If I was a Victorian wife, living in the centre of London at the height of fashionable times for letter writing communication, I would, like Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Husband Thomas, probably feel personally slighted if I did not receive a letter without any explanation of why. Married couples who were separated for any reason – Thomas visiting his family in Scotland, or staying with someone else for a month or two without Jane – it was a given that they would not only write to each other, but that the letters would be written every single day. Going back a few years further, into the mire of dark history, a Japanese lover was expected to send his mistress a letter, often in verse, by way of thanks for the time they spent together on the same evening, and she, being patient and knowing all the rituals of formal love – within and without marriage – would wait for it before going to bed herself, no matter how late the hour. Today people get upset if they do not receive a smiley, a thumbs-up, or a short message back over their cell phone from someone they have just seen or are close enough to talk to. A friendship can be destroyed by a person not liking the image of a cup of coffee their closest virtual friend has just published on some social media network, and it is a cardinal sin not to follow those who follow you, unless you are a massive YouTube star with thousands of fans and a clearly commercial message behind your preened and primed good looks.
I, on the other hand, am a fairly ordinary person sitting at home with my books, travelling out and about now and then, chatting with friends who are actually standing or sitting in front of me, and concentrating on drinking that expensive cup of coffee without too much of a milk moustache or a mess on my shirt. When someone writes to me, I reply. When someone does not have time to write, for whatever reason, then I wait patiently, and hope that they will write again sometime in the future. We all, no matter what our circumstances, have our own lives, and do our best to live them, with things like letter writing as a pleasant side line but, as it should be today, not an obligation. And, all that said and written, it is always a pleasure to receive a letter, no matter how long the time between letters might have been, to catch up with all the news and sit down, metaphorically, with someone who has been present in your life for quite a long time. So, don’t feel or imagine that I will be slighted when a letter takes longer than normal to land on my welcome mat or be pushed into my letterbox, but do remember that I will always be happy when it does happen.
One of the things many of us will admit, and not just considering this year or even this decade, is that the level of respect shown for other people is dwindling. Perhaps dwindling is too slight a word, when we see how some people are treated in public, through anonymous comments on the internet, even by some of the news media and, above all, by those in political positions of power which have brought them many advantages over other people, and a good deal more cash flow into their private bank accounts any wishes to admit, or have audited. There are some people, admittedly, who do very little to earn respect, at all levels, but the basic ideal of a person being accepted as a human being and treated as such should, regardless of where they come from or their status, I believe, be within us all. It saddens me to see that people in your own position are often treated – by a few, not by all – as less than worth, as a mere commodity, as something which has to be justified as an expense and no more than that. There is so much of it in the world, not just in North America, but across the entire world – civilised or not – it is hard to believe that such feelings against others has always been there. Perhaps, with our new times, it is merely a case that we get to hear of it now, whereas before such things were known but not passed on through news or social media. I write to several people who are incarcerated, though, whose story does not get out into the light of day, and see exactly how what is happening behind closed doors, within the sealed walls of some institutions is mirroring that which is happening outside.
Just the other day I read an article about the move by some States to ban books in prisons. One State is even saying that they are being used to smuggle drugs in – despite coming from reputable organisations dedicated to literature for prisoners – and used a letter, which doesn’t mention drugs and is a plea for a dictionary! – as proof. Inmates are being forced to purchase a low-end, high-cost electronic reader, but without any decent titles being available for them to purchase. The fact that books and literature, the very act of reading, is a calming and educational benefit to the system seems to have been lost somewhere right at the start. Sitting here on the outside, surrounded by books, I can only feel sadness for those who will, suffer, and distaste for the lack of humanity demonstrated by those forcing these ideas through.
I’m not a fan of electronic mail when it comes to correspondence, as you will undoubtedly recall, but definitely see the need for such a system, and appreciate how good and useful it is. Being able to correspond with someone else quickly and by a simple means is the point of the whole, and something which is definitely needed. How else can some people blow off steam when things are getting rough? How else can they ask for advice, or be given news from home? I am also not a fan of some inmate mail web sites, where the cost far outweighs the benefits and literally robs a captured audience with no resort to other viable means of communication, but at least the choice is there for those who wish to make use of it.
