It is late afternoon, the invisible sun is probably about to disappear below the horizon, and the powdered snow which had covered the streets when I awoke this morning has long since vanished. My cat has settled himself on the couch next to me, his back in my direction as usual, having been petted and stroked and convinced that ten minutes is long enough because I have other things to do, and that there is no tin of tuna on my writing table for him to greedily attack. I can finally turn my attention to a few of the more enjoyable things in life, which include letter writing and reading books. Since I am able to combine the two, along with another of my interests, the evenings are almost a festival of and for the mind: no distractions; no pressing engagements; no television blaring in the corner. In fact, no television at all, I am surrounded by books – on three sides – in my writing room and photographs in my work room and simply do not have time for this mass-produced form of mind-destroying entertainment. I have the Internet for research and general interest, otherwise everything revolves around the printed word, the printed image. Which means that my letters tend to be on book-related or real life-related subjects rather than the latest soap operas and the love trysts between Hollywood starlets and their directors, Hollywood divas and their soon-to-be ex-men. There is enough excitement in real life without having to put up with the scripted foolishness of those seeking the limelight.
Which is probably a very strange thing to write when you consider the fact that I am constantly involved with the written word, with books and periodicals, and not so much with the society which surrounds me. Whilst literature does take up a good deal of my time – be it fictional, biographical, historical or philosophical – there is always more than enough time during the day, and especially the evenings, to get out and about, to live life, and to experience what is happening at first hand rather than having to rely on the reportage of someone else. That from my side, of course; for others, as you understand better than most, there is a very limited appreciation of real life available when it comes to society simply because of their situation in life. For some the television is their only connection to a form of society, to the lives of others which are different to their own, or even to a glimmer of hope that all is right with the world even when their own personal bit of ground seems to be more of an abyss than a safe resort, and considerably less than a personal space. That is for those who have no other choice, but what of those who can move freely? Those who do not have these institutional restrictions and can make their own choices? Why do they sit in front of a flickering little box – or, far more modern, a flat and massive frame – and allow their lives to tick irreversibly away by concentrating on the faked lives of others? Even the so-called reality shows are scripted and have little or nothing to do with the real world as we experience it.
So, literature and books are my thing, and that is what I tend to write about more than anything else. Which is not quite as true as it might seem on first glance: I do, indeed, write about what I read, but often bringing the words of others into a new context as I mix them with current events, with other areas of interest. It is sometimes fascinating to see how the words of a man who lived two thousand five hundred years ago can be relevant today. Or how the actions and beliefs of a society which stretch back generations, and which we believe are no longer relevant today, can be shown as tangible parts of modern society still. And that regardless of our social, legal, political or personal advances. Society changes, it moves on according to new mores, according to changes in technology, according to fashion and the desires of the people who make it up; but the background, the underlying core of society remains similar if not unchanged throughout, no matter the surface advancements.
Whoever thinks that we know nothing does not know
Whether we know enough to say that this is so
according to Lucretius, although I am sure it has been said by many others both before and since: other words but the same meaning.
One of the advantages of living in a library is that you always have something to base a letter – or an article, or a talk – upon. I come across such wonderful works which almost demand sharing, commentary, discussion, but rarely anyone who is willing to take a chance and give their opinion. Or, to be more honest, anyone who has the education today. Literature is going the same way as writing letters; disappearing down a black hole created by educationalists who do not see the advantages of the liberal arts, of the humanists, of all that we have learned over countless generations about ethics, logic, rhetoric, poetry. A disadvantage is the number of distractions once a book is opened and it begins to exert its powers. Sometimes I get into a book and it references another, and I begin a long train of reading and cross-referencing until the original book is far from my mind, and my initial train of thought gone too. I had a short discussion in a street café with a friend a week or so ago, and we were talking about reincarnation and Nirvana and promised to come back to the topic again later. So, to be well prepared I went into my library and pulled out a few good sources, and then it began. I found an extract from Plato’s Timaeus which goes:
He who has lived well rejoins the star to which he is assigned; he who has lived badly changes into a woman, and if even then he does not reform, he changes back into an animal of a kind suitable to his vicious ways, and he will see no end to his punishments until he has returned to his natural constitution, having rid himself by the power of reason of the gross, stupid, elemental qualities that were in him.
