Fragments Of A Long Life
It is early on a Tuesday morning, the rain of our weekend is behind me, and the hope of sun for the rest of the week, especially that time when I am able to go outside and enjoy it, lies as a pleasantly beckoning future. But first I must deal with other pleasures, and today it is writing my daily letter to a young woman who, unlike me, is just beginning in the wonderful world of letter writing.
Right at the beginning, so that there is no misunderstanding, I must say that I am considerably older than you are: I have spent many decades writing letters to people all over the world, and have gained great pleasure from it. I would love to be able to pass some of that pleasure on to you today, with this small letter and a few presents, but I certainly do not expect anything in return. We will probably never meet, possibly never correspond with one another again – which would be a shame – but the chance to write to you is something I did not want to miss, in the hopes that you will receive many letters, make many friends and, as I have, find letter writing to be an interest which follows you through your entire life.
In some ways I feel like the young man in this first picture: standing in front of shelves packed with memories, with the debris and the fragments of a long life, but still holding on to the light of life, and being prepared to pass it on in part, and use it myself for many years to come. The past is hidden in the dark, but not completely, as we can see some of the things on those shelves, can tell that there has been a lot of interest over the years, even if those remains look scary and the stuff of nightmares. The light this young man holds in his hand contains life, the future, new growth which he is clearly ready to bring out into the world and share, cultivate, nurture.
This is the sort of image which fascinates me, as I understand Manga and Anime interest you. There is much to see in the details, if you take the time to look, much can be read without the need for any words; a simple facial expression, a bead of sweat on the brow, a slight cloud over the eyes tells you of the characters mood, their feelings and emotions. This beautifully detailed style of illustration gives you a wealth of things, while Anime, with its simplicity, allows the imagination to search within itself and add to the story from experience, from desire and from pleasure.
I see this young man preparing for a great voyage out into his world, and who knows when and where this world is? I see him putting the memories of past lives behind him, his ancestors and those explorers who have gone before him perhaps, and preparing to enter his own life. This illustration might just as well have featured a young woman, and it would have brought us the same message, the same feeling of hope for the character, the same excitement at a new adventure awaiting us, which brings us onto the second picture I’ve enclosed: the journey.
There is something beautiful about such illustrations which other forms of art simply cannot capture, and I am someone who appreciates modern art as much as the classics, the Old Masters as much as modern works created by inexperienced artists. I know that many have been created and perfected with the aid of a computer, but the initial idea, that spark of genius, comes from inside the person, and not from a computer programme. The computer may well enhance the idea, bring it out so that everyone can appreciate what they are seeing, but it is nothing without that idea; the same as a letter is nothing without the person who writes about their life, their interests, their hopes and fears. It may well seem, when you first begin, that your letter writing, like life itself, is a ship lost in a massive sea, with no other life around you, just the waves and mountains from an impenetrable headland ahead, but that is what life is. We are all, like the ship in my second illustration, out there on our own, against the forces of the world and nature itself when we first begin. Is someone going to answer my letter? Will people enjoy the art that I create? How many people will read the stories that I write?
Some things cannot be answered quite so easily, but if we don’t take that first step, if we don’t accept the challenge and make our way into the world of our dreams, how will we ever know? If you don’t draw Anime or Fan art, how will you ever be able to show the full expanse of your creativity?
For me it was, many decades ago, the same with writing letters and short stories. I was nervous and troubled about doing it, since the world seemed, then as now, to be consumed in other things of far greater importance, and I was but a mere speck of dust on the surface of the planet. I didn’t have a famous name, wasn’t related to anyone famous, had no friends in the higher intellectual circles. And it made, in the end, no difference whatsoever. The many people I have written letters to over the years have replied with pleasure – not all of them have replied, of course, some have shown no interest at all, but that is also a positive sign because we can move on and find someone else – and those who have replied have become friends, have shared their experiences with me, the stories about their country, their customs and traditions, their beliefs and opinions. It has been a wonderful journey, and one which I would not have missed for the world. But I had to take that first step, as you do now, as you have done, otherwise nothing is going to happen at all.
Sometimes people have told me that they really have no idea what they should talk about in their letters, what they should draw in the pictures, what they should describe in their short stories. If you sit down, though, and think about all the questions you would like to ask someone living in a city like New York or London, Berlin or Madrid, then you can also imagine the sort of things they will want to know about where you live, because they have probably never experienced anything like your part of the world. You know, many big city dwellers never get to see anything but the skyscrapers around them, hardly ever travel out into the countryside; and when they do it is always to the holiday resorts, to the beach or a well known and fashionable area where their own style of food is served, where people speak the same language as they do, where it is a little bit like home. They don’t launch themselves, like the occupants of our boat in the second picture, out onto the wide oceans and seek something new, something exciting, but stick with the package tours of all the places everyone else has already been.
