There is nothing wrong with honesty whatsoever, to continue from my last and after your interesting comments: I would much rather know that a person is going to be honest with me, to whatever extent is possible, than always have the fear that I will find out some dark truth by other means, having trusted that person practically with my life and welfare for a considerable period of time. Honesty, along with the gathering of knowledge, ethics and a few other minor subjects, is one of the foundation stones of philosophical discussion, and one which I enjoy coming to now and then when talking about a person’s inner feelings, about their actions, about the manner in which they treat other people. And one of the advantages of philosophical discussion, aside from the fact that absolutely anyone can take part, is that it is more generalised; it tends not to be directed at one particular person, more at a general group of people, or at mankind as a whole. It is, you could say, a very safe way of passing blame since you are not speaking to anyone directly, but those who should take the blame feel as if they are being spoken to. Better, of course, is that since you are being very general, those who should be blamed say nothing which could highlight their fault in any way, or bring attention to their actions. With my first letter, however, I was writing very generally indeed since, as you are more than well aware, we do not know one another yet and the process of becoming (platonic, writing) friends has only just begun.
However, it worked, because you have been kind enough to reply, and have given me, with your letter, new things to think about, to consider and add to my small fount of knowledge. I was especially interested, and impressed, to read your stance on those who do write to you, and can only say that I agree with you fully. There are those, you may well have seen their profiles yourself, who are explicitly looking for some sort of non-platonic adventure, fully aware that there can be nothing physical and that they are only playing with someone’s mind. These, I am told, tend to be the people who try and twist a man or woman around their finger, and then expect small gifts and a certain amount of credit to their commissary accounts before proceeding. We have telephone-sex and all that sort of thing over here in Germany, but not a lot of call for written gratification. Fine, with the advent of the internet there is not a great deal of calling for anything else. I am also told that, in Japan, the level of personal interaction between adults has dropped drastically – to such an extent that there have been government campaigns to advertise the benefits of sex – partially because of the high work ethic, which the government is also working against, and partially because of the ease with which a person can gain personal gratification on the internet. And that, after far too many words, is probably all the talk about sex that I’m going to cover today as it really isn’t my thing to write in such a manner unless it is a specific exploration of trends and beliefs.
Experience tells me that people stop writing for a limited number of reasons, the main one being that there has been a major change in their lives. Being released from incarceration is one such reason, marriage, movement to a new State or country are others. I have generally tended to avoid writing to people who have an early release date simply because I enjoy writing over a very long-term, building up a friendship as if it is a life-long thing, and then to be let down without a word hurts. That certainly doesn’t mean this will happen with everyone who I write to, or everyone who you are in contact with, but the chances, based on my own experiences, are high. Or, to put it into figures, out of all those I have written to who have undergone a major change in their lives at some stage in our relationship, none are writing to me now. Clearly, when someone is released from prison they have other priorities, and certainly need to use whatever finances they have for much more pressing necessities, and that is something I have to accept. It just seems a shame, though, not so much that it is a waste of energy to write and then have them disappear, more that a friendship has disappeared. The time and energy expended have always been worthwhile, otherwise why would anyone do it in the first place?
And you are also absolutely correct in stating that we should all have our own priorities, our own standards, regardless of who we are. It makes no difference if it is a city person or a country person, highly educated or just managed to scrape through, we all set ourselves standards for our own conduct, and for what we hope and expect from other people. If someone knowingly steps over the line, they should be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions. That’s the way society has been built as far back as we can look, and that is exactly the way our lives should be governed too. Providing that we have the choice, of course. If there is no choice, if we are constantly told exactly how we are to act and behave in private or with others and have no personal choice in the matter, no chance to voice our own opinion and set our own standards, then it is hardly worth considering; and generally we find that, when left to their own devices, people tend to set very high standards and, wherever possible, keep to them.
Why is brutal honesty rare? You mention this in your letter and I think that the answer is right where you are, and certainly there in some of the things I am involved with. Other people cannot take what they give: if you are honest about someone to them, rather than behind their back, they do not like it. In the United States, as I understand, a person can be written up for being honest. I had not come across this term before, but know exactly what it means: being written up for us is having a report made or a note in our personal files – school, employment, whatever. I find this an absolutely abhorrent method of avoiding the truth, of preventing yourself, if the truth is being told to you, from considering what is being said and why, and then seeking a solution. It is a means of exerting power rather than finding an answer and, for me, a cowardly way out of any situation. Of course hearing the truth can be hard, especially when it comes from someone that you trust: the first instinct is to feel attacked, and for some to retaliate in kind. The first instinct, in my opinion, should be to stop, listen, and think. But we are all human, and that is a very hard line to take, especially if, later, when we’ve had time to calm down and consider, we come to the conclusion that this person is right and we are wrong. Difficult to go back when you’ve burnt all your bridges.
