Your comment on the dangers of smart phones struck a chord with me straight away, partially because I know that this is exactly what happens, partially because I have (almost) seen the effects. I do have one of these things, of necessity more than anything else since it is impossible to get a real cell phone without all the unnecessary software today, but tend to think of it literally as a phone. So when someone asks me what time it is, unlike others I do not automatically reach for my phone, I would glance at my wrist or look for a church clock somewhere. The fact that I also don’t wear a watch makes life for other people more complicated, but not for me! The whole idea of this particular danger came through to me a year or so ago as I was walking in a quiet part of Bremen: I was asked the time by a young man who was lounging next to the street – that is, he was facing half away from me as he spoke – since there was a church steeple with a clock nearby I simply told him I did not have the time, which was true. He asked me whether I had a cell phone, meaning, of course, I should check it.

From his position and stance it was very clear to me what would have happened here if I had pulled out a cell phone to check the time for him: he was in the right position to grab and then run, something which had happened quite a few times in Bremen and been reported in the local news. Cell phones, especially those which are not locked by the telephone companies, are prized goods, and can be sold on for a good price. For this young man there was no haul, at least, not from me, which clearly disappointed him. Who, he was asking himself, does not have a cell phone these days?

Dangers in so many other aspects too: my own example being a car driver who accelerated and drove direct into me, full frontal, last November because he was busy checking out his status or timeline or whatever, and not looking at the road. I was fortunate, he was not: he had to be cut from his car and I hobbled away with a broken foot. For me, though, the dangers are completely different: I see how people rely on these instruments, on the new technology, and then panic when something goes wrong, or when the battery dies. They are constantly being pressured to have the latest version, the newest model with the improved contract, and that is bad for our world with so much waste and, of course, bad for workers who are being forced to work for less and less to keep the prices of these things low. I have seen, though, people panic, quite literally, when their phone no longer works, or when they see they have no cable to recharge, or when there is not network for them to log in and check Twitter or Facebook. It is a sad sight indeed.

Judgement is something we are all subjected to, and I appreciate exactly what you are saying: if we judge someone without knowing their story then we are wrong. That is my opinion at least. At the same time there will always be a certain level of judgement, this thought in the back of your mind that something has happened before, it can happen again. There will always be caution, perhaps more so than with other people, but always there. Caution, by the way, is a good thing and not to be underestimated; it keeps us healthy. You have to bear in mind, though, that people will always latch on to something which helps them place everyone else in a pigeonhole: if a person cannot be categorised then some have great difficulty deciding how to treat them, how to talk to them. I a manner of speaking, it is like the class system: if you do not know which class a person belongs to, you do not know whether to treat them as an equal, with deference, or to speak down to them. We judge, we attach labels, we feel happier as a result. Listening to a background story, getting to know someone properly in our instant gratification society is something we do not entertain any more. It has to go fast, it has to be immediate, so if there is a point which can be used to place a person in a certain position we will grab hold of it, whether that is correct or not, and then the battle begins to adjust this bad first impression and gain back that respect and position which we should have.

I see from your letter that you have done something most other people do not do: you’ve been somewhere. One of the good things about the military, as I too appreciate, is the chance to travel and explore parts of the world other people can only dream about. I used my time not only to fight but also to see, making sure I got out of the military areas as quickly as possible to have plenty of time available for exploration. Also the idea of getting off the beaten path, away from the tourist traps, is something which has always appealed to me, something I have always tried to follow. I’ve seen many who head straight for that which they know, and ignore or avoid that which is strange. They’re missing out on such a wonderful chance to expand their horizons, to see things which might not be there in a few years time, to gain stories they can tell their families back home. I was in Cyprus with my troop for a month and we had regular visits into Nicosia and other beautiful areas, and I watched my team head off into the burger bars and the supermarkets with names they recognised – such as Woolworth, which was there in my time, if not still there now – rather than getting out and seeing the local sights. I wonder what they tell their children and grandchildren: I was in Nicosia and spent all my time in Woolworth?

