Seven Pillars by Duncan C

The Internet is a wonderful invention: it offers a wealth of information to those willing to search and learn; it provides a means of communication between people who might never have met otherwise, and the chance to exchange views and opinions, to live the experiences of people far away. It helps minds meet across the entire world, no matter where they might be, what they could be doing, whatever their station or position in life. Of course, it also allows communication between those who would try and destroy what generations have painstakingly built up and, sadly, the means to commit acts which can only bring harm or loss to others. For me it is a form of lifeline to my past, to people who speak and write the same language as I do and who have an interest in matters outside the normal gossip of a small town, more on a cultural and intellectual level. It also gives me a chance to create as much as share and communicate, but in a seemingly impersonal manner: the Internet is no replacement for conversation, for discussion, for interaction with other people. It is faceless, lacks personality, character. It can be anything, and nothing, depending on who sits at the other end, who writes, who discusses, who interferes. It can be friendly and hateful.

Above all, the Internet can be very impersonal, rather similar to a typed personal letter. Rather similar, to be honest, to this letter which has arrived out of the blue, without warning, written by someone you don’t know living in a foreign country, and is typed rather than hand written. I would happily have hand written my letter, believe me; there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting at my desk and spending time crafting a letter to someone, working out what I wish to write, how I wish to present myself, and then taking time to put reach individual word down on paper. Such a letter could be filled with the normal mistakes of a person just writing with no other care in the world; it could wander from one subject to another randomly and, above all, it would be a personal, original and unique work of art. Such a letter, as I wish I could write, would be a beginning and an end, as I doubt you would be able to read my hand writing. I am told it takes years of practice to read what I have written, just as it took moments to destroy what my writing teacher, back in primary school, attempted to teach us. We had regular lessons in how to write properly, which involved dipping ink pens in an ink well, and then carefully crafting letters individually as if the greatest calligrapher in the world would be judging our works. It was considered a shameful act not to have an ink pen – dip variety or fountain – and I can well remember the day my father took me shopping, where I cannot remember, and we purchased my first fountain pen.

Returning to the Internet, which was meant to be my first theme but, as usual, I became distracted. Back in the day, when I first discovered the true joys of writing letters, people sought out soul mates and postal friendships by reading through monthly magazines. Many of the periodicals designed for teenagers – and younger – had sections of small adverts included where the hopeful sought to find correspondents within their own age group, with the same interests. Nowadays all of this is done with a quick text message on a smart phone, but, back then, we would sit in some quiet corner and pen a few lines of introduction. Since most of the small advertisements came from British addresses, there would follow a week of nail biting, of watching the postman walking slowly down the street, going from one house, one letterbox set in the front door of each residence, to the next. In my case, we would gather each morning in the main junior common room and wait for the appropriate teacher to come in with a pile of mail and distribute it: I am sure you know this feeling; waiting as all the others receive their much-prized letters from home, and wondering whether you’d be going back to your dormitory empty handed or not. In later years the common room was no longer the scene for the distribution of mail. In later years we had our own post boxes, as well as single and double rooms rather than dormitories. A move towards adulthood.

The Internet has changed all that. There are now countless sites where people can list themselves, write a short biography, even a wish list, and then wait for the answers to pour in. The theory is good, in practice it is often different. Unless you happen to be a young and attractive woman, and then there is often no holding back with some people. I, of course, am neither young nor attractive – in that sense – but still manage to find the occasional correspondent to keep the literary juices flowing, to make sure my fountain pen does not dry up. And the Internet has become a source of great value, when the pen friend sites are kept up to date. Occasionally I work away at a letter for an hour or so, which is fairly standard, and then receive it back a few weeks later: the recipient is no longer there. Forwarding address unknown. The postal services could almost make a sticker for my letters quoting Elvis Presley: Return To Sender, Address Unknown. Sometimes they do not come back at all. Nothing comes back. Has my letter been received, or lost in the post? Some questions will never be answered, are merely thrown out into the wind and then, if we are sensible, we move on.

The Internet has also changed the manner in which we write, so that it is difficult for an old hand such as myself to consider such correspondence as letters at all. Text messages, electronic mails, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger. Some say that the old-fashioned art of letter writing died when Charles Babbage invented his Analytical Engine back in 1837 – although the basic idea goes back further to the mainly unknown Johann Helfrich von Müller, a soldier, architect and engineer in the German province of Hessen who invented the Difference Engine in 1786. Nothing to do with the writing of mails or the invention of the Internet, but the very beginnings of our computer era, when mathematics was still considered a mystery to be explored. Another good thing about the Internet: the ability to find information which is hazy in the mind, and confirm or deny its veracity. Some of us prefer the old-fashioned ways, though, and some of us have no other choice but to use them. Letter writing lives on; perhaps one day it will experience a major revival.