I’ve been writing letters for many years: an unsuccessful start when I was at school where we were forced to write letters home which were then graded; a highly successful start in the army, when I took over a whole mess of letters received as a joke against one of the soldiers. Some of my friendships have extended through over a decade, a few have been several years, many less than a year. As you mention, there are many reasons why people stop writing, predominantly a major change in their lives, but we often never get to find out. They simply disappear somewhere and we have no idea of what is going on at all. For my longest pen friend, a young woman living in Australia who I did actually get to meet, her marriage signalled the end of a friendship that had lasted over ten years. He felt it in appropriate that she write to me, or that she kept her other Real World friends, and it came to an end. I was saddened, but it was their decision. I would have done it differently and allowed my spouse full access to whatever was written, in both directions: if there is merely a friendship involved, where is the harm?
I’m not sure when I began writing to prisoners, but the big rush came this year as I finally had a good deal of time on my hands and could dedicate myself to my hobbies and interests. Why prisoners? I’m not sure but, as an older man living alone, I’ve had far better returns than with anyone else. I do write to other people, but even when they have no one else writing to them, and reinsert advertisements or pleas for correspondence, being an older, single man is a drawback. The assumption is that I am one of those old men who is after something else, something other than good conversation and a platonic relationship conducted purely through the written word. It is a similar assumption that you will have been faced with: you are in prison and therefore…
I have problems describing myself. I see myself as a mere cover for a relatively interesting book, where the cover is what is seen by everyone standing in front of me, and the contents, the important part, only come out when someone is prepared to converse. Physical appearance isn’t everything, and I don’t say that just because I am old and withered – which I am and am not, by the way! – it changes with time just as the soul evolves with experience and knowledge. If we judged people by their outer appearance and nothing else there would be a lot of good-looking politicians running our respective countries, but no brains or real world knowledge to back up their looks, and someone like Professor Hawking would be relegated to a sideline, despite his intellect and abilities. But I can say that I am quite tall, fit through plenty of activity, bearded and bald, blue-eyed and bespectacled, a wearer of jeans and of suits, of baseball caps and top hats, as you can see. This, I hasten to add, was an official event in our town back in May 2014 when presented a commemorative shield to the town for display on their May Tree and was expected to wear a dark suit and top hat. The outfit is also the normal clothing, for official events, of the local shooting club, those people in the background, and so I didn’t stand out as an oddity at all.
What else? I write letters, usually one every day of the week. I read books, usually three or four a week. I collect old photographs and have a collection of about twenty thousand individual examples from between 1880 and 1925, and a smaller collection of cameras which, to be honest, unwanted by me, is a side to buying photographs which has to be accepted sometimes. There are people I deal with who bring me a job lot, and the camera is there too, so it gets added. I live with a cat in a thirteen room house near the centre of this town: an old carpenter’s shop built in the Twenties and with much of the original left despite the last occupants renovation attempts so that their family, twenty-five people, could live here in reasonable comfort. Although, comfort in this case is relative: three to a small room – females, the males had better quarters – is hardly what I would term comfortable. I am slowly rebuilding, mainly so that I can house my photographs and shelve my books.
Aside from that I am considered to be a typical Englishman here, even though I speak German fluently which most of my compatriots cannot, and can often be seen wandering through the town and surrounding countryside, smoking my pipe and enjoying the country air.
Hand writing, yes. If you saw mine, as I can hardly hold a pen these days, you’d know what bad hand writing is all about. During my military service, when I was in Saudi Arabia and writing back home, I had a very small style of writing – mainly because we were using airmail envelopes and they had a limited amount of space available for messages – which hardly anyone could read. Or so they claimed: I’m sure for many it was just they weren’t used to such hand writing, and didn’t want to work too hard. I now let my fingers dash across the keyboard, mistakes and all, and no one complains that they cannot read what I have written, only that they cannot understand what it all means! Your hand writing was, however, easy to understand and I had no problems with it at all. For me, as I said before, it is the content and not the appearance which matters.
I was trying to remember, going back to another thing that you mentioned in your letter, whether I had ever stopped writing to someone for any reason other than a major life change. I have had many changes, particularly when it comes to moving from one country to another, but none which have caused me to cease writing to anyone. I do remember, however, back in the Eighties there was a young woman from the United States who wrote quite short and seemingly random letters now and then. I would reply with my usual flamboyant style, several pages at a time, and then receive a reply back which hardly referenced what I had written, and generally contained nothing new whatsoever: nothing about her life, her activities, her interests, her plans or surroundings. Then, one day, I received a small, single page, lilac paper letter apologising for not having written recently and promising a real letter soon. That made me wonder, because I had just received a letter from her, and was in the process of replying. Then, two days later, I received a small single page, lilac paper letter saying exactly – word for word – the same as the last one.
Now, I have no idea what was happening with the letters I was writing, whether she was building the numbers up like followers on a social media site today, but it was a little like a slap in the face. I realised that she wasn’t connected with the friendship at all, that her letter writing was more of an obligation than a pleasure and, as such, a waste. Perhaps I am being too critical, I don’t know, but I do know that I never heard from her again; the two lilac paper single pagers were her last signs of life. Which is what I hope doesn’t happen with anyone else, not because I put a lot of work into what I write each day, but because I genuinely enjoy the interaction, the conversation, the thought-provoking ideas which come with letters from all around the world, and the great pleasure of addressing those letters written by people who have become friends despite the distance and despite the fact that we have never met – and probably never will meet in person – and writing back again.