It Seems Almost As If It Were Yesterday
I’m not sure that I fully understand, or appreciate, the passage of time and the effect it has on our lives, on our emotions and on our perception of what is happening around us. It seems almost as if it were yesterday that I last sat down and wrote a letter, that I last concentrated on one of the few pleasures left in life, and in reality it is many months and I have been remiss in maintaining contact. And when I write “one of the few pleasures left in life” this is not an overstatement or a platitude: at my age there are many limitations as to what one can do, and especially how many things can be done. In fact, one of the reasons for my failing to write over such a long – possibly inexcusable – period of time, is the fact that I have tried to catch upon some of these things, and managed to bring some massive changes into my life which, if all goes well, mean a greater degree of ease. Needless to say, the projected ease has only been – or will only be – obtained through hard work.
To an outsider, and that is practically everyone, my work, or that which I have concentrated on over the last few months, would hardly seem anything time-consuming, or even relevant to a settled and happy way of life. But that is because they are outsiders, and I am sure you can appreciate this as much as anyone else: an outsider does not have the same access to emotions, to personal needs in someone else, as they do to themselves. They assess other people based upon their own experiences, and it is a rare creature indeed, who can put themselves into another person’s life, walk in their shoes, understand them in any depth. I have been concentrating on two small areas, one of which has been a part of my life for countless decades, the other being relatively new. And then, with this concentration, many other aspects of my life have been left to one side and, as I mention above, the passage of time takes its toll; suddenly more time has passed than a person had imagined, or noticed.
The minor change has been my entry into the Shriners, which is a Masonic organisation dedicated to helping children suffering from the loss of limbs or from serious burns who, for whatever reason, cannot afford to pay for their treatment under the health care systems, or through the insurance, of their own country. You’ll understand, having had first-hand knowledge of health care in the United States, why the hospitals we own and manage are located in the United States: the health care there leaves much to be desired. But also in other countries there is a need, especially those suffering under the burden of war, famine, other unnecessary disruptions to an ordered and safe life. This means that four times a year I meet up with other Shriners in my own area to consider how we can raise funds and sponsor children – or find children to sponsor which the present government will allow into the United States – and three times a year I travel down to Heidelberg for the main meetings, induction of new members, elections and so on.
The main time-consuming event, though, has been the complete registry, cataloguing and publication of my photographic collection, which is an ongoing project I will have to follow through with over many years. This has involved a complete change in how I live, with new storage facilities for the boxes of images, and all that goes with a proper archive of photographs, as well as a reorganisation of my time. Taking one photograph and adding it to my collection is not such a simple task as some might imagine, and certain considerably more work than I had foreseen. Each image needs to be checked, registered, scanned, uploaded and published, placed in storage and easily found at a later date. By the end of November I had successfully catalogued one thousand eight hundred and eighty photographs – that is the content of one large note book as a registry – as well as created their index cards. As I write today, from those images, I have been able to scan, size and publish one thousand four hundred.
Then, of course, there is normal life to be considered, the day-to-day things that we do such as eat and sleep! Sitting in front of a computer for several hours a day – each photograph needs to be scanned twice, front and back –and squinting at lines to ensure that something is not cropped too tight, or that the whole is not crooked or even out of focus, is not the most relaxing pastime and, surprisingly, not as easy as it might sound. Quite aside from the lack of movement, which is never a good thing, there is also the wearing down of eyesight and concentration. I’m glad that this is something I enjoy, that I want to do, rather than an occupation I am forced to do on a permanent basis: I wouldn’t be able to last long in any job where this comprised my employment day-in, day-out.
The working with photographs from my collection has also brought other interests with it, some of which distract from the actual work of cataloguing and publishing, but which are also a sideline, if you like, to the whole. Every photograph has a story. The sad thing is that I will never know many of these stories, or anything of the lives of those people who have been photographed. It is fair to say, since my collection only goes up to the 1920s, that none of the subjects, none of the photographers are still alive. They have passed out of living memory, in many cases, and all that remains is the image someone took in a studio somewhere and, sometimes, a small history or memory of the photographer, their studio, or the surrounding area. In effect I have thousands of stories which can never be told, which have vanished into the mists of time as each person, and their immediate descendents, has passed on and away.
