Writing a Letter by Markus Koller.

One of the things I have discovered over the last year or so, and something which has proven me and many others wrong on so many counts, is the idea that smart people – however you might wish to define the word – do not end up in prison. Sometimes it can be exactly those people who believe they have figured out every single possibility before committing a crime who are caught, simply because they have allowed one small error to creep in, not taken account of the actions of other people, or are simply too arrogant to believe in their own fallibility. If it weren’t for all these points, we wouldn’t have a wonderful crime thriller section in literature, we wouldn’t have Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell or even Arthur Conan Doyle and his immortal detective hero Sherlock Holmes. I am very hard put to think of a (fictional) character who was not smart: books do not seem to be written about the stupid all that often; the ignorant perhaps, but not the stupid. The less intelligent people are always those who work for the Big Boss, the runners who work at someone else’s bidding, cleaning up the mess, driving the getaway car, hiding the loot without asking any questions.

Of course, there are also people who do things without thinking, without considering the possible results or that they could be caught because they have not planned what they are doing, those who work on a snap judgement, grab and run or act on the spur of the moment. Are they not smart as a result of their actions? Possibly, but it is also possible that they were merely caught up in their emotions, in a desire to react which blinded them to possibilities. Such actions and reactions have precious little to do with how smart a person is, more with how little control they have over their emotions and senses.

And there is a need to take something else into consideration, at least as far as I am concerned: my world revolves around the written word and the arts. Writing is part and parcel of my daily life, as is reading, as is visiting museums and galleries, learning, delving deeper and deeper into history, literature, philosophy and thought. I am well-practiced at simply sitting down in front of a sheet of paper with a single thought in my mind, and writing that thought out into an article, a letter, a short story. And because I am so involved with the written world and the world of the arts, I have evolved a style which grabs and holds onto many things no longer in use in the modern world – such as letter writing which, as I am sure you appreciate, is considered a dead thing, a thing of the past – infects my mind with their influences and then flows into my common, daily usage. There are plenty of things in daily life which completely throw me, many times when I have stood in front of something and simply not understood what it is, how it works, how I should be using it, and had a child come up and show me how it goes. I dread to think what that child thinks of my intelligence level, how many smarts I have.

Winston Churchill, famed politician, writer and artist from Great Britain, was a failure in school. Albert Einstein had bad grades and began life as a lowly clerk. A few years ago the British television programme Mastermind, a show designed to pick out the most intelligent person from a group of candidates, was won by a humble taxi driver. I am sure that I can pull out countless names from amongst those who are considered leaders in the intelligence stakes who have not read Sartre or de Beauvoir, know nothing of the letters and essays written by Cicero, the epics of Homer and Virgil. I would not condemn them for their lack, such subjects are no longer taught in schools; anyone wishing to follow the teachings of Cicero, the thoughts of Sartre, must venture into higher education or forsake the thriller section of their local library and blow the dust off ancient and modern classics. Fortunately many do just that, but not all of them are necessarily smart, not all of those who do not are ignorant.

For me, letter writing is a chance to get to meet people – in a manner of speaking – who I might never have come across otherwise and who, clearly, have a very different view of life than I do. Each of these people has their own collection of experiences gathered over many years, none of which I can possibly have because I was not there with them. I did not live what they have been through and, even if I had, I would probably have seen and experienced something completely different anyway. And these people – you – are all fascinating because they have something I do not, and possibly I have something they do not, and the chances of exchanging viewpoints, opinions, life’s little ups and downs makes the whole exercise more than worthwhile. It is not a question of who is smart and who is not, it is a case of sharing, of listening as much as talking, of learning from the life and social environment of each other. We are both, as another example, in foreign lands, countries where we were not born and raised, but our experiences in these lands are completely different. Our social circles, those people we spend our time with – taking present circumstances into account .- are also different, with acceptable customs and traditions, styles of speech, what we do in our free and leisure hours being far removed from one another. While I happily walk across the street to watch a ballet show or view an exhibition of new photography, you might well have found pleasure in visiting a restaurant or walking through the park with friends. While I am curled up in an easy chair with a good book and a glass of red wine, you might be out with your clique in the local dance hall.

There are many ways in which we are similar, and can exchange stories of how we managed to get where we are: already mentioned is that we are both foreigners in a strange land. Admittedly I came over to Germany a quarter of a century ago, but there are still many things which I need to learn, according to which part of the country I happen to be in, many things that are unusual and fly against what I would have expected ‘back home’ in England. Like you with your many English-language books, I read literature in German when a good title presents itself, and have greatly improved my use of this foreign language as a result. I’m not necessarily correct in everything that I say or write, but better than not being able to express myself at all, much the same as you taking on an English-speaking letter writing friend. I wonder, just as an aside, how many of those people who are smart that you come into contact with speak more than one language. It takes a lot of smart to learn a new language, to adapt to a new country, and very little to just stay intellectually in the same place and complain that things are not the way they used to be, the way that you want them to be, that not everyone is handing you things on a silver platter.

