For the record, when it comes to letter writing, it is sometimes those snap decisions which pay off far more than the well-considered and long thought over choices. When we try to find the ideal person to write to, it is often someone who is much the same as us that we are actively looking for; the same hobbies and interests, the same mode of living, even the same politics or fashion styles. What we get, then, is what we already have in ourselves, and not something new and interesting. We rehash all the things which we have already thought about, and have the other person agree, comment blandly, and that’s it. Letter writing is like a team sport between two people: a challenge to force the other person to think outside of the box, to leave their comfort zone, to find out new and exciting things to write about so that you, in turn, are challenged too. Anyone can write about things they know inside out, the challenge is to find something new and exciting, something which you know nothing about, to step – run and leap – into new territory. Otherwise we might just as well take the last letter a person wrote to us, cross out theirs and put our name on the bottom line, and send it right back again.
I must admit, I’ve never considered myself to be a book snob, not in the sense of someone who believes that what they read is considerably better – literature – than what everyone else reads – pulp fiction. Those books which do cross my desk, which are allowed to hold my nose and mind captive for a few hours a day tend to be the ones which interest me at that moment in time. I am not adverse to jumping from a good psychological work on the evolution of the mind, through an ancient classic or two, wander by the collected letters of a seventeenth century advocate and then come to rest within the covers of a modern crime thriller. Sometimes, when you have digested the entire history of mankind, from the days where there were six or eight different forms of Homo through to the future where artificial intelligence could end up replacing life as we know it, it is a good idea to allow yourself a little brain candy, to slip into a work where no real thought is necessary and you can just enjoy the pleasures of a reasonable writing style and a puzzle to be solved. Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Dashiell Hammett all have their place in literature and, what is far more important, inspire people to read books. I could almost stoop down to some of the real pulp fiction writers, the train-journey ten-cent novels which last from Richmond to Washington and no further – and I don’t mean Washington D.C. – and are printed on such cheap paper you’d think they would find their way into a public washroom run by some cheap skate council out to save money at the cost of comfort and cleanliness after you close the back cover.
There are, though, some books which you are happy to admit to reading, and some which might almost be called a placeholder. And there are people who take great pride in only being seen with books that are not placeholders, that are not brain candy, by people who have a name – in certain academic or literary circles – and whose works can be left out on the coffee table during tea time where other people see them, make a note of the clear intellectual range of their host, and do not notice that these books have not been opened, let alone read by anyone. Some of the most famous private libraries of the Victorian era contain first edition, exclusive subscription works by the finest writers of those years which were receive, placed on a table in clear view of all and sundry, and then set on a bookshelf, unread, when the next month’s supply was delivered. Today we tend to read the books we buy, and not just have them as a status symbol; it is practically enough that we even own books, there is no longer a need to show them off. Today we show off the latest smart phone and designer jeans, and are judged accordingly. Books are just so yesterday.
My personal Quality Time, as I like to call it, is in the evening when, letters written, Twitter dealt with, shopping and house work completed, I can put my feet up, shoo the cat into another room to continue sleeping, and read a good book with a glass of red wine. And calling it a good book has nothing to do with snobbery: if it is well written and enjoyable, brings the story as much as the characters out of the flatness of a page and into the vivid imagination of my mind, then I am quite happy. And it could be Marco Polo bringing goods down the Silk Road and across the known world to Venice, or an argument against the Donation of Constantinople or the use of Cicero’s use of Latin as a basis for all fifteenth century Latin writing, or Jack Reacher righting yet another wrong in one of Lee Child’s twenty-two crime thrillers featuring this man who, according to the description, looks nothing like Tom Cruise at all. I’m not sure how often your favourite Harlan Coben writes a book, with Child it seems to be once a year with a publication date of November here in Europe, but he’s still in the lead as far as number of works goes. By my reckoning, Coben has twenty-nine thrillers out – I’m not including short stories gathered into collections here, of which Child has two, maybe three – and of which I have read fourteen. I have all twenty-two of the Child publications, but not the short stories. My To Be Read pile includes Home by Coben, which came out last year and has just been made available as an international export edition in Europe. Have I managed to shoot your book snob idea down in flames? I hope so.
It is, as you can see, very difficult to know a person just from one initial meeting: first impressions are not always right, especially when we cannot see a person, cannot read their body language, cannot judge and pigeon-hole them according to their appearance. Letter writing is one of those wonderful old-fashioned arts which challenges people to think about what they want to say, what they want to ask, how they wish to be seen and how they wish to present themselves. It is, even with the troublesome use of modern technology and electronic mail, something which takes time. Even people who live together and are present at least half their waking day cannot know and appreciate every facet of another person. When we are faced with a certain situation, when a crisis comes, when we have loss or need to make a major decision, then different sides of our personalities, our beliefs, our characters come to the surface which, normally, we could be very good at hiding from those who either have no need to know what we are really like, under the surface, or who we wish to fool into believing we are a certain type of person. I have no doubt we both have experiences in our past – some more recent than others – which confirm this.
I have no expectations which you, or anyone else, can fail to live up to. For some strange reason, possibly because I have been writing letters to strangers for many years, I have come to accept that every single person I write to is different, that they all have their own lives, experiences, memories and destinations in life. My idea in writing a letter is not to point anyone out as failing to live up to expectations, or as being something that they are not in my eyes, according to my assessment of them before I even got to know the first thing about them in their own words and outside of a short profile text, but to begin the long process of writing letters which gradually reveal a personality not only to me but also, through the comments I write, through questions I might pose, through learning of my experiences in life, to themselves. Sometimes, when we have never been confronted with a specific situation, we are not sure of our own reaction or our own thoughts simply because the idea has never arisen, and then along comes someone like me and throws everything into disarray. And, as with the lack of expectations – but hope, naturally, that this will be a success regardless of any obstacles which might appear to be there and are usually a mere illusion – so also the scarcity of personal description.
