I am not a great one for having my photograph taken, for many years I tried to avoid it and only allowed those images required by law to be shot. From my childhood there are perhaps three photographs in existence: one of me as a baby looking across my mother’s shoulder into the camera; a shot of me eating at a birthday party; a photograph taken on Primrose Hill in north London with my father in the Seventies. Today it is almost impossible to live in Europe without a certain number of images being required, a passport photograph, one for identification papers and for a driving license, perhaps one for internal identification in certain work facilities. Many companies also expect a photograph along with an application for work, which can be a very expensive business indeed, for those out of work and searching across a wide base. When I moved here, over twenty years ago now, I was quite content with the few pictures which had to be taken and could then be hidden away in a wallet or the back of a cupboard and very rarely required, but then I made a big mistake: I became a public figure.
I didn’t want to initially, it was merely something that happened after I made a few private comments about ways in which the marketing of both the town and county could be improved. The general appearance of the town, for one thing, would be better if the many flowerbeds along all the roads were properly cultivated and cared for. It turned out that no one in the town hall knew how many flowerbeds they were responsible for, let alone where they were, and the Bauamt – the department responsible for all buildings, roads and green spaces – was also in the dark. So I produced a list of two hundred flowerbeds and a proposal for improvement. I thought nothing more of it, the proposal was taken and accepted, people were asked if they would take care of flowerbeds directly in front of their houses and businesses and things went their way, as they should. And then the town Mayor decided to thank me, in public, at a major gathering to celebrate the new year, and that was the end of my introverted peace and quiet. Suddenly everyone knew my name – well, my forename, as you can well understand – and began talking to me. My picture appeared in the local newspaper and I began climbing the steep pathway to public recognition, something which ended last year when I gave up the last of my official public positions and retired back behind these four walls.
The photograph you have shows one of my last public acts before I began the process of removing myself from committees and political groups: the presentation of a plaque to the town which is now hung on the May Tree each year, and can be seen by all and sundry from May through September in one of the town squares. Top hat, dark suit, white tie, white gloves and a medallion around my neck because this is the normal clothing worn by all members when meeting officially. And, at the time, I was the top person in the group, thus the privilege of presenting this commemorative plaque. I was, I hasten to add, the only one there from my group, everyone else you can in the background, also dressed in dark suits and with top hats, is a member of the local shooting club or the citizens association for this quarter of the town who, just to confuse everyone coming from outside, wear exactly the same as we do, but without the medallion.
It may seem strange to you that a person who collects historical photography has an aversion to his own image, and I am not really the right person to explain the psychological roots behind this, just to say that, despite all the public activities I’ve been involved with here, I am a very private person and intend keeping it that way. Surrounded by my books, my collection of photographs and cameras and with the pleasures of my letter writing, I have no other real needs in life, and the occasional forays out into public life, to debates and discussions in Hamburg or Bremen, are merely a pleasure I indulge myself in. And my collection of photographs has little to do with the images on the front side, more with the information printed on the reverse which, when all tagged together, provides a form of family tree of photography in Germany from the very beginning up until the end of the Thirties and, in some cases, to the present day. Most commercial photographers used the reverse side of their products, which were printed on very thin photographic paper and then fixed onto board, as an advertising area; part was often left blank for any greetings or names to be noted, and the rest was often a very beautiful graphical print with name, address and, later, telephone number of the photographic studio. It is possible to follow photographers and their businesses as they move from one address, one town to another and, through the years, to businesses which still exist today.
It is, I must add, like most hobbies, something which bores most people almost as soon as the collector opens his or her mouth. Photography today is a passing thing: we shoot with a smart phone, upload to a social media platform and, one day, it all disappears. No one has any real interest in photography today, not at the same level as fifty or one hundred years ago, and certainly not in building up a massive collection of images of dead people who have no connection to the collector whatsoever. And the hobby is also very labour intensive, something which interests younger people not one jot today, and requires a good deal of research as well as patience and the ability to take note of the smallest piece of information, wrap it together with other snippets in order to come to a tangible result. Research, I might add, which often cannot be done on the internet.
