A true appreciation of life and the freedoms that we enjoy, for the most part, is only possible for many when those freedoms, when the benefits of society and the Rights which have been fought for over generations, are taken away from them through no fault of their own. The internet, which for some is presently the only safe means of communication, is filled with images of empty streets, deserted beaches, closed bars, shops and restaurants. It is a devastating portrait of a society which has been forced to close down, of people who can no longer move through the streets at will, who must justify their actions each time they walk out through their own front door. And it is a scenario, outside of the worst science fiction you can imagine, which has caused many people in their pandered existences to awaken, to take a look around them, and to reassess their values. Sadly I have to add a caveat here: there are some people who are no reassessing, who are not taking note of what has happened and planning accordingly, who are looking for profit amid the pain, and protection of their own name and reputation following a series of massive and irredeemable mistakes which, we now know, have cost hundreds if not thousands of lives.
I do not doubt for one moment that you can appreciate how these people feel, the change that has come over society as a result of this virus. I am sure it is easier for you to put yourself in their shoes, than it is for them to consider your position. In fact, I suspect that many people on the outside, quarantined for a few weeks, would not even spare a momentary thought for those effectively cut off from society for many years, until it comes to affect them personally.
Recent headlines have described cruise ships unflatteringly as Giant Floating Petri Dishes after outbreaks of coronavirus put a number of liners into quarantine. This is not the sort of publicity that appeals to holiday makers.
This is taken from a wonderful fortnightly news magazine – called Private Eye – which goes on to rip apart those who book such cruises, since they must already know of all the problems cruise ships have, and the chances, within such a closed space, of illness spreading. The difference, though, is that they go into these confined spaces voluntarily, for their own pleasure, and are not forced to enter under pressure, against their will and desires. Not that this period of quarantine, of reflection over society and social mores, is likely to have any great effect on what we do: I can well imagine many will return to their old ways again, regardless of what they have experienced, or claim to have learned, once the quarantine is lifted.
But all this is not the point of my first letter to you, even though it does have some bearing. Society, after all, is constantly changing, and I can well imagine there are many thins which have happened over the last two decades which would surprise you, maybe also make you a little uneasy. There is much which has changed for the better, while many things have either stagnated, or become considerably worse over the years. Your question, however, was whether we are the same person today that we were twenty years ago, whereas my few examples here suggest potential changes in society over a period of mere months.
If there is one thing that the corona virus pandemic should teach us, it is that our opinion can be swayed in vastly different directions according to which news service we have, who we talk to, how we have been raided, and in which portion of a vast-ranging society we have lived. People, in the United States, who rely exclusively on Fox News for their information – for example – have a completely different world view to those who either rely on one of the other channels, or spread their information gathering across a spectrum of media. My contention, of course, is that the latter is best, as it allows a far wider range of opinions, but not everyone sees it that way. I have often hear people claiming they watch Fox News because it has their opinion, and refusing to accept that anything else could possibly be right. In fact, many years ago, I came across a university Professor who refused to read The New Yorker because it had an opinion which differed from her own. It’s not that I have a problem with people having an opinion, based on their own experience and background, but it makes me sad when people are not prepared to entertain the opinions, the experiences of other people. I am not suggesting that they should change their lifestyles or opinions because someone else differs, but at least be open-minded enough to entertain the idea that someone else could be on the right track, could have an alternative answer to their questions and problems which their own sources has, so far, failed to provide.
I do not believe that people are the same after twenty years. Now and then I like to believe we change from day to day, that we have advanced in knowledge and wisdom from one day to the next, but there are also enough people out there who defy this hope. There are enough people out there who are proud of the fact that they do not read books; something I have never been able to understand. I put it on much the same level as a child which refuses to taste a certain food item, claiming they do not like it, when they have never had it before, never even heard of it until that moment. People who do not read books, whom wander through life looking at the pavement rather than the view, have wasted their one opportunity of life.
There are, though, plenty of people who honestly believe that they have not changed, who are happy to be stuck in their ways, and see no point in catching up with the latest trends – something that I can well understand. In many ways I still regret having bought my first smart phone – funnily enough, exactly twenty years ago – having managed to battle through life without it until then. Times change, though, and we need to change with them, but that doesn’t mean we have to change with every single new trend which rears its head. Too many, as far as I am concerned, are luxury items, not necessary to live a good life, and only there to make someone else a massive profit, often at the cost of those who build their product.