Returning to the present: the Internet has given me the opportunity to explore and discover so that, rather than buying countless teeny magazines each month and running the risk of being considered less than normal in my interests, like many others I can now surf anonymously and find that which is of interest. In my case, a potential correspondent. Of course, the Internet also has its downside: the teen magazines have disappeared to a large extent, and been replaced by equally glossy but far more expensive fashion periodicals. The minds and opinions of the younger generations are being impregnated by other thoughts and through sources of information today formerly unheard of which, perhaps, is a good thing, aside from the financial or mental burden. On the other hand, when I see eight year olds demanding the latest smart phone from their parents, and twelve year olds wearing more make-up than a Harlequin, I’m not so sure. And when I read some of the news stories – fake or otherwise – and the abuse which courses through blogs, comments, Facebook or wherever. Well, the world has changed dramatically since I first arrived here.

There is more to life than the Internet, though. For me, as I mentioned, it is a means to an end: I use it for research more than anything else although, now and then, I do create something within this virtual world, a small cyber entity which few will see or comprehend, but which is still my personal, possibly eternal, footprint on the surface of this world. Not as exciting as a footprint on the moon, I am sure, but a piece of me, virtual or otherwise. As a child I would claim that there is more to life than sitting in a library and poring over books, and this is undoubtedly true too, but an opinion, a feeling which has changed with time. Back then reading was not so much a leisurely pastime, but a requirement, if not a necessity. Any information we needed, be it for a school or college paper or a talk, in class or elsewhere, came from printed matter, from books, newspapers and periodicals. We didn’t just open a laptop in Starbucks and log in to CNN or the Library of Congress over a Cafe Latte Grande, but made our way to the local library, membership card in hand, and sought out what we needed with the aid of meticulously completed index cards and, hopefully, a helpful librarian.

My first library was in the middle of London. I would walk along the wall surrounding Buckingham Palace towards the railway station at Victoria, past a small Italian restaurant where we would eat every second or thirds Saturday in the month. Then on along the broad pavement across from the grimy station and twenty-four hour cinema, by the swimming baths with their Victorian splendour and individual changing cubicles – which I disliked intensely, and which never inspired me to learn how to swim despite the many attentions of school teachers and others – up the flight of stairs and into the hallowed halls of learning. That, at least, is the way I remember it. All the buildings have changed with the passage of time: I do not know whether the library is still there, the baths are most certainly not. I later years I would spend much of my free time in the school library, surreptitiously taking out books considered far too advanced for my tender years, and reading them in one of the well-lit corners near the myths and legends, where no one else ventured. Here I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and T. E. Lawrence (better known today as Lawrence of Arabia), and the wrath of teachers who did not believe that an eleven or twelve year old should have access to books about Soviet Gulags or Arabian wars, especially when the latter had the added disadvantage of homoerotic nuances, something a pubescent youth should never be confronted with. In fact, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a wonderful book as I know now, was kept off the public shelves and remained hidden from sight but for those lucky enough to be school or class librarian. Needless to say, I applied for the position of school librarian at twelve and, possibly overwhelmed – or fooled – by my feigned appearance of innocent interest and studiousness, was granted the privilege and remained in this position of trust and hidden revelations for several years. It was Lawrence who wrote:

Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals

and also:

The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.

I daresay we would count the Internet as being the greatest weapon today, influencing countless millions who do not know how to differentiate between fact and fiction, between conspiracy and honest discussion. In my day it was books and periodicals which influenced learned discussion and teaching, though, and with the printed or written word I am more than happy to remain.

The library was the greatest influence, though. Through the hidden books I discovered that not all we were taught should be taken at face value; there was always a nuance, a slight changing of the way in which facts were brought across designed to influence, to create a certain level of knowledge, opinion and understanding in keeping with the politics of the day. You have undoubtedly come across a similar state of affairs in your homeland, where different States have their own idea of what education should be and what it should contain, and these standards and the content are often at odds with those of a neighbouring State. And, of course, the differences over what a child, or even an adult, should be allowed to read: which books may appear on the shelves of school or public libraries and which should be either hidden, not purchased at all, or even burned. Books – the printed word – are dangerous when they fall into the right hands.

