An admission to begin with: I laughed at your interest in the state of Donald Trump’s hairline having, sad to say, more than enough opportunity to observe it over the last few weeks and because, believe it or not, last week an American newspaper went out of its way to investigate and explain how his hair looks so full. Honestly, any company producing shampoo and conditioner for the general marketplace can explain why, and any electrical company can tell you about their blow dryers. Prior to his election there was much debate on whether his hair was real or a badly-made toupee, and even whether the colour of his hair came from the same dye makers who supply Cheetos. I would make serious fun of Trump and his claims, his misogyny, his sexism and racism, were it not for the fact that the whole matter is so serious we can only debate and discuss, but not laugh. I was as stunned by the end results of the election as many millions of other people, being so used to a democratic system of voting whereby, as it should be, the majority wins the vote and selects both the candidate to enter the highest position and the party they are to represent. Although, having said that, we do not select the person for highest political office, that is the party itself, we merely support them with our vote. And, you will have noticed, I carefully write ‘the party they will represent’ above, because we all know that the party comes first, the country second, no matter what anyone in politics may claim.

Perhaps I am slightly cynical, perhaps I have seen too much reality in my life – which has been very long and spans many decades – to fall for the claims and promises of those with a vested interest in political, financial or managerial office. You have the luck, or otherwise, of such experiences in the future, and possibly the chance to shape them; I have the dismay of experiences from the past which I can no longer influence or change. But, despite it all, we are still here, for better or worse. I often recall the words Publius Terentius Afer – who we affectionately call Terence – wrote:

These things reflect the owner’s mind. Bad for the man
Who cannot use them, they are good for him who can.

whenever I follow a discussion, be it political, philosophical or just talk around a table in the local pub, and try to assess whether the participants are using their intellectual or educational skills, or whether they are just blowing hot air out of their nether regions. It doesn’t take long before any astute observer sees who is using their capabilities to the best of their ability, and who is just blustering their way through without knowledge, commonsense or consideration for the consequences. It is also fascinating to watch some of these discussions from a distance, and the plan for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union is one of them. So many blustering stories, demands and predictions on both sides and hardly any real discussion. I caught the BBC’s The View on 3 February, with a long talk between three guests and a moderator on the changes likely to come with this exit for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and was amazed to see that the ranting has hardly changed, with insults being thrown left, right and centre, and people who are determined – and this applied to the moderator of this ‘discussion’ more than anyone else – not to let those invited to air their views finish a sentence without interruption. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise me overmuch, having experienced the attitude of the Irish – northern and southern, republican and loyalist – when confronted with one another many times, and even at first hand during two excellent years when I lived and worked in Belfast.

Do people use their minds’ when discussing current affairs, and when confronted by people of a differing opinion, or do they let their emotions run riot and simply do their best to win an argument come what may? Come to think of it, having watched the discussion over the future for Northern Ireland, I wonder whether some people involved in discussions – and this goes for the whole of the so-called First World, not just one country or province – allow commonsense a place in their responses to problems raised or suspected. Perhaps discussion is also the wrong word, but Food Fight, while fitting, doesn’t adequately render the idea of what should be happening, it only reflects the reality. As justification for the term ‘Food Fight’, I can always point towards the Baroness who referred to a state politician on the opposing political side as a ‘cock-eyed optimist’ in her first sentence on the programme. Possibly better than some terms which have been used in open debate, but still a surprise to anyone who didn’t happen to watch parliamentary proceedings when discussion of the United States’ ban on Muslim travellers came into place and Denis Skinner, never a man to hold back, aired his thoughts on the character and capabilities of Donald Trump in the House of Commons.

I love that term you use – letter-induced time delay – to describe letter writing, and find that it fits in perfectly with what many letter writers enjoy the most. This period of time between writing and reading when life can be experienced, when the true letter writer can get off the couch, out of the house, and explore the world around them. How else are we to keep what is effectively a monologue going for any long period of time? We live in different countries, have often widely differing experiences, cultures and traditions, and the chances of meeting up with another are small, despite advances in transport. Admittedly, the days when a letter could need three months to reach its destination are long gone, but so are the same-day deliveries available to a lucky few in Victorian times. This wonderful delay between letters gives us pause for thought, the chance not only to explore and gain more topics for our future letters, but also to live, to think and consider – those things missing from debates – and bring exciting impressions of our world across to those others in their world.

I have no gift for letters of ceremony that have no other substance than a fine string of courteous words

as Michel de Montaigne described his own writing abilities back in the sixteenth century, and in comparing himself to Marcus Tullius Cicero, who most certainly did have a gift for writing letters which went far beyond mere ceremony.

