It is strange, but no matter who we are and how our lives may be running, there is a depth to each and every person which remains hidden, which only surfaces in our own conscience now and then and reminds us of the darkness which can fill, even overtake the soul. I don’t think any of us are free of loneliness, certainly not of heartbreak and loss at some time in our lives, but loneliness is something many simply do not expect. We are constantly surrounded by friends and family, by work colleagues, by any amount of other people according to our circumstances, and can stand in the middle of a crowd of excited, living humanity, and feel nothing but cold despair. There are many things it seems impossible to talk about, certainly with family and friends, and this dark side of life, this hidden innermost emotion is one of them. There are few who can understand the feeling, few who wish to confront it in themselves and who, as a result, tend to write it off in others as merely a passing sensation and nothing more. It is not so long ago that depression was also written off as something easy to overcome if a person put their mind to it, but now we know better and are prepared to help those in need, treat the symptoms as much as, hopefully, the cause.
It comes as a surprise to many, and probably will to you too, but I am one of those old-fashioned people who believes that some of the more traditional methods are better, and I include letter writing in this. There is something which sets a letter apart from an electronic message which is hard to explain, quite aside from the fact that the paper version can be kept for far longer than a digital one. People constantly tell me that new technology allows us to communicate faster, that whatever we have to say to one another can be brought across without losing a single moment, but I see no great advantage in that. Far better, I believe, to enjoy life and then sum up those things of greatest interest, with thoughts and memories to enhance the experience, sometime later, when we’ve had time to enjoy and can relax and put our thoughts in order. This idea of being constantly available to all and sundry at all times of the day and night – which often keeps people from sleeping properly because they fear missing something important – breeds nothing but misery. And there is more than just misery with electronic communication; there is the constant question why an answer hasn’t been received, or why we have no post in our inbox.
You can write and store far more, I am told: yes, I agree, but not forever. It used to be that microfiche was the way forward, and thousands of libraries and museums, collections and government offices began transferring all their paper information, all their prize possessions onto film. Then we had the floppy disk era, followed by the mini-floppy disk, the maxi compact storage unit, the hard disk with storage space, compact disks, the digital versatile disk and now we have the cloud. Each time all these private people and institutions have been presented with a new, improved (more expensive) method of saving all their information for the future, and had it outdated and replaced within a very short space of time. When was the last time anyone brought out a viable update to paper? Paper has always been there, in one form or another, and always will. The death of the book was foretold; the book lives on. The death of the vinyl record was foretold; many music companies are returning to the days of vinyl with new albums as well as the classics. I am told that I can keep two or three thousand books on one easy-to-handle storage unit, and I answer with the question of what happens when I lose that one gadget. An entire library, gone in an instant. I could compare the loss to that of the Royal Library of Alexandria.
There is more to it that that, though: a letter is something special; it is a message written by one person for one person alone and possibly one of the most intimate means of communication known to man; it has character and individuality that an electronic communication cannot have; it requires time and patience, whilst allowing thought and, between letters, life; it brings no demands on a person’s time when it arrives, but can wait patiently without changing until the reader is ready for that singular, unique moment. A letter can be written, and read, almost anywhere.
There are many reasons why I defend letter writing, and the above paragraphs are just a small sampling. One of the main reasons, though, quite aside from the intimacy of a personal letter, is the length of time it takes to create a letter. This may be strange at first sight, but it has a very good basis: we take more time creating a letter on paper than we do writing an electronic mail. We allow more time to pass between letters than we do with electronic mail. Both of these allow us time to think and to experience life, rather than being tied to a gadget all the time and never looking up at the world around us, never experiencing anything first hand. When I sit down to write a letter I am dedicating my time to one person and one person alone. There are no beeps or pings from my pen which distract me to an incoming mail or another appointment, a demand on my time. I am giving myself solely to this one task and can concentrate on it fully. And, with each letter I write and send, I am sending another message too, one without words: you are worth my time; I am dedicating my time exclusively to you; I am sharing my life and my experiences with you.
