I recently read an article, from the United States, that lamented the changes in our system of education, whereby a child is no longer taught how to hold and use a pen, and hand writing is gradually becoming a thing of the past. As more and more technology infiltrates our lives and exerts its ease of use, its practicality, its smoothing running without needing to expend a single extra thought upon us, the beautiful things in life will gradually disappear, and become the beautiful things of exploratory television and historical drama. Settled in their comfortable armchairs, remote control on the one side and a drink with popcorn on the other, people will marvel at the extent to which past generations were forced to express themselves with squiggles, signs and symbols before the advent of writing tools and writing aids. They will marvel at the ease with which ancient generations appeared to be able to spell and write out a complete word, before the ease of abbreviation and emojis became widespread. They will gasp as, for the first time, they see how these ancient writing instruments, seldom seen outside a museum or in the hands of some third world scribe, are utilised, are cleaned and stored. And then they will switch channels and watch something else, having bolstered their daily dose of education with some history, and gratitude that they, the modern Homo sapiens, are not forced to learn such cumbersome and time-consuming traits.
I regret not being able to write with an ink pen, forming the words in a slow progression across a page of carefully selected paper, my mind working slowly to ensure I make no mistakes, my fingers twitching here and there to ensure the perfect formation of every symbol so that, when my missive finally reaches its destination, it can be read without problems, without the need of a hand writing expert or interpreter. I wish that my old hands could still hold a fountain pen, that my fingers could clasp it gently and firmly at the same time, and that the product of this gentle, firm action would be legible. But time takes its toll, and I am reduced to the modern communicative methods although, thankfully, not those of instant communication, merely those of transcribing my words, my thoughts and ideas through the medium of a computer onto the page which, when I am finished, will come out of a printer and be ready for despatch. Sometimes I open the pages of my old journal and smooth their surface with my gnarled fingers, reading the words I wrote twenty or thirty years ago, and remembering the pleasures of one fountain pen or another, as much as the delights of wherever I happened to be in the world at the time.
I also sometimes look back over the letters, which were returned to me years later, from the time when I was serving in Saudi Arabia, and remember how precious such communication was. Today we see people who quickly send off an electronic mail, or use some form of application to communicate with pictures and jokes rather than real words, and who have no appreciation of the pleasures of receiving a letter through the mail; of the delights such a thing holds for them; of the personal, individual present that they have been given. I offered one person the choice of writing to me by electronic mail, simply because it was easier and less expensive for him, on the understanding that I would still send replies by post. Within a month I received a letter saying how amazed he had been at the joys of receiving a letter rather than a mail, and that he would, whenever possible, reply by the same means. Mail call, he told me, had taken on a new meaning for him, one which an electronic device could not replace. We are a dying breed, though, and as educational institutions turn towards electronic means of teaching, and online courses as much as online submission of papers, fewer and fewer people will know how to handle a pen, how to form words, how to guide their hands slowly, carefully, across the page. And those of us who could do it so easily in our youth, will look back and sigh at the loss to civilisation.
Your professor was correct: college does not complete a person’s education. Many decades ago, it was not considered to be a completion at all, but the basic seven major subjects were taught, as they had been in the times of Cicero, so that the student, with a foundation of knowledge, could go out and educate themselves. I know of many people who believed they had completed their education and approached their new workplace convinced that it is all there, that they need no more, that they have reached the summit of knowledge within their chosen area. And then they are crushed as someone tells them what they have learned, what they have struggled over for two, three, five years, is textbook and not reality. Anyone who walks away from education thinking that they have reached the pinnacle, that there is no more they need in order to be the expert in their field has lost before they even draw their next breath. When we take, as a very simple example, language, we see at once that the language we use is limited until it gets out into the social sphere where, no matter who you meet up with, it takes on new aspects, brings new meanings to old words, evolves with use. Or history, where we have learned that a certain event happened on a certain day – the start of the First World War, as an example – but not the details of what happened around that event – the murder in Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the pacts and treaties between England and certain European countries, between Germany and other countries, and so on.
My favourite, of course, is philosophy and its use through critical thought where we are given an idea, and this idea germinates into many different avenues of thought, of exploration, of explanation and, naturally, many new questions which need to be considered. This is something we ought to be taught in school, and learn how to use to our fullest potential in college, and then to just leave it because we’ve graduated and learned everything on the curriculum? Because we have a certificate of achievement? We might just as well go through the elementary grades and leave it at that. Although, being a keen Twitter user, I know that there are many people who are so set in their ways, who have considered a notion with no input from outside and come to a conclusion which cannot be budge by facts and experience, that education might just as well stop at a mother’s nipple (pardon the expression), and those people would be better off. I had a conversation – well, I suppose it was a conversation, it is hard to tell with some people – on Twitter yesterday and was amazed by the breadth of this person’s word usage, and the fact that he, or she, used long words which had a totally different meaning to what they wished to convey, but looked good and made them feel literate and educated through their use. There was no factual debate, merely opinions which were clearly held firm by prejudice and, sadly, political leanings and, at the end, the only answer to a discussion some people can come up with, a blocking of my account by them to ensure they didn’t have to suffer the ignominy of being challenged in their beliefs. Something akin, I believe, to a child hiding their face so that they cannot see you, and believing that you are, thereby, gone.
