A Butterfly In Brazil
One of the things that I find fascinating about younger people is their firm belief that when they have planned something, no matter what it is, how simple or complicated, it will work without any problems whatsoever. They are so convinced of themselves, of their future, of the plan they have made, they cannot see either left or right, and certainly do not recognise any potential obstacles which might be placed in their paths. These hurdles which need to be taken in your stride, preferably at a considered gallop, tend to be other people in the main, and the course of events to a lesser extent. What many people tend to forget, and this is certainly applicable to the younger generations – all younger generations through the course of history, not just our one – is that there are other people out there, and they have plans too. A single, simple action by someone totally unconnected to our planners, can throw the future of countless others into disarray without there being any direct connection. What we would call the butterfly effect is, for those who love a complicated world full of strange definitions, the chaos effect which is, according to Wikipedia:
… a branch of mathematics focused on the behaviour of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. ‘Chaos’ is an interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organisation, and reliance on programming at the initial point known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. For example: a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.
That’s a lot of words for a very simple theory, summed up succinctly in the final line, which might have saved a good deal of time in reading and understanding if it had been placed first. However, since we are dealing with other people and the culmination of many different events, what I would have put first to make something simple, is not what someone else likes to see there, because the long-winded is, for them, more impressive. I know a good deal about things which are long-winded, since I am a letter writer who, quite probably, could fit everything he had to say which was of importance – or interest to some – on the back of a standard postage stamp, with room to spare. What we used to say, back in the days when I was still officially studying and before I began to get any real pleasure by studying through giving up the official part, is: when a butterfly farts in Paris, you feel the wind in Moscow.
Luckily the smell has dissipated by then, but the effects remain, in theory. So someone makes all their plans, and a butterfly – or another person far away – decides that they wish to follow their plans, and it all goes downhill from there. I suspect that it is exactly the same as the events you describe in your letter: something small happens, and it all gets blown out of proportion. What might have seemed like a good joke, a comical remark, a slight aside to one person, is an insult on the memory of the mother of another, and has to be revenged. So I get to read about people on twenty-three hour lock-down simply because a man in another block wanted to have a shower at a certain time of day, and couldn’t. Or of a young man with a high chance of a brilliant future, offered a full scholarship to study at college, sitting in Rikers Island after it has clearly been shown he had nothing whatsoever to do with an incident, standing to lose everything, because the judge has taken a few days vacation and the system does not seem to allow another judge to take on the case and dismiss it.
In my case it is probably Facebook which messed up all of my plans, possibly Twitter or Instagram, or some other social network which has an application for smart phones. I hasten to add: I am not against all these social media companies because of what happened to me, but purely and simply because I believe they are ruining people’s lives and taking them away from reality. I had my Christmas vacation planned, visits to friends, a whole pile of books I wanted to buy and many other things I wished to do and could have done, but for this small thing which Zuckerberg or one of the others invented. Had they not brought their program out onto the market, expanded through the internet so widely that everyone and his dog – literally – has an account, and all feel the necessity to check their timelines and status updates every few minutes, no matter where they are, on a smart phone which they have received for one Euro as part of their telecommunications package, then the young man driving to work back in the first few days of November last year wouldn’t have driven his car frontal into mine. I wonder whether, using this chaos theory, it would be able to prove that Zuckerberg, or one of the other inventors, was in some way negligible and, therefore, responsible for the accident? No, we don’t do that in Europe.
That there is a drug problem in the United States is a well documented fact, we even get to hear all about it in Europe as the one side tells us what a wonderful job they’re doing in the War on Drugs, and the statistics tell us that even more people are overdosing and dying. Now and then we get to see photographs, in the more scandalous media, of parents enjoying their heroin rush, while their children sit, strapped in, in the back of their car. The actions of one person have far-reaching effects, whether they understand it or not. So, as a fine reaction, both Virginia and Arkansas correctional facilities are taking action against the drug problems within their facilities where, as you know, it should theoretically be impossible for anything to be smuggled in – and where there are plenty of drugs, cell phones and heaven knows what doing the rounds regardless of the rules – by changing the manner in which incoming mail is handled for the inmates. Where it was once decided that letters should be opened and checked – read to ensure there was nothing harmful contained, and something which does make sense – now they are not only opened and checked, but also photocopied. The photocopy is then given to the recipient, and the originals are shredded, no matter whether it is a letter, a birthday car, a child’s drawing or a family photograph.
