Although I did suggest it in my last letter to you, you will doubtlessly be pleased to read that I am not going to plague you with a criticism, or even a mass of quotations, from the works of Marcel Proust. I might work him in to the conversation now and then, assuming that it fits with what is being written or discussed, but there have been enough evaluations of his work over the years, and will undoubtedly be many more to come, and since I don’t imagine you will have a copy of his masterwork Remembrance of Things Past readily to hand, we’ll leave it for the time-being. Quite apart from the fact that it would require a good deal of time, and energy, and I would then miss out on two of my favourite pastimes: writing letters, since I would be concentrating on a critical work, even if it is as a letter; and reading books. One f the pleasures in life, as far as I am concerned, and one which I probably managed to express in an earlier letter, is that of being able to allot time to read and, while I do indeed always have a book with me for those spare moments between events, having time of an evening to just settle down and turn the pages of a good novel, a crime thriller or even an historical biography, has no comparison. I generally add four or five new works to my library every week, so time to read is one of the important things in my life, otherwise the pile of books, patiently waiting at my bedside or piled alongside my desk, would become unmanageable, if not dangerous. As it is I do not have enough shelving for the books I already have, some visitors have to beware when entering my domain and it would be upsetting, to says the least, if my cat inadvertently buried itself under a pile of literature he will never otherwise be able to appreciate.
Vanity to me is nothing but smoke and mirrors.
This is such a massive subject, and fits in with our modern society almost as if it were a handmade glove, it is both hard to know where to start, and where it all might end. Vanity has become such a wide-ranging part of what is considered ‘normal’ by many, from narcissistic photographs uploaded to a wide range of Internet platforms designed to promote the appearance rather than character, to political claims and stories which, while bolstering the appearance, strength of apparent greatness of a particular person, are so far from the truth as to be almost overwhelming. And you are right; it is nothing but smoke and mirrors, designed by individual conjurers to fool, to pull the wool over our eyes, to raise their own egos beyond their true personal worth. The sad thing, of course, is that many believe their own bloated image to be real, after a while, and cannot understand what it is which alienates others from them, why their circle of friends is either a bunch of toadies brown-nosing them, or so sparse the wind cannot find surfaces to whistle on when it slips through. Of course, this is considerably more extreme than your idea suggests, and I am, perhaps, overplaying it to a certain extent but, out here, it is commonplace and undeniable.
Your comment is based predominantly against those who believe their appearance, be it facial or body, is the finest there is; the type who cry out over their misfortune and insist that, if they weren’t where they are now, which was caused through the fault of someone else anyway, they’d be on the front cover of Cosmopolitan, Vogue Paris and, one day, Time. I’ve read the descriptions you are thinking of, and seen quite a few of the people who wrote them. I sometimes wonder, quite honestly, whether they bought their full-length mirror in Home Depot or at the supply depot for a travelling circus. Don’t get the wrong idea about my intentions, I am certainly not going to body-shame anyone, and I do not believe in body-shaming in any way, shape or form, but there are people who need to look and appreciate reality, before putting out a description of themselves on some dating sites. It’s one thing to skirt around the truth when it comes to achievements, to intellect or abilities in certain fields, quite another to field an old rat in place of an archangel from the almighty heavens.
There are too many people who see beauty, or a lack of it, first, and forget that such beauty is a thing which passes with time, as we age, and that there are far more important things in life. I would rather spend my days with someone who is never going to make it on a catwalk, who cannot buy straight from the top model stores and designers, but who can hold a conversation, who has read a book, who has character. Most of us are not our appearance, not our clothes; we are our upbringing, our social education, our understanding and our abilities all combined together into and individual and unique character. I’d rather have someone to laugh and smile with, without fear that their purchased features are going to crack or split at the seams, or an enhanced breast is going to explode and shoot me in the eye with a make-up enhanced nipple. Appearances, what we term beauty, change with the times: I’ve lived through Punk, Rocker Chick, Goth, Emo, Grufty and several other styles and fashions – and survived them all – and each was meant to be the epitome of beauty and cultural advancement. None of them have survived through a complete generation; none of them were so perfect that everyone wanted to be there, be in and lead the pack by more than example.
