Earlier today I told a young woman that I was jealous of her only just discovering the work and talent of Joan Baez, who I have been following avidly for several decades. For her, I wrote, everything that she hears is fresh and new, whereas for me they merely rekindle memories of past times, and take me back to my younger years. Of course, listening to Joan Baez for us can be counted as being on two different levels, neither one of which is worse than the other; we merely experience different emotions when coming across these songs, and couple them with differing events. The freshness of these works now, is the future memories for this young woman. The thoughts on Baez, her works, and people only discovering her today, many decades after she first stood up on a stage and performed, came back to me this evening as I settled down to write this very old-fashioned form of communication, the letter. In my younger days, writing a letter was a chore, a Christmas and Birthday event to say thank-you to a grandparent for a present which was totally unfitting to my own interests, my desires. It was something that would be put off for as long as possible, and then hurried through to get it out of the way, often under the gaze of a stern parent. Today it is a means of communication which brings far more pleasure than an electronic mail can, despite the length of time it takes to get from the writer to the reader, and definitely despite the many claims that letter writing is a duck that is dead in the water, and no one writes anymore.
I am an admirer of the ancients, but, not like some people, so as to despise the talent of our own times.
An admirer, perhaps, because I can be counted as one of the ancients, certainly as far as people of your age are concerned, still caught up in the old ways and with no access, no knowledge of the advance in technology which, it is claimed, has made our lives so much easier, the world so much more accessible. It was accessible before, I would love to be able to point out, just not by such rapid means as we have today. And, back then, a letter was an adventure, something which had travelled the world and seen things, judging by the length of time it took to get from A to B. People took time to compose their missives, chose special paper, had sealing wax and, something which surprises many today, often had a correspondence book where they would hand write a copy of their letter out, as a memento of what they had sent. Letters were shared, not just sent to one person: there are countless tales of a letter being passed on to someone else who might, possibly, find it of interest – Jane Welsh Carlyle to Charles Dickens, for example – and read out by candlelight for the whole family, and any friends who might be there at the time. And what they recorded, such trivialities, to our minds today
… these details are not important enough for history, and you will read them without any idea of recording them; if they seem scarcely worth even putting in a letter, you have only yourself to blame …
but they were life as it was lived, and life that the recipient of a message would often dearly have loved to experience for themselves.
Today we have electronic mail, and the need to write an immediate answer, not to be kept waiting, to have instant contact with a person on the other side of the world, as if they were just in the next room.
Perhaps our predecessors were stupid and unduly slow, and we are clearer speakers, quicker thinkers …
We have become impatient, demanding of the time other people have, as if there was nothing else in the world for them to do, but wait for our text, and reply without delay. And then, without consideration, we wonder why we, why they, have nothing of import to say. So concentrated on replying quickly to each message, of not being the one who is tardy with a reply, we give up the experiences of life which could be earned were we to set the means of communication to one side, and look up, look around, experience. And if we have to wait for a letter to be delivered, checking our post box every single day, wondering where the postman has left that small folded sheet of paper, our excitement is increased as time goes by, and we are already planning what we wish to write, perhaps even making notes, or beginning to fill the pages of our next letter in anticipation
… and all the more for this delay, for information withheld only sharpens men’s curiosity to hear it.
But I hardly need sell the ancient art of letter writing to someone who has voluntarily offered themselves up, and is clearly willing to accept the consequences of their folly. I, too, was considered an introvert when I was your age, sitting on the sidelines and watching, listening, taking it all in so that I could form my own opinion and gather my own experiences. Being quiet and watching others has its own advantages, and many of them, which those who hurry through life, who only wish to talk and listen to nothing else but the break in a conversation when they might start talking again, do not appreciate. We gather, harvest, and use what we have seen, what we have heard, and turn it into the pearls of wisdom so many laud, even if we do not use every single little gem, and have many left waiting their turn, or not being brought forward at all. I could recount many tales, looking back over a long life of filling pages with thoughts and real life experiences, and perhaps I will too, later. But, at the same time, I do not wish to take away the many pleasures to come from someone who is looking keenly into the future, who still has it all before them: the young woman finding Joan Baez, as you are now looking forward to the pleasures of what the next post delivery, the next correspondent, will bring you.
And, also as you have done, I left the country of my birth to expand my experiences and now, many years later, have settled in a new country, set down new roots, become a different person. Because, to be honest, when we allow ourselves to slip into a society, into conventions and traditions, into social customs which are not those of our own social circle – birth or assumed – we change. I like to think that we change for the better, but that would be a foolhardy thought as every person is an individual, taking whatever they wish, whatever they can use, from the pot and leaving that which is uninteresting behind.
