Initially I thought a postcard would be more appropriate, and I spent several hours going through boxes of photographic, lithographic, artistic and funny cards, old and new, to see if there was anything which really spoke to me, and which I would want to share or, better still, which would refer to something very important in my life which you, after all this time, can know nothing about. I picked out a photograph of a man, his head resting in one hand, his other hand cradling his chest, eyes half closed, clearly thinking. The official title is buste d’homme accoudé by Nicolas de Leyde from the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, and was one of many ancient models of people which impressed me during my travels; enough to remain in my memory and to convince me that purchasing a postcard was more important than an additional cup of coffee later. Travelling was, then, just as much about seeing and experiencing as about ensuring that the expenses didn’t follow the mind’s desires, but stayed in tune with reality and the need to eat occasionally.
I filled the card out with a few words and addressed it, and then put it to one side once more, unsent. For some reason I simply couldn’t do it, not after all these years, even though a postcard would probably be more significant as a reminder, as a memento than anything else. This is how it all began, the change, but this is not what it is today, and certainly not how it should end. A postcard to begin, but something with more substance, more significance to show the passage of time and the evolvement of life – in a manner of speaking – would be better. And so I put pen to paper, as it used to be but with modern technology no longer is, with a few more words than can possibly be squeezed into that small space on the back of a postcard.
Juvenal once wrote:
If now a friend denies not what was given him in trust,
If he restores an ancient purse with all its coins and rust,
This prodigy of honesty deserves to be enrolled
In Tuscan books, and with a sacrificial lamb extolled.
I will gladly forego the sacrificial lamb, and I’m not sure I wish to be entered into any history books, whether Tuscan or otherwise, but a returning of the purse which was given me, metaphorically speaking, is something that I can and wish to do.
I wrote above that it began with a postcard and, I have no doubt, you are probably shaking your head and have not the slightest inkling of what I am referring to. How could you? The whole took place forty-one years ago, in our prime, our youth, as we were still looking forward to the wonders life had to offer us, when we were still the immortal gods who would, one day, rule the world, and before reality took hold and showed us the true path of destiny. Perhaps, back then, fate had something else lined up for our lives, as they went off in different directions, but the influences were there from the start; for you and me, and for all those others who shared time with us in those short years. The memories came to me as if they were yesterday a few days ago, as I penned a letter and sorted out postcards and photographs for two young women – on in England and the other in Indonesia – who have just discovered the pleasures of letter writing and, as with me back then, are right on the brink of beautiful discoveries. Admittedly they are younger than we were then: I was sixteen and you were a year older (you probably still are, as an aside, because that sounds so silly when phrased like an overdone Victorian romance); these young women are both just entering their teens and have life before them. And I, decades older, wished to share something of the pleasures brought me by a life writing and receiving letters which, as I say, began with a postcard.
It was 1976. The summer vacation when many of us would not have had an idea, after the first week or so, what to do with our lives. In previous years I was always to be found working in or near a small town called Beccles – possibly famous from the Arthur Ransome books, the Swallows and Amazons that I read as a child, but more likely forgotten amid the euphoria over Harry Potter – picking fruit for a pittance, as I did most holidays. It was good pocket money for me, who had no other expenses, but hard work and, after a very short while, the taste of blackcurrants began to pall, apples were not as healthily attractive as they should have been and gooseberries turned my stomach, making me feel greener than a fresh batch awaiting their crisp pie crust and creamy custard. It had been decided I was too old for Beccles, too old to be picking fruit, and a proper vacation job should be sought to prepare me for the real world. My preparations for the real world would have looked somewhat different, I must admit, but the decision was not mine and, being as short on ready cash as a sixteen year old always was, I agreed to the proposal of working, in place of my plans and desire to venture back across the channel and explore the backstreets of Paris again.
Have you ever been to Wales? It’s a beautiful part of the country – caught in between many beautiful parts, I admit, and all different and exciting in their own way – and well worth a visit if you’re feeling fit and energetic. That is much the way I looked at it, all those years ago, being picked up from the local railway station and then driven many miles out into the countryside to a small valley – it calls itself a village too, but back then it was a valley with houses, and a post office – called Nant Gwynant. The next nearest town was Beddgelert, and I began learning a new language as soon as I got there, being put in my place for not pronouncing that double D as TH, which it should have been. A foreigner in my own land, so to speak.
Nant Gwynant, the valley with a few houses and a post office, nestling in the shadow of Mount Snowdon, run through by a fast flowing river, and overlooked by anyone driving through who, concentrating on the winding roads, blinked at the wrong moment. I cannot remember how many houses made up this village, but it certainly wasn’t many. My own area of competence was a youth hostel: a large main building and five or six green wooden huts fitted out with bunk beds. Showers and toilets separate, for those outside the main house, and a good selection of trees, of bugs, of creepy-crawly wildlife to scare the children who, in groups of about thirty, came to stay for a week at a time.
The quiet lake, the balmy air,
The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree, –
Are they still such as once they were?
I wouldn’t recognise the village let alone the house I lived in for six weeks if I went back today, so Scott’s question is easy enough to answer when, on the next line, he asks:
Or is the dreary change in me?
