Some people don’t realise this, but letter writing, when done properly, is a challenge. It’s not just a case of sitting down with a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope and writing the first things which come to mind – unless you happen to be writing to Aunt Edna to thank her for that birthday present you really couldn’t use – it is a challenge to the intellect, to staying power and, in a manner of speaking, it is a challenge to our ability to communicate with people we often do not know. We, the writers, need to be able to get our feelings as much as our desire to demonstrate our characters across to someone who could be thousands of miles away, live in a completely different culture and under circumstances we would find hard to imagine. No body language, no chance to read emotions, no personal contact: it is difficult, and that is what makes the challenge such an exciting one. And each time we sit down with a blank sheet of paper, perhaps with ideas piling one across another in our mind, or a notebook of impressions we wish to communicate, it is a fresh challenge. No two letters should be the same: as time moves on and changes come to the world, so we move on too; we mature; we learn; we change in so many ways through the various experiences of our lives. Life itself would be an incredibly boring event if there was nothing new, if there was not some form of advancement available, if we had nothing to look forward to for the next day, the next week, the next year.
For to talk to the winds, as others do, is beyond me except in dreams; nor could I fabricate fictitious names to talk with on a serious matter, being a sworn enemy of any falsification.
These words, from Michel de Montaigne, are as true today as they were when he wrote them back in 1572: we need someone to communicate with, and not necessarily someone who is constantly present, who we cannot get away from, who is so close to us that our emotions feel constrained and our inner secrets cannot be imparted. Aside from which: talking to yourself is crazy, just the same as having an imaginary friend is something we leave behind in childhood as each of us confronts the real world, from which there is no escape. Dreams are there to take us out of reality – hopefully into a better world, but more often into one populated by our fears and anxieties – confronting the reality of life and escaping from it by sharing, by communicating with someone outside of the normal, daily sphere, is another matter entirely. Intimacy, it is said, breeds contempt, and I am sure you know exactly what I mean.
To a certain extent, we are all stuck in one form of box or another. Some of us by choice, some by design, others through the force of circumstance. How we deal with this situation, how we come to terms with the way our life has evolved, depends a great deal upon an individual’s personal strength – inner and outer – as much as upon their level of intellect and ability to adapt to any situation quickly and effectively. We know, after very few experiences, when it is wise to wait and be quiet, and when silence is going to harm us so that we have to react, take our chances and move forward. Not always, as you appreciate, in the direction we had planned, certainly not to where we wish to be, but forward into a future which is controlled less by ourselves than by the actions of others. Even actions taken which might not directly concern us, might not even be in the same city or State, but which change our perception of life, or the perceptions of those around us.
The one thing we can truly influence in our lives are our own thoughts, and setting them down on paper, putting words to our hopes and plans, our intentions, our failings and our successes, is practically the only sign of true intelligence given mankind. Admittedly our thoughts are also influenced by life, by what is going on around us, what we see, hear and read, but they are our thoughts, unique and personal. There is nothing to say that what we speak aloud has to match up in any way, shape or form with that which we think; this is our personal power, the individuality we keep for all time.
Perhaps that is why I, an old man living in a small town in northern Germany, sat down this evening – as I do every day – and began penning a letter to someone I have never met, and probably never will meet. The chance to experience that individuality through the intimate medium of written words. Francesco Petrarca put it into words very succinctly when he wrote:
Despite my advanced age, I shall strive to keep on learning, so that by vigilant efforts I may refute this charge as best I can. Many people have learned many things in old age. Rather than extinguishing our mental powers, the years inflame our desire to know.
Perhaps it is the desire to cram as much into the few remaining years we may have on this small green planet, perhaps it is the understanding that we have this one chance to satisfy our curiosity and perhaps, just perhaps, there is an answer. Some read books, some collect, some communicate: I do all three.
I wish you had warned me in my youth and left me the right amount of time for this noble enterprise.
Petrarca again. Both of these quotations come from an article he wrote called Invective Against A Man Of High Rank With No Knowledge of Virtue which he wrote between March and August 1355 and was directed at the Cardinal Jean de Caraman and is the equivalent of a lead article or editorial in one of the major national newspapers on current affairs – although this was Milan, Italy in the fourteenth century, and publishing anything was a complicated and dangerous affair for anyone not in favour with the ruling monarch. And especially when the object of your attack was a high-ranking official in both government and the Catholic Church.
