There is a phenomenal advantage which I have, and which I sometimes forget when writing to people around the world: access. You mention in your letter that I am well-read which, to all intents and purposes, is true, but only because I have access to any number of books at very short notice and, of major importance, an interest in reading and learning. It is sometimes hard to recall, living in this First World environment, that some do not have the same access or interests, or that they have the same interest which needs bolstering, which needs awakening, which needs support and sustenance. I am aware of this as I read about the closure of libraries in so-called advanced countries, where education and access to learned texts and the means of education should be a high priority. I am aware of it when I write to people in foreign countries, or those who are incarcerated and do not have the opportunity or means to simply drive down to the local library, to the next bookstore on the corner and meet their literary needs at a moment’s notice. And, of course, I am very aware of the importance of education, and of lifelong education. Learning does not simply stop with graduation, when a student holds that desired slip of paper in their hand and the whole world – in theory at least – is open and lying before their feet. I wish that those who are in a position of authority, who have the means of control within their realms of power, would also appreciate these major life facts and react accordingly but, as I write above, libraries are being closed despite the desperate need for them. We cannot find everything on the internet, no matter what anyone claims.
One of the sad things about being incarcerated is that so many opportunities are lost. Yes, we have the freedom of movement and of association, all those normal things we, on the outside, take for granted. Far more than this, though, the opportunity to employ those who are incarcerated in educational programmes, in learning, in stretching their minds and their potential, is missed out on. I do not doubt that some see the making of licence plates – as one example – to be a high good and of benefit to the community, but it has a very limited range. Education for those workplaces where people are needed, with a literally captive audience seeking something to break the monotony and the chance of really achieving something – not just praise – and having a future away from the unemployment queues and welfare cheques should be a priority. Challenge a person’s mind and bring them to new areas within our world, to the chance to discuss and debate, and learn from the opinions and knowledge of others, and you’ve got a small society of people with something to look forward to. You’ve also got a community of people who are occupied, have something to do, and then do not start thinking about disruptive things to pass the time of day, to upset others, to gain something for their ego. In theory at least.
I had the great pleasure of being visited by a young woman yesterday who, I suspect on the instigation of her father, desires debate and the chance to improve her skills in English. She has just graduated from the German equivalent of High School – the Gymnasium – and is now looking at going on to study, but in the Netherlands. Sadly, very few schools, of any level, consider debating a part of the curriculum; there are debating societies on some schools, but these are extra activities. The entry test for this university, however, requires a potential student to debate – or at the very least give an informed opinion – on a topic sprung on them at the last moment. Now, if a person is not used to debating, not used to being able to think and form an opinion which they can express quickly, this is a major hurdle to overcome. So we sat down yesterday for about ninety minutes and just talked, set the scene, checked out how far her English will work and where we need to do our concentrated work. And for me it was a great pleasure not just because I had the chance to debate with a much younger person, but also because most of my debates, talks, discussions, are with men in a fairly closed circle where I already know, mostly, which direction their talks will take them.
Difficulty, of course, is the different level of reading and education. I have over half a century behind me, and she has not yet reached the second decade. She has concentrated on books which are fashionably interesting – Harry Potter being the number one, and newly started on Jurassic Park – whereas I read controversial and obscure titles. But difficulties are not there to make a person give up, they are there as challenges.
I’m trying to think which of your questions, posed in your last letter, I might not have answered, or which are perhaps not clear that an answer is hidden within a comment I make. You ask about the military, and I can tell you that I was in the British military for over a decade which allowed me not only to study, but also to travel, even if some of those travel destinations were not exactly tourist delights. I suspect, though, that the main one would be the comment on being in the public eye, which has turned away from me to a great extent over the last few years.
When I first arrived here, in this small city, I was amazed at how few living here had even the most basic knowledge of their own environment, or even the history of the village which became a massive regional power, a county and is now, with a mere four thousand six hundred inhabitants, a city. I was surprised that people did not know what was right outside their own home: a series of monuments, for example, in a public park behind one of the older streets, and residents didn’t know they were part of a bridge built during the reign of George III of England, who came from the House of Hanover at a time when this city was aligned to that family. I was also very disappointed by the local museum, which was underfunded and lacking in much to do with the area. That, incidentally, has changed little up until recently. The change has been caused by a shift in the emphasis of the committee which, up until about eighteen months ago, was firmly in the hands of a set group of elderly people unwilling to see anything but their positions are members of this committee.
