I am faced with the blank sheet of paper once more, many good intentions and a thousand ideas streaming through my mind, but the intimidation of such a vast mass of emptiness is almost overwhelming. Not for the first time, I wonder how I have ever managed to begin such a project – whether it be something as relaxing as writing a letter or the more strenuous task of a paper or even a book – and what it is that pushes me ever onward, always returning to the pile of unstained, untainted pages awaiting my attention, my words, and my attempts at communication with other people.
Many years ago, when I first began writing letters as more than just a school project, someone told me it was the easiest thing in the world: the writer sits down anywhere they care to, takes out pen and paper, and the words flow like the Nile in spring. I suspect this was someone who had only ever written a thank-you note to one relative or another after Christmas or birthday celebrations, and who had no idea what a challenge it can be – and a very welcome challenge too – writing to someone in a foreign country who is, at the moment, a complete stranger. I sometimes wonder whether that person, and I cannot for the life of me remember who, when or why we got to talking about writing letters, even if they are a major part of my life and I talk about writing incessantly, if that person ever tried it themselves. Some people are full of good advice, but lack a certain level of knowledge in order to speak from experience. And, to turn to one of my favourite complaints, there are so few people today who have any experience whatsoever of writing letters, that it is difficult to know who to listen to, who to believe, whose advice to follow. The world has been taken over by small hand-held devices which allow their overly proud owners to communicate almost instantaneously, but with a very limited capacity for expression. I am not a fan of texting, sexting, Twitter and Facebook status updates, SnapChat and WhatsApp life stories or Instagram holidays and food fights; they strike me as being too shallow, too unenduring. There is more to life than a few friends we see every day but who insist on having instant communication and sending photographs of the slice of cake they’re eating right now at Starbucks, and who have nothing else in their lives but blisters on their thumbs from texting, short-sightedness and a varied collection of bruises and bumps gathered by walking into other people also not paying attention to their surroundings. Better that, I suppose, than falling down an open manhole, walking off a quay into the sea or being hit by a bus; all of which have happened and some of which have been preserved for future generations of sociologists and anthropologists in the Internet.
And there I am, writing about wondering about what to write, and the first side is almost complete, the fear of failure in front of that ubiquitous void which is the dread of all writers has been overcome, and the words and ideas can flow freely and uninhibited onto the welcoming page. I am a letter writer, and something of a passionate one. I write letters as other people drink coffee; for the sheer pleasure of the taste, of the feeling as my words flow out and, hopefully, come to the eyes and minds of likeminded people around the world. I write letters because I love to be able to communicate with people using an ancient art, which some claim is long since dead and buried, and a physical medium which lasts for years, if not centuries. Not that I am expecting my letters to be still around in two or three hundred years time, but they’ve a better chance of surviving than anything written on Twitter has of getting through a single hour, let alone a day. And, let’s be honest, there is something enduring about letters, about the physical presence of pen and ink on paper which a short message on a cell phone will never be able to compete with. Why else would we be here?
There is also something very intimate about writing between two people, in the platonic intimacy sphere of course, with the knowledge that no one else in the entire world – circumstances permitting – reads what has been written, shares in the feelings, information, experiences transmitted between two people on different sides of the planet. There is always the fear that a letter might go missing somewhere along the chain of delivery, but that is less than the certainty that someone, even if it is an artificially intelligent machine searching for clues and buzzwords, will cast an eye upon a text, an email or even listen in to a telephone conversation. I’m not one of those people who wear aluminium foil on his head as protection against the death-rays sent out from Langley or wherever, but the thought of being able to communicate, one person to another, without eavesdroppers has something I’d never wish to change or do without. It is, for me, much the same as reading a book: the original paper version feels much better in my hands than a cold metal case with batteries stuck in the back. The feeling that the author has written just for you, since you have a unique and original copy in your hands, and that the characters are living their imagined lives purely for your benefit far outreaches any benefits a digital copy of the same story may claim to offer. But I am old and stuck in my ways, where you are young and have your entire life before you, and will undoubtedly make your own wise choices when the time comes.