Interesting is to find out information about the photographers and their studios, some of which still exist. This is, of course, merely another distraction from cataloguing, but I make up small lists of information on the individual photographers, whenever I can find anything, and even have photographs of their studios in some cases. I try to imagine how their work must have been, pre-electricity, and see studios set up in gardens, high on buildings with a special glass wall or, now and then, with such long exposures the customer, the subject, has to have a head support to stop them from moving and ruining the work. One of the great advertising features, later in my period of interest, was that electricity was available, and the studios could offer appointments at any time of the day or night. Also, very interesting, they all worked on a Sunday too, which was often the only time an ordinary person had free to pose, and when they would have been in the Sunday best for Church anyway.
Many other thoughts come with inspecting these photographs, though, and some of them are sad, some happy. Now and then there is an image of a mother holding her carefully arranged dead child, as a memory of the birth and short life. Or there are images of younger people, and you wonder what their life would have been like, what they did, who they met, whether it was happy or sad, long or short. So many stories which have passed on across time, and hardly a word left behind to explain, to remember them by. I may have mentioned it before, but I get most of my photographs from flea markets – much cheaper than buying through the online auction houses such as eBay – and these come from people who no longer know who was a member of their own family, let alone their names, or from the paper rubbish, set out at the side of the road each month for collection and destruction, sifted through by those with an eye for something to sell. That is, quite simply put, an entire family history, put out for rubbish collection, without a single care for who the people were, even family members, or a single interest in their stories.
What I have found even more interesting, on a personal level, is the number of institutions and collections which claim an interest, but play off anyone who has a private collection as being amateur. Many years ago I exhibited items relating to my new home town, pieces of history which brought back many memories for those who visited the show. I had long discussions with people whose families had been involved, and even had visitors telling me who was in a photograph, and what happened during those times. These are, probably, the very same people who threw out what I collected. And then I had, at one of the shows, a very, very brief visit from the chairperson of our local museum. The only reason she came is because a local politician suggested it would be fitting for her position as chair of the museum, and something she should not be seen to have missed. Notable was that she didn’t even take her coat off while walking around, but hurried and then, after a brief word with me, disappeared again. And that brief word, once she had seen what was in my collection at the time, was to ask whether I intended opening up a museum in competition.
I’ve been in touch with the Royal Collection in England about photographs in my collection, ones which they do not have, but there was also no interest there either, since the subjects were people who had worked for the royal family, and not members of the royal family. And, of course, countless institutions which specialise in the history of their local area, who simply do not have time for a collector whose collection rivals their own. An amateur. Fortunately, the internet brings those who have a real interest, and brings many interesting conversations and links with it, making the whole effort worthwhile, for the time being.
Looking at all these images also brings other thoughts to mind, such as what a person’s life was like – as I mentioned above – and what other people will know of our own lives once we have gone. My own family have already told me in no uncertain terms that, once I am gone, they will simply sell off all my books and art work and take whatever money they can. It is a very strange thought to have in your mind, knowing that a life’s work will be strewn to the four winds by those you thought closest and dearest (within certain limits!), because they have no interest in what you’ve done whatsoever. Perhaps such things need to jump a generation or two to become of interest. I frequently have conversations with younger students in England about their work – Writing Lives – where their study project is to investigate the lives and living standards, beliefs, surroundings of an ordinary person; someone who is not a famous artist, writer or a member of parliament and so on. Such investigations into social history are fascinating, as they show considerably more movement, more life, than the upper echelons, with their sheltered existences and set ways supported, we have to admit, by the labours of those leading ordinary lives. I often laugh when I see the term self-made entrepreneur, or self-made billionaire, knowing that none of these people could have made their vast fortunes without the workers who produced, and often lived at the level of poverty to ensure the bottom line of a business remained high, and the shareholders well rewarded for their financial investments.
Some people might claim that this view is that of a Communist or a Socialist and play the idea down as being un-American, not British or whatever, but it is a reality and not a political stance. I have often been laughed at for believing that health care should be a priority, as we have it here in Europe, and told that this is something the American people would never stand for, as it is a Socialist ideal. Not too difficult to imagine in which direction these people vote every few years, and how much they suffer too, when one of their family falls ill and they find themselves faced with either bankruptcy, or a long and painful illness which they cannot afford to fight.
