I’m not sure whether to be relieved, or sad, as the sun is not beating down the back of my neck as I write this – although it is the right time of day – and we are stuck in a major storm in north Germany, with high winds and lashing rain. Compared to storms I have experienced, and those raging across the southern USA at the moment, it is nothing much, but still a major inconvenience as we are not used to such weather; we have had fierce storms, but don’t get many of the higher magnitudes here, and so finally have something different to talk about with friends and neighbours, rather than the oppressive heat and continuing pandemic restrictions. It is amazing how quickly people can switch from their complaints about heat, to complaints about cold, and not even notice what they are doing.

Your letter hits upon something which has been plaguing my mind for quite a while, and something which has been a part of my life and my thoughts for considerably stronger. Yes, you are quite right: there is a definite state of male privilege when it comes to things that we can safely do, which women cannot. I’m not sure that this has changed much over the last few decades, although I can see areas where it has even if those changes have not necessarily been accepted by all. The first one which comes to mind is a woman going into a bar alone. It happens quite a lot here, but several women together is far more common. In my younger days – and I suspect that this is still the case today – many people considered a woman going into a bar alone, or a restaurant, a dance hall (as they were then) or any place of entertainment, to be a provocation. It was clear, in the language of the streets, that she was there for one thing alone, and possibly even demanding money for it. That last is very unlikely as prostitutes, sex workers and so on, had their own areas, their own bars and cafés where they were known and worked. A single woman, however, would immediately be tarred with this brush. And a single man was simply out for a quiet drink after a hard day’s work.

Travelling would be much the same: women do not travel alone if they can help it. This is something which has hardly changed, even if our attitudes to sex equality have, since this change is merely a theory not proven by practice. Travelling alone to work, commuting in the morning and evening, is a completely different matter. Going on holiday alone, a walking holiday or anything similar, is still something which is not done, except by males. Women travel together, or arrange to meet up at specific places, and take considerably more precautions than males need to.

My thoughts on this level of privilege have gone several steps higher, however. I was born into a family – even though the family split within a few a short years – which was comfortably situated, middle class we would say today, with the best possible prospects. Not bathing in money, but hardly likely to fall destitute or want for anything. My father was one of four directors of a design company founded in London at the end of the Fifties, as advertising promotions were really taking off, with the fledgling television, high quality colour printing, photography and so on. Each of the directors could work from their own homes, and even had employees who came there to work for them. The income enabled me a private education, not one of the top notch schools, but one which was theoretically good in that it was private and well thought of.

We can go a step further than this along the road of privilege, because I was not only fortunate enough to be male, born into a well-to-do family, living in the centre of London but, something I came to realise later in life, I was (am) also white.

I hardly need mention what sort of privileges this could have brought me, and which I saw and, on a daily basis, also experienced without being aware of my good fortune. I can remember only one Black person in my early life, who was employed on a building site close to where I was living, in the London borough of Victoria, under the shadow of Buckingham Palace’s walls. There were no coloured children in my primary school, nor in the Church choir, nor in any of the groups that I was involved with during my earliest years. Up until almost the end of the Seventies, there were no coloured children in the main school I attended, until a pair of sisters arrived, probably in about 1975. The areas in London where I lived in my teenage years was much the same. Our local corner shop was run by a family from Pakistan, and we ate in Indian restaurants, but our neighbours were people like David Essex and Roger Whitaker.

There were no coloured or foreign people employed in the companies where I had my first experience of a working life. In one of the jobs, we were specifically told that people of a certain nationality were unlikely to be future customers for the firm, and so we should avoid them. Then I began working for Harrods, on the other side of the Palace, firstly as a salesman, then as an accounting clerk. Salesmen and saleswomen, at the time, were white. Those likely to come into contact with customers, were white. Coloured people worked behind the scenes, in the store rooms, the postal rooms, goods in department, cleaning and hygiene. I cannot remember a single Black person working as a salesperson during the four years I was employed there. I was privileged enough to work in my own office, and probably earned considerably more than an equally qualified coloured person working in an office away from direct contact with the public.

I can take this a step further and say that there were no coloured people working in any of the units of the British army that I was posted to during my time there. In fact, it was a big story when one of the Guards regiments finally accepted a Black soldier for their ranks, although I doubt very much that he had a good time of it. I remember the Parachute regiment being featured in a series following recruits from admission through basic training, to assignment, and the general feeling was that they had a very easy time of it. For a Black man in the Guards, I can imagine it would have been the opposite.