Although, to my way of thinking, there has been no dreary change, but a change over the years, from that time to this, most certainly. I seem to recall being paid a full three pounds a week to work as a cook – and general dogsbody – of which I was able to save one pound and lavish two pounds on my extravagant lifestyle. But I suspect that my memory fails me at this point, since three pounds, even for Wales and the Seventies, strikes me as too small a sum, even with full board and lodgings.
I don’t know how long I had been working there, in this isolated world of wonders, taking my one and a half days off a week to go out and walk, to ride into Beddgelert on the hostel bicycle, or into Aberystwyth and Bangor – this was my extravagant lifestyle, right down to buying the newest album from Bob Dylan, Desire, with my fortune – climbing up Mount Snowdon with the children and generally feeling cut off from the world I had known, and exceptionally happy about it too. All I do know is that one day the postman arrived and handed me a delivery, something that hadn’t happened before and which I was not expecting. Rather, I suspect, as this letter for you now. It was this famous postcard which I have mentioned here a few times, and which you sent from out of the blue.
I don’t have it any more. I kept this one postcard for countless years, transporting it with me around the world, tucked up in a book or a pile of papers, always kept safe and well. But the years and the moves and changes have eventually proven too much and it, like so many other things from the past, has vanished into the mists of time, only to re-emerge as a welcome memory now and then. It joins a most beautiful pencil sketch, a nude, that a young artist did of me a few years later, as I settled down to life in London and a career at Harrods. Or the first edition of George MacDonald’s At The Back Of The North Wind, which I still see, in my mind’s eye, sold for a few pounds and being transported off on the back of a bicycle near King’s Cross. What would I do to have that edition again: so many memories tied up in one book, from performing in the theatre at school down to being told I am not a collector of books – at seventeen – by a bookseller in Hampstead, simply because I didn’t have any other titles by that one author whose book I held in my hands, in his shop, that day.
There are many memories tied in with this one postcard; you cannot know what it meant, back then, to have someone take time to write to me in Wales – even talking in a friendly manner face-to-face in the school would have been a bonus – and that all despite the fact that it was a perfectly innocent gesture on your part, and seen as such by me too. There is a difference, for many of us, when we come to appreciate that we are not completely alone, even if the thought going through someone else’s mind is a mere passing blitz, a shimmer of a memory and nothing more. But what did that single postcard do that warrants a letter now, forty-one years later?
I was asked by one of my friends, living a very secluded – incarcerated – life in the United States, what it was that brought me to letter writing and to sharing all the thoughts, the knowledge I appear to have gained and the general joy of life I feel. It is hard to explain to someone how a small gesture can change a life, and I often have to enhance my stories so that people find them moiré acceptable, more life-changing because of their intensity and depth. How to explain the intensity and depth of a single postcard with an amusing comment scrawled across it? How to explain to someone that the realisation of a passion – that of letter writing – could come like a lightning strike in the middle of the blackest night, and enlighten a person’s mind as no other thought or realisation had done before? A single postcard which made clear, through personal experience, that such communication with another person, whether you know them or not, could be the life line they have been seeking, the hand that helps them, the gesture which brings them back to life and to the living? Michel de Montaigne – writing about something else, but quotations are so easy to use for what we need and not what the author intended – wrote:
I have no other passion to keep me in breath. What avarice, ambition, quarrels, lawsuits, do for others who, like me, have no assigned occupation, love would do more agreeably. It would restore to me vigilance, sobriety, grace, care for my person; would secure my countenance, so that the grimaces of old age, those deformed and pitiable grimaces, should not come to disfigure it; would take me back to sane and wise studies, whereby I might make myself more esteemed and more loved, ridding my mind of despair of itself and its employment, and reacquainting it with itself; would divert me from a thousand troublesome thoughts, a thousand melancholy moods, that idleness and the bad state of our health loads us with at such an age; would warm up again, at least in dreams, this blood that nature is abandoning; would hold up the chin and stretch out a little the muscles and the soul’s vigour and blitheness for this poor man who is going full speed toward his ruin.
Michel de Montaigne was writing about Virgil, hopefully not making it about himself, and certainly not about me but, as you can see, a single passion, an awakened interest, can have far-ranging consequences, ones that we often cannot envisage or even assess once the ball begins to roll. And who could have imagined that such a simple gesture, the sending of a single postcard forty-one years ago, to a small village in the depths of Wales, to an insignificant youth of dubious qualities, could influence or, to be more accurate in this case, instigate the passion of a lifetime?
You see, I decided to write back to you when that simple postcard arrived, and indeed I did do so. But in writing that reply I discovered that the postcard I was sending did not do justice to my thoughts, to what I wanted to write. I was surrounded by the wild beauty of Wales, by a world waiting to be explored, and needed far more space to put my impressions, my experiences and thoughts down on paper. A postcard, so limited, did not live up to the demands waiting, vying to be placed upon it: a picture may well be worth a thousand words in the minds of some, but only if that image comes from the very soul of the person writing – and I am not going to wax lyrical in the manner of Paolo Gaudiano (Wired Magazine, in March 2014) and his explanation of why a picture is not worth as much as the text itself in the age of mass communication, the internet and incredibly short attention spans – and personal experiences as well as enlightenment, in this case most certainly, can hardly be contained in an understandable sense or form upon a piece of card three or four inches wide. People have problems putting their thoughts down in writing at the best of times, and when you look at Twitter and their one hundred and forty character limit, it is easy to see why so many people fail, why they need more space. If only they would take the hint that I did back then, and move away from these abbreviated forms of communication, return to the old, tried and trusted methods, and feel the blessings of communication with a personal, individual, unique touch.
