Letter by Sabrina.

Thinking back over several years of letter writing, as this is hardly a new project or hobby for me, I cannot recall too many times when someone has approached me through a letter, without me having been in touch with them before. Several times – twice this year – I have been asked for my address so that someone could write to me, but it has come to nothing; no letters have arrived, no communication whatsoever. I cannot claim to being surprised, nor do I blame those who say they wish to write and then do not, it is a tough business. Sitting down and writing a letter to someone you know nothing about, or precious little, can be strenuous if you’re not used to writing letters in the first place. Nowadays I have the experience other people still lack, having written to someone almost every day of the year since the last week of January, and a rough idea of how it all works. I’ve even managed to hone my skills, if you can call them that, to such an extent that I replied to one pen friend with a four page letter; she having written me one single sentence scribbled on the top of a form which told me how electronic mail works. I’m not saying that I am proud of my accomplishment, since it is hardly that, but I am pleased with the results, with the letters I have received back, with the feeling of almost relief when a letter comes together and leaves my hand for someone else to either enjoy, or ignore. Not everyone can cope with my manner of writing, nor with the subjects I choose to write about, but that is just me, and if they wish to have someone to write to – and most of these people have advertised their desire – then they also have to accept the personality, style and mannerisms of those putting pen to paper.

One thing I have always taken care of, as I mainly write to inmates, is not to write to two people in the same facility. There are obvious reasons for this: setting one person against another through possible jealousy is the main one, but also the possibility of confusion which can ensue. It is not unknown, and therefore most sites advise care, that one inmate has gone against another when they have found out that their personal correspondent, their pen friend, is also befriended with another. I don’t want to put it on the same level as a normal relationship, where one partner appears to be seeing someone else secretly, but some do judge it on that level. It is not easy to share something precious when you have little else of your own.

I have also thought, and sometimes hoped, that letters I’ve written have been shared amongst a group of people. This was one of the great things about letter writing in Victorian times, and earlier, a letter was written to one person, with the full expectation that it would be shared with other members of the family, and even copied or passed on to friends and acquaintances who might be interested in the news it had to offer. I suppose you could almost compare it to video conferencing today, but for the fact that the passing on of information takes a little longer, where everyone sits around and has a piece of the cake. So as long as all parties are happy, then I have no problem whatsoever. I will, however, write separate letters as the subjects and the depth of discussion are bound to vary between one person and another.

I can understand your desire to retain a certain level of privacy, at least as far as the internet is concerned, and know it is something many of us attempt with some success. I have been relatively unsuccessful, I must admit, although I do enjoy the level of privacy that I have. There are few here, in this town, who really know anything about me although, thanks to my political and other activities in the past, many know who I am and where I came from. A few years ago the county mayor complained, jokingly, that I was in the local newspapers more often than he was, but through no fault of my own, merely that I was involved in many local and national projects at the time and, being the odd one out as an Englishman, possibly more interesting to the journalists concocting an article, if not to their readers.

Everybody is satiated, I think, with seeing so many sorts of monkey tricks that mountebanks teach their dogs

wrote Michel de Montaigne, and always reporting the same names doing the same people rather than an outsider with new idea palls after a while. I watch the press trying to twist and turn the same stories into something new, with highlighted words or by trying different approaches to the tale, and appreciate why they should hone in on an outsider, someone new, so quickly. Perhaps that is also why writing letters works so well for some: they have the chance to find out something from outside their immediate area, even outside their self-imposed comfort zones, and that fascinates; just as long as they consider it to be safe. Which brings me on, neatly, to my address.

For many years I used a post office box, mainly because I hadn’t planned on staying here all that long and then, when I did, because it was easier than changing my home address every few years, as I moved from one apartment to another. The style of writing German address was once completely different to what we are used to today: the name of the town was always in the first line, along with any postal code. This was because the normal person, on this side of the world, reads from the top downwards, and the town was the first thing anyone directing the letter needed to know. Then came the street and the house number, for the same reasons. Now we fit in more with the European standard and place the street name at the top, but still followed by the house number.

Unlike the United Kingdom but as in the United States, the postal code covers a large town or part of a city. However, the post office boxes also have their own post codes, and since there are three banks of post boxes here, they use three different codes. In effect I share one code with about thirty other people. In the United Kingdom, codes are issued for fifteen to twenty-five houses, making it possible – as I showed someone from Canada recently – to find an address out right down to the house number with very little information. I am now moving away from the post office box as I have my own house and do not plan on moving again, and because for the first time the German post office has decided that I need to pay a yearly fee to come and collect my own post, rather than having it delivered, and considerably more cost to them, direct to my front door. I also have some Scottish blood in my veins, and used the last of my return address labels up before printing new ones with my house address on them: waste not, want not. So the address on the letter heading here, and on the envelope, is the correct one.