My thinking on such matters has gone another step further, though. There is a good deal of privilege in the world, predominantly white, but also other types. It is brought into a our lives as children from a long history, and taught us as if there is nothing else which needs be said. That was certainly my experience, where the British Empire was good, and slavery was barely mentioned. Everyone who set themselves against the British was wrong, and even the most minor success in a war was a great battle won alone. Just reading through Churchill’s six volume on the Second World War – the first two volumes at least, since much of the other four was written by other people under his name, and often merely documents quoted at length – you could get the impression that he led from the front all the way through, whereas many, many of those who worked with him have been forced to contradict the impression he has created, and give a more balanced story of his failures, his moods, his bad decisions. Britain, he claimed at one stage, stood alone against the threat of Germany, leaving out all the colonial dominions which formed the British Empire, and which stood with the Mother Ship from the very start. But this is what we were taught, and precious little of the reality of life, and the reality of a life effectively under the yoke of their birthplace or colour for other people.

My thinking on the subject, however, brought me another realisation: dreams. It is only in the last year or so that I have had dreams where a Black person has played a role. I have had dreams in German, before having dreams where a Black person played a part.

Clearly there is a good deal more that I need to think about, and I am disappointed, above all, that it has taken me so many years to start discovering much of what I was taught as a youth is wrong, misleading, or blatant lies and propaganda. The privilege I still enjoy today has as much to do with my upbringing and education, as it has to do with the upbringing and education of many of the people I associate with. There is nothing I can do to change what I have experienced, but plenty for future generations. Perhaps we are living in an era where people are more aware of their world than ever before, and by that I don’t just mean this small piece of rock hurtling through space, but the immediate world surrounding each and every one of us, environment and society.

Receiving a letter is an opportunity to explore…

Turning to the gas lighting events in our lives, which was a very small part of a few minutes a while back in my life. It is difficult to decide exactly what anyone would begin a correspondence, and then decide to break it off suddenly, often without a word, simply because the explanation is not there. I believe, in my case, that I can understand what the young woman meant in her Dear John letter, that she did not wish, or did not know how to take on a subject outside of her normal sphere of knowledge or interests. She was happy to remain within her own comfort zone, and expected everyone to adapt to this, rather than being prepared to adapt to them. Not that it is really an adaption, more of an acceptance that a person is different, has other interests, a life removed from their own. From such experiences we can learn, if our minds are open to the thoughts and words brought across. I hope that she finds what she appears to be looking for but, for me, the conversation would have been too shallow.

Opening a book is also an opportunity to explore, as is holding a conversation with someone new, someone strange. It is amazing how much fun a person can have by listening to what other people have to say – within limits, of course, since there are quite a few very strange people out there – or the direction their thoughts take them with the printed word. I am looking forward to a small break from my normal reading to take in some fiction for a while, as well as a few of the more philosophical themes which most people don’t consider to be philosophy. I suspect that if some of these titles were listed as being philosophy, or categorised as history, literature, ethics, many readers wouldn’t touch them. Put a slightly different name to them, and they’re best sellers.
I have a small German language novel I shall be starting this evening – as soon as I have the attempt at biography comparing Winston Churchill and George Orwell out of the way – and then a small step into the lonely world of Olivia Laing, with her third work The Lonely City which, surprisingly, has a quotation on the back cover calling it literature. From this alone, I suspect, many people would buy it in the belief that they have a romantic love story – the cover image helps – in their hands, and discover that they have entered a real world of memories and thoughts on loneliness as experienced by Laing. After that another one which could possibly create the wrong impression when glanced at quickly: Socrates in Love by Armand D’Angour, which is probably not exactly the love story many might imagine either.

The world as we know it today began in California in the last quarter of the nineteenth century …

is how Rebecca Solnit’s book of early photography – in the form of work by Eadweard Muybridge – is described, which is just as enticing as any other description. And then we turn to Reza Aslan, whose works I have always enjoyed because they upset so many people set in their beliefs, but unable to provide any evidence, with No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. You might have heard of him after he wrote a book on Jesus Christ, and a Fox News interviewer tried to negate his years of study and experience in theology by calling him out on his own religious beliefs, and claiming that, as a non-Christian, he had no right to write about Christ, let alone Christianity.

Normally I would have dodged the Churchill / Orwell book, had I noticed that the author won the Pulitzer Prize a while back. I sometimes have a slight problem with the writing style of journalists when they turn their hand to biography, as much of what they write is similar in style to a newspaper article, in my experience, and more bite-sized snippets and short sentences, rather than longer explorations of words and ideas. The opening section of this book was no different, as I had feared, but the whole improved after a while, even if there was very little new in the work. But sometimes it is good to go back over something you’ve seen before, just in case.

I am fortunate in that I am a fast reader, rather than a speed reader, and manage to both ingest and relate or cross-reference what I am reading. Now and then I do also have to re-read a paragraph, when I discover I have been recalling a cross-referenced work or an event which relates, with my eyes still going over the text, but my mind elsewhere. Mostly, though, it is possible to sink right into the work with no outer interruptions – another privilege I have, living and working alone – and simply take in whatever is on offer. There are times when I look up from my book, which I have started reading in mid-afternoon, and discover it is too late to make something to eat before going to bed. Fortunately not too often, as I prefer having a mug of tea beside me whenever I am reading or writing, and need to look up and either drink some or refresh it at regular intervals.