There was a call for action to enhance the appearance of the city, and very little movement from anyone willing to do the actual work. Plenty of good words and ideas, very few actions. I then presented a course of action to the town hall, and carried it out without waiting for their agreement – it cost me nothing but some time. This was the first thing that got me into the public eye, especially since I am a foreigner to the city: not born here. Then I joined the local traders’ association, and discovered that many of the suggestions they were making for improving the shopping and living experiences in the city were dying at local government level. There was a major street building action through the centre of town, and the question of where trees should be planted. This association made suggestions, which did not get discussed in the town hall for nearly three months. Finally they came on the agenda, and the discussion was postponed because one of the members had not had a chance to look at the streets concerned. This was my first time standing up in a council meeting, and it was to castigate this man who, as I pointed out, had twelve weeks to look at a street he walks down every single day, and had to walk along to get to the town hall.
So I stood for election and was voted onto the county council, which I then served for six years, as well as to the political party council as vice chair. I also helped set up a crime prevention council and finance a youth centre amongst many other things. This led to the county mayor commenting that I was in the local newspapers more often than he was. But then, I was more active than he was, and didn’t just sit in committees. I went out and looked, spoke to people did things. I even managed to force the fire and safety committee, of which I was also a member, to get out of the town hall and visit all of the fire stations in the county; the first time they had done that in twenty years.
That, then, is the public eye within the local area. My interests have moved on a great deal since then and, although I am still active and, sometimes, very loud, my main interests have moved to Bremen and Hamburg, as well as other areas across Germany. Here I am able to hold intelligent and intellectual discussions with people from all walks of life, and actually debate things with people who have an inclination to learn, to listen as well as to talk, and who are capable of forming their own opinions without settling back into outmoded, outdated, party-political or religious and dogmatic formulas.
This is, I suppose, on much the same level as your comments on not having anyone tell you that you can learn, or saying that you are dumb and will get nowhere in life. I had that during my earliest years of education, and only managed to break out of this depth of nothingness by opening books I was selling in London and seeing things of interest within them. Effectively let down by the educational system in England, and discouraged from learning by being labelled as a waste of resources, I educated myself and took all the necessary steps to further my interests. Anyone from back then who tried to claim credit, and there was one such person, gets put back into their place in no uncertain terms.
In fact, one of the better moments in my life, as far as driving out the demons of the past are concerned, was the news, in the late Nineties, that the school I had attended in Yorkshire had been forced to close. There were many reasons given for this failure of the system, but none which took a look back to the real reason: the expulsion of nine students by an American Principal in the late Seventies, which caused the normal people who would have sent their children to the school, many of whom had been students there themselves, to look elsewhere. The unnecessary expulsions gave the school a very bad reputation, which a generation was unable to remove, and thus its fate was sealed. A few days ago the Old Scholars’ Association also closed down, and the only thing left is a web site commemorating a few artefacts from the school where, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn, the people setting it up hadn’t even been capable of spelling the name correctly.
Were there other questions I didn’t cover in earlier letters? I have very few boundaries indeed, as my young student discovered when she tested me and talked about same-gender marriages, Christopher Street Day and similar. There is so much in life which is fascinating, it is a shame some try to block parts out. I am reminded of a university professor, many years ago, who said that she refused to read The New Yorker because the editorials followed a different political ideal to her own. Basically she ruled any interest in learning what other people thought out of her life. Which raises the question: how can a professor cut out half of the political spectrum, and still be capable of teaching fairly and taking part in debates? You cannot argue against, or debate a subject you have no knowledge of. Not that this stops some people: I have seen news stories and interviews on CNN, on Fox and elsewhere where video evidence has been shown to someone which belies their claims – so-and-so never said this, well, yes, here’s a video of him saying it – and still stick to their story as if the proof had never been shown them.
Self-help in education, which you have used to raise your own motivation and skills, encompasses learning all sides so that a fair and balanced decision can be made. Much the same, as far as I am concerned, with politics and many other aspects of our daily lives: you help yourself to the information available, form your own opinion based on facts and your interpretation of them, and then charge into a debate or discussion armed to the hilt, but still prepared to listen, to learn and, if necessary, change the opinion that you held in favour of a new one based on new information.
I haven’t read Carl Jung in many years, and probably should revisit his works sometime in the near future, as his writing is often relevant to what we are experiencing today. We see this Shadow Self appearing more and more, being empowered through rhetoric and populism in politics even more, and it is a very disturbing development. I cannot say that the internet has helped in any way: the ability to post anonymously seems to bring the dark side of a person’s character to the fore, and a good deal of abuse which would not normally be present, in polite society, is surfacing from people who you would not normally expect such words or actions. On the other side, there is a good deal of hidden strength being brought out too, with the timid suddenly finding means to defend themselves, and a good deal of support too. I’ve recently been watching a very large group of highly intelligent and qualified women assert their right to use the Doctor title, and fight successfully against those who say such use is arrogant – but only for women, of course, because men do not need to fight to have their achievements shown and accepted.
I shall give some thought to the idea of discussing books we mutually read. There is a major time problem, of course, but we shall see what can be done.