Again, I can understand all these moves, they are seen as the only possible reaction to events beyond anyone’s control, and to the actions of a very small minority. It saddens me, as you can imagine, since I enjoy writing letters and knowing that what I have written, rather than a mere copy of my words, is in the hands of that person I have addressed them to. And of course I also understand the reaction of your friend, having to step over the body of a fellow inmate, not knowing if she was badly hurt, dead or dying, because of the dangers involved, from one side or the other, of simply looking, of helping her. Social standards, helping those most in need at their time of need, seem to disappear at times, and all we have been taught from the time of our birth onwards, all we have practiced to be good neighbours and upright members of our community, al, this is thrown out of the window to our own detriment. Although, yes, I appreciate the viewpoint of those who claim that a prison is different because everyone in there, all the inmates, are criminals and have no concern for society and its standards whatsoever, although I disagree with it. A few see their own benefit through certain actions – such as joining a gang or grouping for protection and recognition – but underneath they are all still human beings and know, in their heart of hearts, what is right and what is wrong, and how they would wish to be handled if the worst came to the worst. I suspect, though, that there is a better understanding of chaos theory amongst inmates than there is in other parts of our society: they know that the slightest change in routine, a wrong word of action, being in the wrong corridor at a certain time or even meeting another person’s eyes could bring wide-ranging problems.
I have spent this week rearranging my living quarters, something I had been putting off for a very long time but which is clearly overdue, as the number of books in stacks increase and shelf space decreases and, also, because there are spaces I simply do not need any more. Whilst I have a very large house, by German standards, spread across three floors, much of it is still not rebuilt, so I concentrate my time in a haphazard kitchen, a sitting room, work area and bedroom. Up until the end of last week I also had a guest room, but rarely any guests. My children do not come to visit, and I can imagine no one else who would wish to sleep alone in my spare room. So I’ve moved my bedroom into the guest room and expanded my working area to twice the size it was. I now need to build myself a few more bookshelves and, when I can get my strength up, move my second writing desk down from the thirds floor to the second floor and into my new office. At the moment, my working desk is a dining room table – where I used to eat my meals as a child in London – which I inherited as my father died, and brought out here to Germany. The table is more than big enough for my work, although slightly cramped when I have two computers, a few files, a large and a small printer, a scanner and a card index on it and wish to do things other than write letters. My ideal would be all the technical stuff on the one desk, and my letter writing implements on the other, which would also have drawers and cupboards. For some reason, a dining table has neither.
Although it would be the easiest thing in the world to do, I cannot claim credit for your received book. I’m not even sure, to be honest, where my copy is, although I know that I have one since I rarely forget a book once it’s on my shelves. Unless, of course, I happen to have read it in English and then, a while later, find it in German with a different title; the Germans, both with books and films, are not always so exact when it comes to translation of titles, and some books have a name so at odds with the original it is impossible to match them until you compare texts. They also have a very annoying habit – which I have nothing against – of wrapping their hardcover books to prevent damage, which stops me from seeing if one or another title was first published in another language and then getting it in original. I fell for that recently with two books, one of which – The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown – would have been preferable in English so that I could quote from the original, as is my wont, rather than trusting my to own translation skills. The German title, by the way, translates as Girlfriends: A Cultural History; a marginal but important difference. Generally the fact that the original was published in a different language is recorded on the title page, with the name of the translator, and the original title on the half-title, something well hidden with a sealed book and a bookseller constantly looking over your shoulder.
