Things are rarely what they seem to be on the surface: we project our own thoughts and desires onto what we see, what we hear, and try to fit the few facts or pieces of information we’ve received into our own scheme of things, rather than looking further, rather than trying to see things from the point of view of any other. This is, of course, quite natural. Although we are social animals, drawn to one another for comfort, conversation and all the other social needs, our first thoughts tend to be for our own welfare, our own needs before we turn to those of others. The exception is with children, as you know, where a mother will protect and care often beyond what is thought necessary, often at the expense of her own health and safety. So it amused me to read something in your letter I haven’t seen in many years: the question about motorcycles and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I remember reading a review of the work, decades ago now, when it was still new and relatively unknown, where the reviewing slammed Pirsig for a lack of descriptive detail, for a lack of interest, for a lack of context and understanding of motorcycles, their engines and the people involved with them. He was disappointed that so little was written about the maintenance of motorcycles, and that a manual of maintenance techniques with so little could hardly be called worthy of the name. I can only assume, and others have done the same, that the review writer was not the right person to receive this book for assessment, and that an editor somewhere simply took a look at the title, and flung it across the desk to the next best person involved with transport. There is, indeed, very little about motorcycles in this work, and especially about their maintenance. Once or twice the motor will be tweaked, or there is a comment on weather, or the pleasures of travelling across country, as a pair – father and son – on a motorcycle, but the whole has less to do with maintenance of any form of vehicle, and far more to do with the soul, with memory, with the philosophy of travel, remembrance and togetherness. Pirsig’s work is a philosophical exploration, rather than a manual of tips and tricks, and many hundreds of people, I suspect, bought it initially in the firm belief that it was something other than it really was.
But then, there are many hundreds of books which invite a certain type of person to purchase, to open covers, to delve and then – the horror! – disappoint because they are about a different aspect of a subject or, worse still, carry no resemblance to the sales talk on the cover whatsoever. Or the trailers for a film: how often have I seen a trailer that contains, in essence, the entire film wrapped up in three or four minutes, leaving nothing else but padding? All the excitement – the Mission Impossible films are a good example – is compacted into those three or four minutes of trailer, or several trailers, and the rest is conversation, travelling and explanation of why something ridiculous and impossible has to work.
Don’t imagine I am making fun of you: not everyone has the opportunity to read and, as you say in your letter, not everyone is brought up with books or in a family which respects and follows the printed word. The books of my youth, if I had followed the example of my father, would have been crime novels and art or architecture with nothing outside of these fields. Fortunately I lived, at that time, in the centre of London and it was only a short walk to the next library where, especially on rainy days when the swimming pool was closed, I would spend many happy hours. This was at a time before social media, and when it was still considered good for a child to be turned away from the (new-fangled) television sets and turned out into the world outside, to fend for themselves while adults worked. I was also blessed with a strong sense of when someone is telling me BS and trying to prove themselves better, through education or assumed knowledge, than myself, and used this sense to enhance my desire to learn, to seek out alternate answers or, as I often found at school, facts. I find it sad hearing of those who have not had access to books – knowing, of course, that it is their own choice if they wish to make use of such access or not – and an absolute disaster when I hear of libraries being closed down with the spurious claim that no one uses them anymore, or because of a lack of money available for the more important things in life. There is always money there to pay the wages – and expenses – of politicians, but never enough for teachers, health care, the Arts.
I recently saw a message on Twitter asking whether it was deemed suitable, or even had any point, that a nearly sixty year old should begin studying towards a degree. I am pleased to say that the bulk of the answers were positive, and helpful, but there were still a few who hadn’t managed anything themselves, and thought no one else should be given the chance to better themselves – as we say – or fulfil a lifetime wish. I find the term “better yourself” to be unsuitable, I must admit, no matter what age a person is. For me it is not a case of someone making themselves better, since much of what they need for betterment is within themselves already; all they are doing is adding knowledge, and the ability to express what they have learned in a specific way at a certain time. More, this “betterment” is the expansion of an interest for themselves. I know many positions in the work environment demand a degree or some form of higher education, but this work is still merely a proof that a person can learn, not a proof that they are capable of functioning in a working environment, or even in the hectic and stress of the normal world.
I am, however, a great believer in the benefits of education in the prison service. Such policies allow those who are incarcerated to prove themselves to themselves, first of all, and show that they do have the right stuff within them already, are not a complete failure or a loss to society, and build up their self-worth. And, when the time comes, it shows any prospective employer that these people have the will to learn, and the ability to set themselves a goal and achieve it. Environment is a great factor, as I am sure you appreciate, but getting over that environment, working despite that environment, is proof of a person and their abilities, and this is something too many people seem to forget. What they don’t forget, and constantly bring up, is what someone has done before, not what they have managed to achieve since, which is sad.
This is, of course, partially what is meant by the fleeing dog quotation: there is always something left over to remind you of what was, always a certain definition of the person because it is a part of them, their history, their experience. This can also be a good thing: if we remember what we did right and know to do it again; if we remember what we did wrong and avoid making the same mistakes. No one can entirely leave an event behind them, no matter what they may claim, and that is a good thing. If we could just forget and begin again, we would never be able to advance according to our abilities with the memory of our failures and successes as bolstering experiences.
