Culture by H. Chang.

The post, it appears, is very inconsistent: one letter takes two weeks to travel between Europe and Indonesia, another takes nearly six weeks. I can understand that there are difficulties along the way, that driving or boating out to the islands is not necessarily something that happens every single day, but I had hoped that delivery times would settle themselves down to a stable two to three weeks and remain so. That said, I am a very patient person when it comes to waiting for replies to my letters – I think only at the start of this year, when I was looking for a whole new batch of people to write to, did I allow any impatience to sneak in and wrote to several people before they had a chance to reply – and I need to have patience, since most of the people I write to do not necessarily have the funds for a letter – I write mainly to people who are incarcerated in the United States – or they cannot find the things to say in a letter and keep on putting off their replies. The record, so far, is a letter I received at the end of last week in reply to one of mine from the beginning of August, and that is not the fault of any post organisation.

For those serving their terms of imprisonment a letter can be a lifeline, the only link they have to the outside world, to a world they wish to remain in touch with as best they can but, in many cases, will never see as a free person again. I make no comment on the rights and wrongs of their sentencing, merely feel something inside me when I know that some of these people, men and women, have been abandoned by those they thought closest, by their friends and families, as if they never existed. It is a hard blow for a person to weather, the discovery that a friend, a member of their own immediate family, can simply erase all memory of them and leave them alone without a word of explanation or consolation. Of course, we all know that it depends a great deal on the crime for which a person has been convicted, and that is one of the reasons why I don’t make any comment on whether it is right or wrong, merely that I seek the person inside to write to.

Yesterday I had an interesting experience with the German post office, since I appear to be on the subject of post and letters, but it was one which disappointed me more than anything else. I had a small document which needed sending to an insurance company which I had picked up in a town quite near here. Rather than bring it all the way back home, I had taken a stamped, addressed envelope with me, and intended putting it straight into the post for the afternoon collection, which only goes out from the post offices direct and a limited number of letter boxes in some of the larger towns. I turned up at a newly renovated post office, saw the long queue of people waiting to cash cheques, pay money into the Postbank accounts, and even send letters, and was glad to have stamped my envelope in advance. That is, until I discovered that this post office has no letter box. There is an ATM to draw out money. There is a stamp machine to buy stamps outside of opening hours. There is no yellow box to take post anywhere inside or near to the post office. Which meant that I had to join the long Christmas queue along with everyone else, simply to hand my carefully pre-stamped and addressed envelope over the counter so that it would be in the next post. Something tells me that whoever designed this renovation of the post office building last year, might have forgotten what its primary function is!

This is something of the European culture which is often overlooked, that we try to improve on something which already works very well indeed, or make it look better so that the shopping, visiting experience is on a higher level, and then forget what the primary function of something is. Every single time I see a new building site from a bank, or a major business, or even a government building, I can guarantee that there will be a notice somewhere nearby detailing the building works, and telling anyone who reads that far that this building is being built for them, or this road is being repaired for them. I see it each week when I drive through road works on my way to one of the major cities near here along a motorway, or even further afield, that the repairs, the delays, the diversions I have to drive miles and miles along are all for me. Our local bank, here in town, recently demolished their main building and started a new one, on the same spot, roughly the same size, for me. What I would really enjoy, as far as the bank is concerned, is that they used my money for me, and that they didn’t invest my money, and charge me extra for the privilege, to make their environment better than my own home, which I am paying them an exorbitant price for.

Reading culture is something completely different, and not quite so high in the general public esteem as you might imagine. The number of books being sold has dropped, and the types of books being read has changed. Harry Potter brought a whole new generation to literature of a certain type, and they will stay with that type of writing, hardly ever venturing out into other forms of literature. There was an interesting series of programmes and newspaper articles in England recently, lamenting the death of literary fiction and, at the same time, praising it. The more serious works of fiction – beyond Harry Potter or Stephen King and more in tune with Lawrence, Orwell, Dickens and the like – are not as popular as they used to be, and are certainly not being written by those authors who claim any form of literary success or fame. Too many authors, it was said, are imaging the profits of their work being filmed, and write accordingly. Literary fiction, with its selection of serious subject matter and social mores, is vanishing.

Well, to a certain extent this is possibly true, but the whole market is changing as more and more people self-publish, as electronic books try to gain a foothold in the marketplace, and as publishers fight to stay alive against the pricing policies of some internet marketing and sales platforms. Every author wishes to be able to live from their craft, and so they write for the market, and not for posterity. The same with the publishers: they need to sell to stay in business, and better a bestseller which will boost their coffers than a work of high quality literary fiction which will first be recognised after the author has died.

That said, I have been lucky enough to find an author who definitely comes into my ideal of a literary fiction writer: Amor Towles. He has two books out so far, and both of them – one set in New York and one in Moscow – are an inspiration, even if they do share one or two ideas inadvertently. There are many here who buy works according to what is in the more popular bestseller lists, and do not see the other bestseller lists – such as for philosophy, history, architecture, archaeology – which are often confined either to the back pages of literary and publishing reviews, or to specialised magazines and periodicals most people would never consider buying, which many newsagents do not stock. Now and then a surprise will come through, but it is rare.

