The impossible city

Simon McBurney makes theatre and films.

All in the mind

"The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind," writes Lewis Mumford.

From my bed where I write this I can hear the Holloway Road. Incessant traffic. I live high enough, the fourth floor, for the noise not to be impossible. But it is always there. It is so present that I miss it when I am not here. Like someone who is absent.

Like the majority of Londoners, I was not born in London. Or the majority of Parisians for that matter. I ended up here. It was not the first city I chose to live in; that was Paris. Cambridge, where I grew up, is called a city. But right now I am thinking of my friend Noma in New York. She died in March. But she is still as present. As the sound of the Holloway Road.

I am lying beside Noma on her bed. She and Flory live on Central Park West. They chose the third floor to be no higher than the trees in the park outside their window.

Noma cannot move much any more. Maybe to the park and back on a good day. But she is still planning to go to Africa in the summer. To see the elephants. She had a lot of metal put in her back when she fell down a hole fifteen years ago. She is used to living with pain, used to being immobile. Not just physical pain. She has lived with epilepsy all her life. If you have ever taken pills for epilepsy, then you would know she has always seen life through a kind of mist. She is the clearest person I know. New York at the end of January is bitterly cold.

It is late at night. We talk. I am looking at a photo of her hands taken by Man Ray.

When was that photo taken, Noma?

In the '50s. He took one of my ass, too. That was when I lived in Paris.

You lived there. Tell me, I want to hear.

She closes her eyes.

I close mine too and our two epilepsies conjoin.

What year is it?

The voice seems to come from a long way away.

What? I ask.

What year is it?

1980, I reply. I feel uncertain about this. My mind is fuzzy and I look up at the doctor who is asking me this question. For some reason, he seems to have a French accent. I look at my friend Tony.

Where am I? What are we doing here?

You're in Paris, says Tony.


You're in Paris.


Paris. You're in Paris.

What are you talking about?

The trolley rolls on. Tony disappears behind a set of doors that swing to and suddenly everyone is speaking French. What the fuck is going on? I look down to discover I am wearing a green apron. I am unloaded into a bed. There is a very young doctor from Cambodia. I can't understand a word he is saying. I am most definitely not asleep but what am I doing here?

Can I come with you? I asked.

You're staying here, my father would tell me in the hall.

Why are you wearing your suit?

I'm going to London, Simon darling.

By train?


When my father went to London in the '60s and '70s, he always wore a suit; my mother, a dress. And on the rare occasions when we came along, our best clothes. Clean shorts, a white shirt. It was mysterious and grand. At Cambridge station, there was the ticket collector who spoke in falsetto and had a harelip. Coming into Liverpool Street, the backs of the red brick houses seemed dark and orphaned.

Do people die there? I asked my father.

He died of cancer before I went to Paris.

Tony appears at the doorway.

What's going on? I ask.

You've had a fit.


An epileptic fit.

Why am I in France?

You came here three months ago.

No I didn't.

You did.

Tony was my friend in Paris. He had stolen my girlfriend off me the previous summer and then come looking for me. I am in hospital. But for several hours, I cannot remember coming to France at all. Then I can see the bus to Paris. The boat. Then the room I lived in. My landlord shouting at me. Being thrown out because I could not afford the rent. Sleeping in the Gare du Nord.

Why have I had a fit? I ask the man in the white coat.

There are several possibilities, says the student doctor from Phnom Penh.

His face brightens.

Maybe it is a brain tumour, he says with professional interest.

And my father coming back from London was an event.

I went to Bentley's.

Aha, says my mother, I thought you were looking guilty!

My father rattles his keys in his pocket.

We'll both go next time...

They exchange looks and laugh lightly.

What's Bentley's? I ask.

Somewhere where he eats oysters, replies my mother.

My father sighs. I push my nose into his jacket. His suit smells of smoke.

Sorry darling, there was only one non-smoking carriage on the train home.

I do not tell him, but I like it. It smells of everywhere I have not yet been and everything I have not yet lived.

I fed my father as he was dying. He did not want to eat. He looked at me malevolently and pushed the spoon away. I pushed it back. He pushed it away; I pushed it back and onto his mouth.

Help! Help!

His sudden shout gave me a fright. He had not been speaking for a few days. The cancer was into his brain. A tumour. I guiltily tried to cover up the event by lying to my mother when she burst into the room...

A tumour?

