Sometimes even the best laid plans, ones which you have set in concrete and definitely wish to stick to, have to be changed according to sudden or unexpected need. And so it is, rarely admittedly, with my time: I make plans and set myself a routine, a series of deeds I wish to perform, a series of tasks I need or want to complete, and something unexpected rears its head and drags me off elsewhere. This last weekend I had planned my time exactly so, so that I could write letters, do my shopping and laundry, and even – if the right one came on – watch a film, or read a book. Fine, reading a book fits into any schedule, and I am not afraid to disappear between the pages whenever the chance arises, but I am in the middle of a riveting biography of the German architect, Minister and war criminal Albert Speer at the moment, and a book like that needs some dedicated time set aside. Exactly the same with letter writing: time needs to be set aside to do justice to the person being written to; a letter isn’t something to just be dashed off and slipped into the post as an afterthought, it is a work of art, of personal communication, a missive of life, of thoughts, and not simply an aside to be thrown in whenever ten spare minutes arise. I could forgive myself for reading (some) books that way, whenever ten minutes spare arrives unexpectedly and a “brain candy” book – one requiring little real thought – happens to be close at hand, but not with a letter.
On Saturday morning, when I had planned to rise early and turn my mind to nothing other than introducing myself to you, I was dragged out into the real world, the world outside my door, and about fifty miles away to the city of Bremen where, as every Saturday during the summer months, there is a flea market on the banks of the river Weser, in a small area called Schlachte. A few years ago I was there regularly, every single Saturday I walked along the lines of tables and rugs thrown on the ground, and inspected the wares on offer. I knew many of those selling goods by name, and had formed a few minor friendships. A few decades ago, before I officially arrived in this country, I had my own stand there, selling products in the hope of making a living, if not my first million. Needless to say, I made neither enough to call it a living, nor my first million, so it is a good thing I hadn’t given up my day-job at the time.<
Now, you might wonder why, when I consider letter writing so worthwhile, so important that I set time aside specifically to write, or even how I could allow myself to be taken out of my planned routine for a mere flea market. The thing is, this is an ordinary market, and it has ordinary things there, but sometimes something turns up which no one expects. And so it is in this case. One of the women working the market had something which she had either been given as a gift by someone else, or which she had found in the rubbish. To be honest, most of the things found at flea markets are rubbish, to someone, or have been thrown out into the trash by someone and then, in the hope of making a few cents, rescued. This particular woman has a speciality of going through the piles of old paper set out on the side of the street for collection each month, and pulling out things which she believes she can sell. And, mostly, she is quite right in her assessment. People throw away historical works without a second thought, be they letters, books, photographs, works of art or whatever. I have bought so many old photographs from her – and a few others – to add to my small collection you’d almost imagine she had her own printing works. I don’t know where you found your information on me, if it was somewhere where my interest in photography a books was mentioned or not but, to be clear, I collect studio photographs taken before 1920. The sort of photographs no one else seems to want, at the moment, and few families care to keep, even if they are of their own ancestors. Sad to say, most people today do not care, and the people who collected their entire family history so carefully over generations often didn’t add names and dates to what they had, and the people of today cannot connect.
This time, however, it was not for a set of remarkable photographs that I threw my routine out of the window, but for a small set of books. My first love in life has always been reading, and I try to find things which are not only interesting, but also challenging. Thus my reading of the biography of Albert Speer (in German), or a historical work about a rebellion in India in 1857, or the Tudors and their royal court, or works of modern philosophy. The room I am sitting in as I write this is lined with bookshelves, all but one wall. Most of these bookshelves have two rows of books on them, coming to a total of about one thousand eight hundred. I have three other rooms here which are similarly laid out. Walking past a bookshop and not looking in the window, examining the display of new or old titles, is an impossibility for me. If the shop is open, especially a second-hand or antiquarian bookseller, I will go in. There is no question about it, I will go in. And I will probably come out with a book – or two – under my arm.
