Every single day I begin with a new sheet of paper; whatever was thought or written yesterday is left behind me and the dawn brings new ideas. This is not meant metaphorically: each day I begin a new page in my diary, which I have been writing on and off since the end of the Eighties, and set a new sheet of paper in my printer. Each day is a physical new start, and each evening is a physical end: who knows whether I will be there to set words on the next empty page of life when the sun rises again? This may well seem like a macabre way to begin an introductory letter, and I am sure that it would turn most people off the idea of writing any form of a reply, but someone who is capable of correctly using the word ennui in their profile, who clearly knows what the word means and can string a real sentence together as it should be, structured and grammatically correct, will understand. A new sheet of paper, a new page in a diary; symbolic for a continuation as much as a new beginning. A new day brings new challenges with it; new thoughts; new experiences, and if we don’t see it that way we’ve either given ourselves over to be members of the ancient and honourable society of bottom-feeding plant-life, or there is so little in our heads, in our minds, that even these people would look down upon us. Fortunately this is clearly not so.
I was reminded of the wonderful Invectives written by Francesco Petrarca, a Humanist born in Arezzo in 1304, where he doesn’t bother with any Political Correctness, as we would see it today, and certainly does not bother himself with the personal feelings of those he addresses. He is open, honest, and very forthright indeed which, I believe, is one of the most refreshing things about his writings.
How much sweat and effort it cost you to unleash this vapid, bombastic, and turgid epistle filled with insults! But this is the custom of men like you: you combat the truth with abuse.
Sometimes we have to face up to the truth, or be confronted with it by those who would tell us how we can do everything so much better, if only we would follow their path which, as we can tell, leads nowhere and is of less use to humanity than all the advice an inhabitant of the deep, dark recesses of the stagnant ponds can give. Sometimes we are placed within the midst of such people, much against our own will, and forced to share the same air as them; be content and accept that others, who have no knowledge of us, our past, or potential, will condemn us to the level of the most common denominator. And the truth is that we need to look further afield for our sustenance, that our surroundings do not offer us even a glimmer of hope that intellectual – far less intelligent – conversation is possible. We fester, otherwise, become lost in thoughts of what could have been, become insular and removed from the reality of our surroundings, and lose that small grain of sanity which was holding us together.
Your brief little letter has taught me something I didn’t know before.
It made me look again at the words Petrarca had written to one of Pope Clement VI’s physicians back in 1355, and from a completely different perspective.
Such a man would recognise that the common disrepute of his colleagues redounds to his personal praise. And he would take pride in being like the few and unlike the many – a trait that is ingrained in all great geniuses, I think.
I placed myself in your position.
This, surprisingly enough, was not as difficult to do as some might imagine: I recalled my feelings during two long periods of my life which had great influence on me intellectually and socially. The first was the long years of education I was forced to go through, when I was consigned to a small village in North Yorkshire, many miles away from my comfortable London home, and placed in a boarding school. Here I had the indubitable pleasure of sharing a dormitory, in the first year, with five or six other young boys and later, in the second to fourth years, with thirty. For someone who had been brought up in a capital city with everything a culturally and intellectually interested man could desire, it was rather more than a simple slap in the face. To suggest that I considered, after a very short period of time, my roommates worthy of the designation pond life would be accurate, but not something I would have said aloud back then. We were all, we had been told, equal. Some, as Karl Marx might be reputed to have said, more equal than others, although in reality this comes from George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm.
The second period was during my army service, which I voluntarily undertook after five years of working as a bookseller in the middle of London. Here again it was a case of being placed in the middle of a horde of people with completely different ideas, ideals and educational standards, not to mention the cultural and intellectual differences. The only advantage, after basic training, was a certain degree of freedom of movement which had been missing during my school years. I was able, on weekends when there were no guard duties, to travel into London or even further afield, and enjoy the cultural life missing in and around the barracks. That was, of course, until we started wandering off around the globe and getting involved in different wars or civil conflicts, which put an immediate stop to any cultural pleasures which might have been had, and most certainly ended any chance of finding someone on an equal intellectual level for conversation or more.
Seeing that friendship includes very many and very great advantages, it undoubtedly excels all other things in this respect, that it projects the bright ray of hope into the future, and does not suffer the spirit to grow faint or to fall.
So wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero during one of his most productive periods, in 44 BCE. And he went on:
Again, he who looks upon a true friend, looks, as it were, upon a sort of image of himself.
