How long do you stare at a blank sheet of paper before the words start to form and gain meaning, before the ideas begin to flow and a letter, an article, a short story or dissertation worthy of being called such forms beneath the point of your pen, the tips of your fingers? It seems, sometimes, as if hours of unfruitful time have passed, and nothing has been achieved; the ideas have simply not been there or, worse still, the ideas were abundant, but every single word which forms a beginning to the expression of these wonderful ideas has been wrong somehow, out-of-place, a dead-end. I have long since given up trying to gain ideas from an empty sheet of paper, no matter how appealing that paper may be, whether coloured or with tassels – as I like to say – decorated around the edges with motives akin to children’s playtime, a trending anime cartoon or something darker such as the Slender Man, Wednesday from the Addams Family, the blank page is not going to help. It is there to be fed, to receive the products of your labours, and not to inspire. It is a taunting entity of nothingness, challenging you with its space, with its emptiness. It is, for anyone who loves to write in any way, shape or form, the personification of absolute hell.
Or perhaps this blank sheet of paper is a real challenge, something to get us working, thinking about the future, about what we wish to bring across, how we see ourselves and, just as important, how we present ourselves, communicate our character and interests, to others. I am always reminded, when it comes to trying to create something special, especially with the written word, of the short passage in Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein writes:
I should not like to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.
Even the long passage of time hasn’t changed this ideal: getting people to think for themselves; stimulating them towards action, to bring their own lives forward rather than simply have them following the useless flow of mankind in a meaningless waste of the few years available to them, before that final strike at the top of the hour on the clock of our allotted time. Today we would, perhaps, write his sentiments in a slightly different manner, trying to ensure it is gender free; writing their rather than his, but I believe what he has to say still holds strong.
And my aim? The reason why I sit here and decorate a blank sheet of paper with words, with ideas and verbal images? The sheer pleasure of communication, of getting to know another human being from somewhere else, who lives a life I cannot otherwise experience, who sees what I cannot see in their everyday life, and who has an interested not just in sharing their own surroundings with me, but of learning from my life. Not learning in the sense of a person who will be confronted by an examination at the end of the term, but being able to see something they might not otherwise have a chance to understand, partially through my familiarity, and partly through a placing of two different lives side by side for comparison. We do, indeed, live in different worlds, and our lives have taken turns, followed paths which we would not have foreseen, might not have planned for, and which others outside our direct and intimate neighbourhood cannot comprehend. And, of course, we are influenced by our surroundings, by the people we come into contact with every day, by our own interests and convictions. Every single little act someone in our direct vicinity performs has some form of knock-on effect with us too, even when it has nothing to do with us whatsoever, and we aren’t even aware that something has happened. Life is influenced and controlled by other people as much as by ourselves, but we are the ones who sit and try to find words to banish the blank sides of a sheet of paper.
I love telling people who have a problem writing letters, or just putting words down on paper – and I am not suggesting that this is so in your case, we’re right at the beginning still – about a short passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. In it the main character, the narrator if you like, speaks of himself in the third person as he describes teaching at a university somewhere in the United States. Where makes no difference, although it is Montana, because it could be anywhere in the world; the problems are often exactly the same. A young student approaches him with the idea of writing a short essay – a mere five hundred words – on the United States, but this is proving a problem for her. He, as her professor, suggests cutting the scope of her paper down to one small town, the town where they live. Even this, however, proves too much for the young woman and, as a deadline for submitting her paper approaches, she is distraught and full of panic. The professor, feeling exasperated, suggests she just write about Main Street in the town. She should be able to find five hundred words there without too many problems. But the words will not come, she is unable to write about the entire street either; not for lack of inspiration, because she can go out onto the street at any time, sit in a café and just observe. The blank sheet of paper, however, proves too strong against her; the words will not flow.
He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”
The student turned in a five thousand word essay.