The flea market in Bremen stretches along one side of the river Weser, near to one of the oldest parts of the city, and has been a part of summer life for many decades. It has changed with the times, different people taking over from those who have moved on and, in the last two decades or so, many more foreign sellers. There are stands with freshly pressed orange juice, Currywurst, burgers and coffee and, of course, beer. The goods on offer are a mixture of new items – such as cell phone covers and wallets, t-shirts and shoes – and second-hand. Now and then an artist will appear and sell handmade bracelets or sketches, but not so often as the clientele tends to be more of the cheaper sort – looking for a bargain – than the collector. That said, and as a collector, this is a great advantage for me, since few other collectors bother with this market and the field remains open for a few good bargains now and then. Not every week – I wouldn’t be able to afford it any way – but often enough to make the almost weekly ritual of travelling into Bremen worthwhile.
This Saturday we had exceptionally good weather, plenty of sun and warmth but also a cooling breeze across the water, and not too many people along the stretch of the flea market. Mostly they seemed – the tourists, I mean – to have gathered on an upper level, where the real Schlachte is, and taken over the many outdoor bars and drinking areas to enjoy the sun and a live concert of amateur musicians or shanty choir singers with their seaman’s tales and songs. I was able to move quickly through the market and inspect all of the stalls and thrown-down carpets on my first run through without everyone getting in the way. I always find this a good move, to check the whole market quickly in case there is something right at the far end which interests, as well as something at the beginning. If I spend all my money right at the start, that prize at the end is going to be a disappointment I will carry with me, a missed opportunity, for the rest of the week. I know this from bitter experience, having seen a complete row of crime fiction books from the Fifties on offer, and then decided to come back for them later. An hour later, and someone else had taken them all.
This time my find was on a stand in the middle, and offered by a woman I have often dealt with who, sadly, suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. She constantly says she is giving up on the market, and then is always there, as if it has some pull on her soul which she cannot loosen. And she, Corinne, is one of those who goes through the paper waste set out for collection on the streets each month, and often finds things of interest such as old photographs, and even albums of photographs. This time Corinne had a set of books which caught my eye: the complete works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, quarter bound in leather, in a mixed edition from the 1790s. I say a mixed edition partially because it wasn’t complete – four volumes from thirty-one are missing – but also because it was not just one set. The first volume of the set was from a second edition, but in the same printing style. And, on reading through later, I also discovered that it is not, as advertised, the complete works of Lessing, but most of the works. In notes to various volumes, his brother, who compiled much of the edition, comments that he has left out Ernst and Falk, for example, for various reasons.
The rest of my day was spent chatting with the people I know from the market, greeting those I haven’t seen in a very long time, and drinking a few cooling bottles of beer with them. The market area is a very social place where most people know one another, and the upper level is an accepted meeting point for many, where they come to round off the week’s work with a day of relaxing in the sun, listening to music, and chatting about what has happened during the week, the football, or whatever. The younger people drink beer – and most of the men too – and the slightly older wine or sparkling wine. Almost everything is catered for.
Now, some might argue that this is hardly a good enough reason to throw out a plan: just to wander off to a flea market and have a day out in the sun, but I see it differently. If we do not get out into the world and explore it, if we do not meet up with other people, mingle, talk, experience, what have we left to write about in our letters? One of the reasons I am so keen on letter writing as opposed to electronic mails or texts is the amount of time it takes between communications. An electronic mail is so fast, and good for instant messages, but then many expect an immediate reply, and that tends to distract. I would much rather be out and about in the world, without the distraction of a peeping or whistling contraption in my pocket, with just a notebook and, perhaps, a camera. Then, when I have time to sit down and concentrate, a letter can be formed which is worthy of the name. And, of course, one which is far more individual, personal. And if the writing of a letter is delayed by some unforeseen event, it has its advantages, the story, the excuse, can be relayed as an enhancement to the rest of the news imparted.
Some hark back to the Victorian times when letter writing was almost demanded, when daily letters between couples were expected – should they not be meeting regularly, or be separated for some reason – or to the ancient Japanese tradition of writing a letter on the same evening a man had visited his lover by way of thank-you. Wonderful times for letter writing, without a shadow of a doubt, but I suspect that most people today, not used to the idea, would be lost for something to write after about three days; and few would have the required dedication to sit themselves down every single day and write something of interest and worthy of a stamp. So maybe not every day, but regularly would be fun – and I have discovered that it is, indeed, so – and free of all restrictions. After all, adults writing one-on-one, there should be no problems. And if this spontaneous letter has managed to spark your imagination, then I look forward to hearing from you when time allows, and to a long and interesting conversation.