Our lives begin in the middle of everyone else’s life, and some of their lives begin in the middle of ours, so we should all be prepared to accept what has gone before, what is to come, and that there is really nothing new in the world. Things change, people move on, our world is, fortunately, in a constant stream of changes which help stop the boredom, alleviate frustrations, and also, sometimes, tend to teach us lessons. So much said on any reasons for a person being where they are, and so much for my judgement of that person for those reasons of the past; it is better to consider the present and plan for a better future than to just mull over the past without learning any lessons and, while I do believe that what we have done can define us, I am also sure we are all more than capable of breaking out of this definition – which always comes from other people – out of the pigeonhole some would consign us for the rest of our days, and into something else. But, as you know from conversations with those around you: once you’ve been tainted, there is little chance of losing that character damnation, it will constantly rear its ugly head, and those who do not care to look beyond the past in someone else’s life, will never see the potential.

The idea of beginning in the middle is not a new one, and I can hardly claim it for myself. I came across it as a youth, many years ago, when working in the book department of Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge, where I read as many books as I sold. Last year I came across the idea once more, having adapted it as my own way in letter writing, and it was a pleasure to revisit something from the past which had formed and defined me in so many ways. Letter writing is a second forming and defining aspect of my life – in fact, when we think about it, there are so many things which shape us as we move on through the years, whether we appreciate them or not – and is something that I came across in much the same manner as that which put my letter to Ashley Call into your hands. I was in the military, and some of my colleagues thought it would be fun to write to a music magazine, aimed at the lower teenage market, and insert someone else’s name. The result was over four hundred replies, and an unwitting soldier who didn’t know what had hit him, and certainly didn’t have what it takes to write a letter himself. So this pile of letters lay, unopened, on a table in the barracks, and anyone who wanted a penfriend could just help themselves. Fortunately there were letter writers older than twelve in there, so I didn’t feel awkward about choosing a few for myself, and the result was several friendships, one of which lasted over a decade, and was only stopped by the fact of marriage, and the feeling – from her husband – that writing to someone else, that having her own friends, was not the way to go.

So we have something in common, you and I, in a manner of speaking, even if there are several decades between events. And the wonderful thing about letter writing is the chance to find other things of interest, especially where there are opposing points of view – excepting religion and politics, they can never be reconciled – and a chance to discuss, to opinionate, to learn. Aside from that I daresay you’ve managed to form something of an image of my life from my letter to the other Ashley, and I shall not disabuse you of it, merely say that what we write is the impression we wish to give of ourselves, not necessarily that which would be gained by in-person meetings and so-called face-time, and that is fine, as long as no one is trying to cheat anyone else.

I’ve rarely gone back with my reading, taking a book, reading it and then moving on. Many books have interested me over the years, but there are too many excellent works to dawdle and keep on going back. Even so, returning to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller was something of a necessity, partially because, with so many moves over the years since it was first published, I no longer had a copy, and partially because this one reference to where we are when we arrive on this planet, and what we leave behind, had such an influence on my life. The work is an interwoven collection of tales, none of which have either beginning or ending, but form part of a major conspiracy, in a manner of speaking. A wealth of conspiracies abound today, are so much a part of our lives it is hard to imagine a world without them, but this one forces the mind to work; there is no accepting or rejecting, the brain has to get a few juices going and fumble its way through the convoluted and complex series of interwoven, but individual, tales. Here we have a real reading between the lines, and if you cannot do that, as the reader, you’re lost. This one is one of a very small number which I have been drawn back to after so many years; another was James A. Michener’s The Source which is a fictional work based around a real life series of archaeological excavations at Megiddo, which is named in the Bible as Armageddon. Then there is the classic philosophical road-movie book from Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has had more influence on my life than I care to admit. And, finally, aside from the usual classics from Rand, Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.), Shakespeare & Co. which one has to read and re-read, Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name which, some forty-five years after I first read it, still brought a tear to my eye.

It’s hard, now, to imagine what life would be like without books and literature – although my favourite reading is more along the factual history line, with philosophy thrown in for good measure – although I am sure we all have our own small niche area of favourites and interests to call our own. And I came so close to missing out on this special world, having been put off reading by the manner in which we were taught English literature, history and several other humanities subjects at school. I am sure several other members of my class from back then have never touched a book since graduating, except to give them as presents to someone else. We were forced to read and interpret, but our interpretation of a text had to match that of the teacher, there was no room for individuality, for critical thinking – which is something of a buzzword again, with many people fighting against critical thinking because it makes people think away from where they should be forced to think. And without critical thinking we’d not have such a wide and inexhaustible selection of works bringing the hidden past back out into the open for all to see, for all the appreciate the difference between the past, and the past they were taught. Were it not for the fact that my main history teacher, in High School passed on many years ago, I’d slap him about the head with a wet fish for the rubbish he taught.

