Reading by Sam Greenhalgh.

It seems like hardly a week has passed since I last wrote, and yet my fingers are itching once more, my mind is filled with ideas, and the weather has reached such a stage, whereby I have no desire to go out and risk having my boots flooded by a deluge, that I can justify a few more hours in your distant company.

I should have spent more time at work, or on the Internet, or in front of the television, or on the phone.

You are right: I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone in their right mind looking back over their life and wishing they had spent more time doing any of these things. It is more likely that they would regret a lack of personal contact, or the building up of a family, or travelling the world while they were still fit and able; but sitting in front of a monitor and scrolling through Twitter, or answering the feeble updates of some half-wit on Facebook? I think not. Or, better, I hope not. Sometimes I get the feeling there are people who honestly believe there is nothing outside of what they read on that small hand-held screen; that the only friends they have are online and that fame and fortune are to be found, for everyone, through a YouTube channel or a million Instagram followers. People believed that about Vine, and now there is nothing left but the memories; some good if rare filming work, admittedly, but no more than that. And spending more time at work?

I must admit, I do sometimes feel pangs of worry about the amount of time I spend reading books and writing letters. The feeling disappears after a split second, but it is there, and it is usually more along the lines of me worrying that I have missed out on a certain reference, or that I will not be able to read all the books in my stack before my next pension cheque gets credited. Or, even worse, that I will be too late getting a certain title because it is old and could have been sold out a decade ago. But no, even that is hardly a worry these days. I recently ordered a copy of The Maimie Letters: letters from an ex-prostitute by Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson, and had to wait a month for it to be delivered; something which is very unusual indeed when ordering available books online. I thought perhaps it had gone out of print having been last published in 1996, and that I’d have to start doing a search through all the second-hand stores and web sites to find a copy. Then it arrived, and I discovered that this title is not quite so popular that I should have worried about it at all: the copy I received is a first edition, and that twenty-one years after publication. I can be grateful that the publishers didn’t pulp it and use the resulting mass for a new title. But the book is near the bottom of my To Read pile, as I have a few others which arrived in-between, or which I bought at the local store, and I have cut back on my reading to only three or four hours a day.

Will I regret the amount of time I spend reading books? There is a big difference, I believe, between reading a book which you can physically hold in your hands, and surfing the Internet or browsing through photographs of young women / men posing on a rocky cliff, in a morgue, or on the steps of a barely discernable church with their lips pursed like a duck’s bill. I’ve been to many of these places, but not so that I could post a photograph of myself as proof I was there, more to gain from the experience. There are, though, some experiences you cannot have, which will never return, which have been part of the lives of others but can never be a part of your own. Looking at Pompeii, for example, nearly two thousand years after the volcano erupted, I can say I was there and have seen the results of this memorable devastation. But it was Pliny the Younger who experienced it, wrote about it, and guides me through what he saw all these years later. It is almost as if, through the descriptions some writers manage to put down on paper, I am being conveyed back to those times, guided by the hand through events, and am richer as a result. Instagram photograph with a duck’s face? I think not!

Well then, what about the time I spend writing letters to people I will probably never meet, who are spread all across the world? Is this a waste of time? Will I look back in half a century (I should be so lucky!) and feel nothing but regrets for time misspent? Or will I, as so many others have done before me, take out these folded, carefully preserved missives, and read through them once again, my eyes misting over with countless memories and pleasures? I’m a man, so I don’t cry, but my eyes can mist over now and then if they really must. I wonder what people would think if I had destroyed all the letters from my time in Saudi Arabia, or those I received from China during one or another upheaval. They are prime examples of social history. I read through Kathy Chamberlain’s Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian world and feel how much the author regrets the destruction of so many letters, not just from Carlyle, but also from her circle, her friends and acquaintances. So much social knowledge from a time long gone, which we will never have, never be able to appreciate. So many words written and spoken which are now lost forever.

Fair enough, there are many people of fame and fortune who have directed that their letters, diaries and other personal effects be destroyed upon their deaths, and I suppose I can understand it to a certain extent. What is written in a private letter is often completely different to that which a person professes in public; a quick glance at political revelations through revealed electronic mail in our own times gives us enough of an idea how varied public and private opinions can be. People wish, also, to protect the perceived image after their death as if it is of any importance; and are clearly not prepared to stand behind their principles from beyond the grave either. And what happens with all of our memories in our times? A smart phone disappears with a few thousand photographs saved on its memory chip; an Internet company providing web space either goes bust or is eaten up by another; we lose a password which had been linked to a mail address which no longer exists. Memories gone forever. And it makes no difference how long a person was sitting in front of their computer, or playing with their intelligent telephone: they’ve gone and that is the end of it.

