I think it was the first three sentences of your biography which interested me the most, which caused me to carry on reading and then, after a while considering possibilities and the highly probable chance of being turned down or ignored, to send you a message. I’m not saying that the rest of what you wrote was uninteresting, exactly the opposite, but, as with a good book, or a book which wishes to pull you into its pages and keep you trapped in the story until the very last line, the opening words are always the most important. You will recall that your very first words were where you were born, and the fact that you have always lived there, in this one city. You then go on to write about your interests, about studying and visiting museums, about reading books and effectively, despite one small point which I think is missing in a person of your young years, cover all those interests which I also have or had, when I was your age. Here I must mention that a later sentence adds two which I haven’t mentioned yet, and those are photography and travel. Combine all of these things together, with letter writing of course, and you have a perfect match which, as I am sure you appreciate, is not good.
Now, you probably stumbled over my last sentence and are asking yourself why I am writing to you, why I am happy to begin a correspondence, when I feel that having the same interests is not a good sign. Surely being interested in similar subjects is the best way to begin, because then two people, separated by countless miles of ocean who will probably never meet, have much in common over which they can read and write. The interests collude, so the ground is properly set for a long and fruitful exchange. And that is true too, providing that the experiences these two people have had in their lives are not the same. If both came from the same city, or even country, and both studied exactly the same periods of time, the same artists, appreciated the same books and had travelled to the same cities and countries, it would become, unless they were prepared to offer different views of what they had seen and learned, very tedious in a very short period of time.
Many people seem to think that having the same interests is a must. If people aren’t interested in going to the opera together, in walking in the park together, in reading the same books and watching the same films right down to the same political party, then they are not compatible. And I think: if they have all these things in common, what is there for them to talk about? They will agree with each other all the time, and any conversation will die very quickly as a result., They will always know what the other person is thinking before they say a word, and so the words will become unnecessary. If, however, two people have the same interests but both go in completely different directions – such as one who loves the works of the master painter John Constable while the other is more inclined toward the modern incandescent works of Marta Minujín – then there is a chance. If one reads Charles Dickens and the other J.R.R. Tolkien. If one goes for singing opera in the shower, while the other prefers Abba or even the Beatles. These are, of course, minor points which need to be cleared up, ironed out before anything begins.
I mention them also because I recall the story of a young couple who married and then lived together for forty years. Each weekend they would go out into the countryside with sandwiches and flasks of hot tea, binoculars and sensible shoes to watch and catalogue birds. They traipsed over hill and dale, made photographs and notes, and built up a wonderful collection of information about every single bird they had seen together , where and when, over these four decades. Then, one day, for reasons I need not go into, they had a bitter argument with words flying about which, in a good marriage or relationship, would never cross anyone’s lips, and it came out from the wife that she hated going out each and every weekend bird watching. She had always hated it, but had followed her husband’s hobby out of loyalty and love for him. This, as you can imagine, annoyed the man who replied, also deeply hurt, that it was not his hobby, but that he had gone out every single weekend for forty years to support her interest in bird watching, and he couldn’t even stand the sound of the creatures, let alone suffer them to be near him.
You would imagine that to be the end of the relationship, I am sure, but I am told this was not the case. Both talked, probably for the first time in their lives, about their own interests and, whilst staying together, went their own ways and did their own thing and then discussed how their day was and, through this one argument which they should have had thirty-nine year and eleven months previously, discovered one another as much as themselves.
We have the advantage of living not just in different countries, but also on separate continents, in societies which are very different one to another, and have behind us, me rather longer than you, a history of exploring and learning which the other does not. Which boils down to a mass of gathered information and experiences worth exchanging, with many discussion points even though we both have the same interests. The wonderful thing about art, about history, about literature and travelling is that there are so many avenues, so many different places and things which a person can explore, experience and learn from, it is unlikely that two people will have the same experience and, as a result, can talk to one another – or write – without fear of saying what the other already knows. And, of course, our art galleries, museums, even the books which are published may well cover the same themes, but are completely different and influenced as much by those putting exhibitions together, as by the customs and desires of their potential customers, the people who read, those who stand in front of an exhibit and admire its contents.
About two weeks ago I went to an exhibition of modern art set up in Bremen to celebrate new talent and to showcase what some of the younger artists are producing today. It is often difficult, especially for someone like me who is, perhaps, slightly removed from modern movements by age if nothing else, to see everything possible in some of the works which are on display, and certainly not when there is no explanation. I appreciate, of course, that an artist shouldn’t be expected to explain the hidden or even the obvious meanings behind their works; that pleasure should remain in the minds and interpretations f each individual viewer. However, once I had gazed, dreary-eyed, at a third piece of art which consisted of a plain, black cloth hung up on the wall, I must admit my patience was exhausted. I am constantly disappointed by works which do not have something of their history, their meaning readily accessible to the ordinary gallery or museum visitor who, as you might expect, cannot see into the mind of an artist not producing something akin to a photograph, or that which is immediately recognisable. There is a work in the same museum, however, which has always drawn my gaze despite the fact that it is merely a small canvas covered in white paint. The reason being that I know the story behind this picture, that someone took the time to explain its history, which is not displayed for all to see and think about on the small card next to it. Here we have only the name of the work, the name of the artist, the date and a reference number.
