I am caught, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is the clear incentive, from your profile, to write on so many different things where we, worlds and continents apart, have similar interests and, perhaps, desires. On the other there is the thought, coupled sadly with many years experience, that a release date in only a few months – as we approach the new year at breakneck speed – will result in a loss of communication because, as you can imagine, as you probably already know, there are many other things to take up a young person’s time of greater importance and need on the outside, especially in those first few, precious months of getting back on your feet and finding a way forward.
Having said that, I am also well aware that even those who remain behind, who have years or decades before them, tend to drift away or simply disappear after a while. The art of letter writing is a complex, time-consuming affair which many, in our highly technological times, are not ready for. That seems strange, I will admit, this idea that a person is not ready for something which is not modern, not technology-related and which, in theory at least, should have been breed into them from their earliest experiences with pen and paper, learning the alphabet, writing. It is, however, a fact, and one which I see, as a letter writer, as a general writer, every single day: younger people have lost the ability to write longer works, and struggle to get their ideas together and then onto paper. This is not a condemnation of the individual, as such, more of the changes we are witnessing in our changing world, and a reminder of the sad losses we are taking for granted. Many of the things which are gone, or which have faded from the mainstream, will not be missed, that much is true, but there are others which are well worth saving, promoting, bringing back into polite society as an integral part of that society, and communication – be it letter writing or any other form involving personal, intimate contact – is decidedly one of them.
And yet, as you see, I have settled down to put a few thoughts onto paper, to see whether you will take up the challenge of writing letters over a much longer term than your present term, over into a different world and beyond. Letter writing is not just something for under the Christmas tree, as has been told me once or twice, but a life interest which should last for life, and which has been a life-saver for some. It is not like a grown puppy that we set out on the side of the street when Easter comes and the pleasures of a fluffy ball of frolicking fun at Christmas have changed into a demanding, go-for-a-walk obligation. Letter writing is, in a very broad sense, an intimate conversation between two people which goes far beyond what a text message or a Facebook entry can ever achieve, and considerably more time-consuming. We are challenged to think as much as to communicate, as once the words are set down on paper, they are there and they remain there. Once that well-meaning letter has been consigned to the hands of the post office, there is no Google Mail Undo button we can click on and call a mistake, a false impression, a momentary lapse of concentration, back for correction. But, as you write in your profile, it is a good way of finding / keeping friends all around the world and, from my point of view, that is warts and all.
And with the idea that you will be moving on in a few short months, although they undoubtedly look and feel like very long months at the moment, and the worry that I could be writing into a void, I recalled a small complaint once read:
I gave up once I understood that no correspondence with you could lead further. And while I suffered on
Are my tears to you, wept in longing memory while we do not meet
no more than the common rain shed by early-winter skies?
If only we were really in touch, how easily we might forget this dreary rain.
This taken from a time when letter writing, when written communication as a whole, was considered the height of good taste, of breeding, of culture and education which, as you can imagine, means it was not common in our western world at all! In fact, the quotation comes from The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, which was written in Japan in the eleventh century and is one of the many books I am currently enjoying. Not quite, I will admit, then same genre of interests as your own reading. I went through my sci-fi and fantasy phase as a teenager – things like The One Tree by Stephen R. Donaldson, or Frank Herbert’s Dune – taking me into my early twenties when, working in a bookstore in the centre of London and beginning my first collection of titles, disappeared as I discovered the wealth of works in classical literate, history and philosophy. With, I hasten to add, a smattering of crime fiction thrown in for good measure.
The Japanese had a completely different conception of letter writing, where it was considered very bad manners not to reply to a letter received, and the style of writing, the type of paper used all made a difference to the message being sent. Where poetry was also a major part of education, and letter writing (as in my quote, where the “are my tears…” was a poem within the prose text) the major means of communication, even with someone you had seen a few minutes earlier – by way of thanks, for example, when a man left his lover, it was expected that her would write a short piece, with poetry, extolling his time spent together with her -. Which, I suppose, is something like what we have today: people coming out of class, grabbing their cell phones and sending of quick text messages to those they have just this minute left at the school doors.
