I am an old-fashioned letter writer, which is probably why all my first time letters to different people across the globe tend to surprise, tend to make the recipients stop and think for a while; this, at least is what I have been told by many who have answered. This strange style of writing, though, also puts people off, and this is verified by the number of people who have not replied to my efforts – although it is also possible that they already had enough people to write to, which is a chance every letter writer takes when answering profiles or just writing to a name out of the blue. My writing style is based on what I believe to be that of many of the letter writers of history, from Cicero and Pliny the Younger in ancient Rome down to Charles Dickens and Jane Welsh Carlyle in Victorian London. It is also tinged by modern needs, mainly the one which tells me not to go overboard and spend all my time quoting the classics, which are hardly read by anyone today, but temper my language and subject matter according to what people will understand, what they will be prepared to accept. So my initial letters frequently base themselves entirely on a profile, how I read a person, what I might expect to find if I ever met that person in real life. It is a very dangerous and inaccurate method; we all know that anyone can write a picture of themselves, a description which pulls out nothing but the best, edited and refined over weeks, whilst not knowing which end of a cow does the eating.
I also do something else, which you’ve noticed, that puts people out a great deal: I don’t talk so much about myself, and I don’t begin at the beginning. This last one is a fairly recent addition to my life: I read a murder mystery by Sophie Hannah, writing in the style of Agatha Christie and taking Hercule Poirot as her detective, where the idea of starting any narration at that moment in time was put forward. That is: starting a letter or a short story, a book or whatever, at that point in life you have reached, and not recapping everything that has already happened, not repeating yourself continually. Once you get into the habit of repetition, you begin to border on the boring, finding it hard to conjure up anything new, always looking inside yourself –which is not completely a bad thing, but can be limiting – rather than at the wonderful world around you. So, as one of the characters in this book suggested, I begin my letter in the middle of life, exactly where I am, and let the other details appear over time, when they’re relevant, and not when my ego most needs it. I’d rather convince someone to take a chance and begin a platonic, written friendship by conduct, and not by the features of my face, size and hairiness of my chest or achievements at sports back in my schooldays.
There is an old saying in the internet world, if you can call anything about the internet old, which claims that anyone can use these cyber highways, without another person knowing who they are. Basically, on the internet , no one knows that you’re a dog. This is much the same as your comment, and just as true, no one knows who is on the other side of a pen. People can write to one another over many years, and never know the person they are conversing with. Didn’t Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan cover that in their film You’ve Got Mail back in 1998? Two people who hate one another face to face, but hit it off in an electronic mail conversation, whereby they present themselves and accept the other person in a completely different fashion to the persona they portray, or project, in real life. Even people who live together for decades d not necessarily know their partners: we all have secrets, even from those with whom we are the most intimate, the most trusting.
And I could have been given a gender-free name at birth, like Pat or Chris, so that the question of whether I am male or female might never have come up, it might just have been the contents of the letters, the pleasure of writing, the enjoyment of being able to converse with someone right across the world, and without a care in the world. For me it makes no difference at all, I am happy to write to anyone who can hold a conversation regardless of whether they are officially male or female, regardless of how they consider themselves sexually. And, yes, weird things are bound to come out some time or another, probably from both sides, but not in a ‘relationship’ or ‘love’ manner, because how can you love someone you have never met? You can love, or desire perhaps, the image they have created, the impression they have given of themselves, but not the person themselves. That takes a good deal of personal, face-to-face interaction. Weird things are bound to come out because, despite all the claims otherwise, or societies are very different indeed; what I consider to be normal and everyday might make you take a step back and ask what’s happening.
I had a few American visitors over here two years ago, a big meeting with some free time for them to get out and see the city of Bremen. And see it they did, right down to the small artist’s shops in the oldest surviving part of the city. One of the interesting points which came out later, as we were all sitting together and talking, was the shock of one or two couples who had seen wedding decorations: two men together, two women together. With all the talk about equality and the rights of a baker not to bake for a gay couple, they suddenly saw that other countries handle the matter – and many, many other things – in a completely different manner. A customer comes in and buys a product, and they are a customer, not someone who is required to answer a catalogue of questions about their origins and sexual preferences before parting with their money. What they do – legally – with the product they’ve purchased is up to them. At the same time, though, there is o need for anyone to go into areas, discussion or otherwise, which some find awkward or repelling. Letters are a means of communication for me, not a chance to bait someone or to ruin their day. Subjects which are awkward or not wished for mainly don’t come up in the normal course of events: I’m not the sort of person who sets himself down to write a letter asking for all the gory details of a person’s sex life, it simply doesn’t interest me. And if the matter comes up in a political or medical, ethics or philosophical discussion, fine, I keep an open mind, listen to what the other person has to say, and accept their opinion as much as I would hope they accept mine.
