The first church bells begin ringing at ten in the morning, waking the local inhabitants of this small town from their righteous slumbers, reminding them that there was once, a very long time ago, a requirement to dress and make their way into the various buildings dedicated to some form of higher deity. Countless believers – if that is the right term, since attendance was obligatory and not a matter of choice – would dress in their finest Sunday clothes, and struggle to one of the two or three – there are now four – churches in the centre of town, or in the neighbouring villages. Their chosen clothes had several functions: the main one was clearly to create the right impression in the church on a Sunday; family festivals such as weddings, baptisms an funerals; the Sunday trip into town to have their photographs taken.
The second set of bells begin at ten-thirty. Perhaps this is one of the more liberal church communities, where the congregation are allowed to sleep in a little later on a Sunday, and make their way to church at a more leisurely pace. Or, perhaps, it dates back to a time when many attended the churches here, and the streets became crowded with carriages and horses dropping the practitioners off, waiting for them to return. The main Anglican church here, before the Sixties began taking their toll on belief and decimating attendance, is in a small street, appropriately named Kirchstraße (Church Street), with hardly any room to turn a carriage. The local aristocracy lived right behind the church building, and no problem attending if they so desired, the other dignitaries – or those who considered themselves to be – had to ride in and struggle to find an appropriate parking place. Today things are easier for all: the small Catholic community travel mainly in on foot; the Anglican / Lutheran church is on one of the main streets opposite a bank’s car park, and next to the Neo-Apostles, who use the same car park; the Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own small, fenced-in, secure car park away from the main stream of town life.
I daresay there will be a third set of bells, calling the faithful to prayer, tonight at about six, to catch those who didn’t manage to drag themselves out of their warm beds in the morning and are now wide awake, and simply longing to hear a sermon from one or another of the four pulpits indulging their sins and, at the same time, calling on them to repent. Perhaps it will also catch a few who struggled back home in the early hours of the morning, and were incapable either of getting up or of hearing the bells calling them to former duties. Although, as with church attendance, the numbers have dropped off here too. The four churches are struggling to survive, having their priests and other helpers limited, shared with nearby communities. These days a padre, a priest, a confessor or whatever the church cares to call their functionaries is measured in fractions: half a priest in this community; a third of a priest in this village and so on. The churches remain, understaffed, while the bars and clubs simply close down. People drink at home, cheap booze from the supermarket, and worship the images on their televisions and smart phones.
Society, it seems to me, is becoming more isolated, more introverted. We are constantly hearing about the benefits of social media and how we can stay in touch with family and friends at all times of the day and night, but rarely about how people are meeting up, undertaking longer expeditions to areas they have never been before, acting out a true social life with family and friends. I watch people wandering down the streets in this small town, even in the larger cities, and see them with their noses stuck in a smart phone, constantly checking to see whether there is anything new from one of their friends, or from an online celebrity they are following. The message tone in a café makes five or six people reach for their cell phones at the same time. In the same café, I see four people sitting at a table together, none of them look up, none of them are talking, all are checking their Facebook status, or Instagram, or Twitter, or anyone of the other social media sites robbing us of our social interaction. I wonder whether any of these people have experienced true friendship.
There are things which have not changed in society, such as the ringing of church bells, and many which have disappeared with time, with this strange commercially-induced need to stay on top of the latest technological advances, to always be at the forefront of fashion. The latest trends have moved away from clothing, to a great extent, and into the gadget world, where younger people are being convinced that the latest iPhone is a must-have, that they cannot be seen with an older version. If these applications, on the cell phones, are not there, or if they don’t have an account by these social media sites they are a pariah, an outsider, a misfit in the midst of society. The art of conversation seems to have disappeared forever, and especially that of debate and discussion. We do not know how to talk to one another anymore, merely how to fit our thoughts and experiences into the compact one hundred and forty characters needed to tell the world what is happening in our lives. And the world is simply not interested.
The wonderful art of letter writing is also suffering, I read on a newspaper site recently. People no longer write letters because they can send a text message which is received immediately; the delay of a letter no longer exists. And then I read, on another web site, about all the people who are taking to letter writing because those they wish to communicate with do not have access to these technological advances, for whatever reason, or have decided to negotiate their way through life without them. The isolationism of modern technology and social media is being discarded in favour of the isolation of slower means of communication, of real friendships, of deep and intelligent discussion with real life friends. But the art of letter writing is only suffering if you wish to have a story on a quiet news day and can find nothing else to write about. Letter writing has always been there, in the background perhaps, but it is a steadfast and reliable means of communication, and does not need a battery or an Internet connection. It needs patience, thought, intelligence and staying power; things which are missing in a society where everything revolves around speed and convenience. I am assured that you appreciate the difference between the speed of society with their need for immediacy, and the reality of life where, if we are sensible, we take things easily, if not calmly, and enjoy those few privileges we have been granted.
