I am amused by a coincidence which has, with the receipt of your last letter, come about. As you have probably guessed, if I didn’t mention it before, letter writing is one of my main creative interests at the moment, and I can guarantee to spend at least two hours every day following this hobby; although I tend to think of it as being more than merely a hobby, a word which has almost denigrating tones to it. Another of my correspondents wrote with the same worries you expressed: not knowing whether the person on the other side of the pen – as he put it – is a real person or not. I cannot now remember the exact words used to out his mind to rest, and I do not know whether they would have worked or not since my letter to him went out just a few days ago, but they ran along the lines of an old, if the internet has anything old, internet saying that users can be anyone at all, we would never know. On the internet, it is said, no one knows that you are a dog. This is usually accompanied with a cartoon dog sitting at a computer.
We hear a great deal about Artificial Intelligence at the moment, about programming robots and computers which, one day, will take over the tedious, the mundane and, perhaps, the more complex activities in or lives. This talk has been going on for many years – I suspect there were even films about it in the first years of the last century as cinema began to take a hold, and I know for a fact that there were robots, of a nature, in the eighteenth century used to play chess – and there was even a time, in the Eighties, when Margret Thatcher, as prime minister in the United Kingdom, talked about society moving from an industrial nature to a leisure one, and that we should all be planning accordingly. Of course, as can be expected, the calls for change were far too early and generally ignored: there has been more use of robots in factories in the intervening years, but no real loss of employment as a result.
My point, with many words but only one meaning, being that I do not believe we have made it far enough for a computer to emulate or, better, compose a personal letter, bearing in mind both the nature of the individual supposedly writing and the complexities and nuances of the English language. I am assured that I am a real person, from my own proof which I cannot possibly lay out convincingly here. I am also convinced, going on to one of your other points, that I am not a mystery, to me at least. You say that you understand yourself completely, and I would be able to say the same about myself, although I do not believe it to be true. I do not know – I cannot speak for the feelings of anyone else – how I would react to certain situations, how I might answer certain questions which have not yet been posed, how I will react when I read a certain passage in a book which is new to me. I can, of course, bring out all the physical data of appearance, of age, of place of birth and education, career, loves and likes, but they are passing phases in life. They do not tell us who a person is, merely where they have been, what they have done and what might possibly have influenced them. A common sentence used on a certain form of profile that I have seen is: I have made mistakes, but they do not define who I am. Likewise, I have travelled around the world and seen, done, experienced many things during the last (nearly) six decades, and they have influenced me, they do define me, they are a part of me, but I cannot put them all down into words and say, so that someone else will understand: this is me.
To be honest, I do believe that the mistakes people have made define them, in the eyes of some, and certainly go to the make-up of their characters. Those who have learned from their mistakes, those who cannot learn and will go the wrong way again, should the chance arise. For many on the outside, once a criminal, always a criminal, and give them no second chances; although this may remain unspoken, we both know many have this in their hearts, we can see it in their eyes and the changes in their body language when talking, when it becomes clear that there is a past. We are defined by what we have done, good or bad, because it is part of our history, and there is no changing that, only acceptance.
What can a person say, then, to clear up the mystery of who they are? You say that you know yourself completely inside and out, I tend to disagree. Think back to your reactions on receiving my first letter – and I am not going to say it was a life changing event or anything of that nature; I do not blow my own trumpet (too loudly) – and consider whether your reactions were something you had expected from yourself. This is not to run down what you wrote in any way, shape or form, it is merely a fact of life: at some stage in our lives, sometimes many, we are presented with something we didn’t expect, and it causes us to reassess, to rethink, to re-attune.
What was it that made me pick your profile out from the ten thousand on offer? That I can answer, because it was basically what I was looking for, although I have not worked my way through all the profiles on offer: a use of language which showed someone who does know themselves reasonably well, and who also knows how to use language in a thoughtful, intelligent manner. That is: there were no sentences which had intelligent sounding words taken completely out of context because the user does not know their meaning; there was no promising of benefits – which come from both male and female; there was no unnecessary self-pity. The profile was thoughtful and well balanced and clearly gave the impression of a person out to seek friendship, conversation and (distant) companionship rather than a quick thrill or a Sugar Daddy / Sugar Mama.
People are very complex indeed. What you read into my words is not necessarily what I meant when I wrote them, and certainly not what someone else would read in to them. We are creatures of our past as much as our present, and the dreams of our future. We have been formed by all that has gone before, and it is impossible to recount that to anyone’s satisfaction in order to say: this is me, take it or leave it. What we can do is offer ourselves as we are, and the chance to slowly learn what made the present what it is over time, along with the chance to jointly form the future.
Let us judge from this what we are to think of man, his sense and his reason, since in these great men, who carried human capacity so high, are found such gross and apparent weak spots.