Books bans, letter bans: they are already in place. I know how strange this seems to any right-thinking person, to anyone who appreciates the necessity of conversation, education, contact to prevent problems, but they are now facts of life. At the end of last year – and this is one of the other reasons why I haven’t written any letters in the last few months – I had a letter returned as being rejected. There was a stamp on the front with a web site address – generic, for the entire State – but no explanation. It appears that this area in the USA no longer allows direct mail from one person to another through the prison system. Anyone who wishes to converse with a prisoner – family or otherwise – must write their letter and address it, with the person’s name and number, to a company in Florida. There it is scanned and transmitted electronically to the facility where this person is serving their sentence, printed out by the mail room staff, and then passed on to the inmate. Probably, or possibly. In another, a person writing has to be on a special authorised list to send letters, and live more than two hundred miles from the facility. In others the mail is limited according to page size, photocopied – including cards and photographs – the originals then destroyed and the copies passed on. There are also book bans in place in some areas.
And yet every single study shows that when people are allowed to communicate freely, when they have access to books and to education, the chances of them falling back into criminal ways are greatly reduced. The chances of their being a major problem within the facility are greatly reduced. But I, on the outside and safely in a democratic and educated land, simply look at towns like Flint, which has been without safe drinking water for four and a half years, and know. And this is also part and parcel of the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ that you mention, which catches so many people out, and condemns them regardless of whether the final verdict is innocent or guilty. Loss of house and job, and then the downhill spiral begins, and can hardly be stopped. Offer someone a worthy life, whether incarcerated or not, with respect, and things work out so much better all round. But, as you so clearly point out with the contraband and smuggling, it is not necessarily those in the lower or incarcerated positions who are the problem, but those in higher, more responsible ones, taking advantage of them and their own power.
So you scare pen pals away through your personality? Possible, I suppose, but I suspect that the fault lies more with the other side, with a strange level of expectation which we cannot fathom initially. Communication, in whatever form, is something which needs practice, it does not come automatically. We first need t learn a mutual language – like a young child learning to talk – and then take into consideration everything about the person we are talking with. Letter writing, telephone calls, social media or even face-to-face, they all have their conventions and, above all, things where we need to learn, and need to learn how to compromise. Each person is an individual with their own way of life, their own views, their own upbringing, and part of the fascination of correspondence is learning about all this. If someone isn’t prepared to listen – figuratively speaking in letter writing – then why are they communicating at all? There are those who listen, and those who merely listen for a break in the conversation so that they can talk again. Here we have the wonderful advantage of letter writing, that we can talk / write without fear of interruption. Whether someone else listens / reads is another matter entirely but, in the end, their loss if they do not bother.
On my own side, from my personal experience, I find that people tend to wander away because they have delayed replying, and then feel that there is no longer a need or that it is too late. Or, as a second – but probably more general reason – because some of the subjects I write about go into too much depth, or the recipient feels that they have no chance of coming up with a reply, or cannot measure their life experiences against mine. In the Eighties and Nineties, I often had people writing to me about how exciting my life was – Saudi Arabia, Belize, Europe – and that they never got to do anything of interest at all. It is difficult to explain to someone that what they do, what they think, their daily experiences are of interest to someone else who dies not see with their eyes, who is not in the same place or situation as they are. This is one of the reasons why it has always disappointed me that there is almost a social taboo against young and old writing one to another – except at elementary school to pensioner level. There is so much which can be shared, if it is kept on the basis of experience and doesn’t attempt to escalate to more. We are, in a way, all prisoners. Some through physical barriers, some through mental or social mores.
Victim Impact. This is one of those strange things which has appeared over the last decade or so, but really has absolutely no point. We read of famous / infamous criminal cases in the newspapers every day, of crime sprees, mass murders, and the television, I am told, is full of images and conjecture, theories and descriptions. The perpetrator is pictured for all to see, and that, to my way of thinking, has far more to do with victim impact than hiding a person’s face away countless years later. We all change and grow, our appearances are no longer as they were – no one from my army time – as an example – which is only a quarter century ago, would recognise me now. And if the victims of crime – that is, the family of a victim in many cases – haven’t managed to come to terms with events after a number of decades, then they need personal help, and not the hiding away of reality. Those incarcerated are hidden away enough, have enough of their lives and identities taken away from them. And yet, we should be promoting good education and a return, in many cases, to society after punishment has been completed. Beating a person down with so-called victim impact is hardly going to get anyone restructured, rehabilitated or ready for a return to the outside world. It merely belittles their worth, their inner pride in new achievements, and makes them feel unfit for a return or, worse, awakens a desire to seek revenge upon the very society which they should be returning to, condemned as they are to believe themselves a worthless and faceless outsider.
