I can confirm two things, one of which you asked and one which came to my mind as soon as I saw your question: yes, I did indeed receive your last letter asking me about the 1001 Arabian Nights and the various translations which have been made available; and yes, not only did I reply to it (on 5 October), but I also had great pleasure in reading your letter and accepting the challenge to find out more about this wonderful book which, as we both know, has survived the ravages of time and brought a completely different culture across the centuries into our homes. I wrote that, if you could get hold of it, you should go for the Burton translation but, since his was not on your list, the work of Andrew Lang would be my first choice. It would be a shame if you haven’t received my last letter for whatever reason, but easy enough to correct as I am in the habit of keeping copies of everything that I write to people; writing to so many it is always a good idea to remember what has been written so that there are no boring repetitions and, of course, nothing of interest is forgotten. An old military habit of mine: keep the paper trail active and secure, and make sure there is a record of what you do or, at the very least, a record of what you were supposed to do to put the searchers off the right track! I freely admit that sometimes, in the distant past, it has been necessary to hide activities and lay a false trail, but I am sure we all do something like this in our lives, and don’t feel bad about it at all.
Until we are caught, of course, and then we just need strong nerves and a bit of backbone to either fight our way through with appropriate justifications, or accept what is coming to us for doing wrong. Something we learn as small children, and very effectively indeed with our innocent pleas of innocence, and which any politician will, in a roundabout way, say are absolute essentials for working in Washington, in London, in Paris, Madrid or Berlin. If you cannot fight your way through the mass of people questioning your decisions, whether they are right or wrong, party first, or country first, you’ve lost. I suspect that many people in the oversight committees have come to realise this of late, and that is why we are suddenly seeing so many investigations taking place; some of them justified, some of them purely malicious. But, as you’ll agree, not our problem, as long as they stay on their side of the barriers we erect for our own protection, and don’t disturb our peaceful and ordered lives.
As to my waiting: I am a very patient person, unlike some I do appreciate there are other things in life which are more important, and I have no problem with someone getting on with their life and then, in a small, quiet moment, penning me a quick note. I’d rather that than risk losing a friendship, risk not having the occasional letter, or note, that I can enjoy and enjoy replying to. I also appreciate the cost involved, aside from time, and am always grateful when someone sacrifices – if that is the right word – their small income to remain in contact, to share their news, to feed a friendship.
Winter wonderland, what a wonderful thought. I watched a fascinating animated film a few days ago: set in London, it followed the path of a single snowflake falling from an otherwise clear sky. It drifted down across the city skyline, by bright, open windows in tall buildings, trees, a railway line with speeding train, cars on a bridge, pedestrians in a shopping street. And then it landed. The sky darkened, windows were slammed shut and curtains drawn, trains stopped running and the stations to the underground closed, a small car hit another car and the pedestrians ran for cover against this onslaught of bad weather. Slightly more than reality, but I do sometimes get the feeling that this surprise of winter has caught people on the hop, totally unexpected, each and every year, and that they over-react as a result.
We have had some snow up here in the north, considerably more down in the southern regions of the country: perfect for those who enjoy winter sports, but not for those of us who need to be out and about, travelling from one city or town to another. We suffered about two inches here, and it vanished again a day later, replaced with freezing rain but, fortunately, no ice. I cleared my footpath – a responsibility of those living in German towns, they must keep the pavements in front of their buildings clear and safe as soon as it is necessary – late in the night, and was pleased to see that it remained so the next morning. I was worried, the other day, that we might be hit harder as I needed to travel to Hamburg and back and icy streets, or the autobahn, would have changed my coming home time from about midnight to considerably later, and that on top of a long day. Fortunately, however, we just had the rain.
The children, by the first fall of snow, were happy and made themselves ready for snowball fights and sledge rides, but the snow – in a manner of speaking – was gone by the time they had their mittens on. As to school closures here, they are rare. The school districts decide on whether an area should be shut down or not early in the morning, so that parents and the bus companies are warned at about six, but it doesn’t happen too often.
I remember my first year here and enjoying about three feet of snow in November – back in the early Eighties – which made a change from the wet cold in Belfast, but that must have been an odd year out, as we’ve seldom had such a mass of snow since then. Each year it is a little bit less, and each winter is that little bit warmer, and people are happy with that until they remember that we need this biting cold to kill off all the bad bugs and keep nature in its proper cycle. And each year the winter clothes are moved from normal price to sale price earlier, and the spring fashions appear in shop windows to entice those with dreams of summer weather before the official cold has come to an end, let alone set itself properly in place. Makes me glad to be outside of the fashion age group: a good pipe and a pair of slippers in front of the fire, my whiskey or a bottle of port and a good book, that’s me settled, come snow and ice, wind or rain, comfortable and content.
