It was once a part of Japanese culture that a man, returning home from a night with his mistress, was required to write her either a thank-you letter for the time together, or a suitable poem. This missive was then delivered as quickly as possible so that the mistress, waiting for his note, could go to bed with a clean conscience, happy in the knowledge that their liaison was solid and loving. We do not practice such finery today, although I can imagine some relationships would be much the better if we did, and it has fallen into disuse in Japan as society has changed, fewer men of means take mistresses publicly and, above all perhaps, the postal service has changed to becoming a slow, cumbersome monster. Our cultures have changed a good deal too, over the centuries, and I cannot imagine many men today being capable of composing a love poem whilst returning home to appease the sensibilities of anyone, let alone a lover. There was also a mainly unspoken culture in Victorian England – my favourite letter writing period next to ancient Rome – where a letter had to be answered as quickly as possible, often on the same day one was received, and that correspondents, including married couples temporarily separated, write to one another on a regular basis. Letters home, if we might call them that, as well as those from friends and acquaintances were also often shared amongst an entire family, or forwarded to other people within a cultural circle who might be interested in their contents. As I say, times have changed. Nowadays we are lucky to have the shortest of replies to a letter, if one comes at all, and I often see people shaking their heads at the very idea of putting pen to paper, when such modern communications as text messages and status updates are readily available.
I do not write my letters in the hope that someone will sit down as soon as they have finished reading, grab a pen and paper, and send me a reply. A reply is, of course, more than welcome, and that is the aim of my writing, as I am sure you can imagine. It would be a very lonely and disheartening pastime if the postman did not bring anything in my direction now and then. Rather it is my hope that those who I write to are inspired to thought, and challenged to reply. The timeframe makes, in such a case, no difference whatsoever; we all have our daily needs which must be attended to first, our priorities and demands on our time from other people, so far be it for me to make an additional demand which might turn a pleasurable activity into a duty. I am more than content to bide my time, wait until my correspondent wishes to reply, until they have gathered their thoughts or, as you suggest, researched. Not that research is always necessary, but it is good to know that you are on the right path and not treading in something greenish-brown and slimy just off the beaten trail when writing back.
It was, as I am sure you gathered from news media, a rather unsettled time in Hamburg during the G20 conference, both in and outside of the centre. The rioting and destruction caused in the streets was limited, as usual, to a very small area and carried out by a small group of people who are well known for their malicious acts, both politically and physically. The group concerned is a loose gathering of people on the extreme Left of the political spectrum who live, predominantly, in squats or in buildings which they have been able to commandeer by one means or another and where no rent or dues are paid. The bulk of them, certainly the foot soldiers, live on welfare or through begging on the streets in the city, and blame both the state and capitalism for their plight which, when we look at it closely, they have no real desire to escape. They can be seen at many events where there is a promise of disruption, and claim to be the exclusive fighters against the hard Right, although this faction is extremely weak and comprises only a few thousand people across the entire country, despite media reports to the contrary.
Their actions over those few days of the conference destroyed predominantly smaller businesses within their own tight area; so not the capitalists who they are claiming to be keen on overthrowing, but local family-run shops and businesses. Destruction of cars and the smashing of shop windows are all part and parcel of their act and, of course, the releasing into their own hands of valuable goods and commodities to help the fight further, which we would simply call theft. With the end of the conference those still roaming free return to their living quarters, tell their tales around the campfire whilst drinking their state-paid beer, and wait for the next time such an opportunity arises. If there is not another conference or similar, or somewhere nearby where they can travel to combat the phantom of fascism, they wait until May 1, which is always one of their favourite vandal days. I have never considered violence a suitable or even viable expression of political opinion, but this is the direction many of these people have chosen to go, and I am grateful that their violent outbursts are relatively seldom and contained.
Other people are capable of protesting without any form of violence; I have taken part in marching protests myself, both as a civilian and as a politician, which have been peaceful and well ordered and see no reason for anything else to happen. That there are good reasons for such protests – be they in Washington D.C. or Baltimore, Los Angeles or elsewhere – but rarely, in my opinion, any good reason for any form of violence or destruction; it is always violent behaviour and the mess which has to be cleared up afterwards which is reported and the message disappears from view. Peaceful protest, on the other hand, means that the media are forced to concentrate on the message bring brought over by the protestors and those being spoken to by the mass have to accept that this message comes across clearly rather than being able to write it off with a condemnation of any violent activities or even bloodshed.
Living in a smaller town is not just, as you mention, an efficient way to live but also one which is more financially viable. When I look at the prices expected for a house or even a small apartment in any of the major cities, my blood runs cold. Were I to live in one of these cities, the house I now own would probably have cost twice as much and an apartment of the same size would be reserved for those with a six figure income, if one could be found at all. I think that being forced to travel twenty-five or so miles into the city now and then for some cultural event is a good price to pay for all the advantages of being outside. But it is far more than just a financial decision: living beside the river; the peace and quiet; knowing who your neighbours are, these things all add up. When my friends in the city comment on how easily they can go to the theatre or a brand new art exhibition I simply laugh them off. It’s true, they can, but do not. Their small apartments cost so much they cannot afford to attend all these functions whereas I, living outside and having to travel in, still have enough resources to attend double as many. We all have our own lives, though, and if they are content to live where they do, as I am content with my decision, then so be it.
