It seems to be a strange trait in humans, but we love looking into the dark side of things, exploring the depths of the soul for sinister mannerisms and peculiarities, attributes which explain our behaviour – after something has happened – or which clarify thoughts and desires which tend to be slightly off the mainstream of common, accepted thought. Anyone who is different in their clothing, their speech, their hobbies and pastimes comes into our spectrum for investigation, for explanation, to be placed, eventually in one or another pigeon-hole as understood, as accepted or unacceptable according to our own set of values, our own rules. We dislike, of course, having our own environment explored and explained, but are more than happy to do it to others. And when there really is something dark in there, some little secret, something unusual or, at least, something which is not the same as we are, then we can go to town and really have a fun day at someone else’s expense. It is a flaw in the human psyche, an aberration which many try to fight off – in other people – called curiosity: seeking out the strange and the unusual and trying to find a place for it in our own world without, as far as possible, allowing any influences to cross onto our side of the room, into our heavily protected territory.
And yet, every single person on this small planet is different, is individual no matter how desperately they may attempt to conform, to fit in to a perceived pattern, to just be one of the crowd. No two people see the same thing, even when they are standing next to one another and there is nothing else to see. We interpret, we apply our life experiences, we relate or push aside. And we all seek out and enjoy the dark side of things, the darker humour, the horror films, the news media stories of evil doings because they are so much more interesting than real life, than what we accept for ourselves, than what happens in our own small world. To fulfil all the demands of society and fit in exactly with the picture of what a good person is, is boring and everyday and we avoid it as much as possible. All those moral films shown during the afternoon on television, and then big screen delights in the early evening, when more people are at home, when we have a better chance of being excited. We separate our times: moral films can run in the background, the excitement is what we want after a day of being just normal.
It takes a certain amount of bravado to stand out from the crowd, to be different, to follow a path others look at with desire, but are afraid to tread. It takes a certain independent will which transcends the normal, which breaks out of the reserved soul and outwardly shy characterisation we might otherwise label ourselves with. It takes a creative, artistic temperament to be different without any attempt at explanation, without fitting in with a fad or a fashion and, above all, it takes an acceptance of ourselves as being what we wish to be and expressing this desire in the best way that we can.
I’ve lived in many cities in my exceptionally long life, in Europe, in Central America; travelled to other countries and explored to see what some do not see, avoiding the tourist traps and the sights which have to be seen to wander, often alone, the back streets where the real people live their real lives. It is fascinating to see the differences: the change between work attitude where a uniform must be worn, to the relaxed, being yourself home mode amongst friends. In their own home area, with their own characters allowed to come to the fore, I see people as they really are: not those who have to perform whilst taking an order or serving a cup of coffee, not those who have to speak in a certain manner whilst checking the fit of a suit or a pair of shoes, but real people, in their own environment, without the constrains of a forced society and order which they have been told they must conform with, or seek their fortunes, their livelihood elsewhere. Hidden tattoos. Piercings carefully covered up. Clothing which feels and sits uncomfortably. Colour combinations which do not match. Language which fights its way across the tongue rather than falling naturally.
We all have our own small territories where we can feel comfortable, be it a room, a building or a closed area. Like a cat we stake these areas out, ensuring ourselves of our safety, that we will be accepted here, that we can move quietly around without disturbance or arousing comment. We settle back into the real person we are, where we feel comfortable with ourselves and do not need to worry about what other people see, feel or find acceptable. We shed the shyness we had assumed as our protective mantle, the cloak of invisibility, the cover over our real selves.
Many of us lead double lives: there is the life everyone sees as we go around the town we live in, the life that is acceptable to all and arouses no questions. There is the life that we wish to lead, where we can be ourselves but, because of where we live, because of the people we live with and their understanding of what is normal and acceptable, it remains hidden. I walk through town wearing jeans, steel-capped worker’s boots and a checked shirt, because that is what people expect me to wear judged by their interpretation of my position in society. I wear a suit and tie, comfortable shoes, whenever I go out to do those things which I really enjoy, which have no place in small town life, which would raise more than an eyebrow here were they to be general knowledge. People are not interested in history and literature here – even if the appearance, once in a blue moon, of some famous crime thriller writer at the local cinema draws something of a crowd – nor do they feel a pull towards philosophical discussion, to debates on god and the world. People who write personal letters, who always have a book to read in their hands, and a journal t make notes and record their thoughts in a pocket are suspect, so not belong, are strangers to the conforming ways of life here. I overhear the wait staff at a small café comment with amazement that I have a book with me, that I will be reading a work of learning whilst drinking my coffee, eating my slice of lemon cheesecake. Why, the question seems to be, doesn’t he have a cell phone like everyone else.