So. Fair enough, we all know that there are people still who believe that a woman is of considerably less worth than a man, and this piece was written roughly two thousand, four hundred years ago when the world was a completely different place. The fact that some are still convinced it is correct – maybe not the reincarnation as a woman and then further down the food chain as an animal – is sad, but there are fewer in the world than back then, percentage wise. Some of our Christian religions, and many other religions around the world, still have it as a hard and fast rule in their dogmatic belief that women do not have a soul, so we shouldn’t really expect anything else. But this is a mere example of how the train of thought begins. From Plato, or whoever I began with, my researches can go further to modern times or, perhaps better, to more recent times. Here we find much the same sort of belief, not necessarily of reincarnation – although that is most definitely still there – but of a woman’s place in the world, in society, in the home, in business, in education and so on. Rarely is it of what you could call of a friendly nature, although I appreciate that such beliefs go beyond gender and also encompass ethnic origin and religious belief.
I was working my way through four or five different books, though, and finally came across an extract in the notes of an older work I had not noticed before. It is a reference to what might once have been normal practice, although I have found no proof yet that this was so, and concerns the manner in which men seek out their brides. You will undoubtedly have heard of the ancient feudal system whereby the Lord of a manor claimed the right to sleep with a young virgin woman on the night before her marriage. You will also, I have absolutely no doubt, know that arranged marriages are still considered the only way for a man – or, better, his family – to find a suitable bride. My attention, however, was brought to the notes of an edition of Utopia by Thomas More which referenced a work by John Aubrey called Brief Lives. It seems that one of the suggestions to young people wishing to get married, in this Utopian society More had created in about 1516, was that they should see one another stark naked first. Now, for a work of fiction, no matter in which period it might have been written, a seemingly forward suggestion, as if the appearance of a person mattered more than all their other attributes. More undoubtedly takes this considerably further and does not countenance marriage without a few more conditions, but other people seem to have taken it rather more seriously.
The story which Aubrey recounts in his work is, in theory at least, true, and goes like this:
Sir William Roper of Eltham, in Kent, came one morning, pretty early, to my Lord, with a proposal to marry one of his daughters. My Lord’s daughters were then both together abed in a truckle-bed in their father’s chamber asleep. He carries Sir William into the chamber and takes the sheet by the corner and suddenly whips it off. They lay on their backs, and their smocks up as high as their armpits. This awakened them, and immediately they turned on their bellies. Quoth Roper, I have seen both sides, and so gave a pat on the buttock he made choice of, saying, Thou art mine. Here was all the trouble of the wooing.
I must admit, I had thought my memories of Utopia to be fairly good, but this law for young couples had completely escaped me. And the idea that someone, back in the sixteenth century could simply pick out a bride in such a manner threw me completely. However, checking the biography of Roper I see that he married Margaret, the daughter of Thomas Moore, in 1521. Clearly, of the two young women, she had the better buttocks. She was born in 1505, which made her sixteen at the time of marriage, and went on to become one of the most learned women of the sixteenth century, and died at the early age of 39 in 1544, having had five children of her own. She is remembered not only for being well educated, a translator – English, Latin and Greek – and letter writer, but also for bribing a guard on London Bridge to give her the decapitated head of her father – who had been executed by Henry VIII and had his head displayed on the bridge to warn off anyone else wishing to set themselves against the king – which she then took home and pickled.
Clearly, if Margaret Roper had been a man with a bad life history previously, she made it back into Fate’s good books after this and got back to her assigned star. The whole series of tales, however, seem so unreal – the slap on the buttocks, the marriage, the pickled head – it’s hard to believe that these people were the forerunners of our modern society. Although, admittedly, if you take a small trip through history, there is probably no one without a dark side to their character or lifestyle, and this is also what makes them considerably more interesting. Although, I’m not so sure that I would wish to live with a woman who keeps the preserved head of her father at home. You’ll be relieved to know, however, that it did receive a decent burial after her death and isn’t lying around the house somewhere in Kent any more.
I recently came across a list of themes and questions for letter writers who are at a loss to find a suitable subject matter. There were something like three hundred questions – maybe more, I didn’t pause to read all the way through, and certainly didn’t start counting them – which covered many different subjects. I didn’t take a copy. I’ve been writing letters since the early Eighties – we are of roughly similar age, you and I – and have never had a single day when there wasn’t something new, something interesting happening which was worth mentioning, exploring, discussing in a letter. I can understand that not everyone sees the world in the same fashion as I do, and I can also understand why some people would be scared off by my writing style, my subjects, the length of my letters, but I find it sad that so many people do not look and see. That so many people do not appreciate what they have, and share it with others in different parts of the world who cannot see what they do. A sunrise in Arizona is beautiful I am sure, but a different beauty to one I would experience here in Germany, or have experienced in France, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Belize, back home as a child in London, or anywhere else I have had the good fortune to be.
Happy who knows the origin of things,
And who can scorn inexorable fate
And fear, and greedy Acheron’s howls of hate.
My cat demands attention, my writing hour draws to a close.