Travel by Hamza Butt.

As a child I could never understand the need or reason for punishments meted out by adults: they seemed to be without reason and often for misdemeanours which were so minor, so trivial in all their aspects, that any normal person, in my mind, would have overlooked them. But these were adults, I reasoned, and they are a very strange breed who, because of personal insecurities and worries about their own position in the hierarchy, feel the need to reinforce their rank and pride. And in many cases I am sure that I was correct in my assessment, there were truly many people I came across in my early years, right through to my military time and beyond, who felt the only way they could ensure respect from another person was to force them into a lesser position, to push them down and belittle them. At the same time I also began to see that there were some rather more intelligent, forward thinking people out there, sadly in a minority, who saw that if something wasn’t cut back at an early stage, before it had time to blossom into a habit, there would be massive problems later on in life. These, though, as I say, were in the minority, the bulk of those who gave out punishments, and this applies especially to the small-minded and backward teachers during my school years, followed a policy of knee-jerk reactions, without thought or consideration, and then attempted to justify their actions after the fact.

And then there were the third-party punishments, which were often considerably worse. Here someone would report an event – real or imagined – to a person with a little bit of power, and let them do the dirty work. There would be a carefully concocted story where certain facts would have been left out and a few believable fictions pasted in to the appropriate place, and then a smug, standing-in-the-background wait for results. A person who was not involved at all would, then, be brought into the game and made a pawn in someone else’s attempt at revenge or, simply put, bullying.

That is not to say every single punishment I received in those early years was unwarranted or undeserved, that would be going a step too far, but the manner in which some came across, in which they were inflicted irritated more than anything else. And, because of a person’s position, it was often impossible to simply ask what the whole had to do with them, because then they would have felt personally attacked and have fought back. It was all too often necessary to just swallow your pride and forge on through to the light at the end of the tunnel knowing that a wrong had been done, but not being prepared to either force worse punishments through action, or give someone the satisfaction of seeing that their action had bit home and hurt. All punishments come to an end and, hopefully, when people are big enough, they are then forgotten as something which has been wiped clean from the slate. Of course, we all know that this isn’t the case, that something will be held over another person’s head for years to come, but the hope is always there if nothing else.

I have something to admit to you, which I am sure you will understand and appreciate immediately: many so-called intellectual people are downright boring. Those who have insisted on becoming the best in their field of study, or who look down on the work of other people, who write for the academic magazines not because it is expected of them – which in a research university and for some other institutions it is – rather than because they enjoy it. There are many who are so stuck within the knowledge they have, they are incapable of seeing anything else outside of their own field of vision, incapable of exploring other interests. These people bore the skin off my teeth after about half an hour. I am quite happy to mix with them, as I must on occasion, and to hold conversations so long as there is a time limit, but when it comes to things of interest, challenges, intellectual debate and discussion, I seek my fun elsewhere. I have never felt the need to tell someone else their interests, the manner in which they write, their behaviour, dress or fashion sense is wrong or stupid, or belittling or anything else. We are all who we are, and who we are has often taken years to make. We have all gone through hundreds of different and unique experiences which have brought us to the point where we are today, and that is what is fascinating.

I have letter writing friends who cannot spell. Some have problems getting their ideas down on paper and need considerably longer to write a fairly simple letter than others. A few have GED, but only because they gained it while in prison, while others have gone on the Master’s Degree and are working on their dissertations for an academic title. I received a letter today from someone who told me she had cried as she read what I wrote. Other people have claimed that they were shocked by some of the thoughts my letters brought out in them, and they had to read several times in order to appreciate what they really knew and how deep their own thoughts and knowledge went. Yet more have written back and told me tales of occurrences in their lives which have influenced them, but which they have not understood that these were life changing events. Many have apologised for the perceived level of their letter writing skills.

Letter writing is something which has been neglected for many decades, sadly enough. Thinking deeply about a certain subject has also been pushed back further and further as we are told what to do and there are more and more dogmatic rituals and indecipherable instruction manuals for every single little thing in life. We have become a society of automatons who move from one set piece to the next, and are required neither to think nor to react independently. Much has been lost as a result, not least the fascinating lives of countless people we could be enjoying company with. There are those who believe they cannot sit and drink a beer with someone like me, because I would be more the gin and tonic type and far too above them to share a table. In fact I drink whisky and red wine, but that is irrelevant! There are those who believe, because of my position in one association or another, that they cannot talk to me at a formal dinner, or should leave me in peace when we’re preparing a meeting or after it is over. My title, it would seem, puts some people off. The person itself, the thing they do not see behind all the glitter and the titles, is left out of the algorithm.

