It is often said that people should never mix business and pleasure together, but mainly by those who do not understand the meaning of leisure, and who most certainly do not appreciate what is available to them in their limited free time when visiting new areas, cities, meeting new people. Such a mix is, however, practically impossible and, in our modern world where almost everything is written on a global level, unwanted. People who travel on business – politically or otherwise – no longer expect to arrive at their hotel, go into a business meeting, eat, sleep and return home; there has to be a complete package on offer. We are in a world not only where people now wish to explore the areas they are visiting, but where the hosts gain a great deal by showing what is on offer outside of the normal business arena. Sadly, though, this often extends to some presents or excursions which could be called bribery, which could be termed coercion and, not unknown, which might be used at a later date to either bring someone to heel, or to have them removed from a position which the opposite number – even someone not directly connected to the company or country involved – finds them to be of no more use. I must add, however, that this has always been the case, it is nothing new and, of course, no one has learned from the lessons of the past, they always believe it will not happen to them, and that all presents offered, and accepted, are above-board or, in the worst possible case, either easy enough to justify, or easy enough to hide from public scrutiny.
For me it is slightly different because my business is also my pleasure, and there are few people who would ever consider offering me anything which I might need to hide or deny at a later date. Everything passes into my realm of experiences lived, and remains there until I have either the opportunity to recall, or the need, and can use these gathered moments in my writing. My combined business – if you wish to term it so – and pleasure revolve around the written word, which has accompanied me all my life and will, I sincerely hope, remain an enrichment until my final days. I spend many hours writing letters, short stories and articles and receive in return the occasional reply by mail, which makes the whole thing worthwhile. But sometimes the combination of real business alongside the pleasure of the written word has to be considered, and I have to take many things into account which, in the normal run of things, would never raise their heads. This is, mainly, because of the direction I decided to take at the start of this year, when I chose to ignore many hundreds of people seeking penfriends from ordinary walks of life – although one or two have slipped in, I must admit, but they are an exception – and concentrate my letter writing on those who are incarcerated for whatever reason. I have, of course, as everyone would do, limitations on who I will, who I wish to write to, but these are fairly normal ones, and concentrate themselves less on an offence and more on the chances of my receiving an enjoyable, thought-provoking series of replies over a long period of time. Without blowing my own trumpet too loud, I must admit that this has proven to be a success so far, in most cases: there are some people who never bothered writing back, one or two who stopped after a very short period of time, and many who have continued and with whom it is a pleasure to exchange opinions, impressions, experiences.
And, eventually, the question always arises about the ability of someone to correspond, not on an intellectual level – there are very few who cannot express themselves in such a manner that they are understandable – but from a financial point of view. It is clear to me, even though I have never had any direct contact nor gained personal experience, that a person who is incarcerated has a very limited scope of opportunities when it comes to earning a living over and above what the State allows them whilst sitting out their term, their punishment. This is not just a present reality, but an historical one too: there have always been countries who have locked away their citizens, rightly or wrongly, and then demanded that their immediate family, their friends and acquaintances pay additional dues to ensure that their loved ones become a decent meal each day, have clothes to wear, or those daily necessities which we take for granted such as soap, toothpaste and the like. Some countries, even in our advanced and, theoretically, enlightened times still demand that everything is provided, that a prisoner is fed and clothed from outside. At least one that I know of, when a person is executed for a crime – whether right or wrong – sends a bill to the family involved for the cost of the execution, coupled with a letter from the person being executed requesting that the bill be paid. That, to my way of thinking, is taking things too far, but we cannot slip into the minds and legal mentalities of such countries, such politicians and police states, and see what makes them tick.
And then there are the items which are not necessities, which, a few years ago at least, would have been considered to be luxuries even for ordinary people making something of a living. Today, in Germany and many other European countries, the ownership of a television set is no longer considered to be a luxury, but a normal part of life. It is accepted that a cell phone is a necessity for many, and also a method of protecting younger people not just from physical attack – in that they can call for assistance or film their attackers – but also a means of preventing harassment in the schoolyard. Those who do not have a cell phone are now considered to be the outsiders, the strange people, and treated accordingly. German law recognises this form of discrimination and takes it into account when dispensing welfare and financial assistance. There was a time when a washing machine was a luxury claimed only by the few, but which is now such a part of a household, it comes as a surprise if you hear of someone who still washing by hand.
Times change, and it is often difficult to keep up with them on all fronts. The needs of people in all walks of life changes too, often in ways that we, in our own small worlds, cannot either anticipate or imagine. And so we come to the question of communication in our modern world, over what would be a luxury and what would be an essential item for a normal person to have and to use. As you know, I am not the sort of person who enjoys writing to people using modern technology: I have a thing against instant messages and personal electronic mail when it comes to me using them, where a more personal call, face-to-face talk or a written letter would be possible. This is my own stand point but, as it should be, I am open to accept and live with the ideals and understandings, the needs of other people. If someone tells me that, for whatever reason, they would prefer t send an electronic mail to me in place of a letter, that is their right and their privilege. I see no reason to turn them down for their choice which does not hurt me in any way, but continues to benefit me in that I still have contact with them. If they are prepared to accept that I would rather write by the old-fashioned means – even when using new-fashioned methods – then the world between us is a perfect place, and we can all proceed with our lives towards that happy ever after.