There are indeed some who become considerably more attached to one another through letter writing, through this wonderful form of singular communication. We often trust our thoughts more readily to paper, where we would not trust them to a computer screen or to a face-to-face conversation, initially. There is a certain level of intimacy in the writing of letters – nearly as much as with a journal – which is hard to over-ride, but which takes hold of us very quickly and allows us to expand our worldview as much as our trust. People are constantly being warned to protect themselves against the publication of their personal details on the internet, against hacking of their private accounts, the faking of the posts, images and everything else. Do we have that with letter writing? No, of course not, although it could be just as dangerous as we send these intimate, personal thoughts out into the wild, and have no control of them once they have left or hands and before they are finally delivered. Who knows what could happen in the days or weeks between sealing an envelope in one country, and the opening of that same envelope in another? I have an English friend who writes about how unnerving it is to be writing to a complete stranger, and forgets how many strangers are contacted, who get to read what we write without us even noticing, every single day on the internet.
Being in the public eye is one of those strange things which sneaks up on you, catches you unawares, and then often leaves you abandoned by the wayside of life. In my case it has been a personal decision to remove myself from much of the publicity I was afforded in early years, beginning shortly after I arrived in this town over twenty years ago. I have been an activist in many different areas all of my life, but never settled truly into one area where all these activities took a solid and abiding form. I have never lived in one area as long as I have lived in this town, even my childhood was broken up by being educated in North Yorkshire for six years, as a break from my London home. My public persona is that of a politician, of a committee member on various councils and associations which I either took over at some stage, or helped for form in the first place. I served six years as a County Councillor here, concentrating on building works, utilities and tourism. I helped form the crime prevention council, and was chair of the elementary school foundation. My removal from the public eye is not a true removal as such, merely a change from something which is very open and often reported or discussed, to an area where there is a much closer community, still working for good and to help others, but without the constant reportage – or need for it – associated with other associations or public positions. I am becoming quieter in my old age.
It is surprising, reading the news these days, how many people have often believed they were not meant to be anything, to achieve anything, to do much more than factory work, raise children or simply exist on the edges of society. We – our ancestors – created an education system which has been constantly improved upon, taking it from an elitist organisation for those with money and time on their hands, to one where every single child is brought into contact with learning. And still society fights against this level of education or, better, there are those within society who fight against it and try to put certain groups of people into a box, into a tight little pigeon-hole of what they can and cannot do. Even today I read a response by a “free-thinking gender harmonist” – male, of course – asking why anyone would wish to write certain forms of philosophy. Amusing is that he was directing his comment at an assistant professor of philosophy who has just had a book on the logic of misogyny published!
I have seen other people – including a female journalist – attacking people who have reached the pinnacle of their professions – professorship with many papers and books published – for daring to claim that they are professors. This last was amusing as it resulted in many people – myself included – pointing out to this journalist that she is anchor on a morning chat show, and the journalism is probably done by interns, which tends to negate her argument as much as her position. I see and get very annoyed by those who, in this spirit of claimed free-thinking gender harmony, push other people down who have achieved considerably more with their lives, often despite hardship and rampant misogyny, and now appear to threaten them. It is not just men, I hasten to add, although it is mainly the male who does it. There are also power-women who have managed to fight their way up to a reasonably high level within an organisation, and then feel the need to act as if they are the only ones capable of such achievements, and belittle others trying their best to succeed. We are a long way away from having a free society where all have the chance to learn according to their own abilities without being pushed down and attacked because of their gender, or the gender they accept for themselves (which is quite another theme, and not one I am going to explore in a letter today!).
Turning to books: I have not read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, but I am not a great fan of science fiction as such. In my younger years I did venture into the genre, and have happy memories of Dune and also the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson, the first two sections of which were published in the late Seventies and early Eighties, at the same time as I worked in a bookshop in London. I tend more towards history and philosophy, with an occasional foray into crime fiction to clear my mind of the many thoughts and impressions which crowd in and vie for the highest position of acceptance or discussion. I am not above discussing a book with myself, or the ideas which are brought forward in a publication, and sometimes even devote several pages of my journal to personal discussions and further thoughts on what I have read. Somewhat rarer, I also include thoughts on reading matter in the letters that I write, but that is really an outside thing: I have discovered that many people are scared away by such topics. Having said that: I was approached by two separate people asking my thoughts on passages from Nietzsche, without them knowing who the author was, and am pleased to say one of them is still writing to me! It is also a fact that I read far more than many people I know or write to, and the chances of finding someone with the same reading tastes is limited. I also have the advantage of being able to read many works in the original language, despite being well and truly put into my place by a schoolmaster who refused me permission to learn foreign languages, and that brings completely different interpretations and images to mind.
I wish you every success with the filing of your paperwork, but don’t pile all of your hopes into it. I’m not going to put you down or belittle you in any way, but it is sometimes better to try, and still assume the worst result than suffer the pain of disappointment if things do not work out as desired. Those who do not try, stand no chance of success.