How Could I, Who Looked So Carefully, Not Have Seen All Those Other Things?
If there is one thing that I have discovered in my many years of life on this small rock, hurtling through space, it is that there is no one who is not interesting, but hundreds, if not thousands of people who believe that their lives are boring, that they have nothing to say, that other people go out of their way to avoid them for just this reason. They believe that they do not have a story to tell, that what they have seen is nothing compared to the experiences of others, that they are a grey area on the outskirts of all that is fascinating, exciting, cutting edge, all that makes life worth living. And whilst it is not my place to burst anyone’s bubble, to tell them something they have believed all their lives they have believed erroneously, that they should cash in a reality check and take a good look at themselves for what they really are, I often do tell people to do just that. I tell them that even if their parents, their friends, their teachers and their employers tell them that their life is dull, mundane, run-of-the-mill, that doesn’t mean that it is so. It means that those people, and it is often a surprise that so many people are caught up in this trap, haven’t taken the time to look around the, to see what other people see, to listen to what other people have to say, to converse, debate, exchange ideas and dig themselves into the very fabric of life.
Imagine two people of the same age, the same background, perhaps two who have lived together and known each other for their entire lives, sitting on top of a hill looking out over the countryside, over the roofs of a nearby town, across an expanse of water. You are one of them, I am the other. As I wrote those words you will probably have had a brief glimpse of a place that you know, where this hill might really exist, where you have sat on top, at the crescent, and looked down over the scenery. I know I have, and I had several different images as I wrote, ones which you will never have lived. You saw what you have experienced in life, and I saw what I have experienced. However, we are two people who know each other exceptionally well, having known and lived one with the other all our lives, and we are together on the same hill. If we now turned to each other, would we tell one another the same story? Would what we have seen, up on that hill together, be the same? Or would we both have highlighted different aspects of the scene in our minds, coupled it with other experiences, other moments in our lives, other friends?
If we both sat down, later on in the day, and wrote a short story, or a letter to a friend, describing our day, including that time up on the hill, would we write about the same things, or would we write what we had seen and found interesting despite the fact that nothing had moved, nothing blown up, nothing disintegrated, nothing crashed; despite the fact that it was just a normal day up on a hill with a friend? If we read the short story, or the letter, that the other had written, we might come to the conclusion we had been sitting on hills facing in opposite directions, or had visited the same hill on different days, there would be so many differences between what we had encountered and what the other tells us. And we would want to know, perhaps, why our closest friend imagined something other than what we believe we had seen. We’d ask them how they could have seen the waves on the lake, for example, while we watched sunlight and shadows playing across rooftops. When we turn back to what is before us, or return on another day, we’ll look to find those things which our friend saw, so that we can experience them too. Our curiosity would have been aroused: how could I, who looked so carefully, not have seen all those other things?
When we take this a stage further, and I am sure you are well ahead of me on this, we look at what someone else has seen, what they have experienced, the things that cause them to give pause and thought when we are not there. This is an experience which we have not had, could not have had, but someone we know well, or reasonably well, or even not at all but are now talking to, corresponding with, has seen and lived through. The chances are that we will never be able to emulate this moment in their life beyond, perhaps, being in the same place. I, as an example, can write about my experiences on that night, watching the live reports in an office on my military base, as the Berlin Wall was stormed and people stood up and let themselves be counted, bringing an end to the Cold War and the final fall of this monstrosity. But I cannot recount the feelings of those people who I saw there. You can write to me about picking up a burger at the hole-in-the-wall place back home in such detail that I could almost place myself right there and visualise it, but it would still be different. I am not there, I do not see it with your eyes. I do not interpret the experience in the same was as you do, as my childhood, my formative years, my school experiences, cafés and restaurants are all completely different. We both had food at the end of it – at least, I hope that’s what came out – but everything that led up to this moment, to the time when we wrapped our fingers around the bread bun, stuck the chopsticks into the container, mixed the rice and curry together with a spoon and fork, was different.
I have been to the United States twice so far: once was merely a stopover on my way to Belize, but I got an hour or two in Dulles watching people drink beer served in jugs, which I had never experienced before; the second was a weekend in Baltimore which was also something of an experience as I had never imagined, for example, that a police car would need to use its siren at three in the morning to drive through perfectly empty streets. There were many other impressions, but these ones are those which come to mind on the spur of the moment. I often talk with people who have an idea of what England, Ireland, Germany, France, Venice or any other similar country would be like, not because they have been there, but because they have been told that everything works in a certain way, or that the people are tuned up, dumbed down, fashionable, eccentric, country bumpkins or starched city types. When I describe these countries, or individual cities, and my experiences there, you can almost feel their minds working as they update the databanks, their chins hitting chests as they learn something astonishing, the questions forming in their minds. I do not count myself as being an interesting person, compared to others. I have no knowledge of the United States first hand, which is why I love talking and writing with those who have, or Brazil Argentina, Russia, China: these are the interesting people. Other people tell me I am interesting, and are surprised when I say the same about them.