From my own side, I also appreciate the ease with which certain things need to be done to make them not just worthwhile, but also possible. Not everyone can sit down, in peace and quiet, regardless of their circumstances and surroundings, and pen a letter. It is not just an educational matter, or anything to do with motivation or ability, more with the possibilities surrounding their own personal circumstances. I, for example, have exceptional problems, down to outright pain, trying to hold a pen in my hands and have had to adapt accordingly. Some do not accept this and move on, as is their right, and I do too. I may well miss their correspondence and feel that their strict stance has resulted in both parties losing something worthwhile over a minor handicap, but it is their choice. The offer is there from my side, they merely need to accept it as I would and have done many times, when someone else comes along and wishes to do things a different way to the one I have chosen for myself. The world would be, I feel, a very boring place if we were all the same.
Therefore I wish to make two suggestions, on the business side of our written relationship. The first is that you wait and see what the competition between these two companies results in as far as your future with these tablets is concerned. It would be pointless and unnecessary to fork out a large sum on the understanding that something could happen, only to be disappointed in the end and left with a non-returnable piece of machinery which is incompatible with the system you are using. The second would be, once this is sorted out and it is clear exactly who will be offering the services for the coming years, which of the two companies involved receives the concession or contract, to know that I will sponsor a portion of the costs for you. By this mean that I cannot – my own personal situation taken into account – afford the complete sum of a new tablet at any time in the near future but, once the future is secured and we know who will be offering the services which assist us in communicating so well with another, I will take up seventy dollars of the cost, assuming that the price remains as it is now. This is with a caveat: if you are able to raise the remaining sums from family and friends, and you have time to do that before the new concession is awarded, I will transfer the remaining sum. I suspect that this will be in a few months time – which is also to my benefit as I have many costs to clear over the next months, it being the end of the year when many contracts end and begin afresh with a new influx of my hard-earned cash – so we would be looking at February or March. You tell me who the new provider will be and what their terms are, and that others are prepared to assist as well – be they family or friends, other penfriends or whatever makes little difference – and I will complete the rest.
You are right: our reading interests do appear to be on a different level. I have read, as a youth, many of the authors that you mention and, in their time, enjoyed them. Perhaps with the exception of Sidney Sheldon who, for me, is a form writer aiming for a mass market with little real depth. I daresay the same could be said for Jackie Collins, but that style of writing has never really been of interest to me, even if some of the subjects briefly covered, or used as a background, to several works have fallen within my scope. I was mainly drawn, however, to those titles which didn’t appear on the library bookshelves when I was a child at school, and found a way to get to them and enjoy their contents without either arousing suspicion, or causing any difficulties from those in a position of power. I’m not talking about the more racy titles – Jackie Collins could well be included in this section – or those with an outright sexual content, but ones where there was an underlying suggestion of something not normal. One of these hidden titles was T. E. Lawrence’s brilliant Seven Pillars of Wisdom which covered his exploits in Arabia during the First World War, but which had an underlying current of homosexuality, on the one side, and belief that what the British, and others, were doing was not correct. Some felt that his affinity towards the Arabs, his war-time work together with various tribes and clans amounted to some form of treason, and so the works had to be hidden from the susceptible minds of youngsters who, in my day, had to be educated in the belief that the British – the English might be better – were always absolutely correct, and those who turned against them for whatever reason, be it the American colonies, the Indian Raj, the central American tribes, were wrong. The British Empire, we were taught, was always correct, was the best thing that had ever happened to this planet and civilisation as a whole, and no writings from a war hero or otherwise should shake that belief.
And then I also gained great pleasure from reading the classical masters of thousands of years ago, such as Plato and Cicero, which turned me in the direction of philosophy and history as much as literature. My present reading regime has been a new history of the world based around the Silk Roads of olden times – the supply routes which merchants and adventurers created and governments tried to keep open at all costs – which includes a fascinating series of revelations about early religious attitudes, such as the fact that the Muslim and Jewish faiths worked together for many decades as the Christians invaded and attempted to wipe their rivals off the face of the earth. From this insight into our past times I have moved on to a relatively new work of fiction called A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which concerns a Count in Russia during the revolutionary years, and the decade or so following the overthrowing of the royal household, the monarchy, and the murders of the Tsar and his entire family. Next on my pile of many, many books I intend reading sometime in the future is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, a story about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his son.
Where I sit and write my letters, I am surrounded by books and the piles grow larger with regularity. The subject matters vary between small press poetry – many limited editions I bought when I was a teenager in London – and major presses, with categories ranging from philosophy and history, through literature and crime. There are works of fiction as much as works of biography and collections of memoirs and letters. Today, as I collected another title from a nearby bookseller, I glanced over new works on the Thirty Years War and Karl Marx, marking them down for the future. The works that I have – about seven thousand volumes – are in English, German, French, Greek, Latin as the main languages, and I have also received presents from authors of their newest works in Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish. As you can imagine, not all of these languages are easy to read. I rarely look to see whether an author is male or female, black or white, that interests me considerably less than the subject matter, which often takes me well off the beaten path of classic or mainstream literature, and into the realms of ethnic or minority works which, I am delighted to say, can hold their worth against many of the big names with little or no problems at all.
My home is literally built around the books in my library. When I first settled in Germany I had a small apartment where I could squeeze myself into a niche and sleep, had a walk-in kitchen and plenty of wall space for bookshelves surrounding my writing-table. My personal expansion into reading books in other languages meant that I had to move after only two years, into an apartment twice the size and then, a year or so later, again into one of about one hundred square yards floor space. Now, with my work and my interests – not just in books but also photography and antique photographs – I have been forced to upgrade again, and am in the process of renovating a five hundred square yard house from the Twenties so that I have a small living area, and a very big storage and work area. This, I hasten to add, is small by American terms – or so I am told – but big by German and European who, for some reason, have always kept their living areas smaller and their leisure areas larger.