A First Letter
One of the great pleasures in life is being able to take a real ink pen and write to someone in a more personal style. It is so much better than sitting in front of a computer screen and typing out strings of electronic words which can be corrected and formatted until a certain level of perfection has been achieved, but all the intimacy of real communication lost. There is, I believe, something very special about receiving a letter where it is clear that the writer has spent time and energy composing it, dedicating themselves to this one task, to this one person. Perhaps also a reason why I am no fan of e-mail, although it has to be used today, and tend to give up on people who only write through e-mail, and that several times in a day. Where is their life? Why aren’t they out in the world seeking experiences to write about? When you sit down to write a letter you know that, no matter how good the postal system may be, you’re not going to receive a reply for several days which, to my way of thinking, is a good thing. There is enough time between letters to do all those exciting things which fill the next letter with life and interest.
Downside to hand writing letters? Well, yes, the first major problem is easy to recognise: hand writing! Mine is, I freely admit, terrible, almost impossible to read at times. When I rush through the words I wish to put on paper it is as if a spider, drunk from some unknown source, has fallen in a bottle of ink and then raced, erratically, across the page. I force myself to write slowly; to form each letter as an individual entity, and fail miserably within the first few minutes of writing. The ideas, the way this one-sided conversation goes or could go, pile one upon another and cause a dam breach, a flow of words almost impossible to stop and, as a result, like a tumult of water, to read.
I mentioned in my contact mail that I am English and living in north Germany. I’ve been here for over twenty years now, and am almost attuned to German culture, even if some things still strike me as being strange. It was an easy decision to remain here: I was stationed with the army in a garrison town some forty miles away and had completely lost all contact with England. Had I been still in London, where I was born, the decision to move would never have been made; I would probably still be living in a tiny flat somewhere on the outskirts and commuting in to a nine-to-five every day. The desire to move, to see more of the world, would probably never have arisen since London, as with so many other major cities, has so much to offer there is hardly any need to explore elsewhere. Holidays in the usual tourist resorts, surrounded by other English-speaking holidaymakers and little or nothing of the local culture. Now I call a small town ‘home’ and have to travel to find those special cultural events, be it theatre, art or music. Not that this town is lacking, but the Big City flair, the selection of events is not there. Although, to be honest, I saw more of the cultural side of London after I had moved out, traveling back into the city at weekends for concerts and exhibitions I would otherwise have missed or ignored. Sometimes it is only possible to appreciate something when it is either hard to obtain, or is no longer there.
I am settling back in to the life of a single father, having separated nearly a year ago, and enjoying the freedom this brings considerably more than the added responsibilities! being able to write letters to people without the need to either explain or justify is one of the greatest freedoms: there is no longer a suspicious mind wondering what is happening, what is being said or written, peering over my shoulder each time I write, or when I receive a letter. There is also, I must add, no desire to change these circumstances: the single life has its attractions. But, as I mentioned, there are responsibilities too, one of which is my children. My eldest daughter moved back in at the start of last year having experimented with her own apartment in Hamburg, but no work. My youngest daughter is here regularly, but lives with her mother – the German courts are still set in their ways and children are almost always automatically assigned to the mother which, in many cases, is a good thing, but not always best for the child.
Aside from my daily work, the job which puts food on the table, I have a small press publishing business which I set up, together with an American woman, in 2014. Literature – reading and writing – has been one of my greatest interests since I could first make out words on a page. It is very difficult to gain a foothold in the literary world, so the writing side of things tends to take a backseat much of the time. The publishing side is fascinating in its way, but also coupled with many hours of hard work and, even after nearly eighteen months, a lot of financial investment. We’re not looking to make a profit on the venture any time soon, but that’s also not the driving factor behind the whole. Most small presses exist purely on the whim of the owner and are more of a hobby than a solid financial venture. Neither one of us expects to be able to live on the proceeds any time soon, if at all.
Other interests? Traveling, of course, which no one should leave out of their list; reading – fiction as much as the more ‘high-brow’ works on history and philosophy, Zen and photography: collecting old photographs – those which tend to end up in the recycling sack because no one knows who is depicted, or they no longer have a connection to events and places of the past. debating the events of the past and present with good friends or, even better, with friends and people who are open to a free discussion, not stuck in their ways, and certainly not with those who are convinced they already have the answer.
