I would love to be able to return your greetings with tales of early spring warmth, sunshine, the smell of suntan lotion and my neighbour’s grill on full steam with happy, smiling faces around his new pond and music wafting from a box in the corner. The highlight of the Easter weekend, for me at least, was a massive hailstorm which broke the run of overcast heavens, impending or actual rain and a drop in temperatures which caused my central heating to spring on automatically. There is, however, a wonderful smell of wet spring in the air, especially where other people around me managed to cut their lawns between showers and the resulting compost is degrading at a far faster rate than planned and, of course, that delightful smell of burning wood from all the houses which have stoves in place of central heating. There are times of the year when it is only possible to tell that a wood stove is in use, and not that a house is burning down, by the lack of sirens. The mass of dandelions which has overrun my garden is in its element, safe in the knowledge that I am not venturing out into the morass to pull them, while my two cherry trees can look forward to bearing rotten fruit if the weather remains as it is over the coming weeks. I take my two daily walks wrapped up like the Michelin man, and fear that either the winds will blow me away, or the rain wash my existence from the face of this earth. It’s times like these that I begin to wonder why I venture out into the wide world at all, there’s enough I could be doing at home without the risk of catching my death.
Books and letter writing are indeed the things which fill my day, and which stop my brain from turning into mush too; if I did not have these two delights there would be nothing worthwhile. Admittedly this is not true, but it was the feeling I had in December when I finally managed to pull myself together and get my life organised somewhat. I’m not retired and I am not working either, without being unemployed. I had the pleasure of a very close contact with someone who considered his cell phone of far greater importance than the traffic around him and, in his joy at receiving a status update from someone he probably barely knows, he hit the accelerator and drove his car into mine at considerably more than the allowed speed and considerably less than the expected intelligence required of anyone with a driving licence. The resulting meeting of two metal objects was worse for him than for me, in the short term, since I was sitting in a bus: his vehicle forced itself briefly under the driver’s side of the bus before continuing on its way in a spin of crushed metal and airbag. I was fortunate in that the height meant only the metal base of my bus was forced up, trapping my right foot and leg in the cockpit briefly, and the additional weight of the bus prevented it from careening all over the road as if starring in some off-Hollywood B movie. I was able to stop the bus with my hand brake and, with a little determined tugging, free my foot; the left foot was uninjured as I had seen the car coming in that split second before impact and moved to my right. Had I not been able to move, my left foot would probably have been crushed far worse than my right and I’d be limping on both sides today.
Sitting at home after forty years of working every day in various jobs and countries around the world is something of a shock to the system; the sudden lack of physical activity because one or more parts of your body, aside from the brain, do not play along is a downer to say the least, especially when you have been physically active for all of that time too. Not that I was against having a little time for me, reading a book a day and having time to really think about what I was reading rather than constantly breaking off because of some other commitment, but there are limits. And then there was the fact that, sitting at home and packing all these interesting things into my head was all well and good, but with no one to share the experience, gained knowledge, or even discuss what I’d read with, it was pretty pointless. You can’t really confront someone on the street and expect an in depth conversation over the similarities between Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s research methods or their thoughts on the use and misuse of language forms; the days of the famous Paris salons are over, sadly, and café society is also not all Sartre and de Beauvoir any more. It’s hard enough getting a decent cup of coffee in a coffee shop these days, let alone finding someone who reads books in preference to that hand held cell phone contraption (almost) everyone is so taken with at the moment. Although: telephone is now a bad word, since these things are rarely used to speak with other people, such occurrences get in the way of Real Life, and these little boxes of easily broken plastic, metal and glass are being designed to replace decent cameras and make everyone and his cat a street artist with his own permanent virtual show, audience and overblown ego.
Clearly I am not a fan of these instruments of communication, and neither am I a great fan of television or any other medium which takes the place of talking with people, of experiencing life, of living in the real world, regardless of whether you have to dress like an Eskimo to enjoy it or not. I do succumb to television occasionally, despite the fact that I do not possess one and have no intention of adding one to my household anytime in this life or the next. The Internet being such a wonderful and all-encompassing thing, it is possible to log in to some television companies web sites and partake of their offerings. I have a thing for good films – of which there are few – and have just enjoyed my second portion of Simenon’s Maigret as a television series starring someone who most people would never associate with the role, a British comedian named Rowan Atkinson. His portrayal is brilliant and really, aside from the pleasures of the storyline, the only reason why I would tune in to any television product willingly. Aside from that there are many channels available with precious little worthwhile content, and I am reliably informed that American and Canadian television also manage to achieve this level of uselessness.
Having decried television in favour of books, but finding no one who I could turn to for decent discussion, I returned to one of my favourite hobbies: letter writing. I began this back in the Eighties, when I was serving with the British Army and had begun travelling to strange places wearing fashions I would never have chosen for myself. I remember it as being a very enjoyable experience back then, and even had one pen friend who carried on writing through thick and thin – until she got married – for ten years. Letter writing gives one the ability to really express thoughts without being interrupted, and without anyone contradicting you for at least a week, thanks to the delivery times involved: so, ideal for measured and thoughtful discussion. Admittedly there is also hate mail, as you know and I have heard, but paper can be destroyed so easily, and the thoughts of others when based on a lack of experience, open-mindedness or intelligence and education or even delusion are of little interest to me. I’ve had my fair share of Internet Trolls in my life, and the delete button is just as good when it’s a trash can as when it’s a simple key that needs pressing to work. That’s when I found our favoured site and began reading through a few of the almost ten thousand profiles, some of which sort of enthused me, some of which turned me off completely and some got the juices running in all the right directions.