So I sit now, in my small office at home, and write letters, surrounded by books of all kinds and in many languages. They add a certain warmth to the room, interspersed with works of art I have collected over the years – prints and paintings, sketches of people and places, photographs from around the world. We all build, as much as is possible, our own little world within the common world, where we can withdraw and be ourselves, where there are no inhibitions, and all the rules are written and enacted by ourselves. Such worlds are important, especially when a lack of real privacy invades our daily lives and forces us to conform to that which is alien to our natures, to our desires. A small corner of the real world where everything is perfect, where we can be the person we wish and revel in our own thoughts, desires, yearnings and, hopefully, achieve peace. Something which I suspect you find very important indeed. By peace I mean, more than anything, peace of mind since I am sure it is almost impossible to achieve any form of real peace – as in peace and quiet – when living in certain circumstances and surrounded by so many other people. But perhaps you will have the opportunity and desire to describe what your world is really like since, as you can imagine, I have no real notion. My memories of life – six long years – in a boarding school tucked away in the wilds of North Yorkshire in England do not compare.

So I suspect you now have a reasonably good idea of at least one of my interests, which is the written word both in printed form – books and periodicals – and the hand written form with my letters. Although, as mentioned, this is not a hand written letter, but perhaps I will be able to move on to the ideal form of letter writing sometime in the future, once we know whether my scrawl, developed over many decades, is legible or not. You might also be able to deduct something of my educational and intellectual levels from the manner in which I write, from the initial subjects I have chosen, but I would hope you’d lay such thoughts to one side. Sadly I often get to hear from people I have written to that they do not feel capable of holding a deep and meaningful conversation on the same level. I have to say, this is not my intention: if I was looking for philosophy I would go to a philosopher’s club or discussion group, or attend one of the many lectures open to the public in the universities and colleges near here. There is certainly no lack of choice in this area, but my choice is something else. The pleasure of being able to correspond, to simply write freely, with another person and discuss whatever happens to fall within their interests, what pleases or offends, what influences them is my aim.

At the same time, I hope and believe that I have something to offer, aside from the pleasure of my inestimable virtual company! I am of such an age that I have experienced a great deal, have travelled and learned. I have been to places some people might never have heard of, and have lived through experiences which will never occur again. At the same time you, my chosen correspondent, have completely different experiences to mine, in a world which I have not had the pleasure of experiencing. Whilst I have travelled to the United States, it can hardly be termed an experience of any great depth, since most of the time was spent in an hotel attending a conference and the rest – aside from a short and solitary walk through the back streets of Baltimore in the early hours of the morning – was confined within a guided tour to Fort McHenry, an experience in and of itself for an Englishman. Sadly I had to forego a second visit – to New York – in October of last year, but hope to visit again later this year, when Rhode Island is on the programme, all being well. Such things, now, need to be planned. In my youth one of the great pleasures was to simply pack a bag and travel, but modern responsibilities take their toll as we move on through life. And age, of course. As I have hinted several times, I am considerably older than you but, since this is a written correspondence with no other thoughts but the written word, I sincerely hope my advanced age can be overlooked, if not completely ignored. I am certainly willing, and able, to overlook your youth and, I must add, all the circumstances which brought your present situation into being. As I mentioned, the Internet is a wonderful thing.

Letter writing, communication, discussion, opinions, experiences, books, travel, life in all its glory. Of course, there are many, many other subjects of interest which we can both touch upon in the future; I have merely scraped the surface of one of my interests to break the ice, to introduce myself. I am open to many others, and especially to subjects which are new to me, which I have not experienced myself, which are beyond my experiences and the path my life has followed thus far. I daresay there must be rules, there are rules and regulations for every other part and form of life, so there will undoubtedly be some here, in our potential written friendship. That you are governed by rules and regulations, some of which will also apply to me and to my correspondence with you exist, is clear to me. I have no problem with that whatsoever. Sometimes there are more important things to be considered than a decision someone else has made which, in all honesty and as far as letter writing is concerned, is just as easy to accept as it is to follow. My rules are clear: I write letters and have no problem with any subject which does not offend. My interest is purely in the written word – nothing more, nothing less – and that vista of possibilities it opens up. Aside from the writing of letters I shall and can make no promises, nor do I make any demands. And I am also well aware of the possibility that you have received so many other replies, so many people of interest within your own age group have contacted you, that my efforts could be in vain. If, however, we always look on the downside, on what could happen, and stick with a pessimistic outlook on life, nothing would ever happen and our pessimism would be justified, through our own fault. The first step is always the hardest.