I most certainly didn’t want to intimidate anyone with my letter – and I must admit, I’ve never really thought of my letters as being intimidating although, perhaps for some, they may seem to be a little too much, in-depth or writing style, for some – although I think I can understand, from the layout, the whole appearance of the letter when initially received and opened, that it would be more than strange, something out of the ordinary. I do know, from the reactions that I get in first answers, that many are very surprised and, to a certain extent, overwhelmed, mainly because they have never received a letter such as I tend to write. I generally am told that the recipient felt they were being forced to think for a change, and that they had to formulate an answer over a much longer time frame than usual which, I suppose, can be very intimidating for some. Others were thrown by the fact that I tend to quote from other works, mainly classical texts, sometimes ancient classics, and they had never come across that sort of letter writing before, and didn’t know how to react, especially since the texts were often unknown to them, even if the author’s name rang a bell, such as Plato or Socrates. Yet others have been surprised that I, as a male, would write to them, as males, and suspected something might be going on in the background which they wouldn’t necessarily appreciate. One even went so far as to make it quite plain he wasn’t interested in a male / male relationship outside of the physical writing of letters, even though nothing of the sort had been intimated.
I tend to try to be gender-neutral, although it is difficult having spent the last fifty-seven years with this idea of male and female, he and she. Even without these mere words, I have always tried to respect the wishes of those I correspond with – thus the manner in which I address you, rather than using your ‘real’ name – and will continue to do so, fully aware that I will occasionally make mistakes, as we all do, for which I beg pardon in advance. There are many people, across all generations, who have the same problem simply because of the manner in which we are educated – and it will be many years before that changes – and the company we keep in society.
If there is not something of yourself in the piece of work that you are creating, if you only see it as work and not as a creation, then it will not succeed with other people either, whether it is written or painted, photographed or anything else. There needs to be something of the artist in each creation: they need to feel successful without public success; need to feel mentally or physically exhausted upon completion; need to know that they are happy with their own work even if no one else has offered an opinion. My problem with Instagram is not so much that it exists, but more so many people who manage to get themselves a few followers and can take a halfway decent photograph then proclaim themselves artists and open little Etsy shops, when all they are doing is imitating those who have been before them, and that not anywhere near as good. I have seen people offering paint-by-numbers works they have completed for sale, and framed colouring pictures cut out of adult colouring books, which are all the rage at the moment. They call themselves artists and wish to be elevated to the highest positions on Mount Olympus, but do not have an ounce of originality in their bodies or, at least, none that they have made use of. Many seem to believe that merely the act of having their work in the internet and other people seeing them, makes them fit to equate themselves with artists who have worked for years on their skills, be they physically creating on paper through drawing, painting or printing, or through photography. They then become disillusioned and the idea of working at your perceived skill, of improving yourself is overlooked, if not ignored, as they measure themselves against the ‘art’ of those others in the same position and with the same attitude as themselves.
Of course you learn from your mistakes, as you say, and some of the best creative works in the world are those which were to have been, but never made it. It’s like the fisherman who claims the prize for a fish which escaped his grasp, claiming its size as we enhance the worth of an art piece which we didn’t manage to finish, or which was lost for some reason. And, again, your running of proof prints, of checking your work slowly and carefully, after that one mistake, is something newer so-called artists do not learn. They can shoot fifty photographs with their high technology, pick out the one which looks best and discard the rest. It used to be that a photographer worked as much before taking a picture as he did afterwards, and the shot itself was the lightest, the easiest part of his work.
So, yes I’m considerably older than most people who would probably write to you and have seen a great deal of the world, which also makes a difference to attitude and writing. I know many people who cannot give an excuse for not having advanced beyond graduation, or for not travelling even out of their own State, so we’ll not worry about that side of things at all. I have travelled, I have gathered many stories over the years, and I daresay some of those stories will come out as time goes by; neither one of us needs be in a rush to get it all out and on paper as quickly as possible; it’s not as if we’re on a telephone and the last quarter is ticking through to its end. I have always written letters, just the same as short stories, essays, talks and discussions, so all of this comes together with the years of experience as well as a good portion of reading. I cannot, however, claim to have one favourite book I would bring out before any other, there are simply too many I have enjoyed and I have too many on the shelves which surround me here to say that one, or that one is better than all the others, more influential, more moving. There are some books I constantly turn to for quotes, for inspiration when writing – such as Cicero, Plato, de Montaigne – and others which appear at the right time and have their place in a letter for a brief moment, before disappearing onto a shelf somewhere. Many of my books are adorned with small slips of paper, things which have drawn and held my attention at some time or another and where I have thought: yes, I’ll need that, and then moved on.