But what happens when I write a letter to someone, beginning seemingly in the middle of a conversation and leaving out all the personal details about myself, such as where I was born, what I’ve been doing up until now, how I came to live in Germany and so on? In most cases, and I have a great deal of experience here, believe me, if the person receiving my letter is interested in letter writing, in conversation, in having a debate or a discussion, it is almost the most natural thing in the world. I give them something to think about, and we’re right in there: the Pandora’s Box of letter writing; open the box and see what flies out; what we can catch; admire; discuss; what we have in common and what is different. The hope, of course, is that two people writing one another will not always be of the same opinion, that they will not always have the same experiences, will argue or debate and keep the conversation alive. We’re all individuals with our own lives and experiences, and that is what makes life so interesting. Especially when two or more people get together who, on the surface at least, have nothing in common at all.
And this may well come as a surprise: I write to people around the world who seem, on the surface at least, to be interesting regardless of whether they are male or female, or wish to call themselves anything else. It makes no difference if they are transgender, gay, lesbian, asexual, mono or whatever. And from all the people who I write to, as a male, it is the men who write back more than the women. Nothing to do with gender or sexuality, preferences or culture. It’s about the conversation, and nothing else. There are considerably more men in your circumstances looking for someone to write to than women, and many of the women play on their charms – or what they believe to be their best attributes – to gain a mate rather than someone to write to and converse with.
Now, I’m not saying that the female of our species is shallow or incapable of holding a good conversation, nothing of the sort. But it does seem to me that many have become used to the idea that their opinion is not as important as their ability to cook and lie on their backs. Blunt, I appreciate that, but many have been brought up with just this ideal in mind. This is the way our society treats them, educates them, expects them to behave. And, let’s be honest, every ethnic minority here in Europe, in the United States, everywhere else in the world is brought up in a certain manner and expected to adopt a certain position in society: it’s not just the Indians and Pakistanis who have a caste system, it’s just that we don’t recognise ours as such. Back in the day, in the times of Charles Dickens, when letter writing was at its height, a woman’s place – middle and upper class – was in the home, and her ‘work’ was to supervise the servants, her ‘leisure’ was to paint with watercolours and write letters. Unthinkable today, in the west. It is, however, still there, these restrictions and constraints, they are just modified to our enlightened present day circumstances and social models, nothing more.
I can imagine your move has taken it out of you, regardless of the reasoning behind it, but at least you have it behind you now and a chance to begin afresh in new quarters. Obviously I have no idea what the differences between one institution and another are, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to compare your move to me going from an apartment to a house or from one city, one country to another. My letter clearly arrived safely in your hands, and I now have a new address to write to, which is fine by me. Perhaps when you’ve had a chance to settle down properly, however long that takes, you’ll be able to appreciate what my first letter, and this one, mean and, perhaps, what I am looking for. You will undoubtedly see and appreciate over time that what we are both looking for in any conversation is going to change, that it will alter according to what we discuss, according to what we learn and to how much we think about what the other has written and our own stance on certain issues. So, from that point of view it is impossible to go into specifics but, as a general rule, I’m looking for people who are open minded and prepared to voice an opinion as much as hear an opinion from someone else. People who are prepared to sit down and think before they put pen to paper, weigh up their arguments, and present them not as a finished product, but as something which can be enhanced, built upon to mutual benefit. And here it is not a matter of how intelligent one or the other may appear to be, we all have our experiences and our opinions as well as our abilities.
A measure of intelligence is not necessarily how a person writes or what they read, but more how they express themselves and whether they understand. Even those who cannot express themselves well for whatever reason, can be highly intelligent, or have their intelligence confined to one field where they excel above all others. And there are many people who are considered intelligent, but do not have the ability to comprehend something simple.
So, having piqued your curiosity enough that you wrote back to my first letter, despite the lack of personal information, perhaps this one has brought your curiosity out in full force and given you some idea of the direction our conversation could go in, although even that is not settled; many of the best conversations, discussions and debates begin with an idea, and then meander through a wide range of subject matters. But to settle one last thing which you are definitely curious about: I’m in my late fifties, write pretty much a letter a day, read a book every couple of days, was born in London, England and have been living in Germany since the mid-Eighties, first in the military and then, in the mid-Nineties, as a civilian. I have been a driver, a builder, an elected politician, founded charitable associations and served on councils in politics, tourism, education, charity and crime. My favoured area of reading is philosophy, history and biography, but, now and then, a good thriller has been seen in my hands. I read real books, not electronic ones, and have my own library.
Hopefully I have put your mind at ease while, at the same time, upsetting it enough that you wish to pick up your pen again.