I think I have just come across the second person, in my long life, who has taken a course on how to make friends or how to start a conversation through small talk. The first time was back in the Nineties when I was in England visiting an anniversary celebration in Manchester: fifty years of a certain association which many consider elite and inaccessible but which turned out to be less than a club for the boys (and girls, of course) and more a collection of people who had problems getting to know and mingle with others through their level of intelligence or perceived intelligence. He was middle-aged, well dressed and holding the obligatory glass of something to drink which many use either as a sort of shield or as an excuse, when it is not quite empty, to get away. We had been talking for all of three minutes when I noticed a very strange trait: as he listened he made sure it was clear that he was listening by going through a number of movements such as nodding, pursing his lips, lifting his head up with a slightly opened mouth (as if saying ‘ahhh’) and tilting his head to one side. When he spoke he would emphasise his words with a slight movement of the glass, with a smile and with an earnest look in his eyes alone after the other. The listening group, I noticed, was also quite limited; I actually prolonged something that I had to say in reply to one of his comments on purpose, and watched as he got to the end of his learned movements, and simply started from scratch again, in exactly the same sequence.
This new person I came across, also at a party with the sheltering glass of something indefinable, was gradually moving from one group to another, saying a few words and then moving on, as if he were out to stimulate conversations amongst a group of silent suffers. I caught him three times before he got to me, and each time it was exactly the same question, a pause for the answer and then on to the next. I almost got the impression he was conducting a survey, the sort of thing you’d see in the cheap boulevard press the next day claiming to be representative of the will and desires of the people. I was almost inclined to confront him with the same question as he had been posing to everyone else, but felt that would have been a little mean or, perhaps, exactly what he wanted to get into a long conversation from which I would be unable to escape. My glass, after all, was full and I would have had to do some serious drinking to come up with the new drink excuse, something I did not want to do partially because I hate drinking quickly, partially because the wine I had managed to get hold of was a good one and designed for slow enjoyment, not shots at the bar. So, rather than turn the cards on him in this way, I simply asked him whether he had been successful, whether anyone had an answer to the meaning of life he was so desperately seeking, and what it was. As it happens, he did not have the answer and, as you can imagine, our conversation didn’t go on for too long either.
The thought of this party-going questioner came to my mind while I was settling down to write to you mainly because I had just seen a complete sequence of status updates from a wide variety of people on Twitter which all said exactly the same thing: If Plan A doesn’t succeed, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet. It was almost as if there was a mass movement to get this little piece of wisdom out to as many people as possible in the shortest imaginable time. In truth, I suspect that a few people saw it, and then copied it believing that their followers, friends, family and relations would all be impressed by their wisdom, not spotting their lack of originality. And this brought me to another thought, as all good things should do, about originality and our modern world. Is there anything left we can claim is really new or original? Anything which hasn’t been done before? I don’t mean from the invention side of things, because there will always be something new, something discovered, something improved which can be claimed as brand new and never seen before – like the price reductions at a cheap market store or second-hand car sales depot.
There is nothing new under the sun.
And even this well-worn statement of fact is hardly new or original. It was used in Roman times (nihil sub sole novum) and is in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:9), although I find the Bible quote to be far more interesting than any of the others, far more philosophical:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
This tells us that there is nothing new because everything has its origins in something older. There is a long line of things created, invented, discovered which lead to whatever it is we have in our hands today. A few small adaptations, and it can be sold as something completely new and groundbreaking, like an Apple iPhone, for example: few changes but a new number so everyone who thinks they are anyone has to have one. I even came across a few advertisements recently which claimed a new best ever recipe for fish fingers, and a new best ever traditional recipe for the same; although I don’t know how you can have something new and traditional at the same time, which is probably why I’m neither a salesman nor someone who writes the little ditties and one-liners for adverts.