There must be something strange in my appearance that booksellers do not trust me. I’ve had this my whole life, always someone watching my every move, making sure I do nothing amiss. Sometimes I am asked almost as soon as I walk through a bookshop door whether I need assistance, sometimes the assistants are surprised that a book I’ve purchased shouldn’t be gift wrapped for someone else. As a mere youth of seventeen I tried to buy a first edition copy of Lilith by George MacDonald and was challenged by the bookseller as I checked the quality of the copy – it was first published in 1895. He told me loud and clear that I could not be a collector of books, because I did not have any other copies of MacDonald’s work, which wasn’t true as I had a first edition of At The Back Of The North Wind but felt no requirement to tell such an arrogant […] so. And because a person doesn’t have one or another book title, it doesn’t stop them from being a collector. That said, I no longer use the term for myself: I have a library and I collect books, but I would no longer call myself a collector as that seems, for me at least, to leave the feeling of love for what one does out of the equation. I also don’t go searching the world for certain works – although that is much easier now – as some collectors do.
Your electronic mail provider is very well known to me: they celebrated ten years of doing service last month. In case you decide to sign up with them I have already added you to my contact list, which I generally use for those who cannot afford the postage to Germany but would still like to remain in contact. I believe a ‘stamp’ costs about thirty cents regardless where the message is being sent, or thirty cents for a page, however long they may be. A minor drawback is that you can, when I understand the system correctly, only send and receive during the time you are connected through a kiosk, and it is better to have a personal unit – which still needs to be connected to work, but is portable, and costs about one hundred and fifty dollars, or the price of a reasonably inexpensive laptop in a discounter – so that mails can be written at leisure. For me the main drawback would be a lack of printing facility, since the unit or the account only allows people to save two hundred mails in their post box. I’m one of those people who keeps letters for an absolute age – I have ones I wrote during the Gulf War which were returned to me years later – and I believe that they are a part of our social history, and should never be destroyed. Well, it’s a personal choice in the end, but I would love to see many letters from famous writers and thinkers preserved for all time. Sadly many were thrown out after being read, or destroyed when someone died, or just vanished over time. However, if it is easier for someone to use an electronic service, or cheaper, I have no problems with that at all, providing they’re willing to accept my continuing to write what I call real letters on paper and sent through the old-fashioned postal system.
I have spent an hour or more, thinking in the background whilst writing, trying to remember when the first time was that I came across, or knew of, people of colour. I went to a Christian school in the middle of London, lived much of my youth in a house a few hundred yards away from Buckingham Palace, my earliest days – that I remember – in a mews house in west London. I recall a single coloured person from this time – not including those rare few who appeared on television such as Sidney Poitier – a building worker who was helping construct a house near where I lived. This was something new to me too, the building of a house, because my central section of London just did not have it in my earlier days. Later there came something of a rush; I recall our Victorian swimming baths being demolished to make way for new offices just across the road from Victoria Station, and the old, wonderful, Army & Navy stores being replaced by an open plan glass and marble edifice.
My first years of higher education, up in North Yorkshire, were also predominantly white. I think it was about my fourth year there, almost a senior but not quite, when two coloured women came and joined the classes. Natives of India and Pakistan were all over the place: a massive influx in the Seventies, and many of the corner shops were run by them, the same as American 7/11s. Restaurants, of course: we had our own burger joints and fast food chains – Wimpy, which is also a designation for a very weak and ineffectual man – but the main attraction, aside from fish & chips, was the Indian restaurant. Chinese, of course, but mainly concentrated in an area around Soho – shady area, lots of blue movie theatres and topless bars (I’m told) – and that was about it. Up in Yorkshire it was fish & chips for all, initially wrapped up in newsprint, later in clean paper in case we all got ill from the printer’s black, which many believe ruined the flavour. On a special day we had chicken & chips, or even sat at one of the vinyl-topped tables and ate our fish & chips from a plate, with a knife and fork, like posh people. One of the major wake-ups I had coming over to Germany was seeing people at sandwiches – ordinary bread sandwiches, not club sandwiches – with a knife and fork. I still have a problem with that: invited to a buffet where we spread whatever is available on our slices of bread – several differing sorts, at that – and then I automatically pick my food up and eat with my fingers, while many around me, carefully not looking in my direction, are eating their open bread with cutlery. I justify it by saying the food is so good I just have to grab it, but in reality it is a mixture of upbringing and the desire to eat quickly so I can get more before everyone else does.