Or it would be if I didn’t keep on going out and visiting museums and galleries, meeting up with my friends and joining in with all sorts of debates – we say: about God and the world – in different cities around the country. It is a hard life, but someone has to do it. And I have just discovered ballet, so no one can say it is impossible to teach an old dog new tricks. As a youngster I always thought of ballet as being the typical entertainment for older people, despite an exceptionally good film about a young boy from Yorkshire (I think) who, despite the misgivings of his old-fashioned family decides to follow a dancing career. But, of course, now that I am old I am allowed to enjoy those things which are for the older person! My way of thinking back then, translated into the modern world. In reality I discovered the Bolshoi Ballet which, as you know, is a wonderful institution in Moscow and performs some of the most innovative dance works in classical style, as well as some more modern dance styles. I had the great pleasure of seeing an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew last month – a recording from 2014 admittedly, but not on television – this weekend I shall be enjoying The Nutcracker Suite and then the highlight, in January, will be an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a live performance. Classical music has always been my thing anyway, along with some Jazz and Blues amongst others, so adding it to a visual performance is also wonderful. And I have been able to surprise some of those who saw me on Twitter after the Bolshoi Ballet performance – because, of course, there is a limited capability for passing on information on Twitter, although the number of characters available for each Tweet has been doubled – and then saw that I had listened to the live performance of works by Sibelius marking the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Finland at the Southbank in London. I could almost have created the impression that I am a jet-setting traveller, only moving from one city, one continent to another for the pleasures of life. Whereas, in truth, I simply know where to look to find interesting things.
Not that I would turn down the chance to visit the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, or listen to the London Symphony Orchestra in London; the Royal Opera House is also on my list, Covent Garden and so many others. I am sure many of us would jump at this chance to experience something so special, even if it wasn’t exactly the sort of music we enjoy, or the art form which makes our cheeks glow and our thoughts buzz with anticipation. And not just at this time of year: the thought just came to me that many people only consider this sort of excursion into the world of the Arts as a seasonal fad, rather like giving to worthy causes comes up at Christmas or when there is a major disaster, but seldom at other times of the year.
A friend of mine runs (at the moment) a restaurant in one of the oldest parts of Bremen, and she told me that Christmas and the seasonal trade it brings are the only things which manage to carry her restaurant over the entire year. People flood into the area looking for unusual presents, for a place to celebrate with turkey or duck – or goose, which is far more popular in Germany than turkey is – and for the bright Christmas lights, as opposed to ‘the bright lights’. Her restaurant is then full, and the rest of the year she hopes for tourists and the occasional business dinner to fill up her tables. And I included the (at the moment) because she leaves the restaurant at the end of this month, it is closing completely and a new leaseholder is being sought to replace her. The downturn in business, she told me, the lack of regular income, even in one of the most popular areas of Bremen, makes it almost impossible to compete against fast food chains and those which offer more exotic menus. The fast-moving world, as far as technology is concerned, has also changed the way in which we eat, and the convenience stories of old – the 7-11s and similar – have now expanded to restaurants, to cinemas and everything else in life which has to be done quickly, so that we do not miss anything. And cheaply, which is the biggest problem of all.
Strange to think how much fast food, or convenience food as it used to be called, has now taken over our lives. There are even, and it sends a shudder down my spine just writing the words, people who read and summarise books so that you don’t have to, as the saying goes. I can understand people grabbing a quick bite to eat while they are out and about, when the hunger isn’t quite so big that you need a full three course square meal, but books too? What surprised me more than anything else, as I was out shipping for my own dinner yesterday afternoon, was that one of my local stores now offers frozen cheeseburgers. You no longer need to go all the way to your local burger bar on the corner, just grab a frozen burger from your freezer and you’re good to go.
Although, with the books, I’ve just remembered Reader’s Digest who, you may recall, used to, and probably still do, take perfectly good books and shorten them for sale to those who couldn’t handle a full book or, in my mind even worse, wished to claim they had read a certain book, without needing to cover every single word, all the ideas in the full version. I see some of these horrendous books in the free library in the centre of town sometimes, as people pass them on as quickly as possible and, something which bolsters my opinion of local people, they sit there for weeks, unwanted, unloved, and are eventually weeded out and recycled. A sad end for a book, admittedly, but warranted, I believe, in this case.
But it is, theoretically at least, the season for other thoughts, and all of them should be joyous. I sincerely hope that the ‘joyous’ trend continues into the new year and far beyond, so that our joy doesn’t come across as being forced, but infects our souls and enhances our lives. This is the one thing which upsets me about seasonal trends, especially when it comes to behaviour, that they are seasonal, that we do not take these things, these feelings and emotions into our hearts and practice the goodness which is possible all the year round. It shouldn’t be an obligation dependent on the time of year, but a desire throughout. Regardless of which, I wish you all the best seasons greetings you can imagine, and look forward to continuing our friendship in the new year.