And then we can move on to other things which show smart in your letter: reading books, taking an educational course, learning a new language, making plans for the future. No one needs to read Sartre to know that if they plan for their future, if they start to learn when the opportunity arises, they are going to be better off when the time comes to go out and do something. Anyone can watch television, and some people even think that the Discovery Channel is a form of education they can use later on in life, but few go away from a programme they have seen and try to find out more and enhance the limited information they have been fed. Anyone can watch an animated representation of the destruction of Pompeii, and then switch to another channel for the next show without having learned anything, but only a few can understand what happened back then, and what the consequences for Roman society were. Few, if we’re really honest about it, have even been out of their own State, and hardly any have even given a thought to travelling anywhere overseas.

When I first arrived in Germany I was still in the army and had come from a very restrictive two-year tour with next to no freedom of movement, so the first thing I was interested in was getting out and taking a breath of fresh air. I asked several people who had been here for a number of years what there was to do in town, where we could go, what the nightlife was like and so on. In the end I had to simply walk out the gate on my own and explore: most I talked to had never been out into town; had no idea what was on offer in the local area. The few who had been out tended to be those who were married, and they drove from the barracks to their married quarter in the evenings, and back in the mornings. Some of these people were in positions where they were required to be intelligent, well-educated and open to all possibilities as much as to advances in their own fields and communication with other people following a similar course of duty or interest. And they had not even trusted themselves to walk out the main gate into town, to take a chance and learn something new. Can you imagine that for your future, after December?

Answering your question on what else I do aside from exploring philosophy and literature would take more time and paper than you’d believe. I have the great advantage of a good deal of leisure time and use this time to travel, to explore as far as is possible. Letter writing and literature – encompassing philosophy, history and a few other subjects – are my main interests in life now, but I can also be convinced – very easily as it happens – to walk across the road to my local cinema and watch some of the prize-winning films from Venice, Cannes and Berlin they feature, although I will admit to avoiding the Hollywood moneymaking stuff which, to my way of thinking, rarely has anything new or worthwhile included. I go to ballet performances, and had the pleasure of watching the Bolshoi Ballet performing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet live a short while ago. I travel to Bremen and Hamburg regularly, where I have friends and plenty to fill my waking hours, and even attended a Scottish Robert Burns Supper last month, where we got to eat haggis specially delivered from Scotland, and listen to the great poet’s works read in a Scottish accent. In the future I will also be travelling to Berlin and Frankfurt am Main regularly, where I also have a group of friends, and expanding my horizons there. My life, to be honest, is wrapped within and around the arts in more ways than one, and it is reading, writing and various exhibitions which rule my life, which help me decide where I want to go, who I wish to visit at any time.

Letter writing is something that I began back in the Eighties, more by accident than anything else, and which has remained with me ever since – rather like writing a journal, which I also do, it has become a normal part of my life if not a social need. Originally I wrote to absolutely anyone who appeared likely to write back, and I formed a few friendships which held over decades rather than just months, which lasted more than just one or two letters and were then forgotten. Over time I have come to hone down my choices and try to find people who are in situations which are hard, but who clearly have not lost hope in themselves; who are, perhaps, lonely, but go out and try to sort the problem themselves; who show an interest in communication rather than a desire to find sponsors; who have been hit hard by life and circumstances, but are still prepared to get up off the ground and find a new way. I’ve been looking for people who would be a challenge to me, as much as they are challenging themselves to do thing. That doesn’t mean they need to be intelligent, intellectual, highly educated, just open and willing to share as much as to listen.

My small group of letter writing friends is very varied indeed, and has a very wide range of interests which is what challenges me and what makes the whole thing interesting. And I believe I am challenging them too, in that they are being brought into an area they have never considered before, which is strange and foreign to them, and they are opening their eyes, looking, making comments. I have even, last month, had two people write to me about Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, even though I did not raise the subject with them, and neither one knows of the existence of the other. I don’t just write to those who have been incarcerated, and I don’t just use the one web site to find people of interest, but I have discovered that those who are prepared to pay money to appear on this site, when they could have gone to one of the free ones, and who are prepared to be recognised as prisoners, are more likely to answer and be willing to make this a long and pleasurable friendship. For some, to be perfectly honest, there is nothing else that their daily life has to offer. And the breadth of discussion, of interests, makes the whole thing worthwhile.

As to our potential friendship, I see it in a very positive light, despite the fact that you will be moving back into society in December. You mentioned the number of books that you’ve read over the last two years, without saying what they were or which genre interests you; you show that you have an interest in learning and exploration through your move to the United States and willingness to study both English, Spanish and other subjects or trades; you answered my letter despite feeling that you might not be smart enough for me – something which I hope I have been able to disprove. The chances are I will mentioned philosophy now and then in the future, or a work of classic literature, but I don’t think that will phase you at all. I hope that you will write about the things which interest you – past, present and future – even if you suspect that they are not within the specific area of my interests. A challenge, if you like, where we both talk a little about ourselves and what we enjoy as much as delve into the areas enjoyed by the other, even if we have never been there before and don’t know whether we will find anything of interest once we’ve started. All good friendships start with a complete lack of knowledge, with diverse personal interests, sundry life experiences, and a willingness to listen as much as to talk.