Every time someone asks me how old I am, I have to take a moment or two to consider and, truth be known, to work it out for myself. It’s not that the number of birthdays I have lived through is so massive that calculation takes time, but the fact that it has become so unimportant to me, my age at least, I do not hold it in my mind any more. Whilst my physical abilities may well be telling me that I should be slowing down and taking things easy in my old age, my mind tells me a different story, remaining as fit and active as it always was and trying to convince me that there are no limits, that any pain felt will quickly pass by, and that my body is lying to me. I must admit, I am more grateful to my mind than I am to my body, since the choice of which entity to listen to controls what is done on a daily basis, how much is undertaken, where I travel and what I get to see in a certain period of time. My body tells me we need an hotel room for overnight trips, while my mind steers me towards the next copse of trees, sheltered from bad weather, and a night under the stars as it always used to be.
Although this is not the reason why I simply ignore my birthdays and avoid any form of celebration or gift-giving, it has more to do with my past than anything else. As a child I went through the separation of my parents, as did many others before me and many will do in the future. I cannot say much about that separation aside from what I learned, by various means which did not involve anyone telling me the truth, years later other than that it resulted in me being placed in a children’s home for quite some time. My mother was probably deemed too young to accept the responsibility for bringing up three children – my younger sister and half-brother; the reason for the split – and it was almost unheard of that a man alone, with a career to follow, should be placed in charge of children, even if they were his own. British society back then rested on the idea that a woman’s place was in the home, raising the children she bore, and a man’s place was at work, earning the bread which came on their table. In many ways, this has not changed since the Sixties, despite society being more enlightened, theoretically.
So I was placed in a children’s home during the various court actions over what should happen to me and where I should live and began gathering a strange set of social experiences. One of these was the Birthday Party. The celebration of another year on this small planet, for those considered worthy of having any form of gathering, receiving congratulations or getting presents. We were not, in this typical English children’s home, treated equally. I know that some children were simply not told they had a birthday, to avoid hurting them when the staff couldn’t be bothered with the necessary organisation, or when their parents would have been either unable or unwilling to send them a gift. For us as children, it was not something we thought about: a fellow member of this small troupe had a birthday party and that was fine, but it didn’t mean anything to us, and we didn’t always ask when we’d be having our own. In effect we were living in a form of socialist environment, Sixties style, which treated everyone equally, but some people considerably more equally than others. I was living within a novel, you could almost say, except that novel was Animal Farm and not one I, or anyone else, would have chosen for ourselves.
Of course, you have to differentiate here: Orwell’s excellent book is a political parody which places animals – people – on an equal footing in theory, but pushes some – the pigs in this case – up into the role of leaders, and allows them to abuse their positions in a dictatorial manner. We, as children, were all meant to be treated with equal respect and given nothing that the other children did not have, in order to ensure we achieved social goals and were formed into future adults who would play their role in society, but some were picked out for treats and as special. This went far beyond just the annual birthday party for one child but not for another, but I am sure you are well aware of such practices from your everyday experiences and I hardly need tell you children are treated in the same manner at times, especially when it comes to being fair and ensuring everyone has an equal slice of the cake. I sometimes wonder, as an adult, how many of these children’s homes from the Sixties and earlier would survive having their gardens dug up to any depth, there have been so many tiny skeletons found at homes across the country to make any rational and sane person belief getting rid of those who became troublemakers by removing them from the planet and planting them as fresh compost could have been policy across the entire land.
I suspect that I was one of those lucky people destined not to have a party, and I cannot say that I missed it then, nor do I miss it now. I was an unruly child, traumatized by the separation of my parents, which was never explained to me, never brought out into the open, and destroyed any vestige of belief in familial security I might otherwise have harboured. I was also, I am told, of exceptional intelligence which was pushed back as much as possible simply because all children had to be treated as equals, and someone standing out from the pack could not be coped with. The facilities, under a constantly changing education policy, were simply not there.
This equality, funnily enough, is something that the Freemasons believe in, but in a completely different and successful manner. It is not on a socialist or communist basis – you may well know that Karl Marx actually wrote that everyone should be treated equally but according to their abilities, not just a blanket demand for one level of society – but one of equality of speech and position where, through necessity, one or two Brethren are called upon, by democratic process and through having shown themselves to be worthy, to lead and guide for a set period of time, before relinquishing their positions and returning to the ranks.
Returning eventually to the realities of society outside of the comforts of this home, and to a new home in the centre of London, I never got into the phase many children had, and have today, of planning their birthday and their desired gifts a year in advance, changing their mind every few months and then, a day before the event, screaming out for the latest toy or gadget only to be disappointed either with it, or with the lack of it, on the big day itself. A lack of birthdays and birthday celebrations seemed to me then, and seems to be now, to be quite normal: I was seldom invited to attend the celebrations of another child in school and, later, when I was consigned to the pleasures of a boarding school hundreds of miles away from home, there was next to no hint that anyone was getting older, and many children hid their special day for fear that they’d have to share any edible gifts received, or contribute to the riches of a larger, more aggressive, stronger student or, sadly, member of the teaching staff.
