The decision on who to write to is not always an easy one: there are tens of thousands of advertisements in the internet which press themselves upon those willing to put pen to paper, or fingers to screens, vying for attention, and some of them are attractive, some enticing, some scary. This, I hasten to add, is before you even consider some of the photographs, although I would hope and trust that a person’s appearance is not the criteria used to decide whether to write or not. We are not writing to a person’s face, to their figure, to the muscles or hairs on their chest, but to their mind, their emotions and the intellect which, as you appreciate, cannot be truly seen in a photograph. Anyone can dress themselves up to appear like a drag queen, or a college professor, but that doesn’t mean they have the right stuff to support the image once the camera has done its tricks and each returns to their true self.
The decision on who to reply to, on the other hand, if an easier one even though it is beset with many hurdles. The person replying, reciprocating to an introductory letter, has the advantage that this writer has opened themselves up, has tried to sell themselves in a much more personal way than an advert can ever do. The letter is directed to one person, the advert to hundreds. It can contain far more detail than a short profile is allowed and, above all, it gives more away than just what the words on a sheet say: the tone of the writing; the language used; hand writing style when a letter is hand written; the paper and envelope; the subject matter and depth to which a writer is prepared, or capable, of going. The recipient of a letter has many more advantages than the first writer, which is perhaps why, whenever I offer to take up a correspondence with people, they almost always ask me to write first, and why, when it is decided that they will write, I can almost guarantee that there will be no letter. The first letter is the hardest.
Fine, you might reply: writing any letter is difficult. Few people today have had the advantage of an education which includes letter writing, and next to no one, in our modern, technologically advanced, society has any need to write the old-fashioned way. We can tap on a screen and send a few words, a few abbreviations, a picture or two, and everyone understands what we mean. Having to construct sentences, to fill paragraphs, to physically write images on a piece of paper is hard and beyond the means of most. It is, in the end, a challenge, and you can tell a great deal about a person who is prepared to take a challenge up and give it their best, and even more about someone who clearly puts their heart and soul into fulfilling that challenge to the best of their ability. The first letter must, after all, impress. The first letter is only one amongst many which will be written, sent, piled together by the recipient, and considered. The first letter has to make the reply into a challenge, so that this ideal world of correspondence comes about, and it is not just a one-sided affair or, just as bad, one which lasts two or three weeks – or letters – and then fizzles out with barely a pop.
Such a letter is the beginning of a relationship, an affair almost, between two people, often on the other side of the world from one another, where absolutely everything can be shared. People from different cultures and societies who have never experienced the ways and traditions of the other, and find them as fascinating as they are strange. Not that it isn’t intriguing when you meet up – in writing – with another person from a different continent, but we are all fascinated by the way of life, the differences between what we know and what they experience every day of their lives. An insight into life in an Indonesian village on one of the thousands of islands which make up this country is just as enthralling as stories of the Oktoberfest in Munich, shopping along the Champs-Élysées in Paris, or lining up to get into the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg. A letter can be hot and steamy, or full of intellectual depth, packed with news from the marketplace, or even as silent and serious as the grave, just as long as it contains enough to intrigue further, to incite both sides to continue writing and build up, over time, a strong and stable friendship.
That is, after all, what we all seek: stability. It is pointless having taken time to make contact, to lay yourself out in all your glory and then suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
as Shakespeare had a certain Prince of Denmark declaim, as he demonstrated, in the most beautiful language, what it is to lack the necessary stability to keep a relationship going. And also demonstrated that being open-minded can be interpreted in several different ways, not all of them that which we would wish today. I wonder whether Shakespeare, Marlowe, or any of the other writers from those times, when keeping the court censor happy to ensure a theatre stayed open, a play could be performed, neither actors nor playwrights ended up with their necks in a noose or under the executioner’s blade, would understand what we mean. Political freedom? Freedom of speech? Such things were perhaps thought of, in the dark of the night, but never spoken out loud. And letter writing, a very dangerous game indeed, where often two copies were sent by different routes, and took months to arrive, to ensure that at least one did, while the other could be intercepted by government spies and carried to the crown for consideration, and perhaps deadly action.
