I’m not sure what I would do without my sight, without one of the – for me – most important senses we possess. The world would be a completely different place, for one thing, possibly filled with dangers and traps which, once, were just everyday and harmless. Worse still, of course, is when your sight fades, when there is still something to be seen, but you’re no longer sure what it is and when those pleasures which you associate with sight slowly disappear. For me that would be reading and writing, although I appreciate that there are many means by which the blind can still do both. And then it’s also that feeling of helplessness which overcomes: sight fades and we can no longer do all those things we used to do, we’re reliant on someone else; if anyone else is there. I wonder how many people lose their eyesight who live alone, who have to adapt to everything without the kind and friendly support of another person? It hardly bears thinking about. Naturally not just eyesight, so many other aspects of life too when health begins to fail, when we reach out towards the years of a longer life. And then knowing that help is on the way, but having to wait for it.
I’ve been wearing glasses since the early Seventies, but needed them a good two years before anyone finally believed me and allowed me the pleasure of visiting an optician. It was something of a revelation to have my eyesight back again, to be able to walk through St James’s Park in London, on the roundabout route back home from school I sometimes chose, and see the ducks, geese and swans once more, rather than just a moving outline of something fuzzy and undefined. In all I had to wait one week for my glasses to arrive, which meant another trip into the centre of town to have them fitted, and now I cannot do without them and no one knows what I look like with a bare face, as it were. So even though you have to wait three weeks for your glasses to be delivered, and will probably stumble around a little until then, at least you know they are on their way and, hopefully, you’ll be able to see all the wonders of our world once again or, at the very least, those that you wish to see. And if you get funny looks for wearing two pairs of glasses until then, so what? You’ve adapted to circumstances where other people would probably have given up, sunken down into a quivering mass of jelly on the floor and cried their hearts out. Sometimes a little joke – such as: why don’t you wear both – brings us to a revelation we didn’t imagine possible.
The print I am including is one of those sudden revelation moments which fell upon someone and which, as you can see, brought out a wonderful result. I have no idea how she did it, although I understand the principle behind printing and the method, but such a detailed and wonderful image with just a pasta cutter and a plastic salad lid – plus ink, paper and a few cutting instruments of course – is something which really sparks the imagination. I had a letter recently from a friend in Australia, and she commented on how much she loves Heidelberg printing machines and wishes the chance to use or even own one. Way outside the pocket of many people these days, even the older letterpress models are hard to find and generally held out of reach of the general public and, sadly, brought out on display rather than being used. The advent of the computer and software controlled printing mechanisms has brought a generation of lazy printers with it, and the idea of setting up a complete print – with typeface and spacing, choice of papers, folding, binding – is something many would never consider. There are still a few out there, and I am the proud owner of a few chapbooks hand printed on letterpress machines, but most don’t even know why we call capital letters uppercase and small letters lowercase these days; so how can they be expected to turn their well-manicured and clean hands towards the dirty work of a printer’s devil?
But to come up with the idea of using a plastic lid which would otherwise be discarded, and a pasta machine which hardly ever gets used – I think mine is still in the original box somewhere – is like a flash of lightning across the brain. I think this is probably the only thing I really like about the social side of the internet, which is, otherwise, a very narcissistic place: there are so many wonderful artists and thinkers who put their works and thoughts out for the general public to enjoy. Once upon a time they’d have had to find someone to support them financially, to take them under their wing, and then publish the results of their works if at all possible, or apply to galleries and shows for the opportunity to display them. So many wonderful artists and creative movements could have been lost were it not for the determination of their members and followers if this means of publicity had remained in place. I recall that the Impressionists were turned down by many of the better galleries in Paris as they began their work, and certainly not accepted by the establishment for display on their walls, so they set up their own Off Paris style exhibition, and achieved not only a good oppress with their works, but a level of attention which has brought them into the homes and museums of many, and thrown the idea of an establishment which decides what is art and what is not out of the window.
Your mentioning of the Navarro reservation stands along the roadside reminds me of advice I once received and have since given on to many other people: don’t take the first offer you receive; look at the side streets, the little shops, the hidden galleries where you will often find exactly the same things, but not at tourist prices. I lived in Mexico and Belize for a while back in the Eighties, and it was always my policy to walk away from the main street and see what I could find hidden away from the daytime visitors. I have a small collection of Mayan stone carvings which I bought on one of the Cayes through the back door, legally of course, but avoiding the tourist trap shops, and many other things from elsewhere around the world. A short while ago I had to visit Berlin on business and was put up in a four-star hotel where we had a conference and talks and all that goes with such things. All paid for, except for the drinks and evening meal. I am a person of simple means as well as simple tastes, and the menu didn’t impress me either with its culinary offers of a four-star cook – which I find to be over valued at the best of times – or the prices. Unlike everyone else on the trip I took a walk out of the front door, down the hill into one of the off-limit areas in Berlin – which are not really but, being populated by immigrants and the poorer parts of the community quickly gain a bad name, whether they deserve it or not – and found myself both a bar where I could comfortably drink a good glass of red wine and an Indian restaurant where I could watch the cook preparing my mushroom curry, all at a price considerably lower than what was on offer up the hill.