There was a time when I thought I would collect works of art and, living in London, it was easy to come across good works, back in the Seventies, at a very good price. This was a time when students – which I am not, I’m far too old for that now! – sold some of their artworks to the general public for fun, not to support themselves. I would see a pen and ink drawing, or a print in some art gallery window, recognise it as the work of a student – that is free of most rigid rules the schools teach their children – and find out whether my small income could afford it. Then, of course, I started travelling and many of the art works and my first collection of books – about one thousand or so – disappeared as non-transportable.
My education was in a private school many miles away from home, one which no longer exists, and was rudimentary to say the least. I did not enjoy it, and taught myself considerably more by reading alongside what we were taught than the teachers wished me to. Philosophy and Critical Thinking, Literary Analysis and similar humanistic subjects were not on the agenda, although the school principal did once try to bring a discussion group of seniors together, which failed miserably. He invited us to his house, on the school grounds, with coffee and biscuits and resented us with a theme. One such theme was a poem by Robert Frost which resulted in me being sent out and the group, a short while later, being disbanded. I gave a completely different interpretation to the poem than that he wanted to hear, he called me a sexist chauvinist – which had no relevance as I had equated the poem to a woodland love scene between two men – and then that was it. I gained the qualifications I wished to have and continued my education in the pre-Prussian system of learning after leaving school, with a considerably amount of financial help from the government which not only paid for education but, in the military, allowed me to travel here and there at public expense.
Names, as you appreciate, have little meaning when we cannot choose them for ourselves. My own is Irish, although I am a Londoner and my ancestors Scottish, and the final hyphenated section is all surname. It is amusing to have people trying to pronounce my name, and most gladly accept my offer of calling me by my forename alone, something which a former county mayor instigated – he having the same problems as everyone else – when I was elected to the county council here.
What compels anyone to do anything? I write to several people who have struck me as being potentially interesting. By this I mean that their life story coupled with the manner in which they express themselves gives me pause for thought and makes me suspect they could be capable of holding a deep and meaningful conversation without flying off the handle, going mad and shouting or making accusations as can happen when someone else has a different opinion. Just today I was ‘shouted’ at on Twitter because I differentiated between the Right to Free Speech in the public domain and the ability of a university, as a private owner of a property, to decide who could and who could not speak on their property. I believe in the Rights and Freedoms which have been negotiated and won over many generations, especially the last three or four, but couple this with a reminder that the other side also has the same Rights and Freedoms, so someone is going to come out worse off no matter how you play it. So far I have been relatively lucky in picking out interesting, thoughtful, balanced correspondents, and have not felt the need to stop writing to anyone, or to ask them to stop writing to me. I do not, as I mentioned above, consider gender or sexual orientation a relevant criteria to decide who to write to: the mind has no gender.
Perhaps I should explain that: we are brought up according to certain social norms and expected to adhere to them throughout our lives. Boys and girls get specific colours for their baby clothes, specific gender-relevant toys, education, mannerisms and social customs. If the mind of each individual had control, those gender specific lines would probably not exist, and each unique individual would be able to pick out and enjoy their own place in society according to what they believe themselves to be, not according to what they are told to be. Sexuality is another matter entirely, in my opinion, and if we were allowed to grow according to who we are outside of the present forced gender norms of society, there would be far fewer sexual problems, sexual identity problems and considerably less sexual related hatred. At least, that’s the way I see it. And that’s the way the ancient Greeks and Romans saw it too, even if they did have a form of marital agreement between male and female the taking of a lover – gender unspecific – was a normal aspect of everyday life. I am told, although I have not seen the evidence as yet, that King James of England, he of the King James Version of the Bible, was also of a similar opinion, and quite happy with his masculine lover as he was with his female wife.
I am not surprised that there are those who write with the intention of gaining some sort of sexual thrill; I just need to take a glance at some of the male and female adverts on the internet – including those from inmates – where something along those lines is either openly offered, or intimated that it could be available. In many ways I find it sad that an incarcerated women, facing a life sentence and with a release date around 2050 or later, should write such an advert, but I’m not inside her head, nor that of those who reply. I can imagine that a sexual relationship confined exclusively to paper – and the occasional present will undoubtedly come out of the whole, for services rendered! – would be not only frustrating, but absolutely pointless. I enjoy having my mind turned on, anything else only happens in face-to-face interaction. Although, yes, I can see that erotica would work for some, to spur on the imagination a touch, but feel saddened nonetheless.