You, I am sure, would have no such problems even if, as you claim, the school you attended didn’t teach you how to write with joined up letters. You live in a fascinating part of the world, caught between two other countries which also have a long and glorious – if ignoble – history behind them, and have undoubtedly lived through some of the ups and downs, the good and the bad, of your own area. And I live in the middle of Europe with all that these countries have to offer to those who seek, those who are prepared to go out of their way to break out of their shells and look, even if it is first at the upper left-hand brick of a building on Main Street.
And that blank sheet of paper: we’re neither one of us professor or student, neither one of us forced to find the right words in order to gain attention, to make a point, to advance onto the next level. Letter writing, and all that goes with it, should be nothing but pleasure for us both; and it certainly is for me. I began writing letters to people many year ago, when it seemed as if the world was a completely different place – at least, looking back on it now, as an adult very well advanced in years, it most certainly was a very different place. I had begun my career and my first collection of books, which I still miss since there were some wonderful titles and editions now long gone, and which I would never be able to afford again. The art world I moved in was full of people still working independently and without the massive pressure of having to make a living. The government didn’t interfere in our lives as much, and we most certainly weren’t watched over by a horde of anonymous bureaucrats staring down at us through camera lenses waiting for that moment when a small piece of litter was dropped, or we parked too near the curb. I had moved out of my parent’s house with all the innocent plans of someone who was going to make it in the world, and change it to play my tune too.
I wonder how many words I scribbled down on the blank sheet of my life back then, and how many of them made sense. Would I write my life in the same way now, with all my years of experience, as I did at the end of the Seventies?
When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we see it going now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction.
Ludwig Wittgenstein again, quoted this time in Culture and Value, who seems to be one of my main influences today. In fact, it is often other authors who give me the impulse to write, and also suggest a direction when I first put pen to paper, finger to keyboard.
When we look forward at our own future, though, rather than that of the entire world, we have a completely different plan to that which we see looking back decades later. None of us really knows which direction our lives will take, no matter how carefully we plan and plot, no matter what we may have studied or even where we live. I am sure we could both give many examples of exactly how this works; people we know or have known, or even prominent people in the public sphere, in the limelight, who have voluntarily taken a strange, unexpected turn, or been forced to veer off their chosen path, and either ended up in a gilded cage with all they could desire, or a cage of another sort, with nothing but regrets. I often wonder, for example, whether my life would have been different if, back in the mid-seventies, I hadn’t told everyone I was going for a walk around the Cotswolds, and disappeared across the channel to Paris. It seems such a simple thing today, but back then a young teenager alone in a foreign country was something which simply didn’t happen, especially since no one knew he was there. Everyone was of the opinion that I was walking across British soil, sleeping in Youth Hostels in a warm bed and seeing the countryside in the best British tradition, while, in reality, I was wandering the streets of Paris, sleeping under bridges and in car parks and having the time of my life. And, even more important for me, discovering that the French, who had always been suspect for us – which is what we were taught in school, and I don’t want to go into what our teachers said about the Germans – really were people just like us. They wrote and spoke a different language; drove on the other side of the street and had a wonderful selection of cheese and wines, but otherwise just the same nonetheless.
In fact, I must admit that it came as a shock to me that these French people, after all I had heard, were so similar. It taught me more about prejudice and racism than anything else, and helped me to see other people, their countries and cultures, with a completely different attitude, with an open mind. Many years later, as I was legally travelling, I watched people of my own country, my own upbringing in foreign countries. Arriving in Nicosia, in Cyprus, my entire group sought out a Woolworths to shop and a Wimpy to eat in. They drank Carlsberg lager in the evenings, and standard English fare was served them at all meals. I wonder what they gained from our time in Cyprus, whether they got to see more than just the beaches and a few tourist shops although, in all honesty, it makes no difference to me what they experienced, whether the money they forked out was well spent or not, since I have my memories, and none of them are linked with home and all the things which, on British soil, I took and take for granted.