But in order to become a new person or, perhaps better, to change, we need to maintain contact with other people, as much as enriching our minds through contact with those who have gone before. Face-to-face is, of course, the idea means for most people, but in times like these, we need to have a fallback we can rely on. For me that has always been the instruments and means of letter writing. From my address I am sure you can see that I am far from what some people might call my home. I live in the heart of northern Germany, having been brought up in the heart of London, and educated in the massive heart of North Yorkshire and, later, Belfast. The Englishman that I was twenty years ago has changed, and is now the German who lives at one within this different environment. So, clearly, I cannot be the same person that I was back then.
And even this would surprise some. I know, and have heard of other Englishmen who have retained their nationality, and retained their close circle of friends. They speak little of the language, and only mix with those who they can talk to; for me a very limited outlook on life over here. I recall, though, when I first arrived in Germany, asking fellow soldiers who had been here considerably longer than I had, what there was to do outside the barrack’s gates, down in the town. After asking several, one of whom had lived there on posting for a decade, I went out unprepared for whatever was there, as no one seemed to have taken the trouble to go out and look., They lived in their own small world, with everything they needed, and a complete lack of imagination or desire to learn. And it was much the same throughout my army career: I’d travel somewhere, and look where others had no desire to see. Where my fellows piled into a burger bar in Nicosia to eat, I went into a local restaurant. Where many spent their hours in the bar of a local brothel in Belize, I had an apartment in the former slave quarters, in the South Side in the city. In Paris I slept in the stairwell of a car park by the Gare du Nord, in Venice on the station concourse, in Rimini on the beach. The people I knew back then went to the usual tourist resorts, to the tourist beaches, to the standard attractions. I often wonder what they gained as a result.
But books are not just there for when we cannot travel, they are a constant companion on our journey through life, and a worthy companion at that. I have just had the pleasure of “meeting” people who lived many years before I did, but would have seen the same areas I experienced in my youthful years. Now I have the great pleasure of going through the life of a fictional character – a judge – as he experiences the changes in Japan, from the turn of the last century into the Sixties. Shortly I will be transported back in time, to Whitechapel in London, in the 1880s, and to the short lives and horrific ends of five overlooked and forgotten woman; victims of Jack the Ripper. A book travels with me wherever I go, even when it is just out to the local bakery for a roll and a cup of coffee, and is often an ideal companion. Many times I have been out in Bremen, in a bar-restaurant, eager to enjoy a glass of wine with a meal and delve into whichever title I have with me, and the book itself has enticed people into conversation. Today it is considered strange when people have a book in their hands, worth commenting upon and asking questions, whereas, in my youthful years, it was a smart phone which grabbed attention. Now the telephone is commonplace, and the book – or the instruments of letter writing – are unusual, are exotic.
There is a good chance that you’ll find my first, my introductory letter to you rather strange, and certainly not like many others you will undoubtedly have received. I have a policy in letter writing which tends to throw people off course: writing as if we are in the middle of life. Life is all around us, and does not begin when we appear on the scene: we have to fit in with life, not the other way about. In writing about Theravada Buddhism, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima says:
[…] our existence continues from the past, through the present, to the future; past, present, and future resemble the vast brown waters of a river bordered by mangroves with their aerial roots, its flow heavy and languid.
And the philosopher Heraclitus, writing many centuries earlier, contended:
Just as the river where I step
Is not the same, and is,
So I am as I am not.
So my initial letters tend to be in the middle of life, rather than stretching back with nothing but memories to try and justify who I am now. Over time, as the conversation blossoms and increases its spread, the past will gradually come out to show its influence on the present. Our thoughts and letters are, likewise, in the present, even though every single word we write, as it is written, is the past. We do not step into the same river twice, Heraclitus tells us, because the river is continually flowing and changing as it flows. But if we have not learned anything from the past, then the present is pointless, and our future in doubt. If we simply follow the languid flow of the stream, we will miss the fruits growing on mangrove trees to either side of the river, and have nothing from our lives.
And, to me, the chance to have something of our lives does not end when a door slams behind us, because there is always something there we can share, always someone there who is willing to both listen and share. Perhaps that is the reason I enjoy letter writing so much – and constantly tell people – we write without interruption, a monologue of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and experiences coming directly from our mind and heart. It is the ideal form of conversation. So, if you’re looking for someone to correspond with who loves reading, travelling, and the sharing of opinions and experiences through the ancient art of letter writing, and you can suffer the many literary quotations and written images littering each missive …