Then, also just before I sat down to begin writing and while I was still considering the theme for my letter, it crossed my mind that while something might not be new and original when taking the whole of history, or the world, into consideration, it would be for one or two people who have never heard such a sentence – the Plan A – or turned their own thoughts to such matters; and I suspect that is a vast number of people. Who, after all, would interest themselves in such an idea? Clearly someone did, but this might have been several years ago and, for all we know, the idea of a Plan A and twenty-five back-up plans could have been coursing through Twitter since it foundation in 2006. Or perhaps it was something Julius Caesar had on the battlefield when approaching Gaul. Although, there being fewer letters in the Latin or Roman alphabet, at twenty-one, that wouldn’t quite work out. These thoughts put me into something of a quandary, since philosophy is one of my major reading interests and odd thoughts which crop up in my mind now and then – and some thoughts are very odd indeed – tend to cause me to pause and think them through. Of course, I’m not quite as bad as Socrates, and certainly not as wise or intelligent, who was said to have stood in a market square for an entire day and a night once, because he was busy thinking something through., It is even said, he being a well known character in Athens, that locals brought out chairs and then their beds so that they could watch him comfortably. I’m not sure I’d want to spend my day sitting in a deckchair in the middle of the street watching someone else think original thoughts, but perhaps it was a thing back then. What do you do with your time when you can’t wander about staring into the small screen of a cell phone asking why no one has liked your last status update? Clearly this was what Athenians did to pass the time on a slow day.
My aim, as you can well imagine, was not to spend my time writing you a letter about original thought, Julius Caesar or even Socrates even if they are interesting sidelines and, I would guess, not subjects too many other people have written to you about of late. I wasn’t even planning on writing so much about these strange people at parties who have learned how to listen, how to create small talk without any effort. Normally we’d have to know each other much better before I started on philosophy or delving into the realms of original thought. But they just crept in and I’m not going to go through an entire letter deleting what I’ve written because, as unlikely as it may seem to some, there are people who find philosophy interesting and who can debate with the best of them, and there is always the possibility that you are one of them. My theme was going to be originality in one form, but more an introduction through this wonderful medium of letter writing where, believe it or not, almost everything is original despite the age of this craft and the number of brilliant minds who have employed it down the centuries. Original because it comes straight from the thoughts of one person and is conveyed to the thoughts of another, creating connections in their minds which could not have been created elsewhere and are, therefore, unique if not original in the strictest sense of the word. And if letter writing, the same as reading, cannot create original thoughts in the mind, then there is nothing left for the world and we might just as well all sign up for Facebook and turn our brains to mush.
Getting around now to the introduction, as if what I’ve already written isn’t enough to scare you off: I am an old man sitting at home in Germany who spends all of his time travelling, reading and writing. I am surrounded by books when at home, and try to seek out books and all aspects of the other great Arts when I am out and about in the world. I travel a great deal, read far too much for the good of my eyes, and gain great pleasure from writing letters to people all over the world, in the hope that one or two of them will write back to me. I have been living in this small town in the north of Germany for just over twenty years, during which time I have taught myself the German language and tried to come to terms with some of the traditions they have here which, for an Englishman, seem strange. I tend to write long and involved letters on a reasonably wide range of subjects, often drawing on my experiences over the years, but mainly trying to find things which a younger person, such as you, could find interesting, if not intriguing. My interests revolve around reading and writing, but also many different forms of art and artistic creativity, history, philosophy and photography. Next to a small private library I have a collection of old photographs dating back to the beginning of the art form, as well as several hundred cameras.
And my letters are original and unique. I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, at least, not too loud, but if you happen across anyone who can write a letter based on a single sentence from Twitter, then I’d like to meet them and start an in-depth conversation! But the person who I’d really like to meet, in then platonic letter writing sense, is one who can write, who gives thought to what they write, is open to a very wide range of ideas and who is also prepared to challenge ideas with their own thoughts and inspiration. At the moment I am confined to an occasional live debate with a few friends, but this tends to disappear into the next round of drinks very quickly indeed, and anyone coming into our conversation gets glassy-eyed within seconds. I suspect this is because we really do talk about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and all the other philosophers from way back when, amongst other things. And we have known one another for so many years there are hardly any surprises left. Perhaps this will be more of a challenge than writing stories, although that is one of the more pleasurable pastimes in life, when your imagination can really take hold, take you away from your surroundings and place you into a new world of your own making. Perhaps we will even be able to create a theme which turns into one of those stories you enjoy writing; perhaps I will also have then chance to share some of my less intense writings with you.