So, today is Good Friday and the entire world around me has taken the day off from work in the hope that we will have a wonderfully sunny and pleasant long weekend. As I write the storm clouds are gathering behind my back, causing me to cast a thin shadow across the dimming light illuminating my writing table; there is a chill in the air which makes me consider putting the central heating on once more, drying out their otherwise humid air in my room; a few birds are calling to one another in nearby trees as if it is dusk and they should be preparing to settle down for the night. Yesterday there was the usual panic in the supermarkets here: the shops are open for one single day which isn’t a Sunday, and it is the end of the world. How will the poor people here manage to survive if they don’t stock up on everything? It’s rather like the first signs of winter in some places: iron rations have to be bought and the larder stocked because a snowflake was seen in the mountains; plans are drawn up to survive. I tend to pull on a warm woolly hat, wrap a scarf around my neck and go for a walk. Let the masses enjoy their needless panic: when the time comes no amount of stored milk and saved biscuits is going to make a difference.
I had the pleasure of joining friends for our traditional Maundy Thursday meal last night, which is as close to religion as I tend to venture. I travelled in to Bremen, which is about thirty miles from here, in my best suit and polished shoes and we sat in silence, thirty-six of us in all, through a short ceremony before enjoying lamb, green beans and roasted potatoes followed by a strawberry concoction I could not for the life of me give a name to – something to do with fresh fruit and yoghurt. This is my way of celebrating the season which, I suspect, could seem a little strange to you but which has a long tradition for the English. Some eat their lamb dinner on the Sunday, some on the Thursday, but lamb it has to be because of the religious connotations. Personally I just enjoyed the company and the chance to talk with old friends after the ceremony, over a glass of red wine, something which doesn’t happen in the small town I have chosen as my home. Here, despite the German tradition of everyone knowing everyone else, which is certainly true of the villages around here, there is little real mixing socially. The restaurants are few – Turkish, Greek, Italian and German – and there is only one bar, which tends to be frequented by the louder portion of youth here. Going back through history, one of my pet interests too, a little more than one hundred years ago this town boasted fifty-six small bars open for public consumption, most of which brewed their own beer. Times have changed considerably since then, and I am not sure, in this case, that it is necessarily for the worse.
We nestle on either side of the river Weser and lay claim to our own castle – which is really a manor house, but the idea of a castle draws more tourists here, even if they merely ride past on their bicycles and look without stopping. There was a celebration for the eight hundred year anniversary a few years ago, although the area has been populated and tilled for considerably longer, but nothing exciting, and certainly nothing which remains in the collective memory. Some of the houses date back to the beginning of the seventeenth century; I think the earliest one they’ve been able to identify is from 1604, but that didn’t stop it being demolished to make way for a new development which, unsurprisingly, was then abandoned. Where the house once proudly stood is now a small green patch and a few children’s games with a clear view across the river to the other side. I’d have rather kept the house, but there are plans to rebuild it in a local park, since all the woodwork was preserved and stored just in case. This, however, is the way of the Germans, and something I have had to come to terms with since moving here a few decades ago and, believe me, after living in London and a few other cities around the world, the change is noticeable. There are many traditions and customs which I find strange, with my English tastes, but which are common to all parts of northern Germany. When I move on to eastern and southern Germany, things take another turn entirely, and everyone looks in all other directions and calls all the others strange without thinking that what they do is a little out of the ordinary too.
A little on myself before I wrap up this first letter and consign it to the mail: I write long letters which are often very involved, even complicated, and have literary or philosophical and historical allusions. I do it for the sheer pleasure of writing, and of receiving replies from those who are up to the challenge of letter writing. There are no other motives there whatsoever: the pleasure of the written word. I have travelled a great deal, seen many countries and learned many customs over many decades and, now and then, I write about the events of my life in letters to whoever is (un)lucky enough to be on the list for that day. It is always my sincere hope that someone will reply, but I have to bear in mind there is often a thirty or forty year age gap between me and my potential correspondents, which some cannot build a bridge over. I still travel a great deal, often to museums and art galleries across Europe; meet up with friends in different cities; take life to the full, and write about my experiences. I read a great deal and collect old photographs, which sometimes inspires a theme in one of my letters, especially when I have found something I consider a treasure, or read something which makes my mind work overtime. And, very important, all my letters are unique and original, just for the recipient. Interested?