Not that the English were any better, or worse, when it came to letter writing within a certain milieu. Married couples separated for any reason tended to write to one another frequently, and I have noted letters written complaining that the daily letter has not been received from a loved one, and wondering whether anything was wrong, or whether the beguiling charms of another woman had grabbed their attentions and love. Many English writers, in the Victoria era, also had a correspondence book, where they didn’t just note down that a letter had been sent or received, but transcribed the text of their own hand written letter as a memory of what had been said; something made so much easier alter with carbon copies, then by photocopying and, today, the “print two copies” option on a computer. Historians today are grateful that, with so many loose pieces of paper simply disappearing with the passage of time, some of these detailed correspondence books still exist, and they are able to reconstruct something of the day-to-day lives of the Victorians, behind closed doors, as it were.
One of my current projects, which my children would doubtlessly claim is another waste of time and effort if they knew of it, is creating Letter Books and sending them out to total strangers around the world. What is such a beast? A Letter Book is a bound notebook used to write a letter or an essay, with illustrations if desired, over ten pages or so, sent to another for them to add their letter or essay and then pass on to another person. The idea is to gather many different viewpoints from around the world, from people who would not normally have come into contact with one another at all, and then have a completed notebook, a social history, if you like, returned to the original writer at the end, when the book is full. My children would call it a waste of time, and money, because they would not believe anyone else would wish to take part, that the books used would be thrown out, lost in the post, or simply disappear one way or another. They have no faith whatsoever.
Although, to be honest, I am sceptical too, but if you do not try something, if you do not take that first step, you are doomed to failure. Sometimes the wildest ideas have the most success. Think back through history: who, back then, could possibly have believed that scratching symbols onto tablets, onto papyrus, onto paper, would become a thing?
So our reading interests are different, not that it is a bad thing. I am into history and philosophy, reading some of the classics – those which my education didn’t scare me away from through over analysis – and the occasional work of modern literature, as well as those crime thrillers I mentioned. Fictional crime, to my way of thinking, is a good means to clear the head and make room for new thoughts. You take something banal, I call it brain candy, and clear out the clutter of fifteenth century court procedures, or Socrates debating whether a person can be educated or not, and are then ready for the next excursion into the past. I have also discovered, which should have come as no surprise, that much of that which I was taught at school, especially when it comes to history, is very biased indeed; a great deal was left out which, as can be imagined, reflected badly on my home country of the time, and its Empire, or which was inconvenient. Now I read works researched properly, which are not simply propaganda and ego-boosting, and can throw out all those oh-so-important facts and figures concocted for the examination room which, once we were out in the real world, were so faked and falsified that anyone who had lived, travelled and experienced would laugh you out of the country if you tried propagating them.
And sometimes I write about what I am reading in my letters, because what is knowledge and interest if you cannot share it, and what is letter writing if not a means of sharing? And this leads to very interesting, and often surprising, conversations. A Puerto Rican, for example, who, completely out of the blue, wrote asking about the belief in a god according to Nietzsche who, it is widely believed, claimed that God is dead (not quite what he wrote, but still). The conversation would never have taken place without letter writing.
And you have travelled, which makes you a very rare beast indeed. I know many who have travelled without having left the comfort of their couch and who, as a result, claim far more knowledge of that which is right in front of my nose, whilst telling me that it cannot be as I describe it, because … Or, one of my favourites which is doing the rounds at the moment, as Women’s Rights and the fight against mansplainers takes hold: “Well, actually…” style explanations from someone telling an expert in a certain field all about their own field of expertise. Amusing is when one of these mansplainers (a term I suspect you will have come across, even where you are, for a man who explains something to a female expert) takes time out to tell a female professor what a certain book or article is telling us, and the person receiving this lecture is the author herself. (And, yes, I just threw myself a curve ball wondering whether I was mansplaining the term mansplaining.)
