The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away.
I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own kind and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane.
I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks—the drinks were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut off it.
In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21, the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.
There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps, and porridges seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.
But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.
I so fondly remember a flight to Nice—not that long ago—where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the film festival in Cannes, and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too.
We naturally got talking, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew, who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one, which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary, I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then (in the most agreeable way), and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.
And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA.
But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the film festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train to Leeds. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than you would if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.
And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water was subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane? And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it?
That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come—I daresay it has most certainly occurred many times before—when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.
I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA—just as flying BA—feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else.
It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…
My dad tells me the story of when he, back in 1951, aged eighteen, goes to the Lido on Lake Zürich—where he’s grown up and where he has turned himself into a Swiss Youth Champion swimmer—to try out nude bathing.
Being Switzerland and Continental Europe, Zürich has no problem with nude bathing in 1951, and so there is a designated nudist section of the Lido where swimming naked in the Lake may be relished at nature-embracing liberty by anyone so inclined.
“I walked out of the changing rooms, a little shy and uncertain, holding my towel in front of me,” I’ve seen pictures of my dad at that age—not, I hasten to add, in the nude, but wearing his swimming trunks, and in one of them, I believe, his chest adorned with a medal, or so I seem to remember—and my dad as an eighteen year old is exceptionally handsome, he’s a youth champion swimmer, after all, “and there were all these saggy old men, with drooping bits everywhere.”
I laugh my head off at the thought of my adonis dad walking out into a world full of saggy old men and drooping bits everywhere. They put him right off, so he turned around straight away and never went back, unsurprisingly.
The image, though, lingers…
How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis? If so, it is mild in the extreme.
Contradictions in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself, and so I feel; and so, I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, try to forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself, and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here…
The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born, to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to kindergarten, and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.
(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story here, and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)
The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here,’ the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, of course, geography matters less and less; I am at home in London, but I can be, and be happy, almost anywhere, as long as I’m warm, have access to food now and then, and my laptop at hand with power to last, and a decent network connection.
I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current.’ It strikes me that this may be a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one thing, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another avenue soon. I am fine with that too.
It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and everyone knows, the trip alone that truly matters.
As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now, and what I expect to do in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work, lies just ahead.
We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories, and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling that counts, as my philosopher friend—not Sedartis, a friend of mine who is a real, bona fide, professional, academic philosopher—puts it.
I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because—as I have a feeling I’ve mentioned before—if you watch paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled, most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics, and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain in scientific terms things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.
‘Look at me now and here I am,’ I say to myself once again in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.
I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I sense it, for sure.
What, I wonder to myself in a manner that brings to mind Morrissey, complete with a hint of a self-pitying whine, as I sit by another waterside—this time the almost too picturesque, too pristine Windermere—if life suddenly became real? Would I recognise most of it, still?
I had not intended to involve Sedartis in this query, but since joining me on a train from a small town outside Zürich towards my least favourite city in Switzerland, he has never entirely left my side, and he has honed to an art the disconcerting skill of hearing my thoughts before I’ve had a chance to formulate them, and responding in kind: he never says a word, yet his pronouncements are crystal clear.
I’m not sure I like this about Sedartis. His clarity. His straightforwardness. His unreconstructed linearity. Aren’t we supposed to have moved into the Age of Diffusion? Of vulnerabilities and fluidity, of connectedness, in all directions; of openness and of infinite potentialities? I probably don’t understand him, yet.
If I had a life, I would be that much happier sharing it, I surmise, almost as an afterthought, and Sedartis now latches onto me:
‘Liberate yourself,’ he urges, ‘from the Tyranny of Opinion. Yours and other people’s.’
The expression on my face betrays doubt continued.
‘Don’t banish doubt, of course,’ Sedartis clarifies, as if the idea of doing so were preposterous, though he himself comes over so doubt-free: ‘and make allowance for their doubting too; but banish weariness and eagerness to please. You had it once, don’t you recall: the Freshness of Thought, the Arrogance of Youth, the Wonder of Everything New.’
