I can well imagine that anyone reading my letters would gain the impression I am dead set against the internet, against electronic communication, perhaps even against the modern advances made in society through the last fifty or one hundred years. I write about letters, about the joys of using the post, recite and quote from writings dating back several thousand years, and generally seem to be a old-world person steeped in a love of the past. Anyone believing that would be a long way off from the truth: I enjoy using the internet, am almost constantly on Twitter and have many contacts who only correspond with me by electronic means, especially on a business level. There are times when letter writing cannot supplant modern technology, and anyone who does not realise and accept this fact really is caught up in the past: our world has changed and we have changed with it; not always for the better, but changed nonetheless.
One of the wonderful things about the internet is access to information although, as many have come to realise this year especially, what we read, what we consume from the internet should be tasted first, with a good deal of scepticism, and weighed up with other sources before being accepted as fact. There are so many people out there who consider themselves satirists, but who, with a certain degree of pride, simply produce and distribute false news, fake facts and fuel conspiracy theories, that it is sometimes difficult to tell fact from fiction, propaganda from balanced reporting. I first noticed it several years ago, when someone began spreading the news that Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, had died. The truth was, she was still alive and reasonably healthy, but that didn’t stop this story from receiving credence and being spread across the internet. Someone must have seen how easy it is to spread such rumours and have them accepted as fact, how gullible some people are when it comes to what they read and accept as the truth, and taken it in hand. Now fake news is a thing, and there are government as well as media units set up specifically to check facts, seek out false information sources, and clean our world view of the debris created by those with nothing better to do than disturb, discredit or manipulate.
Of course, the traditional news media are not entirely innocent of blame: how many stories do we read in reputable newspapers which are coloured by personal belief, by partisan politics, by a need to sell more copies? We have the serious press and the sensational, and neither one is entirely devoid of blame. Sadly, in recent months, we have seen how this dedication to a cause rather than pure reporting separated from opinion, can cause harm: the London attack a few days ago, by someone described as a ‘clean-shaven white man’ in one newspaper, is a prime example. The same newspaper – I find it hard not to write rag, but am attempting to be fair and balanced myself! – has been attacking other sectors of British society with clear cut and obvious intent: any attack involving a Muslim has been labelled a terrorist act no matter what happened, and the perpetrator described in no uncertain terms. When a white man, a Christian, is involved and the victims are Muslims, then the language changes completely. There has even been discussion recently about the difference between terror acts: with a person of colour or a believer in certain religions, it is automatically terrorist; with a white or a Christian the diagnosis is mentally unstable. Several people have used photographs of newspaper headlines to highlight radicalisation in British society, but not of a Muslim attacker, of the white man who killed a Muslim worshipper in Finsbury Park the other day. The comments are fair, and there are many editors and reporters who should look to their own words more carefully before passing judgement on the opinions and writings of others.
I went to a Quaker school, hated it intensely, but not because of the teachings, more the teachers. Like so many others they were set in their ways, had their own opinions and could not listen to the opinions and experiences of others when they disagreed with their own entrenched ideas. But it was just the people, not the institution, which turned me against them: the ideals behind the teaching, which were not taught at the school and which I had to discover for myself, were fairly balanced. We were expected, if we followed the teachings which were not taught, to seek information from both sides of an argument, to show tolerance and understanding, to be prepared to listen, to learn and to adapt our own opinions, which had to be based on experience, information and careful consideration. And we were supposed to accept that an opinion is only as good as the information backing it up; an opinion can and must be changed if the circumstances change. These teachings have influenced me throughout my life; I just wish that someone had been there to show me them in addition to my finding out for myself.
I mention all these things because they are part of what makes a person, part of their character, compiled from education, upbringing, social milieu and family. They are what make my character, and what make me. But I am also very aware of other parts of ‘me’ which tend more towards an affinity for the past and my experiences than anything else: a strange feeling when I hear of an incident, an attack, an atrocity, whatever one might care to call it, in a place which was once close to my heart, which was once my home. The attacks in London have shown me that there is still a very strong connection between my present emotions and my upbringing; they have led me to understand better why some news stories remain high on the list and are constantly repeated, enhanced, played upon, whilst others disappear to the back pages of a publication, or vanish completely from sight and memory. It is the personal connection.
An American newspaper, like any other national publication, is going to follow a local story far closer and for a far longer period than they are likely to follow a foreign one. A story from overseas becomes more interesting when there is a national or personal connection. If a factory supplying goods to a French design label burns down with massive loss of life, it will stay in the news for less time than the same factory supplying an American designer – in the United States – a British shop – in the United Kingdom – because of this almost personal connection. An attack against tourists in Egypt will attract less attention in a country’s national press if none of their nationals are involved. Likewise an American is more likely to be interested in news about other Americans, and Englishman about the English, and so on along the line.