I didn’t learn Latin at school. There was a Latin language course offered, since this was a private school with considerably more options for students, but I had set my heart on learning German, missed the window option for Latin, and had my application for German turned down. Reason for the refusal was that my progress in French wasn’t good enough, and it was the French master who made the decisions about which languages we were allowed to study and which were to be recommended. I have often wished to meet him again, and talk to him in German which, since I happen to live here, I taught myself as soon as I arrived and began my life as a civilian. The Latin quotation on my letters is taken from Cicero, whose many letters and speeches, as well as other works, I have enjoyed over time. Admittedly, letter writing came first, as I was almost polluted to hatred of literature by school, but reading and good books have been in my blood all my life, and the two disciplines can exist happily side by side, complementing one another and giving me many things to think and write about, as well as a wealth of quotes whenever I feel the need to expand a letter with new thoughts and ideas. I thought the quotation appropriate, and am occasionally asked what it means, but above all it is fun to have something on my letterhead which causes people to think, even if not necessarily in the right direction. As a child I learned that these things are conversation pieces: specially designed to provoke some form of conversation between people who would, otherwise, have a problem finding subjects for small talk. Or, of course, it could be the same as a coffee table book: designed to show off the breadth of my unassuming education and worldly, intellectual understanding!
I must admit, I often feel sorry for those people who are forced to give up their education for whatever reason, but have less sympathy for those who simply walk away from it, who do not leave their own boundaries, exit the comfort zone, and imagine they can see the world from the comfort of their couch. The world is constantly changing around us, for you it is the move from a more rural area to buildings and suburbs, gentrification if you will, which we get to see over here in major towns and cities as well. I am fortunate in that the town where I live is small, although it has a massive history behind it, and is not hit quite so hard by changes, and certainly not by gentrification. There are no lofts for the rich and famous here, no country houses or villas for those wishing to escape the city, no dachas for holiday makers. People live and work here, or live and commute from here into Hannover, Hamburg and Bremen, all of which are within a reasonably commuting distance. One of the reasons chose this small town, over twenty years ago now, was because it was small, because the changes here would be minimal, and because it was within easy reach of three major cities which, hopefully, contain all the culture a person could desire.
The only problem is that in such a small town, were most people know their neighbours at the very least, a person gives up something of their anonymity. People tend to know what you are doing with your time, and comment on it. Not that this is a problem for me, but it is a touch strange, eating in a restaurant, and hearing one of the staff mention you not by name, but as the person who always has a book with him. These are, of course, those people who, as you mentioned, think they know you because you live in the same town, do much the same as they do, and have the same facilities as they have. But they don’t know you at all, as you have experienced and mention in your letter, seeing you only part of the time and in certain surroundings which, while they help form a picture of a person, do not stand a chance of telling the whole story. I mention in passing to someone who I am spending the weekend on Frankfurt am Main, or in Wiesbaden and they are surprised, never having entertained the thought that other cities bear attractions far greater than those within easy reaching distance. And then yet others, when they hear that I watched a live performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by the Bolshoi Ballet do not for a moment doubt that I climbed into an aeroplane and flew, overnight, to return the next day, to Moscow. They do not know what is happening in their own town, do not realise that there is a live connection from the cinema directly across from where I live, to Moscow during the ballet season.
But while that which is around me does not change much, or not so fast that you’d notice active changes, that which was, which forms part of my history, has changed beyond recognition. Born and raised in the Big City of London, I see areas that I knew intimately back in the day, and hardly recognise them now. The small flea market I used to wander around on Saturday afternoons, now a major tourist attraction full of commercial concerns. The neighbourhood pubs refitted into theme bars. The small art galleries replaced by heaven knows what, but nothing to do with art and culture. The second-hand bookstores from Camden up the Belsize Park hill towards Hampstead, vanished. And here we have lofts. The old warehouses which used to loom above the small Camden Market back in the Sixties and early Seventies have been rebuilt, converted, first into artist’s studios with barely an attraction or convenience, now into desirable, expensive, homes for those who can afford whatever they wish, and need only the latest trendy address to adorn their own letter head. Where scruffy schoolboys used to skim stones across the canal waters, there are security guards to deter anyone from getting too close.
There is not much I can tell you about myself: I am just an ordinary person who has seen a few things in life; who has many memories but not so many mementoes; who enjoys books and conversation, culture and coffee. For my letters I grab themes out of the air, from whatever I happen to be reading, wherever I have been, whatever plagues my thoughts at any given moment in time. I suspect this is why someone called my letters intense: I often go from one thought through a series of connected ideas, and then back to the start again. I pose questions which beg for an answer, but which, when thought through, merely pose yet more questions. And I do not stop writing. I once answered a one line comment from another correspondent – who still writes to me occasionally, but more by electronic mail than real letters – with a four thousand word letter, as my thoughts happened to be full of meandering themes at the time, and these themes covered her complaint (which was that she had written a week earlier and not received a reply, despite living close at hand, well, also in the United States!). If someone takes the time and trouble to write to me, then I write back, simple as that. And so far, I haven’t come across anything which has bored me to such an extent that my intellectual juices have not begun to flow and express a desire to be put down in words.