It may seem strange to you that someone should feel comfortable in a suit and tie, or that they feel a need to hide their preference from their neighbours, from other people who live and work in the same town. It is, however, much the same for me as it is for you: you prefer alternate or Goth styles which probably don’t quite sync with what everyone else wears in your neighbourhood. You are perhaps more interested in a style of music which is not so common in the local bars, not mainstream, not Top of the Pops. Wearing the clothes I am comfortable in, enjoying the leisure activities which make my heart speed u a little are strange pursuits here. The town is in the middle of a farming community, and very proud of that fact, even if most people here have nothing to do with farming other than that they buy the products of hard labour. A suit is worn on Sunday or some other special occasion. A book is read at home, perhaps, when there is nothing on television. A museum or art gallery is visited when grandchildren are staying and you wish to improve their cultural learning, expand their horizons. And music. Music is played in the shops at Christmastime, on the radio when you’re doing something else and don’t need to concentrate, or in a bar and too loud in your room when you’re young. We all hide.
And letter writing. No one writes letters today, just the same as no one sits in a street café and opens a printed book to read the works of some out-dated and long forgotten classical writer such as Plato, Cicero or even Dickens and Shakespeare. Letters are written on a tablet and sent over the free Wi-Fi in Starbucks to whoever happens to be sitting with you at the time of writing, but who is too engrossed in their cell phone to hear you speak. I have experienced this, by the way, two or three people talking to one another through their phones, sitting next to each other in an otherwise quiet Starbucks. It shook my belief in humanity. But letter writing is something for people who are old – like me – and way past their bed time; people who have no hold on reality, and cannot programme a bedside clock to wake them in the morning; people who shouldn’t be allowed out. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a café these days with a table big enough to rest a book on, let alone pen and paper? I had one recently where I sat with three friends, and we had to juggle everything around and then hold our coffee cups in our hands to fit the cake plates on this tiny mosaic-topped table, and even that was as squeeze.
And while I’m on the subject: they don’t make window ledges like they used to. Sitting at the window, your favourite book ready to be enjoyed, with a slight wind playing at the light curtains framing a view of a long, spring-enhanced garden isn’t a thing anymore. There used to be alcoves, broad window seats, space for relaxation and thought. Today the radiator bangs against your knees and the carpet folds slightly as you try to pull up a chair. Those old alcoves, where you could also write a letter to some loved on, far away, and describe the calling of birds, the rustle of leaves, the gentle flow of water in words from the heart.
I’m not so sure whether you and I are being drawn towards old-fashioned things, as you write, or whether we are held by those things which are tried and trusted, which have worked so well for many generations. Music, of course, will always change, and that is a good thing. There will always be new books and philosophical theories for us to discuss. History will continue to be made, the only exception being that we can discuss it from a first-hand viewpoint, as witnesses. And fashion will change with the times, as companies seek to exploit new areas of the market and convince everyone that what they wore yesterday is old-hat, no longer in, a thing of the past to be discarded and replaced with the all new, all new! But the underlying things are the same: we still dress and wear clothes; we communicate with one another; we listen to music; we read and philosophise. And we look down into the darker depths to find that which is interesting, that which excites our mind, that which is different to the daily trudge of a life spent being seen, assessed, directed by others. And, sometimes, we look outside of our regular circle of suspects and seek something new, something out-of-the-ordinary, an adventure, a challenge. Isn’t that what travelling, letter writing, even the reading of books is all about?
I have been writing letters since the Eighties, finding it to be one of the greatest pleasures of life – along with reading, the occasional glass of red wine, good friends and travel … and music, art… – it brings a real person who has a completely different life and outlook, education, surroundings and environment, which the ordinary reader might not otherwise experience, right into the house and home, without any form of invasion, on a personal level. Surprisingly, there are still many people seeking this form of communication, this personal approach to other people, despite the many other, quicker, less personal means available. And, of course, there are those who do not have access to cell phones, to Twitter or WhatsApp, who turn their backs on the likes of Facebook and SnapChat and desire, for whatever reason, something original in their lives. Something which has stood the test of time, and which, on a more personal level, speaks to them and to them alone. And that, mostly, without any undertones whatsoever.
Do we, separated by distance as much as by age, have anything in common or, better, anything that we could share and explore from our own vantage points, enhancing the knowledge and visions of the other? Hopefully a few of the words I have written above will show you that there is such a possibility, that, despite a generational difference, there many areas open for interesting exploration and discussion. And, although we will probably never physically meet, a certain intellectual meeting of minds is possible; that is, at least, the impression I have gained from your write-up, from your description of yourself.
I am often asked, since I write to many different people, what made me pick them out. Why try writing a letter to someone – their words – who is intellectually or educationally on a different level. Some have told me they have been scared to write back, simply from a fear that I would see through them and not write again. I’ve never been able to answer this question, what it was in their words which attracted my mind to them, made me feel an urge to write and present something of my self – my writing style, my thinking. Each person is an individual, and our writing adapts and changes with each recipient of a letter, with each person we interact with. Were that not the case, if we always wrote in exactly the same style and didn’t adapt to a different level of learning, to a different social outlook, to the customs and traditions of another country and society, none of us would ever be successful, would never receive a reply. All the friendships which could have been, would die away as a wind across the ocean. But even those who consider themselves to be shy beyond all reckoning, have blossomed through letter writing in their own way. Even those who consider themselves to be under-educated, lacking in social skills, cut off from the modern world and its mores, have found a way through pen and paper. Once they’ve overcome the almost overwhelming pressure of that blank sheet of paper, and cast their lot into the turmoil and pleasures of platonic communication with those first few words…