I feel almost as if I am becoming a multimedia correspondent: written letters received through the post; electronic mails sent over the internet; images and postcards sent by some through both the internet and the postal services. My desk has become the centre of a small paper world, with words and wishes, thoughts and memories, plans and expectations from across the world adorning every corner. I am not someone who is stuck back in the times when only one means of correspondence was acceptable – admittedly, in times when only one was possible, but I am mixing many things together here, old and new possibilities and services – I find it quite acceptable to receive by any means available, it is just that I prefer writing on paper and sending my thoughts through the post. If anyone, yourself naturally included, finds it easier to write an electronic mail, or to use an internet service, I have no problem, just as long as it arrives safely here and can be read, so that I can reply according to my preferences. So there is no need to purchase stamps, when an electronic facility is available and more to your liking; there are many other things we need in our separate worlds which take a far higher priority.
How to describe myself? I must admit, I have not done a great deal of thinking about myself since my teenage years when, as I suspect most teenagers were, I was more obsessed with myself and my effect of other people than anything else. Back then, again I suspect as with all of us, the world revolved around me and my desires, and anyone getting in the way was simply wrong: not to the extent that the a child is at the centre of the world in its own mind when it is much younger, but in the sense that I knew a great deal, was no longer reliant on other people much of the time, and had a certain degree of freedom. I suffered seven years of education at a private school in a small village lost in the middle of North Yorkshire, hundreds of miles away from my home in London, with few friends but many interests. I began travelling at a very young age – mainly through the United Kingdom during vacation time – and was in France at the age of fourteen, without permission and unknown to everyone who was meant to have control over my life and my movements. In France I discovered, despite the teachings of my school, that the population was made up of people just like me, just like other Englishmen, and not a bunch of rogues and itinerates ungrateful for British – and American – help decades earlier during the Second World War.
I discovered this about many countries and peoples over the years, which completely threw my belief in the educational system I had been through, and cemented the idea in my mind that a private, personal education would suit many far better than what is now available, with only the fundamentals being offered by government institutions. This, I have since discovered, is the system which used to be in place, until Europe and the United States began taking on the Prussian system of education in the mid-nineteenth century, and dropping the Humanities and Liberal Arts as the basis upon which each individual should research and build his knowledge base for him- or herself. But at a very young age I appreciated the usefulness of educating yourself, especially since many of the books I wanted to read and was capable of understanding were either forbidden to me, or hidden behind the librarian’s desk and forbidden to everyone.
It is fair to say that I educated myself through a very broad literary interest and through travels which tended to be off the beaten track. Despite my advanced years, and the many problems connected to travel these days, I am still out and about whenever it is possible to be, and always have a book in my hand, and one in reserve. The task of educating yourself is a never ending one, for those prepared to do it, and one of the greatest pleasures in life. And education involves, as I am sure you appreciate, the ability to listen as much as to express yourself, the art of communication is a two-way system and not a one-way side-road into oblivion.
So, I was born in Hampstead, raised in the centre of London and in a small village in North Yorkshire, and educated in whichever part of the world I happened to find myself in at any moment in time. These days it is more Germany than anywhere else, but I’ve learned much from visits to Belize, Mexico, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and, of course, the United States. All of this has been mashed and meshed together to produce whatever it is that I am today: an outsider with a book where everyone else has smart phones; a stranger who has friends through the written word; father and grandfather; book, photography and art collector; light – minor – philanthropist; traveller. A strange concoction today, but one which was quite normal about one hundred and fifty years ago. Perhaps I am simply stuck in the past, but it is a very pleasant past to be stuck in.
Your electronic mail brought a few thoughts to my mind, which I have since passed on to others who claim that such communication is the fastest, the best, the only way to stay in touch. Here on the outside – for want of a better term – there are attempts to build up major networks of internet nodes which facilitate a connection no matter where you are. These are run by the major telecommunications companies, of course, with subsidies from government and people using the system have to be customers or pay a fairly hefty fee. Many hotels and restaurants – which I feel is a shame, but that’s another matter – are also linking up to allow their customers constant online access. And then there is the normal data-driven access through the telephone companies, for everyone who has a smart phone no matter where they are. As long as they can find a network which will connect them to their own, they’re in. We are slowly progressing to the stage where it will be possible to be online at all times, to communicate over the internet at all times, to simply be unable to disappear from the face of the earth when the desire grabs us. In France it has been necessary for the government to pass legislation forbidding employers from contacting their workers when they are on vacation.