At sixteen you are still looking for a place in the world, for something you can do which will live up to the expectations of your parents, impress your friends, bring enough money in to keep you alive – and buy that house you’ve always wanted or, at the very least, pay the bills – and even be satisfying and pleasurable for you, as the main person involved. I don’t think any of us could say what the future held, what we really wanted to be as opposed to what we had a chance to become; and little has changed now, over four decades later.
I do not know how many words I have written since I received that postcard, all those years ago. I know that it wasn’t immediate, that it took a long time before the words really began to flow, before they became a deluge in my mind and had to be let out. In some ways I feel it is like music – you would probably know this better than I – which fills your very soul with a feeling so special, you have to share it with someone else. And then that right person comes along, or the right means of expression, and everything is perfect. For me it was the means of expression, never the person and, although I have tried to share this slight ability, this minor talent, I doubt that it has brought so much joy as your work. Maybe a few people have been inspired, in their own way, and I have certainly received letters which claim my words – whether in a letter, in a short story or in an article – have inspired the reader / hearer to deeper thoughts, but do they create themselves? Do they pass on the knowledge, the inspiration claimed to come from me?
Did you know I tried to learn the flute when we were in school? I had wanted the clarinet, but wasn’t given much of a choice in the matter. We had a teacher who could do the flute, and that was it. Learn or leave it. It wasn’t a success: the man seemed to be merely there to pass the time and couldn’t even begin to communicate, in those small back rooms, what it was he wanted, what he expected, what he was offering. I think I had three lessons in all, and then went back to my books and my time out on the Moors. We all find our inspiration somewhere, and all see that inspiration in a different manner to everyone else, no matter how close they may appear to be, no matter how open to influence. It’s like looking at a painting on the wall, we all see something else, interpret it in a different way, form our own explanations and stories around what we believe we can see. Or travelling across Europe and the rest of the world, sticking to the tourist resorts, as so many do, or wandering off the beaten path and finding out what lies behind the pretty scenery, behind the staged and the playacting.
Early in the Eighties I went on a parachuting course to Cyprus – three days work and twenty-seven recuperation, as it happens, but I’m not complaining – and came across this limited mentality at first hand. We spent a day in Nicosia, sightseeing is how it was billed. A small group of us stood in a large market place and took a look at all our options, and then we split in to two groups. The main group went shopping in Woolworths and ate their lunch in a Wimpy (are those still a thing in England?). Everyone else – which is a euphemism for me, alone – went into a local bar, ate in a small, backstreet restaurant, shopped in local stores where children sold the goods more than their parents did, who were generally outside enjoying the sun. The group drank Carlsberg, and laughed at my choice of whiskey-sour: only the locals drank whiskey-sour, along with their heavy wines and other strange concoctions, I was told. My shrug of a total lack of concern should have been enough: why were we there if not to experience, to live, to learn? The last thing I want to be is a tourist hoping for sausage and mash when visiting Moscow, Paris, Ibiza or Madrid and coming home sorely disappointed because they only had local food and drink on offer.
On the surface, for someone looking in but not a part of the whole, it might almost sound as if I am saying we do much the same thing, just you with music and I with words. But this isn’t true at all: you share your talent with young people, teach them the basics or mechanics of playing an instrument and, by doing so, allow them to increase their love of a beautiful art, and share it with others. Your talent allows young people to enhance their own talent, and bring joy to many people. And mine? I write words which people read, and then they move on to the next thing: few are inspired to write short stories because they have read one of mine, even when they know it is from my pen, which hardly anyone does. Some are inspired to write back when they receive a letter from me – although I limit, these days, the selection of those I choose to write to, and have only recently written to two young women in the hopes that their interest in writing will blossom on to become a full-blown love for this art form. You have a major return on your work, and can see the youngsters improving from those first hesitant squeaks and fumbles to confidence and beauty. And I do not know how many people even get to read my words, including the letters. Would we change, seek out a different career, a different path through life, given the chance to go back with the knowledge we have now and choose again?
This, you see, could never fit on a mere postcard, although the message, without all the flamboyancy and flourishes, might, perhaps, have succeeded with one or two words at most. And still, as I come to the end of this letter, I am aware that what, for me, had great meaning all those years ago, was, perhaps, for you a pleasant gesture, a bit of fun, something to pass the time. The smallest thing, though, can make a difference. So, once again, thank you very much for that postcard, sent back in August 1976 to a teenager in Wales which, like the butterfly’s wings flapping is Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas, changed a life for the better. And I know that you probably won’t remember me – I was a different person back then – just as you probably don’t recall the postcard, but only one person needs to hold a memory to make it something special.