There are a lot of capitals, all of a sudden. But I do remember, I remember it fondly and well; but was I not, I also wonder, also just blind to my own …Inadequacies?
(And now italics, as well…)
‘Of course you were! Therein lay your Power. Remember Goethe, remember Boldness, remember Genius.’
I do. I remember Goethe; he is, unsurprisingly, indelibly ingrained on my mind.
Sedartis, I realise, is nowhere near as mild-mannered as I believed I had reason to expect him to be. He reminds me of someone I know—not just a literary figure I have a sense I’m confusing him with, but someone I have actually met—but he’s too fast for me, I get no respite from him; not at this moment, though he counsel patience:
‘Learn to distinguish between those who know what they’re talking about and those who just talk. Listen out for the quiet voices, the tender, the considered, thought-through ones. Those with nothing to say shout the loudest. You live in a terrible, terrible din. Find the dial and tune out the noise. Listen for the Gentle Song of Truth, it always, always plays on, it never fades out; not completely.’
I want to, I do.
‘Opinion is cheap. And instant opinion may well be worthless. If you, or the person you’re listening to, hasn’t had time to reflect, has not expended thought, has not at least slept on their ukase then you are ill advised: heed it not. Demand earnest discourse. Reject quick fixes as you scorn fast food. You would not stuff your face with salt-fat-sugar bombs from a garish-liveried American chain. Why do you allow your brain to be poisoned by rash judgments, soundbites and rushed ratings? Insight and wisdom are dear, they are earnt. They weigh substance with value. Everything else is just froth.’
I get the feeling I’m being lectured to by Sedartis, and having never suffered being told what to do, my porcupine prickle stirs under my skin. His unvoiced tone changes. He is with me, he tells me, not against:
‘Experience everything new. You once knew how to, you still know now. Free yourself from the familiar, and delve into the exhilarating fear of the unknown.’
‘It’s hard, that,’ I offer, all too feebly, ‘pulling yourself up, again and again, summoning the strength, expending the effort, over and over, from scratch…’
‘Of course it is,’ Sedartis asserts, laconic, then suddenly severe: ‘if it were easy it too would be spume, but:…’ I don’t want to hear any more, I feel a little sad now and somewhat dejected. Sedartis pays no attention to my discomfort: ‘…the universe gives us each the challenges we need to grow.’
Sedartis appears out of nowhere and joins me on my train journey from Zürich to the unfortunately named Chur, making his presence felt in the empty seat next to mine, as I glance out of the window.
(When I say ‘Zürich,’ I mean a small lakeside town outside Zürich, some ten minutes along the route, where I had boarded the train, having spent the night on the other side of the hill with friends and colleagues, talking mainly about things I am only ever half sure I half understand, but which nevertheless never fail to feed my hunger for thought, to invigorate my imagination and to massage my malleable mind.)
Where did you suddenly come from, I want to ask him, and how is it I know your name; but before I can speak we are already in conversation:
‘So,’ asks Sedartis, ‘wouldn’t you like a boat on Lake Zürich?’
‘Most certainly not,’ say I in reply, though the question seems scarcely to warrant one.
‘Why not?’ Sedartis insists.
‘Why,’ retort I, ‘what would I with a boat on Lake Zürich?’
‘Whatever you fancy,’ Sedartis enthuses: ‘sail on the water, enjoy it, splash about in it a bit!’
The puppy dog wag of his voice wearies me.
‘I enjoy water much as I enjoy women,’ I say in measured tones, unsure of the ground I’m suddenly skating on, without consciously having made any decision to foray at all, onto ice thick or thin: ‘from a distance. To look upon and marvel at their splendour, be it shallow or deep. I have no need to sail upon or splash about in them.’
