I was wondering, now that the first days are over and you’ve managed to work your way through the sack loads of mail replying to your profile, whether you are still as excited and nervous about letter writing as you were when you first considered the idea. You write that you had tried to find penfriends in the past, and that it did not work out as you’d expected, a disappointment, but, as with all good things, you’re going to give it a go again. Has it come up to expectations, or have you been let down again?

I can well imagine that the results this time – although I do not know how good they have been or how long ago your first attempt was – have brought some disillusion with them, not just over what has been written, but also over what you have physically received. I know I would be sick to the stomach if it happened to me, if someone out there controlled what I am allowed to receive, even when I can understand the reasoning behind this move. I imagine someone, like you, waiting at mail call, eager and anticipating fascinating conversations, beautiful stamps and stationery, and then having a plain, cheap photocopy handed to you. Or have you been lucky so far? I know that the ban on real correspondence takes place officially on August 7, which means that this letter is affected, but perhaps it began earlier, perhaps it will be overturned and seen as a bad idea before my letter arrives. Although it is of small consolation, Arkansas is not the only State: Virginia has been taking mail and photocopying it, destroying the originals – birthday cards, postcards, personal photographs and all – and handing on photocopies for a while now. I must be honest and say I think it will make no real difference: everyone suffers as a result of this ban, but those responsible will simply find another way to get around it.

Although this comes right at the start of your venture back into the wonderful world of letter writing, of true and lasting friendships through the written word, do not let it get your spirits down: it is the contents of a letter which are of the greatest importance, and not the envelope it came in – no matter how well decorated – nor the paper it was written on – no matter how beautiful or even expensive. It is the thought which matters most, the words themselves and the people behind those words: they remain beautiful whether written in the finest calligraphy on expensive parchment, or tattooed on the back end of a cow. And, of course, it is the words from your profile which will attract those who enjoy writing letters, and probably a few others too, but we all take the good with the bad, even though they do not know you. We all take this chance, despite the wonders of modern technology, when getting in touch with people, and it is probably the only thing which makes me nervous: am I choosing the right person or, when going in the other direction, have I written a profile which will attract the right person? Have I written too much or too little? Made it plain exactly what I am looking for, and what I have to offer. There are the butterflies in my stomach, the upsetting ones. The good ones, as I hold letters in my hands for the first time, they come later, and are more than welcome.

Call me Heather as it is my nickname.

I’ve never calculated how many profiles I’ve read, fair to say considerably more than I have replied to. The art of letter writing is continually being pushed down as a dead thing, not worth poking with a stick and certainly not something anyone who lives in our modern world, with all its technological advances, needs take any notice of. But is it really dead? Have those kiosks you mentioned taken over the world? If letter writing truly had come to an end, after many centuries of being the means of communication above all others, why are there still thousands of people advertising, pleading, seeking, begging for someone to write to? Why are stationery companies still thriving right across Europe and the United States? Why does Heather feel the need to tell everyone that her name isn’t her name, but only the one she uses, when a quick mail could correct any mistakes?

Actually, Heather’s profile was a reasonable one, I just found the opening line amusing as she had registered with a penfriend site as Heather and no other name was there. Seems to be an exercise in futility, pointing out that everyone should call you by the only name that they know. But I have seen other interesting profiles:

Hi! I’m Stella, I want females only no men no inmates nobody from Africa, I am looking for females just females can not stress that enough on here

That’s good, you might think, she’s made it quite clear who is acceptable. There is nothing else, though: that was the entire profile for Stella. How about this one:

very lovey to meet new people

Yes, it is, it’s wonderful to meet up with and make friends with new people, to explore the world together and exchange views, opinions, dreams and plans. But hardly an enticement to write to this man, is it? How about:

I’m looking for a good girl for marry of her and I hate the liers and shit words I am a straight guy

Convincing. I’d marry him in a second, well, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m male too and he claims to be straight. Gay marriage is legal in Germany, so it wouldn’t be a problem anyway.

Speaking of which, a slightly amusing side story if you’re still reading: I had a large group of Americans come over to Germany to visit a few years ago and, of course, part of the pleasure of their time here was for them to get out into Bremen and explore, do some shopping and generally see the sights. Later that evening, as they all streamed back into the hotel once more, I was taken aside by a very concerned couple who told me of their shock at seeing wedding decorations in a small shop in Bremen. Those little figures some people have on top of their wedding cakes? The trouble was, they were of two men and of two women, and my visitors didn’t know how to react because they had never seen anything like it before. You know, I have no doubt, of the controversies now and then where a baker or wedding planner refuses services to gay couples; well, this pair was exactly that. And I told them such things are quite normal over here because we’re a free society and work towards equality on all levels, and I think I completely blew their view of social and political standards in one sentence.

You see, we live in different worlds in more ways than one; not just the fact of your present situation, but also in social matters, in how we address one another, how we react to the ways of the world. I, like you, was brought up in a completely different world to the one I now live in, a child of the Sixties in London with all that this entails from memories, impressions, education and outlook. I was privately educated in a boarding school on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, hundreds of miles away from home. I spent my vacation time away from home too, as soon as I was able, travelling about the countryside on foot, and by the power of my thumb. I began exploring Europe at the age of fourteen – disappearing from where I was meant to be to stay in Paris for a fortnight – and have managed to gain an open and welcoming attitude towards other customs and beliefs, to people who have lived in a different world, on this same planet, to the one that I have.

I began writing letters to people in the early Eighties – some of my friendships held decades – and keeping a journal towards the end of that decade. I have a love of books and collect antique photographs. I travel constantly and try to get in to any museum which is open wherever I happen to be. I am probably as laid back as it is possible to be, and most certainly open to discussion on absolutely any topic, whether I agree with it or not. I often quote from books I have read, from old films, from other people where my mind has been woken up by their words or actions, and try to fill my normal letters – of which, since it is merely an introduction, this is not one – with colour and interest. Sometimes it works, sometimes I get caught up in a theme and emerge several thousand words later.

I live in a small town in the north of Germany, in a house filled with books which is still being repaired / renovated around my ears. Across the road the river Weser flows through the centre of town, and I am often awoken by the bleating of sheep from the front of the house, the cawing of crows from the trees at the back. I have been a politician as well as a traveller, an educator, a soldier, a bookseller, a driver and many other things in a long and exciting life. To say that I am settling down into pensionable age would be wrong, though, as a person is only as old as they believe themselves to be, and there are many corners of this world that I haven’t seen yet. And I realise that you will have had many replies to your profile, some of which will probably strike you as being wonderfully suited to your temperament, your hopes and aims. And despite all that I have written, and despite the fact that you note no to overseas correspondents, and despite the fact that I am old and you are young, and despite many other things because sometimes, when you least expect it, a friendship blooms and grows from the most unexpected places.

The mind becomes accustomed to things by the habitual sight of them, and neither wonders nor inquires about the reason for the things it sees all the time

as Marcus Tullius Cicero writes, and it is precisely this bland acceptance of things as they are, and a lack of searching for new, exciting events, places, people, which we should avoid. If we do not, then our lives might just as well be one flowing mass, like a steady river, of unchanging and unchangeable events without thought or depth, from birth to death.