There are two things we need to remember about this festive season: gratitude for what we have; thoughts for those in need. It is almost impossible to accept one without the other, and both should be ingrained on our brains, in our attitudes, in the manner and style we live in not just during the end of year binge season, but throughout the year. Poverty and need do not disappear just because the lights have been taken down from an old pine tree and packed away in a cardboard box under the stairs. For my own part, not having received even samples of shampoo and conditioner, I am grateful for the friendships I have found over the last year, and for those which I have been able to cultivate further despite great distance and many other problems. To many people this may seem to be nothing: we can form friendships any today of the year, just by going out onto the streets and meeting up with people. Or so they claim, believing in their own security and not prepared to risk it for themselves. Did you know that the second loneliest group of people in the United Kingdom, according to a former Secretary of State, are youngsters aged between 21 and 24? The first group is those over 65, and the third aged between 25 and 30. The first I can well understand, with illness and many other problems an older person’s life is fraught with, but the younger groups? Lonely?
I would have been inclined to put this level of loneliness down to technological advances which seem to stand in the way of personal friendships by pushing them online and out of the real world, but this is only a part of the problem. A far greater part is the pressure to succeed, and the feeling of failure imposed by society when a person fails to earn enough money, fails to achieve a certain social or business position and, far more than this, fails to find enough time and energy to get out and make friends in their own neighbourhood. Some, according to these standards, are doomed to failure. And then there are those, as you point out in your mail from 21 December, who are simply incapable of showing any gratitude for something which they would otherwise not have had, for a small gesture which no one was compelled to make in the first place. I wonder: does a person who has been given the finest red rose as a token of love complain that the admirer was too cheap to buy a dozen?
We take too many things which were once a courtesy for granted these days: too many compliments are expected instead of being greeted with pleasure; too many gifts are demanded instead of being happily received; too much time is wasted on lamenting what might have been rather than celebrating what is. On this basis, our lives are a disappointment, and nothing goes the way we wish, expect, demand. But still we turn our heads away when confronted by the sight of someone who is worse off than we are. Henry Miller:
It is only when we demand that we are hurt.
I found the first day of winter to be something of a disappointment, certainly compared to winters that I have experienced in the past. Some people say it is always the elderly who look back over the years and then claim that things were better when they were young, and that this is a rather rose-coloured-spectacles vision of the modern world. I know for a fact, though, that winter was winter only twenty years ago, and we had thick snow lying on the ground in northern Germany in December. I can remember a year, I think it was my first here which would have been the mid-Eighties, where we had a good yard of snow everywhere, and it was not considered unusual. That was in November. This year we had about an inch and a half of snow overnight, and it cleared away during the day. Since then: rain. It is simply too warm. I would love to be able to celebrate the season, to sledge down hills and throw snowballs as I did while still a child. Not that I am complaining in any way, although I know we need the cold and we need to ground to freeze for a few weeks so that it remains healthy, but not having to wrap myself up completely and risk frostbite ion the tip of my nose is good.
Natural disasters and the loss of mail; yes, I suppose that’s a thing. There is always the chance that a fire will destroy a letter before it gets delivered, or that it will be diverted to the ends of the earth and be stuck in a time warp for another thirty or fifty years; such things have happened although, thinking about it, measuring the number of letters which are posted each day, I think the chances are reasonably small. And the chances that an electronic mail could be lost? If a mail agent cannot deliver an electronic mail within a certain period of time, it is automatically discarded, and not all mail agents send a message with either a warning of potential non-delivery, or of failure. A letter, on the other hand, which cannot be delivered is usually returned to the sender, that’s the real reason we put our names and addresses on the envelope, and not just to satisfy the mailroom. Do you know what happened in Atlanta this month?
Our modern society with all its technology didn’t manage to stop an eleven hour outage of all power and all devices requiring power at the world’s busiest airport: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson. Not only loss of the main grid power, but also all of the back-up systems went down, and there was nothing anyone could do about it until the power company got out there and fixed things. No going down into the basement and checking if a fuse has sprung and then putting in a new one. A small fire, apparently, in one of the underground tunnels was enough to wipe out the main and the reserve electricity supplies, and everything that was attached, which needed power in one form or another, was gone. No back-up copy on that computer? Gone. And exactly the same can happen to a piece of electronic mail, if it gets caught up in the Distributed Denial of Service attack, for example, where a complete internet network is bombarded with information and demands on its time and resources until it collapses under the strain. I’ve experienced such attacks on my own server:; a mass of information piled into my bandwidth in a very short period of time causing everything to slow to a crawl. I was lucky: I could block the attack at a higher level and protect my server from a complete shutdown, but a higher level provider under attack would not have the same facilities, and could be hit far harder. And the mails which are sitting there waiting to go out?