Sedartis seems saddened by my lack of alacrity on the matter and produces an apple, far too symbolically. He contemplates it for many a long second and then takes a bite from it in a manner that could, though perhaps it ought not to, be described most accurately as ‘hearty.’
He vaguely reminds me of a character in a book I undoubtedly once would have read, but I don’t remember the book or the story (not least as I’m unsure I’ve even done so yet, or whether this is something I am still to do), and I feel that now he’s here it would be rude of me to dismiss, blank or reject him, or to send him away; and so part of my onward journey, simply, unassumingly and innocuously enough, he becomes.
From Milan I take the train to Chur. Chur has never been my favourite place in the world, and it’s not difficult for me to say why: it feels dour. It is, apparently, the oldest city in Switzerland, and it has, I believe, several things going for it, none of which is entirely evident to me. Mainly because it sits hemmed in by big mountains that deprive it of light, almost completely, in winter, while not being splendid enough in the summer to offer any type of gorgeousness in terms of a view. My sister at this time lives in Chur, and I am heading towards her to spend a couple of days with her, The Tape tells me.
My memory of this is, again, hazy, but I’m clearly delighted: “It is wonderful,” I narrate, “to spend time together and talk,” for the first time in years. And I know this was so. To this day, I enjoy spending time with my sister, though to this day I don’t do so often enough, and on this occasion, we must have had a lot to say to each other: I was back in the country where I grew up, but which I had always struggled and never found it either necessary or entirely possible to call home, for the first time since, almost exactly three years earlier, I had left with two suitcases, one red and one black (and neither of them with castors) and a friend’s address in my pocket, in Enfield, thence to make London my home.
Helvetia. I like thinking of Switzerland as Helvetia. It has something sturdy, Celtic, dependable to it. Unique. Firm and reassuring. ‘Switzerland’ sounds—maybe because it so much has become—like a brand, a theme park, a place where you go on holiday. Helvetia is a place you were rooted in, once. Whether you then uprooted yourself, and for whatever reasons, fades into the background, into the fabric: it does not become insignificant (nothing of that kind ever does), but it’s just there, part of the character, part of the being, part of the history, part of the substance, the core. And so is Helvetia.
The train from Milan to Chur, I relate to The Tape, “took absolutely ages,” but also “provided the most admirable views.” It’s one of these instances where I betray the fact that I’m not yet on top of the subtleties of the English language. I hear myself do that a lot on this recording: I nearly get the word right, but not quite. I still, from the back of my mind, translate traces from German, maybe not so much words, as concepts, perhaps. I’m just not quite there, yet.
In Treviso I change trains and board “this incredible little red train, consisting of about three carriages, all the way up, over the San Bernardino Pass.” Here my memory suddenly kicks in again, vivid and strong.
I remember this journey, this train. And with awe. I remember the windows being open and the warm summer air wafting in; I remember the noise, intermittently suddenly so much louder, going through tunnels; I remember the green and red covered seats: red for smoking, green for non. I was a smoker then, I may have been travelling red. Then again, I may already have been doing what I used to do for a while: park myself in the non-smoking section and nip to the red part of the carriage for the occasional cigarette. The train wasn’t full, I remember it being almost empty. It’s a glorious journey, and one you can still do. Now, they have state-of-the-art rolling stock with huge panorama windows, and smoking is a definite no-no, but the trains are no faster, and the views no less stunning, than they were then.
I seem to also recall that I met up here with an old school friend whom I would shortly be linking up with again in Paris, but The Tape makes no mention of this, so perhaps I am wrong. Come the following Saturday, I take a train to Basel.
