It is a pleasure to see that my letters appear to be an exception, in your case at least, but that is not so everywhere. Sadly I received another returned letter from the United States just the day before yesterday, marked as being undeliverable despite everything being correct. The return from the United States took several months; there is clearly no rush to ensure things are corrected, and something of a revelation has been presented to my mind. I have the feeling that, despite all the security and the knowledge about movements, the daily counts, the checking and paperwork, there are some institutions which do not know where their inmates are, and that is worrying. As to labels and so on, I use them merely for ease, so that I can always quickly pull out an address and know that it is the correct one: I do not need to use them, I am being lazy, so if there is a problem and your letters are being corrupted or partially damaged through my use of the labels, I can easily stop using them and write the address by hand. Our rules on return address, those, exactly as with the United States, are clear: return addresses are needed on the outer envelope so that postal workers do not need to open an envelope for a return. Especially important for letters from the United States, I might add, where many do not write their full name and address on the letter itself.
As to the address you write to: it makes little difference whether you use the post box address or the street address, everything goes to the post box for me to collect. It is one of the ways that I ensure I get out of the house every single day! Otherwise I would simply walk across my drive to the box on the street and then back again, and hardly gain any exercise or fresh air. I used the post box address many years ago when I received a wealth of mail, mainly political proposals and other items concerned with external companies and the like, and only had a small letter box in front of the house. It was easier and made it harder for a few fools to find me, not that I was especially worried about such things, but I also moved several times when I first arrived here, always trying to find a bigger apartment and finally my house to store all my books and photographs, and the stable post box address had its advantages. So you can use either one and know letters will be delivered. I’ve also changed my return label, as you might see if it is not torn off, to say ‘From’, having had a letter returned by the German post office rather than delivered to the intended recipient; someone could not read, simple as that.
Yes, I have a great advantage, sitting here in the middle of my library, in that I can find good quotations which fit a subject matter, can reach out and grab an interesting book and pass on some small part of it. Knowledge is not necessarily knowing something, more knowing where to find the answer, and there have been many times in my life where books have not been available – in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia, or sitting in a barracks room in Belize or Cyprus – and that hones the skills when it comes to putting together a letter. I am convinced that almost anyone can learn to let their thoughts flow and produce a letter which is worth reading, which is enjoyable for the recipient, as much as it is for the writer. The basis of this is the idea that we are all so far apart and that we all have completely different lives, experiences, education, outlooks which we can express in our own way, through our own use of language. I recently received a letter from someone describing his early life among the Cool Cats in the Hood, before things started to go wrong for him, an absolutely individual manner of writing, of description which brings character out as much as anything. And which also convinces me that letter writing, as a therapy, is an ideal method to overcome many anxieties, many fears, and express all those thoughts in a person’s head. Writing, I am told, and have been told since I was a young schoolboy, is as good a method of clearing your mind and working through problems as any other – often more expensive and highly suspect – means of contemplation.
What is good writing, though? It is not as if we are making a living from the words we put down on paper, not as if our whole existence relies on what we form with our minds and our pens. Letter writing is a free-flow of thoughts and impressions, the passing on of news and opinions, of experiences and memories. The ideal letter is merely written, folded, and sent. Good writing, to my way of thinking, where a larger audience is expected, is not spontaneous, but laboured, worked at, improved through several editing stages to make it as perfect as possible. None of us are a Charles Dickens of Tom Wolfe. Although I suspect the letters that they wrote, even the shortest notes, had to be carefully considered for fear of later publication, and much time was devoted to the right words, the right impressions created, to the overall appearance. I recently saw the letter book used by Oliver Cromwell: every letter he wrote – we assume – was hand copied into this ledger as a record of what went out, laboriously and exact. I know of other historical figures who kept copies of their own missives, hand written on another sheet of paper or within a bound book, the delivery times for some letters being so great, months even, that they would otherwise forget what they had written. Also, with the sharing of letters received, useful to share letters written.
Today we can make a copy in a matter of seconds – I once used carbon copy paper, then carbonless copying paper for much of what I wrote and sent out – and the times have changed. A click of a button and I could copy this very letter a hundred times, even alter it and send personalised copies to other people – something I abhor, to be honest. Once, back in the Eighties, I received the self-same letter twice, a short note apologising for not writing sooner and promising a proper letter later, which never appeared. And keeping the thread of conversation going over several letters, each of which takes a week or two to be delivered, and then a week or two before the reply arrives. Good writing, though, for me, is a letter filled with information, with news and views, and not necessarily correct spelling or grammar.
You could talk for hours about television shows and soap operas and documentaries, and I would be lost after the first few words. I made the decision to leave a television out of my life decades ago, and have never found reason to regret that decision. Admittedly I am caught up with books, and some people would suggest this is just moving one fetish, one time-passing occupation to another, but that is what we do. We have to have something which occupies us, which excites our minds and gives us something to discuss, to comment on, to fill the hours. Travelling down to Hamburg for a meeting earlier this week, I found out exactly how good a book is – as well as a cup of coffee and the knowledge that time is not so important – when the train I was on suffered a delay of just five minutes, meaning that we, all the other occupants of my carriage and myself, missed the connection. Two different train companies involved, and the second didn’t want to suffer the chances of being late, so didn’t wait those few minutes necessary for us to get the connection. And everyone was so upset!
