I think it fair to say that any move toward something new is tough to begin with, in taking up the final thread in your letter. We all stand at the base of a long ladder whose top is, perhaps, shrouded in the mists of uncertainty, and are not sure whether to climb, or remain on the level we have already achieved. Sometimes the box we are in has everything that we need, everything to keep us sane, happy, contented for the rest of our lives; sometimes it is too small, but we need to take a glance over the rim to see how small it has become, and to judge whether jumping over that rim is worthwhile. For me, though, the best is to be able to make a decision, to make a change of one’s own volition, and not through being forced in a certain direction – such as with your hand writing; our style and the manner in which we form letters changes over time, and forcing someone to adopt a specific method of writing at a young age is a bad move, I believe. Teaching them that there are several different methods, however, opens possibilities which are not quite so limiting in that the person being shown has many more opportunities, and can still make up their own mind in which direction they wish to go or, perhaps even better, choose which style to adopt for which occasion.
Even quite uninteresting remarks sound worthy when delivered with gravity and composure, and a discussion of poems that are nothing in themselves may leave the heart of the matter veiled and yet at first hearing sound fascinating when done in the right sort of voice, leaving room for the imagination and seeming to withhold the beginnings and the endings.
We can all dress something up to be what we wish it to be, but a different person will bring their own view, their own voice, to the discussion, and cast a completely different light on what we see, on what we think, on what we believe. That is, of course, if we are prepared to listen. This thought, which was written down by a young Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the eleventh century, can be turned to so many different aspects of our lives, from poetry through to where we choose to live, who we choose to associate with. Someone can present us with a tale which either turns our interest on, or shuts it down in the first instance; the sad thing is when we let our imagination be shut down, turned away from the possibility of discovering a new interest unseen before. I find this passes well not just for literature – and there are several books I have bought, read, and loved which were panned by critics or people that I know – but also for many other aspects of life. It certainly set me in good stead when I began my overseas travels, and ventured away from the borders of the safe and secure, into the world of troubles, Troubles, and the foreign.
Everything is on the decline, compared to the old days […] and this latter age of ours has lost all depth …
And yet we remain where we are, and do nothing to change it. Unless something happens which forces us to take a look, or which interests us so much we are almost dragged out into the wider world. For me, the former was the case with coming to Germany. I’d had a very quiet, uninspiring five years of working in London – uninspiring depending on your point of view as I was a cardboard-box-corner-cutter, a door-to-door double-glazing salesman, and then a bookseller in Harrods – when I decided to join the army and see whether anything interesting would come of it. Being someone known for a love of literature and the more artistic side of life, this shocked my family and the few friends I had, but didn’t cause anyone to come storming into my home and try convincing me of the error of my ways. I saw it, though, as a subtle move toward something of more interest as, being relatively poor and living on the meagre wages of a shop assistant, the chances of seeing something of the world, aside from foreign visitors in the centre of London and strangely-accented Northerners in Brighton, was rather slim to say the least, and the pay was better.
Germany was not the first place that I was posted to after my basic training, but it has been the country I stayed in the longest, if you discount small escapades in Belize, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia-Herzegovina over a relatively short time span. And Germany, or the Germany that I was introduced to, was not the same Germany as many people imagine, and far removed from the Germany I had been taught about during my school years. As soldiers we lived and worked in a close-knit environment, separated from the civilian population, behind wire fences and with guards but, fortunately, allowed to venture out at times. Everything we needed, aside from a rather more intelligent or intellectual circle of acquaintances, was within the barracks’ four walls: cinema; shops; café; sports centre; bars. We even had our own English-language radio and television programmes beamed in from across the channel, with a very small selection of decidedly unchallenging serials and quiz shows, films and documentaries. An ideal world for those who didn’t want to let their British character be influenced by Johnny Foreigner in any way.
A certain degree of cynicism, I admit, but I believe it is well placed. There were soldiers, and their families, who did not go outside of the barracks gates during the entire time of their posting in Germany. A posting, depending on whether a person was in a regiment, a corps, or elsewhere, could be between three and twelve years. I met people who could not tell me which road to take if I wanted to walk into town, and others who only knew how to get to a soldier-friendly bar in the evenings, which taxi firm to call to get them back again in the early hours of the morning. On my third or fourth day there I decided I wanted to try German cuisine, asked a few people who had been there several years, and then just went out of the gates and started walking, hoping for a chance encounter with culture or, at the very least, the smell of an exotic meal cooking.