We all live in our own little worlds and have experiences which are exclusive to us. We share them, one with another, and that is what makes us interesting, that is what binds people together, that is what brings colour into our lives which we, still, consider to be so ordinary and dull. So, when you write and say that you thought I could possibly have stopped writing because you’re uninteresting, well, no. It could be that a letter was lost, or forgotten, whatever, but that is not a good enough reason for me to give up: I still want to experience the things that you wish to write about, which I have not had a chance to live through personally, which I will never get to see because they are your experiences, it is your life, and can only be shared with, not lived through by another. And were I to find you uninteresting, then it would be my fault for not challenging you enough that you’d bring out all those stories and life experiences which are stored away in your memory, along with opinions, lessons learned and day-to-day life.
I have never been able to imagine a life living in an RV, a trailer, a camper home or anything similar. I think this possibly has something to do with my upbringing, where people who lived such a lifestyle were considered to be gypsies – words we are not supposed to use today, but which were correct at the time. For us such a life was considered to be unorthodox, outside of society, a sign that someone hadn’t managed to settle down or, something which prevails today in the minds of many, was so poor that they couldn’t afford anything else. The English way has always been to have an apartment or a house – even if you were still living with your parents – and four walls around you, the Englishman’s castle, so to speak. Living in a caravan was something better off people did when they didn’t want to go camping, needed or wanted a longer holiday, or couldn’t afford a hotel. It was considered a way of living off the land, or living rough. Not as rough as those who went from one camp site to another with their belongings in a rucksack or backpack, another much loved way of spending the holiday weeks, especially for me in my youth. Camper parks were to be found on the seaside cliffs, outside of town, or attached to the circus, a funfair, in a holiday camp.
I wouldn’t be able to do it now either, but for completely different reasons. I think I would miss the level of comfort, if you can call it that, having your own four walls brings with it. The pleasure of having your own apartment or house with all the added things which were once luxuries, but are now part and parcel of a home, such as a washing machine. I have moved on from the teenager who slept on the open concourse of a railway station in Venice or Rome, and now steps out onto the balcony of his hotel room for a late breakfast. It would be impossible to move the RV I would need to hold all of my books, as much as anything, and living in there, finding the space to move between the stacks, would be out of the question. And then there would be the fear of bad weather, the thinness of the walls, the worry that my home could be towed. Admittedly, I could buy an RV for the cost of repairing my roof right now, but, even so.
I began small, clearly military bunk rooms are not fitted out with the largest amount of space for each individual soldier before you manage to gain some rank and move up to the smaller rooms, but also when I came out. I shared half a house with three other people – family, at the time – renting the rest of the house out to help pay for it. Leaving them behind – mutual benefit and decision – I moved into a two room apartment which barely deserves the name: big walk-in cupboard, small bedroom, small work and living space with built-in corner kitchen and a bathroom. I moved up in life to an apartment which was twice as big: still two rooms, but now with a separate kitchen. Then further: four rooms, kitchen, bathroom, balcony. Now a house, which admittedly needs repair and a good deal more attention, but is the height of my desires as it has so much space: I can put all my books onto shelves and still move freely from one room to the next. Going back down would be something of a smack in the face, a sign of failure after all the years of work. A room in some hotel to sleep in, that’s fine, but a room to work and live in is a different matter now.
My memories of cars are completely different, but just as colourful I’m sure. I have been a fairly solid and stable driver of cars, always going for the less than spectacular in favour of those which I know will get me from A to B in one piece, providing no one else comes across my path. My very first car was a 1958 Morris Minor, the British car for me, next to a Mini, and one which I drove around in Northern Ireland for a few years before having to pass it on to another old car lover and leave it behind. Generally, whenever I needed to go anywhere, especially after I arrived here, there would be someone to drive me, and so I didn’t bother about such things, but there are limits. Sometimes you need to be able to just disappear for a while with no one knowing where you were going, what you were doing, so a new car appeared in front of my lodgings, and I made the big move up to Mercedes, going from one model to another over a few years. Then, comfortable with the Mercedes I had, I let someone else pick me up from the airport one day. This person decided not to use the route given, but to find their own way to the airport and, lost, missed out on a red light, but not the car with the green light going across.
I am not one to admit defeat too easily, though, and rather than continue being driven by someone else – although that still happens frequently when I have a big meeting and need to get there rested – I decided to go the whole hog and settled down with a modern Mini which, so far, has cost me a great deal of time and repair money for things which you would not expect from a major, high-class manufacturer like BMW, but have had to be swallowed whole. The car is bigger on the inside, I tell everyone, and I am comfortable with it and that’s all that matters. I also don’t get to hear any comments when people find out I’m driving a Mini, because it is still associated with being English and not with German precision work, and that is pleasing.
The not admitting defeat goes for my letter writing too, especially when it comes to writing to those I enjoy receiving letters from.