Anyone who has not travelled, even if it is only two States across the map, has missed out on one of the great joys in life – although there are really so many, it is hard not to miss out on one or two during the short span of time we’re on this small rock hurtling through the vast expanses of space. There is something special about being in a different country, of seeing a mythical city with your own eyes, rather than through the medium of a television screen or, worse still, a cell phone display. Walking down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, through Faubourg-du-Roule and Saint Philippe-du-Roule into the Eighth Arrondissement, then the First Arrondissement and Place de la Concorde all the way from the Arc de Triomphe is something special. Not that this is the only wonderful walk to take through Paris, but it is probably one of the most popular for tourists. And then you hit the Quai d’Orsay and the River Seine and it is just pleasure all the way down.
Sadly, in my youth, I did not have a chance to wander through Spain although it was always on my list. It is one of those countries that an Englishman really must see, if he is interested in history in any way, in order to appreciate. That said, British history is so caught up in so many different countries, there is hardly a single one in this modern world which does not have a historical connection back through the centuries – mostly bad ones, but still, the historical connection is there and we should take advantage of the chances offered to explore and, above all, learn. I am now, in my old age, settled in Germany, in the centre of Europe, with all those wonderful countries a mere train ride away in whichever direction I care to choose.
You write, in your profile, that you are shy, which is fine because letter writing is one of the best ways to get to know someone, to gain contacts without the need for actual contact which, as far as I know, is the main thing worrying, or holding back, those who suffer from shyness. Not the same as being introverted, fortunately, but an interesting problem nonetheless. I have always enjoyed the intimacy of a piece of paper, of writing thoughts down without having to physically connect, of being able to open up and not see an immediate reaction, or fear a reaction, to words and gestures. Overcoming my own shyness, many years ago now, was one of the hardest things I had to do, but absolutely necessary in order to work in London, to travel, to create and mingle amongst those who also create. And still, the pleasures of coming back to letter writing, of the freedom to circumvent shyness by writing is something I have never lost, will never lose. Nowadays, and for many years in the past, I can stand up and give a lecture, or just discuss without the need to hold back; a great advancement on my youthful years. But being shy has its advantages too: we tend to look at people in a different manner, check them out, see how far we can trust them to a far greater extent than someone who is wildly extrovert and open with anyone they happen to meet.
The blank sheet of paper is an open invitation to hold a conversation with someone else which, to begin with, is very reassuring in its one-sidedness and, since we have no one there to contradict, to correct, to advise or push us, we can be so much freer with our thoughts, allowing them to just run in whichever direction the pleasure takes us without fear of making a mistake and being stopped in our tracks by someone who is physically there. I also believe that writing letters, sending our thoughts, hopes, joys as much as our setbacks, out into the world, is a far better idea than keeping a diary, although I do that too. Once a letter is written, it is gone. We’ve given our thoughts out and let them fly away. With a diary, a daily journal, those thoughts are still there, right at our fingertips, to oppress or remind us of what might have been all the hopes we had which, with the passage of time, have not borne fruit. Although my diary is different, of course (as every diarist will tell you).
So, to complete my own profile: I am older than you are and have children. I have travelled, as you have, and lived as some have not. We share an interest in reading and, I hope, a curiosity for life. The interests we have are not dumbed down or destroyed by circumstances, since we see a way ahead worth following, as much as a way behind us which we can regard, learn from, revisit or abandon. I have a love of books and, not yet mentioned, antique photography as well as letter writing, and apply myself with dedication to the many things in life which present themselves, are worthwhile and enjoyable. My letters tend to be fairly involved, and rarely follow the path one might imagine from the first few words, but meander through ideas as life does itself. Sometimes I quote from things I have read, anything which seems relevant, and often I base an entire letter on an idea from a book, from a single paragraph within a text, or on a subject or idea raised by someone else in their letters to me. I am open to many new and old ideas, and value the input from others as much as their experiences and insight, learning as I go on and, hopefully, sharing some of my own experiences in an interesting manner with those who correspond, who are prepared to take a little time out of their own lives to put pen to paper. And I am exceptionally patient: not everyone can just drop whatever they are doing and pen a reply; not everyone can throw three thousand words down on paper without a second thought; letter writing is not a natural thing for many, it takes time.
And even so. Then I have to throw the final comment from your profile back towards you – ball in your court, as they say – and see whether you find me worthy of a reply, and the dangers of a longer correspondence from now and beyond, into the days when the gates have been opened, and the walls no longer enclose.