At a dinner party we may individually refuse several dishes, but we all praise the whole meal, and the food which is not to our taste does not spoil our pleasure in what we do like.
Unless, of course, what we take out is considerably less than what we have to leave behind and, being ungrateful, we measure by quantity rather than quality.
Not needing to sell letter writing because, as I mentioned, you are the one who has placed themselves front and centre before the onslaught which, hopefully in the best possible sense, is to follow, but I probably do need to sell myself as an able and suitable writing partner for the future for many reasons. The main reason, and one which I greatly lament, but which you will have noticed already through several references, is that I am old. This is one of the bad dishes people leave behind when making their selection along the buffet of life: an old person is going to be boring and has nothing to say to someone of my generation. I daresay, when I was younger, I had exactly the same mindset, and was guilty of removing or ignoring many possibilities simply because of this erroneous belief. And, perhaps, in some cases, I was right to do so. Not everyone is suitable, not everyone fits in with what we are seeking, not everyone has the ability to make us stop and consider an idea thrown haphazardly into the room. I am not so humble when it comes to my letter writing abilities to say that people do not stop and think about what I write. How they react, however, is another matter entirely.
I have three failings in life which many younger people consider are my downfall, as far as communication with other people of their age goes: I write letters, read books and collect photography. I am sure you will appreciate how damning these three aspects of my life and loves are to those whose lives revolve around speed, snapshots and profiling themselves as an Influencer on whichever social media channel happens to be the newest and most coveted of the day. I am no longer quiet, although still introverted, as I have allowed myself the pleasure of presenting talks on a wide range of subjects to the willing few, ranging from the historical to the philosophical. My introvert side still exerts itself on many occasions, and allows me the pleasure of sitting back and watching, listening, taking it all in, and I am often able to blend myself into the wallpaper so that those intent on spouting out their much vaunted opinions to anyone who does not wish to hear them, do not notice my presence.
I tend to write letters around a theme, and take great pleasure in the construction of each over a relatively short period of time, generally allowing myself two or three hours for a letter which, to my way of seeing things, is dedicating myself for two or three hours to the recipient of that letter, being unable to spend the time with them in person – which some might say is a good thing. The books I read tend to be of a philosophical, classical, biographical or historical nature, with the occasional foray into crime thrillers just to clear some space in my brain and allow me to come back to an acceptable, social position in the modern world. Almost all the books that I read – including the brain candy of crime fiction – end up with slips of paper sticking out of the upper edges, where I have noted points of interest, possible quotations, general titbits of useless rubbish no one else is ever going to be interested in, but which I can grab at a moment’s notice and use at will, in a letter, a talk, in general conversation. The photography that I collect is that which most people throw away: pictures of ancestors, of anonymous people from the past, captured by professional photographers prior to 1920 in credit card format. Photographs of those who have gone before us, but who now have no name, no history, no life memories, because those who knew them at the time never bothered to record who they were. After all, they knew them and could put a name to their faces at once, and had no reason to consider the generations to come.
I can also assure you, in case the thought had entered your mind, that I do not always write letters in this fashion, I do not always quote Pliny’s Letters as I have done here. Sometimes I allow my range to go into Simone de Beauvoir as a source for inspiration, or Cicero, Carlyle, de Montaigne, names which few people would recognise today but who, despite the passage of time, still have something to say. I have had (written) conversations about Nietzsche and Shakespeare, Lee Child and Agatha Christie, depending on the interests of those with whom I converse.
In the end it boils down to a simple fact, as far as letter writing is concerned: it is a challenge. We are able to hold a conversation with another person who is not there, a very one-sided conversation without any chance of interruption which, as you can imagine, is a great advantage, and hold it over a long period of time without becoming tired, needing to rest, eat or do other natural, everyday things which could otherwise distract. We get to know a person who we will probably never meet face to face, who presents us a picture of themselves we cannot interpret with all the other usual means of assessment, such as body language. And we can create our own persona through what we write, through the words that we use, the interests we profess, and be that person we have always wanted to be, on paper.
But now I am arguing this point as if I invited the general public to a lecture hall instead of having my friends in my own room …
which is a foolish thing to do, as you are clearly more than capable of making an informed decision for yourself: accept this challenge, or some other which has undoubtedly already presented itself. But, perhaps to whet your appetite a little , next time I might write about some of the wonderful aspects of being an Englishman, born and bred in London, who lives in a tiny German town in the middle of a farming community.