I’m caught up between two conflicting emotions at the moment: the first is a desire to always be close to civilisation and have mail deliveries promptly, every day, just as I’ve always had; the second is an increasing strong desire, if not a need, to get away from some of those strange people I encounter as a result. It is very hard to balance these two desires in any form likely to work effectively, because no matter what you do, there are going to be strange people everywhere, not just in written form, and life would be a very boring matter if that were not so. Being far away from a mail box, though, would constitute my idea of a form of living hell; having to rely on electronic mail for all correspondence, or being completely out of touch with the world simply does not bear thinking about. At least, not for any length of time; I could suffer it for a week before the jitters started setting in, but doubt if I’d make it longer than that before I descend into the form of a lump of quivering jelly on the floor. As a child, living in London, I remember that there were two postal deliveries to our house each day, except on Saturdays when we had to make do with one, and that was almost an ideal situation. Now, living in a town where the post makes it to my house at midday, I suffer the pleasures of walking a few hundred yards to collect whatever might be there every weekday morning which, whilst not being ideal, is certainly better than having to face the idea of a one hundred and fifty kilometre round trip to buy a stamp. Although this is also beginning to lose its attraction, as the German post office recently wrote and informed me that, for the privilege of collecting my own post from the local post office, rather than them delivering it at great expense, they would be sending me an invoice each year. I must pay to collect my own mail.
It seems to be something of a comedown, all in all, going from two deliveries a day to being allowed to collect in person, and pay for the lack of service, but even letter writing has its costs, far beyond what we see on the face of an envelope. And, of course, it has its upside too: the very act of receiving a letter from someone far across the waves, in a country with different traditions, customs, mannerisms – I was almost going to say language, but that hardly applies here – and everything that goes with it makes these little distractions and obstacles seem like nothing. In fact, it is often the hurdles we spring over which make the whole so much more interesting: always wondering what is going to be there when we arrive; planning what we are going to write and then adapting those plans according to what we receive. And it’s not as if we are in a bad position here, with services being reduced all around us, costs increasing and few people wishing to take on the more mundane tasks in life, such as postal deliveries, as they’ve all been taught that they can now be president, and any lesser position is a failure on the part of society. Imagine what it would be like if we were still writing letters by candlelight, with an urchin waiting impatiently at the scullery door for the missive he must deliver that night.
Society has changed, though, and the daily writing of letters to loved ones near and far is decidedly a thing of the past. In its place we have Twitter and Facebook to contend with, and all the language (and visual) problems associated with such forms of communication. The world has become a series of abbreviations and graphic images, with people claiming that they love writing letters, without knowing how to purchase pen and paper or string two words together which have some form of interpretable meaning without the addition of a smiley to indicate mood, emotion or sense. We, I am sad to say that I must include myself in this pile, have become a society of quick fixes, rapid communication and instant gratification. If it is not there, ready, right now, then it is taking too long and someone must lose their job over it. No matter what it may be. We can all do it so much better than those whose job it is. But to sit down and write a letter.
I am an admirer of the ancients, but, not like some people, so as to despise the talent of our own times. It is not true that the world is too tired and exhausted to be able to produce anything worth praising: on the contrary…
It was always better in the good old days, in the golden era of our youth, in days long gone but not forgotten which, when we are honest with ourselves, we embellish just to show the laziness of youth and the denigration of our social system, the destruction of our society through whatever it is we are complaining about. Pliny the Younger, who I quote from one of his letters, voiced what many people were feeling in his times, and contradicted it with news of events in the city, in society, in his personal circle of friends which showed that, despite the prophets of doom, as was well with the world; it is just different. Society, like us, is evolving as new elements come into it, as new possibilities arise and are integrated into custom, as we advance toward whatever it is we currently believe to be perfection. In another letter, Pliny the Younger writes:
Perhaps our predecessors were stupid and unduly slow, and we are clearer speakers, quicker thinkers, and more scrupulous judges than they were…
so times, and our opinions of those who went before us, have not necessarily changed over the centuries. It’s only the method of communication which has changed, which has speeded our world up, which has created this strange desire for haste, as if we always have something better to do, but not enough time to do it. I wonder, how did people cope in the past, when they had to write letters to loved ones, and manage a household or spend the day in an office? Were there more hours in the day, months in the year? Not that the faster methods of communication are a bad thing: on the contrary; if we are capable of using new technology efficiently, then we really do have more time for other things such as a social life. Just as long as this social life isn’t wrapped entirely around the idea that social media is its core and we have to remain online and contactable at all times of the day and night.
