I am torn between two things: enjoying the fresh, bitingly cold air outside by taking a walk through the town and alongside the river, or revelling in the pleasures of figuratively putting pen to paper and writing a letter before continuing to read a book. My neighbour’s new pond, which takes up the hulk of his garden, is frozen solid, and not even the best efforts of a late afternoon sun can make a dent in it. And I have already had my daily constitutional, up to the local post office to check my post box and then back again, bills in one hand and the front door key in the other. It is my daily ritual: after my morning coffee and once I have satisfied the cat’s food desires, I walk to the letter box across the street from my house and deposit the several missives I wrote the previous day; back past my house once more and through the centre of town to a large shopping centre where the small post office has been squeezed in between periodicals and the special offers of refrigerators, chopped wood for the fire, and beach chairs. Generally I have a letter from someone who wishes money transferring from my account to pay for some service, otherwise the small yellow box is empty and merely gapes in my direction like a jaundiced, yawning, toothless mouth. The cat pounces on me in the yard when I return, and impedes my movement towards the door by stroking itself back and forth across my legs, while looking up and asking – or so it appears to me – why I don’t hurry across those last few yards and let him back in to eat, clean and sleep.
I always decide to write a letter rather than take a walk at this time in the afternoon. There are too many people on the streets, although it is a small town, and I prefer to avoid crowds wherever possible; perhaps the big city mentality tuned down into a villager’s perspective. I was born in London, many decades ago, and have lived in or near many major cities since but always prefer the peace and quiet of a village green, a pond with ducks on it and fields within two hundred metres in every direction. Not quite what I have now, but ten minutes walk from my front door, regardless of whether I turn left or right, and the town is behind me, only the birds, the flowing waters of the river Weser and stillness surround.
Often the great choose for a change to roam:
A simple meal, a poor man’s humble home,
No purple, no display –
These waft their cares away
writes Horace nearly one hundred years before Christ, not that I would consider myself great, not by any stretch of the imagination, but this idea of simplicity does tend to attract. No pomp and circumstance; no big car, wide suits or fancy, expensive accessories. Just the straightforwardness of life with one or two things which, years ago, would have been termed luxuries, but are now part and parcel of a normal, everyday life. For me that is a roof over my head, food on the table and a good selection of books to read. And, never to be forgotten, a small but fine collection of friends; probably both the greatest luxury and most desired necessity imaginable, who are not constantly pestering for attention, but are there when you need them. To other people, and according to the authorities nowadays, one of the main basics of life along with food and water, a roof over your head and education is a television; something I will never understand. Unless, of course, you come from Texas where, as you’ve probably heard, the authorities there no longer consider food to be a basic necessity of life. As a child I appreciated the television, but it was restricted to a short period of time during the evenings, after homework had been completed, and that made it something special. Today, many decades later, I understand that television is not a luxury at all, nor is it a basic necessity; like smart phones and so many other gadgets people demand to have these days, it is an accessory, and decidedly unnecessary to a good and fulfilling life.
It might seem strange to you, but one of the necessities of life as far as I am concerned is a good provision of books. Although I effectively came to them very late in life, I have always been surrounded by books and by the printed word: my father had a large collection of original Penguin crime books – with their green covers – and was a graphic designer who, among many other things, designed the layout of a series of publications for small publishing houses. Surrounded by them, I took books for granted until sent off to a boarding school in northern England, where access to the library was restricted, and a certain number of books were kept out of the reach of grubby young – and clean older – hands. Suddenly these works became a luxury because of their effective rarity: being restricted from something always makes it that much more interesting. Over the many years of my life books have become ever more accessible, although that seems to be changing again now, as I see more and more libraries being closed and bookstores disappearing from the High Street one after another. And there are fewer and fewer people who have private libraries at home, which is also, in my opinion, a great loss. But I am old fashioned, I have been told: the future is in technology, where a person can have up to twenty thousand books on one small machine and carry them around in his hand. Which is fine, I guess, if you’re prepared to risk the loss of so many volumes when this modern piece of gadgetry happens to fall out of your hand, or when someone decides that they like it too, and removes it from your possession. And a single eBook reader on a shelf doesn’t attract as much as the same number of books it could or does contain.
