One of the delights of winter, for some people, is not so much the fact that it is cold and there is the chance of snow, but that they have a decent excuse for lighting up their fires at home, and spending the evening in front of a log fire, or crowded around a stove. This doesn’t work in the major cities, of course, where regulations apply, and wood or coal-burning stoves have effectively been banned, for the sake of the atmosphere as much as for the safety of those living in neighbouring houses and apartments, but we still have them here, out in the countryside, and the slightest hint of colder weather has people rushing out to buy logs from the supermarkets, or to buy trees cut and chopped for them from the local forests. The result is a wide variety of burning smells, which some from the cities might find uncomfortable or irritating, as you walk along the various streets. Sometimes you can almost tell what sort of wood is being burned, or whether briquettes are being used, or if the wood is damp, freshly cut, or old. A few of the chimney stacks have gentle drifts of smoke curling out of them, but otherwise it is just the scent you get caught in your nose, nothing more.
My house, which was built back in the Twenties and was a carpenter’s shop as well as home for the owner and his family, still has its original cooking oven. The wood-burning stove, and I suspect there would have been at least two of them in a house this big, has long since been ripped out and the chimneys have been sealed off, but the oven, with its massive metal plates on top and miniature baking area next to the coal shut, is still here on the first floor. I am disinclined to take it out, even though it is useless and only takes up needed space now, because it adds a certain character to the room it adorns. That said, it is nothing special: just an old metal oven lined with tiles, rusted and partially filled with the ashes of a previous owner’s fire I haven’t bothered cleaning out. It is also in a convenient place, up on the first floor, where the family would have lived originally, as the ground floor was offices, a workshop and storage space for the wood, showrooms for the finished products.
A lot has changed since that oven was last used properly. The carpenter’s shop is long since closed and the owners disappeared into the mists of time. The successor built a much larger shop and salesroom across the road, and that is still there, but with a new name, new people. Even that is not as it used to be, the workshops are off at the back, leading down towards the riverbank, and the former showroom, with its massive windows looking out onto what is now a relatively quiet residential street, plays host, now and then, to photographic exhibitions, the hobby of the last owner in a long line of woodworkers. The owners of the house before me, and I have been here about twelve years now, took out much of what was there, built new walls to make smaller bedrooms, tore out other walls to make a larger living room. That is, they tore out a few walls to make one of two living rooms bigger, the one used by the men of the family. At its height there were three families living in this one house, twenty-five people in all, and the women had their own area, where not to be seen or heard when the men were at home, just serve up tea and withdraw. Three brothers and their families, who stayed here until their father died, then built themselves three houses in a nearby town, and left me with an interesting construction which, had I only noticed it before I signed the contract, needs rather more renovation than a single person really wishes to take on. At least, a single person who is more interested in the relaxed side of life, in literature and philosophy, history and the possession of a large number of books, and not in brickwork, drainage canals and blocked toilets.
Twelve o’clock has just struck, the last hour of 1834, the first of a new year. Bells ringing, to me dolefully; a wet wind blustering, my wife in bed, very unhappily ill of a foot which a puddle of a maid scalded three weeks ago.
I suppose we can be grateful that we have a roof over our heads, and that our maids have not poured scalding water over our feet, or any other part of our anatomy, as happened to poor Jane Welsh Carlyle, recently moved into their new house in Cheyne Walk in London. He complaining, in addition, that he has had no paid work for twenty-three months, an unthinkable state of affairs for us today. But still he has managed to move from their farm in Scotland, down to the capital city, and take a house, with a maid, in bohemian Chelsea, where many artists and great thinkers would come to live over the following decades before it, eventually, succumbed to the constant growth of the city, and was swallowed up by London, gentrified by those with money. A cold and dark house, in constant need of renovation, wet and unfriendly, and noisy; for a writer of his calibre a very bad situation, as he needed peace and quiet to concentrate on his monumental work The French Revolution. Needless to say, with a few alterations and a special writing study squeezed under the eaves, he managed to find that peace and solitude he needed, and complete the book and, thankfully, finally earn some money from his writing again. How times have changed.
Going back to school, finding yourself a class to attend to advance your skills and education: excellent idea. It’s not just the getting back inside and away from work that gives you no pleasure, but the fact that you can turn your mind to other things which is of importance. Raking in leaves can have a certain attraction for some people, might even be the one thing they have set their whole life upon and which gives them the most fulfilment, but it is not for everyone. I wonder how many of us really find that one work area, that one special employment which not only satisfies but also builds us up. I see and hear so many people complaining about their work, and showing a lack of work ethic, who could move, who could change workplaces, employers, trade quite simply, if they would only get up off their backsides and do something about it. But, as you know, there are those born to do, and those born to complain, and it is difficult to change anyone’s attitude by making sensible suggestions or pointing them in the right direction. If they don’t want to go there, they’ll find a way out, and then complain that things didn’t work out as they’d hoped, without mentioning that they, themselves, are the main problem, the cause of their failure.