Perhaps our society is moving forward into a new form of vanity now, the vanity of personal achievement and promise. We have the wonderfully coined Alternative Facts being bandied about the airwaves now, as one faction fights against another to present their version of the truth and, above all else, protect their reputations which, no matter in which direction you may glance, are predominantly built on sand. This is a very sad state of affairs, and one which I, and undoubtedly many others, wish had never come to pass. But there are those who can be blinded or distracted, who believe in something because of the glitter around it, even when they know, deep down inside, that all this glitter, when removed, is going to leave them with something bad, and that they will regret their actions. By which time, of course, it will be too late, the die will have been cast, and they must live not only with their decision, but with the results forced upon them by those using this short-lived glitter to fool them. Life has become a photo opportunity for the personal ego. This has always been so, and probably always will so long as those with a desire for power are capable of finding new trinkets and ploys to deceive those who are capable of putting them into power.
Self-interest is a little shrub, that gradually increases, and that becomes at length the monarch of the forest
as a certain Doctor Currie wrote to the English politician Thomas Creevey in 1802. What begins as a small matter grows, until it becomes so overwhelming it takes control of the whole. Such is the ego of some, at the cost of so many others. And these smoke and mirrors you mention: they are not just used to hide the true appearance of someone vain about their appearance, but to shelter the guilty from discovery for as long as possible and, if at all possible, protect them from the just and due consequences of their actions upon discovery.
Of course, you are writing about personal appearance and the belief in one’s own beauty, whereas I am casting the same images and accusations, if I may be so bold as to go so far, onto the global platform of business and politics. In the personal arena, individuals that we meet up with either every day or, at the least, at regular intervals, I can only say: this level of vanity is evident everywhere you go. It is not something confined just to Facebook or Instagram – although these two social media sites and several others like them, do tend to bring such appearance vanity to the fore – but can be seen on the streets, in the workplace and, sadly, even in school classrooms. In some parts of the United Kingdom, schools have gone so far as to ban make-up during the school day; clearly what young women do in their own free time and their appearance is not within the scope of a school and quite rightly so. Can you imagine, though, a twelve year old decorated, I can find no other term for it, like a Broadway actress as if she was about to go on stage in front of five hundred people, and those in the cheapest seats need to be able to make out her features too. I almost compared some of these young women, with their painted on masks, to the clowns in a circus but held back: clowns create an appearance designed to amuse which is totally different from their true appearance; young women, not so well versed in the use of make-up, tend to attempt the enhancement of what they believe is best about their features, or the correction of what they believe is worst.
Even so, a twelve year old young woman, and I have seen such images in real life, tarted up as if she’s about to go on a night on the town, through the local bars, can be a shock to the system, especially when you know how old she is. And then the belief, the smoke and mirrors, that this is how they are meant to look, and that no one is going to see through them? Unbelievable. A small touch of make-up as enhancement is, to my way of thinking, far better than a complete change of facial appearance which, eventually, is going to have to be removed and allow a woman’s true appearance to come to light.
The main point of your argument is, of course, those who try to embellish the truth – or twist it completely – when it comes to describing themselves unseen. Countless Internet websites have taken up this idea that modern society is incapable of finding a partner by going out and socialising and, sadly, a large part of society has accepted this idea. Gone are the days, for many, when a good night out with friends could result in an introduction to someone who would become, over a certain period of time, more than just an acquaintance, more than just a close friend. Newspapers and magazines of a certain type are full of such advertisements, small print tucked away near the back, after the news but before the sport. Men and women in the best years of their life or, because of a tight schedule and no leisure time to attend to such matters personally, those in younger years who have not learned the particular skills of being social, of getting out and meeting other people socially. And it is most certainly the case with Internet dating sites that the description people give of themselves, all their selling points, are so overblown sometimes, it makes you wonder whether they have ever looked in a mirror, ever really considered their appearance, or even their personal interests. Someone who lives hundreds of miles away from the coast, in a small shanty town, claiming that they love romantic walks on the beach and candlelit dinners, when it is clear that they have never experienced either, and are merely using a formula employed by countless others before them.
