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.’
For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to The Tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening on Thursday 18th August, from London.
In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning—aflush, aglow and awonder—from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to consider whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh,” and I note on The Tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good, if not quite a lot better, can be done, actually.”
The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. Now, listening to myself then, I sense I can maybe do what I never could at the time: indulge myself, just a little. Although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though everything came incredibly easy to me, it didn’t. I never actually indulged myself then: I was, if anything, highly critical of myself and unsure of almost everything. But I tricked myself into appearing otherwise.
Now, I feel a warmth towards me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…
I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory in Paris. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988,’ and try as I might I could not see a train listed to this place anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness that surprising, that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my still European mind was entirely reasonable then.)
So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly, and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person to start over again, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office, and here I fared a little better because while I was still profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.
I must have been travelling on Interrail (nowhere on The Tape do I specify) or at any rate have already been in possession of a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which for some reason or other must have looked plausible to me. The train was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late, and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give it much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains, and so I was maybe just a tad tired.
Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased, and the lights went out. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station—all dark, all empty—obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night.
Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about the concourse around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacks, and I felt unperturbed, as far as I can recall.
Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station, and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside. While some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained, and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping next to him a few feet apart on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night,’ I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again, and those of us who had, or thought we had, trains to catch were let back inside.
Now, what on The Tape in my a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep), I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at establishing how to get to Grenoble from Paris.
I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it to be, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon, all the time.
To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so, after asking a few more people, I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle, like a mysterious lock to which no key can be known, like an impenetrable riddle in an unbreakable code.
By this time I can barely keep my eyes open, and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours’ rest on the pavement outside, and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag. I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed, and asks me if I’m lost.
‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes,’ I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days, and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of this may be, but the price flashes up on the machine, and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. Before I can explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.
I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations since have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, three decades later.
And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man—with a smile, two minutes of his time, and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money—has made the world a much, much better place.
Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…