About a decade after my Parisian exploits I was actually criticised for not being British enough in my attitude, for allowing myself to wander off the beaten track and explore those parts of various countries not designed for tourists. There were still people – and it is the same in every single country, worldwide – who wanted to tell me that the land of my birth was the greatest the world had ever seen, and no one should be considered as even close to our level. The person who told me this, in a French Bistro in Camden Town, was drinking a German beer at the time.
All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilisation and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country’s pride.
Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Minister, appearing before the new International Relations Committee of the House of Lords last week, told them that there are – forgive me if I get the figures wrong, I only caught it in passing – one hundred and ninety eight countries in the world, and the British have invaded, in the last three hundred years, over one hundred and seventy of them. I’m not sure whether this should be said with any form of pride, but it certainly doesn’t mean, as dear Boris implied, that the British government has any true standing in the international community, or knowledge of its workings. Of course, the world is a different place now, compared to that which caused Bertrand Russell to write to and complain in the Nation in 1914, which is where my quote comes from this time, and I would wish that modern politicians would accept it as such, and not think that past ‘glories’ are seen as such by others.
However, I digress, as we say, and I have allowed myself to move away from my intended theme for this letter which, I must add, is nothing unusual. There are often times when I will have picked myself a theme out, or be answering a specific theme from another letter, and then hardly cover it at all because one of the sidelines, the paths which branch off, has caught my attention. Rather as Wittgenstein said, our thoughts and plans are like the world, a constant curve, and we often do not know where we are going to end up when we set off, when we first begin writing. But, as I am sure you would agree, that is one of the pleasures of letter writing, not knowing what is going to happen, what pleasures are going to be received, and which thoughts will suddenly spring out from your own mind, and be communicated further.
Of course, the greatest pleasure is the correspondence, the chance to exchange views, opinions and experiences with someone who has lived, and lives, in a completely different society, a foreign country, with differing traditions and lifestyle. Perhaps this is what interests you too? I can well imagine that you are seeking that extra something away from the everyday, away from the normal, the usual, the grey reminders of an ordinary day. I have friends who spend their time paging through holiday catalogues, imagining what it must be like to travel to exotic countries, lie on hot, sandy beaches, drink strange cocktails and try to make some sense of the local language. This, I can promise you, is nothing compared to either experiencing it yourself, if that is the direction of your interests, or meeting up – in a configurative sense, since letter writing is hardly a physical meeting but more, hopefully, a meeting of minds – and living what other people have done. I have nothing against imagination, it is what makes letter writing so good – amongst other things – but actually getting up off the couch and doing things should be the way to go.
You will probably have gathered, through the mess of words which makes up this letter, that I have several interests, or what other people kindly refer to as hobbies. My main interest, along with letter writing of course, is literature in all its forms. By ‘literature’ I tend to mean almost everything of a literary nature which is published in printed form, be it books, periodicals or whatever. I’m not an eBook fan and cannot understand how anyone can claim that holding an electronic device replaces a printed book. It is a matter of taste, but I’d rather have my collection of books on shelves, than saved in a small gadget which could break or be stolen and cause me to lose everything in one go. The chances of anyone breaking in to my house and removing several thousand books are considerably less than the chances of me losing up to twenty thousand books which I could have saved on such a reader. Technological advances are wonderful, I freely accept that, and I make use of modern technology every single day, whether I want to or not, but it isn’t everything. There are some things which have to be protected, and books, to my way of thinking, along with the ancient art of letter writing, are numbered amongst them.
And this love of books and literature means I am apt to quote from something I have read or heard, sometimes quite at random and even, as you might notice, build an entire conversation around what some unknown, or little known, writer noted a hundred or more years ago. There are times when those from our past can bring a little light, a form of explanation, into our times or, better still, force us to think for ourselves, arrive at a solution, or create more questions which need our attention. At least then, to my way of thinking, we are alive. Once the faculty to think, to reason, to discuss disappears, we have nothing left over and might just as well give up, roll ourselves in linen, and allow the men in black to carry us to our graves.