Friendship is one of those strange things you have to work at, which changes from one day to the next, which rises and falls according to our emotions, our environment, reactions and opinions of others and, above all, our level of contact. Maintaining a friendship with a person you have known personally, who is no longer present, is an exceptionally difficult feat to achieve, it is far easier to create and keep a new friendship with someone you have never known in person. The reason? These friendships are on completely different levels. With the personal friendship, you have built up a relationship around physically doing things, around talking and acting together, on being there. To suddenly replace this intimate form of friendship with a platonic, absent version is almost certainly doomed to failure. The second does not set the bar quite so high: each one works at the written or absentee friendship as best they can, putting considerably more of themselves into it because they have to work alone. There being no immediate reaction – letters take time – more personal effort is needed, bringing this form of friendship to a different level entirely.
If an absence is only for a short period of time, where the return in person can be put down to a certain date, a personal, face-to-face friendship will most certainly hold and last the course. This works for those going off to college, taking a year off in Europe, working for the Peace Corps overseas and so on. But when there is no date of return, or it is so far in the future as to be unimaginable or, even worse, a person has been incarcerated and the date is tentatively set, problems arise. People move on with their lives and cannot adapt to the change in a friendship. How many people did we know at school and college who we are in touch with now? I have no one at all, and that despite the best intentions. Our lives have changed along with our circumstances, and we have moved on without being able to take that one, or two, close friendship(s) with us. And in the case of someone who has been incarcerated, as I am sure that you can appreciate, there are pressures beyond our control and, in some cases, a certain form of embarrassment that a friendship once existed, depending on the crime. There are no real, life-long friendships which can survive such a change in circumstances, and some changes can even tear an otherwise stable family apart.
So I wouldn’t really be surprised that all those friends from before are no longer there. I wouldn’t be too surprised when family gradually moves on and the visits, the communication becomes less and less. I also wouldn’t be surprised when a friendship begins, blossoms and bears fruit between two people who have never met, probably never will meet, and who live such different lives you’d never have imagined they could stomach one another, let alone build up any form of friendship. But sometimes these things appear at the strangest times and have the weirdest backgrounds. They survive despite all the odds and show a side to humanity which many people have never experienced, never will, because they’re not prepared to take a chance and do something different. The young child, as an example, who writes to a President. And, of course, the President who replies – that was Ronald Reagan. Completely unexpected, and only brought out into the open after he had died, but a special friendship no one would have expected.
Young men and old, seek here a purpose for the soul, and comfort for the woes that over gray hairs roll.
So Persius – although, of course, true friendship should be gender neutral and, if possible, have nothing to do with social position – and Horace wrote:
Upon the rich and poor alike its blessing flow, and its neglect to young and old alike brings woe.
We all achieve the same blessings if we work at what is worth achieving, and friendship – not at any cost, but true friendship – is worth that fight. At the same time we have to accept that there are those who are not prepared to fight for a friend, who will turn their back on them if the cost of holding on to that friendship is too much effort, and by too much I mean they have to actually do something to retain it, and not just sit on their asses while everything flows over them. And, finally, Cicero:
Only those are to be judged friendships in which the characters have been strengthened and matured by age.
But I would temper this, personally, as some friendships mature faster than others, and it is clear they will be strong and stable when both sides appreciate the meaning and benefits and work at keeping them, and do not simply fall back into a rut and imagine everything will either simply carry on as before, or run its own course without them lifting a finger. And, of course, also appreciate that each friendship is as different as the people who go to make it a working thing, who bring their own personalities into the equation and inspire as much as enrich. We should always be prepared to move on to new friendships, just as much as to move along to new ideas and actions within one which already exists. Sitting still, bringing no new life, new ideas, new thoughts into a relationship is much the same as handing everyone a shovel and telling them to dig their own graves: it takes a while, but eventually each is so deep in the earth, they cannot see the others over the edge.
Sometimes we discover things about ourselves which we never imagined, or which we had always written off as being unlikely. Did you, as an example, think that a letter writing friendship with a male would be possible? Men are social animals, but on a personal level: out on a Friday or Saturday night for a beer, off to the game, sporting, active friendships out in the pen or, in some cases, on the couch in front of the television with popcorn and a cool one. Letter writing? Unthinkable. I have had men write back to me and, as their first reaction, lay down the ground rules which, in real life in a face-to-face, wouldn’t happen. It’s much harder to assess a person you cannot see, who is not sitting right across from you. It takes time. So I wasn’t too surprised to hear from some that they had misgivings, or that they hoped this wasn’t some attempt to get inside their shorts. But I have also always known that men seek out a written friendship in certain circumstances far quicker than women – there are, as an example, 913 female, 9527 male and 17 transgender adverts on that site – and have considerably less luck. There are all of five women claiming that they do not receive mail, and 1284 men, although these figures do not give a true picture of whether anyone is or is not receiving mail. Competition, as you can see, is very high indeed.