Does our perception of time change as we grow older? Certainly it seems as if the years are going by at a much quicker pace than when we were children, and that is most certainly from perception: each year is a smaller proportion of our entire lives and so, when measured against the past years, runs by us ever swifter. More than this, though, our perception of the world changes as we advance through our lives, as we learn more about all that is around us, gather experiences, make and lose friends, families, possessions. Nothing is the same as it was a moment earlier, even if we are not so keenly aware of this fact as when coming back into a city we’ve not seen for many years and noticing the differences there. To sum it up as Heraclitus would have put it: the river you dip your hand in is not the same river you take your hand out of. The waters have moved on, the moment is gone, everything has changed.
In his latest book, the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli begins one section with the words:
We are obsessed with ourselves. We study our history, our psychology, our philosophy, our gods. Much of our knowledge revolves around man himself, as if we were the most important thing in the universe.
I would take it a step further than this, onto a much more personal level, and claim that we imagine we, as individuals, are the centre of the universe, known or unknown, and demand that the world and all other worlds take note of our stature and importance. That’s certainly the case for smaller children, once they have grown out of the total dependence stage, can walk and talk, but adults? For some it is a phase that they never grow out of, that they never manage to break in order to discover there is another world out there, a wonderful world, and they could be a part of it if only…
But the more we discover, the more we understand that what we don’t yet know is greater than what we do know.
Of course it is good and a lot of fun to have other people dedicated to your needs once in a while, and a birthday celebration is probably the only real excuse for such an event, and I really wish that it was so, but the world is not a fair and just place, depending on your viewpoint and what you’ve done, and society even less so. We need all these extra days in our lives to celebrate something special or, as I noticed when looking through some of the official Name Days in the United States and elsewhere, something at all. National Marshmallow Day anyone? We have become a society where celebrations are constantly being pushed under our noses, where we have to take part or we’re spoilsports, unfair, anti-social, unpatriotic and all the other meaningless minor insults which get trotted out regular as clockwork. And, to add insult to injury, we have also, in some parts of the world, become societies where certain traditional festivities are being pushed back, refused, altered to work around the perceived sensibilities of other people who, when you ask them, really do not care in the slightest what we celebrate.
Perhaps all of these distractions are made just to divert our attention from the real problems in the world by dressing them up and presenting them as the proverbial turkey for Thanksgiving. The idea, perhaps, that we are doing something to make the world a better place if we wear red clothing on a specific day, or if we don’t call certain holidays by their name. Get the people to concentrate on this aspect of their life – it’s Smile Week, so concentrate on Smiling at Everyone – and perhaps they will overlook what is being shuffled in quietly, and what will make their lives a misery at some stage in the future unless, of course, they are one of the pigs; more equal than the other animals in the barn.
All of this chaos and destruction, the suffering and plight in the world? It has always been there in one form or another, sometimes more serious than today, sometimes mild and easy to survive. The difference is the method in which news of these events is transmitted: our news media is considerably more efficient than the news distribution systems of the past allowed; we hear of things virtually as they happen, often from people who are right there watching it all unfold. Indigenous peoples have been forced out of their homes since the first cavemen came out, formed a tribe, and decided that a certain piece of land should belong to them. Suffering through natural catastrophes and famine goes back thousands of years, with entire tribes being wiped out overnight by wind, water, fire. And the world is still there, in one form or another. Civilisations have come and gone: the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Aztecs, but we’re still here as the world continues to change around us and we, in theory the most intelligent creatures ever to walk this planet, fail to adapt as other creatures do and complain as if it is all everyone else’s fault but our own.
At this point, if not considerably earlier, you’ll be wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into by writing to me. Either that or you’ll join quite a few others in seeing beneath the words on the page and discovering the ideas and, to a certain extent, the experiences of a reasonably long life captured on paper. Some of these experiences, or the tales which surround them in my letters, go back through history to the earliest days of philosophy, of ethics, rhetoric, geometry and writing. Many have modern references steeped in literature – and you might notice that I enjoy quoting from works I have read, old and new – or philosophy and are areas where I have actively turned my thoughts, which means that some terms come up which might seem strange, or which are unknown. The ten gallon boots, as an example, is in use in a very small area indeed but is based on the tale of Hop-o’-My-Thumb, who stole a pair of seven league boots from an ogre which allowed him to take giant steps and is a part of European folklore, the tale first appearing in French in about 1697 and then in English in 1729. Today it is known as one of the original Mother Goose tales, although this was a mere sub-title to the original books, and includes those you will undoubtedly be familiar with: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and several others.
For fun? I travel, I read books, I write letters. Life is an enjoyable moment in time, and well worth sharing with others who, perhaps, do not have quite the same opportunities for one reason or another. If you wish, you’re more than welcome to continue with me on this journey.