I am told that most people will continue writing the year down as 2017 for another six weeks or so, that the habit of an entire year’s writing is unlikely to be changed so quickly, and that they will feel annoyed each time it happens, and promise to better themselves. Perhaps this is the one New Year’s Resolution that everyone does manage to make and keep: to remember, eventually, that it is new year, and that a number has to be changed. I have, fortunately, been saved this problem so far, although the number of times I have written 2018 is still limited, and I live in hope that I will be able to concentrate on more important things than just the year and remembering where I am in time.
One of the reasons why I am so attuned to which year it is, to the date in general, is that I have been watching your mails carefully. I gather them together as they come in and make my plans on when to write to you as well as fill my well-used notebook with ideas and events and thoughts which have occurred to me since my last letter. I always have the fear that you will run out of things to say, or that writing so often will tire you out, since you seem to be sending out a mail almost every day. Watching your mails, not just because of the interesting content about your life and thoughts in general, but also because you mentioned, a few weeks ago, you thought your mails were disappearing, and then worried that postal mail is not as secure from loss as electronic mail. Well, I answered my thoughts on the security of electronic mail and postal mail in my last letter, so I hardly need go that route again. What I did notice, however, is that your electronic mail does not work as our electronic mail works. Normally when I send out one of my rare mails, it takes about five minutes, if the other person is sitting there waiting for it, for delivery. This is the direct route: my mail to their mail according to the address I give.
The system that you use is web-based mail. That is, the mail does not come direct to me, it goes to a web server, a provider, and they keep it. They then send me a message saying a mail has been received, but do not forward it with the notice: I have to go to their website, sign in, and then I can read your mail. This is a very long-winded and awkward method, especially when I am out and about, can receive mail, but do not have my complete list of passwords with me, or cannot access an internet browser at that moment. I know a letter is there, waiting for me, but cannot get to it. Rather like having a glass mailbox, but no key.
It goes a touch further than that, unfortunately: all mail that you send to me has to be approved by a physical person at the company you use. That means you write a mail late Friday night and upload it to the web site, and it sits there. Monday morning someone comes into the office, and begins to sort through what has been written over the weekend, and then marks it up as approved – hopefully – and clears it into my box before having an automatic mail sent to me saying it is there. I have received several of your electronic mails all together, and not necessarily in the date order that you wrote or sent them. And, of course, as no one was working over Christmas, and now over New Year, there is a backlog. So it may well be that your mails out are not disappearing, but are simply sitting there, waiting for an office worker to check them, upload them, and then inform the recipient that there is mail waiting. It is a long and time-wasting process and, to add to anyone’s displeasure over such a delay, expensive too. However, it is also the only electronic mail option available, so the old ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ saying comes in to play, and we are stuck with it.
Christmas and New Year, as with many other holidays and including my own birthday, are days that I acknowledge as existing, but tend not to celebrate. This is not out of a feeling that they are wrong, or that they belong to a religion and out to be ironed out for all or anything like that: they just don’t really mean a great deal to me. The Christmas spirit of sharing and giving is something I try to keep up with throughout the whole year, as far as my limited means allow me, and not just as a seasonal thing to make me feel good. New year and the idea of a new start, well, we can do that at any time of the year and don’t need to wait for a calendar change to force us into resolutions, into a new way of life or whatever. It’s not that I am joining a war on anything – this so-called War on Christmas was a political flare up to get people excited about absolutely nothing anyway – but I do believe that we all ought to follow what we believe to be right and true. I have no problem wishing people a Merry Christmas – or Michaelmas, or any of the others – and have often been wished such by Muslim friends as much as by people who do not believe in a God or who believe in many gods. It is a seasonal thing, so, fine by me. We all go our own way.
If you really want to annoy someone who insists that we should all wish each and every person a Happy Christmas and that the terms are being destroyed, then, since they will probably have a certain political leaning, you might mention the Oxford Terms. These are the semesters and the semester calendar used by Oxford University in England. There are three terms with the first being Michaelmas – beginning in October – the third Trinity – in April – and the second Hilary – January. Of course these term names have been used for a very long time and have nothing to do with politics, but what a joy I have whenever I mention them to some and they start spluttering!