It is a common belief that an electronic mail sent from one side of the world to another is there instantaneously. As soon as you hit Send, it arrives in the mailbox at the other end. In truth the delivery times can be a few seconds through to several hours, depending on which route is being used and what is happening around the world at that time. Your mails to me, for example, sometimes take a few hours to get to me, as they are held on the main website and then, at some time or another, a message is sent out to me that your mal is there. I don’t receive it direct on my mail server, but have to go through and log in to find it elsewhere. The site is down for maintenance? The mail is queued. It waits.
However, as I’ve said: I am quite happy to receive electronic mail, but I do not wish to write it myself. I much prefer this old-fashioned means of communication which, as it takes more time, allows a respite between communications where the writer can go out into the world, as I do, and see, and experience, and live all those things which can be written down in future letters. I have seen too many people who die a death on social media, who merely regurgitate the works of other people because they cannot come up with anything original and enthralling themselves. I have seen people, on dates even, sitting together not talking, because they are too busy looking into the small devices. And, aside from that, I enjoy the physical task of sitting down and dedicating my time to one person with a personal letter not designed for anyone else. This is my form of giving.
I have not read Harry Potter: does that make me a bad person? I do have most of the books, I think the first three are missing, but only because I found them in a box of books with other titles that I wanted, and kept them. Collectors, even though my area is photography, find it hard to turn down part of a consignment down, knowing that that which they desire could disappear with it, or that the price could suddenly increase when someone notices a specific interest. Lord of the Rings is such a classic I cannot imagine anyone who likes fantasy in any form not having read it at some stage. My own personal interests, now that I have covered such classics in my youthful years, tend towards philosophy and history, with a good smattering of literature and literary fiction thrown in. When I feel that my head is getting muddled up and it needs a break, then I might grab a Lee Child or Harlan Coben: formula books where there is little real need to think. I have just finished some Russian history and a few literary fiction works and am now into a work of British history covering the decade around 1790. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but they bring me a great deal of enjoyment, and that is what counts.
After my history book I shall read a German-language literary novel about a philosopher confronted by a lion, which seems to enter his life but is invisible to everyone else, and then I am moving on to two books by Yuval Noah Harari which are categorised as popular science, and fall into the general category of history of the human race, future of the human race. And, whilst enjoying them and getting out into the world as the new museum and art gallery exhibitions begin in the new year, I will be exploring ballet with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet in January, and completing a Harvard literary course on Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And, of course, finding time to write and reply to letters! So many things to be grateful for, even if they are just in small portions. If I was going to go for a favourite fantasy title, which is difficult, I would tend towards something of a cross fantasy / science fiction work in Frank Herbert’s Dune, maybe also E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. These two, coupled with Tolkien’s work are, for me, the precursors to all modern-day fantasy. I find little, though, in modern fantasy works which come close to the originals although, thinking back, there was a set of fantasy books published in the Eighties which I read at the time and enjoyed. I cannot remember what they were, or who the author was, merely that the work was good and there were many volumes.
I have probably read too many books in my lifetime, some would claim as much, since I cannot remember them all, but many are probably not worth remembering anyway, and only form the basis for my interests today. Confronted with a title or an author, I do remember, right back to the end of the Sixties when I would read, illicitly, secretly, under the bed covers. Not that I needed to: in the early Seventies, living in London, I had my own room right at the very top of the house, and no one ever came to disturb me, nor could they see that I was still, awake, still reading, into the early hours of the morning. And this, funnily enough, was the time when my school concluded that my reading and writing skills were not optimum, and gave me extra homework to complete to try to bring me back on track. Assignments of easy fairytales when I had already moved on the Celtic legend and beyond. Precursors to the days when other educators would decide that the books I was to be allowed to read were of a certain kind, and all others should be locked away from sight, and, later, confiscated books which they considered unsuitable for my young years, recommending others far, far below my reading talents, outside of my interests, of a lesser intellectual and learning value. And, sadly, that happened to so many other people, is probably continuing to this day.
I shall now turn my attention to the new year, and see what it has to offer, and in the hopes that those who share their time and lives with me through letter writing will continue the effort over the coming months or years. Do you believe in New Year’s Resolutions? Under normal circumstances, I would not, but if I did have two to make and keep, then they would be to carry on with the pleasures of reading, and enhance the pleasures of letter writing. Neither one is too hard to manage, I think.