Imagination is a wonderful thing and I, too, often imagine myself sitting quietly somewhere, a cup of tea or a glass of wine, even a tumbler of good whisky, close at hand, and a book. Sometimes, late at night, I do manage to settle down and open one of the books patiently awaiting my attention on the bedside table, or on one of the other tables and chairs in my house where, since I haven’t had much free time lately, they have been piling up at an alarming rate. When I have time I am a fast reader, so the stacks do not trouble me in the least, but are often a daunting prospect for those few people who come and visit and do not know me well. Out and about in town, or elsewhere, I tend to have a book with me just in case there are a few spare moments to read, and am known by some as the person who always has a book to hand, even by some who do not know my name. But there are also more people who know me – from seeing, from association, from newspaper articles and hearsay – in town than I know, which is an intriguing position to be in. I was a politician for six years here, often in the limelight for comments and political stance made during council meetings and electioneering as well as being featured for some of the other work – voluntary and otherwise – that I have done. It can be disconcerting to be spoken to as if a friend, not knowing the person addressing me, but they assuming a level of friendship because they have heard of me that I would not normally expect.
Extreme examples would be of me attending a seminar in the city of Wuppertal (south-west in Germany) and being spoken to by someone from Greifswald (north-east) who had met me years earlier, when I visited his region, had not forgotten me and invited me to visit again. The there are those who have heard my lectures on Freemasonry over the years, sitting in a large audience where I cannot possible differentiate one person from another, and who come and talk to me about specifics of Masonry which I covered, but which I can no longer necessarily call to mind too quickly, as if we had known one another for many years. Although, to be honest, this is normal in Masonic circles, as all accept all others as close acquaintances, if not friends, even when they are not personally known to one another initially. One of my greatest pleasures is being able to visit a Lodge, not necessarily to give a lecture, just for the fun of it, and being immediately accepted as if a regular visitor.
This last month, however, has been hectic, and allowed hardly any time to read in peace, let alone sit and enjoy a tumbler of whisky in peace and quiet. I have travelled across much of northern Germany giving lectures and attending opening functions, or officiating at such events, throughout the last six weeks and hardly had any time to catch my breath. Today, being a Friday and right before the weekend, I have a small respite, but tonight the work begins again, and I have several major events planned in three different cities over the next few days which will bring a great deal of pleasure, but tend to exhaust.
The interest began many years ago and is probably the only part of my modern history many people know and can deal with. Telling others that I have spent most of my life travelling, reading books and writing tends to dampen any conversation very quickly as most do not have the same interests as I do, or have not had the same opportunities. That said, the same opportunities they imagine are expensive flights and hotel rooms in beautiful, historical quarters of cities in the most popular countries of the world, and not a backpack, a sleeping bag and back alleys, car-parks and under trees in a park. And then, when they hear that I am more interested in reading Plato, Cicero and Aristotle – who most have heard of – alongside Carlyle, Rovelli and Merleau-Ponty – who few know – then a change of subject comes about very quickly indeed. It’s just that I discovered writers in my early years who were banned for my age group, and some who were banned for an entire school, and whose writing inspired me more than anything else. I became a school librarian, for example, because I knew that books were kept out of sight from everyone by the main librarian, and only those with access to the hidden realms behind her counter could find the treasures and reap their benefits; which is how I came across T. E Lawrence and many Russian writers from the Cold War period.
So this is how I began, seeking an advantage over other people to access items those other people probably didn’t want anyway. This is my background, the way that I grew up and what I continue doing today. This, in essence, is what my letter writing is all about: gaining great pleasure in doing something other people have written off as a dead art, and writing to those who many have written off as outside of civilised consideration. To understand me you need to envisage a major tourist city packed with all the treasures the public is told they wish to see, and then place me outside of these glittering areas, in the back streets, the small shops and museums, the private collections, finding and exploring that which is not major but which, over the centuries, has shaped what we call society, civilisation today. For many years I was the outsider in whatever I did, right down to my short political career as the first Englishman to be elected to the local parliament or council in my area, the first foreigner to do many things in this small city.
Even so, it is difficult to trace back and say that there is a set background, a train of thought, a line of exploration which can be followed to prove who I am or, as I am sure you appreciate, to define any other person. I read so often people who say that a specific event has not defined them, or that people should not take a crime they have committed, a word they have said, an action they have followed to be a definition of who they are, and wonder what it is that they believe defines them if not the actions and events in their lives. We are all defined by our surroundings, by our actions, by our words from the moment of birth, through all the myriad events of our lives up until the very moment of consideration, and there is nothing we can do about it: no denial is ever going to work. A small piece of whatever it is we have done, said, experienced, is going to remain within us and help decisions, further actions, define the further course of our lives, whether we wish it or not, whether we care to accept it or not. So I, in all probability, an a product of all the books I have read, all the people I have met, all the places I have been as are you. And that all to describe is a task no one is capable of doing, not even the best biographer with all the time in the world.
