpose being his word.
Fear not the Fire Breather, but neither dismiss or ignore him. And doubt not the might of the Word.
How grown ups ruin things.
The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, his eyes are aglow with love, his voice alive with excitement. Swinging round the pole he’s meant to just hold on to, he tells his friend, ‘sometimes I think that everything is just a dream.’ His friend, just slightly taller, but still little, exclaims: ‘so do I!’
It’s a moment of sheer wonder. A wonder dad has lost. Dad says: ‘That’s the question my dad likes to think about, how do you know that everything isn’t just a dream; that we’re not in someone’s brain…’
The boys try to ignore him, they’re not ready for his existential, inherited angst. But dad now has the upper hand: ‘How do you know,’ he insists, ‘how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?’ There’s a smile on his face, but it doesn’t look as benign as he possibly means it to be: there is power at play now, it’s a smirk.
Slightly older but still very young boy has no answer: ‘I just know,’ he says.
Dad—to the younger boy, they don’t look like brothers to me—is like a dog with his bone: ‘But how can you be sure? Have you ever had a dream?’
This strikes me as near-cruel a question. These boys are maybe seven, eight? Older, slightly taller, but still nine-years-old-I-imagine-at-the-most boy is now unsure: ‘Yes…?’ The uncertainty infuses a slight quiver in his voice.
My heart breaks; I want to hug him and say: ‘Everything is all right; and you’re quite right too, and your little friend. Sometimes everything is just a dream, but not in this cynical, clinical way your little friend’s dad now makes you think and worry about.’ Still dad won’t let go and instead pushes on with his inquisition, until: ‘You start freaking me out,’ the little boy says.
At last dad relents, sensing the fear he has just poured over his son and his son’s gschpänli, who were just a moment ago so excited that everything could still be a dream, and to whom until just a moment ago it probably was…
The tear I shed for these boys is as heavy as the joy was light that I felt for their innocence. If only dad had had a wiser father. The prism of your childhood paints the world in colours that but slowly fade, and if it is tainted, obscured or damaged, oh how long a shadow it casts…
We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.
George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.
Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…
I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.
Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.
We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.
There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.
We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?
I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.
George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.
I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?
We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.
Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately.
I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.
But now. And here. We are.
When I look at pictures of myself of the time when I was as old as I am now that I am sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I don’t recognise myself any more or any better than when I listen to my voice on The Tape from the era.
It feels like an era because it is so remote in the past—so distant—that it might as well be an epoch. Thirty years, thereabouts. Just over a generation. I now could easily, comfortably, be my own father then. That messes with my mind a bit, but it literally figures: I left home, aged twenty-one, ten days before my mother’s fiftieth birthday.
It never once occurred to me, then, that it would perhaps be a good idea to stay for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and then leave home, as the last of her children to do so. My mind simply did not entertain that notion. It was not callousness or insensitivity, as such, it was a complete unawareness that that would even be a reasonable thing to do.
I did get my wonderful friend Asta to pick up a thin golden ring that I had bought from the jeweller’s, on the inside of which I’d had the words engraved: In Gratitude. Asta picked up the ring with some flowers, for which I presumably had given her the money, and took them to my mother on her birthday. That to me seemed reasonable then. My mother still wears the ring, of course. And while I can’t to this day explain my behaviour to her, I can see that the memento means something to her, and it means something to me that it does.
Now, as I’m sitting opposite myself at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul with a sense of wonder, I no longer, in that other sense, wonder. This really has changed. For so long I simply wondered, at everything, about all things, all of the time.
I used to wonder what the future might hold, I used to wonder how things were in the present, I used to wonder what I was and what I was to become, I used to wonder, naturally, why? Why everything, why anything, really; and I used to wonder how I could come back to this place—any place—and do it for real.
This used to be a pervading feeling of mine: I must come back to this place and do it for real. It was almost like I was on a recce, accumulating intelligence, information on how to do this when it counted, when it was real. It was never real. Now—now ironically being the time and the age and the era when I do a good solid part of my living virtually—it’s beginning to be real. And I am immensely relieved. A little scared, perhaps, yes, but in a good way, the way that you get stage fright before you go on in a play, or do a gig.