I’ll exchange your Sahara for our monsoon landscape for a while. It seems almost as if every single day here has been blessed with rain, and not just any rain, rain in masses which have filled my neighbour’s swimming pool to overflowing, so that the overflow pipes were incapable of handling the mass of water. Although, to be honest, as the water began turning green and his summer plans of sitting by the pool with a barbeque every weekend appear to be flowing down the drain, I admit to having a small feeling of satisfaction. In German it’s called Schadenfreude, which is almost impossible to translate into English but roughly means the pleasure attained when something goes wrong for someone else. This neighbour has been a thorn in my eye for a while, and exceptionally unpleasant when not downright rude, so I feel justified in my small pleasures.
One advantage of the rainy weather has been that I am not quite so inclined to go out into the world and do things, although my garden is begging for attention. Rather I spent the weekend putting up new bookshelves, moving a clothes cupboard from one room to another, and setting up a new writing desk in front of my balcony window. I’m moving my bedroom into a new room, which I’ve just finished decorating, and my office down from the top floor to the co-joining room with my sitting room. My sitting room is also my library, where about a third of my books are at the moment, and this is what I need to expand. Moving to a new bedroom makes a entire wall free and available for yet more bookshelves which, in its turn, frees another room and a lot of floor space. I can now stretch out on my couch when reading a boom in the evenings, and not worry that I’ll either hit a computer or knock over an unsorted pile of books. Although, I must admit, putting up the shelves was an exceptionally frustrating venture as I had to fix them onto the wall – otherwise my new desk wouldn’t fit in the corner – and all the balancing and measuring grates on the nerves after a while, especially when one set of shelves isn’t straight because the measurements are two tenths of an inch out. Perfection is not necessarily a requirement, but the shelves should be at least straight enough that the eye doesn’t notice anything, and the books don’t slide slowly off and land in a heap on the floor in the middle of the night. It’s bad enough listening to a window bang in the wind at three in the morning – and wondering firstly which room it is and, secondly, whether it’s worth getting up to find and close it – which is at least a regular(ish) sound; the smack of books landing on the floor would probably give me a heart seizure.
The photograph showing the old town across the river gives a very accurate reading of what this town is like. I once made a joke to someone that two bicycle riders meeting and stopping to talk to one another in the middle of town would be akin to a traffic jam in some cities. At the moment we have a little more traffic in the usually quiet back streets, as the main street is being repaired and everyone redirected all over the place. Sadly there are many who either do not know what a street sign means, or imagine that it does not apply to them. So I watched an articulated truck today as it was driven along a street where lorries are not allowed, and then further along a one way street in the wrong direction because it was too big to turn, or the driver too incompetent. I go for the second, since he drove through so many signs forbidding him to go further and warning him he’d not make it through.
Now and then the peace and quiet is broken by a festival or special market, but otherwise the whole area is a bastion of tranquillity and absolutely perfect for those of us who wish to read and write without too many distractions or disturbances. There are many ways in which it could be improved, admittedly, but I don’t want to go back to those heady days of making suggestions and then being roped into committees and discussions about the future of the town if at all possible. That said, a few park benches along the river and a small stream feeding into it would be wonderful, especially for those of us who like to wander out in the early evening and read a book in the middle of nature.
I love your description of the internet being a portal to hell. I see it rather like one of those game shows where a contestant has three doors and must choose one; you just know that they’re going through absolute hell trying to decide which to pick and then, when it doesn’t turn out as they wish, the disappointment, anguish, recriminations. I once hears a very good tale about winning and losing: a man bet fifty cents on a horse to win (this was many years ago when 50¢ was a sum of money you could bet!), and it did. He took his winnings to the next race and bet again, and won. Over the one afternoon he bet on five further races, and won each time, gathering quite a crowd of people around him who wanted to see the outcome. Then, the final race of the day, and he bets his entire winnings, a five figure sum, on one horse, and loses. All around him the people show their disappointment, he’s won and won all day and now to lose so much money. He was slightly more relaxed about the whole thing, and confided to a friend that the loss didn’t bother him at all, after all, he’d only lost 50¢.