In fact there are only three institutions which use this term in the calendars – the other two are Dublin and Deepdene School – as far as I know, and it refers to the feast of St Hilary of Poitiers, and not to any politician who has been accused, variously, of trying to destroy Christmas and of forcing it on to people. And if you wish anyone a Merry Hilary, on 14 January, you’re effectively wishing them a merry merry. Words are so much fun.
One of my great pleasures, of late, has been to listen to the BBC Radio 4 station, which I can get over the internet by pretending that I am sitting in a nice quiet flat in London (although the postcode I give to prove I am in London is that of Harrods department store, they accept it as real). This is a mixture of talk shows, of comedy, drama and short pieces – including an excellent morning break where the sound of a bird is played, and an actor by the name of Bill Oddie, once of a group of men who made up the comedy act The Goodies on television, describes what we can hear. I avoid most of the political ones like the plague, as is only right because they bring out more rage than anything else, and it is impossible to reply, or argue, or debate with a radio; and the radio often suffers as a result. Rage against the machine? Throw your television out the window. I remember those days. But they also have pieces – sometimes only ten minutes, sometimes thirty – which are more monologues: people’s experiences and learning, discussion points and opinion. Again, you cannot answer these, you cannot debate or correct them, but there is a difference. Here we do not have some high and mighty politician coming onto a radio programme and spouting out what he or she believes will get him or her re-elected, or as justification for yet another misstep by a government which has stood in more dung than on green grass, but someone with experience talking about what they have learned. The talks tend to be more balanced and wide-ranging and, dare I say it, considerably more interesting than any politician can ever be. And if I happen to have missed one of these talks, if I was in another part of the country or a meeting at the time, I can click-through and find the archive version and enjoy it, with an appropriately warmed glass of red wine, in peace and quiet. Not quite slippers and dressing gown in front of a blazing fire, but close.
And sometimes these talks encompass or come close to one of my own interests, such as Shakespeare right now, or the plight of the emotions in 1790-1800, or even letter writing and the problems of finding a hand written letter from the fifteenth century at a flea market in Florence, Italy, and trying to decipher it.
As a youngster I would have been horrified at the idea that this old-people radio channel could be of interest to anyone still living and breathing but, now that I am old and just about still leaving and breathing… Then again, I would hardly have thought I’d be the type to take a course with Harvard on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, but here I am. Which brings me back to electronic mail, and the problems some seem to have with delivery, and others with the conception of the whole.
At Christmas, a few hours after I had completed a paper for my Shakespeare course and uploaded it to the site, I received a mail from the course direction. They asked me whether I remember signing up for the course, plan on doing it, and pointed out that other people are already well along and are joining in with the discussions. This was a week after I had begun, so I am fairly sure I could remember – and can still – signing up for the course. And as for the discussion, I knew that too, I had only just been there! And then, a few hours before New Year’s Eve, the same again. Everyone else is on the course site, they told me, and discussing the course. Why aren’t you?
In truth, there are not so many people on the site, so I can understand their desire to remind those who are straggling and struggling. The nearly four hundred I saw on the opening introduction had dwindled down to fifty or so on the second discussion paper, at the end of Week One. Eighty appeared on the paper for Week Two – which I did in Week One, because I can – and I suspect a few more will either appear or disappear, but the initial numbers will never be so high again. And a course which loses so many so quickly can hardly be called a success, so push it a touch. Except, pushing it to everyone gets on the nerves of those who are working, who are following through. If it was a correspondence course we were doing, I can’t imagine anyone at Harvard, or anywhere else, sitting down and penning four hundred reminder letters right before Christmas, let alone between Christmas and New Year, can you?
Regardless, your Christmas mails arrived safe and well and provided me with much amusement, as well as a feeling that you have your life considerably more in control than I have mine. Any you sent over New Year will probably / possibly arrive in the coming week, and I will reply as usual, setting pen to paper and seeing how quickly my words can fly across the Atlantic, fuelled by a simple stamp.