I wonder how many little rituals we have in our lives; not just the receiving, opening and reading of letters, but all of those almost automatic functions which make our lives seem to run smoothly. I gave a lecture, quite a while ago now, about the use of ritual and how we all fall into certain patterns when faced with a common task or duty. Just getting up in the morning is a form of ritualistic action: the alarm, the snooze button, dressing, washing, preparing breakfast, going to work. We don’t give such actions a second thought, just perform them in the knowledge that this is the way things work and, often, the best way to avoid stress. A small change in our ritual – such as the milk not being in its allotted place when we prepare that first cup of coffee – can throw us off course.
My own ritual for receiving letters is one involving a good deal of patience and, sometimes, restraint. I go to the post office to collect my mail and then carry it all the way home, make myself a coffee, go up to my small office and then sort through what I have received. The bills and official mail is then opened first so that I can get the bad things out-of-the-way. Then I turn to the more pleasurable personal letters, of which I only receive a few, and slowly open them. With the official post out-of-the-way, I can relax and enjoy, not having to rush things, not having other matters of importance to distract. There is a great temptation to change this routine, but it remains the same day after day as a rule. The ritual works well, no matter how much I wish to read one letter before another, and I am always in the right mood, have enough time, to settle down and simply enjoy.
After giving my talk on daily rituals, we had a long discussion during which one man insisted that he could live, and made it a point to live, without a set routine. For him a ritual was something imposed by other people and, as a free spirit, he could not bring himself to allow anyone else to order his life for him. It took about five minutes to show that he followed, as do we all, a certain set of rules in his life which rarely changed. He came, as an example, to the weekly talks at exactly the same time having followed the same route. He hung his coat up in the foyer, straightened his tie in the mirror, greeted all the people already there, ordered a glass of beer and sat in his usual place. A ritual. Self-imposed, but a ritual nonetheless. I hope I didn’t destroy his ideal of being a bohemian free spirit, but I did see that he reconsidered and accepted. Not a ritual imposed by anyone else, if you discount the regular meetings at the same time on the same weekday, but a routine. Of course, he also works, and work is filled with rituals and an order dictated by other people which is impossible to avoid.
I have never been able to imagine where a person is when they write their letters, although I think it would be an interesting exercise to try and guess. I have my own small office on the top floor of the house where, in theory at least, no one else goes. I have a wall of bookshelves behind me and sit at an old writing desk covered with all manner of things I need on a daily basis. My main computer monitor is in the centre, the keyboard tucked underneath it. Correspondence is piled to my left and a small index card box to my right. Various printers, a scanner, files and papers are all around. When I look over the monitor I can see boxes of photographs and old cameras I have collected over the years. The walls are decorated with framed photographs, certificates – collected, not my own – an oil painting, a local flag. It is a small, warm room, very comfortable, and ideal for being alone in to both work and relax. Aside from my bedroom, this is where I spend the most time when I am at home.
In my last letter I called it a one-sided conversation, and one of the very few social moments when we can just let the words flow and know that no one is going to interrupt us. Face-to-face you have to take the other person into consideration, have to let them talk too, or at least react. We see their facial reactions, their body language while they listen – or appear to listen – to us, and that influences what we talk about, how much we talk, our own body language. In a letter, I feel, each person has the unique opportunity to be themselves, to really express their thoughts from beginning to end. Letter writing is a very selfish occupation, from this point of view, but also very satisfying. Sometimes, however, it is also like a profile on the Internet; we are creating ourselves as we wish other people to see and to appreciate us. There is nothing to say that we are not still hiding behind a façade, or creating a character which has no relation to our real selves, or the public self everyone else accepts. Unlike the Internet, the more astute reader can see what is hidden between the lines, and compare what has been written before to what comes out later.
There are, as you say, less details and more speed in real life conversations. We all have something else to do, and our partner also has so much to say. Perhaps letter writing is a more lonely experience, more of a chance for introspection and review. We can also plan down to the last detail what we write, and, unlike in a conversation, go back and correct or even start over with a fresh sheet of paper. The only real uncertainty is whether anyone reads what we have written!
Well, no, there was a comment on both your envelope and letter writing paper when I came home today. My eldest daughter saw that I had something more than the usual official white or grey in my hand. My youngest daughter is twelve and my oldest will be twenty-four by the time you read this. Sadly my eldest is still very much of the opinion that Papa does the work at home, but that will change soon. Life is a constant series of changes, and her boyfriend has finally managed to find work – not quite through his own resources, more forced than anything else! He starts a new job next week, just over six hundred kilometers away from here, which means my daughter will be moving to join him relatively soon, and I will have the entire house to myself. Not that they have been in the way over the last year, since she moved back in, but the additional freedom, and a few extra rooms, is quite welcome. At least I won’t have to clean up after them every day!
German came very easily to me. In fact, I had wanted to take the German course at school, back in the Seventies, but the head of languages refused to let me sign up for the course. When I first left the army, with a very rudimentary knowledge of the language, I found work with a building company. In theory it was a landscaping and gardening firm, but we built roads and prepared the foundations and pipelines for large buildings. The gardening sector pays less than the building industry – roughly one-third less – and the owners saved a good deal as a result. I was, however, the only English-speaking worker there, and so had no choice but to learn the language, and quickly. I think it is called Total Immersion Learning, or something similar, and works very well indeed. Nowadays I rarely talk in English, but almost all my writing remains in my mother tongue. Easy enough to separate the two.
