I have come to the conclusion that this year, and possibly the three following it, is going to be a positive goldmine for anyone with an interest in current affairs, in politics and society and especially the relationships which are already in existence and which must be renegotiated between the United Kingdom, as a whole or as individual states within the union, the European Union and the United States of America. It is practically impossible to open a newspaper or periodical without being confronted by another article on one or another aspect of these very special relationships, how they are going to change, what the future holds and how we, from both sides of the Channel, are going to have to adapt in coming years. And it is almost impossible to tune into any of the British TV channels – which I do occasionally over the Internet – and not find a discussion on customs and excise, on health care, on EU citizens in the UK, or UK citizens in the EU. Sometimes, such as during Prime Minister’s Question Time, we have the pleasure of all these and more in one massive avalanche of questions, seemingly without logic or sense, and most certainly without a clear and equivocal answer being achieved. It is an absolute delight for anyone who loves discussion and debate, and a quagmire for those who believe they can work their way through the mud-slinging, name-calling, facts and fiction to arrive at some form of reasonable, acceptable solution.
Let us not look for our disease outside of ourselves; it is within us, it is planted in our entrails. And the very fact that we do not realise that we are sick makes our cure more difficult. If we do not soon begin to tend ourselves, when will we have provided for so many sores and so many maladies?
So Lucius Annaeus Seneca at a time when the world he lived in was undergoing dramatic changes too, maybe not quite on such a level as we know today, but it did revolve around the beginning of end for the Roman Empire, so I suppose we could draw one or two sharp and poignant comparisons. Not that we are really exploring the power of empires today, although I did get the impression on Monday that Theresa May, with her global Britain comments in the House of Commons, was referring back to not so distant times as the Flag of Union meant something in the world, and flew proudly over government and colonial buildings in most countries of the world. Not that she would have known much of Empire, being born in October 1956, when rationing was of far greater importance to the man or woman on the street than memories of India and the highly lucrative spice trade.
I wonder whether it is really possible to have a debate – or discussion – over current events through the writing of letters. If it is a subject with long term implications which evolves slowly, then I can see how it would work, but nothing today is slow. We live in a society where almost everything must be instant; from personal gratification to a four-star, five-course gourmet meal. Letter writing is more relaxed, it is the sport of the thinking classes – covering all the other classes regardless of intellect, social status or wealth – where a carefully considered and well articulated question and answer session is demanded, and where it could take years before anyone comes to anything like a consensus. Such a debate is, of course, possible, but not necessarily with the same protagonists from beginning to end. Just one glance at the many discussions over whether Marcus Tullius Cicero exemplified the perfect rendition of written Latin, or a much wider range of Latin writers should be called upon as examples for those learning, gives you some idea of how long something like this can be both interesting and contemporary. It began, from the records which still exist, in the mid 1480s and continued, admittedly not in one long, unbroken dialogue, until about 1603.
We have to bear in mind, of course, that it took considerably longer for a letter not only to be written, since it was often dictated to a slave or secretary, than laboriously copied, but then sent by whatever means were available. Certainly not a Wells Fargo stagecoach, or even a yellow or red post office van, but slaves; mercenaries and soldiers on their way to and from the battlefield; consuls and exiles, moving from one annexed or enslaved region to another; tradesmen travelling to sell their goods in markets around the civilised world. Gone are the days when Sherlock Holmes could stand outside his apartment in Baker Street, grab hold of a filthy urchin from the street, and pay him tuppence to deliver a hasty note to the lady of the veil or some other worthy personage in the better parts of London Town, and expect a reply the same evening. These days may be gone but:
The days to come
are the wisest witnesses.
according to Pindar, and I think his words have held well during the more than two thousand year since he wrote them. We probably say it in a different manner, with Time Will Tell, but it is not the words which matter, more the meaning and the wisdom behind them.
The thing about current affairs is that the subject matter is so massive, there are so many independent and linked events taking place at any moment in time, it is almost impossible to keep up with any one or three of them. You begin with a good discussion on something simple like the health service, and quickly enter into the arena of who should be helped, especially in times when many refugees come into the country, having suffered unbelievably during their journeys and in desperate need of attention, which takes you on to the refugee problem and immigration, and then on to European Union policy, the intervention of the United States and Russia in certain countries, whether other countries such as Turkey and Jordan can do more, and we’re on to terrorism now, and that didn’t take long at all. By the time you’ve collected your thoughts and begun making notes to write the next letter, the clocks have moved on and the subject has changed beyond all recognition. All of a sudden everything is history, and there is no room for real manoeuvre there, only interpretation, and mulling over what has already happened, what cannot be changed.
I have had the pleasure of being involved with a few discussions on current events – a wide range of subjects on different occasions – and often found that, after a fifteen minute talk, the planned half an hour discussion has used up a full two hours and no one noticed the time go by. These are the best discussions, when you can simply relax into the subject, no arguing, just an easy debate with facts and opinions and friendliness. Rare, but possible. I say involved with because sometimes I have been giving the talk, sometimes directing the discussion, and often merely enjoying the whole spectacle from the sidelines.