In Belize all the tourists concentrated themselves in the northern part of the city, around the embassies, the shops and the better houses, restaurants and bars. I found myself a small place to live in the Southside, which was once the slave quarters during British colonial rule, with a garage bar around the corner and food on offer from kitchen table businesses quickly set up on the side of the road. I would buy myself a mango to eat when watching a film in the cinema – if you know the film Mississippi Burning: it is a very strange feeling to be the only white person in a cinema where a film on racial prejudice and murder because of colour is being played – or a self-brewed whiskey in one of the illegal bars. Here, in the latter, when I first arrived I was told how to find the toilets: you go out of the garage and turn right and there, on the right hand side of the roadway, is a storm drain. I’m not sure what to call the moonshine they produced there, but whiskey is good since it was mainly in Johnny Walker bottles.
Branching off from the main road, from the track everyone uses, is always the best way to explore. I tend to get tired of seeing the same old things all the time, and knowing that everyone else has seen them so a description is merely a repetition of what everyone else says. I also have a thing about repeating myself, avoid it as much as possible – right down to my letter writing where, even if I am writing to five different people one after another, the letters are always individual and rarely recap the same experiences – and prefer writing, and reading, about the things most people do not see. Of course, no matter where you plan on going, people will tell you what you have to see, what you cannot possibly miss out on, what must be in every single itinerary without fail. I smile, nod, move on with my thoughts. Often, coming back from a trip, I can then regale listeners with my exploits sleeping on the railway station concourse in Venice – marble floors, as I recall, with an early and friendly wake-up call by the Carabinieri or Polizia Locale – or sleeping with all my possessions stuffed inside my sleeping bag on the beach in Rimini – laughed at by someone who was with me, and who then lost all his possessions to an overnight thief. Walking to the local police station to report the theft was amusing, for me at least but, since my companion was in his underwear, not so much for him.
But by branching off you get to see some of the sights which are only known by a few and rarely get to hit the news. Recently in Wiesbaden – in the south of Germany, which I was visiting for the sixtieth anniversary of an American Lodge – I came across the Women’s Museum, tucked away off the beaten track, and it took me a long time afterwards to find any decent reference to it in the local tourist literature. And these days the best bookstores are not on the main streets in the centre of town: the chain sellers are there with their top ten bestsellers, but the real bookshops are tucked into side streets and alleyways, pushed out of the limelight by rising prices and the ease with which people can order books on the internet, and alongside many artist’s workshops, galleries and showrooms.
It seems to me that many people are drawn to the High Street and the chains in the belief that all they need can be found there, with the highest quality and the lowest prices. Smaller shops and stores are disappearing – I see that in my town here – because the major supermarkets are providing everything people feel they need, at a lower costs than the specialist ships, but without the specialist back-up of information and customer care. I can go into a supermarket and buy myself a refrigerator or a baker’s oven, but no one there can tell me how they work, what the electricity consumption is or whether a different model would suit my needs better. And then people go into the smaller, better quality shops, look for what they want to have, and order it in the internet stores having been able to check up on it in person. That, to me, is probably one of the worst sides of modern society when it comes to online life: using someone else’s knowledge but not rewarding them for that use with a purchase. And I wonder, taking all the time involved and the cost of checking and researching, finding a different supplier where a small saving can be made, whether it is even worth it. So many people seem to feel that they have saved money by ordering over the internet, and effectively give out more through the time they spend checking, through the telephone line costs and so on.
It always brings a good feeling when someone receives the news they have been hoping for, and I am sure that there was something of a quiet celebration around you when the new hearing was set. I write ‘quiet’ because, like you, I am well aware of what comes next, that nothing is quite as simple as it seems on the surface. Everything will have to be rehashed, gone through with a fine toothcomb, feelings brought back to the surface along with memories – which might not be as stable and certain as is hoped – and then there is the stress and strain of the whole which has to be gone through as well. I am certainly not one to play down anything, but know that your friend will now need even more support to get through the proceedings than she needed before.