You Saw Those Islands From The Sea And Your Heart Was Filled With Delight
Well, it would seem that my last letter to you, from 20 November 2017 was not quite the success it should have been. I made the mistake of writing to you on the letter paper I have been using for several decades, which is a very decent, lightly toned heavyweight paper highly suited to personal and intense writing which, some people have told me, is my style. I finished my letter and packed it in the envelope without a second thought, and would have been convinced you had received it were it not for a short message I received from your Business Manager. It appears that using toned letter writing paper is not allowed as this prevents an effective search of the contents of the letter which, as you can imagine, made me pause for thought. I can well understand the reasoning, knowing what is meant, even though the colour if a page does not prove that something is wrong with the page; a white sheet of paper could hold exactly the same illegal contents as a toned one, but those are the rules and the rules are there to be worked with, not against. The only thing which saddened me about the whole is that the cost of writing to me to say that my letter had been rejected – and that a good nine weeks after it was dated – was greater than putting a sticker on the outside, marking it as undeliverable, and sending it back through the post.
So there you have my explanation for the perhaps surprising fact that you’ve (hopefully) just received a letter dated November last year. Rather than have you believe I had given upon you – which is something I do not do – I simply reproduced it on white paper, made a note for myself for future correspondence, and slipped it in a new envelope to make its patient way back across the Atlantic. Hopefully it is one of those letters which will stand the test of time, not appear arcane or outdated when it arrives. Although, taking a quick look at the shelves of collected letters I have from people who are considerably more famous – or even a little bit noteworthy – than I am, is there such a thing as a letter which does not stand the test of time? I know that as far as Twitter posts are concerned, many unconsidered or prejudiced thoughts reappear after a few years and are held against those who wrote them at the time, especially when someone stands against a certain action and then does exactly the same him or herself when in a political office or a position of power, but the same cannot be said of letters. Usually a letter, I would certainly hope, has considerably more thought behind it, has been carefully considered before pen is placed to paper, before the final signature has been added to the last page and it is consigned to the vagaries of the postal system.
And I think that people coming across these missives, which have usually been sorted and edited by a biography or similar, tend to take the times and the belief direction of the writer into consideration for older correspondence than they do today or for newer opinionated outings. I have read quite a few collections where the footnotes explaining the background to a two sentence message have been considerably longer than you’d think possible, bringing in diary entries, extracts from letters other people have written on the same subject or at the same time, even historical detail from local, national and international newspapers. Mind you, I have also answered a one sentence letter – of sorts – with a four page reply and I sometimes wonder what a future social historian would make of the many subjects I write about, whether they would have access to my diaries or my library. I suppose we all wonder, at one stage or another, what we will be remembered for, how our lives will be assessed, what we will leave behind us for the future. I’m not sure that it does much good, this consideration, because no matter what we do, in our time and with our version of modern society, things will change and everyone is going to go their own way.
For me it is the pleasure of seeing my children grow up with a good knowledge and understanding of the world, with the chances and opportunities they need to further themselves as they wish to do, and not caught up in some dead-end through ignorance or anything outside of their control. But we both know that there is little we can do to influence them, that they are going to go their own way – which is not a bad thing – make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. At least, hopefully, we have the knowledge that our work has helped them arm themselves for society, for the future, and for a life of their own. And then, all that achieved, I think we have earned the right to just settle down and enjoy a glass of good red wine while reading a book of our own choice, or whatever else happens to take our fancy. Then again, I think of W. Somerset Maugham’s words:
Tell me, when you saw those islands from the sea and your heart was filled with delight, and when you landed on them and found them a dreary jungle, which was the real island? Which gave you most, and which are you going to treasure in your memory?
Where would we be without dreams, and without memories? I dread to think. At the same time it is good to hold those memories just as they are and not try to go back and re-live them in one form or another. We see our past as Maugham’s island, which looks luxurious and plentiful from the sea of our present thoughts but, when we return, when we disembark from our travels, is nothing like what we had in mind. I once thought of going back to London, of visiting the areas of this great city which had brought me the most pleasure in my youth, and I am also often asked whether I go back, whether I miss what was there then. London, as with almost every other city throughout the world, has changed immensely over the last few decades. There is little left of what we might remember but the buildings, and even some of these have disappeared. Most of our memories, though, are coupled with other people, with the time we spent in company, in conversation, even in love, and those should always remain as memories and nothing more. The idea that we can recapture a conversation – unless our physical presence in a specific place is being used to return a lost memory – or re-live a love affair is something we should throw out without a second thought. Nothing is as it was, and that is a good thing: we can move on and build new memories, have new conversations, experience the love of those we have today.