Letter writing has, to a great extent, been replaced by social media, much to the detriment of society and social intercourse in my not so humble opinion. This is not a new thing, I freely admit, but has slithered its way in over many years until the very idea of taking a pen in hand and applying it to a piece of paper to communicate, whereby strange markings are made similar to those which appear on a small screen when I tap my thumbs in the right places, is, for some people, an action beyond understanding. Why write a letter when I can send greetings, and a video, through WhatsApp? Letter writing, back in the days of my youth, was practiced in schools and, once a week, we sat down throughout an entire period and applied pen to paper. Whether these letters were even sent is another matter entirely, but they were marked and they did count towards a grade at the end of each term and it was considered a mark of intellect and learning to be able to write clearly, concisely, and in the right form to a wide range of different people. And of course the letters were stunted and lacked imagination, after all, a teacher was about to read them.

There is another wonderful passage de Montaigne writes which really will seem strange to anyone from our times:

I always write my letters posthaste, and so precipitously that although my handwriting is intolerably bad, I prefer to write with my own hand rather than employ another, for I find no one who can follow me, and I never have them copied.

We’re talking about personal letters, of course, where the idea of dictating to another would seem strange to many although far more common than most imagine. Cicero dictated to his slave Tiro, who he later freed from slavery. We, today, dictate to laptops, to smart phones to secretaries where a business matter is concerned – and we consider ourselves far too important to write a letter ourselves. The quality of a person’s handwriting is irrelevant today: we write on machines. Michel de Montaigne would have blessed the change, and probably written a good deal more than he did. And that final comment? Making a copy today is the easiest thing in the world, press the right buttons and the copy is there on our hard disk, or printing out alongside the original. We can send one letter to a thousand addresses, change a few words, a name, and it is done. Back in the day, be it sixteenth century Bordeaux, the last century before the birth of Christ, or even the early days of my youth, a copy meant writing it again (or using carbon paper, which was a real mess). People in positions of power or influence often kept copies of their letters, and sometimes the letters they sent out were copied by the recipient and forwarded to others.

Life has become far too fast, and this letter-induced time delay is something we could all benefit from on all levels. The daily rush to be at work, to get the shopping done, to finish an article or grade paper before a deadline; the rush to be the first with an idea or suggestions, the first to answer in class. The stress of always being on time, in the right place, correctly dressed, tied to convention. Yes, there are good sides to the right dress, right clothing, right place argument, but not to the stress and strain which plagues us, gnaw at our health and well-being as a result. If only we had time to sit and relax, to put our thoughts together, to formulate, to express. The other thing which destroyed, or caused harm to, letter writing was the television. Now, it may seem strange to place the blame on this instrument of leisure and education, but the truth is we became so enamoured of this oracle that little time for writing remained. And what was there to write about when we were all watching the same programmes – back then, when there were two and then, gasp, three channels. In the Eighties I lived in Belize and they had one channel, sometimes. No letter writing culture, admittedly, but only one occasional television channel. Sublime. Not that I have anything against television as such, just not in my backyard!

I’d expand your letter-induced to book-induced without a second’s delay, something I also get the feeling is missing from today’s society and whose position in our culture is becoming more of a forgotten tradition than a living emblem of education and learning. I’ve watched many bookstores over here change from being a shop filled with books, to being ones with books too, and the printed word has, slowly but surely, taken up less and less space on the shop floor. Not because fewer are being published, not even because the quality has slipped, but the demand on the High Street is not there. It may well be there as far as Amazon is concerned, but the High Street is where the people are, is where we can go and look at a real book amongst hundreds of others, and truly compare before making a decision. I have nothing against those who purchase exclusively against the recommendation of a reviewer, or even on the basis of an advert, but I do enjoy browsing. And I especially enjoy being able to just wander into a bookstore on a whim and find something of interest. I don’t really care what other people have bought in the past, or also bought when they bought what I have just bought. Admittedly, I did work in a bookstore for several years, and this has probably coloured my thinking to a certain extent, but I loved books long before I went into the trade, and love them still. When I first went into politics here in Germany, the county mayor voiced the opinion, privately I’m pleased to say, that he hoped I didn’t imagine his council sittings would be so boring that I’d feel the urge to read the book I had with me. I don’t honestly know what I’d do with my hands if there wasn’t a book in them, or close by, and certainly not what I’d do with my time, late at night, all my letters finished, without a chapter or two to read and take me away from the realities of this, present, world. But:

Different men, different tastes; nor are all things
Fit for all ages

according to Maximianus, and I must accept such wisdom as proven through the passage of time. I expand his words with:

Whoever is in search of knowledge, let him fish for it where it dwells

from Michel de Montaigne, and return now, my words at an end for tonight, to the pleasures of Eric Foner’s Battles for Freedom.