I’m trying, as I set out the first words here, to think back to a time when I have not needed to convince people of the merits of letter writing; that old-fashioned means of communication which has held strong for centuries and which, despite modern technological advances, is still fighting fit and useful today. I constantly see people who lament their lack of post, who wish to have mail delivered to them in the mornings to set up their day, but aren’t prepared to go that extra half an inch and write themselves. A wonderful argument I came across last night, from someone claiming that letter writing serves no useful purpose whatsoever, is that if there was a major catastrophe at home, a house burning down or an earthquake, he wouldn’t want to have to wait a week for a letter to arrive telling him about it. There are times when even I, and I am always ready to defend letter writing, find myself absolutely lost for words. This was, I hasten to add, his only defence of modern technology, as if letter writing would completely knock out all other means of communication and leave us with nothing but paper and pens: no radio, no newspapers, no telephones for a quick chat.
And then there is the idea of old-fashioned, words which I often use myself but more for fun than anything: I don’t consider letter writing old-fashioned at all, maybe some of the styles of writing – such as my own – but not the idea, not the physical act of writing a letter. For me it is a highly modern means of communicating, and certainly one of greater use to the world – especially the social historians who will come in future decades – that electronic mail or social media ever will be. I think it is more the idea, amongst younger people, that since there is a quicker method we should all be using it, and that with this method we can create more friendships, keep in touch better and always be up-to-date with the latest news. Overload and boredom don’t seem to come into the equation, which surprises me since I see it all the time. Whenever a phone peeps or dings or whatever note it makes to gain your attention, someone will reach into their pocket, glance quickly, sigh and return the gadget back to where it was. Clearly nothing of importance had happened, for anyone but me, that is. For the one it is a status update – perhaps that a baby just had its first solid food, or a dog soiled the pathway again – for me it is a distraction, an unwanted break in a conversation which had been going on face-to-face and which was, without any excuse or apology, simply cast aside for something of lesser importance. We reach for our smart phones automatically, no matter what is happening, and it takes precedence over everything else for a moment or two, and that should not be the case.
I wonder, sometimes, how many of these young people, networked beyond belief, would be able to survive a few days, even a few hours, without their constant connectivity. If their telephones were taken away from them, what would they do? All their friends would suddenly be gone – as if one hundred followers on Facebook can ever be called friends when probably ninety have never even been met in real life – and there would be no one to show how wonderful the design on their coffee froth is, or share a photograph of their latest avocado salad with. They would be forced to look where they are walking, a good idea at the best of times, to concentrate on what other people are saying, and might even see something of the world for themselves without the recommendation of a Yelp review. Perhaps that cup of designer coffee would also taste better if it could be enjoyed without constant interruption.
It has become so bad with these new gadgets, that artists such as the Swedish-born Emanuel Almborg have done studies and produced artistic exhibitions on the way technology is shaping social relations. Sadly the show is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which is too far for a quick day trip. And at Nottingham Castle, further north in England, there is another exhibition about how the digital age has changed our perceptions of art, and the methods people use to produce works of art. Luckily there are still enough good artists working with pens, brushes and ink or paint out there to keep this skill alive, otherwise I fear it will go much the same way as writing is appearing to: down the drain, replaced by abbreviations and silly cartoon pictures designed to show emotions which can no longer be explained in words.
I see people’s perceptions of art all the time when I visit galleries and museums during the school term: groups of young children chatting and pointing as they are shown some of the masterpieces on show; older children in groups, concentrating on their smart phones and not seeing anything around them but what is on the small screen. We live in an age where more is available to us, across the spectrum of income and education, and are ignoring it. There was a time when we’d have demanded to be allowed into the Royal Academy or some of the other high quality, exclusive, venue and would have needed to be properly dressed to boot. Today, everything is there, often at ridiculously low prices for a day’s entertainment, and we’re concentrating on the status update of someone we’ve never met who’s just had a bikini wax. Fine, I can see the appeal, as a man, of the bikini wax – or Brazilian as it has now become known – but it’s something which could still wait until later; there here-and-now is far more important.
There are, of course, many people who still work in the arts and who produce some fine works for our pleasure, probably more than ever before, just a shame that we don’t take the time to enjoy them in real life. I would love, for example, to have seen the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, with s many young and new artists being represented – London is a long way away, much as I love the city of my birth – and it is good to see that some of these people are using creative methods which are also old-fashioned. My enclosed photograph is of a linocut by Julia Peintner called Microcosmos, which brings back memories of studying art at school, back in the Seventies, when I was the only one of twenty students to volunteer for the printing class. I wonder, with all the cutbacks on educational spending and the movement away from the Humane Arts, how many people today would know how to do this: so simple, and yet beyond the comprehension of so many. Unless, I suppose, they found a How-To video on the internet.
Whoever thinks that we know nothing does not know whether we know enough to say that this is so.