Of course, I could make an exceptionally long list of books which have opened up new vistas in my mind, which have corrected what we were taught in the Sixties and Seventies, but that would be fairly pointless. We all have our own methods of getting past the institutionalised, the mass-market style of thinking and learning, as well as our own areas of interest. I have been exploring the slave trade of late, as well as globalisation in the first thousand years of this era; World War ethics; Freemasonry; the foundation of Haiti; classics of European literature. All areas which are not covered by the broadest school curriculum, but have so many fascinating aspects to them. And it has opened my imagination to many other areas too, making me appreciate the work of the British National Trust – an association designed to preserve architecture and sites of world interest while exploring their histories – who have recently been attacked precisely because they were doing their defined job, and exploring the money behind many of the main English country houses and manors, the estates built on the backs of the sugar and cotton trades, on the backs of slaves.

I’ve lived in Germany, as an Englishman, for over a quarter of a century now, and am still very much the outsider for some. This small city is one of many where you have to be born here – and your parents too, if not your grandparents on top of that – for you to be fully accepted. Although I travelled a good deal between leaving London and settling down here, it is still a surprising change to the Big City life I was used to as a child, as a youth. But, having said that, I am also more than aware that I really got to know London, on the cultural side more than anything, after I had left the city; travelling in by train regularly to attend concerts, the theatre or visit galleries and exhibitions. I tried living in a small village of thirty-two houses for a year, after first deciding to remain here, but that was too quiet. Highlight of the year was when the shooting club had its annual dance meet, otherwise we were communing with cows and flattening molehills in the garden. This town, however, has a long history, which most of the residents do not know or appreciate, and it is ideally situated between Bremen, Hannover and Hamburg, where life can be lived to the full.

There were many customs that needed to be learned, as with all foreign countries, but anyone with a halfway open mind and a willingness to see and listen can find their way through the crooked paths of what is socially acceptable and what is different without too many stumbles along the way. One that always interested me is the celebration of people who are not married, with their houses being decorated according to how old they are. It ranges from having empty cigarette boxes strung around your house or apartment, though strings of socks, and even the requirement to clean the Town Hall steps, or a public square. All such events are taken in exceptionally good humour, and involve copious amounts of beer, as well as being very public and open. Likewise when people are married and the first child appears – often far later in life than used to be the case – house and living quarters are decorated with (unused) nappies and baby clothes to show how lucky the family is, and what work they have ahead. Needless to say, the baby’s head is toasted with beer, as the saying goes, upon its arrival. Beer, I hasten to add, has a very strong social position in German life, even if the public house and public bar is no longer as prevalent as it used to be, and there are over five thousand different registered beers here.

That said, I am more of a red wine and whisky person myself, although the occasional dark beer – or dark red beer – can also hit the spot when needed. Perhaps it has something to do with my past, with my ancestors who, many decades ago, made the long journey down from Scotland, down into the more affluent regions of England, and forced me to be born there. In the light of current proceedings, I’d much rather have been dropped in Scotland, which now seems to be a far safer and more settled country than ever before. That could change over the coming months, and I will be watching it from afar with bated breath. Perhaps Scotland will make it back into the European Union, and leave the English behind them.

As to letter writing and the future, I am a very open-minded person – with some restrictions – and have no problems writing to most people, usually answering any letters I receive within one or two days. I tend to try and answer much of what is in any letter that I receive, but in a very broad and sweeping manner, so a simple question could result in a wide-ranging, two page answer. I often let my thoughts run wild, and that can result in letters of a rambling nature but, hopefully with some interesting nuggets concealed in the many words. At the same time, I don’t demand or expect anyone to write anything other than what they wish to write, and how they wish to write it. We all have our own thoughts, our own experiences, our own level in a manner of speaking. I’d rather have a good conversation over a longer period of time, than a struggle for words or a felt need to impress.

As I write this the Congress session is underway or, to be more accurate, has been called into recess following the storming of the building by a mob of violent Trump supporters. Hopefully my letter will find you, and America well and, perhaps, still a democracy.