When I first arrived in Germany I made it a point to ask others here what the local area had to offer. I met up with men who had been here three years, and didn’t know what was on the other side of the railway tracks – where they quite literally stopped as the main British bar was at the railway station. There were soldiers who spent eight years station in one of the most beautiful parts of northern Germany, and they had no idea what was on offer, what they were missing out on. There was even, to my dismay and disgust, a small group who were proud of the fact that they never went out, that they didn’t speak a word of German and that they were, so to speak, holding the nationalist flag high.

A lot of guys will write […] tell them what they want to hear […] catch them in a lie.

Sadly I have discovered that this goes across the whole of society, no matter where you are and what you are doing. I haven’t, so far, met up with anyone who has tried it with me, to the best of my knowledge, but perhaps that is because those who would try, who are tempted to reap some strange benefit from a friendly correspondence, do not feel that they can answer my letters. The only thing I have come across, which made me sad but no more than that, was someone who sent effectively the same letter to several people at once. I received my copy just the other day, and spotted it immediately not because the letter did not seem to be right, or didn’t speak to me as if in answer to one of my letters, but because someone else’s name was mentioned in the middle of the text – the manner in which a person speaks to another in real life, Dale, and not the normal way a letter is written – and rather than my name being at the point where yours is, there was someone else’s. That, for me, is playing games as much as anything. There are no requests – or demands – for presents, help, or anything else, but it is clear that this is what will come since a form letter is being sent out, and the writer has no real interest in the individuals writing to her. Of course, this should be gender neutral, since I am sure plenty of males would do the same given the chance! As you say, life is too short and a good friendship is something you need to work at to keep it on the right level, like a marriage if you will, and not just something as a sideline to occupy a few minutes when nothing else interesting is going on. We’re not a Hollywood-style clique of High School girls.

There is little about me that can be told in a single paragraph, most comes out through memories and shared stories over time and is, in my opinion, much better that way. Born in London back in the swinging Sixties, formal education in North Yorkshire and then under my own steam in many cities and countries around the world. My interests also include travel, the arts, a broad swath of music – but including classical – history, literature and philosophy. I spend a lot of time with discussion and debate groups and have a small band of friends who happily take on any reasonable theme with me. Some also accompany me on my travels when I have a specific event I have been invited to or am expected to direct. I collect antique photography as well as having my own small library and have lived in this small town in northern Germany, where I have also been a county councillor and held many other positions in public life. I live alone – but for my cat – in a large house which I am gradually renovating, and spend my non-travelling time reading and writing letters. That sums me up on the surface; the depths are, of course, a different matter. I rarely ask questions, but am always happy to answer them as best I can. My letters tend to ramble at times but are for one person alone, even though I am a firm believer in the Victorian idea of letter-sharing where something is of interest to others.

Generally I avoid politics and religion in discussion as these are both very personal subjects for most people, everyone having their own view and, for many, only they having the right view. I am more of the opinion that it is foolish to try to convince a person that what they believe is wrong, far better to offer your own opinion and knowledge – as well as listening to theirs – and allow them, and you, to weigh up what is said, what is heard, and formulate a path from that. As you say, life is too short…

My letters tend to cover everything that is of interest to me and, hopefully, to those who read them. I generally write a letter a day, always beginning afresh with new ideas, with new experiences, with the influences I have received from those who write to me. I have found that such correspondence is a real enrichment to life, especially when it comes to sharing the life experiences and opinions of those in other parts of the world, other cultures who, through force of circumstances or whatever, you may never meet in person. Personal enrichment through knowledge can be attained on so many different levels, and no source should be ruled out as being unworthy. I write to several inmates, and have found that the level of correspondence, the ideas which are brought forward and the depth of their thinking to be a breath of fresh air against those correspondents on the other side of the wall who neither see, nor appreciate, what they have.