There is nothing unique and individual about using a description other people also use or, in the case of romantic walks on the beach and candlelit dinners, overuse. Sometimes a few words can say considerably more – for better or worse – than a packed paragraph of detailed description, especially when it is clear that half of this description has been taken from others and simply does not apply. Such things only lead to disappointment, usually on both sides, and most certainly to recriminations.
Yes, indeed, there are those who cannot get out and about, who are limited in their ability to socialise and meet other people, for whatever reason. But that doesn’t mean they need to hide or disguise their true selves behind a description which simply does not fit them. There is nothing wrong with changing romantic walks on the beach to quiet evenings on the couch with a beer and the latest soap opera on the television. In fact, it is highly likely that this will appeal to more people than getting sand between their toes, since a quiet night in, good company and a beer are things most people can truly relate to, and enjoy. Such relationships work far better than ones where everything is hectic and looking for something to do. A trip out to the theatre, to a film, or even a holiday by the sea, are all things which can still be enjoyed, but they don’t need to be part and parcel of ordinary life. We need to accept what we are, what our potential is, and not over blow anything and everything in the belief that this will help us find the ideal partner. It simply isn’t going to happen like that. Much better to leave smoke and mirrors to the true professionals, to people like David Copperfield whose job it is to fool people, and who get paid a great deal of money to do so. Neither has a place in everyday life.
You probably imagine, possibly from the impression I have given through my letters so far, that I am a man of leisure – or one who wishes to create that impression – who does little other than read books and write letters. It is true that these two occupations fill a good deal of my time, and quite rightly so, since I gain a great deal of pleasure from both – but they are not my complete life. Over the years, and I have many behind me, I have had the pleasure of doing many things both at home and around the world. My home has not always been the same house, or even the same city, each year, but each new house and city have become home for a while until, just over twenty years ago now, I decided to settle down in one place and, eleven years ago, finally invested in a house for the rest of my life. Not my first house, but one which should hold this time, one where I could really spend my twilight years.
I began twenty years ago with a small two family house in a tiny village, renting out the second apartment to a series of families who, sadly, did not live up to expectations and, finally, caused me to simply sell the house and move on. There was literally no life in this village, especially not for someone who had been born in a major city – London – and travelled. Roughly thirty houses but no shop, no bar, no social life within the village aside from the local shooting club, and that once a week for members only with a big festival once a year. The area was a farming community, so conversation and the chance of social life was very limited indeed. My idea of fun is not discussing whether daisy will give enough milk this month to justify her keep, or whether a particular sow will throw a large litter this cycle or not. I enjoyed the fresh milk and eggs from the neighbouring farm, but that was about it for conversing and mingling. Early mornings into the milking shed where a pint or two of milk and a dozen eggs were set aside for me, a quick word of greeting, and that was it. At the end of the month I’d be invited into the kitchen, a bottle of Korn (schnapps) would be opened, and we’d drink over the last month as I settled the bill. A bottle of Korn, which we would finish that morning, probably cost a tenth of my monthly bill, so you could say I was getting milk and eggs for a good discount. Of course, the rest of the day was finished; I’m not really one who can drink half a bottle of strong alcohol at ten in the morning and then just shrug it off and go back to work.
I let the second apartment to friends initially, but they decided to split up and go their separate ways: neither one was innocent in this breakdown of their marriage, but neither one would excuse their own let alone accept the other’s infidelity. The next two families who came to live lasted about three months each, and both disappeared into the night leaving chaos and unpaid bills behind them. I sold out and moved to the town – or city, as it officially is according to German law – into a small apartment of about ninety square feet space. Not a great deal, after living in half a house, but all I could afford after paying off the bills I had been left with. And it was comfortable, if cramped; most of my books had to remain packed in moving boxes for the time that I was there, but that was easy enough to live with. My next apartment was bigger – double the size – and my third bigger again but, as I came to realise before too long, not big enough.
