I was going to start this first letter with a proverb I have half in my memory and which, for many, is practically a daily thought they might have every time some plan doesn’t go according to their wishes, or they aren’t able to get something done either through a lack of will or some other diversion. Then, as is my wont, I thought it would be better to check and see that I am quoting this proverb correctly; there are so many proverb or aphorisms which have entered into our daily lives but in an altered form or through being based on in an abbreviated or bastardised manner which has little relationship to their origin. And, lo and behold, I discovered that this was indeed the case here, and what I had wished to write bears only a small relationship to that which was originally coined. My check brought Saint Bernard of Clairvaux out of retirement as being the closest to what I had in my memory, but also Virgil – which is possibly where I remember it from, having recently read through the Aeneid once more – in a slightly different form. What I had was fairly close to:
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Which is an adapted form of Bernard’s words, and several steps away from those of Virgil but meets, almost, what I was thinking of as I sat myself down to write this letter. There are so many things we wish to do, so many things that we plan, and then something comes along and we’ve suddenly lost all the time that we had set aside to do that wonderful something. As far as letter writing is concerned, and I am certainly not going to cast any aspersions on anyone here, it is merely something which I have learned over several years, many people have difficulties writing that first line, filling the first page with their thoughts and, especially putting pen to paper for the very first time with someone they know nothing about whatsoever. I can honestly say that of all the time I have given out my address and been told: yes, I’ll write to you first, it has never happened. I can well understand this problem, having been faced with it many times in the last few years, and would never wish to condemn someone for not writing first, for having other things to do, other interests or, even, as happens now and then, a blank sheet of paper, all the best intentions in the world, but not a single idea of what to write.
Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.
Aldous Huxley’s view on the whole thing is, of course, deeper and bleaker than anything we would wish to envisage. Good intentions can easily refer to so many other things which we do manage to complete, which we are not diverted from, but everyone seems to take good intentions as being something never achieved, or as something underlying a bad move where the intentions are fine, but the thought processes are not and the whole endeavour goes up a certain creek without the necessary paddles.
As far as letter writing is concerned, it may well be that younger people have a problem setting their thoughts down on paper – expressing and fulfilling those good intentions to write in the first place – because this wonderful art of communication is so foreign to them. Perhaps a short note by way of thanks at Christmas or after a birthday to that Aunt or Uncle you never get to meet but who always sends something, but certainly nothing longer. A text message is, by way of comparison, so much easier, even a longer entry on Facebook, but a letter on paper? Daunting in the extreme. And there are few people who are genuinely comfortable introducing themselves to someone they cannot see, someone they know nothing about whatsoever; a quick glance at any of the personal profiles on dating portals, on pen friend sites, even on personal weblogs with a biography section, tells the tale. Communication has become a series of quick abbreviations and emojis rather than emotions, news and opinions about the world and our lives. I was one of the lucky last few who enjoyed letter writing as a part of English at school: a boarding school, we were required to write home regularly and a class was set aside at least once a month for us to do just this. Whether we wrote anything worthy of repetition is another matter entirely: I cannot imagine anyone writing the truth about life in the school when they know that a teacher will be reading, and grading, their comments.
Aside from letter writing, what seems to surprise many people is the idea that a book can be read without the need to power-up some form of tablet. We had a recent discussion in the local newspaper over a new bookshop opening in a major town near here, where one of the booksellers complained that there were already two, and a third was too much. He feared that he or the other, smaller, bookstore would suffer as a result, and was firmly convinced that everything should remain as it has always been. What he failed to mention is that the supermarkets in the area also sell the latest paperback books, and this has had no effect on his trade whatsoever. Added to which, very proudly, he told the interviewer that his bookstore was now selling coffee – beans, not cups of – to the general public, despite the fact that there is a coffee shop just down the road, and his store is surrounded by cafés. I cannot say that there was uproar about his comments, but he apologised for them the following week and admitted that there had been no loss of trade whatsoever; the mention of bookshops in the paper had brought more people into town who didn’t want to use the major online portals for their orders. If a bookseller reacts to a bookstore in such a manner – and one which hands a different area to his own – how can it be a surprise that other people, not in the trade, have a bad feeling about going into shops and making their selection? The internet is easier, the selection better, delivery is quick. Bookstores, though, are social.