Is it not strange that I should have an everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriage glass coaches, streetcoaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, doorbells, Gentleman-raps, twopenny-post-raps, footmen-showers of raps, of the whole devil to pay, as if plague pestilence, famine, battle, murder sudden death and wee Eppie Daidle were broken loose to make me diversion.
So wrote Jane Welsh Carlyle when she and her husband, the historian Thomas Carlyle, moved from their quiet farm in Craigenputtoch, Scotland, to Chelsea in London. And the author of the book describing her life and letters, Kathy Chamberlain, goes on to write:
Roosters still crowed at dawn […] dogs barked, pet parrots squawked, couples quarreled, organ grinders cranked out tunes, vendors hawked their wares, and the Old Chelsea Church clock chimed the hours […] the girl in the adjacent house banged loudly on the keys of her pianoforte […]
That Jane was able to write her letters each day despite the disturbances surprised her as much as it possibly surprises us although, for many city dwellers, such noises, or similar ones, are such a part of everyday life they simply do not notice them anymore. The young woman failing to master her music lessons, however, caused Thomas Carlyle to have a special, almost soundproof, office built in a distant part of their small house so that he could concentrate on his work. The nearest I can come to any of this is the sound of sheep bleating during lambing season, right across from my house on the banks of the river, and the occasional squawk of a parrot owned by some neighbours. My writing area is at the back of my house, looking out over the jungle which should be my garden, and the only sounds I get to hear there are the chirping of birds and the splashing of water across my neighbour’s waterfall into his pond. At night I can add the croaking of frogs or toads to the midnight noises, and the occasional rustle of leaves as a breeze blows through surrounding trees.
In fact, the only thing that I really miss about not living in the city any more is that I cannot simply turn out of my front door and into a well-stocked bookshop. We have two small ones here, one of which does not warrant mentioning, and the other one has a few of the more popular titles in paperback, occasionally a new hard cover book, but is more for the masses than anything else. That said, if I wish to buy a German-language title which is not in stock, I can order it and they will deliver the next morning. English-language takes longer, as the wholesalers are not quite as efficient and do not hold all the titles in stock, but there is always the internet for those titles. I’ve had English-language titles delivered from Germany, Madrid and Poland over the last year, and only one which had to be ordered in specially as Amazon didn’t carry it in stock anywhere. To be fair, the title is a very specialist one, published in 1997, and still in its first printing; hardly the most popular book in the world.
Finding a Tribe of people to write to is an interesting concept which I can well understand and wholeheartedly support, but with a wish that it were easier to experience than it is. Building up a tribe of people with similar interests from scratch is probably easier than attracting those who are already at the peak of their abilities, or those who aspire to this point, as they will not be so keen on associating within those, unless as a mentor, seen to be either below them on the ladder, or completely unassociated with it. I am one of those people who comes from the outside, as are you, wishing entry into what could be a very fine and exclusive gathering of minds, and there are those who honestly believe that only people with a certain position in society have anything to say. I have rarely had an answer to one of my letters when writing about historical, literary or philosophical matters to someone who is either in the business or who has proclaimed an interest it one of those subjects and has a name. I have written to well-known authors over the years, even museum directors, and received replies, but hardly an invitation to enter into some form of lasting conversation or dialogue. On the one side I can well understand this, people have their jobs to do and need time to work n new papers, positions, books and the like, so correspondence with those outside their immediate circle or area of interest tends to be put either on the backburner, or cast into the small round container at the foot of their desks.
And then there is the idea of building up this Tribe rather than attempting to enter one which already exists, something that I find much more appealing. And here we have a problem, because if I try and find people of similar interests, I am confined to public postings and profiles. I cannot simply pick someone out of the local telephone book and write to them in the hope, or belief, that they will either reply or even have similar interests. Many of the profiles that I do come across I can cast to one side immediately: I am not interested in certain types of writing and certainly not in a future relationship which depends on my providing certain comforts now. Other profiles I read have been concocted by those who wish to appear far better, on an educational basis, not as a human being which I would not wish to judge, than they are. The language is sewn together by people who have never held a needle and thread in their lives, with impressive words used which have no relation to the sentence or the desire being (badly) expressed. Some profiles hit the eye immediately, others take a little time and some consideration. At present I am pleased to say that I have achieved a slightly less than twenty percent return rate on my attempt to build a Tribe, which I consider an exceptionally good return. How many will remain to form this Tribe remains to be seen.
And for me it makes no difference where a person is or what they may or may not have done in their lives: membership of this Tribe is determined by an ability to think, to consider, to offer an opinion in a succinct and intelligible manner whilst being open and accepting of the opinions of others. And this last part, accepting the opinions of others, believe me, is the hardest of all. But what can this new Tribe offer to those who wish to become members, those who remain members? I hope it will offer fine and stimulating conversation on many different levels, encompassing many abilities, experiences and ideas. Time will tell.