One of the interesting things, I have discovered, about writing to someone half-way around the world is the time difference, and I do not mean that of the ticking clock which accompanies us throughout our lives, but that of the delivery services we can expect. It takes time for a letter to travel across the globe, going through countless hands and machines from the time that the stamp first finds its place on the front of the sealed missive, to the time that someone finally gets to slit the paper open and explore what is inside. So you receive and answer a letter from the beginning of March while I, a child of impatience, have already put fingers to keyboard and sent a new letter. This, to my way of thinking, is an ideal situation, not so much because the waiting is cut down by always having one letter in reserve, but more because there is no pressure to wait for an answer, to gather all the news together and try to keep it spontaneous and fresh four or five weeks after the event. A letter written in this style can be more like a diary entry, consigned to paper almost as soon as it has occurred, and then preserved before it has time to brown and wilt at the edges. Of course, there is always the difficulty of remembering what has been written one or two letters back when there has been no chance for an answer, but that is all part of the fun, part of the challenge of letter writing.
The quote at the base of this page, which is permanently on my letterhead as a reminder to me about writing each and every time I take a sheet of paper in my hand or call up the template on my laptop, comes from Marcus Tullius Cicero and translates, very basically, into ‘Letters should not be embarrassing’. It is a reminder not just to think about the person who is being written to, but also to remember that the written word, and this is a shout-out to countless politicians around the world, can come back and bite you when you least expect it. The written word remains, possibly longer than the Internet ever will, and as such can rear its ugly head just when you’re getting up on your soapbox to proclaim the one thing, having written the opposite ten or twenty years earlier. In our highly technological Internet times this can be cut down from one or two decades to one or two years, and prove that memory amongst some is not quite so enduring as Twitter is for others, as one example. Not that I would wish to equate Twitter or any of the other so-called social media networks with anything long lasting and relevant, such as letter writing, but it is archived by the Library of Congress, and there are specialists out there who gather all the Tweets from prominent people, even when they have been deleted, and delight in re-using them as the need arises. Hard to believe, but people can be blackmailed over what they imagined had been deleted from a social media network or profile, simply because someone else was wise or clever enough to take a screenshot before it disappeared. In our highly technological age it is not just the written word which can come back to haunt, but also the spoken word, the gesture, body language and, as one member of the Trump family has recently discovered, the style of dressing which can be commented upon within seconds of an occurrence. There is even one gutter press publication in the United Kingdom, which calls itself a newspaper, which made a point of following and keeping record of every item of clothing a certain member of the royal family wore, and which has recently attacked her dress sense for wearing the same coat three times in two years. I know that appearing at a dinner party wearing the same dress as someone else is highly embarrassing, especially when it is a designer creation, but there have to be limits placed somewhere along the line. That said, Jared Kushner wearing city clothes in the middle of a desert in Iraq, from personal experience, is not a good idea and a certain level of criticism for his dress sense, or that of his advisors, can justifiably be levelled without any form of bad feeling.
I find it interesting when you say that things do not change much but we do. I disagree with the one idea and agree with the other. Of course we change, and considerably over the many years of our lives and through the wealth of experiences we have. But I think that places change too, we just don’t notice it as easily. Not that many of us would care to notice how much we have changed as people, since it is not just a slow process but also one which we live through and take for granted, assume to be normal. We haven’t changed, people say, but you have. Truth is, we’ve all changed. Places too, and here is where I disagree with you slightly, but again it happens over a long period of time so that we don’t necessarily notice it. If I were to go back to London today I would probably be lost; not so much in finding places since the street names are the same, but in recognising places I knew as a child and young adult. I can do exactly the same here, in this small town, suddenly notice that a house has been demolished to make way for something new, or the line of a street has been resurfaced.
In my growing collection of photographs I have several of this town taken from the air. Not long ago I showed one of them to a few people who have lived here all their lives, and they were unable to say where in town the photograph was taken, or even if it was from ours at all. To be fair, the photograph was taken in the Sixties and, since then, several houses and barns are no longer, a new road has been built and the area has been modernised. It used to be an amazing street, from my point of view, of black and white wood-framed houses as you see in some English Tudor towns, now it is a stretch of modern buildings – a bank, a baker, and a few other things – which cannot be compared. It looks wonderful, of that there is no doubt, but not as historically interesting. In London I would find the same thing: I lived and worked there for a few decades right in the centre where all the new traffic regulations have now come into force, something I did not experience, and I would probably be lost for somewhere to park so that I could catch a bus and go where I used to be able to drive.