There are those who swear by books which have been reduced down to bits and bytes and saved on a small disk which can be carried around in a pocket. I am told some of these gadgets can hold twenty thousand or more books, which is all fine and dandy, but what happens when you lose it or the disk is corrupted for some reason? I cannot imagine how devastated I would be at the loss of twenty thousand volumes I had meticulously bought, read and saved for the future, but my idea of books is completely different anyway, so my feelings at the loss would also be other than if I had merely lost a disk. I simply cannot read these things, no matter how similar to a book the gadgets may be or how easy to use. There is something about holding a book in your hands which cannot be replaced by a machine. Not even a machine capable of holding twenty thousand different titles. I don’t want to scroll through a list of titles and authors, I want to be able to look at book spines, take the physical item down from a shelf and feel it in my hands, before deciding whether I want to read it or save the pleasure for another time.
The thing is, as I am sure you can imagine, all this paper takes up a considerable amount of space, and a ninety square foot apartment is just not going to cut it, especially not if I want to be able to move, cook or even have guests. Sadly, a three hundred square foot apartment didn’t do it either. So I live in a house, with my cat, and we are very happy with the whole thing, to a certain extent. I say that for good reason, when I bought it the house was on the market for a bargain price, which is understandably considering that a Turkish family had been living it in before me. Or, to be more accurate, three Turkish families, all related one to another, with a total of twenty-five people. They sold to me, as the oldest member of their family died, and moved to the next biggest city and into three houses, which they had built especially for them. They had lived in this house, in what is now my house, for over ten years and reorganised the rooms accordingly. So one of the first things I had to do, once I’d made myself a room I could live in and one for my work, was take out almost everything they had done, and get it done properly. Over ten years later, I am still trying to finish the house!
I have, of course, been doing other things too, not just concentrating on the building work, and I did set myself the task of doing as much as possible myself, rather than calling in expensive outside help, and I am most certainly not complaining about my lot: I chose it, I can live with it. There are plenty who have it much worse than I do, as I am sure you appreciate. Even so, the work is moving on step by step; each new room I attack brings its own surprises with it, and shows something of the families who have lived here before, possibly right back to the time it was built in the Twenties. Back then it was an apartment with a carpenter’s shop on the ground floor and a workshop and storage area out front. The living area, confined to the middle floor, was compact and comfortable for the times, as one would expect for a family earning a living with their hands. Other houses nearby are smaller, for those who worked for others, on farms or in one of the small factories or shops in and around the town. I can tell that this original family was well-to-do, though, as the house and workshops are big, comfortable and, in the living area, all the communal areas – the staircase for example – are lined with wood, as if it were an old English country house occupied by a member of the gentry. There is a built-in wood stove in what used to be the kitchen area, and the remains of wood stoves which would have been used for the heating. The former could be brought back into service, with the right connections and a licence, but the stoves have long since been replaced by central heating and a gas-powered boiler. All that remains are two chimneys and several concrete bases where the stoves themselves stood.
Old dividing walls have had to be ripped out, along with the inner walls in every single room. The Turkish families built and built, merely to accommodate, but forgot the basics such as plastic sheeting between outside walls and insulation. The result is a mass of black fungus which had to be removed, along with the mortar covering brick walls which was infested and irreparable. I am told that such a piece of work is a labour of love, but I’m not so sure: I think, for me, I just don’t want to admit defeat, so I am going to build and repair and get it finished sometime before my mortal clock stops ticking and someone else inherits the whole mess. And, in the meantime, I work and play, read and travel and, of course, write my letters. Travelling was always one of my desires, from the time I first discovered that there were places outside of London and then, an even greater surprise, countries across the seas. England, or Great Britain, I discovered, was not the only place in the world, despite the manner in which it was brought across by my teachers over the years, and these other, mysterious, lands, definitely needed exploring. We shall come to those explorations and experiences shortly, when time and paper allow.