And not everyone manages to stay the course. I’ve had men and women who have folded after just a few letters, made promises they could not keep, or have simply put off replying to a letter until they’ve decided it is too late, and cast it aside completely. Some would also not have replied because my letters can be a little intimidating, but that is also something which takes time. I heard recently from an inmate I did not write to that he had taken over my address because the person who had received a letter from me was afraid I’d stop writing as soon as I received his first missive, based on his level of intelligence, of education. Neither one has to do with friendship, which is a personal thing and shouldn’t be based on education, social standing, intelligence or even religion or political views. Although, admittedly, the last two will always be relevant in our day and age, when people of opposing views and faiths cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that someone else can think and believe as they wish without them being a bad person or destined to immortal torture in some preconceived hell.
The thing about good friendships is that we also find out things about ourselves, especially when our partner in writing brings up a subject we’ve never thought of before, or highlights an experience they’ve had. For me that has been ballet. Strange as it may seem, I have never been to a ballet performance in my life, despite an interest in art, music and theatre. Last weekend changed all that, when I had a chance to see the Russian Bolshoi Ballet performing Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It is many years since I read the play, and I wasn’t exactly enamoured of it, since this was a school project, and no one enjoys reading anything when forced to do so. At my age I also didn’t imagine that I would be finding any new interests: I’ve seen many things in my life and had my fill of a lot more, so something new wasn’t on the cards. But, truth be told, I sat through a ballet performance for two and a half hours with a small glass of German champagne (called Sekt), a few pieces of bread and dip and enjoyed it immensely. There were no words, only actions, and it was still easy to follow the plot, to see what was happening and who was who.
Of course, there are plenty of ballet performances which I know of already, and I have seen extracts or highlights – especially from The Nutcracker around Christmas – but sitting through an entire performance, surrounded by people (all of my age) who I would once had thought of as being old and old-fashioned? And who can I tell, aside from letter writing friends? None of the people I know in real life – my social and business circles, if you will – appear to have any interest in theatre, opera or ballet and, as far as I can see, art is a long way down their lists too. Then again, letter writing is probably also something which few of them would consider on a personal level. But this sudden inspiration, and the experience, has awoken an interest in me I didn’t realise I had, and I am looking forward to the next performances to be staged, which include The Nutcracker and several other works I have heard of and seen in a different context. There is also a film due to be shown in my local cinema which I will be going to which, years ago, would probably never have interested me. Admittedly, as a teenager and living in Camden Town in London, often in Hampstead, I was confronted with the unusual, with the strange, with independent works and artists day in and day out, but they were a normal part of life and I never took much notice of them. Now, living in a fairly conservative town, such things stand out much more. I see things being staged and performed and notice that the audiences are small (select perhaps?) and withdrawn. But they are there, and this inspires the owner of the cinema to stage other works which might otherwise not see the light of day in this area.
Admittedly we do have three separate cinema rooms, one of which is the Lounge; small and intimate, specially designed for a more select audience who, wishing to see independent films, opera and ballet, are prepared to pay that little bit extra for the privilege. Otherwise they have to travel in to Bremen or even further afield, and that dampens the interest somewhat. The film coming up is on the French Jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt, who was big in the Forties and who, from principle, fled the country when the German occupying forces wanted to send him off to play concerts in Germany. The only downside to such films and performances is that they are shown once only, and if you miss it, that’s it. The blockbuster Hollywood action films – which I generally do not care too much for – run for a week or two, but they also bring in money, and that makes the difference. Without this money we wouldn’t be able to watch the inspiring films from independent producers and directors, so I suppose it’s all in the balance.
You asked how I am, health and so on. Let me just say: I am enjoying life. I write my letters and read my books, go for long and short walks and have time to get in to museums and art galleries which was not there when I was working. Whether I will be able to go into a pension or not, as a result of my injuries from the accident last year, remains to be seen. Right now I have time for cat and cacti, and that suits me just fine. Admittedly, the cat spends much of the time out on the town or sleeping, and my cacti need little care, so I can concentrate on reading and writing when not out on the town myself. I sometimes wonder, in the evenings when the world is quiet, what we would ever have done without literature, without books and printing. I’m reading an excellent biography of Rasputin, the Russian ‘holy man’ at the moment, and have just finished two excellent works by Amor Towles, one set in Moscow, the other in New York. I am revisiting the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Thomas Mann, amongst many others, and generally staying out of harm’s way. The only thing which is not working out as I would wish it is shelving for my books which, you’ll probably think, is not the greatest concern in the world. However, I’ve increased my library by about two hundred books in the last eight weeks, and so shelving is at a premium now. Many of the books, I hasten to add, I read as a child. Someone decided that they wished to dispose of early editions of crime novels, many from authors whose names would mean nothing to readers today, and I managed to catch them before they hit the recycling unit. They’re mainly later editions from the end of the Fifties, start of the Sixties, but as a set in a series produced by several German publishers, and the works are generally good too. More detective and criminal thinking than chases and set-up, sell-more-books sex scenes.
So, life is good, in many different ways, as I am sure you’ll agree. We have our difficulties, and overcome them in our own way as best we can and, if we’re lucky, have friends who are there for us when we need them. Let’s keep it that way.