I had a letter from a young woman in Germany recently, one who had written to me first seeking a penfriend to help improve her English language and writing abilities. It was about the third time we had corresponded, but this letter was very short and to the point: she could see no reason to continue writing to me, as my letters are too detailed and not what she has been seeking. So, rather than ghosting me, she wrote to say she could see no future in our friendship, and would not write again. I must admit, this is something new for me, not the ghosting part, as I have been ghosted many times, but that someone writes and tells me they are going to do it. Am I supposed to feel guilty for writing in my own style, about things which are of interest to me that I wish to share? Should I try and change my style, to a lesser form of myself, and only write about shallow and insignificant topics? I don’t think that is what letter writing is about. We share ourselves as ourselves, and not as a mirror image of the person we are writing to, nor of some construct to try and fit a certain fashionable idea. If someone is not interested in the subjects which interest me, then that is fine: we all have our own way, our own hobbies, our own lives.

This thought came to me from the first sentences of your most recent letter, where you wondered whether I would write back again. I must admit to not ghosting people as a matter of habit, especially not those where I have written first and challenged the other to write back. It is rare that a letter from someone does not contain something of interest from their lives, their experiences, and we have to accept that each is an individual, rather than criticising them and trying to make everyone else conform to our way of life, our way of thinking. There is enough of that in religion and politics, we don’t need it in our daily lives too. This last week I wrote to a new potential friend, also an inmate, who commented in his profile that he had discovered an interest in crocheting, something I have never done in my life, never thought of doing. Even so, it is his interest – even when many people would see this skill as being for women, not men –and I managed to get about two thousand words out on the differences between expectations and reality, on misogyny, on the way we are programmed, through our families, education and society, to follow a certain male or female path through life. Perhaps this is what my ghoster found so hard to understand; the ability to take a word or an experience, and relate it to a whole string of thoughts and events in another life, a different environment, based on widely differing life experiences.

On the other hand, I tend to shy away from people who write my friends call me Big D or similar in their profiles, or with the very first letter. Until you’ve had a chance to get to know someone, how can you trust them enough with the name that your friends’ call you? (And, in many cases, I tend to wonder whether they really are called that by their friends, or are simply trying to create a character for themselves.) It is different, though, once you have met and learned a little about the other person: I mean, there are very few people in real life who offer their first name in a business situation, and many who wait in a more friendly or intimate – neighbourly – situation too. First see how things go, and if it works, then make the offer. In Germany that is very easy indeed: we have the formal Sie when speaking to people, and the informal, friendly Du for our friends and family. No one would think of changing from Sie to Du with someone they had only just met, unless the relationship was of a certain type from the beginning. But, as you have seen, and since it is your middle name, I have no problem changing my greeting on letters to you.

There are indeed two areas with the same name here, one in Niederbayern that you found first, and my own one in Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony. It looks very small on a map and is, perhaps, hard to find these days because it is small and almost unremarkable. However, in the dark mists of yesteryear, this small city – as it is now – was the county town for a massive area of north Germany, stretching from Bremen down to Minden. In more recent years it became a Kreisstadt, which is the municipal authority for an area, although the bureaucratic centre of the Landkreis was in the nearby town of Syke, which is considerably larger in site than Hoya. The town became a city – despite not having a cathedral – in 1929, following a series of major land reforms in Germany, where it was offered the chance to either become a city, or merely an administrative area without the benefit of being able to collect taxes. Naturally, the town fathers chose the city status, and the taxes. Then, in 1977, this Landkreis, which had been hacked at and reduced in size several times by further political reforms, had the Kreisstadt status removed, and was not only split up into smaller units, but became subordinated to a city which had once been within its province, a part of the county of Hoya. Some in the city are still very proud of its history, but most people do not know it at all, and just consider the city to be a small village in the middle of nowhere, with nothing going for it.

For me it is a pleasant backwater where I can simply do my thing undisturbed, and travel out to Bremen, Hannover and Hamburg at will. Having been raised in a capital city – London – and having lived in many others over the years, being able to live in a small town with all the benefits of peace and quiet, but still within easy reach of the major cities, is a boon not to be given up. Of course, driving into Bremen or elsewhere means I am limited on what I can do as far as parties and the like are concerned, but that is a small price to pay for what I have. And I am also not adverse to sleeping in my car, when the need arises. This is merely a step back towards my youthful years, when I would travel without any plan, and sleep in the open in parks, on train station forecourts, in the stairwells of high-rise car parks, or wherever a free and dry spot could be found. Sharing space underneath a bridge has also been my lot, in London, after the underground car park I had wanted to use flooded through a broken water main. I tend to spend far more time in Bremen, and have quite a large circle of friends there – far more than at home – but also travel into Hamburg once a month to meet up with friends, debate, eat a meal.

