Writing One Long Letter
Asking questions is not one of my strong points when it comes to writing letters, or even getting to know people in real life, and that despite a reasonably strong belief that the best way to let someone reveal themselves is to challenge them in some way; questions being the most immediate form of challenge available to anyone. I also appreciate how difficult it may seem to write a letter about yourself; I’ve been writing one long letter to many people for decades and still haven’t managed to scratch the surface of either them or myself, no matter how open they may believe themselves to be when it comes to writing answers. In essence I believe I’ve done what my teachers at school and college would rap me across the knuckles with a metal ruler for doing: I’ve given up asking and turned more towards listening. That is, I’ve given up trying to direct people towards a particular subject or in one or another direction, not necessarily physically given up asking them things. When I feel that clarity is needed in something that has been said or written, I am not opposed to asking for an explanation; although many of the written questions I pose tend to go without an answer since the direction a writer has chosen for themselves is often not one which can be held together or justified when certain questions are levelled. That applies more to the professional arena than anywhere else, and especially when it comes to news items where, theoretically, facts and a lack of bias should be the front riders of reporting and journalism but, often, are not.
What I do instead is place an unspoken challenge in my letters, so that those who do choose to take a chance and write back to me accept what I have posed as a form of dare. This is basically what I did in my last letter to you, when I wrote about my experiences surrounding a single book I had bought many years ago in London; although there were a few other things in the letter too, almost everything was written with this one incident in mind. The problem, you see, is that I cannot know what to ask. We live thousands of miles apart and have had different life experiences: you’ve predominantly lived, as you say, along the Mexican border while I have spent many years studying, writing and travelling around the world. My experience of living in a desert is confined to a six month period early in the Nineties, and it cannot be called the most pleasant of experiences although, as you can imagine, it did add a great deal to my outlook on life in many ways. In fact, just as a quick aside, the hardest part of being in Saudi Arabia was not so much the desert or the climate, or even the restrictions placed upon us in our daily lives due to the precarious situation, but the lack of reading material: you carry everything on your back – metaphorically speaking – and space is limited. Not knowing what to ask means a person is digging around in the dark and could, probably would, miss out on all the best things another person might want to write about, given the chance and incentive. I cannot see into your mind, much the same as you could not see into the mind of the new teacher when faced with the yard and a sea of orange. The only difference here being that you were present, you could sense the nervousness and react to it: I merely see words on a page; there is no body language, no nuances, no subtle hints by other means.
Which, I hasten to add, makes letter writing so much more enjoyable in a way, because of the challenge placed on the writer – in this case me – to create an image, to bring an idea across which is perfectly clear in his or her mind, but invisible to anyone else. So I now have an image in my mind’s eye of a sea of orange surrounded by chain-link fencing, and a nervous probationer faced with something unexpected – perhaps – or frightening. Most certainly with something they have never experienced in their entire life and, also perhaps, didn’t expect to or were unprepared for. My challenge here would be twofold: I would remember my first time coming out into the yard as the new person, either to stay or just passing briefly through, and think of the various emotions which went through my mind and body; how was I greeted, if at all; how have things changed over time; how do other people, the newer ones, cope with what you experienced. Then I would also try and place myself in this other person’s shoes and consider their feelings and reactions. This is what I attempted to do, from afar, when I read your letter: placing myself in the shoes of two different people; you as the more experienced; the young teacher as a newcomer. Now, it may well be that, since I am unable to ask any questions and do not know what to ask, that my feelings and reactions, the image I have in my mind is completely different to the reality of your experiences, the reality of hers. It is, however, there thanks to the image of a sea of orange inside chain-link fences which you wrote about.
Without this image, or the initial idea of the image / experience, I could never have posed a question about the emotions of the moment, simply because it is something I cannot imagine and which I have never experienced. On the other hand, I have experienced something similar, without the chain-link, in green. This was the fiftieth anniversary of an Army Corps which was celebrated near Monchengladbach in Germany many years ago, and which was attended by considerably more soldiers than civilians. And, as I am sure you can imagine, ninety-nine percent of those serving at the time were wearing some form of green uniform which, to be honest, made the area look more like a flood of muddy seaweed coming in on the tide than a precise, well-organised celebration. I was trying to find some better way to describe the sight than muddy seaweed, something to express the combined power of so many armed men and machines and considered one of the classical descriptions of massed movement, but seaweed is good. Otherwise I would have gone with Michael de Montaigne describing an amphitheatre
Where a hundred thousand men could sit at their ease […] that vomited forth the beasts destined for the spectacle
during one of the many shows in Roman times, with wild animals, theatrical enactments and then, finally, the gladiators. That, however, would have been considerably more exciting than what I experienced, probably on a level with the feelings and fears of your young teacher: the sound of the crowds; roar of caged animals; the stench of sweat and fear, of death and destruction seeping out from the sand underfoot. Not that I am suggesting your teacher experienced it in this way, nor did I at the anniversary, but it’s fun to just let the mind wander and see which images come out with just a few buzzwords. One of the disadvantages of being a writer – for everyone else, that is – the imagination being allowed to take upper hand.