Not everything that was is good, even if our memories hark back to a golden era of blessed freedoms and a lack of cares. I would most certainly not wish to go back to my student days, although many claim them to have been the best and most memorable times of their lives. The area of my school, in a small village amid the wild moors of North Yorkshire, was wonderful and I could most certainly miss that. The school was also a wonder: a massive farmhouse converted in the mid eighteen hundreds as an agricultural school and gradually expanded and built on until, in the Seventies, it housed about three hundred and fifty fee-paying students. But the people, and living in a dormitory. Well, I am sure you know exactly what it is like, your letter mentions the noises, the movement, the lack of privacy and constant disturbances; those were my schooldays. The library was the place to run away to, or up into the hills and away from the school completely. Ideally, as a child, I would have loved to live in a village rather than a major city, surrounded by fields and cows rather than houses and cars. We had plenty of opportunities to go out, museums and parks abound in London, but fields and long lanes surrounded by hedges are slightly better, in my mind, than dodging traffic to get to a small playground littered with rubbish and whatever a wandering dog has ejected, his owner ignored.
But I would still recommend London as a place to visit, much the same as any major city, but not to live. My small town here is within easy reach of Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover and all that these cities have to offer, but has the quiet, country stillness which pleases and to which I can come home each day. The shops do not offer as much as they could, the nightlife is distinctly lacking and – as we say – someone comes out and rolls up the pavements about nine o’clock at night, but it is peaceful and tranquil and that’s what I’m looking for in my old age. And there is a bookshop here, which many other similar sized towns and villages cannot boast. I lived in the centre of London as a small child, about three hundred yards from Buckingham Palace, and on the outskirts in Hampstead as an adult, and the latter is by far the better, even with the long journey in to reach the centre of town.
I wonder how many younger people today, spending all their time checking their status on Facebook and Instagram, really think about the future. You say there is nothing worse than coming to the end of your life and having nothing to look back on, no worthy memories to pass on to grandchildren and the like, and I wonder whether any of these young people today realise how insignificant their friendships are. I’ve seen teenagers in some of the best museums checking their cell phones for news from outside and totally disinterested in what was on display. In restaurants and cafés, people who sit across from one another and have nothing to say, but keep on checking their phone for news. It’s almost as if the art of conversation, the ability to see and appreciate, has been taken away from them at birth. If someone sends them a picture of a great work of art through Instagram or SnapChat, they hit Like and applaud, but do not recognise that same piece of art when it is right before their noses in a gallery. I could repeat the lament of so many other people down through history, including Socrates, that the youth of today has no respect for the great things of the past, but that was said about my generation too, and we’ve not turned out so bad after all. I see commitment amongst a few of those who I have contact with regularly, but also a belief amongst some that they should be guided through every phase of their lives and given the necessary funding to live without having to work. So, I suppose nothing much has changed since I was a youth, although I have always worked and never taken.
And you can think about all the news from around the United States you will be receiving, hopefully. Those things which you can’t do yourself are sometimes almost as good to experience through the eyes of someone else, and news about all the national parks and the rides between them across the entire country would be a marvellous gift to receive. Perhaps he will also end up philosophising along the lines of Robert M. Pirsig and appreciate the depth of what the country coupled with the mind has to offer.