I suspect that many people here, and in England, were of the opinion that the lockdowns would be over quickly, or that there was no problem for them – only for everyone else – and so they hardly gave a thought to filling their time with anything creative. Those who are naturally creative, though, who work in the Arts or similar, began putting on online concerts and shows to keep them up and in the public eye. Many other people seem to have thought that they could just settle down in front of the television, and all would be fine. They get their income – at least in Europe that is the case, although England is slightly limited in possibilities – and had nothing to do but look after the children and chill. A quick slap around the face with the wet fish of reality, and life looks completely different. Looking after children who are usually at school, trying to teach them in a form of home-schooling where none existed before, and keeping them occupied, is not for the faint-hearted. And then television suddenly became nothing but repeats, as the actors and entertainment staff couldn’t get together to make new shows. People began to miss their workplaces, as strange as it may seem, no matter how much they had complained about them in the past. Sadly levels of domestic violence also rose, which should come as no surprise to anyone except a politician, and then the chance to break free and go out – abusing the freedoms granted within sensible restrictions – which was taken in abundance, without any thought for other people. Such over-use of a granted freedom, with limitations, cost many people their lives., and will continue to do so as long as people live by the motto it can’t happen to me.

Admittedly, some of the restrictions are a little over the top, especially for those living, as you do, in an environment with few other possibilities. But over a few weeks people could have, individually, collected what they needed, found somewhere else to keep their craft goods and other items. A facility could arrange recreation in much smaller groups, over a longer period of time, thus preventing possible unrest and disaffection which, in the worst possible cases, could turn nasty. Imagine something along the lines of a person being refused entry to a supermarket because they refuse to wear a mask, where it is clearly stated that entry is only allowed with a mask, and they turn violent. It has happened many times, and there are countless films of people flipping out over such a simple thing as a mask. Now put the same into your own environment, and you’ll appreciate how the smallest thing can flare up. Which makes minor lifting of restrictions, and working together to ensure safety and personal occupation, more than sensible. Sadly, with the way things are going in the UK and the USA, restrictions are going to be in place for a long time to come, or will be lifted and then re-imposed a short while later. The reaction to the warnings came far too late, and has been too lax. Not everyone can discipline themselves, which is why there must be a certain give-and-take on both sides. You are fortunate to have zero cases, and I hope that it stays that way; there are other facilities with up to eighty percent infection, including the staff, where any lockdown now comes far too late.

Antique and older camera collecting is merely a sideline which happened without me wanting to be involved. I have a few friends who gout and search for the photographs, as I do myself, in different areas, and one who does house clearance after a death. In this latter instance offers and often made up of a box full of photographs, negatives and cameras, or the cameras are thrown in too, as the people left have no use for them, or no idea how to use them. So I have collected about three hundred cameras of all sorts without wishing to, from modern point-and-shoot digital things back to box cameras and concertina / folding cameras from the early years of the last century. These are all carefully stored, just in case, but not much more than that. The photographs are divided into two types: those that I can use for my collection which fall into the carte d’Visite style, and those which do not, or which are not identifiable by photographer. The latter here are stored in boxes, just in case. The former are catalogued, scanned, the image uploaded to one of my web sites, and then stored individually in their own special envelopes according to the catalogue number. The web site is then used by people researching their local area in Germany and Europe – as I have been unable to limit myself to just Germany – for ancestors, local history and similar.

The glass plate negative is the way these smaller photographs, and their Cabinet counterparts are produced, with the image being developed on a thin sheet of paper, and then this being stuck to a piece of card for presentation. It is not exclusive to England at all, as photography on a commercial basis – for the common man – began with French travelling photographers in Europe. The Germans and others took up the art after a while, and began settling down with their photographic studios in cities where they could guarantee a living for themselves. Most were also painters, who had made a living painting local portraits, and so already had the necessary chemicals to follow the photographic trade. The first images were produced in France in the late 1830s, and the first studios began their fulltime work in the late 1860s or so. The travellers died out – finding it much easier to settle with a studio rather than having to cart it around with them like peddlers and small-goods salespeople. Photography spread outside the major towns too – Hoya had three or four photographers for its three thousand inhabitants, and a nearby village of less than four hundred had two – and only began to die out as a purely studio phenomenon with the advent of smaller, portable cameras from Agfa, then Eastman Kodak, and the use of film rather than plates.