I wonder how many of your city friends are flabbergasted by the idea of travelling so far just to collect mail from the post office, and ask why you don’t do it all online. I wonder how many of them can imagine a life out in the country – the sticks, we used to call it – where all the amenities of a city – transport, shopping, social life – are more leisurely or, as some might put it, non-existent. I live in a small town in northern Germany, away from the rush and the hectic of city life, but within a short bus or car ride should I so desire. We have all the necessities of life here, including a social life based on true friendship rather than being the bar-prop at a local nightspot. I travel into the city regularly for social events, for concerts and presentations, and then have the pleasure of leaving it all behind me again, of returning to the quiet, slow ways of the country. Staying overnight in a city hotel recently, I discovered that the noise level was so high I couldn’t sleep at all, but had to keep the window open onto a main road because the warmth requirements of city dwellers meant the heating was on, and I could not alter it. All modern conveniences custom cut to the median, not to the customer.
And then I often talk with people who simply do not know what to do with their time: they’ve saved up so much of it by using the modern social conveniences of the internet, but don’t know how to redeem it with leisure activities. The cell phones are useless, checking every five minutes doesn’t change that at all; their palette of possible status updates has been aired three times in the last week – and no one believes them anyway – and all their friends, according to their status updates, are out and about in the world having a great time. No one is free to just hang around and surf – which is something I’ve never understood: how can friends be together in groups of four or five, and spend all their time checking the small screen on whichever gadget is fashionable this week? This, I am told, is the way things are; this is modern society. If I walked out of my house every three or four minutes and checked the letterbox to see if I had any new mail, people would call me crazy.
But letter writing, as a hobby, still seems to spark some form of respect in people. Sadly, it is usually of the kind where they claim not to have the patience for such an activity, or not to know anyone who writes back, or not to have anything to say in their letters – a sad indictment of modern society: there is nothing left to talk about . It sparks interest amongst other people by its very existence: if you go out into a park, or settle yourself down at a street café, take out your writing implements and begin, not a care in the world, to compose, people will be drawn to you. You, as the letter writer, are as unusual as the street artist once was; all decked out with easel, paints and brushes to gather a crowd of eager onlookers. Sit anywhere with a cell phone, and you are one of the masses, normal, nothing exciting, just another person doing what people do today. Well, yes, there are exceptions, but I suspect neither one of us is out in the park, or sitting enjoying a cup of coffee – without feeling the need to photograph it – with the intention of someone chatting us up.
Much the same can be said for those of us who read books, and by books I do, of course, mean those paper things which fold and not the electronic things with fading batteries that give up just at that most exciting steamy point in some Daniel Defoe novel, downloaded from iTunes by a youngster fooled by the modern-day description. Sit down at a café with your coffee, open a book, and you are instantly the outsider, instantly the strange person with an antique contraption superseded by Amazon Prime v2.14.9, and no longer considered eco-friendly.
There is still more intelligence needed to teach others than to be taught
according to Michael de Montaigne, but who wants to learn when the world is at your fingertips, by pressing a few buttons, and the internet is always right: it says so in the internet.
I am a strange letter writer, you will have noticed by now, seeming to begin in the middle – which is where we are in life – and then ramble, like a loose thought, from one area to another, almost without connection, almost without a plan. It is not everyone’s style, that I freely admit, and some will find the quotations daunting, but without a wide selection of people with varying interests, hobbies, mannerisms, life would be boring if not intolerable. As you wrote:
Strong friendship is not always about the sameness, but interest in the differences.
Otherwise we will all end like characters in an Aldous Huxley novel: categorised according to potential usefulness and intellectual capacity, from A to G, with no hope of advancement, and destined for nothing but a life of exactly the same day after day until the end of time. And who wants that?