This is where I went to school, this is where I grew up: the first twenty-one years of my life. I spend eight or nine hours talking to Peggy, my best friend then and my best friend now from our high school days, and today as then, when we meet, we find ourselves talking for hours. Eight or nine is nothing unusual: if you pitch up at six, have an apéro, have dinner, sit out on the balcony, keep on talking, before you know it, it’s three in the morning…
On Sunday Peggy, my mum and I go to see an exhibition (I don’t tell The Tape which one, and I can’t remember), and then my brother comes round with his two sons, one of whom is my godson. There is a photograph of this occasion, which takes place in my parents’ garden, with me sitting between the two boys, looking at a picture book, maybe reading them the story. My mother, a little while later, sent me this picture in a card with a quote in German: Es ist ein ungeheures Glück wenn man fähig ist, sich freuen zu können. German websites attribute this to George Bernard Shaw. I try to find the English original, and so far I fail. ‘It is a tremendous fortune to be able to find joy in things,’ is more or less how I would translate it back, but it still sounds more clunky than it should. If it’s Shaw. Maybe it’s been misattributed, that’s possible: many things are.
“Then we went to see Ironweed at the cinema.” I don’t remember anything about this, the film or who is ‘we’ in this instance, but my 24-year-old self puts on record that “it was like no time had passed at all.” Maybe because hardly any time had passed, a mere three years…
Tuesday I spent in Zürich, “meeting, luckily, Benjamin for the first time in absolutely years,” and also Beatrice. Benjamin. Beatrice. These two people: they are lodged in my mind, in my soul. Benjamin more than Beatrice, and in a much different way, but both register, both matter, both shaped who I was and therefore who I now am.
The meeting with Benjamin I remember clearly. He was his usual, laconic self. He was the boy I was most in love with, for a very long time. We were in no relationship, he never, as far as I know, reciprocated my feelings, he was not even gay, he was just the boy I most loved.
By this time, he would have been about twenty-two, and he’d either just been released or was on day-release from prison. He’d been sentenced to prison for no crime: he was a conscientious objector and had refused to do military service, which in Switzerland at the time carried a prison term and a criminal record. He was unfazed by his time in prison: he took this, as he seemed to take everything, in his stride. Granted, the way he talked about it, it also sounded like prison for conscientious objectors in Switzerland was by now a gentle affair.
He was beautiful, as I had always seen him, and unruffled. Unexcitable, but good humoured. I’d carried him around in my heart for the entire duration I’d been living in London, and I continued to do so for many years after. It was only really when one day, on a Sunday afternoon, he phoned me, out of the blue, to tell me he’d received a letter I had sent him many months earlier, care of his mother, and we talked for maybe five hours or so on the phone, both getting increasingly woozy on our respective drinks, that I was able to put that love where it belonged: in the past, in my youth. In a time before even our reunion here now in Zürich.
I have memories of us sitting at my parents’ home next to each other on the sofa all night long talking, drinking coffee, almost getting high on it, so much of it we drank; of us walking in the fields near his parents’ home on Lake Zürich on a wintry afternoon; of us first meeting at a school fete… I have everything with me still, as if it were yesterday. But only since maybe ten years ago, slightly less, am I able to think of it really as yesterday. I believe I once kissed him, I’m not even sure. I’m sure that I always wanted to. Always.
How deeply that boy had seeped into the folds of my brain. How strongly he clasped my heart; how warmly, how tenderly I longed for him, for how long. I still have his letters, of course. I no longer have this desire: I’m glad it has gone, I was able to bid it farewell. Not the memory though, not the fondness. I am over him now, but I cannot, and nor do I need to, get over how much I loved him.
Beatrice, I also remember, also fondly, but not on that day. I certainly kissed her, and she me. She was, I’m quite certain, keener on me than I was on her, but I liked her, and for a short while it was as if we were together. How strange, to think of it now. But that alone, having been the girl with whom I was once almost together, secures her a place in my self. She, too, is part of me; was then, is now.
Wednesday a lunch with a friend. “In all,” I recount on The Tape, I “had a chance to see lots of people.” Also my grandfather. I was “very worried about grandfather, he looked very ill and weak; he was very nice, but I have an impression that any time we meet might be the last time.” And so, I believe, it proved, on this occasion.