Of course there are things which we, as social animals, take as being defining moments in our lives and which are passed on to other people as being ‘us’, as being what we are. Birth date – one that you mentioned, mine being March 1960 – is, of course, a defining character coupled with nationality or place of birth – London, England – because it tells another person the times which influenced us as much as the social environment. Someone born in the Sixties in London is going to be completely different to another person born in the Eighties in Detroit. If you wish to break it down even further, my character and experiences are completely different to those of someone born in the same city a year or two earlier or later, or a few streets away in another part of the city. And, despite the closeness, I would also be completely different to any brothers or sisters I might have, even twins, for much the same reasons: I see and hear what they do not see and hear, or see and hear with a different receptive capability and interpretation of events even when they are standing right next to me, because what I see and hear is interpreted by me and by my experiences, outlook on life, emotions and desires, and not by theirs.
What I find most interesting is how some people assume, and then try to change a person. I’ve had it so often, and just a few minutes ago as a telephone conversation interrupted my writing, that someone will attempt to change a person’s outlook on life through their own experiences, without taking into consideration the other person, their feelings, their lifestyle, their very existence. This happens, for me, more over what I eat – another subject you mentioned in your letter – than anything else. It seems that my vegetarian lifestyle is dangerous: if I do not eat meat and fish I stand no chance of surviving, of being fit, of enjoying life to the fullest. You have to bear in mind that I am old, and that I have been a vegetarian since I was a teenager, which makes it all the more amusing when people tell me, with so much actual experience, how restricted my life will be because of my choices.
Perhaps this is another part of my background you are trying to find: the level of independence which most people are incapable of accepting. It is, of course, something which cannot be explained, something which is almost impossible to put into words without throwing the questioner into a fit since, as with so many things, it is completely different to what they have experienced in their lives. Those who stick to one path, who go to the same vacation areas year after year, who work their nine-to-five, who try to keep up with their neighbours and, at the same time, not stand out, cannot bear to see someone else who does things differently, gains pleasure from this difference and, to a certain extent, is also happy and successful.
This was the second time in three weeks that he had missed an evening at the Community Centre: a rash act, since you could be certain that the number of your attendances at the Centre were carefully checked. […] There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.
There is something exciting, and intimidating, about a person who enjoys an autonomous life, and even more so of a group of people who remain outside of the accepted social circles. Perhaps not quite to the extent that George Orwell writes about in 1984, where everyone is under constant surveillance and supervision, but it is most certainly there in any small group which has set itself rules and follows certain customs or traditions. And we all have our own small exceptions to the socially accepted, things which we enjoy which other people would not necessarily understand and which all go toward making up the person we are and the manner in which we view the world, react to other people and their interests, handle our own lives on a daily basis. In other words: we all have secrets, even from ourselves; we all have pleasures hidden from plain view; we all have opinions which cannot be expressed because we have not yet worked our own way through them. It is almost impossible for one person to know another, and equally impossible for one person to explain themselves to such an extent, that another can understand their every move, thought, desire.
Of course, we are often more than happy with what is placed before us: we know a person’s birth date and where they were born; the social milieu in which they grew up; their basic interests such as music, theatre, literature, food. From these basic details we can form a picture for ourselves, even if it is different to the one a person has of themselves, and that is often enough to satisfy. We are, to put it down to the most fundamental level, an animal satisfied with very minor things when it comes to other people and, at the same time, an animal which demands considerably more. As Desmond Morris wrote in his book The Naked Ape, back in the Sixties:
This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.
I suspect this is because, once we have the basic information about a person, we compute something else out of them than they are, push our thoughts onto a higher level, and imagine far more than is there is reality. This leads, eventually, to disappointments as much as to surprise revelations, and is almost impossible to beat out of the human system. At least in the West. In other social communities taking a person at face value is common practice, something which is quite normal: we know, we accept or reject, we learn about them now without taking the influences of the past into consideration and, that way, there is no definition to worry about, merely how we are, how we act today. And this is not to say that I am hiding myself from anyone’s vision, from their scrutiny, but just to intimate that what I write now, the manner in which I react to certain situations, the discourses I hold, the letters I write are all a product of millions of events over six decades which, no matter how hard we try, cannot be separated one from another to form, for those who really desire it, an easy algorithm of life. At the same time, in my writing you will learn of my past life as I recount stories and experiences, and be able to see where some of the influences come from, why I am the person I am today – as with you yourself – and also follow how things change with the continuance of life, with more years, with an every widening palette of knowledge, skills, life.