We had to wait an extra half hour for the next connection, during which time I would have been assailed by complaints and bitter comments from all sides – there had been a fire along the train lines, so it was something which could not be avoided – had I not simply wandered off the platform, bought myself a coffee and a sandwich, and sat down to use those thirty minutes to read. Perhaps a coincidence, but the book I was reading at the time was Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late. Admittedly it is about technological advances in society and how hard we are finding it, as humans, to keep up, but there is a worthy comment right at the start where someone he is meeting comes late to their appointment and begins with all the apologies and excuses we are all so used to, and he stops them and thanks them for being late, and then adds in the unspoken text:
Because he was late, I explained, I had minted time for myself. I had “found” a few minutes to just sit and think. I was having fun eavesdropping on the couple at the next table (fascinating!) and people-watching the lobby (outrageous!). And, most important, in the pause, I had connected a couple of ideas I had been struggling with for days.
But after another encounter, I noticed that it felt good to have those few moments of unplanned-for, unscheduled time, and it wasn’t just me who felt better! And I knew why. Like many others, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the dizzying pace of change.
And this, of course, sets the scene for his book, with long and fascinating explorations into the many ways society has speeded up over the last fifty years, going into some details many would never take into consideration with their new cell phone, their quicker bandwidth, their hectic running from one appointment to another across cities, or even the world. Whilst everyone else was getting upset at this thirty minutes they ‘wasted’ waiting for the next connection, I enjoyed my coffee, my sandwich, and a few pages of the book and felt relaxed and at ease as a result. But then, I had also planned enough time for my journey so that there would be no stress, so that I could walk through Hamburg in peace and quiet, drink another coffee, visit a bookstore or two, and arrive for my meeting prepared in mind and soul. Next time I will allow myself even more time, having noted that there is a major exhibition of the British master painter Thomas Gainsborough at the Kunsthalle which will be worth visiting.
There are many forms of control, and many people who believe that they have to exercise it in order to be someone, to have standing. For me, control is a personal thing, and control of the self is far more important than lording it over others. Some people need it to assert themselves, whether it be deciding which television channel to watch despite the majority wanting something else, or simply to stand out above someone else and control them. I no longer need these ego trips, this showing of power. If it isn’t possible to convince someone through good arguments and information, through facts and experience, then there is no need to force the issue with a power play. It doesn’t work. People become upset and bear a grudge, and who needs that hanging over them?
Of course, being effectively retired, it is much easier for me, I do not need to pander to the desires of others as much as I once did. Perhaps one of the great advantages that I can enjoy here. I allocate my own time for writing letters, for reading books, for going out for a walk in the morning to collect my post, or the evenings when the weather begins to cool again. I am not at the beck and call of The Man or the Machine, as some call it, and only need to keep an eye on the appointments I have, wherever they may be, so that I am there in good time and do not upset or rile those still caught up in a highly regulated life style. And half an hour because of a missed train connection? Time to think, to collect thoughts and impressions, to read. What would there be to write about if that time was not available for the taking, if we did not allow ourselves a few moments out of each day to just stop and look around us?
You might then answer: yes, but. I appreciate, naturally, that you are in a very controlled environment and that there is a limit to the freedoms that you enjoy, as you yourself pointed out with the counts and checks and the length of time it takes to go from one place to another but, to a certain extent, that makes it just as interesting. You are living through something which others have never experienced, which many will never experience throughout their entire lives. Some, possibly few, but some, will never come into contact with a single person who has the experiences, before and now, that you have. You may not consider it ‘good writing’ as such, but it is something which intrigues me, and many others, and which you are in an ideal position to explain. Aside from which, I am concerned that your bees gain ground again, and would be very sorry indeed to hear that it has all been for nothing – whereby I do not mean that the time spent has been wasted, it has surely been a very worthwhile experience for you and the others – but the loss would be great, I believe. Mother Nature is such a wonderful creature, and we should all be doing our small bit to help her, to foster and promote her.
Sending letters does indeed take longer: I do not know when you passed your letter on to be forwarded to me, but it seems almost to be an age. Regardless of the length of time, though, when I receive a letter, I will most surely reply. Although, having said that, and with my experiences over the last year when it was touch and go and some were planning my funeral and the dispersal of my library, I did write a small Tweet for the social media platform Twitter a while ago which – paraphrased – said that I write my diary each evening, and then leave it open on my desk. That way, when someone finally finds my lifeless remains, they’ll know how longer ago I passed over. I wrote it more as a reminder to other people to care for their neighbours, to keep an eye open on those who are older, who cannot cope quite as much for themselves on their own. At the same time I am more than well aware that I lead a life which is very removed from society – not quite a hermit, but out of sight – and few would notice that I didn’t come to collect my mail, or that the car hasn’t been moved recently, or the grass mown. But I am very careful, and have decided nothing is likely to happen when I am in the middle of a good book, because I just will not let it. A frivolous outlook on life, perhaps, but I am very honest with myself. If not I, then who?