I’ve done my share of American/English bookshops around the world, from Buenos Aires to Cairo to Budapest. Yeah, I know. It is fair to say that they tend to have a particular vibe to them, particularly at book launches. And especially when the author is a local, ex-pat. I remember with such great affection when my friend Olen Steinhauer made his first Budapest reading (the first, great, novel, The Confession) in Bestsellers, down the road from my flat in Pest. Check it out here: http://www.bestsellers.hu/.
Local expat “success” is not always warmly met, though in Olen’s case – of course, he is far too nice. But sometimes….it shifts hierarchies, and power-relations, and, er, pulling power.
Tonight at the Bergli bookshop, in the old part of Basel Diccon Bewes is reading from his new book, Swiss Watching. He’s a gay Englishman, from Hampshire, a travel writer who moved to Berne to be with his partner, they have in-laws now, he says. He too works in a bookshop. He’s a thin, gentle guy, and his reading is playful, nice, lite. We laugh along. He’s learnt German, doesn’t want to be the kind of ex-pat who can’t read the newspapers, or be “in” on the national debates. I like him, immediately.
I haven’t read Swiss Watching – but I promise I will – but feel certain that it is full of nice, fine, detail. A break with the stereotype of Switzerland, without – say – the crushing brutality of P.J O’- what was his last, whatever happened to American foreign policy, name. God, it was a strange decade.
But of course I’m not only here for the Swiss Watching. I am here also to see who is watching, Swiss Watching.
There are maybe 40 of us. There is wine and there is nibbles. I find a nook at the back, sit down, look around, and start writing. Semiotic Heaven.
After about five minutes a young groomed and partnered woman (he is pink Lacoste T, chinos, loafers no socks, fuck-off watch and tan) leans towards me.
“Will you be doing that all night?”
“That…writing. It makes a horrible noise.” A gesture that suggests I torture cats slowly.
Aggressive: “Yes, I will be doing that. All night.”
A bouffe, not a good French Actress bouffe, a surly, sulky, I didn’t go to finishing school to sit next to people like you, bouffe.
I keep writing.
“Can’t you move?” says Pink Lacoste. All: I have an MBA, you are an arts graduate, hustle. The bookshop is full now, Diccon has pulling power. PL moves his chair ostentatiously, parking himself next to a table display. “Come here,” he says to sulky. “And he smells.”
I smile politely. I probably do smell; but not of the stench of entitlement.
Later I ask Diccon about the impact of foreigners, immigrants to Switzerland. I am thinking about the Dutch, Danish, English, German Pussy Galores and their husbands that I’ve met in Baden with Norbert.
“Look,” says Diccon. “Every country needs its street cleaners, even Switzerland.” I say, perhaps not without a hint of gentle irony, the Diccon mode, that “I was thinking of Erasmus.” There will be more on Erasmus students later…
Later this evening: another Lacoste Man, an Egyptian looking Swiss, “Yes, I know, but I am a Swiss,” in an accent straight out of Lloyd Grossman’s jowl’ed English. He wants to start a debate about Baslers versus Zurich people. A wall descends, I switch off. In a minute or two I get to thank Diccon, promise, promise, to read his book, and leave.
It’s not the writers, it’s the readers.
I’ve been trying to arrange a boat to Strasbourg – like Tom – but the cruises only go to Rheinfelden. I drink red wine and natter to strangers in the Kunstmuseum courtyard.
In the cavern-frustuck morning an efficient English Rose PR is preparing an American pharmaceutical client, a burnished and nasal-clipped rather confident man of high personal opinion. “I’ve given you a slide to talk to,” she says.
When I leave he’s discussing the Presentation to the Directorate. The DG, EU take.
I so hope he’s found a cure for cancer.
Tomorrow that fabulous clock in Strasbourg.