This single canvas, painted over in plain white, was commissioned by a private collector who wished to have an exclusive work produced which only he and the artist would ever get to see. He wished to be able to say he had owned and seen a work no one else would ever have the pleasure of looking at in its original form, and so he let it be painted, came and stood, or sat, before it for a few hours, admiring the work, and then let it be obliterated forever. This is what makes a work doubly interesting, as much as being able to see and interpret it. Of course, as with many other people, I would love to see the work he’d had commissioned, find out what made it so special and where his thoughts were going when he gave the commission up, but I suppose that just adds to the interest, once you know the story behind this canvas.
To cover your very first sentence, though, I have to write: I was born in London, England, and lived there for less than half of my life. This is not just because I take my travelling seriously, but partially because I was educated outside of the capital city, and partially because I have settled in many different areas around the world for a while, and then moved on. I have not, until now, had a single village, town or city which has attracted me so much that I would call it home, that I would wish to stay there for the rest of my life. And that causes most people to gasp in horror: how can I possibly not want to live in London? London is the centre of artistic endeavour, of cultural life, of intellectual life, of the world (well, no, not really) in England and everyone who has the chance wants to live there. This, I hasten to add, comes from people who have been in the city as tourists, perhaps for a day trip or one week, and do not know the inside and the back streets and the hidden parts of the city and city life. Every city is the same: there are those who love living there, and those who are content to live nearby, and just travel in when the need arises, when the desire takes them. I am one of those last people. I saw more of the cultural side of London after I had moved out than I did while I lived there. Today, living outside Bremen, near Hannover and Hamburg, it is much the same: something of interest, then I can drive into the city and enjoy it, before driving back out to my home, peaceful and quiet, in a small country town.
The town I live in does have something of a cultural life, although nothing to compare with a major city, but above all it offers the chance to just disappear from public gaze and do those things which are enjoyable in peace and quiet. For me that is reading, writing and sorting through my collection of antique photographs which, in a major city and because of the costs of living in one, would be almost impossible. Quite aside from the noise! A few months ago I travelled south to the city of Wiesbaden to visit friends and take in a museum or three – there are only three in Wiesbaden – and stayed overnight in a hotel in the centre so that I wouldn’t miss anything. This, I discovered, was a big mistake: quite aside from having to keep my room window open because the heating was on, in summer, I discovered that the buses run throughout the night. A disadvantage because one of the bus stops was right under my window. And, of course, those who leave the disco and pubs at three in the morning and enjoy singing the praises of their evening and local football team at the top of their voices along the main street.
You write about postcards, and I must admit that collecting these wonderful things was once a main interest in my life. Past tense, sadly. When I first arrived in this town I did some exploring and discovered that hardly anyone, including the people running the local museum, knew anything about the town they call their own. The internet was relatively young then, and I was able to find a few interesting, and very old, postcards and other artefacts from here which were being sold for very good prices. I bought them, or many of them, even my resources are limited, and built up quite a good collection. As with all good things, though, it sometimes gets out of hand. Two things happened: my collection went beyond the natural borders of the town and region; sellers discovered that there was a massive market place for postcards and increased their prices. Lithographic postcards from the end of the nineteenth century which I had been able to purchase for one deutschmark were being offered for eighty times as much a few short years later, with ordinary postcards, from the Sixties and earlier, commanding similar prices. The pleasure of collecting lost its glitter very quickly, and I moved on to old photographs which, fortunately, do not seem to be as attractive for those wishing to make a massive profit. Modern cards are something else again, and still popular here, and we are even seeing independent photographers producing their own images and marketing them, rather than just the major postcard producers.
What is interesting, both with old photographs and original postcards, is to look and see what has changed, what people wore in the past, what they drove, how people lived. The postcard I am enclosing comes from the former East German town of Schmalkalden and was produced in 1962, which you can probably tell from the vehicles shown. Fascinating here is that very little has changed: if you take a look at the internet web site for this town, you’ll find that a lick of paint has been added to all the buildings pictured here, but nothing more than that. If someone drove a passenger bus onto the market square and parked it in exactly the same place and fashion as that shown, you’d not be able to tell the difference. There are differences, of course, but not from what we can see here. The buildings to the right, outside this postcard, appear to be new or renovated but, aside from that, a fascinating link from the past to our present day.