That is what happened to the poor Don Quixote de la Mancha, as you can see from the photograph enclosed: his imagination got the better of him, and he travelled across the country seeking out dragons and ogres to fight against; damsels in distress to rescue; windmills to pit his strength against. The illustration is from the copy that I bought all those years ago in Hampstead, and always reminds me of what I try to do: not keep it all in my head, but put the images down on paper and share them as best as possible. Hopefully no one considers me as crazy as they thought the poor Don and his harmless sidekick, but there are a few people who look at me in a weird way sometimes; they just don’t know that I can see them, that I use them (anonymously) in my works. And, of course, many other things too, as Lucretius wrote:
When the vaults of heaven meet our sight,
Infinite worlds above, ether with stars alight;
And when the course of sun and moon come to our mind.
such is the source of all imagination.
So the sun and moon came to your mind too, describing sunsets across the desert and from your equipment yard. I was trying to remember what they looked like in the Arabian desert, but I don’t think it was all that spectacular. I can remember some streaks of colour off in the distance, and the very small fireball of sun sinking beneath the horizon but, since the sky remained cloudless for much of the time we were there, there was nothing to reflect, nothing to cast light upon but the dry earth, and that was very unspectacular indeed. I have had the pleasure of witnessing many sunsets in my life, and probably just as many sunrises, and I’m always struck by the sunrise more than the sunset. I suspect this is because the sun sets behind my back while I am working and, since I am usually concentrating on the screen in front of me, of the book pressing up against my nose, or the cat trying to claw a comfortable position on my lap, it gets overlooked. Sunrises, however, I see far too often for my own good; usually when I am travelling away from home and need to get the earliest bus or train to wherever it is my heart has called me this time. In the last few weeks it has been Wiesbaden, down in the south, although this didn’t involve a sunrise as I wrote my letter to you first, and then set off. I’m not too sure I’d have wanted to see a sunrise over some of the towns and cities I saw along the way, it would have been too depressing. Wiesbaden means changing trains at Frankfurt am Main and taking a local service, which stops at every small filling station you can imagine along the way, and seeing all the derelict factories along the railway tracks.
Some of my favourite sunrises have been experienced when I really should have gone to bed the night before, and didn’t. When a small, convivial meeting to discuss or debate has turned into an in depth exploration of the world and each one of its individual problems until the birds began to sing and the few of us who managed to get through the entire night realised it might be a good idea to wander off and do other things. There has been the beauty of a massive, dark red sun rising through the fog of a cold morning, illuminating in an almost grey light the fields and a lake near here. Or, a little further afield, a mantle of frost-covered trees enveloping the sun first thing in the morning, everything crisp and cold, our breath freezing before it had a chance to meet the morning air. Times which really make you glad to be alive, and warmly dressed
It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam.
I wonder whether John Burroughs wrote this while out on a cold winter’s morning, as the sun rose, trying to keep his fingers and nose warm just for the pleasure of seeing this great act of beauty. Perhaps he was up on the side of the mountain he loved, up in the Catskills, or perhaps it is just memories of those days. I wish, when the roadside trees are covered in frozen dew, that I could remember to have a camera with me, but I forget every single year, and the moment is gone so quickly I only have a few inadequate words to describe the sight.
Coming back to theme, something I often forget even when I have made notes and decided in which direction I wish a story, a paper, a talk or even a letter to go: tell me about your equipment yard. Tell me about one special part of the yard which remains in your memory and has a special meaning for you, which brings memories of other things, of events, of people, of experiences in your life, or about a piece of equipment which has some form of meaning to you. Take the blind me on a trip and tell me what I cannot see so that an image forms up in my mind. This is my way of asking questions, because I cannot read thoughts or see memories other than those of my own self. Our lives are like the illustration by Gustav Doré I’ve enclosed: a swirling mass of thoughts and visions fighting to break loose, but only inside our own minds, invisible to everyone else.