Does a person’s life and their experiences reflect in the manner in which they write, or talk, or act? Most certainly it does, and that is a good thing in my opinion. There are a few people who try to hide the person they really are, who try to climb the social, academic or political ladder of their choice by erecting a facade and portraying themselves as someone they are not. They tend to reveal themselves very quickly indeed, and it is just as far falling back down to the bottom of the ladder as it is climbing up, just quicker and more painful. It is these life experiences which make conversation so interesting, which allow a person to see how someone else handles difficulties but also what they have seen in their lives. I can talk about living next to Buckingham Palace in London, as one example, but also living in a slum area of a central American country in the late Eighties. Other people would talk about living in a rural village or town in Alabama, or in the middle of New York and bring, through their own experiences and manner of telling tales, colour and enjoyment into any conversation. Nothing to do with intellectualism or with education, just with the telling of tales, the relating of life experiences and, above all, the ability to listen to someone else as much as to relate your own stories for their enjoyment.

And how exactly does this all work? Why do I, as a supposed intellectual, find ‘ordinary’ people interesting and a delight to be about? It’s not because their presence, their use of language, their theoretical limitations make me feel any better about myself or bolster my ego with thoughts of how much better my education is, how further up the evolutionary ladder I have managed to climb. It’s because they are ordinary people like myself, capable of telling a story, and who have a history which I have never been able to experience but for what they tell, but for the stories they relate and the experiences in their lives I am allowed, second-hand, to partake of. And what if some of these stories are blown up a little bit, with more colour and action added in the telling; isn’t that all part and parcel of the whole? Isn’t it true that every single person who tells a story adds something to it, not just of themselves, to make it fresh and exciting again? That is, after all, what a writer does when concocting a short story or a novel, what an article writer does when putting plain facts down on paper, so why not us too? As long, of course, as the whole remains original, doesn’t steal from other people’s work, plagiarise or, even worse for me, simply copy what has been written in a person letter to one person as something new to another.

Modern technology is a wonderful think, of that there is no doubt and I can well believe every single generation throughout mankind’s history has praised the modern technology of its own time, but there are limits. It is far too easy to take something meant for someone else, rephrase it slightly – if at all – and then pass it off as something new. Except for the fact that many of us, the older people who have seen it all before and who, despite our age, know what cut and paste is, often spot the inserted, the fake, the repetition, the slightest mistake which gives the whole game away. And then, when we see it, when we realise that someone is being less than honest with us, not dedicating themselves to us as they have promised to do, the first reaction is something akin to disappointment. Perhaps sadness, but certainly disappointment.

There is another good side to storytelling and letter writing which some people overlook: the escape. It is possible, as with a good novel, to remove yourself completely from your surroundings, slip off into an invented country all of your own, and just write from the heart. These are the best letters, every single time, the ones which have no real plan, do not follow a set template, are just writing as the thoughts emerge. Some people claim that the best thoughts and ideas come to them in the shower, I tend to find them all over the place. But when I sit down and begin to write a letter, or a short story, an article, a talk, an initial idea blossoms out into something completely different. I cut off the outside world as much as is possible, and just let myself slip into the worlds of the written word, of the world that I am creating with my words. Everything else is irrelevant, outside, unnoticed. Sometimes it is possible to write a few thousand words, to fill three or four pages of a letter without even taking my hands off the paper, without looking up. My mug of tea is then cold, but still drinkable, perhaps the sun has set or it has been raining and the windows are misted over so that I cannot see my garden. All unnoticed. These are often the best of times, when there is nothing else but the one person you are writing to.

And, of course, you can leave all your troubles behind you, in the real world, rather than taking them with you into the written, the imaginary, the communicative world of letter writing. Sometimes it is good to allow your thoughts to work through your problems, sometimes better to just leave them behind you, completely ignore them, and do something else. A brief respite is as good as a vacation. And sometimes that self-same respite allows your mind to regenerate, to look at a problem from a different angle, and find the solution.

I have been concentrating on many other things aside from my letter writing this month, but still managed to write to many people who have been generous enough to write to me. The end of August and all through September is a very busy time, with many visits to different towns and cities and a lot of work with other people. My association seems to pack as much as it can into this one month, which is exhausting for some of us when we’re involved with all branches of the association and have to attend all the major meetings. So after all the work arranging events in August I find myself travelling a good deal in September, with several meetings in Bremen at different levels, in Oldenburg, in Wilhelmshaven, Lüneburg, Gelsenkirchen and Hamburg, all where I have to be in attendance and cannot just shrug the matter off and let them go it alone. At the same time it brings a good deal of satisfaction with it: the chance to renew friendships; meet new people; hold deep conversations; see different aspects of cities and towns which I would not normally have time for. My district is small in numbers, but a massive landmass which needs to be travelled through, and that is the hardest part of all. Once I arrive I can relax, enjoy the afternoon or evening and, suitably fed up with all that a Lodge has to offer, return home to the welcoming warmth of my own bed, for a few hours at least.

That is what I have to look forward to tonight, and which I most certainly am looking forward to, with a photographic exhibition across the road from my house in an hour or so, and then a Lodge meeting followed by an evening meal further up the road. Not so far to travel this time, but just as much enjoyment as if I had made my way from one side of the country to the other. And, of course, the chance to sit and talk with a wide range of different people of all abilities, all trades imaginable, on the same level.