I’m going to have to come right out and say it, no prevarication, no hedging, no dodging the truth: I have a cat. This is rather like one of those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or what we see in films: My name is Cedric and I am a cat owner; I have owned a cat for five hundred and thirty-three days. Of course this isn’t true; anyone who has a cat living in their house knows that they are owned, not the other way about. When a cat wants something, it will get it. When you want something from the cat: sorry, no interest, far too busy washing my ass. I daresay I could justify having a cat in the same house in many ways, but non-cat owners will see through it all straight away. The cat is there, he is a rescue cat who was run over by a car and abandoned, and that is all there is to it. Well, almost, since there is far more to owning a cat than just having it there; there’s the amount of hair they shed for one thing, but I’ve no real desire to go into that part of my life. I am quite content that cat spends a great deal of time outside the house – mainly because I pick him up and put him there, or bring his food out of the front door and fool / force him into remaining outside – or sleeping in some corner of the couch. I must also admit that I would never have taken a cat in of my own free will and accord, perhaps I am too self-centred or a cheapskate, I don’t know, but having another mouth to feed which cannot talk you what it wants is a real pain. Fair enough, the same applies to small children, but at least you have the comfort in knowing they will grow and learn how to talk, as well as the wretchedness of knowing that they will grow and learn how to talk.
I enjoy Cicero. Yes, I know that he is a staid and boring writer and that his works are the standard texts used by former educationalists, prior to the German Educational Reforms which spread across Europe and the Americas and are basically in place today. And I also know that there are many better writers – Pliny the Younger comes to mind – but he was the first Latin writer that I discovered, and the first that I read and, of course, the first I got into trouble for reading. Just as well the school didn’t catch me reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or they would have expelled me rather than merely taking the book away and informing me, and this is prudish, the I was far too young for Cicero, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and several others. This, naturally, made me want to read them all the more. I also enjoy a few of the other writers many people today have heard of – such as Plato, Terence, Horace – but do not know how to place. This can lead to amusing conversations, when I quote from a name very well known today, but for different reasons, such as Homer.
I’ll take your horror trip to the post office and counter it with mine which, although shorter in distance has a downside to it. I always walk: this town is too small to travel in a car unless you happen to be doing the weekly shopping, which I am not since I live from hand to mouth at the moment and only buy what my small change allows. My route takes me through the centre of town, under a road bridge and into one of our four supermarkets – what a town of less than five thousand inhabitants needs with four supermarkets is beyond me, but they seem to survive – where a small franchise post office has been opened to counter the closure of the real post office a few years ago; which is still there because it is also a sorting office and they cannot find anyone to buy the building. Depending on the weather – we have summer rain at the moment – and other aspects, the trip takes about fifteen minutes in all, right to the moment when I turn my key in the post box lock. It is at this point that my worst fears are realised, or my nerves are calmed and the journey becomes either a wasted effort, or one with pleasure at the end of it. My daily walk to the post office has become one of nerves, anticipation, fear: will there be anything in my box today, or will I be the only one standing there, amidst thirty others who use their boxes for business purposes, with nothing to pull out and, with an air of satisfaction, stow in my pockets.
Of course, I realise that this sad tale doesn’t compare in any way with the distance you have to travel and the inconvenience of not being able to pass your post on for delivery by any other means. If some of those who use modern technology to communicate had the same difficulties, I would be better able to understand their fixation, but they do not, and I doubt whether a similar situation would ever enter their minds. They need, after all, to be in the town and city in order to experience all the revelations their friends send them; outside, in the countryside, it is difficult to get a network connection. Which would suit me just fine, I suppose, although I would probably miss catching up on the news on Twitter, seeing which new books are being published and which museums are worth visiting for new exhibitions. Technology does have its uses.
As a young man, many decades ago, I had the desire to simply remove myself from society, to become a hermit somewhere, concentrate on my writing and leave the world to its devices. I imagined living on a small farm – no animals or anything similar, just the farmhouse – in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors, with barely a connection to the outside world. That, I think, was my teenage ideal. Then, of course, there came the visits to Paris, Venice, Madrid and Berlin and a complete change of course: why not be a hermit, for what it is worth, in one of the major cities, or nearby, and enjoy all the advantages of society without the mess of people, who tend to ruin anything good at some time or another? It worked fairly well for Wittgenstein, on the occasions when he simply disappeared to his secluded hut in Norway to think, so why not anyone else? You can, I am sure, appreciate the problem at once: a writer who wishes to remain hidden from society, a hermit? It doesn’t compute. Writing, unless exceptionally introverted, is a social function, at least it is at the research stage. How can you write about society – or even for – if you have no connection to it? Unless, of course, you invent society for yourself. Stuck between the idea of an ideal world, and the knowledge of reality.
So, like you, I am not a Luddite when it comes to technological advances; I have my smart phone and my Twitter app and keep in touch with people when I’m on the move just like everyone else, but I know when to put them down, when something is inappropriate, and I don’t mind telling you that I’ve had my smart phone switched off for four days now, and not missed it one bit. I’m sure that if anyone was trying to get in touch with me for some reason or another, as unlikely, as it may seem, they would keep on trying if it is important, and one day they’ll find me again. To be realistic, I doubt very much that anyone will notice my absence at all.