I am biased: books are my thing and have been since I first discovered that I could become a school librarian and read those titles which were forbidden to everyone else. Of course, it was not the intention of the school to give me access, but they were short-sighted enough not to secure one or two titles – which we would never now consider to be dangerous – from small hands such as mine. I am, today, the person is town who always has a book in his hand, no matter what he is doing. My room, where I am sitting now, has around three thousand books lining the walls, making it warm and comfortable. And I recall, with some affection, the County Mayor asking me, when I first became a County Councillor here, whether I thought that the council sitting would be boring, because I had a book with me, and having to explain myself. For anyone who happened to be steeped in the Classics, I would have quoted Marcus Tullius Cicero who noted, in De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum that Marcus Cato similarly spent his time with books and:
Indeed it was often his practice actually to brave the idle censure of the mob by reading in the senate-house itself, while waiting for the senate to assemble.
So I can refer back to a great politician of the Roman Empire being mention by a great politician, orator and philosopher also of the Roman Empire, and a tradition spanning over two thousand years. And, of course, also a very long tradition of people who insist on writing letters – often in preference to taking a walk on a freezing cold day, when even the neighbour’s small pond has frozen over and the afternoon sunlight cannot break through to warm or free the water below.
Began writing letters to people I do not know – we all have to start somewhere – in the early Eighties when, as a pretty poor joke, someone put the name of a colleague into the small ads of a teeny music magazine. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean: younger than those who read Seventeen and more interested in boy bands and music before the rush towards cosmetics and fashion begins. I don’t know how many people answered, someone estimated it at being four hundred, with a few closer to my age group and, if not that, at least my mental abilities. Such friendships can last many years, if not decades, and bring something more than a few sheets of paper through the post now and then: they bring an insight into the life of another person, when it is someone who can write and appreciates their powers; they bring life which might otherwise never be experienced, from another part of the world, a different society, different culture. There was a time when I could be writing three or four short letters every day, or one very long one depending on the person, as well as delving into the delights of whichever book was at hand.
It had its downside too: working in Bosnia during the civil war which broke up Yugoslavia, I came across a lot of people who, being so far away from home and completely at a loss for contact, came to me to ask for help with letter writing, with maintaining contact to friends and family. There was one young man, very shy and with a skin problem that lit up the evenings it was so virulent, who needed help writing letters to a young woman. He was one of many I came across who hadn’t paid too much attention in school, left with the most basic education and joined the army simply because there was nothing else for him to do. We sat for a few days together, composing letters, discarding them, beginning afresh, until he had enough confidence to write for himself. Emily Dickinson wrote:
Cultivate your other powers in proportion as you allow imagination to captivate you
and I often think back to this young man and wonder why he didn’t allow that to happen. His letters were good, after all the work he put in to them, and would have knocked anyone off their feet, if only they had been interested in character and personality. He was polite and not too forward: offering to meet up when he returned to England; to talk over a cup of tea with his correspondent; get to know her properly; give her a chance to really get to know him. He would have been the same age as Emily Dickinson, seventeen, and right at the beginning of life. Although, of course, he was working and, in 1847, Dickinson was still studying and had finished an examination of Euclid the night before she wrote the letter to her brother, which makes me jealous because I want to be there and be doing just that too.
And the young man, stuck out in Bosnia with all the hopes in the world, received a short reply from the young woman of his dreams, with a teabag enclosed, and the words: this is as close as you are going to get to drinking a cup of tea with me. He made the mistake of enclosing a photograph, and character, personality, hidden abilities, are not everything in the modern world. For some, sadly, they are not anything, and our world has become obsessed with appearance, with the latest fashions, with the newest gadgets, with everything but not with that which is of any real and lasting worth.
I judge them, like choruses in order of their entrances, in respect of virtue and evil, happiness and its opposite
so Socrates according to Plato, but even this is not truly fair, as we should judge people not on their appearance, but according to what they do, how they communicate their character, their personality, how they communicate their helpfulness and their love. I would probably need another ten pages or so to go through all the ways we should, and should not, judge other people. Sometimes it is merely a quirk of fate which puts us where we are: the young man was tarred by skin blemishes, but in every other way – aside from his lack of education – he was a good man. She saw only that which appears on the surface, didn’t go into the depth of his thoughts and words, his character and personality and, in my humble opinion, she lost as a result. I equate that with the old adage that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, something g which I learned not to do at a very young age indeed. Had I stuck with the gaudy, with the exciting, with the bright and colourful book covers we see on the shelves today, I would never have read Cicero, Plato, Dickinson, and hundreds of other marvellous writers from the past who are as alive, as vital as anyone writing today.
And, something I am sure you appreciate more than most, I would not be penning letters to people on the other side of the world, were I only to judge the surface impression, and not be willing to delve down into the depths.