I’m just glad that I don’t live in Japan. Apparently there are only two or three streets in Tokyo which have street names as we understand them; the rest all have block numbers within city quarters. I purchased a street map a few years ago, just to see how it all works, and was lost on paper almost immediately, so I dread to think what it must be like for foreigners, or people from out of town, arriving for the first time and without a guide. It’s hard enough for people to follow road diversions here, even when they are well marked, so something without any names would be an absolute killer.

A few years ago I had about thirty Americans come over here to visit for a long weekend. Most of them signed up to stay for a few weeks, and travelled on then across the country to see whatever it was that sounded interesting, or to recapture memories of earlier times, as some of the men had been stationed in southern Germany as part of their military work. I thought having them here would give me a good insight into what is of interest and what is worth recommending. In the end, though, there was more interest in buying a few baseball caps and a sweatshirt than going out to any of the museums or art galleries. We took them in to Bremen to take a look around the artist’s quarter – Schnoor – and get a taste of a city they’d probably heard of a few times. The main comment I got back was from a middle-aged visitor who was shocked that a small craft store in Schnoor sold wedding decorations, for the top of cakes, of two men and two women together rather than the usual man / woman style. I think that was just about the highlight of my version of their outside trip. Of course we did much more, but dancing and drinking, eating and chatting rarely interest those unable to take part themselves.

Last weekend I made one of my own regular trips out into the world of the Big City and spent a few hours at the Weserburg museum for contemporary art. I do this now and then to remind myself that there is more to art and culture than meets the eye, and some of the things on display in highly reputed galleries and museums tend to confirm this fact. I will admit to having seen some interesting works, but after the third massive black sheet stretched across a wall, by a different artist each time, I had the impression there was little new coming out. Being confronted, totally unexpected, around a dark corner, by several works of homoerotic art by Tom of Finland did nothing to assuage my instinctive shoulder shrug when anyone calls some of these things culture. I was impressed by two or three items – a woman had painted postcard landscapes, eighty of them, all much the same but clear to see what they were, and then set them out in a postcard rack as her contribution to the whole, which was interesting from the idea alone – and could see that some artists had really learned something of their trade. Aside from that, though, unimpressed. Much the same with the one thousand and ninety-two exponents in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year: five or six appealed, the rest looked like daubs of paint on canvas, or as if someone had begun studying geometry in colour.

That is not to say I have anything against Abstract, for example, but it needs t show that the artist has spent more than two minutes with a brush in their hand before going down the local bar and drinking a few cold beers with fellow creators.

There are about fifteen good museums and many high quality galleries within easy reach of my house. I can triple that number by adding a fifty mile radius and will always find something of interest to brighten my day. Theatre and cinema, absolutely no problem. Architecture, nature, we have everything around us and within fairly easy reach. Those who claim living out in the sticks, away from civilisation is a downside to where we are don’t appreciate how fine it is to leave the smoky, hectic city behind them, and just relax in peace and quiet at home. And those who look will always find something to their taste, from modern right through to the earliest religious works. Music, exactly the same: a short tour in to Bremen, Hannover or Hamburg and all the styles you can wish for are on offer in one way or another, from Irish bars with live music through to the spittoon-in-the-corner country and western. Music and art are still taught, to some extent, in the schools here, even if the cultural aspect of education has been cut back drastically to adapt to a society fixated with making money and creating industry, whilst not being capable of producing the trades which are really needed.

Finally, so that I can get to the post at a reasonable time this morning: I don’t always quote from classical works; sometimes I just sit down a write for a few pages and no references come to mind at all; sometimes it seems appropriate but not necessarily something which would fit. Many of the books I have read, over a very long reading career, stick in the mind for one reason or another, and I do enjoy the Victorian art of quoting where something is appropriate, as much as the idea, mentioned above, of being shared and discussed. Whether anyone outside of academia still reads the books I take my short quotes from or not makes little difference, and I certainly don’t expect everyone else to dig out their favourite works and use them in letters. We all have our own writing styles, our own interests, and that is what we should share so that our partners, or writing friends, can see who we are and what interests us. It’s one thing to say that you like literature, or that you read a lot, quite another to live up to this claim. If we were all just as we are and not trying to put a different face on in order to influence or even impress others, the world would be different, and perhaps more enjoyable too. Not necessarily better, but certainly different.