I thought at first, as first I was beginning to realise who that is, having a mojito with me, that I would want to ask myself innumerable questions. And now I realise, they don’t matter now. Now that they could be asked, they evaporate. Could it be I’m beginning to accept myself just as I am. Love myself, even? Is that conceivable, still? It’s a big word. Love.
I don’t think I ever hated myself, I’ve hardly ever hated anything or let alone anyone, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been able to love myself. I’ve overestimated myself, bemused myself, irritated myself, entertained myself, and imagined myself somehow exalted, but loved myself? I don’t know what that would feel like, so I don’t think I have.
I want to have a conversation with myself about something that isn’t me, and I ask young George how he’s been spending his time travelling across Europe. The details he tells me neither surprise nor remind me: they sound like the indifferent anecdotes of a young man who’s been travelling across Europe. The stories he’s telling me are intimate, even provocative. In a nonchalant way. I had forgotten that aspect of me: I used to be quite provocative, in a nonchalant way. I used to be rebellious, certainly, and deliberately daring. Never quite as daring as deep down I thought I ought to be though; this too, I seemed to conduct almost as a rehearsal: my daring.
George speaks in a measured, quiet tone, not dissimilar to the tone I hear on The Tape. I’m beginning to wonder whether I have already listened to The Tape, and this is essentially a memory constructed from The Tape, so as not to call it a ‘dream,’ or whether I’m yet to find The Tape; but then the chronology, in a situation where I’m sitting opposite my thirty years younger self in a delightful garden cafe in Istanbul, having mojitos and talking about travels and Europe and daring and art does not particularly seem to matter.
‘I cannot bear a compromise, in art,’ I hear myself tell myself; and young me, George, looks up and smiles that nearly-smile that I’m beginning to recognise, even like. ‘I find it abhorrent. Compromise is something, certainly, for politics, perhaps for a relationship, I don’t know; but for art: no.’ I agree with myself on this, emphatically: ‘Yes,’ George says, ‘I agree with you. Do you smoke?’ And we finally have our first cigarette together.
The silence is soothing and reassuring, and I’m reminded of a teacher at school whose name I can’t now remember who taught us clay modelling. At the school I went to, this was one of the things we did, and I enjoyed it, in principle, but I was going through a crisis.
We were modelling heads, near life-size (about two thirds or three quarter) and, having finished one of a girl, quite generic, which I thought looked all right but which didn’t excite me, I had started a second one, this of an African boy. I couldn’t get his features right. I was getting frustrated and I must have expressed this somehow, though I don’t remember the how, and our teacher, a German woman in her forties who to me then seemed neither ancient nor young but really curiously both at the same time, and whom I didn’t know well enough to like or dislike her, but whom I was able, for her empathy and her concern for my work, to respect, looked at my head and at me and then said: ‘Ein Kunstwerk muss durch den Tod gehen.’ A work of art has to go through death.
I intuitively knew what she meant, and although I couldn’t entirely comprehend it, I liked the fact that she had used the words ‘work of art’ and ‘death’ in one sentence, and combined them so that one was to conquer the other, and I thought nothing of the fact that she seemed to refer to my high school project as a work of art.
She did two or three things to my head that took all of about ninety seconds, and the way was paved for me to finish the project. I completed the head, and it spent the next two or three years in pride of place in my bedroom on a black cloth with a round badge pinned to it on which the words “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” were printed in small yellow capital letters on a black background; and when I moved out of my parents’ home, I left it behind, and since then it has been living on top of a large commode in the living room of my parents’ holiday flat in the mountains. I see it there often, and while I’m not sure it is quite a work of art, I certainly know it had to go through a death before it turned into something that is still, after all this time, in its own right, quite beautiful.
We finish our cigarettes and I ask George if he would care to go for a walk, and he says: ‘why not?’
I was born in Manchester in June 1964 into a Swiss family, and I have never been in any doubt that both these facts are of defining significance.