But holding conversations with yourself becomes rather suspicious after a while, and when there is no one to discuss an exhibition with, no one to debate with, no one on the same level who shares roughly the same interests, then there is little left in life. Unless, like me, you happen to discover and turn to letter writing. Francis Bacon wrote:
This communicating of a man’s self to his friend worketh two contrary effects: for it redoubleth Joys and cutteth Griefs in Halves
which you can stumble over in many ways but, despite the difficulties of sixteenth century language, simply reminds us of an age-old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved and, in this extension to the otherwise pessimistic attitude of our society which always seems to omit the best part, a friendship shared is a joy doubled. Cicero was also of the same opinion, he writes:
For friendship adds a brighter radiance to prosperity and lessens the burden of adversity by dividing and sharing it.
Some thoughts work no matter the passage of time.
I have never thought of myself as being a bibliophile, although I am sure that the term would fit as good as any. I am known here, in this small town, for always having a book with me, no matter where I am, what I happen to be doing. The postman knows me personally, and knows when I am at home for the quick delivery of another parcel of books, which is unusual even in a town this size, but many of those who deliver come from far and wide, and the days of a small, friendly, local post office have long receded into the impenetrable mists of distant memory. A lover of books, most certainly a description which fits. I tend to read five in a quiet week, having plenty of time to simply open one volume or another and lose myself in other worlds. When not reading I am writing – mainly letters, but occasionally articles, reviews, talks and the like – putting various thoughts down on the blank sheet of paper I opened in the first light of a new morning. My love of books began at a very young age, and was helped along its way by the fact that we, as school children, were restricted in what was deemed suitable for our tender eyes and minds. I recall having one book confiscated by the school vice principal as being unsuitable, and that was at the ‘tender’ age of fifteen. She returned it a few days later, humiliated but not apologetic, having spoken to my father; the book belonged to him, I had borrowed it on one of the rare occasions when I was at home in London.
I was a school librarian from a very young age, as this was the only way to gain access to the library at all times and, more importantly, to those unsuitable books which were not put out on the shelves. Returning to London after graduation I managed to get a job in Harrods – a major department store in Knightsbridge which, at that time still, had a very good name – and was soon transferred into the book department, where I felt more than at home. Certainly more at home than I had felt on the ground floor selling men’s pullovers. It was after this that I went into the army, abandoning many of the books I had collected – which would have been putting them into store, but I was gone for over twelve years and many things change in that time. The city I once knew like the back of my hand, where I was born and grew up, has changed out of all recognition, and not necessarily for the better.
I now live in an historically fascinating small town in northern Germany, where few if any of the inhabitants – no matter how many generations of their family have been born, lived and died here – have an inkling of its history. Some of them do not even know what is on their own doorstep, and even those who run the local museum are as closed to new information as a pedant is to anything not run according to the printed rules and regulations. Intelligent conversation is limited; there is no book club; debates and discussions happen elsewhere; the town folds up its sidewalk and closes down at ten each evening. At least we have a bookshop here, but small and limited. I tend to either travel into the next major town – where a new bookstore opened recently, with a good selection of English-language titles – or order online. I’d rather support the local economy, but ordering foreign language books can take up to three weeks, and I do enjoy switching between languages rather than concentrating on just one. Aside from which, when a new work on some aspect of philosophy comes out, or an historical work within the very broad areas of my interests, I’d rather read it in the original, and not askew in German, or struggle with my school French. I can travel into the next major city, and do so regularly, but then an entire day is done, and there is no guarantee that the title I want is even available. There is nothing like wandering around, browsing, losing yourself in a bookstore, and the Internet will never be able to replace this feeling, this experience but, sadly, there is also necessity and, at my age, time involved. Or, as Cicero out it, old age is that:
which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained […] it stole upon them faster than they had expected.
Yesterday I was seventeen and standing on Primrose Hill in north London, having my photograph taken with my father. Now, many decades later, I sit with my books and my cat, and my memories are in that photograph, hanging on the wall behind me. At least, that is the way it feels when you are so old that you can – have to – look back. Fortunately I also look forward, and believe that I have many decades still before me, and believe that starting – or offering to start – a new friendship will be one of the highlights of my year, especially if it is with someone erudite, witty, open-minded and well-read. Difficult attributes to find these days. Yesterday I read that someone believed her greatest attribute was her appearance; her face, her figure. For me, remembering that I am older now, this is of the least importance: character, personality, openness and a desire to learn. These are attributes worthy of note, worth following and lauding, the rest will be destroyed by the ravages of time.
But there is also the tranquil and serene old age of a life spent quietly, amid pure and refining pursuits – such an old age, for example, as we are told was that of Plato, who died, pen in hand, in his eighty-first year; such as that of Isocrates, who, by his own statement, was ninety-four when he composed the work entitled Panathenaicus, and he lived five years after that.
Although, truth be known, I have not spent my life quietly amid pure and refining pursuits; I have lived with the pond-life, with the bottom-feeding life-forms who fill society, who take up space and breath precious oxygen, and I have fought against them. I am still fighting today, hoping to find those with some real grey matter between their ears, and a desire to use it.