School in the Seventies, the most formative years, working to achieve various paper certificates in subject areas of no use to man nor beast, and which I would never have to address again, while being steered away from those of the utmost interest and importance (to me, at least). We were taught that Germany and all things German were bad, something which has cropped up time and time again over the last few decades, and is not ever far from the British press’ headlines whenever anything happens in Europe. I recall having a certain Buddhist peace symbol on some of my school books, and my explanation of what the symbol in that form meant being shouted down by those who knew better. I applied to learn German as my third language, and was turned down: concentrate on French, which is a far more important language, and not linked to the past in such a bad way. Mind you, the French were also vilified, as the British always have done with these people, and I remember my first trip to Paris, standing on a railway station platform somewhere in the middle of nowhere, absolutely amazed that these French people, aside from their language, were just the same as us. And their cheese was far better too. Perhaps this is what convinced me to travel, and also helped in my decision to leave the army – at a rather good time, as they were offering large golden handshakes to reduce the size of the military – and remain in the centre of Europe.
More than the glory of flowers and fall leaves that season by season capture everyone’s heart, it is the night sky in winter, with snow aglitter beneath a brilliant moon, that in the absence of all colour speaks to me strangely and carries my thoughts beyond this world; there is no higher wonder or delight. Whoever called it dreary understood nothing.
There are, of course, many years between the “convinced me to travel” and the settling down in Germany as a civilian, and much has changed in the world during those times, from the decline of the British power base in the world, through to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breaking up of the Soviet Union and so much more. The dark, winter side of life that many told me I was choosing by remaining in Germany, certainly has something going for it I would not wish to miss. And it was only dreary, then as now, for those who remained incarcerated within their walls, and did not venture out into the sunlight – or moonlight – of a slightly different world. Because it was strange, unknown, full of people who speak a different language, and have slightly different customs.
The Germans are much the same, to be honest. I used to go to as small restaurant in a town not too far from here, probably too small for such a restaurant, which had Indian food on offer, alongside the German run-of-the-mill diet. Almost every single time that I was there I overheard Germans at another table debating what they should eat, going through the menu and its descriptions, and then choosing a schnitzel or bratwurst, because that is what they know. And they would say so: they would not try the Indian food specifically because they had never had it before, and didn’t know what to expect. I sometimes think that the old saying about it being a small world is wrong: it is a big world, with small people. If only they had taken a small step outside of their boxes.
The first words that I learned in German, in Germany, had to do with food: onions. The restaurant I visited, as a non-German speaker, had traditional fare, and it was common at the time for staff to ask whether a person wished to have onions with their meal, if onions were one of the ingredients, the thought being that a person could have bad breath if they eat onions in the evening, and that would not be a good thing. Raw onion throughout the day on Matjes (pickled herring), fine, but not in the evening. I, of course, didn’t understand a word, and had only picked out something from the menu which looked interesting. The waitress brought me a handful of freshly-cut onion to demonstrate what she meant, and so it began. Today you can go into any Turkish restaurant and order Kebab, or Gyros, and the onions come as a matter of course; no one gives them a second thought.
Your question on whether I have ever considered going back is one which I am faced with constantly, whenever anyone notices that I have a different accent to their own, I am asked where I originate from, and whether I miss my homeland, or the land of my birth. I am also constantly asked about the politics of the land I was born in, as if I must have a different connection to news sources to everyone else, an insider deal, perhaps.
I spent many years living in and around Camden Town, Chalk Farm in north London. At the end of the Sixties there was a small market in Camden Lock, beside a rundown canal, underneath the hulks of former warehouses, tucked out of sight unless you knew exactly where to go. I remember spending many pleasant hours there, looking at a man who made coloured glass, a woman who created wonderful pottery. I bought a copy of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics there, and was almost accused of stealing a first edition of Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden. I watched a BBC sound crew recording street musicians, and slipping them a small wad of folded bills for their services, and ate all sorts of weird and wonderful foods without needing to know what the ingredients were.
Today this small market is spread across both sides of the road, and has a very commercial aspect. It is no longer artists working in their studios, selling their products hot off the stove. The canal has been cleaned up, and there are narrow-boats on it once more, even the locks have been oiled and restored. The former warehouses have been converted into super-expensive Lofts: where once was Bohemia, is now the nouveau-riche. I don’t know whether the potter or the glassmaker are still there, and I cannot imagine the chances of me finding another copy of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics for a good price are very high. Perhaps no one manufacturers anything on site any more.
I could not go back to what was, because it is not there anymore. Heraclitus tells us that the river we see today is not the same as the river we saw a few minutes ago: the water has moved, life has moved on. In another way: I cannot miss what was there, because it is no longer there for me to go back to. I have my memories of what was, but anything else would be the stand from today, what is, what this small world has become. And while every beginning is tough, going back to a changed world is just as hard, if not considerably worse, when mingled with the thoughts of what was, and what could have been.
On alienation, I could – and perhaps will – write a longer letter. I am pleased to live in a small town where I have few friends, but many acquaintances. I am pleased that my friends are many miles away, that the social circles I mix with are not on my own doorstep. It is, sometimes, a pleasure to be able to leave them behind, to move to a personal space, and to relax without the necessity of being the yourself everyone expects you to be.