Yes, says the doctor, with increasing enthusiasm.

In your brain. We'll know more after an EEG, an Electro Encephalogram.

In 1981, there were no MRI scans. No ultra sound or heat scanning. The EEG required you to put on a rubber hat with electrodes on it and this pushed electricity through your head and produced a picture of how your brain functioned. They then shone stroboscopic light into your eyes and looked at what happened.

I close my eyes.

Jim's here, says Tony.

Jim stands above my bed.

Just checking on you, he says.

Jim Haynes lived in New York before he came to the UK with the US Army at the end of the '50s, jumped his national service and founded the first British paperback bookshop in Edinburgh. He then created the Arts Lab in Covent Garden in '67. Beside the market. A place where the cinema had mattresses rather than seats, where Jim introduced Yoko Ono to John Lennon, and where he put on a show called "Tea with Mrs Green". Six seats meant it was sold out. Jim would lead people down a side street and up some stairs. Knock on a door. It would be answered by an old woman, who would invite the "audience" to sit down. She would then serve them tea. She was Mrs Green.

Tony and Jim look at me.

Cold out, says Jim.

What do you remember?

I remember walking faster and faster and then feeling faint.

You fell against a window and began to shake, says Tony. You were frothing up saliva. And when you were in the police van, you gave them your name-address-age, and then told them to fuck off.


You can stay with me, says Jim.

Before I was in hospital, I stayed with Jim, along with quite a few other people. Yesterday morning, I awoke to find the couple next to me fucking noisily.

I opened an eye and saw Jim, who was munching a bowl of cereal, and watching with interest.

Jim liked sex. It was what he liked most in fact.

After London, he moved to Amsterdam where, with Germaine Greer in the early '70s, he founded a magazine called SUCK. It folded two years later, so Jim packed up and left for Paris, Germaine went back to London. In Paris, he persuaded his friends to buy him an artist's studio where every Sunday he would hold a soirée. We all put in money, someone would cook, and Jim would hope to get laid.

Now, he taught at the University of Vincennes at Saint-Denis. His own course.

A course entitled "Fullering".

What's that, Jim?

A course about making your life fuller and less full.

He published a book. Workers of the World Unite and Stop Working: Jim Haynes' Answer to Marxism.

He printed something called an International Passport. People reportedly travelled on them in South East Asia right up to the end of the eighties...

No thanks, Jim, if I ever get out of this hospital, I'll find somewhere.

Later on, riding the Metro, I found 600 francs tucked into my pocket.

And then, on the fifth floor of 13 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, in the 11th arrondissement, I met Madame Chève. Yvonne.

Moi j’habite Paris depuis que je suis enfant. Toujours au quatrième ou cinquième étage. A présent, j’ai quatre-vingt-six ans.

Vous êtes veuve?

Non, je ne me suis jamais mariée.

Pourquoi ça?

Euh, bah… à l’époque je pouvais me marier avec qui je voulais. J’avais cinquante fiancés. Il faisaient tous l’amour avec moi.

She chuckled wickedly. Her eyes twinkled.

Pourquoi pas, alors?

Parce que tous les hommes que j’ai connus de mon age ont été tués pendant la première guerre.

She picks up her bread and pops it in her mouth.

Et j’ai perdu l’envie. Elles sont très bonnes, ces rillettes.


Oui, sauf q’un. Mon frère qui est mort trois ans plus tard. Gaz dans les poumons.

Noma turns in the bed next to me.

So what happened next? she asks.

Every day I would buy her bread. And once a week I bought her rillettes and strawberry tarte; once a month a bottle of gas. She lived without electricity. Candles.

No, I mean to you.

Apparently, 40 percent of men between the ages of 17 and 25 will have an epileptic fit. I took drugs for a year and it never happened again.

And Tony?

He lives in New Zealand. Wellington. Jim is still in Paris. He published an autobiography called Thanks for Coming. And your Paris, Noma?

Well, I am not going to tell you about my Paris again.

Why not?

Because I am not going back. I don't want to. What it was for me has gone.

Maybe one day.

No. I will die here. But I am going to Africa... July.

I was born in 1915. A long time after your Yvonne.


How old was she when she died?


Maybe I will get there...

From my bed where I write this I can hear the Holloway Road. Noma's ashes will be scattered in Kenya this summer. I listen to the incessant traffic. I live on the fourth floor, so it is not impossible. But it is always there.



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