Had I been born in Manchester into an English family, I would most likely have grown up either in Manchester, or if not there then somewhere else in Britain, and if not that then at any rate in an English-speaking household. Had I been born in Switzerland or anywhere else, I might never have developed my powerful affinity to England and the English language.
As it turned out, I grew up as the ‘English Boy’ in a Swiss family in Switzerland, because soon after my birth—a mere six weeks—I was carried aboard a plane in a red wicker basket and flown, together with my brother and two sisters, to Basel, where my arrival was greeted with jolly brass bands and a splendid fireworks display. It would please me to think that the good people of Basel were thus celebrating my homecoming, but it just happened to be Swiss National Day, 1st August; and also it wasn’t in that sense a homecoming.
Because although I was a fiercely patriotic child, my loyalties then were always almost evenly divided between Switzerland and England, with Switzerland slightly having the edge, and as I grew into my teenage years the balance began to tip in favour of England.
But more important than that—and also perhaps more curious—although I had really done all my growing up in Arlesheim, a beautiful, picturesque and particularly peaceful and well cared-for village outside Basel, and in Basel itself, where I went to school, I never actually really felt ‘at home’ there.
I felt at home in London the moment I set foot in it when my parents took me and the younger of my two sisters there for the first time: this, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on in, I returned to London every year at least once, often twice, at first staying with a friend of the family, then with friends I made there during my visits, or at a hostel or a cheap hotel, and from as early as sixteen I started talking about moving to London.
I finished school, spent a year enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red—neither of them had castors back then—and I’d wanted to buy a one-way ticket to London. The slightly bored—too bored, I thought: I’m moving to London! That’s exciting!—travel agent laconically told me she could sell me a one-way ticket, but that it would be more expensive than buying a return and simply not coming back. It irked me, this, but I was twenty-one and I had to make the money I’d earned as a security guard over the previous few months last, so I opted for the more economical offer and bought a return, the outbound on the 1st August: Swiss National Day, precisely 21 years after I’d arrived in Switzerland.
Of course, I didn’t use the return leg, I let it lapse: I did not go back. Not, it seems, until now, three years later, when my ‘Europe Tour 1988’ took me, after Edinburgh, from Grenoble to Vicenza back to Chur and then Basel, where I saw first my sister, then my parents, my brother and his two sons (the older my godson), my other sister, and many friends from the then recent past.
The way I talk about it all on The Tape does not feel ‘recent’ though, I talk about having lived in London now for three years as a big chunk of my life, and it is a big chunk at that time: it’s all of my adult life so far.
My delivery on The Tape is measured, often very quiet (mostly out of consideration: I seem to be recording the majority of my entries very late at night; that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: I’m still a night owl…), and I choose my words carefully, though not always correctly. I refer, for example, to a part of the trip as being ‘exhaustive’ when I mean ‘exhausting,’ and I keep calling things ‘well done’ when I mean they are either well made or simply good. I forever seem a bit bemused and a bit blasé, absolutely, and also a little in awe; I marvel, but I don’t gush; I describe things as ‘fantastic,’ but say the word as you would say the words ‘flower bed,’ and often qualify things towards moderation. I sound to me now almost like someone who’s rediscovering his language, who’s searching hard, and sometimes finding, sometimes just missing, the right expression, who’s grappling, without really knowing it, for a lost code, but enjoying the process of slow rediscovery.
There is good evidence now that you pick up a great deal as an unborn child in your mother’s womb; you make out sounds and noises, and you start recognising them and responding to them long before you are able to make any sense of them. I always loved English as a child, and as a young teenager I became very ‘good’ at it (though I also wildly overestimated my abilities). Perhaps—and I do mean this ‘perhaps’ as a distinct possibility, it’s not here merely for a rhetorical purpose—the familiarity that nine months as a growing foetus and then six weeks as a newborn baby in an English-speaking environment engendered in me had already firmly, irreversibly, planted its seed.
You have to, as an artist, aim higher than you can reach: that way you may in time extend your range and eventually land further than you thought you could see. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without care; that way you may in time overcome your fear of becoming yourself.