We had no winter this year. This isn’t quite true, because temperatures did drop to -8° C for a day or two up here in northern Germany, but it hardly felt like anything. There was a smattering of snow and some icy patches – the usual road accidents because winter caught people by surprise – but the feeling remains that winter simply was not here. In Bavaria and the southern States of Germany, there was a mass of snow, emergency situations, the local defence forces called out to help clear drifts and remove the weight of massed snow from many a roof, but not up here. My neighbours pond froze and then thawed three or four times over a fortnight, and the traces of a cat wandering across the ice could be seen in a light snow fall one morning. Three, maybe even five times, I had to scrape my windscreen free of ice early in the morning.
One of my earliest impressions of Germany, back when I arrived in the late Eighties, is of foot high mounds of snow cleared from the streets and our parade ground. That would have been in November, perhaps October. This last year, at the same time, we were basking in the warmth of a late summer. There were fears that the winter fashion collections would flop, just because of the balmy weather.
Everything in the world is changing, some for good and some for bad, and we carry on as if nothing is changing at all. I sit at home, sometimes, and wonder why people appear to have such a strong desire to destroy what we have – and I do not mean just the climate here, as we’ve experienced many such changes over the centuries. I look at what is happening in the United Kingdom, and ask whether they’ve been hit with sun stroke, or a malady of the brain. A virus which has chewed up all their commonsense and spit it out to form a rancid puddle on the sidewalk. Some are not content with ruining their own lives, they have to drag everyone around them down into and through the seven circles of hell too.
I have not done much by way of reading lately, having so many other things to concentrate my senses on, and a slight problem with the supply of books to add to my woes. I’ve been using a reasonably local bookshop for my supplies of English-language works, and now discovered that they do not centrally order when I place my order online. A message is sent to the local store, who then place the order. And when it is a pre-publication order, they forget. So I have a mass list of books I ordered back in July and August last year, published in December and January, which I will not be receiving because the store forgot, and the central customer service isn’t interested. Not that I will be running out of books, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon!
I have just finished reading The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad, translated from Russian. Lena was a sixteen / seventeen year old woman during the siege in 1941 – 1942, who managed to escape the city finally and lived on in Moscow, before returning to St Petersburg later in life. It is one of those books which has been praised, compared to Anne Frank, claimed to give a wonderful and personal insight into the tribulations and sufferings of the ordinary people during the blockade by German troops. It is, of course, written by an inexperienced young woman, and should be treated in just that way, otherwise it disappoints. There are, though, interesting sections in her writings, about the trams failing, and then running again throughout her time there; bombs falling and artillery shells as they shelter in a cellar or, later, walk through the damaged streets as if nothing unusual were happening.
“… they themselves owed their life to their dog, which had fed them for a whole month.”
Lena writes earlier in the book that she had been forced to eat her cat, which didn’t help too much in saving the lives of her mother and aunt, both of whom died through malnutrition. Better, I suppose, than eating human flesh, and there were many tales of cannibalism during the siege of Leningrad among those who were not lucky enough to escape. There is a certain naive charm in the diary, but very little of substance on daily life and the effects of the continuous bombardment, other than the daily search for bread and the issue of rations according to the level of work an employee had. Amusing, in a bizarre manner, is the idea that, despite the death and destruction, the commune summoned Lena for failure to pay her rent on time.
My next book will be John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are, which takes me back into the folds of philosophy where, to a certain extent, I feel more comfortable. I enjoy reading books on history, especially when what I read sheds light on what I thought I knew from my schooldays and exposes the different ways in which national education subverts historical reality. I read his American Philosophy: A Love Story a while back, which convinced me to invest in his latest work. The ‘love story’ tells of his work in a private library, preparing it either for sale or donation to a major institutional library and, as with the best love stories of our modern times, how he managed to overcome a bad marriage and find the love of his life. Very autobiographical – he is a youngster who will turn forty this year – and very reflective in his works which, it seems to me, all have a personal aspect to them. The working in this private library and working through his life problems first, and, with this new work, following the path that Nietzsche followed during his years in the wilderness – as we call it – as he tried to find both his way in life, and his mind.