I seem to have these little trips out and about quite regularly at the moment. Wiesbaden was a great pleasure, but mainly because I was able to spend time there and really see something of the city and experience its history. There was no stress and I had time to do whatever I wanted. On 1 April it was a slightly different matter: I travelled down to Frankfurt am Main for the one day only – which is about five hours on the train each way – to do an audit on a set of accounts for an association I am a member of. The annual general meeting is due at the end of this month, which means another trip out and across the country, and the treasurer suddenly remembered that the audit commission had to be called together and shown what he had done on the last year, and then tell him what his budget would be for the coming twelve months. So everything was full of hectic, trying to get all three of us to meet and sit together for an hour or two checking figures. As is my wont, I travelled down early and arrived for our three o’clock meeting at nine in the morning, with the set idea of getting out and seeing something of Frankfurt. The main thing that I discovered is that this major financial hub with its massive central shipping centre and a population to rival many other major cities does not have any public conveniences. It has restaurants and ice cream cafe´s and boulevard cafés and all many of shops and kiosks where you can buy food and drink, but not a single public toilet. When the need arose I had to dive into a department store and use their facilities, which sort of ruined my day as I wanted to get away from the shopping area and see more of the real town, always assuming that such a massive area has a real quarter surrounding it and isn’t just encircled by human feeding stations for the banks and financial conglomerates which make the whole.
And then yesterday I went to my monthly meeting in Hamburg where I have little time to do much other than meet with others, drink a few cups of coffee and eat a meal before coming home again. I’ve been to Hamburg privately several times, and been shocked at the cost involved, but there is always something new worth seeing, and I generally spot these new things as we’re driving through town and back out again. An exhibition of Venetian art caught my eye last night, so I shall probably have to go back there again, on one of my own days when there are no other commitments. Tomorrow I am in Bremen, much the same as Hamburg: drive in for a meeting, eat and drive back out. Next week Oldenburg: in and out. Then Bremen again and, finally, at the end of the month right down to Bavaria to a small town where we hold the annual meeting, and three nights in an hotel with no time to get out because we’re all going to be discussing – or shouting – with one another. Last year, the first time I attended, we had managed to reach the agenda point due for discussion at eleven by five in the afternoon. I am sure that financial discussions at Wells Fargo, where millions are being handled, went far quicker than we manage with our annual budget of fewer than one hundred thousand; but it is the small sums which bother people, and not the big ones. And Wells Fargo still brings the stagecoach and horses image into my mind before I click over and start thinking about banking. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Adapting is one of the great things about most creatures on this planet: we are capable of evolving according to new situations relatively quickly, even if there is some confusion at the start, but the capability is there. During my time in the army, while I was in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, I was stationed with a tank group for a while. The tanks had to be fired up every three hours or so to keep the batteries charged since they were being manned and used twenty-four hours a day, and we lived and slept in their shadow. It took about two days / nights to get used to the idea of the engine starting right next to you in the middle of the night, and maybe four days before all of us could just sleep through the noise as if it were an everyday occurrence. I then needed two days to get back to normal when I moved on to another group without tanks, if you can call the situation normal.
I do not have any pictures of chickens. Perhaps my art and photography collection is missing something, but I cannot remember any chickens whatsoever. Plenty of cows and horses, even dogs pulling milk carts, but the feathered are lacking. I recently found an excellent photograph of a Zeppelin moving over a row of town houses, which I think might be Bremen. Not an official image but a private shot someone had taken and then printed up as a postcard. It does not fall within my collecting area, being far too new for me, but I’ve given it a little frame and it has a pride-of-place spot on the edge of a bookshelf now. One of the problems of collecting I have is that I need to buy up collections sometimes, or take a whole batch of images because a few of interest happen to be in there too. I end up with boxes of private photographs which don’t fit in to my area whatsoever, but which no one else wants, no one else recognises. I am loath to throw them away, since each picture is a small piece of social history, so they languish in their collection boxes on shelves in back rooms. Apart from, now and then, one or two which really catch my eye and gain a place out in the open. Wall space is my greatest problem, with so many works framed, but I am gradually working my way through my house and renovating one room after the other so that I can store both books and photographic images – and cameras – without having to resort to boxes in cupboards. It is a long and arduous process, because every Euro spent on (necessary) renovation is one less for the collection or for books, and that bites down hard sometimes!