The wonderful thing about current affairs is that you can guarantee always to have a good subject for discussion, or to write about, ready to hand. We all have an opinion about something – some have an opinion about everything – and sharing this with others, to gain their thoughts, is what makes letter writing so enjoyable. You pick out something which is in the news right now, where everyone has easy access, or already knows about it because it effects them, and away the conversation goes. On a slower level, of course, than if you were face to face, but that is also a good thing: replies are likely to be more considered and not just off the cuff; there is less chance of someone being insulting because they disagree with your opinion; writers can really pack a great deal into a letter, in the safe and secure knowledge that the recipient is not going to be interrupting them. There are no middlemen, no editors, no one sitting on your shoulder whispering good and bad or correcting your ideas. Hard to tell whether I am praising the selection of current affairs as a topic for discussion, or the art of letter writing as the means of achieving it.
The greatest difference is that you can leave a discussion with good or bad memories, but you can take a letter with you, relive it and hold those good or bad for considerably longer. Your memory does not warp and distort what has been written down; it cannot quote out of context; it needs no intonation to make a point. Unlike a book, it also can’t be edited in later editions: a letter is unique and, so long as it physically exists, perfect. Not that books aren’t perfect in every way, shape and form too, just in a different manner. Of course, that doesn’t stop those who wish to push a different view on a statement, text or comment from attempting it; we’ve seen enough examples of this phenomenon in the recent months with the almost Hollywood-style playacting during the presidential campaign in the United States, and I think it is this beginning of our present era – the era of populism and further-right politics – which will shape the things we debate and discuss in the future. I can also well imagine that the Trump era is going to bring considerably more discussion of a political nature – and that including all the Rights, Freedoms and Privileges we have come to appreciate over hundreds of years – to the fore, along with the influence he is going to force upon foreign governments who believe themselves to be either beholden to the United States, or dependent upon the country for protection and trade.
My interest, though, is letter writing; communicating with a rich range of different people from all walks of life around the world, and that is one of the things I enjoy most. If the discussion goes into the political arena, that’s fine, if it goes in other directions, which happens more often than not then that’s fine too. I have to bear in mind that what I experience here in Germany, or have lived through in many other countries around the world, is often at odds with the experiences of those I write to, or alien to them, so what I might take for granted often comes as a shock. But, again, that is the idea behind writing this sort of letter: we introduce our world to someone elsewhere and, in turn, get to know their world too. Unlike talking face to face with someone, be it over a cup of tea, by Skype or on the telephone, you can lay a letter to one side if it annoys, or check on facts that seem dubious without anyone noticing a break in the conversation and, as I pointed out before, the writer writes without fear of interruption. Well, maybe that last is grabbed out of the air, because many people have families and lives away from the writing pult, and children – as one fine example I have often heard – do not understand the need for someone else to finish what they are doing first, to hold their concentration before checking out a two millimetre scratch on a filthy knee. The pleasures of living alone.
To saunter silent through the wholesome wood,
Bent on thoughts worthy of the wise and good.
as Horace wrote, and that is pretty much how it feels sometimes, being able to just work without the fear of distraction, without a child crying in the background or bringing an end of term report back which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, and contains only ‘could do better’. Of course, my wholesome wood is my library and my work areas, and I am not so sure all of my ideas, my thoughts, are wise and good, but it is a pleasurable feeling nonetheless. Just to dispel the idea that I am a child-hating monster who hands out tricks rather than candy once a year: I do have children, and a grandchild, just not here, and it’s wonderful.
I wonder whether our two cultures – the German against the British – discuss things in the same way. I haven’t been involved in a debate in English for a very long time, although I did have the pleasure of attending the annual university debates in Bremen a few years ago, where the students set themselves up to argue for some prize or other. I never did find out what it was, I was just taken by the different number of accents involved, and by the thought that some of the people in the audience clearly didn’t understand a word of what was being said, but were there out of some intellectual need, as if not to be there could damage their status in the community. I have found that many of these public debates, with an audience present, are attended by people who need to be seen, or who want to be able to say that they were there because it fits in with the position – perceived position – and they wish to stand above colleagues and friends. Rather like a contemporary art exhibition where you had to have been there to be anyone, whether you understood the smears and streaks of a Jackson Pollack or not, whether you could tell the difference between a Joseph Beuys’ sketch and a chimpanzee with a pencil. Reminds me of the earliest days of English theatre, where the pride of place seats and alcoves were set so that the audience could see the important occupants, but they could not necessarily see the stage.
Another great advantage of letter writing: we’re writing for an audience of one, and have no need to puff ourselves up into a position higher than that which we are capable of defending. Perhaps you see it differently; perhaps we will discover a range of individual experiences which enrich the worldview of the other.