Not really suitable reading for everyone, I must admit, as a certain understanding of Nietzsche will be expected or, at the very least, the hope that whoever reads will be able to find and consider extracts from Nietzsche’s works and his life. So many different publications in philosophy, and based partially on the lifestyle and times of the author as much as on the processes of their minds. It is hard to read them in a modern sense, although many do try and impose modern standards and customs on the past, the reader needs to be able to put themselves back into that time and place.
Likewise with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, about Harlem and the race riots, or Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art, about the search for hygiene, and anaesthetic in Victorian surgery. This last is fascinating to read as it shows how set in their ways many people were at the time: there was a general belief that cleanliness had nothing to do with health, and surgical instruments were rarely cleaned in the manner we demand today. There was even a very strong movement against the idea that germs exist – tiny creatures which crawl into and infect an open wound? Unthinkable! – rather that the putrid pus coming out of a wound was a sign of good healing.
[Josiah] Royce read Edgar Allen Poe as a twelve-year-old and wrote a gothic essay, ‘The Miner’s Grave’ in his last year of high school. For Royce, the grave represented a life so insignificant that it hardly mattered when it flickered out: ‘Affection’s hand had not been present to erect anything by which the memory of the deceased might be kept up,’ observed the thirteen-year-old Royce. ‘Only a little mound of earth … and a shingle, with a half-effaced inscription, distinguished the spot from the common earth around it.’ Even in his youth Royce was terrified of being this sort of nobody.
This paragraph was one of the reasons I turned back to my photographic collection and began working on it again. I had stopped more from personal affront a while back – with the listing and publishing, but not with the collecting – after a series of insults from people who update and edit the internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia. As my web site wasn’t deemed good enough to be referenced for examples of photographic work by one or two, it was partially removed from the references – but later put back by a senior editor who saw the value of my collection. The effect it had on me personally was something else, as if I was as meaningless and worthless as the references someone else had put into the Wikipedia links. I went and concentrated on many other things and let the cataloguing and inspection, the research into the background of my collection lie unheeded. This paragraph, though, came as something of a reminder. Each one of the photographs in my collection is a life, or the representation, the last vestiges of someone who has lived. I will never know their story, never be able to put myself into their shoes and experience their surroundings, the society they called their own, or their times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth recording. Maybe not a monument to a life, as a gravestone can be, but a small remembrance nonetheless.
Of course, my thinking was also coupled with reading Invisible Man, where the ‘hero’ of the tale specifically wishes to be invisible, to disappear, after he has discovered that he is invisible, a nonentity, to some parts of society. A coloured man, from the South, living in Harlem in the late Forties.
Today people are still invisible, all around us. The dishwasher in a restaurant, the maid who makes up a hotel room after the guests have left, the street cleaner who does his rounds before dawn. Or, to take another example which has been in the news in the United States recently, the Mexican immigrant – or worker – who harvests the fruit and vegetables we eat. We do not see them, might even consider them worthless to a certain extent, because of the work they do, but once they are gone …
Of course, such thoughts occur to many people all the time, it is not as if I am writing anything original as far as generalities go. It is the coupled continuation of thought, the art of putting yourself into a certain place, or fostering empathy for someone in a certain position, which makes the differences. That, and seeing the consequences of actions which, while directed at one single person – perhaps – reverberate through an entire community, and further afield in some cases. The unseen, the invisible, the minor and unworthy are what support the very structure of society, they are the foundations upon which greatness is built., Take away the foundations, and the building collapses.
It’s hard to explain how all of this fits in with my collection of antique photographs, and how the reading of such a short passage in a book made me come back to life – as far as the collection is concerned – but I am sure you can appreciate how the small things in life, such as this passage, which might otherwise pass us by, sometimes hit the right note in our minds, awaken our consciences, our consciousness, at just the right time. I am presently ‘chatting’ and reading the exploits of a small group of students in the United Kingdom who, as part of a continuous project, are studying the lives of ordinary people, people without a name, through their surroundings, their diaries and the memories of those who lived or worked with them. The ordinary people., The invisible people. It is a fascinating situation to be in, both for me as an outsider watching the students, and for the students themselves. It brings a completely new idea of what life and society are to mind, and that, to my way of thinking, is a great advantage in and for any younger person today.
I think I have allowed my thoughts to wander on long enough now, although I could probably write a few more pages, but that wouldn’t help get this missive into the post and break my recent silence.