What few write about, but many feel, is the pleasure of receiving a letter, of holding a personal, intimate missive in your hands and knowing, beyond al doubt, that someone took the time to sit and write exclusively for you. That someone out there, whether known or unknown, a friend or not, dedicated themselves for however long it takes to put their thoughts down on paper, and then dispatched them, not at the click of a button, but through an antiquated delivery system, across the vast expanses of the world. It is much the same with reading books, in my opinion: there is nothing which can replace the exquisite feeling of having a printed volume in your hands, of being able to turn the pages, of feeling the paper and reading the words printed on them. No advances in technology will ever be capable of replacing this experience.
How it must have felt, all those centuries ago, when a letter was delivered which had been carried, by hand, across the expanses of the known world, through trouble and strife, across deserts and in the midst of battle to reach its welcome destination. Something we simply cannot conceive today, with our instant technological gratification. How does it feel today, when there are no other suitable forms of communication available, and you receive a personal missive from afar, its contents still hidden? My greatest pleasures each day are the long walk to my letterbox, and the gentle stroll back home, via the local bookstore. It must be, I think, much the same for those who answer the call of the church bells on a Sunday morning: not just the obligation to go, which many children have from their parents and grandparents, but a certain inner feeling they have in the church as a building, amongst others with similar thoughts to their own, in a small – shrinking – community. There is a feeling inside the breast of each one of us, and it is personal, individual if not unique. My days of answering the bells of the church are long since gone, but I certainly do appreciate the feelings I suspect many others still have despite everything they may well have experienced. They have something to hold on to, some small shred of hope in the darkness, and I still have that thin cord of communication, connecting me to others in the outside world.
And your feelings when you receive a letter? I am sure there are some you receive where you know immediately who has written, a few regulars no doubt, and where a conversation has begun and continued, perhaps, over many years. Then comes a new one: will it be worthwhile? I wonder myself, each day, as I walk to my letter box and survey the contents – should there be any. Then the patient walk back home, looking in the window of the bookstore first, with utmost self-control until I am relaxed and ready and then, coffee or tea to hand, I open my first letter. Hopefully to be transported into another world, as a good book can do, and to visualise a land, a life which I have no other experience of other than through these few words consigned to paper. I do this a great deal with the books I am reading, try to transport myself out of the modern, out of the world that I know and see every single day, into that of the person being described. Recently it has been the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, soon it will be the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sculptress Clara Rilke-Westhoff. The first I knew of but had never really had a chance to explore: she has her own museum in Bremen and there was a film of her short life made recently, which I saw and which inspired me to read further. The second I had never heard of, but her husband – Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet – is well known, and she was also a friend to the first woman, to Paula. And that brought me on to yet another, a photographer called Annelise Kretschmer, whose works were exhibited in Cologne and Bremen recently. And so the cycle, the tenuous cord of links from one life to another, one person to another, goes on.
The most interesting links, or contacts, are with those we do not know. It is all fine and good to hear news from friends and family, to be brought up to date and kept in the loop, but receiving a letter from a complete stranger – who might well become a friend in the future – from a city or country we have never had the chance to visit is something special. I love hearing about foreign countries and the lifestyles of the people who live there; sorting out what we have in common and what is strange or unusual to my way of thinking. I wonder what it must have been like, all those years ago, travelling up the river Orinoco with von Humboldt, exploring areas where no white man had ever been and which had never been mapped. Reading his works, and the writings of those biographers who have taken on such a massive subject, transforms the modern world into a time long since gone, takes the imagination backwards and excites it in such a manner that almost takes away your breath. Of course, this doesn’t work with everyone, and certainly not with every book or letter, but the idea of being transported elsewhere, of experiencing something through the words of another person, has great attraction. What we cannot physically see, we can visualise in our minds.
Perhaps this is why we read, why we write letters. It is not so much a case of killing the time we have free, more a great pleasure on using our leisure hours – forced or otherwise – to communicate and, in a way, to learn about the world around us, and especially that portion of the world which we cannot see and, possibly, will never have a chance to experience ourselves. It is a chance to experience – certainly in what I have to offer – a world of books, of art and exhibitions, museums and galleries, of life in Europe from the perspective of a man who has travelled a great deal, seen a great deal, learned and yet remained, if not in fact at least in the mind, young in years.
Virginia Woolf wrote, back in 1933:
I seize this moment, having put out a cake and honey and the kettle on the stove, to write
and this is what letter writing is all about, for me: grabbing that moment in the middle of life and being with someone else, even when they are not there.