Meaning: many people are getting to the stage where they take this connectivity for granted, and the idea that someone does not have an immediate gateway to the internet, to their electronic mails, to other people is outside of their understanding. I, too, have become used to the idea that I can be contacted at all times of the day and night, unless I switch my phone off – which I do most of the time. It would be inconceivable for many youngsters today that you can write an electronic mail on your pad, but have to wait until you can physically link up through a kiosk to send it. In fact, I sometimes get the feeling that many younger people today do not remember what life was like ten minutes ago, let alone understand either the advantages they have or the possibilities they are missing out on by over-using these modern technological advantages. I am also aware that many people today don’t know what is going on in the world anyway, regardless of how well informed they believe themselves to be, since they never look up from their smart phones and probably wouldn’t recognise the sun or moon if they saw it in real life. And from this I think you can safely add ‘opinionated’ to my character, since I do have a hard and fast opinion of modern technology, and the ease with which it is destroying social values and, to a great extent, social life.
How else can I describe myself other than by examples of my interests? A physical description is fairly pointless as it brings nothing to mind unless we can relate words to an image of someone else we have seen, and I can think of no film or pop stars I wish to be compared to, which is where most people would construct their imaginative images from. Old, bald, bearded, bespectacled all fit; salt and pepper where there is any hair; bookish and occasionally impoverished; quietly opinionated whilst being open-minded and willing to learn; a tendency to dress smartly but in such a fashion that I don’t stand out in a small crowd. I also think quicker than I can write and often, without meaning to, miss out letters and even words when writing, which is extremely frustrating for me later, when I check to see what I’ve written and try to make something of a presentable effort to be sent out. So perhaps add slight perfectionist, without actually being one since, as you will have seen from my earlier letters, they are far from perfect.
I have been plagued my entire life by people who either consider me to be highly intelligent, or overly dumb. There seems to be no middle ground. People have patiently explained things to me which I have understood since before they were born, and others have simply turned away because they believe themselves unable to keep up. Intelligence is a very hard thing to quantify, if not impossible: someone can be exceptional in one area, such as Einstein was, but not manage to hold their own in another. I have the ability to form words and express ideas, which not everyone can understand, and for the rest I simply know where to look to find my information. I read something which interests me, and incorporate it in a letter within a few days, or mark it down with a bookmark for later. Sometimes I come across these simple bookmarks, with no annotation whatsoever, months or years later and am at a complete loss for their meaning, why I had picked them out sometime in the past. In truth I have always considered myself to be a normal, everyday person with one or two minor exceptional traits: open to others; interest in travel; interest in constantly learning. In the end, my words and the images they bring across are the person that I am.
I suspect I would have found my place in a time several centuries ago, perhaps as late as the Victorian era, perhaps as early as the Greek or Roman Empires. I can imagine myself discussing philosophy with the Renaissance Humanists in fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy; exchanging letters with dukes and earls, politicians and the literati. I’m not sure whether I’d feel at home discoursing in front of a hostile crowd in a Roman forum, pleading for or against a criminal case, backing or dismissing legislation. I love the idea of being in the backstreets of a major city, such as London, where there are still gaslights on the streets and a light fog envelopes everything; I love their manner of dress as well as the idea of living and writing in a garret somewhere; the vision of me as a poet bent over my papers, writing with a quill by candlelight comes to my mind’s eye now and then.
Indulging dreams his godhead lull to ease,
With murmurs of soft rills and whispering trees:
The poppy and each numbing plant dispense
Their drowsy virtue, and dull indolence;
No passions interrupt his easy reign,
No problems puzzle his lethargic brain;
But dark oblivion guards his peaceful bed,
And lazy fogs hang lingering o’er his head.
Not quite the words a poet would wish to have written about him, but probably nearer to the truth in the seventeenth century than today: Sir Samuel Garth, writing against a move by apothecaries to ban a dispensary which gave needed drugs and medicines to the poor free of charge. A subject, I think, which is as poignant today as it was then. And I rather think that this is how many people imagine a poet to live: almost a life of relaxed luxury for a few moment’s writing to produce a poem of short length which no one – today at least – is going to read.
I would stick with literature, though, and possibly of the kind that best suits my style of letter writing: occasionally rambling; easily lost from the theme; mostly with a deeper, hidden meaning which demands thought and consideration. Plenty of references to other works, other authors, to events in history as if the reader is already well versed in them, familiar. The fact that I would probably die of starvation in my lonesome garret, and only be found at the end of the month by a landlady seeking her rent, makes no difference in the end: we all have our dreams. And there is also always the possibility, if I lived in Victorian London, that I would finally get to meet up with a few of those greatest of all writers who lived in and frequented the city, and exchanged their views, successes and failures, frustrations and successes in various literary gatherings, with a brandy by firelight, a pipe and slippers.