I could easily tell you about what I wonderful person I am, so successful, loved by the entire community here and with a name that only has to be mentioned in passing, and everyone immediately sighs and has fond memories of something or other connected to it or to me and my good deeds. There could be tales of heroism, of selflessness, of exotic journeys in far-off lands and a description of the photographs taken with other famous people, shaking hands whilst smiling knowingly into the camera, and the many diplomas and certificates framed and hung out to view on the wall behind my lavish work desk. I now people like that, but I’m not one of them. I have my one or two small certificates, a few things that I have written, a couple of photographs from exotic places – mostly in wartime – and the rest is bookshelves. What you see on the surface, what I would describe to quickly and successfully sell myself is not me, but a shallow image of what I want someone to see me as being, and that’s why I don’t do it. I much prefer conversation, the occasional answer to a question thrown in, where it is not all about one person, but about things people have in common, and the getting to know you phase can take months if not years. Otherwise, and the same goes for electronic mail which whizzes around the globe so quickly there is no time to think or get out and do something before the next one demands you attention, you quickly run out of things to write about, experiences to relate, memories to recall and what is the point of that? Even so:
I am undoubtedly older: I have an old mind in a body which would quite happily be considerably younger, but which has managed to keep going remarkably well despite its age, That is, until just over a year ago when someone decided that Facebook was far more important than watching the road he was driving along. But perhaps I am also older through what I have read, what I have learned in life, what I have experienced on my travels. Someone who has had a love affair in Paris, walked through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, slept on the main railway station concourse in Venice, run through the hills of Cyprus and struggled through a freezing cold winter night in the sands of Saudi Arabian deserts tends to gather experiences which can make them seem very old indeed. Coupled with a propensity for reading old literature, the letters of people who died two thousand years ago, or lived in an era which is so close to our times, but just out of reach as the last person born in those days has now passed on. Plus the small fact which cannot be denied that I was indeed born many years ago.
I think we can mash intense together with eccentric and odd, strange and artistic without too many problems. For me, perhaps in my own defence again, all these things are quite normal and every day. I’ve been living with me for a very long time and find my travels, my reading, my letter writing and photography-collecting habits absolutely run-of-the-mill and everyday ordinary. It’s all the other people who are weird. Rather like talking or holding a conversation: as an Englishman I have recently noticed that I am the only person in this, or any other, German town who does not have an accent. And there I have inadvertently answered a question directly instead of dancing around it as I usually do: English. Which, I suppose, might explain, to a certain extent, why my use of the English language is reasonably good and help you on the road to understanding my family name which, as you can probably guess, is not pure English, but considerably older than the English language as we know it today. Like me.
Food is also always a good subject to cover, unless you let it become an obsession as some people in the internet appear to have. Did you know that the taking of photographs of food with a smart phone and then uploading them to Instagram or Facebook has its own name? Apparently it’s called Food Porn, but I much prefer eating whatever has been created for me, and not playing with it. Once or twice I have sent photographs of a meal up to Twitter for the sake of amusement – Christmas, as an example, I had sausage and beans for my main celebratory meal, and just last week my cat preferred the seafood pizza I had purchased for me to the herrings I had bought for it, so we exchanged meals – but it is a real rarity. And some of the meals that I eat – today it was Chicken Tikka Masala in Bremen – taste considerably better than they look. I could probably write quite a bit about Indian cuisine, and Italian, Chinese, Thai, German or French from personal experience, but that would just make me hungry again, and I have already eaten all that I wish to eat for today. Raiding the refrigerator will do me no good, as it has only a few slices of sandwich cheese and some ketchup, and all the restaurants here are now closed for the night. It is later than usual, I normally write much earlier in the evening, but I’ve had a busy day out and about in town, and that’s my excuse.
Many other questions which I could answer, but then what would we have to write about in the future? Letter writing, as I probably mention far too often, is a long and wholesome thing, not to be rushed. I was, however, amused by the question of whether I am gay or not. I had the wonderful experience of writing to a man incarcerated in Big Stone Gap, also in Virginia, and receiving a panic-style reply as he couldn’t understand why a man would write to another man unless he had some ulterior motive of a sexual nature – which also made me laugh since I am in Europe and he is locked away for the rest of his natural life – and he wanted my assurance that this was not so, otherwise he’d not want to write to me. Which, I suppose, is fair enough, although I have never given much consideration to my sexuality, to whether men are preferable to women as it has never bothered me. If the chemistry is right and both sides are happy and consenting, then I am fine with that, and have been fine with it, regardless of gender, for many years. I’ve never understood the need to hang the whole thing out for all to see, even if I do understand and appreciate the reasoning behind some “outing” events, personal or forced. Equality will always be something that has to be fought for, just the same as acceptance, and there will always be those who are short-sighted, bigoted or simply under-educated – to use the new politically correct terms for educational idiots – no matter what you do, no matter what the law says. In the end, for me at least, it makes no difference since I’m not dating, I’m writing letters and, of course, ensuring that I stick to the rules so that my letters manage to pass all the necessary tests and get through to the intended recipient unharmed.
I reach the end of the page with many questions remaining unanswered, which I am sure can wait for another day, another letter. I am quite happy, I must add, should you wish to send your letters to me electronically, to accept them in that form and have added your name to my list. For my part: there is something special about writing and receiving a letter through the post, some people only appreciate it after a while, but I would hate to remove the chance of your appreciation before you have the opportunity to experience it. Whether you write a real letter or send an electronic mail, I will answer through the post in my old, old-fashioned way, eccentric and intense manner. No letter goes unanswered.