My point, though, is that some things do not change no matter how many years, or centuries, may pass by. We all have the same problems – in different grades admittedly – ideals, hopes and fears and, over the last thousand years and more, a means of communicating them with others. It may well be that I sit down to write every night to relieve my mind, or to hope for a reply that will bring me new inspiration, new knowledge, or, perhaps, just to let my words float through the ether, unremarked, unnoticed, unrequited. Or it may be that I have decided to follow this ancient tradition, trying to match the footsteps of those who have gone before me in my own, humble, way, and find those who are also inspired to write for the exclusive benefit of the smallest imaginable audience. And my other point is despite the fact that I am old, I am nevertheless seeking knowledge and learning, whilst you are still young and have all these opportunities before you. Of course, you have to want to take them, to fill your time with something which, quite possibly, will be of no other use to you than that you know you’ve done it. Which is better than looking back one day and regretting- although we all do that anyway, but mainly over things which we could not have influenced, had no chance to foresee.
What has all this to do with letter writing? If you want to learn, if you want to experience – and the two are not necessarily mutual – going it alone is not necessarily something which will work. It’s like those who talk to the winds, they might end up catching a cold but, apart from that, they don’t get anywhere. And when you take a look around you, what is there, aside from rules and regulations, daily routine and limits, to learn? What opportunities do you have when the day is done? What respite from the monotonous regularity of your daily life? Writing letters is a most enjoyable pastime, especially when two people with vaguely similar interests come together and manage, without ever even seeing one another, to awake and keep the attention of the other through the mere power of descriptive writing. I’m not going to claim that many people devote their entire lives to the art, but when a man like Horace Walpole can write books, appreciations of works of art, serve in government, run an estate and still has the time to write letters which, over a period of some sixty years in the last century, can be gathered into forty-eight large volumes, then there must be something special there. And then, as I say, there is me: an older man sitting in a peaceful study in a small but historically fascinating town in northern Germany, devoting his time to the art as best he can.
I was interested to note a major change in the way education works from my time to the present recently. We had letter writing during our English periods once a month – I went to a boarding school in northern England and we were expected to write home regularly with appropriate praise for the teachers and our educational facilities – which I cannot claim to have been a success: who would have written an honest letter home knowing that a teacher would be reading it first and, worse still, grading it? I caught an advertisement in a local newspaper aimed at people younger than myself offering an evening class in how to use a smart phone. Letter writing is no longer on the curriculum in schools, but the over forties can learn how to use WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter if they pay for the extra class. I must admit, it made me feel very sad. I know that we are moving on as a society, that things change constantly, but teaching adults how to use a cell phone is, to my way of thinking, demeaning, especially when children can no longer string two sentences together without abbreviations and emojis. Where are the poets of the future when the children of the present can no longer express themselves imaginatively, or only in apparently meaningless abbreviated status updates of one hundred and forty characters or less? What will become of society when only a select few have a decent education available to them, and everyone else queues for welfare payments because their potential jobs have been automated?
It reminds me of the descriptions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
“I suppose Epsilons don’t really mind being Epsilons,” she said aloud.
“Of course they don’t. How can they? They don’t know what it’s like being anything else….”
Society is divided up into preconditioned grades of humans according to intelligence calculated from a selection of medical tests at birth, ranging from the Alpha – the highest grade – downwards. Each caste in society has its place, its work, its leisure preordained by the government. The book begins with a clear description of what society, according to Huxley, could become:
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.
This is where the humans of the future are bred in fertilising units, rather than in darkened bedrooms, then tested, evaluated, designated a grade from Alpha downwards, educated and cast out into a strictly regimented society. The vision of the future from the dark days of the nineteen thirties. Surprisingly enough, another boo from around the same time has become a best seller in the United States recently, as you may well have heard: George Orwell’s 1984 has been brought back into the public eye inspired, we are told, by the new regime in Washington. Whether such a society will come to be, despite similarities to what we are experiencing today, remains to be seen. Certainly not in my lifetime.
As to myself: I am an Englishman, born in London, educated in North Yorkshire and elsewhere, who has been living in this small town in Germany for the last twenty years, having travelled much of the rest of our world in the years preceding. I spend the bulk of my time reading and writing, with occasional forays into the building of Internet websites and their maintenance. I am surrounded by books and old photographs – both of which I collect in a very amateur manner – but not enough shelves or suitable storage space for either. When not reading and writing I am either renovating my house – to create space for the books at the very least – or travelling. I have a rescue cat which lives in a cardboard box in my office, and follows me whenever I move about the house, expecting to be fed again. I am fascinated by our world and the people in it, and love taking advantage of the many opportunities available to converse and communicate by as many different means as is humanly possible with these people. I generally write one letter a day, concentrating on the recipient entirely, without distraction, and without succumbing to the temptation of simply copying what I have written someone else and sending it out as if original and unique. This year I have managed to write only one complete letter without quoting from other people, but it was about collecting rare and antique photography, so the occasion didn’t arise. There are not so many people writing about the sort of photographs that I collect! I write about what I see and about what people write to me: a two-way system which works amazingly well and which, so far, has brought much pleasure. Enough of a challenge for you?