And despite all the problems, you still manage to fight your way through toward a qualification, to a prize, and one that is well deserved at that. The prison service should be pushing such stories and helping more and more people to gain qualifications, rather than pushing them back. I would be so proud to have gained those marks in an examination, and to be the person behind a scheme which has clearly shown its worth by producing so much honey, despite restrictions, and also benefits to you and the others who are working on the scheme. And even if the test was not what you’d expected, not what you read and revised, all the information you’ve managed to store now will come in useful later, without a doubt. Perhaps all those bee-stings and itchy arms are worth it, just for the pleasure of success if nothing else.
Hard to say that the rights of women and similar are “hot” at the moment: the subject is burning with such an intensity, and rightly so, that hot is an understatement. I have been watching the fight from the sidelines, which is probably the safest place to be, with occasional comments to friends in letters and on social media, but I wouldn’t want to be out there for all the gold in the world, plus some. I’ve seen the fight over “arrogant” woman who actually use their hard-earned Doctor titles for work, and are castigated by men who do exactly the same. I’ve read books and articles on the skills used by men to push women down, to belittle them, to make them appear as pestering gossips, liars and – for want of a better word – whores. I am currently watching someone being recommended for the highest judicial position in the United States, who clearly has so much dirt sticking to his CV he should be thrown out with the bath water as quickly as possible. I am, quite frankly, disgusted to see those who support him who, in the next breath, demand minor infringements are cleared up by the other party, or by minorities, or suffer the greatest consequences. There is simply so much dishonesty in the world at the moment, on a political level, I am amazed that no one demands a new election immediately, and all are insisting on waiting under the mid-terms or, in the case of the United Kingdom, the next regular election. And, as I am sure you are asking yourself the same thing when it comes to your own environment, the question must be: who are the criminals here? Who are the aggressors, and who are the victims?
I was more than happy to pass your postcard on to your friend in Boostedt, and even had a very pleasant conversation with him this afternoon to make sure everything was working out for him. He told me several of the problems he has at home – his father being dement now – but was happy to see that things are improving for him personally, so you have no real reason to worry too much there! He also promised to write, in response to your card, and understands the electronic mail restriction now. His home is somewhat north from here – although his mother seemed to think I was calling from the United States, probably because of my accent – so we’re almost neighbours.
My own time now is spent reading books, and my pile of books to be read does not seem to be getting any smaller, and working through a new letter writing project. I am wading my way through a book written in Japan in the tenth century – over one thousand pages, but fascinating – and looking forward to turning back to a few historical and philosophical titles which are waiting patiently beside my desk. In fact, as I just took a glance, the next title I have is about spies in the Twenties, and complements another book I read recently, on women spies in the seventeenth century. After that a brief pause for the new Salman Rushdie work, and then a historical / scientific book on the chemistry of air – the title suggesting that we are breathing little bits of Caesar in with each breath we take which, admittedly, sounds plausible.
My project is another letter writing one, this time with a Letter Book. I take a large notebook, write an essay or a letter with a few illustrations, and then send it on to someone interested in letter writing, picking addresses out at random, for them to write an entry and send it on further. The hope is that a full book with many different people’s views and lives will come back to me in a few months time, although I appreciate the chances of all the books coming back are very slim. When I think of how many people don’t bother replying to letters at all, having freshly advertised for them, I can’t hold too many expectations for such a major project as this. It is, however, an enjoyable idea and fun – for me, at least, at the moment – and six books have been completed with the first entries, five having been sent out. I’ve only actually written two letters / essays, and copied them across the books, but the chances of them coming to people who have seen the other books is so small, and it saves me a little bit of brain time! Both have been about antique photography, and my collecting of old studio portraits, and perhaps I will find a few people who have a spark of interest as a result, or who write about their own hobbies, their own interests and lives. It’s much the same as taking a beekeeper’s examination: if you don’t try, it is simply not going to happen.
And perhaps, one day, when you are a Master Beekeeper and have your own hives out there is the free wilderness, you’ll be able to receive one too, and write a few of your experiences to make one of these works of art perfect. Hopefully, and hopefully the news from your hearing is good so that, next time or soon, I can write to a different address, and without restrictions.