This idea, coming back to your point and something I touched on briefly above, that the world owes a living is not exclusively an American thing: we have Europeans who are much the same. I fact, I would hazard a guess and say it is a civilised or first worlds country problem. Every single nation throughout the world has its beggars and vagrants, which are something else, but only the highly developed countries seem to have groups of people who think they should be supported for doing nothing. Not that all welfare recipients are out there to live off the state, but I’ve come across quite a few people who have openly told me they study when it is paid for, take grants for their living expenses, or live off the money their parents give them on purpose. They have no desire to use what they have learned in college to earn a living, but move from one course to the next, from one grant to another. Admittedly the number of people involved is very small indeed, but still noticeable. And then there are those who really do believe that we, society, owe them a living which is very hard to justify indeed. This whole thing can be followed back through history, though, to the fifteenth century and earlier: there were once alms available for travellers, for those on a pilgrimage or similar, in most European cities, and it was considered a duty to help those people with food and lodging as they moved on their way to a holy city or along a holy path. These alms were taken advantage of by a whole group of people who claimed to have been thrown out of Egypt and banned to wander the earth for seven years because of their sins. They would arrive at the city gates with a leader who had a form of passport from some high-born elsewhere, and take advantage of the good will and religious beliefs of the citizens for as long as possible, then move on to the next town or city. Today we call them gypsies, taken from an English misreading of Egypt in all probability, or, to be more correct, Sinti and Roma.
I am also not educated in art. Those areas of art I wished to study as a youth were the ones my art teacher did not want to go into – such as printing – where I had both the skill and interest but nothing more than obstacles placed in my way. One year, close to the end of my initial education, the art master divided our class into four groups, each taking a different facet of art, and I was the only one to volunteer for printmaking. I also did technical drawing, but print was my great interest. Had I been given the chance to follow my interest back then, well, who knows where I would be now. As far as art is concerned, I belong to that school of people who know what they like, and who do not take the art critic’s choice to be the best work to have. If I was investing in art I’d probably buy any smudge and smear which could make a profit but, for myself, and since I am not an investor, if I don’t like it, it’s finished simple as that. The prints and paintings that I do have are not financial investments, but there because I appreciate them and they fit in with what I wish to have on my walls. Whether they are of any monetary value, and I have had people ask or comment, makes no difference whatsoever.
How many times have people told me they can read almost any book they want on a metal and plastic gadget and it is just the same as the old-fashioned paper and linen way? I don’t try to explain to them about aesthetic and feeling, about the presence of a book, about the smell of paper and leather, linen and board. Their machines might be capable of making a page-turning noise, but I have the real thing, the original, and not some faked sound to make it seem as if. I do, however, count the contents of a book as being important. I’ve read most of the books I have on my shelves and enjoyed quite a few of them too, but I would never buy a book merely because it had a certain cover, or even because someone else said it is an important and worthwhile work. Some of the most important works of the last few hundred years came out as serial episodes in magazines, which most modern people would write off as being less than serious, and some were even paid for by the author, which many call vanity publishing without knowing the history of the industry. I picked up the complete works of Nietzsche in a 1930s edition published in Leipzig just the other day which no one else would want. The six volumes are scruffy in appearance, a dull linen cover, and the paper is thin – what we would call Bible paper – so hardly something to present on a coffee table. The contents, though…. why pay one or two hundred Euro / dollars for a set of Nietzsche when you can get a decent reading copy for thirty? It might not look its best by daylight, but it’s all there and readable and that’s what counts for me.
Sunday we had our local, twice-a-year flea market in town, which is real just an incentive to get people in to the shops and to allow the car dealers to show off their new deals. A few years ago the streets were packed with stands and tables to left and right and the organisers could call the event a massive market. This time we were down to half a street and two side roads even though selling space is relatively inexpensive and the weather was good. I went out absolutely determined not to spend any money whatsoever, and only bought six or seven framed photographs and a book as a result. Not quite not spending any money, but as close as I am likely to get. One of the sellers tried to explain about a photograph she was selling me, and a few postcard replicas too, and was a little annoyed when I corrected her, gave her the dates of the postcards and their exact placing in the area. I only bought one original photograph from her, which I had to reframe when I got home, and a small batch from another woman – school classes and wedding photographs from the turn of the last century – some with dates and names on them, so I am happy. And I was able to negotiate, which was good, saving me a couple of Euro in the end. Still no finished wall space to hang them, but that doesn’t matter in the least. Sometimes it is more the pleasure of possession, I admit it freely, which makes the whole so much fun.
But we all have to limit the fun and the leisure activities some time, and settle down to the more important, conventional things in life which is what I shall do now and hope that this letter finds you well, happy as can be, until our next conversation.