I was still a little surprised at the idea of packing possessions into plastic bags and leaving them for a fortnight, with the idea that this would definitely kill off bacteria and germs. I’m not quite so sure of the science, but I do know that bed bugs, for example, can live in isolation for months on end, and a bacteria can simply hibernate until the conditions are right for them to start feasting again. The gestation period for this virus, on humans, is anything up to fourteen days, as far as we know, but it is possible for a person to be simply a carrier, rather than suffer an infection – as with children – and that means that the virus has a longer life chance than two weeks.

Which will make the next few weeks all the more interesting. In my area of Germany the schools open again tomorrow, with the new first year children being greeted on Saturday. The rules, at the moment, state that students must wear masks when outside the classroom – in the fresh air, corridors, canteen or wherever – but not while in the classroom. Hopefully they will have enough space between them to help prevent spread, although that is also something difficult to assess. We’ve already had news about how things are going in several universities in the United States, which are looking at having to enter lockdown again, and also problems with children returning to school in Scotland. It is going to be a very interesting learning curve with, I hope, very few casualties, but learn we must. If this doesn’t change the way we live and react in society, then only a complete plague can do it!

Which reminds me that I read Camus’ The Plague this week, and found it amazingly relevant to our situation today, even if it does concentrate on a single city rather than a country, or the world. There was the gradual understanding that an epidemic was forming, the level of disbelief was there, the lack of preparation, the lack of official acceptance, the slow-grinding machine of politics and administration. Then came the deaths, the isolation, the few people who stood up and battled the plague where the politicians had failed, and those who found every possible reason to try and escape, or claim that it was fake, had nothing to do with them. Set in the Forties, it has its place in our minds to this day.

And here, too, there was talk of the new normal after the plague, when things had returned to something approaching normal, and the realisation that this new normal would be the old normal after a very short period of time, because it was easier. People go back to what they know best, to what is easy and works for them – no matter the difficulties – rather than taking a chance And trying to find a new way. It’s much the same as one of the underlying stories from Orwell’s 1984, society suffers because new technology means changes, and the administration is disinclined to allow freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think, and express those thoughts and ideas, there can be no advances. A major problem the British encountered in the first months of the Second World War, and most certainly after the war ended; stuck in their ways, they did not look to see what needed to be done to combat, firstly, the threat, and then, secondly, to take advantage of the opportunities of rebuilding society. Germany, on the other hand, rebuilt from scratch, from the political foundations upward. Perhaps I should pull out my copy of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and see what the differences are.

The reactions of those hearing what I do for a living is usually fairly consistent. They understand the photographer part, and relax when I go into slightly more detail, imagining that this will be the boring part only photographers can understand. Then we get to see, usually with that final sentence of the car driving too fast, the realisation dawn on them. I have seen chins drop onto chests, had people jump up and shout out, and a few just stare at me in silence – where you can tell they are thinking: no, wait, what? Only one person, of many, has managed to work out what sort of photography is meant almost from the start. And then everyone tells me tales of when they were last caught out, and how fair / unfair the system is, and so on. The only person who ever, loudly, objected to my line of work was a former policeman, which struck me as being rather strange.

The original accident left me with next to no injuries, just an occasional pain in my foot if I step out wrong. In theory, because there is arthritis there, it should be seizing up, and the doctor offered me the chance to have it done quickly rather than letting it work gradually through, which I turned down. I’d rather be able to adapt to changes at a slower rate, than wake up one morning with a stiff foot and the need to limp, rather than the chance to work my life around the change slowly and efficiently. However, at the moment, there is nothing there. I have far more problems with my writing hand than with my injuries. But the medical assessment was such that I would not be able to brake properly, and the responsibility for all those people travelling with me is too great for the State to accept. So, I was this close to being that gentleman of leisure, but for the one letter, the one application, and the success of an interview I could easily have thrown. Not that I am regretting it: I enjoy my work – which is a strange feeling for some, bearing in mind what I do – because it is relatively easy and allows me to read. And, of course, if I had been sent off as a pensioner, my income would never be enough to cover the books I wish to read, let alone those I do read. And then there are the trips out, the museums, the restaurant dinners with friends, the occasional glass of single malt whisky. I am, indeed, in a very privileged position.

I suppose, in a way, we all are. Most of us are in a better position than someone else, either in our own country, or in one on a similar level. We might not believe it, but the grass does not always grow greener on the other side of the fence, sometimes it simply has brighter paint on the facade. We can all find a way to make the life of someone else that little bit better, whether it be with a word, or considerably more, but that will never change our own position. And perhaps that is a good thing, although, given the chance, I would wish that many of the privileges I have as a white man – regardless of class, upbringing, educational level and so on – were slightly more levelled out. Colour and land of birth, gender and biological sex should have nothing to do with start out with in life. Attainment is a considerably better way forward.