There are many different versions of this quote, which is from Lucretius, some claim to be from Socrates, some from more modern thinkers and writers. I am sure that it fits with every single time throughout history, when we take a section of society and place them in the limelight, check them out, assess their capabilities, but I want to turn it on its head and look from a different angle.
[…] someone who won’t judge me […]
These are your words, or part of them, the rest makes little difference as everything is said here.
We all judge people, from the very first moment we see them, right down to long after they are gone: we check out how they move: what they are wearing; how they talk; what their education appears to be; what they eat and drink; their religion; their political beliefs; their friends. We judge them, though, only on that which we can see, and that which sometimes gets whispered to us by others. At no time, however, do we know enough about a person to judge them from their own point of view, or to assess them might be better. Our lives, and those of every single person around us, before and after our time, are like onions: many layered, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, but reaching further and further into our souls until we come to the core of a person. And it is this core which we are never, not even for ourselves in most cases, going to reach. No matter how deep we may believe we have gone, there will always be another layer, another influence in the life of a person which needs taking into account, another experience which moved them in one direction or another. Of course we can judge a person according to a set of rules, but we are judging their actions and not necessarily the person, their character, their soul, their inner core.
People who have lived their entire lives with each other, been married for seventy years or so, still do not know everything about their partners, every single little secret of their past, every small thought which rushes unbidden through their minds. They can guess, that is true, and perhaps have a better than average chance of getting it right, but they can never know a person as well as they know themselves, and even then there is much missing. Our judgements of people – especially of those we have not met – are based on prejudice, on incomplete information, on our own personal situation and experiences. It is something which we cannot avoid as much as we would wish to and, in my opinion, that is a good thing too. We build ourselves a foundation by which we can approach a person based on what we see and have heard, a bridge leading from our safe side to their side, but always with the possibility of a quick return to our comfort zones, our safe havens. If we are prepared for the moment when we get to the other side of the bridge, that is even better, especially if there is a good portion of open-mindedness and understanding, the ability to listen and plenty of patience in our luggage.
We need all of these things, especially when it comes to building up a friendship through letter writing, because we are entering someone’s life not at the very start, but in the middle, when practically everything has been formed, when we have character, history, beliefs, preferences and everything that goes to make up an intelligent, thinking person. Whether we use all these gifts is another matter entirely. Letter writing, though, has a distinct advantage over other forms of friendship: you can carry on ‘talking’ for as long as you desire, and no one is going to interrupt and contradict you. Letter writing is a one-sided conversation; you write and then wait. Hopefully the person on the other side takes the time to read and think before they reply, but that is something we learn with time too. Before writing our first letter, though, we have already judged the other person. To a certain extent we have made a decision about what sort of person it is, what could interest them, what we can say and what is best to be avoided. We open ourselves up a little to them, in the hope that they will do the same back and get the conversation, on a very slow and peaceful vein, going. We judge their first reply – or the initial contact letter – and decide whether to reply, sometimes even whether to read through the entire missive, and what to say, if anything at all. Judging is good, but it should be slow, patient and fair. And if I hadn’t judged you, based on the information I know and which comes predominantly from your own hand and thoughts, this letter would never have been put together, never have made the journey from Germany to the United States, never have been handed over to you at mail call. And you would never have had a chance to judge me.
Different levels of judgement, of course, that is clear, but they all begin on the same level: what we know; what we see; what we assess; what our experiences tell us. And then we decide whether we’re open to some new experiences, a different opinion or outlook on life from elsewhere.
In Victorian times letter writing was the main means of communication, of keeping conversations going, of maintaining friendships. Those times have gone, along with the ability of most people to put a decent letter together. We have become a society that struggles to thank Aunt Jean or Grandpa Jimmie for a Christmas present, unless we send it by text over our brand new, up-to-the-minute cell phone. We have become a society which looks askance at those who sit in a street café, with a fresh cup of ordinary coffee – no pictures in the froth – and read a book. We have become a society which no longer sees all that is around it, which is so concentrated on a few celebrities on social media networks, that we miss the real world as it flies past us. We have become a life form which no longer lives, it merely exists. And I don’t think that was the initial plan at all, otherwise, why would we have all these capabilities? I don’t need to think back to the times before computers were on every kitchen table and decided for us in which direction life is going, because I am still happily in those times. There are computers in my life, and I find them very useful indeed, I even have a smart phone, but, unlike many it seems, I know where the on-off button is, and I know how to use it.
Letter writing is a most enjoyable process of building up a friendship, of maintaining social intercourse, of sharing life with someone else. We no longer handle letters as the Victorians, and earlier civilisations in foreign climes, did by sharing them with family and friends, but that is no reason not to write. It is a very intimate and gratifying form of communication; slow and satisfying like a good, cold glass of water. I would be honoured if you would care to join me on this journey.