There are some things which are slow, and some which simply take their time, and are often all the better for the extra waiting time involved. I must admit to a certain amount of surprise that a letter written by you takes eleven days to leave the facility, but I suppose everything has to run its course, follow the correct routine and is, in one form or another, justified. We can be grateful, I suppose, that the letters are not stamped, directly across the text and in red, to show they have been read and approved, making parts of a letter illegible to those trying to decipher the thoughts and emotions of their loved ones, their friends and acquaintances. We can also be grateful that mail, communication between the inside and outside worlds is still allowed, although I know there are some people in higher positions who would gleefully forbid any form of communication, and force a form of solitary confinement across the board, no matter the crime, no matter the sentence, no matter what needs and desires may be there, caught in the human breast, keeping the heart beating, the mind functioning as it should. Without such communication, be it written or electronic, many people would be back in that cave Plato described in his monumental work, and seeing nothing but the flickering of shadows on a stone wall, the illusion of life cast before them but lacking in-depth, in meaning, in anything attractive and stimulating.
I sometimes page back through Plato, sometimes even use some of his (or those of Socrates) arguments in letters and discussions. He is one of those writers who covered so many topics which are still alive and active today, which are still being discussed and have their relevance, it is impossible to imagine any household interested in the world today not having a copy, and well-thumbed and well-read, on their bookshelves. Along, I must add, with many other books, as Plato is not the only person who managed to think and write and influence our society today. You’ve come across several of these wonderful works in your own reading, and George Orwell is decidedly one of those who have influenced, whose writing remains in the collective memory, even among those who have never opened one of his books, never directly read a word he wrote. I have my copy of 1984 right next to my writing desk, along with Plato, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Bradbury, de Beauvoir and many others within easy reach. None of them are quite as well read as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is beginning to fall apart on me, although my copy of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, which I am constantly referring to, is going much the same way. Some of them are worn out from constant reading, some from checking for a suitable quote, a reference to bring an idea out with the words of another.
No, I don’t think it strange you should write that you have little or no time. I often hear from people around me that I, since I no longer work in the public eye, have nothing but time on my hands, a life of leisure, am a free spirit who can do whatever he wishes as and when the desire arises. Being unoccupied is a dangerous situation to be in, not just for the few people who suddenly find themselves at a loss for what they can do, but also for those who have things to do and don’t require anyone hanging on just to fill out their time. And, of course, being occupied with one task prevents those with other things in their minds from doing what they should not, from even coming upon the idea to do that which would not be beneficial to them or two others. Leisure time, as surprising as it may sound, is not something to be desired in great doses.
I also find that my leisure time, of which I should now have plenty, is being eroded by all the things other people wish me to do. Once word gets out that a formerly very active person is sitting at home enjoying his new freedoms, the requests for a helping hand, for a few moments, for an insignificant, one-off opportunity to assist come rushing in. I would hardly, the way things are now, have time to work if I answered every single call for assistance although, I must admit, many are most enjoyable escapades and connect very well with my own personal interests. I should count myself fortunate I am not being called upon to assist in the political arena, where I was active for many years, but only within associations that I have found great pleasure in being a member of, and which allow me to travel across the country. This last weekend they took me down to Bavaria and, although the meeting I attended was insignificant, over-played in importance and one, with hindsight, I would have avoided, meeting up with friends and colleagues was a great pleasure.
“At last,” you’ll say, “I’ve snapped my chains.” A fleeing dog may well have snapped his, at great pains, yet dangling from his neck the greater part remains.
So wrote Persius, and I am sure this applies to many people leaving the work area for their old age leisure time, the pensions, or moving into a new area with a new start. The remains of the past hang onto you now matter how much you try to shake them off, whether it be a desire to do something connected to the old, a call from the past to continue in some form or another, or simply the need to remain active when you know no other form of life.
Journaling is something that I have not written about to anyone as yet. It is, for me, far more intimate and personal than letter writing, being shared with no one and holding, if done properly, all the secrets a soul can have when that soul is prepared to be honest with itself and come clean. Of course, as I am sure you’ll agree, there is no proper and no wrong way to write a journal, so I hope you’ll not get the impression I am suggesting my way is better than that of anyone else or that I am the supreme journal writer; far from the truth. I began writing my own journal in August 1988, several years after I arrived in Germany after serving in Northern Ireland, before my trips to other countries – such as Belize – and before getting involved in real wars across the globe. It was a time of awakening as much as exploration; a completely new world compared to that I was used to, that I had been raised in, that I had been educated about. Of course I also already knew that the world was nothing like that which is forced upon us in classrooms, and I had already had my own awakening to the truth, at fourteen, when I wandered off to France for a few weeks on my own. But journaling is a fascinating way to follow your own thoughts over many years or even decades. I found myself glancing back through some of the older entries recently, after talking to a teenager about journaling, and it was strange not only to see how clear and firm my hand writing appeared back then, but also to come across my own thoughts, fears, plans and the events which surrounded my life at that time.