I also read a great deal, in both English and German, and, as you, have my favorite areas but do not limit myself when something looks interesting. My stack of books to read is far bigger than it should be, but there are so many other interesting things to do that I often don’t have more than an hour or so to read each day. History and philosophy tend to take the upper hand, but crime fiction is also here whenever I feel the need to just relax and not have to think too much. Cicero, Ficino, Bruno, Popper, amongst the authors, Zen Buddhism and exploration among the subjects. A life without books is hardly worth calling a life! All I need now are shelves to put them on.
The fascination with photography came about quite by chance a few years ago. When I first arrived here I discovered very few people seemed to know a great deal about their own town, so I did a little research of my own. At some stage I found a set of original lithographic postcards for sale, for a pittance, and bought them. Then I found more, and original letters and artifacts too. I held an exhibition of some of my collection, and people approached me with questions and the occasional gift. The price of postcards shot up as a collector’s item – roughly four thousand percent – and I moved on to collecting the little visiting card photographs which were so popular up until the Thirties. It’s not just the photograph – which is a thin sheet of paper glued on heavy card – but the adverts from the individual photographers on many examples. Some, quite aside from the information they give, are almost a work of art in themselves. At the moment I have about twenty thousand individual photographs. The people shown are rarely named, but the photographers, complete with address and all the awards they have won, almost always. One day I will manage to make a complete catalogue of them all, I have already begun, but only when all the other interesting aspects of life take a long rest!
I have not officially visited Canada yet. In the Eighties I flew to Belize and we had a stop in Canada. It was amusing because almost everyone on the plane was wearing light clothing ready for the Central American heat, and there was a meter of snow on the ground when we stopped over. Of course we had to disembark and wait in the terminal building while the plane was refueled, and everything was closed. So I have seen nothing more of Canada than a closed airport building surrounded by snow, and a large number of very cold tourists.
Art and architecture have always fascinated me, and I am very grateful that I was able to inherit / rescue my father’s books. When I get to visit somewhere I always try to find the more interesting buildings, not just the public ones, and take a look and, of course, see which exhibitions I can get into. My youngest daughter is always very wary when I say we are going somewhere to just take a look, because she knows it means a lot of walking and, at twelve, the interest in old buildings has not been awakened yet. When she is there, though, it is different and she enjoys herself. Two years ago we traveled across Germany to visit the castle at Colditz, and she had more questions and observations for the local guide than anyone else there. Many of the towns here still have their old buildings preserved – half-timber houses and solid manor houses and castles – which makes traveling all the more interesting; especially when someone can explain the history of a town, or tell stories about the people who lived there. She also found it more of an adventure as we slept in the back of the car rather than paying for hotel rooms. My elder daughter thinks this is my Scottish ancestry coming through. She is quite happy to sleep in a damp and muddy tent at a concert, but not in a car!
The publishing business is very small indeed, and we have only five titles at the moment. I am busy correcting two new works at the moment and we have three or four in the earliest stages. I’m not sure whether we’ll be giving authors a louder voice, it is very hard to find people willing to offer their works since we are so new and have so few titles out. Many go the self-publishing route now, searching for fame and fortune, and pay out far more money than they can ever hope to earn. It is much more of a hobby than anything else, which we do for fun. Perhaps, one day, we will also manage to cover our own investment, and the running costs. Just paying the accountant to do our tax returns each year almost breaks the bank. All our books are simple affairs, exactly as the one I sent you, with a plain cover and bound with thread.
Your mentioning of linocuts brings back memories of my schooldays. I was sent away to a boarding school in the depths of what was once North Yorkshire. In the third year or so, the art master decided to split the class into four groups, each one taking a specific area of art for a few months and then rotating to the next. We were the first he tried this on and, if I remember correctly, also the last. One of the groups was printing – the others included pottery and painting – which he was to teach. The class was allowed to choose their own first subject, and I was the only student who picked print. I was interested in the art form, all the others simply wanted to avoid being taught by the art master! Lino, wood and a few other forms of printing were covered, and I was able to do fairly much what I wanted; a free hand after the art master, faced with such a lack of interest, lost interest himself. Somewhere, in a packing carton, I still have a complete set of linocutting tools, which I bought myself many years later.
In fact I hated my time at school, mainly because we were in a small village and weren’t allowed to leave the premises unless on an organised trip. I spent most of my time in the library, and was even a school librarian once I discovered which books were kept off the shelves and hidden from our young and impressionable minds. The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence was the first book which got me into trouble! I was twelve at the time, and such a work, with its undertones of homosexuality, was not considered suitable. I read it secretly, and with great pleasure as a result. But, as Lord George Hamilton wrote:
try to suffer fools gladly, they constitute the majority of mankind.
Sometimes we simply have to accept the way other people are, and work around their restrictions to reach our goal.
Everything here is coated in a beautiful layer of crisp white snow, which fell over the weekend. Watching the sunrise this morning, light pastel pink across a washed-blue sky, seems to have been a pleasure reserved exclusively for me. One of the major newspapers described the arrival of freezing cold temperatures as a shock, as if no one expected that, in the middle of winter, it should suddenly turn cold! They also wrote that we were lucky, in the north, that snow and ice appeared over a weekend, otherwise there would have been far more accidents on the roads. They recorded over three hundred – but no deaths – for the first weekend of the year. I’ve been looking forward to the cold weather, but everyone else seems to do nothing but complain about it. When summer comes round again, they will undoubtedly complain it is too hot.
Time to close for the day: parental responsibilities call once more. My eldest daughter believes that I scare people away with my letters: they are too long and involved. Once the words start to flow, however, and as long as I have time and enough paper…
Take good care of yourself.