You mentioned Alcatraz, wasn’t Sing Sing also on the coast or on a beach? I know that Wallens Ridge in Big Stone Gap is built like a modern Tibetan fortress, literally on the side of a massive hill, but I’m not so sure anyone would really want to move in to any of these establishments just for the view or location. I sometimes wonder what does make people choose wherever it is that they live: blocks of apartments; terraced houses facing one another; rooms at the back of a single house. Students and younger people I can well understand, they’re just starting out on life and need their income for living, or spend little time in their apartment or rooms so that it makes no difference. And I can also well understand those who rightly say not everyone can save for a house, or for a house with a view. And I do know of people, back from my days in England, who lamented their lot, having to live in a house directly facing the sea in Brighton, Eastbourne or Hove. What we see as being ideal, since we live elsewhere, is ordinary for them. Not, I should imagine, that many would gladly exchange their living quarters for a student’s double room with niche kitchen and shared bathroom quite so readily. I know I certainly don’t want to go back to those days: a single room, shared bathroom, shared kitchen, and the landlord nailed my lower window shut so that I couldn’t let a local cat in. I had room for my bed, a chest of drawers, a small desk and chair, nothing more. And the view from my single, nailed-down window, was of a backyard backing onto the backyard of another terraced house.
I don’t remember when I last had a picnic, on grass, sand or concrete; it must have been as a child. Eating meals out in the wild, most certainly a clear memory there, but there was always a tank or an armoured vehicle in the background and the solid, dirty sand underfoot was in Saudi Arabia. A very long run, with bucket and spade, to the sea shore. Or I was living under a waterproof sheet, wandering the Lake District in England and eating out of tins. Or sitting on a park bench in Paris, living in a sleeping bag in the stairwell to a high rise car park by the Gare du Nord. Good times. Does drinking Caribbean rum in a beach bar on the Cayes off Belize or on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico count as a picnic?
I don’t know why we are suddenly so possessed with the length of time it takes to get from one place to another. One of the major builders of aeroplanes has just announced that New York to London could be achieved in two hours in the near future, and I am reminded of those who hurried from England to the United States by boat back in the Thirties or earlier, before commercial flights became normal. I remember it being considered normal to spend a day travelling somewhere, and planning with that day so that no time would be lost when we arrived. It was all part of the trip, and today it all takes too long. Someone asked me about writing electronically, because they d not have enough time to sit down and pen a letter, and I laughed in their face, quite literally. People who spend two hours a day, guaranteed, scrolling through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but cannot afford the time to write a letter once or twice in a month are, to my way of thinking, a waste of good oxygen. I don’t accept the argument that through electronic means they can communicate with one another every single day, or more often if desired, as that, for me, is a relationship killer. What do we have to talk or write about if all we are doing is communicating rather than living our lives?
As a teenager I was almost obsessed with the idea of the open road, of being free and care-free and just travelling. Back in the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies there was still the idea of a n honourable Tramp, not the connotations that we have for the word today, who would move from one place to another, unburdened by possessions, and accept occasional charity from those prepared to give it. These people had their own Code, their own signs, but were simply removed from society, from the rat race, as we saw it then, and free to come and go as they wished. All of which today, as you know, is suspect. Jumping freight trains, moving from one city to another without luggage, the simple life in its most extreme state. Almost impossible today, with all the suspicion of strangers and the lack of open, public facilities such as bathrooms and showers. Even so, I enjoyed my time on the road, limited as it was.
Abortion, euthanasia, suicide and other means of finding an end to life will always be controversial subjects, and most definitely bring people out onto the barricades until any changes to the laws become normal rather than the exception. And yet all three have been a part of life, of society since the first records began: Socrates taking hemlock at the order of the courts; Virginia Woolf committing suicide at the beginning of the war; Stefen Zweig and his wife Lotte towards the end of the war and, of course, all those famous or infamous people who commit suicide through their actions, not necessarily through choice, with drug overdoses. In Europe it is possible to travel to Switzerland for the final moments, expensive but possible. Abortion is rarely talked about, it has become a normal thing under certain circumstances. Euthanasia, because of its European history, will probably never be accepted in Europe as such – and here I must admit that I agree with those who write euthanasia off when it comes to making your own choice; whether you do it yourself or are helped by others, such a death is suicide.