I have had many breaks in journaling – I didn’t take my books with me to the Gulf War, for instance – and there were times when I felt no compulsion to write at all, but they are still there and, today, I write almost every day. It is also a very relaxing hobby: the chance to challenge yourself and dig deep into your own thoughts, into your mind, and see what you remember of the day’s events, as much as what they awoke in you, and then follow the many lines of thought created wherever they might take you. I have a bookshelf set aside just for my journal, which is now forty-five small volumes.
I’ve often heard of the ‘sight-unseen’ falling in love where two people manage to connect so perfectly without ever having met. For some it is a case of a famous connection which they build up into something it is not. For others it is a low-key, ordinary connection which grows through mutual actions, through getting to know one another, through opening yourself up. I’ll be honest and say that I do not know how many such relationships, when they get to the meeting side of things, when they come into real life, actually survive. The picture we build up of a person through their writing, even through telephone calls or Skype, does not always match reality. It is very easy for a person to present a completely false picture of themselves, and we would never get behind these lies if we didn’t meet up at some stage. I recently had a letter from a young woman who told me her story of a letter writing affair, and how it went down the drain when this love of her life appeared on the scene and all the lies he had concocted to win her over came to light at the very first glance. But having someone stop writing before you have met, that is completely different. There is always the possibility that something has happened which is outside of their control. I am reminded of a film, I think it might have been quite a famous one, but I cannot remember the name, where a man and a woman corresponded and then agreed to meet. One of them didn’t turn up, and it was only six months or so later that the other discovered they’d been involved in an accident and confined to a hospital bed with no means of getting in touch. It was a happy end film, of course, but not all real life situations are like that.
Yes: out of sight, out of mind. It is easy enough to forget about a person temporarily, and then push it a bit further back, and then wonder why they haven’t been in contact rather than the other way about, and then leave it altogether. So many different ways that a friendship can come to an end. Our modern world does not seem to encourage long friendships, but pushes us to constantly chase dreams, to move on to something better, to leave the old behind and strive for the higher plane. Friendship becomes something like fashion: it changes with the season, blows in the wind and is gone. I sometimes even feel that friendship has been relegated to the level of a follower on Twitter: at some stage the interest is gone, or the relationship has cooled slightly, and you simply click on a box and they are no longer there.
I came to literature, returning to your question on whether I have read Orwell, at a very young age: there were always books wherever I lived and my family was an artistic or creative one. My father worked as a graphic designer and my mother had, back at the end of the Fifties run a small stand on the Portobello Road with artistic works for sale before becoming a professional cook and, for a while in the Seventies, a radio presenter. Travelling many miles up to school – a boarding school in a small village in North Yorkshire – literature and books were quickly beaten out of me. At least, that is what the school system attempted to do over six years or so. I remained interested in literature and worked my way into the back room of the library, where all the hidden books were stored, as a school librarian so that I could read in peace. It was as if, though, the teachers had something against I reading, learning from a wide variety of works. We, too, had to study certain titles and write our papers on them, and it was this which caused many to turn their backs on books and writing completely. I also had the added pleasure of the school vice principal confiscating books from me she thought unsuitable for my age and threatening to send them back home to my father, who I had borrowed them from.
Orwell was not one of the authors we studied – it was mainly Shakespeare, Waugh on the literature, and Frost on the poetry side – but I had great pleasure in reading not only his 1984, but also Animal Farm which, as you can imagine, I managed to relate to the system of education employed in my school. There have been so many good books, though, it is impossible to keep up with them all, even when my taste is fairly honed and limited to certain specific areas the choice keeps on rising. Now and then I discover new authors who have slipped under my radar, and also authors who can slip back under after I’ve finished their attempts which, despite high recommendations and often highly thought of literary prizes, make me wonder whether they would have found a publisher at all, if they hadn’t already made their name with earlier works. One of the advantages of reading several different languages is that the selection of available works is so big, but that is also one of the disadvantages.
There is no escape from the newest technology, and I can understand the sense of freedom, the wealth of contacts such advancements bring for some, and that for some this access is not just welcome it is necessary. One day I suppose all things will be handled over some form of internet, so that we hardly have to venture out at all; everything will be there for us at the click of a switch on some application we downloaded from the online play store. Personally, I will admit, I am not looking forward to those days. I still retain this old-fashioned love for real books, for real music, for contact with people face-to-face and for writing letters rather than quickly sending off an electronic mail. There will always be some of us like this, no matter what our world turns into, whether Ray Bradbury’s world with banned books, or George Orwell’s world with Big Brother, there will always be a few who yearn for and live in the olden times.