There are some people who take the utmost pride in not changing at all, who believe they have hit perfection, and have no desire to advance, to explore, to live. I sometimes look at pop stars from the Sixties and Seventies, those who made it through the drug-enhanced early years of their lives, and I am amazed that their physical appearance, aside from wrinkles, has hardly changed at all. They seem to be living in the past with the same hair-style and clothing – well almost, there are not many who still wear those wonderful Haight-Ashbury or Carnaby Street fashions of yesteryear – as if nothing has changed, and they will only be recognised if they look exactly the same as they always did. And these are the people who lament changes in society, and especially that they are being forgotten themselves, and claim that everything is so much worse than it ever was. The people who once wanted to change the world – for the better, in theory – now stuck and unable to accept changes at all.

How can anyone keep up with the world if they do not have Internet, if they are not caught up within the lives of their Facebook and Instagram friends? I must admit, I have a very strong and enjoyable Internet life, with my own server, my own web sites and a Twitter account which allows me to keep up with the news as it happens. I spend a bit of time on the Internet every day, checking to see what has been said in politics, who has departed this life from society and film or music businesses, which books have become available or the latest theories on philosophical matters. I cannot afford all the newspapers and periodicals I would want to read in order to keep abreast with the world’s happenings, and there is nowhere near here to simply read from a good supply of international titles. A local fast food locale has the regional newspaper, but that’s it. Even the selection of magazines and periodicals in the main library in Bremen, where I occasionally go to shelter from the rain, tends more towards Good Housekeeping and Quilting for Advanced Users. It’s almost as if we are back in Victorian times, and the nannies and governesses come to the library with their charges rather than walking through the parks, keeping pace with those subjects, for those who can read and write, deemed suitable for their station.

Fraser’s Magazine, a British periodical founded in about 1830, highlighted the plight of the hidden classes – women who took jobs as governesses. In 1844 there was an article which likened the life of a governess to living in solitary confinement, almost of being a slave, with massive demands on their time and skills, but no real remuneration on an intellectual level. They were, after all, merely women. It is a theme which runs throughout any work on Victorian times, especially those dedicated to the hidden wonders of female intellect and achievement. The woman was owned by the man, even if she had her own wealth, and to write then, other than letters to friends and relations, a woman was better advised to stick to subjects such as housekeeping and social or personal conduct, or take the name of a man. Jane Welsh Carlyle describes a visit by Alfred Tennyson to her house in Cheyne Row when her husband, Thomas Carlyle, was not at home:

… but he smoked all the same – for three mortal hours! – talking like an angel – only exactly as if he were talking with a clever man – which – being a thing I am not used to – men always adapting their conversation to what they take to be a woman’s taste – strained me to a terrible pitch of intellectuality…

But Tennyson, the massive man with a poetic mind far above all others in height and intellect, was normally uncomfortable around women, so Jane Carlyle had clearly managed to win him over, plying him with all the normal accoutrements of a men’s evening together, as if she were not really there. Even her husband, who had helped teach her Latin and other ‘manly’ subjects as her governor before they wed, played her intellectual capabilities down and refused to accept them, causing several raging arguments between the two for his belittlement.

Hard to believe there are still those who live in the eighteen forties, despite being born only a few decades ago! I mean, of course, in their attitudes to other people, in the manner that they treat women, foreigners, anyone who is not quite the same as themselves. The condescension because a woman is being spoken to, as if a woman cannot achieve the same great intellectual heights as a man, and probably with ease. Even today, when we are meant to live in a socially equal society – which makes me laugh for its blatant dishonesty – stories of discrimination are still being brought out and into the public eye, and little is being done to remedy the problems, the lack of understanding and acceptance, which cause this form of discrimination. I watched a Film Noir from the Forties recently: all the men are at war and the women come in to take their place in society. One of these is a doctor who, in a provincial town in the United States, has to work twice as hard to be accepted as a qualified doctor than a man would have to, and still receives all the abuse – in a mild sense – from those who refuse to accept her status and qualifications; amongst the women patients too, not just the men. And then I read in the news of a female doctor who hurries forward to help a man who has fallen sick, and is turned away by ‘better qualified’ men who have no training whatsoever. That was this year.

No, although they are more of an Internet thing, smileys do not bother me too much. That is, so long as they are not used to replace explanations or hide a true meaning. I have seen too many people who use these things – I do not, but that is just me – to try and make a biting or rude comment appear as if it is a joke, as if they are being friendly rather than mean. If you cannot express yourself in words, in this case, and accept the words and their meanings that you have written, why bother giving an opinion? These things are no longer used, on the Internet, as a means to convey happiness or pleasure, but to hide true feelings or to water down what is otherwise something unacceptable. I much prefer the old ones, the brackets and dots and lines and curves before someone decided to make them into visible images. The world was a simpler place, back then. Not all changes are good.