History and philosophy are two of my main interests in life, aside from getting out to experience art and the world, and my bookshelves probably demonstrate that fact better than I can say. They interest me because we are constantly surrounded by both: what we see and live through is part of and becomes a part of history for the next generation, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not. And philosophy, of course, is so mixed in with thinking, with knowledge, with the seeking of wisdom that it goes almost without saying: philosophy is part and parcel of our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. As soon as we start considering something, an action, a person, an event, we begin to philosophise. I spend the best part of the day reading and writing – which is some form of profession I suppose – and travel whenever possible, whenever something interests me enough to tempt me out of my library, my small, safe cocoon. I live in a small town with limited facilities, so travel into the next largest town or further afield into the major cities regularly, keeping myself up-to-date by going places, by seeing things without having an electronic screen separating me from them. I do not own a television, have managed to live without one for about forty years and, to be honest, do not miss it at all.
Given the chance I would change all of that, though. This surprises many, because those who know me – or think that they know me – imagine that I am content with my books, with my travels, with my reading, writing and correspondence. In truth, given the opportunity, I would set myself into a time machine and jettison myself into the void to visit Socrates and Plato for a while, or to share a cup of coffee with Sartre and de Beauvoir in the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Montparnasse, or watch Mount Vesuvius erupt, either with Pliny the Younger or Alexander von Humboldt, or both. I would travel out to Norway and spend time chatting with Wittgenstein in his secluded hut, or follow the footsteps of Marco Polo across an entire scarcely explored continent, from the markets of China to the palaces of Venice.
Obviously I can’t do these things, so far as we know it is impossible despite our modern technology. But my mind can: my imagination can take me, with the aid of books and diaries, journals and letters from the mists of time, on these long journeys into the past and recreate them as if they are no longer yesterday, as if the smells of the Souk are rising around me, infiltrating my nostrils right now, as if I am there, on the walls of the Kasbah watching advancing hordes across the desert sands, waiting for the next train of camels with dates, figs and spices to unload its wares at my feet. The imagination is a wonderful tool, if we know how to use it, if we can be bothered to use it.
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
So wrote Plato although, thinking about it, I disagree with him. It’s not just music that brings so much joy, but life itself, when we go out – no matter our circumstances – grasp it in our hands and live it to the fullest extent possible. Perhaps I ought to stick with Thoreau, who wrote:
This world is but a canvas to our imagination
which is closer to my feelings: we can imagine what is not there and what we have not seen, as much as live in the memory of what was through our experiences and with the help of our imagination. But, as I say, we have to want to, it isn’t something which just springs out and surprises us when we least expect it, taking us by the hand and leading us into another world. We need to take that first step into our own minds and utilise the facilities we have in the real world to enhance those of our created worlds.
You wrote of trust, something which is integral to a good friendship, to even the most basic of relationships. There are those who seem so trustworthy, and then we discover that they are playing two or three different games, and it destroys our confidence in them as much as in ourselves. I’ve come across many such people in the past, and feel sorry for them. Someone who doesn’t appreciate the confidences they are given, who does not know how to handle a true friendship with all that goes along with it is going to end up in no camp at all. There comes a time when they realise there is no one who trusts them, because they have been so loose with what has been told them in confidence, or have taken the dead end road of a gossip. The sad thing is, many of them do not learn from their mistakes. They return to their old ways as soon as someone is friendly to them, trying to ingratiate themselves with other people through the spilling of secrets, rather than working on a good and solid relationship with that one person. And, of course, their loneliness, their segregation at the end is the fault of someone else, never of themselves.
The weekend is fast approaching, and I am hoping for decent weather this time, so that I can take my book and my pipe and sit out in a street café somewhere, watching the people passing and exploring a world caught on paper. We’ve had a few serious rainstorms recently, which have been water falling from the heavens so thickly you could cut it with a knife, and they’ve been followed by blazing heat. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what to wear, in case you’re either overdressed for the warmth, or chilled to the bone by a storm. Not so bad for me, of course, but some of the fashionable ladies who prance and strut their stuff in Bremen, near to the theatre or in one of the parks are taking a risk, no matter which way they turn. Fashion is a wonderful thing, until the weather changes for the worse, and then it suddenly becomes a burden with mop-style hair hanging across make-up streaked faces, and a clinging mess of clothing which reveals more than was intended. In some places I’ve been, that is an apt description of the male of our species in the rain. We live in a strange and fascinating world.