But an open mind today, what does that mean? If you ask ten different people, you will get ten different answers, and none of them will match up with your own ideas and ideals. Some will think that open-minded is only that we are prepared to let other people do as they wish, so long as they are elsewhere and don’t have anything to do with us. Others will say that they’re open-minded about sexuality, about religion, about politics, but still stick rigidly to those opinions and attitudes they were taught as children. And yet more people will say they are prepared to listen, to discuss, to try to understand the opinions and lifestyles of other people, and express their own interests, without any need to convince or convert, just to understand. I think that the latter comes more in line with what I believe, and have lived to throughout my adult life: you cannot condemn something you do not understand, and the only way to understand is to live and discuss. So when you write about being open-minded, I am pleased to see the reference to a ‘good ear’ right next to it, just as long as that implies listening as much as talking on both sides.
I have had the pleasure of travelling a great deal in my life, and intend doing a good deal more before my time is up, and am always amazed at what I find, at that which destroys the impressions given me as a child, during the years of my education and within the closed ranks of certain societies. I was born and bred in London, but educated in North Yorkshire, and there is a world of difference between the two just, as we are seeing in the United Kingdom today, as there is a massive difference, a gulf, between those who are open to the outside world, including Europe and the United States, and those with a closed island mentality. Everyone supports their own homeland first, it is almost in our genes, and I see it even in third generation immigrants. But we also have to accept that there are some things which are wrong with our own society, which another, equally imperfect, society has perhaps managed to get more attuned to, is better at. I allowed my mind to be opened to new experiences at the same time as my eyes were opened to the imperfections of London and British life, as well as the problems with education and nationalism. Believe it or not, a simple trip to France at the age of fourteen was enough to do this, as I discovered that, despite all the tales I had heard from teachers in my school, the French really are human too.
As to goals and dreams, the other thing you mention in your short profile: where would we be without them? What kind of society would we live in if there was not the chance of improvement, of advancement, of happiness in one form or another? I don’t mean the goals some people set of always gaining more and more pleasure, but more those of being a success without destroying anything, and without destroying yourself in the process. Those who work their entire lives, crave the advancement and promotion, are never happy with what they have, end up being disappointed at the end, and unable to enjoy the leisure time they might otherwise have earned after a long working life. Is that what we wish from our lives? Are we just working towards the final world cruise – thirty cities in twenty days or something – as a reward for a lifetime of work, or are we going smoothly and happily into the sunset with all of our goals fulfilled and the chance to do much more in addition?
I realise that much of what I have written in this first, introductory letter is not what you might have expected. I also realise that you will, based on the photographic images you have allowed to be published on the internet, have received many other replies probably from people much closer to home and certainly with some very intriguing offers for the future. I wonder how many of these letters have challenged you to think, to consider the depth of the suggestions you profile raises, as different people read different meanings into each word used. I wonder how many of those who have initially written to you, and who you could have written back to already, will still be writing in a year’s time. Sometimes a single letter can contain all a person has to say, and that’s it. And that is not what is in this letter, which contains no compliments, no promises, no gifts, just words which should provoke thought. And an idea, of course: that if the first letter provokes thought and interest in thinking, in discussing, what could happen when you, in replying, throw your own experiences and opinions into the pot? A couple who talk to one another, no matter that they have different interests, stay together longer, and because of those different interests. And people who share interests, who delve into the hidden depths of a subject, find more and are more satisfied as a result.
At your age I would probably not have believed any of this, had I not already started letter writing, had I not already travelled, had I not already seen what the world has to offer. But not everyone is turned on by Shakespeare, by Paris and Moscow, by the canals in Venice or the underground railway in London. Even fewer are inspired by the classic literary works brought down to our modern times over many centuries, from well before our time reckoning, nor by the letters of those who lived before us, even when it is a mere two hundred years. Classic literature? Subjects for school classes, not for the real world. Philosophy? History? Art and Architecture? This letter won’t have been like all of those other letters already received because it is challenging you to think before you put pen to paper, to stretch your mind and your imagination. And if you do, if you take up this challenge – alongside others as you may desire – I’ll take you on a journey outside what you know, and we’ll see your open mind and listening ear put to very good use indeed.