View through the pillars by Victoria Pickering.

I think one of the main reasons I got so involved with letter writing, aside from the pleasure of receiving post from all around the world, is that it gives the writer a chance to express themselves in a calm and considered manner. A letter to a friend is often planned over a short period of time, carefully laid out, and the words and phrases, quotations, the very ideas used as a foundation for the letter are worked through with care. A letter writer is someone who can state their case, put forward their ideas, comment and explore an idea or experience without fear of interruption. It is an ideal medium for working from the germ, the seed of an idea, through to a full-grown conclusion. There are bound, of course, to be ideas put forward in a letter which appear to attack, to contradict, to challenge the ideas of the reader, but that is part of the beauty of the whole: the words have been considered and placed down on paper for eternity. They cannot be denied, and can rarely be considered taken out of context either, since the writer has had every chance to ensure context as well as facts, argument and conclusion, are perfect and perfectly clear.

A second advantage of letter writing is that the reader cannot reply instantly. The letter can be read several times over and an answer carefully crafted which meets all the arguments posed, which refutes differences, which places a different perspective before the original writer, a new argument and opinion for consideration. There is no interruption to the reply, as there was no interruption to the original, so the reply can be carefully worked through and measured in exactly the same manner, hopefully without anger or insult since these two aspects of normal conversation – normal, sadly today, but only through normalisation, not through right – are unnecessary. The level of conversation between two people – or more – is completely different; it is more relaxed and easy-going because all sides have the opportunity to express themselves fully, at length, and with all the powers of their arguments, their imagination, their literary skill.

While I certainly appreciate face-to-face meetings and conversations, even debates, I find them tedious in the extreme. Without a certain level of regulation they can descend into the level of a food fight far too quickly. Everyone is trying to get their own word into the arena, and override everyone else. Opinions are thrown out into the open, and then the defence of those opinions comes before an opponent can begin to frame their own argument. Debates and discussions are time-restricted, and there is little opportunity for additional research, or even thought, when new ideas, new directions, new facts are presented for consideration. And letters can be kept on topic, where discussions and conversations veer from one idea to the next without any satisfactory exploration of the core points.

This is my answer to your idea, your statement on how people talk to one another, how they react to one another, the fact that many people open their mouths and start talking before their brain has engaged, or before they have really considered what it would be wise to say. A single word said at the wrong moment can be devastating, but with forethought avoided. A misplaced sentence can cause the death of a person, or more, it can be the forerunner to a major catastrophe effecting millions. History is filled with examples.

Of course, in your own situation – and in mine on a day-to-day basis – such preparation is often impossible. People react to a word, to a sentence, to something half-heard or half-seen without all the necessary information, without any form of real preparation. Emotions take over, and the wrong things are said which then, as we both know only too well, can escalate out of all control. The smallest thing can become a big thing in someone else’s mind, or a major argument which cannot be justified when you look at its minor beginnings. Perhaps this is also a disadvantage of personal conversations: you are caught up in the words being said; speaking without thinking; reacting to what you think you understand, or just blowing off. Not that I would wish to have personal conversations cut out of social life: they are the life and soul of society and civilisation; the basis of all relationships. Where would we be without the chance to talk to people, to exchange our views, simply to comment on the weather.

Which brings me on to your suggestions about telephone calls. On the one hand I can see how they could be beneficial, especially when it comes to talking to close friends and relatives. On the other, and this is the side which concerns me more than anyone else, I also appreciate that the expense can be put to much better use. I am required to have a telephone, against my will, otherwise there would be no internet connection in my house. The fact that I rarely use it does not concern the telecommunications company in the slightest: they receive their pound of flesh regardless of whether I communicate by spoken language, or by electronic mail. And in order to have the speed of data transfer everyone seems to need these days, I even have to suffer the indignity of having three telephone numbers, none of which are recorded in a telephone book.

Likewise I am forced to have a cell phone, which I use more for navigation than anything else. Telephone calls, and the use of these various quick communication applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook, remain seldom used, and only present because they come pre-installed on the instrument itself. And, believe it or not, I find that my life still manages to run smoothly without all these modern technological contraptions, without the need for speed or instant communication. I am rarely at home, often in places where a telephone call is not desired, where it disturbs others as much as the person receiving it.

My telephone is used for quick messages or truly urgent requests, and certainly not for anything longer than a few minutes require. My friends and colleagues know that they can find me in a coffee shop, a museum, a library or a Masonic Lodge whenever they need me, and that is the way which works best. And all my friends and acquaintances overseas, or those not within easy reach of where I live and work? They write. As amazing as it may seem, in this advanced age, we communicate by means of paper and pen, through the postal service, or through personal meetings around the country. Last weekend I was in Hamburg twice, and during the week in Celle. Today I will be in Bremen, this coming weekend in Heidelberg, next week in Bremen and then Hamburg again. Setting times to converse on the telephone is an almost impossible task, I rarely can guarantee that I will be near a telephone where I know the number, and certainly not the one that I have installed at home. And the other major problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is the constant interruptions, the many distractions which always arise. Some may be caused by a physical interruption, someone coming to the door, even in the middle of the night. Others are the mental distractions – and those especially in the middle of the night when the mind is slowing down and looking forward to a brief pause within the confines of a comfortable bed.