There was a time, well before our time, when a contract was sealed by a shaking of hands. It amazes some people when I tell them that the first banking contracts, at a time when English banks were predominantly run by Quakers such as the Barclay family, were closed by the main people involved giving their word and shaking hands. There is an insurance company in Germany, which was founded in this small town and then moved to the big city as it expanded, whose symbol was two men shaking hands – long ago, now they have something completely different. I can well remember making promises in such a manner myself, and knowing that it would be a matter of pride and personal responsibility to hold to my word. I never went as far as spitting on my hand before shaking, but I’ve seen it done. And as to giving my word that I will do something, that, to me, is worth more than a piece of paper with my signature on it. It doesn’t happen anymore: if there is not a signature on a piece of paper, or a electronically signed document, there is no promise, no guarantee, no chance of getting something, or getting something done. We have so many rules and regulations which have to be discussed and accepted, it is almost impossible to do anything without pen and paper. If I go into the post office and buy stamps with my debit card, the money is not automatically debited from my account, as other retail outlets do, I have to sign a print out. I am then given a copy of the rules and regulations pertaining to my signature on a strip of register paper about two foot long. All I’ve done is buy stamps and let them debit my bank account direct.
Nostalgia is remembering when I could buy stamps with cash and no one would think anything of it; neither the fact that I was paying in cash, nor the fact that I was buying stamps. Nostalgia, for me, is the memory of a time when I could sit at a table in a quiet street – in Paris, or London or wherever – and read a newspaper or a book without anyone disturbing me. I’d have my cup of coffee brought to the table, and then be left to enjoy the day. No one would make comments about the fact that I was reading, nor constantly come and ask if everything is fine with the coffee. I appreciate the concern, but I was recently asked if my food tasted fine and whether everything else was to my satisfaction as the waitress laid my food down before me; I hadn’t even had time to think about smelling it, let alone pick up knife and fork and take a bite. Nostalgia, for me, is also remembering when small, independent bookstores were a normal sight on every main street – and Indian restaurants too, but that is another matter entirely – rather than chain newsagents with paperbacks. And these independent stores had real books in them, floor to ceiling, along with people serving who had read books, who knew what they were talking about. I read recently that many independent bookstores will not be stocking a major bestseller due publication in the near future: the major outlets such as Amazon and the chains have negotiated pre-order deals with the publisher so that they can sell the title to the public at a price lower than that which an independent store would buy it in at.
Many of the bookshops I see today, and that is definitely so with my local one, have few books on the shelves; they cannot afford to hold a big stock. It was a great pleasure to go into a store in Verden recently, an independent in the middle of town, and see full tables and shelves, and not a mass of stationery, cards and pens to fill out the space. I was, naturally, tempted by many but only bought two titles, whereas an empty shop tempts me to nothing, inspires me to less. We have the advantage, though, of quick delivery: when I order a book from my local shop it is normally there at ten the next morning, having been delivered direct overnight. If only I could do that with English-language books too, but I am forced to rely on Amazon for those, and even then it can take a week or two for some titles. Perhaps I am turning into one of those people I see with their smart phones, wandering the streets, lost without a status update, in my desire to have books I order delivered quickly.
And yet I have so much more patience when it comes to writing, to sending and receiving letters. Well, that’s not quite true, as you know, since I do sometimes let my communicative desires override my patience and don’t bother waiting for replies before sending the next missive. Funnily enough, that happened to me a recently in the other direction: I know that a letter I wrote can only just have been delivered, but the reply came in the post this morning – which means I can’t call it a reply at all… Good to know I am not alone. Now if I could just channel this wealth of desire to write, along with my patience, into finishing and editing a short story and a talk I have to give, all would be fine with the world.