Just looking at this town where I now live, and I have been here for about twenty years, the changes compared to when I first arrived are amazing. Houses come and go, businesses and shops change, the parks are revitalised, the roads resurfaced. And, of course, the people. Nothing stands still and we have the opportunity to build ourselves new memories through our experiences, if we don’t stand still ourselves; no matter where we may be. That’s not to say I would have agreed to all of the changes which have been made: there were some beautiful half-timber houses and barns removed from near the centre of town to make way for a new through-road and, more recently, a bank before I came here and I would love to have experienced them while they still stood, rather than just from photographs. But to go back to those days again, when the change has brought many benefits to the town? I am not one who wishes things of great beauty – architecture among many other beautiful artefacts – to be destroyed, but not all change is bad. I see plenty of once beautiful houses in other towns near here which are now too expensive to renovate, falling into disrepair after someone has ensured they are protected, and those who applied for and achieved the protection walking away saying it is not their problem.
So when people ask me why I do not go back to the places I used to live in, revisit the past and everything that had to do with my youth, I tell them it is because those places are no longer there. London, as a city, North Yorkshire, as an area, Cyprus, Belize, Ireland, Venice as countries, cities, experiences worth having lived, are all still there, but the times have changed. I do not wish to go back but to go forward, and if that means visiting a place I have been before – like going to an art exhibition twice – then that is fine; it’s not the same as going back. A short while ago I watched the Bolshoi Ballet performing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a live, new version. It was a most moving experience – good that it was dark, or other people would have seen me using my pocket handkerchief at the end – and something that I would gladly re-live in another version, with other dancers or actors. Then, as I went to watch a recording of The Lady of the Camellias by Dumas fils, I was talking to the person next to me, and she said she hadn’t come to see Romeo and Juliet because she knew the story and had seen it before. I felt sorry for her, in a way, because she had missed out on such a wonderful and moving performance. She would not have been revisiting an event from the past, but experiencing a new event which could well have enhanced her appreciation of the first viewing, and certainly helped create many new memories for the future.
There was a time when I did not understand people who would read the same books again: there are so many new ones coming onto the market, so much variety available, why go back again? Now, after many years, I appreciate that it is sometimes good to go back, as far as literature and the arts are concerned, and revisit. There are things we might have forgotten in a book or, as I have come to see more clearly, we might have read a book at a time in our lives when the full import of its message failed to get through the mists and fog in our brains, when we were not mature enough, or did not have enough world experience to understand what was being written, the message it could have brought over to us. I must admit, I seldom return to a book in its entirety, but to references from other works which guide me back. The only book I have read many times is Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because of the wonderful philosophical images and ideas it created and still creates. I am now going back, when it reaches the top of my pile, to James A. Michener’s The Source, which I read as a very inexperienced teenager, before I had a larger worldview, before archaeology and history really infected me. Funnily enough, I read the Pirsig and the Michener at about the same time, in the early Seventies, but it was the Pirsig which always drew me back.
What has brought them to the temple … no single answer will cover … escape from everyday life, with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the high mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.
So many images created by Pirsig’s words and ideas, I am sure it must have been studied by many and even have the odd thesis for a PhD written about it somewhere. And here I would staunchly stick by my belief that re-reading Pirsig, and several other writers of note, is not going back, but moving forward as more knowledge and personal experience enhances what you read, and what you understand from a different angle with each new reading.
And the sharing of memories, of course, is two-fold: you give to others what you have experienced so that they may appreciate the possibilities, and they, in return, give you their impressions from their own visits, from their own exploits. It is rather like treading new territory, exploring areas you have never been before. You are confronted with something that you know, but from a completely different perspective, and that makes your own experiences, your own memories so much more interesting, precious and worthwhile. Unless, of course, we fall back to the golden age which we regret losing, to the ‘things were better’ idea which, upon reflection, is rarely true. In many ways we might have been happier in this past age of innocence, but those who live today, who are going through their family / childhood years as we speak, will be saying the same in fifty years from now, and believe it too.
In the hope that I have used the right paper, that all the initials of your name are correct, and that this letter finds you, after not too long a wait, in good health.