One of the advantages of being old – if only in years – is that a person has had the chance to experience, to learn, to live. If they haven’t taken that chance, pushed their frontiers further and further away from ‘home-base’, what have they done with their lives? The new generations will grow up with technology allowing them to experience, to share, to communicate with all and sundry from the comfort of their own couch – I have this technology too, and use it frequently – so that they hardly need to see, to witness first hand. Have they gained anything as a result? Is their life fulfilled thanks to the images and words of others, perhaps third or even fourth hand? The advantage of being old is having grown up when such technology was not available – I remember the excitement in my family when the old television, which was only switched on in the evenings, was replaced with a new one, a colour television! – of being the ‘first hand’ and treading new territory. The advantage of knowing that you can turn your back on these gadgets and magic boxes, such as the television, and the world will not grind to a halt as a result. Of course, such things make life easier – if I need a quotation or a reference quickly I am more likely to check the Internet first – but that doesn’t mean better. So far I haven’t walked into any street lamps while checking Twitter on my smart phone out of fear that I might miss something important.
The thing about first letters which seems to scare many people away, and the reason why I always offer to write first, is that so few know what to write about. Everything in their daily lives is mundane; they do, see, experience the same events time after time and cannot imagine anyone else finding such a routine interesting. Thereby we always forget that the person we are writing to lives in a completely different world; their experiences are different to ours, the surroundings, daily life, culture, politics, routine are unknown to us. We are venturing into a new world which can only be seen through the eyes of another person, and then only through the words placed on a sheet of paper. A bus ride for you, as one example, is different to a bus ride for me. Not that letters should only be about riding the bus, but this is one of the most basic things people take for granted. I probably know as little about Montreal as you know about Hoya or, to take the next major city as a better comparison, Bremen. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why I enjoy – if not love – writing letters: it challenges the writer to put their life and experiences into words in such a manner that a vision is created; in such a way that the reader can place themselves in a certain situation or place and feel the wind blowing on their skin.
I first began writing letters to people I didn’t know back in the Eighties. Fresh out of London, my basic military training behind me, I discovered that the soldiers in my unit had few if any interests beyond beer and women. Now, it may well be that both are important, but real conversation was something I missed. I discovered letter writing by chance: a fellow soldier had his name inserted in a popular music magazine – without his knowledge – as a joke. This prank resulted in over four hundred letters being delivered to him within a fortnight of the magazine’s publication. They were dumped – abandoned – on a table in our barrack room. He had no interest whatsoever and, to be honest, many of the other soldiers in my unit would have had problems constructing a single sentence, never mind putting a halfway worthwhile letter together. From this pile of rejected people I found a few who really did have an interest in writing letters; older than thirteen and more than twenty words of text! It has been a wonderful experience, even if none from those heady days are still writing, and one which I am disinclined to give up on. However, there is the disadvantage of my age, even though we can both agree that fifty-five is not ‘too’ old! Who wants to write to an old man? Even forty-five year olds turn their noses up, imagine what it is like with younger women. Perhaps there is a feeling, if not a belief, that someone in my age group can only be looking for one thing. I’m not, as it happens, but who can know? It’s like dreaming of foreign places: if you want to see rather than just dream, you need to make a move and take a chance.
I wonder if I told you that, at Mr Leigh’s instigation, I had bought myself a printing machine, by means of which I print, instead of write my daily task of copying, and it is a very ingeniously contrived machine, which is merely worked by striking keys as one plays on a piano, it is a great relief from the fatigue of constant writing.
As far as I know, Fanny Kemble didn’t look back after this event. It’s taken from a letter she wrote in 1875 – I have not used the Internet to find this quote! – and refers to her first typewriter. The very first step – new technology! – on a long journey. Back then all books were written by hand – often standing at a desk – and letters could be delivered within a city the same day. How far have we come since then? And yet… and yet the hand written letter has not been completely replaced by modern technology. Long may it be so.
Finally, as I approach the end of another sheet of paper, may I wish you all the best in this New Year. Not just hope and dreams, but many enlivening experiences which, I hope, you will share in written form. Take good care of yourself.