As to what compels anyone to pick anyone else as a penfriend, I think my explanation above covers it all very well in my case, but there is considerably more to it than that. I have a personal love of writing letters, and of receiving good, well-written, carefully thought through answers. I discovered this love at a relatively young age, but did nothing about it until I was in my mid-twenties. Then, as with so many things, I was away from home and felt a need for something else. I had joined the army, much older than everyone else, and moved out of London. Finding little to bind me to the intellectual capabilities of my fellow soldiers I began looking for alternatives, rediscovered London as a result – and probably saw more of the cultural side of the city than during the decades I had lived there – and also, through someone else’s joke, letter writing again. My first experience had been a postcard I received whilst working in Wales at a summer job – I wrote to the sender of this postcard to celebrate the forty-first anniversary last week, but I doubt I will hear back from her – but that died a death. Then, mid-Eighties now, someone put a soldier’s name in a music magazine, and he got about four hundred answers. He answered none of them, I took a handful and answered several dozen, which resulted in friendships spanning more than a decade. It was the move of a moment, hardly any thought involved, taking that handful of letters from a table top, and it changed everything. I am sure, in other ways, that you can appreciate this more than most.
I don’t generally ask any questions, letting a person come out of their shell over time, when they feel comfortable, when something is relevant, unless there is something that I do not understand. I generally find – since I am more interested in the mind than anything else – that this is very fruitful for both sides, although I am quite happy answering specific questions. I almost lost someone as a friend a few months ago because he didn’t quite understand the notion of getting to know someone as if it were real life, which is what this is, and thought he could take a fast track, get all his questions answered, and know me inside out. Doesn’t work that way, neither on paper nor in reality.
A pause has come in life’s experience, when movement wandered, unperceived by sense.
Four pages to the first quotation, that must be a record: Lucretius, who is always good for a few fine words. And that because I was thinking about what you wrote: you were incarcerated at a certain age, and time simply stood still. The world outside, in effect, stopped changing for you because you cannot see it, cannot experience it for yourself. In reality it is still changing, of course, we both know and appreciate that fact, but not from what you know. I was asked recently what I miss most about London, which threw me for a moment because I have only briefly visited the city since I left it in the early Eighties. There is no doubt in my mind that it has changed, as will your home town have changed, and in ways neither of us can respectively imagine. I cannot say that I miss anything about London because the London that I knew is no longer there, it has ceased to exist. Time has moved on despite the fact that I have not been there to see it, and the entire city has gone through at least one generation without me. Heraclitus puts it very well indeed when he writes:
Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.
The river has flown on unabated, even as we have stood on its banks and watched its waters, and is not the same river it was a moment ago. And we, with the passage of time, are not the same people. We, like the city, have evolved and changed. There have been life experiences, events, movements, so many different things which have happened since then, whenever then was. Better would be to ask what memories we have of a time long past, but who thinks in a philosophical manner these days? In fact, if you or I came out with such a question, we’d probably be laughed out of court.
Society stopped in your outside world for you all that time ago, as it did for me when I moved on to a new country, new social circumstances, and all we have are the memories. The trouble is, of course, if we go back we are completely lost. That is the same for me as it is for you: I have not been back to London, so stepping into the city now would be like grabbing me roughly off the street, sticking me in a time machine, and shooting me forward thirty years before dumping me back on the same street without so much as a street plan.
What we do both have are the memories, good and bad, which we can always draw upon when we need some form of inspiration, or even motivation to do something. There are those who believe, as you appear to, that they are boring, that nothing they write is either original or interesting. Well, I’ve news for you: everything is both original and interesting because everything that you write here, to me, has never been said before. There is nothing you experience which I can experience. What you see is completely different to what I see. Normally at this point I would quote Robert M. Pirsig and an excellent section from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I shall keep it for another day when it is even more appropriate.
If we start on about poetry, then it will proceed to books and this letter will never make it into the post. Suffice to say poetry was once also a very strong collection interest of mine, before I moved on to letter writing, biographies, history and philosophy, and I still have a small collection of about two hundred small press titles from many years ago. Some things made it through the many changes of address, through the many years right to my present abode, and for that I am grateful. Other things will come to be added to my collection, be they books or letters. Hopefully both collections will grow, and we will have time enough to discuss how, what, and why along with a whole load of memories from a time stood still. Lastly, before I rush out to grab the postman, a thesis. Yes, I suppose some might see my letters as being a little bit too this or that. I can understand that. I’ll let you into a little secret which I have not imparted to anyone else as yet: I sit down and write a letter and generally do it, regardless of how long or complicated it may seem, in one sitting. Then it goes in the post, spelling mistakes and all. The words which come out of my mind go straight down onto paper without any great plan, although I do have notes from events which I have attended, memories I have, and allow myself to be influenced by quotations I use. Otherwise, what you see has come straight out in one long flow, and is written for no one else but you.