This all came to me, at about three in the morning as is so often the case, as I considered those Tweets asking why certain news stories had disappeared from their timelines; why there was more interest shown in one story and less in another. As I read about the recent attacks in the heart of London, all the places named appeared before my mind’s eye: this was my hometown for twenty years; there was a time when I could rightly claim to have known these streets like the back of my hand. How many times have I walked across Westminster bridge? I lived in Finsbury Park for a few months back in the Seventies – and remember a night of rioting there, but not the cause. I follow these stories far closer than some others, because the events are taking place in an area I know, am emotionally connected to, even if the people have no relationship to me whatsoever. What I am effectively telling myself here is that I am biased: I am more interested in following a story to which I have a connection, tenuous or otherwise, than one which could be of greater newsworthiness, but has no emotion link. I hadn’t thought of things in this way before: it is something of an eye-opener.
The strange thing here is that, when I equate this affinity for all things local or emotionally connected, it falls down as a premise. I have no doubt that it is true, from my own experience, but there must be other actors involved which I have not yet taken into consideration, or which expand the they to a better conclusion. It involves the interest local people show for events within their direct neighbourhood. I can explain it on the basis of the visitor numbers to a small carpentry workshop directly across the road from my house: every two months or so, the owner puts on a photographic show, inviting artists from around the country to display their creations for an audience in his showrooms. He sends out postcard invitations to those who might be interested in such an exhibition and, of course, invites the press along too. I’m not sure how many invitations he sends out, but I am certain that it is considerably more than ten or fifteen. I am also sure that he invites members of the town and county councils, the town and county mayors and other dignitaries. The press is there, with a freelance reporter who happens to live just around the corner. The politicians are not there. For the opening nights of the three exhibitions he has arranged so far this year, the politicians have never been there.
Were any of these people to be invited to the opening of a photographic exhibition in Bremen, in Hannover, in Hamburg, or even in one of the smaller local cities such as Nienburg or Verden, I am sure they would attend. They would consider it their duty to fly the flag and show their face as support for something someone else has organised, and to demonstrate their own cultural interests. But it is a small gallery in their own town. I’ve known politicians press for a postponement of local legislation because they hadn’t had a chance to view a specific area due building enhancement: this area was the main shopping street of the town; the postponement proposer travelled it every single day on the way to work and back home again; they had twelve weeks time between entry of the legislative proposition and the town council sitting to view. This was actually one of the reasons why I went in to politics and was on the county council for six years: the total lack of interest in the local affairs, except when politically expedient. But if these people read about an event here in a newspaper from outside our immediate region, they take note and are proud, whether they’ve been involved or not.
So, you see the expansion to my theorem: the emotional connection and interest is greater when the physical connection is no longer there, when the person connecting is no longer in the town or city, or when the connection is through an entity outside of the town or city. I am sure I can add further conditions and expand even more, but that would be something more for thought in a quiet moment or two, and not for a letter.
So, my Twitter feed effectively allowed me to keep up with events in London over the last few weeks, as well as whatever is happening around the world. One of the wonderful advantages here is the link which can be set up, without the need for a return or even an acknowledgement from the other side. I can create a list of hundreds of news sources, from the newspapers and television channels right down to individual reporters and correspondents, and catch everything first hand. Not so many years ago this would have meant sitting in a major city library and poring through all the national and international media as well as having the radio tuned to every available channel, and the television basting away in the background. Hardly feasible, unless you happen to belong to a massive team of researchers dedicated to gathering, intelligencing and compacting information. For someone like me, who enjoys being up-to-the-minute on information and the latest thought, an invaluable resource. But for research, for facts relating to historical events, for opinions and real learning compiled over the centuries, there is no alternative but a library, or your own supply of books. From that point of view, since historical information and thought shakes my tree more than current events does, the internet is in second place.
To be honest, though, the main thing I have against our modern technology, is how much it has taken people away from real life and into a sort of fantasy world. The stars of today are often people who have done nothing worthwhile whatsoever, nothing creative or artistic, nothing politically relevant, nothing to advance the course of civilisation; they are people who are recognised on the cyber airwaves for the shape of their nose, the size of their backside or other more forward attributes scarcely covered by the cloth meant to make up their clothing. The very idea of a reality programme, whether it concerns a family in the deepest South or millionaires’ daughters in New York City makes little difference: the shows are scripted; the arguments are fake; the reality is that they show nothing of real life and create a false, and dangerous, impression of society in impressionable minds.
Not that there weren’t reality productions in the past, but they were more socially aware, more socially relevant and, today, are counted as being classics in their genre, precursors to real change and betterment in society. The works of Charles Dickens and men and women like him, highlighting the social inequalities of the industrialised nations, poverty, illness and inequality; the reality shows of the nineteenth century. I can’t imagine anything we have in our highly technological world ever creating such a stir, such a level of social change as the written word has done in the past.
And letter writing? For me, the art form is here to stay, no matter where technology may lead us: the common electronic mail will never be capable of replacing that special feeling we have when the postman delivers an envelope through our letterbox, or when our name is called out at mail call. Electronic mail palls very quickly for many, perhaps because it is associated with the pressure to reply immediately, without any form of delay; perhaps because, being so quick, being ever present, we realise it allows us no time to live, to get out into the world and explore. And, of course, because of the limitations of electronic mail: we can write and send a letter from anywhere in the world, but internet access is still limited, and we are still constrained by our ability to gain access to our mail account. Perhaps, then, what we need is a good balance, and less of the competitive prancing: teach our youngsters the value of writing, as much as the expediency of technology. After all, where would you and I be without these physical, real world pages?