Not that I am tight when it comes to money, should I happen to have any, but I do believe in getting my money’s worth. I once went to a ceremonial meeting on the island of Rügen, in former East Germany. Stayed in an hotel overnight, took in all the sights, enjoyed the pre-tourist atmosphere and everything that went with it. Appeared in the early evening for the event and the quite expensive meal afterwards. One person, one course with wine, about thirty dollars. Dinner comprised of one (largish) baked potato with sour cream and dill sauce. My neighbour at the table and I looked at one another, and jointly decided that we would make up for the difference in cost with our weight, and then some, in wine. And we did. Annoying was the fact that I saw the sauce being delivered through the back door before we began, in large plastic buckets, but hadn’t realised what it was until too late. By then I’d paid my money and was booked in for the whole course.
But not having been brought up in an area where differences in skin colour were played upon, simply because it was never there, I have never been able to understand those who write off a significant proportion of the earth’s population just because of the accident of their birthplace. To me there is absolutely no sense it in whatsoever. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I was so shocked, at fourteen, when I discovered that the French were exactly the same as the English but with a different language. This is one of the things we were taught in school: the English are the greatest nation on earth and have never done anything bad, and all the rest are either former colonials or lesser foreigners. I have to bear in mind, of course, that had I been raised a few streets further away from Buckingham Palace, in the Castle Street tenements, my outlook on the world would have been a completely different one. Had I listened to my teachers in school instead of learning about the world for myself, at first hand, too.
I’m not sure that returning to anywhere from the past brings a great deal, aside from the realisation that everything has changed. I used to think I’d love to go back to Belize and live with the woman of my dreams there, but she is long gone – the darkest skin you can imagine, and so beautiful in spirit and actions, sadly succumbed to crack. London will also have changed beyond recognition, and it is a sure fire thing that I know no one there, or anywhere else in England anymore. Many years ago a classmate wrote and said he remembered me from a school – he found me on the internet through some charity work I was doing – and I wrote back, said I remembered him too, and reminded him of who I was. Never heard from him again. I went back to my old school one year after graduation, for the annual reunion, because it seemed like the thing to do. Walking through the grounds I was challenged by the school principal and told the area was private property. The official school reunion began the next day, and I had only been gone one year. Not that I expect people to remember me as such, but he and I had many clinches over philosophical thought, over Rights and Freedoms and society, and still my name and face had slipped from his mind as if all that time, all those – sometimes heated – discussions had been nothing. Not even worth the memory to him. So going back, with the set idea of going back to relive something, is not my thing. Going back to experience something new where the old was, is.
I think we all have a very idealised view of the past, I know that I do. I would love, from what I have read in various letters and diaries from the times, to be transported back into Victorian times and live in Chelsea which, in the early nineteenth century, was still a village joust on the edges of London. At the same time I know that I would not wish to be there; it was a completely different world to that which I imagine, filled with dirt and grime, poverty and danger. Not that these things don’t exist today, I am more than well aware there are certain areas in every city around the world where you just do not go alone or after dark – I visited Baltimore a few years ago, and wandered around one such district at five in the morning – and in the times I am thinking of the dangers were very different. There was a high level of disease connected to the poverty of the masses, and, of course, the different standards of hygiene. In some parts of London a person could hire a standing place in a crowded ‘hotel’ to sleep, held up by what we would consider to be a clothes line tied between two walls. Getting your throat cut for a guinea or two was nothing, it bothered no one, and the chances of anyone being caught for the crime was practically zero, as the police force was on its very first legs back then, and in London it was a simple matter to appear, do the deed, and then disappear back into the fog and anonymity once more.
No one accepts that the odds are stacked up against them when they have a plan: all teenagers know that they are both absolutely right, because we have no idea whatsoever of their generation, and immortal. But if you do not let them find out for themselves, gather their own experiences in life, make their own mistakes – and then help them pick up the pieces afterwards, without a word – then they will never make it alone. There are many things we would have done differently, we claim with wise hindsight, but also many things they do which we wish we had done. And, of course, we all know that it is not their fault when things go wrong: it was that butterfly in Brazil.