And the “I don’t like reading books” is something related to age as much as anything. As a teenager I had been put off reading by the manner in which we were taught English literature in school: we were force-fed it; no empathy; no pause for thought; no creativity allowed. Works had to be read and dissected because they were examination texts, and the sheer joy of reading, the pleasure of a storyline, of detailed characterisation and description vanished in a small, unnoticed puff of mist. I was lucky enough to break out of this line of thought very quickly indeed, partially because books were a part of my family life and partially because I worked for several years, straight out of school, in the book department of Harrods in London Knightsbridge.

I sometimes see small groups interested in group readings, who take a title for a month and go through it together, either with or without discussion, but mainly online. I tried this with a listserv group back in the Nineties, reading and sharing Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, until one of the people on the listserv, which was based around an English Literature department of a well-known American university, asked why I was doing this, what I thought I was doing , and whether I had written this book myself. The discussion never really got any further than that, and I returned to reading for myself. I did consider, briefly, setting up a reading club, or a literary discussion group here in this small town, but it wouldn’t have worked. Too many people have other ideas about what to read and how to read it, and the town is very small, quite conservative in its tastes, and generally not attuned to any form of culture which is staged outside of a major city. For something to be worth seeing, the idea goes, it has to be in a major city where culture is so much better, and cost money to attend. An exhibition which is free of charge can’t be all that good, it is said, otherwise it would have a financial worth. And, at the same time, the same people complain that all the best shows are too expensive, too far away.

This is the only reason why I miss living in a major city: the access to cultural events is completely different. I attended more concerts, saw more exhibitions in London in the two years after I had left the city, than I did in the twenty-two I lived there. There is also a better nightlife in the larger towns and cities: and by that I mean the chance to go out to a dance, or to a bar meet up with other people of the same age or with the same interests. There were, when I first arrived here, about seven bars in town, and you could guarantee one or another of them had good music being played and the right crowd for the evening. Now there are two – aside from the bars in restaurants and hotels – and one of them is closing at the end of the year. A friend of mine, who lives and works directly across the road, sets up a photographic exhibition every few weeks, always with high quality works and interesting subject matter, and six or seven people come to the opening night, and then it remains unvisited for the rest of the show period.

So, what do people around here do in their spare time? Most stay at home and watch television, here in this town. If there is a special occasion they will go out to one of the restaurants for a meal. There is a cinema – also right across the road from my house – which is often well visited, depending on which films are being shown, and that, apart from walking along the river banks, is about it. A shooting club, bowling clubs (indoor), card players. There are, I am told, some people who were born here and will die here, without being out of town more than five or six times in their lives.

Supermarket shopping is one of those things which I do not enjoy, but have to do because, well, eating is a part of life and it is much easier and cheaper to cook for myself than to go out every single night. Although: we had a Mexican restaurant, and an Asian one. We now have a burger bar, with German fast food cooking; we have a Greek, an Italian and a Turkish restaurant. We have a pizza house. We also have, for about four thousand people in the town, four major supermarkets. I plan my meals, so when I go into a supermarket it is to buy certain things and then get out again as quickly as possible. Younger people also do much the same as I do, but the older people here often use a supermarket trip to meet up with friends, or just on the off-chance that they will find someone who they can talk to. It’s not quite a dating event for the elderly, but certainly a form of social assistance to ward off the loneliness many feel. When couples, married or otherwise, go shopping it is often different. Then there is some discussion about what each would like to eat, as much as about what the one – there are few men who risk the kitchen – can or wishes to cook. Very little experimentation, unless there is a ready-made meal on offer which only needs heating up. In fact, that happens more than most people are willing to admit: the supermarkets offer more and more meals which are all packaged up and only need to be heated in an oven or a microwave, and then served. It’s easier than peeling potatoes and dicing carrots, and everyone has more time for the television.

For my own part, I have moved on slightly from just reading books and travelling out to different cities and towns to see an art exhibition or visit a museum. I now pop across the street to the cinema quite regularly when they have one of their special films on. Our cinema, for some divine reason which is only to be praised, enjoys having out-of-the-way films, art films, films which the major players don’t show and which often end up on television ten years later, billed as a forgotten or overlooked classic of its day. The cinema has also signed itself up for the Bolshoi Ballet programme from Moscow, and for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Now and then we get to see films which have won prizes at the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin or in Venice and are more works of art than just films, but they are often only on once, and then disappear again. So I have had the chance to see the wonderful Django, about the French jazz player, which I would otherwise never have even heard of. Last month I went to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and last Sunday it was The Nutcracker Suite. I was by no means alone, but two of the shows were played on the smallest of the three screens, and only Django made it one size bigger, to the middle-sized room.