Michel de Montaigne, who was writing about philosophers and their attacks one against the other, but could easily have been writing about any person in the world now, then, in the future. No matter the perfection, he tells us, no matter their achievements and position in society, even the best have a bad side, weaknesses, failings somewhere. We can pick any single person out, famous or otherwise, ask them about themselves, ask the person who knows them best, and gain two differing insights into their lives and characters.
Can you assess someone from what they tell you? Quite possibly, providing you hear all there is, otherwise the story, the character of this person being assessed, being weighed up, is missing something. I can tell you I was born in London, England, that I was educated first in a Christian primary school, where I was as member of the church choir, and then in a private Quaker boarding school. The first in the very centre of London, I would walk by Buckingham Palace each morning on the way there, the second in the wilds of moorland in North Yorkshire. I could tell you of my exploits in London, after finishing basic education, about selling double glazing door-to-door, or cutting out cardboard templates to make boxes, or selling knitwear in a department store, then books, then becoming a departmental accountant. I could write about my time in the military, about travelling in convoys underway to exercises and battles, about war and civil war, about peacekeeping and leisure times. I could write about books I have written and read, short stories, about history and philosophy, about letter writing and antique photography, about friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, acquaintances, enemies. I could write to you about three heart operations this year, about my family walking away as I lay in hospital, about politics and crime prevention, about building and destroying. It would take a while, I could undoubtedly do it but, at the end of the telling, no one would be any the wiser as to who I am, because they were not there, they were not me, they do not have my eyes, my emotions, my memories, my capacity for thought and reflection, for learning and forgetting. The mystery would remain. If anything, it would be deeper and darker, and many more questions would have been thrown up which need an answer, and so it goes on.
What remains is the chance to take what has already been formed over six decades, for good or for bad, and work with it. I’m not someone inclined to ditch an idea simply because it requires setting some things to one side, thus my love for letter writing over electronic means, despite their simplicity and speed. I can accept that there are drawbacks, but every obstacle is there to be overcome if at all possible. There are, though, things which we must accept, which we have to put to one side as unchangeable in order to move on with our lives; if we don’t we are going to be stuck in a vicious cycle, unable to change because we cannot leave aside the one thing which is preventing that change. Perhaps this is why I always begin a new correspondence at the place I am now, and rarely with a longwinded and repetitive introduction of what makes me to be what I am now. I like to write and tell people it happened because of an excerpt from a book by Sophie Hannah, but this is merely a later justification for something which has always been there to put their minds at rest. With such a simple, acceptable explanation there need be no further questions; we’ve found the source and gained our knowledge, our speck of wisdom, and can move on. I wish it was so easy to satisfy everyone.
As to intentions, which you also question in your letter: letter writing. The meeting of minds, the sharing of experiences, the furthering of knowledge. Those are the easy three, but they are decidedly chapter headings and not the content. I enjoy writing, discussing and debating. What better way is there to combine all three than through writing letters to a person somewhere on the other side of the world? A person who has had a completely different life experience, lived in a different society with other traditions and customs, but who is capable of thought and consideration and, hopefully, open minded enough to listen to and consider the thoughts and experiences of someone else?
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
as Dylan Thomas wrote in Do not go gentle into that good night, and for me that dying light is the ability of people to debate, to discuss, to sit down together and listen, as much as anything. Admittedly, listening to someone through their writings in letterform is a fairly easy thing; although we all have the choice of whether we read, read and understand, or crumple up the paper and cast it into the nearest trash can unread. Knowledge, opinion, communication as a pseudo basketball, slam dunked. For me that dying light is those who do not have time to sit and write a letter, even if it is a mere half hour out of their day, but can spend five hours on Facebook, scrolling down through the same-old-same-old updates from people they really do not know in a virtual world which could collapse around their ears at any moment, and leave them lost for occupation, for reason to carry on living their lives as they do.
Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why I stick – and will remain – with snail mail, with the postal solution over the electronic rapidity on offer. Then there is also the thought that, fifty years from now, someone is going to be wondering what the love letters of their grandparents were like, and all of this social history will be gone, deleted forever. How are people going to show their childhood photographs, if those images have been preserved on a smart phone which was exchanged for a new one thirty years ago? Remember the idea of preserving images online, for all time? One of the frontrunners in this idea was Kodak, and then they went out of business. If I have my library of books on a Kindle, or any of the other electronic readers available, what happens when I lose that gadget? They hold two thousand books, I am told. I would need four or five to cover my present library.
But I am not completely out of the frame when it comes to modern technology: I have my own web sites and electronic mail for quick conferences and similar; I use Twitter to keep up with the international news, and the internet to find some information not within my own resources, my own memory. So I can also – from a financial point of view – understand the uses of technology, and the many advantages of it for people in your situation, as just one example. In your case I have made provision for it, a sign of promise perhaps, and hope that you will use it as you see fit, but also for the purchase of stamps: one Global costs $1.15 and covers an ounce weight. And if you’re still wondering, feel free to pose specific questions, and I will meander through an answer, one way or another. I shall be doing the same as time goes on.