I spend considerably less time with my photographic collection than with my small library. At the moment I am trying to finish a new room to store books in, since all my shelves are now full and double-stacked, but keep on getting drawn into another tale, another life written down for my enjoyment. My stack of notebooks with memorable quotations is also growing, but I doubt I will ever get a chance to really take advantage of this. Now and then I use them in letters, but only when I happen to be reading something relevant to what I am writing about. Since my reading doesn’t cover the plague at the moment …
I do not doubt for a moment that paintings by Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol would find people willing to steal them, not necessarily for their artistic worth, but certainly to line their pockets. If there was no one to buy the works in the first place, I suspect many would not ever come into existence. Neither one is to my taste, however, when it comes to this form of art. I am more attuned to the classical, to pencil sketches and prints of a certain type than paint daubs and repetitive screen printing. I have very few oil paintings on my walls, but many original prints and sketches and, of course, a wide selection of photographs. Two abstract works of art were given to me as presents, by children who had created them, and one piece of modern art I bought because the artist is a friend of mine and this was her final exhibition and sale before returning to New York, as her visa had expired. Call me old-fashioned, but I like works of art that do not need to be interpreted before they can be appreciated, and ones which do not have a bigger price tag than the size of the canvas.

And yet I have many friends – in Bremen – in the art world, either as gallery owners or as artists, and am confronted by a wide selection of good and bad (according to my own personal opinion), which someone has gone to the trouble of creating, as if it had some deeper meaning for them. Although, I am sure there are a few who simply daub, and then invent a story after the paint has dried. It’s not quite the same with books, although I do sometimes wonder how something could ever have been published, whether the author paid for it themselves through a vanity press, or wither the publisher is above board or not. I had one of these books quite recently, the fictional life of a French Impressionist artist called Berthe Morisot, where I checked the web site of the publishers to see how serious they were. Any publisher that needs to tell potential authors that they have a proof-reader, and pay royalties, is definitely not above board in my opinion. What this company needed was a layout person, as the typographic layout of the book – right down to having a single word at the end of a quoted letter alone on an otherwise blank page – was shockingly bad. I won’t comment on the level of the story, which was a first person telling of a real person’s life, aside from the say that it did not inspire me to search for more information.

I am presently reading Melmoth the Wanderer by the Irish author Charles Maturin, published in 1820, four years before his death in abject poverty. The lack of interest in his work was caused by the unpopularity of his earlier books – and confrontations with his employer, the Church – but it achieved success a few years after he died, in France, where literature had a far higher standing than in England or Germany at the time. It is a dark Gothic novel, and not my usual fare, but something to take the mind elsewhere between works on the First World War and British history from 1914 to 2017 (two volumes soon to be read) and Friedrich the Great of Prussia or globalisation in the year 1000 (both just finished). After that I have a new work on racism, a fictional work on a Jewish man fleeing Nazi Germany (in German), and a new delivery of books – warned about yesterday – with several surprises included.

I recently watched all fourteen minutes of a German documentary on reading. To be precise: speed reading. The young presenter tells us that she wishes to learn how to speed read, as she is working on her Master’s Degree, and needs to be able to read more than one book a week. Of course, when you are studying, it is not the speed at which you read, but how much you learn, how much you can retain, and this had to be pointed out by a speed reading expert in one of Germany’s universities. There followed a whole series of tests to see how quickly she read – and how often she needed to go back and re-read something in order to comprehend it – and then the advice – part of which was to ignore idiots who claim the best way to speed read is to draw margins on every page of the books you’re about to read, so that your eyes don’t wander. She had, though, only about ten books which needed reading for the course which, as I am sure most people would immediately figure out, did not have to be learned by heart. Only some of the information is relevant, so it is not the speed at which you read, but your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I read between three and four books a week, as well as having a normal(ish) life. What I read is retained, where it is relevant, and regurgitated into my mind when I read a connecting story elsewhere. The secret, I have discovered, is not to force yourself to read as fast as possible, but to settle down to reading at leisure, with nothing on your mind but the book, and as few distractions as possible. Much the same as with letter writing:; I know roughly what I wish to write, and let the thoughts flow from there, without any outside influence or interruption. I also make notes which, for someone studying for any form of degree, is vital.