Most people would never consider going back into a classroom after they’ve left high school or college; they put it behind them and believe that life is their own now, no need to learn ever again. And yet life is just one long learning experience, and if we could only see that, and take a chance of learning something new, we’d be much happier for it. Not that our first teachers necessarily inspire anyone to come back into the classroom again: if I had to work with anyone from my original school and I do mean anyone, then I’d ditch it straight away. I look back at a group of self-serving arrogant and blind people, who had rarely been anywhere else in their entire lives, telling me how to form my life and what I should know, when they hadn’t the experience themselves. There were a few exceptions, as far as travel and seeing the rest of the world were concerned, but otherwise it was simply a case of learning, passing the examinations, and making way for the next prospect of hopefuls. School, in some cases, wrecks education.
One thing to remember, though: sometimes you have to be patient to get what you want, and often it is worth the wait. So if you have to spend another three months raking up leaves, tidying flowerbeds and weeding vegetable patches, so it with a light and happy heart. This is what makes the time go by quickly; if you only see the bad things in life, only see how things are not working out how you wish or that the time is dragging on because you keep on glancing at the clock and the minute hand doesn’t move as it should do, you’ll have nothing but unhappiness from the whole thing. Bs the time you get back into the classroom you’ll feel like an old maid, and won’t appreciate the chance you have. And then the time will go quickly, mark my words!
Between the fool and the man of genius there is at least this symptom of their common humanity
as James A. Froude writes in his biography of Thomas Carlyle, and so it is today. We all make decisions on the spur of the moment, and they can have an effect on the rest of our lives so that, looking back many years later, we see the crossroads, see the point where we chose our path through life, and appreciate the difference between what we have done, and what we could have done, good or bad. And this crossroads, this moment in time when we make our decision is so small, so insignificant, but changes everything forever. So, sometimes, when we have the chance, it is better to be patient and wait for our chance, rather than rushing, open arms and closed mind, towards the first offer made.
All week I was thinking about how much I love your letters and I was wondering when the next one will arrive.
Well, then clearly I am doing something right! And this is one of the reasons why I prefer writing this old-fashioned and slow way, of putting words down on paper and then letting them slowly drift across the ocean for a week or two before finally being delivered: there is time to think; there is time to plan; there is time to gain experiences which make up a letter. I have tried it with the electronic mail thing, and seen how stale it gets and how quickly. There are only so many words you can rehash when writing to someone every single day or, as some seem to do these days, every hour or so. But, at the same time, I can appreciate those Victorians who did write to their significant others, whenever separated for a while, every day, but we are living in a different society today. The art of letter writing is not what it was. For one thing, and this surprises people when I tell them, it is considerably cheaper to write and send a letter than it ever was before. People complain about the cost of sending a letter, but forget how much you can write whilst staying within the cheapest postal rate. In Victorian times, paper was expensive, postal costs were massive, and some people practiced space-saving methods of writing letters: taking their main lines across the page with carefully spaced words, the turning the page and writing afresh, creating their new lines of text between the words of their first lines.
And they also wrote with exceptionally small hand writing sometimes. I remember the restrictions on writing when I was in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, writing back home, and we were given a folding sheet of airmail paper. That is: one side of paper as a sheet, then half a side which was tucked in, and that’s your lot. We appreciated how much space we had back then, and suffered the complaints of those who wrote back about the smallness of our script and how difficult it was to read. Today I can put out three sheets of heavy paper (this is 80g), and a normal envelope, written on both sides that comes to between three and four thousand words, under 20g overall weight, and it is the minimal postage charge. That is a lot of letter for today’s writing standards. Imagine someone who is used to texting trying to fill that much paper. It would probably blow their brain out their ears. But the idea that my letters are well received is always pleasurable to know, it makes the effort more than worthwhile, as well as the knowledge that there will be a reply. One of the saddest things about writing letters is that sometimes there is no reply; you could be writing to a person for a year or more and then, suddenly, with no explanation, there are no more letters.
No, Giver is not a film that I’ve seen, I’m not even sure whether my local cinema showed it when it first came out. It seems to be a very strange film, if you ask me, although I am perhaps just looking at the description of the book by Lois Lowry, which might not be the same as the film. The last film that I saw was Lady Macbeth, which was also a very dark story indeed. Before that I saw a Bulgarian film which was set in a slaughterhouse, and apparently upset a lot of people as they got to see cows being slaughter; as if they didn’t have the slightest idea of where their food comes from and how it is prepared. I’ve been looking at ballet recently, specifically the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow – did I mention it in another letter? –and getting ready for the live performance of Romeo and Juliet in Moscow on 21 January. I tend to go more for the art films, the ones which win prizes away from the big Hollywood red carpet scene and only appear in the theatres for one or two days. Most, I find, tend to stretch the mind considerably more than anything Hollywood has turned out in decades, and it is a pleasure to watch a film where I do not know what is going to happen next, where I don’t have the feeling it has been written and filmed according to a template designed to fit most people’s tastes rather than inspire them. When you have read all of Lee Child’s books – there are over twenty – you’ll know what a template book / film is. People like them because they are just the same, because they follow a pattern, because, as with Hallmark, you know there is going to be a good and happy end. I’m not saying that Giver is like this, not having seen it, but so many other films are, it robs me of any feeling for the works.
However, after my little rant about the commercialisation of the film industry, I shall close, return my thoughts to the book I am reading, and see what the rest of the weekend and the coming week has to offer.