Art and culture are all around us, in Europe, but people tend to notice how much only when it is threatened, when the government says there can be no more subsidies, or they are cutting back on how much is used for culture in order to pay off debts or finance other things, such as road works. Then everyone is out to the barricades to protect our heritage, ensure the right films are made, the art we all love is shown and all those other things which people don’t physically go to watch or look at, but know the world would be a far worse place without. A small, and for me amusing, aside for the ballet: the Russian woman who introduces the works each time makes a point of greeting the German audience, and then does all of her explanations about whichever ballet piece we are going to watch in French and English. I would love to be able to go and watch the Bolshoi Ballet in person, see one of their performances in the flesh, so to speak, but seeing the films of their works and, next month, watching a live performance with all the different angles a camera team can capture is the next best thing to live. Given the chance, I would probably do both: live and there just to be able to say I’ve been, and the transmitted version so that I get to see all the action from close quarters, and do not miss a single facial expression, a single movement of a hand which, as with so many other ‘silent’ art forms, contains more symbolism than we tend to recognise today.

What else can I write about culture and the arts in Europe? They are embattled, as simple as that. It is a constant fight to find financing for the better shows, for the finest artworks, for literary films which will not turn a profit, and even for libraries. One of the big complaints in England, at the moment, is that hundreds of libraries have been closed down by a government determined to save money on public spending, which wastes money covering dubious expense claims for Members of Parliament and Ministers in the government, and for a withdrawal from the European Union which, had they been honest and open about the whole thing, would never have been voted for by an informed British public. Libraries are being closed down; teachers have to buy stationery and books, pencils and other things for their students out of their own pocket, or ask parents to donate money; the number of homeless people on the streets is growing, as is poverty and the number of children who come to school without having eaten a decent meal. I have no real desire to be drawn into political discussions, especially not with the two factions in my former homeland, but it is almost impossible to avoid: you are either for or against, and neither side has the time, nor the inclination, to listen to the other.

Not that anything in the history of our many countries is different: my reading of Rasputin by Douglas Smith, or The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan show me that nothing has changed over the centuries. Where there is anything worthy of discussion, it can be guaranteed that the two factions who should be discussing it are merely trying to make their voice the louder, to win by volume, and not by intelligent or informed discussion and debate.

I have no problem discussing European culture, reading habits and everything else that goes together with art and learning, but what do you call ‘the difficult stuff’? I rarely go too deep into a subject with my letters if at all possible, unless I know that there is a specific interest, or of something is brought up which is worthy of further conversation or enlightenment. I generally find that when a person goes on at any length about one single subject, no matter how interesting that subject might be, it becomes tedious after a while. We are all caught up in what interests us, and often forget that our deepest joy, what we can see and what we can feel, is not the same for everyone else. My reading habits, for example, would put some to shame and be nothing compared to others: how to tell what is too deep, or too shallow and what is just right? Of course, now that you have mentioned Harry Potter I could quickly go over to one of my shelves and grab my copy and begin a detailed commentary on how I feel about one or another of the points Rowling raises in her works, but that is not the same as just reading and enjoying. Then we are back to the very thing which put me and so many of my contemporaries off during our school days, which diverted our attention from literature to things of lesser value but higher interest.

Although, to be honest, I do not have all of the Harry Potter books, and the only reason I have the ones I do is that someone put several into the street library – where those with an interest in a title can take it, and put one of their own books in its place – and so I grabbed hold of them. And, while we are on this streak of honesty, I have seen one of the films, but not read any of the books. The books I tend to read are not on the bestseller lists, at least, not on the most popular bestseller lists which you might see hung up in a bookstore or in the local newspaper. Mostly I have to order them specially, and then wait either a day or two or, as happened once, six or seven weeks for them to arrive. I’m not sure that I would be the ideal person to say much about the reading habits of the German populace, of what they find inspires them, as my tastes are undoubtedly not along the popular lines. I have, for example, only recently discovered the delights of Donna Leon’s crime novels, which are standard fare for both German readers and watchers of television. Only last year I discovered Lee Child and his Jack Reacher books – and then read them all – and I am sure there are many others who I would not know of, but who grace the shelves of many a home here and elsewhere in Europe. People try to see what I am reading, when they know me, but tend to go away, having seen the title or the author of a work, no wiser as to what it is. I mean, who reads Simone de Beauvoir today? Or John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Erich Maria Remarque? How many of these names, taken straight from books on the shelf nearest to me as I write, would people even recognise?

One thing I can say about German, and in some ways European, reading culture: when I go out and sit in a café with my coffee, a slice of cake, and sit reading a book in the sunshine, people look at me as if I am odd. When I stand and look at a work of art in, say, the Kunsthalle Bremen, I am often the only one doing it as everyone else has their head down or is sitting looking at something else. When I mention that I am going to watch the Bolshoi Ballet, there are mumblings about the sort of thing a man should be doing and watching, and they are not always complimentary. I am that person who fits the odd-man-out bill perfectly. A person who reads a book in public while drinking a cup of coffee?  Who looks at the original of a work of art hanging on a wall in a museum? Why am I not reading my book on an electronic device, or going through the virtual reality rendition of an art exhibition? Of course, people read books on trains, it is rare but it happens. But the train services in Germany are, slowly but surely, catching up with the times; many of them have internet connections available for passengers. Travelling no longer means you cannot get a signal. Even McDonald’s has a corner in some of its franchises where people can recharge their cell phones free of all additional costs.

And, of course, that other big cultural difference which many people simply cannot understand: I write four thousand word letters, six pages, and don’t even raise a sweat doing it.