But I have also learned something, from other people, about this use of electronic mail amongst people who do not know each other personally, but are forming a friendship: it dies quickly. That is not to say for everyone, but certainly many of the people who I know have discovered that the speed of an electronic mail correspondence tends to dampen the pleasure involved after a very short period of time. The first few exchanges happen within a short period of time, over a few hours or days. There is a feeling that the mail has to be answered quickly, or should receive a reply quickly, because it is sent out and – theoretically – received within an instant. This, of course, isn’t quite true, as few people sit at their computer all day just waiting for electronic mails, unless it is their job, or unless they really have nothing else in their lives. Electronic mail seems to have a demand for reaction attached to it. And then, as the first one is left aside for a few hours, then a day or two, it becomes less important. Mails disappear from the computer screen, they remain unanswered, or the sender pesters and asks why their missive hasn’t been graced with a reply.

The thing about the immediacy of electronic mail, which no one considered at the time it was created and sold to the general public, is that you do not have time to do things. Life has to carry on, and a mail cannot be just answered at the same instant it arrives: there are other things to do. I see too many people interrupting a conversation, hurrying out of a meeting, looking embarrassed as they answer their cell phone wherever they happen to be. There seems to be a feeling that it cannot be ignored, that the call has to be answered immediately, no matter what is happening in real life around you. There is almost a social pressure exerted to both answer, because you are immediately contactable by having one, and not to answer, because you are in company. Sadly the pressure to click that button and remove yourself from the live conversation, because it might be important, is too strong for most people. They forget that if it really is important, someone will call back later or leave a message. And if it is not, well, time spared.

I may be old-fashioned, but I enjoy not being easily contacted at all hours of the day and night. I enjoy being able to just switch off from otherworld things and enjoy what I am doing, whether it be eating a meal or standing in front of an Old Master. I enjoy not having to struggle through static to speak to someone over something totally unimportant if not downright boring, or trying to find a place to pull the car over so that I am even allowed to take the gadget in my hand and see who called. And arranging calls for the middle of the night because of a six or even ten-hour time difference? I did it as a teenager, with a friend in Australia, as she arranged to come over the Europe and visit, and left it there. Don’t get me wrong, such contact has its uses and can also be a great pleasure for some under the right circumstances, but I chose letter writing for the specific joy of sending and receiving letters and of using a medium open to all at their own leisure with no pressure involved. It has proven to be surprisingly successful, and that for the last thirty-five years.

I’ve watched many of the political events in the United States over several years, and can quite see how you’d feel uneasy about the candidates being suggested and then hurried through for many political and judicial positions. It is easy enough to sum up what is happening, and it is not pleasant: unsuitable people being pushed through purely because of their political beliefs and leanings, and not because of their abilities. This is something which will have consequences for the United States for decades to come, and the consequences are not necessarily good ones.

I did watch the hearings for Kavanagh, and I read the background from all manner of press reports. My overwhelming feeling, especially after his performance at the senate hearing, is that he was lying, that he was demanding privilege which he has no right to, that he was guilty as charged. Sadly the whole thing comes as no surprise to me, and countless others. The nation was forewarned, but the warnings were laughed at. Now we are looking at the possibility of the Fourteenth Amendment being ruled out by an Executive Order – whether that is legal or not –and this opens the doors to all other aspects, checks and balances of the law, and especially the Constitution, being called into question. If it is possible to remove the Fourteenth in such a fashion, what else can be attempted? And any challenges to this clear abuse of power can only come before the Supreme Court, where lifelong adherents to a certain political stance now have the majority, not for the good of the country and the People, but for their political beliefs.

Many people are putting all their hopes into the mid-terms, which will have finished by the time you receive this letter, but I suspect they will be sorely disappointed. An electorate which can allow such a man to take the highest office in the land – admittedly not through the popular vote, but only through the Electoral College – will continue to back him in the false belief that he is good for them. And that includes those who have already suffered at his hands, be they steel workers, coal miners or farmers. I am a fortunate outsider, someone who knows enough of history to be able to relate to these circumstances – without the necessity of drawing parallels – and I know the dark path which has been chosen, which the country is now forced to follow. If there is not a massive change on November 6, the settlement of power in the wrong hands will be firm and almost impossible to wrest back. And, sadly, this is exactly what I expect to happen: I sincerely hope that the passage of time proves me wrong.