Life, unlike some letters, doesn’t really have a start or a finish; we tend to find ourselves in the very middle of something at all times and, unless we were there at the moment of creation, have to simply fit ourselves into the picture somehow and play along with the other actors alongside us. When we start writing is it a struggle, as there is so much that could be said, so much which we feel we need to catch up on so that the other person, perhaps many thousands of miles away and with no inkling of what we are like, can build their own picture, formulate their own reply. It is a struggle to know where to begin, how to bring the right moments in our lives across, how to show our personality, our interests, our surroundings in an understandable light. You will undoubtedly have noticed that this letter does not follow that formula: there is no introduction with a long list of likes and dislikes, eye colours, shoe sizes and all the other things which, face-to-face, we would automatically take note of but, here, need to be listed. My letters tend to be like life itself: we are born into something which has already been going on for millions of years and have to find our way as best we can. All the little details come with the passage of time, as we get to know ourselves too, and can be passed on whenever a question arises, whenever something needs an explanation. It takes, for the reader, some getting used to.
A letter, though, is like a book, except for the fact that it is written for one specific person and does not need to have every character explaining their thoughts, their movements, their motivations. For some it is delving into the innermost feelings of another person – or of themselves – and a playing out of their life philosophy as much as a description of environment and social surroundings. Friendships and hobbies, interests and experiences appear slowly rather than being heaped upon the page all in one mass, lacking description and explanation. Subjects written about can be revisited, as there is always something new to be said, some new experience which has enlivened or enlightened our minds. The occurrences of today can be linked back to memories of the past, forward to plans for the future. It is, however, considerably more than this: it is also a presentation and then, when a reply is received, an adaptation of the person, their views and opinions to new information, new experiences and insights sent from their correspondent. Letter writing is a slow conversation filled, hopefully, with as much insight as it is with fun, as much thought as it is with life. What we write about is what we see, what we feel, what we experience; and there is no one else in the world, nor will there ever be, who witnesses this in person, aside from ourselves.
I cannot remember what I wrote in that original profile text, although I am sure quite a lot has changed since then, but I am sure I would have mentioned a love of books, of history, literature and philosophy, and perhaps even that my letters tend to be very involved – they were described as intense recently – and, hopefully, thought-provoking. I pass my time reading and writing, travelling across Europe whenever possible, visiting museums and galleries, doing online educational courses. All of these things come into what I write in one way or another, along with my thoughts and impressions, gathered in the many hours I have free to consider life, literature and anything else which has presented itself. Now and then I quote from books, often I merely suggest them and the thoughts they have brought, or refer to some painting, an etching, an event which is not necessarily so important that it would have hit the national or international press, but inspired me in one way or another. I reply to every single letter that I receive, even those – it has happened – which are one single line. Sometimes the inspiration is not in the length of a missive, but in the message it conveys, the ideas it brings out, the depth of its possibilities.
I live in a small town – of my own choosing – where I have access to the Big City Lights if I wish, but also all the facilities a good town should have when I desire peace and quiet within my own four walls. Directly across from my door is a beautiful river, ten minutes walk and I am in the countryside – in any direction – one minute to the local cinema, and a wealth of wonderful films which do not come straight out of Hollywood. Having spent my youth in London – place of my birth – and North Yorkshire – education – before starting to travel, it is good at my age to be able to settle down and take things easy for a while. I’ve seen much of the world, and plan on seeing a good deal more since, even in advanced years, there is no need to stop doing what is enjoyable, but every reason to do it at a slower pace. As to my letters, well, this was a very general one, slightly shorter than I usually write, merely an introduction. Hopefully my writing style is not off-putting, hopefully it is a challenge worth taking up. Who knows, perhaps we will both surprise each other with fascinating insights into life, the universe and everything, taken from our different worlds. I hope so.