I was amused, though, at the idea that she needed to change her entire lifestyle just to be able to read more. Life is a battle of compromises, of fighting against – as the Germans say – your inner swine so that you settle down and do what needs to be done. But it is also a battleground of compulsions, and of needs. Anyone can sit down and read, as fast or as slow as they wish, but not everyone can understand at their first pass through. Perhaps she should have learned how to clear her mind of all but the subject being studied, if just for an hour or two a day, and find a place where she can do that. Cutting yourself off from the outside world is also a good move, in my opinion!

Which brings me quite neatly to something else that you wrote in your letter, about those who believe you have all the time in the world on your hands, because you’re not going anywhere, not doing anything. You’re quite right, these people have no idea of the demands of your environment, of the closeness with disturbing factors, of the stress of the situation. You cannot just walk away as other people might, nor cut yourself off for some peace and quiet while everyone else is fixated by the television set. If anything, reading a book or writing a letter is considerably harder than for anyone else. There is also the fact that you do not have the same facilities as others, being limited – sometimes – to the meagre benefits of a small library, occasionally open, or a few study courses. I can turn to my internet computer and check facts with a few clicks of the mouse. I can reach down books from my shelves to get a quotation, to check a date, to remind myself of a scene. I can walk away.

Fine, that last is just because I live alone, which is a massive advantage for anyone who enjoys reading and writing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the idea that someone who is incarcerated has better chances as a result is just too far away from reality. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why I enjoy writing these letters – although I write to people in all walks of life, all environments – because the challenge results in, mostly, much better work. I have more respect for someone who manages an educational vocation, no matter how minor, under these circumstances, than someone who complains they need to be able to read faster. Not that I would expect other people outside to be able to work their way through so much literature in one week; we all have our own levels, our own abilities. And especially our own environments, which makes a far bigger difference than most people wish to acknowledge.

I have added your recommendation to my order list – although it will probably be a while until I get around to reading it as I have a long list at the moment – and look forward to it. It will probably compliment an excellent biography I read a few months ago, about a man who let himself be arrested and incarcerated in Auschwitz so that he could set up an resistance cell inside the camp, and work towards its eventual liberation by the allied forces, or destruction. It is a strange feeling to see what we swore back then would never happen again, happening in our own time and, as recently, in our own countries.

Finally, before I wrap this up and consign these few words to the good offices of the various postal services, and answer to another of your questions: what do I do. I have had various jobs in my life, but the longest lasting one was that of a professional driver – a qualification I gained in Germany twenty years ago – which ended, suddenly, a few years ago when a young man decided that his Facebook account, on his smart phone, was far more important that the road he was driving along. The resulting high-speed, head-on crash destroyed his car and put him in hospital for six months and, saved or protected by my height above the street, forced the undercarriage of the bus I was driving upwards, crushing my right foot. After nearly two years of waiting for it to heal and the bones to fuse again – which they did, but not straight as they should have done – the medical world decided I was unfit for my trade. The insurance company, for the other driver, would be required to pay my wages for the rest of my life, along with a pension I would get from the government and from my trade union. The insurance, of course, wished to cut their costs as much as possible, having already paid out damages and money to compensate me for my pain, as well as the difference between my income during the period of illness so that I had no financial loss, so it was arranged that an agency try and find me a job. They tried for six months, but we all knew it was hopeless because of my age. No one wants to hire an elderly person – over forty is difficult at the best of times. Not a problem, but the insurance company then said I should also look and show that I had tried to get a job. So I looked, and saw a position I was qualified for but which, because of my age, I thought I’d not get. Going into retirement would have suited me wonderfully.

I was invited for an interview, which went exceptionally well and, as bad luck would have it, I was accepted for the job. Part time, five days a week, with the insurance paying the balance of what I would have earned if I’d still been a professional driver. Effectively very little work to do, as I would be able to spend most of my time – apart from regular checks – reading a book. The job itself? I usually tell it in a series of short sentences, with a pause between each one to let the idea sink into the mind of whoever asked, whoever is listening, and it goes like this: I work for the government. As a specialist photographer. A landscape photographer. I work only in black and white, and according to very strict parameters. My landscape photographs are all outdoors – obviously – and each photograph must have a roadway in it, with a car or lorry or bus on that roadway, which is driving too fast.