As I listen to myself on The Tape, I realise I’m listening to a young human who has fearlessly—much more fearlessly than I would ever have imagined myself dare—stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly starting, to formulate in it a role for himself now. And this fills me with a new sense of wonder…
And so, back. Down. To Earth. Where I belong? This, my home? This desert wilderness of beauty and voluptuousness, this abundance of colour, vegetation, insects and beasts; these cities, these people, these civilisations? This art, these quantities of stuff and rubbish; these tears, these cruelties, these abominations? This joy? These excellences, these wonders? These tastes, these smells, these flavours, these sensualities, these sweet transgressions, these experiences? This catharsis? This messiness, these quarrelsome foibles; these imperfections, these obstacles? And this weather?
This air that I breathe, this need to do so; these urges, this hunger, this thirst for immersion, this drowning, these rocks on the road, these symbols, these signs? These abstractions? These metaphors, this poetry, this song and this dance? That we make? About what? This love.
Everything suddenly feels disconcertingly real again, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m sure I don’t dislike it, not as such, but I find these certainties confusing. These obligations to respond. These figures of speech, these formulations. These competitions for superlatives. These hyperboles. These headlines, these star-ratings, these ceremonies, these awards. These absurdities. These traumas of rejection or attraction, of interpretation of behaviour of looks and of glances, these whispered words, these games I refuse to play. These rules. These obediences, these categories, these schedules, these expectations. These parochial wordlinesses. This world.
This world perplexes, awes and bewilders me. Here I am, stunned to find myself on it, in it, part of it, and I am momentarily paralysed. This will not last, I feel sure, though why I should feel so I don’t know.
For a long time now I have felt like wading through treacle, slowly, cumbersomely, glued to the ground by a sticky morass that would not let go. There is no escape from gravity in this place, except perhaps on aerial silks or on skis. The former are not for me, the latter very much so. I think me on the mountain, gliding down the glorious white, with the Alps in the distance and the molecules in my lungs, and I know what it is to be free. That I know; that, I can relate to. Everything else does not quite make sense. Which is strange: I’ve been learning and trying to understand, but it still is mostly as alien to me as the planets from which I’ve returned, richer in mind yet not much the wiser. At the end of the day there is always the here and now to make something of, and now that I’m here, I might as well make the most of it. Thus I tell myself, over again.
‘Most’ meaning ‘best’: meaning all I can do. What could that possibly be? If I allow my youth up to say about eighteen, nineteen – why not twenty-one: if I allow that to be my formative phase that doesn’t yet count as my adult existence, then I’m now halfway at least through what my adult existence can reasonably be expected to be: I can still look forward, but as much can I, must I, look back. That frightens the hell out of me. That I’m here on Earth, effectively halfway through—way over, if you’re counting from birth—feeling pretty much as I felt right at the beginning, and not having made any impact at all. Not having really moved from the spot. Not having done more than tried, but without ever really succeeding, to take flight. Does that mean it’s too late? Is it ever, can it ever be simply too late? But for what? For some sort of attainment, of what? Of acclaim, recognition, notoriety, ‘fame’? Or even just love? Can love be attained?
“Be not afraid of moving slowly, be only afraid of standing still.” I want to know what the soul is. At a quantum level: the science, the understandable, perceptible, conceptualisable part of existence that is not material, not intelligent, not rational, not emotional; intangible, insubstantial but essential and real. A Quantum Philosophy. I want to know what that is.
That part of me that I can’t see when I look in the mirror and that I can’t choose one of my names to put an identity to, that I can’t express in words—and if I write another million or ten—that I sense is forming and taking shape (without shape, of course), that is there and that others, some others, recognise in an instant (others, of course, never will): that is what interests me, makes me curious to go further, encourages me, yet to delve.
And so I take my cue, once again, and affirm: I’m here now. I might as well make the most of it. Whatever that turns out to be: it probably really doesn’t matter at all, but for my soul—if nothing else—it’s better to sense me alive than just there; more joyful than to reject, to embrace; more gracious to receive what is given with thanks; and wiser to do what I can, but leave for someone else or another time what I can’t; more courageous to take the challenge, than to say no; more human, altogether, after all, to say ‘yes.’