The wonderful thing about letter writing, and I am sure you will experience this many times over the coming years as you get to know new people across the globe, is how many different countries you can experience through the eyes of those people who write to you. We can’t all travel to every single country there is, maybe we manage two or three in our lifetimes, perhaps a few more, so sharing with others is a wonderful idea.
When I was your age I had already travelled through much of England and Scotland; I was born in London and went to school many miles away in North Yorkshire. I would take my vacation time, be it one week or eight, and travel across the country, walking from one village to the next, from one youth hostel to the next and just looking. All of my friends, the few that I had, would be at home with their parents, watching their new televisions and perhaps out in local parks whole I was climbing mountains, and navigating cobblestoned streets. Then I made my way out of the United Kingdom and across the English Channel to Paris and the wonders of the romantic city, as it is called by some. I’m not sure why: when I go back there today I see completely different things to those exciting and inspiring sights I was confronted with as a young teenager. Perhaps it is because I am so much older now, and I see the world with different eyes, with greater experience for the darker side of cities and people which has, perhaps, dampened my earlier enthusiasm and memories of the pleasures of my discoveries.
It was a strange experience, coming into a foreign country where I could not speak the language, but knowing that all these people around me had the same interests, the same sort of life as I did, and yet lived with different traditions and a slightly different culture. In London I was used to hopping from one bookshop to the next – and I eventually worked for four years as a bookseller – and trying to find older, second-hand books which were no longer available as new editions. Books were my thing, back then as now, because, like travelling, they opened up a new world; one which had been created by someone else but invited me in. In Paris I spent hours walking along the banks of the river, checking out all the small bookselling boxes – they’re called Bouquinistes and they sell their books along the banks of the river Seine in the heart of Paris from little market stalls – even though I couldn’t understand what was written there, or what the various people said to me as I browsed.
This strange experience, though, finding out that the people in France were much the same as those in my own home country, brought so many new things into my life – as they will in yours – that I am forever grateful to my younger self for breaking the rules and going off abroad without permission. I’m not suggesting that you do that, or that you run away from home or anything like that, because it’s not really what I did either; getting to know other countries, though, that is the thing.
And here you have my two postcards from France, as reminders to me of where it all began. A beautiful castle, high up on a mountain, overshadowed by other mountains and caught in the beauty of a winter’s day, surrounded by snow and ice, frost on the branches of pine trees, a clear, sharp blue sky. And then, the next postcard, the beauties of the countryside where there is no snow: an old stone bridge in the Pays de Fribourg which is in Switzerland, a country I wish to explore even more than I have had a chance to do so far.
I was probably a few years older than you are when I discovered the pleasures of letter writing, and of communicating with people in foreign countries through the written word, through pen and paper. When I was at school we had letter writing lessons – I was at a boarding school, and many miles away from home for more than half of the year – and were expected to write an open and spontaneous letter home to our parents which, of course, none of us could do. If you know that a teacher is going to be reading your letter, and then giving you a grade for it, you’re not going to be writing a real letter at all, but making something up just to get a higher grade. Rather like being forced to read books and interpret their story line, the act of having to write a letter put me off for a few years. I would happily receive them every week from my father, and sometimes even reply, but nothing more than that. The style of teaching killed my interest completely. Luckily not forever, although I know there are some people who never write again, as there are some who proudly claim they haven’t opened a book since they left school which, if true, would be very sad indeed.
And today? Now I write a letter to someone almost every day of the week: today it is you, tomorrow it will be a young woman in Texas. Sometimes people write back, sometimes the letter box remains empty. The wonderful thing about letter writing, though, is that you don’t have to wait for someone else to write to you, you can find an address and, even though you don’t know the person at all, you can write them a letter. Perhaps, after a week or even a month – I know how long it takes for mail to reach you – you could even get a reply. I hope you do. I hope that you gain all the pleasures of writing and receiving letters in the years ahead that I have had through my long life.
And as a last present before I sign off and hurry away to the post office, since it looks as if we are going to have rain again and I don’t want to get wet, a small book written by a friend of mine, much younger than me but a little older than you, which I printed for her. It’s not the same as Anime, since her interests are in literature of a different kind, but it makes a good change, and perhaps you can share it, and the postcards and pictures I’ve sent you, with your friends. Maybe one or two of them will start writing letters too. Here in Europe, a century ago, it was quite normal for people to share their letters with friends and family, especially if there was news from friends and family many miles away or even overseas, a wonderful tradition which really ought to be revived.
I have enjoyed writing to you, I hope you have enjoyed receiving my letter, and I wish you a wonderful time writing letters to many other people all around the world.