So, when you ask whether I correspond with other inmates – with other people – yes, in a manner of speaking: I began writing in the middle of January and in the style of my first letter to you, which is my normal writing style even if it was limited to only one or two themes. That is the corresponding to side of things, since corresponding with is a completely different matter. I had expected few replies, I don’t raise my expectations too high since those I am writing to, if they had any deep understanding of what I am writing about, would hardly have been where they are but for some strange twist of fate; although that is also not true in many cases, but a form of prejudice on my part which, I am sad to admit, has been proven correct. I expected few answers, and received as many as I expected. The pleasure of writing, however, is another matter entirely: being able to put my thoughts down on paper; being able to exercise my brain by writing a unique and original letter every single time; having and holding the thought that there is someone out there who will read, will understand, will reply.
My first reply was very interesting indeed, psychologically, and not from a prisoner: I wrote to a woman in Wales, and she took the time to take my letter out of its envelope, clearly read the contents, then placed it in a new envelope, complete with handwritten addresses, too many stamps, and sent it without a comment back to me. I am conflicted between the idea that my letter was so good she could find no words to answer and had to use mine, or so valuable that it is worthy of preservation. My first real replies came six weeks after the first letters were sent out and we are now in the second and third rounds, which suggests to me that things could work out. In February I wrote, as part of a challenge, one letter every day of the month, which was an interesting experiment, physically and mentally exhausting, and worth trying again sometime in the distant future. This is my fifty-ninth letter since 20 January. Am I pleased with the results? I think so. Being able to write and receive replies and, through the writing, make contacts and potentially build up friendships which are platonic, rely on the written word more than anything else, more than body language or good / bad looks, is something special. I have not had such a wide range of replies as you have, and certainly no one complaining about traffic cops or making comments about my sexuality, but some very interesting ideas which have provoked replies out of a need to delve further rather than a feeling of commitment.
I lived in London for many years, but that didn’t prepare me for life in a barrack room and the many strange, disturbing noises which emanate from sleeping or semi-sleeping bodies in a stuffy room, and I can well imagine that the lack of silence can be disturbing as much as the lack of noise. We get used, to a certain extent, to our environments. Mine is very quiet indeed, normally, and I can sit at my desk and work or on the couch and read knowing that the only noise likely to break my concentration will be the complaints of a cat demanding food, or the rustle of a page being turned. I recently travelled to Wiesbaden for two days – for a meeting which lasted about three hours, but since I was going I decided to do the whole tourist thing, hotel room, museums and so on – and was faced with street noise again, for the first time in several years. For some reason I could not turn off the heating in my hotel room, so had t open the window. The room was on a main road, with a bus stop right under the window. The buses run until two in the morning. That was probably the worst two nights, quite aside from the strangeness of an hotel bed, which I have had in years. In my army time, in Saudi Arabia for a short while, I slept next to a tank which needed to be started every two or three hours to maintain the batteries; getting used to that and sleeping through the noise was easy compared to the noises of a city centre at night. Admittedly I was pleased to move away from the tank after a relatively short period of time and forward to do my own work, but it was an interesting experience. The noise in London, and even there I was relatively sheltered, is merely a constant drone, easy to get used to. I know of people who come from major cities to rest and recuperate here, in the country, and cannot sleep because it is too quiet.
This is, indeed, a very beautiful part of the country, although I have been to areas where I would happily move if it was only beauty being searched for: I was blown over by the way the former East Germany appeared to have been caught in a time bubble, back in 1989 when I first went over, and how everything seemed to have been preserved. Admittedly this was because the investment in infrastructure simply wasn’t there, because the government was more interested in keeping itself in power, because the people were of no real interest to them; but it was an eye-opener for me, used to all the creature comforts, to travel into a civilised, theoretically modern world caught in 1950. That said, I’ve also lived in Belize and Mexico where things can also be said to be primitive, but this was a real trip back in time. There was no mass industrialisation outside of the main cities, so it was like going into the deep South with Steinbeck or trotting alongside Atticus Finch. Going back again in recent years I see the many changes, but predominantly to government buildings and the commercial centres of towns and cities: for the ordinary people, money had to be raised through the banks at standard rates of interest, despite all the promises of rebuilding and assistance, and only the more official areas, or those which were likely to generate funds for municipalities benefitted. There is a great deal of history wrapped up in this small town and the surrounding area, which most people do not know or care about. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I decided to settle down here, outside of a major city, and live my life out; not the way I had imagined it, but there are so many inspirations here, if you just know where to look. And I am ten minutes from the country no matter which direction I take.
Books and reading are things I could probably write about for the rest of my life too, given the chance, but that would prove uninteresting for many who do not have access to the same literature, or hold the same interests. I’ve just completed the comparison of Wittgenstein and Heidegger I mentioned above by Manfred Geier and worked my way through a literary appreciation of the history of the Roma / Sinti / Gypsies by Klaus-Michael Bogdal – a book I was given as a gift after the original owner discovered that it was not an anthropological work but literary, which he could have guessed by reading the biography of the author, as Professor of Germanic Literature in Bielefeld – and am now on the two volume history of philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, which is in English despite his name. I tend to switch between languages as the will takes me, or according to what I can get hold of easily. After that I have an investigative work on the visit of Nazi geologists to Tibet during the second world war, and then I’m moving on to biographies of two exceptional German female artists from the turn of the last century. I’ve got some works of fiction lying around too, but my mind is not so cluttered at the moment that I need brain candy to clear it out, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are brain candy of the highest order: no need to think, just follow the story as if it’s a surprise. Interesting side fact, since you mentioned Hitler: Heidegger went to the same school as Hitler in Austria, and was born in the same year, as was Wittgenstein and Charlie Chaplin. An interesting mixture to say the least.
Take good care of yourself.