I, too, enjoy watching people, but watching people who are merely looking at a small screen cradled in their hands is demoralising. It makes me wonder whether all the changes we have wrought in society have been worth it: why spend so much on the humanities and arts in education if all a person is going to do is stare at a phone? Why have free, or inexpensive, entry to museums and art galleries if no one is there to appreciate the real works of art on the walls, but checks them out on a Twitter feed? The enjoyable thing about watching people is the game of working out what they do, what they are doing, what they are thinking. Today that is all too easy: they work somewhere to earn enough money to do nothing other than look at their phone, whereby they don’t need to think at all. They wear the clothing recommended by the latest fashion blog, and the make-up they saw demonstrated on YouTube and probably learn all their mannerisms and conversational skills from a reality show, whichever one happens to be popular that day. At least Cicero’s skills taught countless people grammar and rhetoric for many centuries, what do we have to offer today?
Surprisingly enough, the one thing that I would miss as a hermit would be the conversation, and by that I don’t mean the normal small talk which we force ourselves through whenever an awkward friend or acquaintance recognises us in the street or at a party, but real, in depth debate. Is there a form of half-hermit as a trade? I mean, one who can disappear from society whenever the wish arises, and only comes out when a decent conversation is underway, or there are fresh scones with strawberry cream on offer. Being a hermit clearly has drawbacks. Although, hidden in a cave on the side of a mountain, as I imagine most professional hermits are, at least it would be possible to observe humanity, from a distance, as it struggles up the mountain side.
I’m not sure that I have a sense of humour, although there are people who laugh when I say something droll or biting. Nothing that works on paper, unfortunately, but the occasional aside or sarcastic remark does a body good now and then. I am told that my humour is very dark, dry and British, which tends to mean I cut to the quick or balance on the borderline between humour and bad taste, I think. It’s hard to define humour, the ideal never really works when it is thought about – I have never found the greatest joke in the world to be at all funny, but perhaps that’s just my hermit side – and seldom when a person is forced to tell a joke off the cuff, unless they happen to be a professional comedian. I have been inclined to misdirect people on their way here, now and then, especially when there is a certain level of rudeness or arrogance in their method or style of asking. And I always do it to those people who believe they are so important that they can butt into a conversation, unbidden, and demand an answer. I recall being told of a man in a great hurry to get somewhere, who demanded an answer from a local in a highly arrogant manner: how long does it take to get to a certain town. The local replied that, if he walked, about an hour and watched as the man in a hurry hurried off. The man with the local who had been asked was highly impressed, it seems, but wondered why the local hadn’t pointed out that it was an hour in the other direction.
Books, printing, the printed word in books, words which convey not just affection but also love. If I could have my own printing press, I would. I was offered one a few years ago, and even began preparing the room for it to stand and make plans, as one does, but it fell through. The room is still there, the plans are still there, but the press is in a shed somewhere out in the country and not likely to move any time soon. We do, however, have a small printing museum in town, which I visit occasionally, and which produces simple posters for local events. I donated them a few print catalogues some years back, inherited from my father who had been a graphic designer. I daresay the catalogues are gathering dust on a back room shelf now. Given the chance I would much rather letterpress print small chapbooks and become one of the fabled few with a small press in their back yard, but it remains a dream at the moment. I have the time and the energy, but not the finances to begin. But what would life be without hopes, dreams and still-to-be-fulfilled plans?
As to collecting, well, I have my books on shelves and in piles awaiting shelves and on tables awaiting piles, and continually add to all. On the rare occasions when a child or grandchild of mine appears, I am reminded that I have too many books by them – well, not by my granddaughter, as she is not yet one year old, but she’s definitely being primed for the future. And have my collection of old photographs which no one comments on, because no one gets to see them and, compared to the books, they take up little space. I think there are bout twenty thousand at the moment, in boxes and albums, hidden behind books and containers of antique cameras which, while being pretty and enjoyable, I didn’t want to collect but came with the job, so to speak. One of my suppliers, who goes around some flea markets and to the clearance sales following a death, brings me boxes as a job lot, and photographs always have cameras with them, so I have cameras too. Not too many, fortunately, perhaps three hundred or so. I would love to be a collector of things, as you put it, but will probably stick with those I know best and allow occasional things to slip in now and then.
There was a time when I hand wrote all my letters, when I took a great deal of pleasure in sitting down each evening and penning something to someone, somewhere. I wish that I still could, it would bring back a little more of the magic. Sadly I find it almost impossible to hold a pen steadily now, fountain or otherwise, and have been forced to this automated manner of putting my thoughts to paper. I look at my old pens longingly now and then, even take them in my hands and fiddle a bit, but writing with them is no more, no matter how much they appear to beg for the chance to be useful once more, rather than just ornaments and memories.
I’m not sure that I want to get into eyebrows, from Frida Kahlo or anyone else; it’s one of those subjects fraught with dangers. Anything to do with appearance is dangerous: too much skin on a weather programme resulting on a woman having to wear a pullover right down to the same programmes sending pictures of young women sunbathing on the beach, notably without pullovers; bans on burkas while questioning why people don’t cover themselves up; men’s fashions and suits which look more like something dragged out of the losing entry for an Hawaiian shirt competition. I can live without all of that. I have my jeans and a few suits for special, and that’s enough. I also don’t pluck, except occasionally, when I’m nervous, my ears. As I said, not something I want to get into.