Neptune

i whirl within the wherefores of my wonder

still coming at me are the shooting stars, the comets, the debris

celestial collisions

i am at home here, though my longing knows no boundaries now no aim, knows no

deliverance from thought, from search for meaning

would my soul took over

would my skin shirked not the touch, would i felt this fear of losing were not real, this

holding on, this

need for explanations, this

reluctance

ever to surrender to what is: what is this if not ice not gas not water and not energy, what is

the reason reason holds me

holds me in or back, then back from what, back where, back to what end?

is there an end?

there’s no beginning, then how is there

reason?

I sit on the edge of the solar system, invisible. I’m known to exist, but nobody sees me. I think I see them, from a distance. Through a haze. I can’t be sure. Twinkles, here and there, allover really: wondrous.

I have, inadvertently, become a god. This is both puzzling and absurd: those powers they invest in me are merely mythical. I am not even drawn to water, not as other people are. Some see the sea and jump right in. I don’t. I am content to sit there, pondering. Until the time comes. Until I’m ready. Until I feel the need. Until curiosity gets the better of me. Or temptation. Or just the wanting to have been in the water before going home. Not so much the desire to be in the water as the desire to not not have been in the water at all. For a moment. Or two. With the lover, the dolphins, the mermaids, the waves and the fishes. The other gods. The propensity to ponder. It may be an affliction; but why not. ‘Why not?’ seems to be the overriding question. Is it a question?

I walk from my planet towards the sun through the snow, falling, falling. I love the snow falling on my face as I look up at the sky at the space at the universe the aboveness and the aroundness of it all and the path ahead is white and clear and there’s no-one about. Of course not, I’m alone. Alone on the edge of the universe. A pang of love, a moment of pain. Love for whom? Pain for what? A special one now, this time, really? A sense of myself, now, really? Or of the idea of myself. Of The Concept. The Unreality. I like my reality right now, I can deal with it, I can live up to it, make sense of it, or so I tell myself, knowing it not to be true, not entirely. I walk, steadily – not fast, not slow – along the path of the planets thinking myself Neptune. I am not a planet. I am not a god. I am not a myth. I feel millions of miles away from the allness of it all but I’m about to dissolve into it and this thrills me. Is that a lonely path I walk or is it just deserted. Because it’s late. Because it’s out of season. Because it normally is, around now. Is it too late? This turns into a portentous question all of a sudden. Am I too far along the path, do I circle too slowly; but we know, we know, we are not planets, we are not rivers, we are barely human. We are human. So bare though, so vulnerable, so thoughtful, so cautious, so hesitant, so barely capable. So barely willing to survive. Yet surviving. Thriving, even, yet, against the odds. So gentle. So soft. So curly, the hair. So even the teeth. So tender the lips. So lovely the legs. So quirkily satin the belly button. So elegant the fingers. So delicate the eyelashes. So warm, so warm the chest. So fleeting, so insubstantial as I walk under fir trees and the snow they are clothed in, so bare, so wrapped up in my delusion, my reading the signs that aren’t there, my wanting it all to be and to mean something. Wanting it all. To mean. Something.

I take pictures of the snow so I can send them to him though I don’t even know if he wants to look at the snow through my lens through my eyes through the synapses in my brain that miss him, but I know he has never seen snow for real and I want to show it to him. His mind is not here any more than is his body. What of his soul? It sits right in me. He would love the snow, I know, if he saw it for real. If he were with me now. If we were insubstantial now in the snow together, seeping into the ground. I know these things. I now know them all and they all make sense and they will come to pass and it all just needs time to arrange itself now. I want to be sure. I missed Uranus on my journey, I realise, as I get to Saturn, wondering why that took so long, and I don’t mind. There’s an irony in this, but it is not a metaphor, not even a pun. Not a sign. It’s a coincidence. Sometimes you just miss a planet, that’s all.

I’d decided to surrender, to go with the flow, just to be. I’m calm at the thought, now, at ease. I feel a greater certainty than ever before, but I’m not sure about what. Just about. And I know I don’t need to investigate this, I don’t need to probe. I don’t need to understand, because I already know.

I don’t want to be the one any more who longs. I don’t want to be the one any more who pines and freezes. The one made of ice. And rocks. Enveloped in abundant gases. Who errs on the side of reason, out of sight, out of mind, out of being. I want to thaw and to melt and to meld with the one and to bloom and to lose myself in the all and to be.

And so I walk on, sunward.

120664 Loss

How grown ups ruin things. 

The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, 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.’

The slightly taller but still little boy, his friend, says: ‘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 quite 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 now.

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 casts the world in colours that but slowly fade…

No Compromise

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 same 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 it 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 and do it for real.

This used to be a pervading sensation 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 bit 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 I first 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 inside 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, perhaps, 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 time of an African boy. And 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 maybe 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 but 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 instinctively 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, and 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 my 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 letters on a black background, and when I left 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, and 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 still, after all this time, is 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?’

Origin

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, Britain and the English language.

As it was, 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 (bar the first six weeks) 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, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on 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 over 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 (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, 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, 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 a bit, 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 Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, 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: 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, my being 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 sound 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 word ‘nice’, 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 as a child. 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’, 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 provided 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 reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; 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 I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…