I wonder, casting an eye over your profile, whether we are not all looking for that one precious jewel hidden somewhere in life; in a place a person or an event, and failing to find it because we either have expectations which are too high, or ones which do not encompass the idea of the jewel itself, only our desires. This jewel has so many different aspects, so many definitions, it must be impossible to settle in our minds exactly what it should be and then, when we find someone who comes close – or something – there is a flaw, a fault we see, or that we see too late. You also comment that you’ve found it hard to listen, which can be taken in many different ways, and perhaps that is the crack in your own jewel, the slight deformity which makes it difficult to really get into some of those wonderful aspects of life that you desire. As, I hasten to add, with all of us. There is not one of us that does not have an aberration which might be well hidden, or perfectly obvious, but which we hope others will oversee, or that we will be able to work our way around it, destroy it and become that desired jewel of another person.

What that precious stone, that element is that we seek is another matter entirely, and I am not sure that everyone knows what they are seeking, or recognises that they have been seeking it when something close presents itself. We do not only fail to listen to other people, we fail to listen to ourselves, and that is, perhaps, the worst mistake we can make. As to letting where you find this potential jewel define it, don’t let its appearance define it either. The finest cut diamonds are discovered as lumps of frosty muck in the soil, have to be brought to light, examined, assessed, and then cut to reveal the beauty within. It is not the surface which is important, but that which is concealed within, the heart of the stone, the heart and soul of a person. Most people understand the idea of not judging a book by its cover, but not the practice. But it is also said that you do not realise what you had, until it is gone.

Our world today is one of rush and hurry, rarely time for a good chat, for a moment’s thought, for a respite to enjoy the beauties of life before we hurry on to the next important appointment, keeping track of our social progress, and that of our friends, as we go along. In reality we are achieving nothing, regardless of whether we claim big on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, our successes are small and insignificant compared to the time we lose chasing them. The moments of peace and quiet, of reflection, when we can sit and quietly observe, are the most important ones in our lives. We have the chance, then, to think, to ruminate on all that is happening, and perhaps even to find some sort of reason for it all. Taking time, we learn to sort out what is right and what is wrong, where the path leads, and where we want it to lead. Hurrying blindly along the same path everyone else appears to be taking only takes us to the same dead end they have achieved, and the realisation, time and time again, that we have wasted those precious hours and all our energy. But life does not allow us to retrace our steps; we have this one chance, and no other. Perhaps that it is why it is better to learn about someone from their mind, rather than from their actions.

And yet, even this is very complicated, because a person in my position, many miles away and unseen, can create a fantasy existence which you, also unseen, must interpret from words and your own personal beliefs. It has often been said that we are a creation of our own fantasies, that we talk ourselves into a better position and lifestyle than we really have, that we run through bad moments and change them to our own good. I have no doubt that this is true, and often find myself considering other possibilities for something which has already happened, justifications, even falsification. With this form of communication – two people who know less than nothing about each other – we have a perfect form of storytelling, story creation possibilities, where we can create our own characters, be that which we have always wished we could be, and create a character that is perfect, for us, and ideally suited to what our long distance partner is seeking.

Clearly there are up and downsides to a written friendship, because we cannot see the other person involved, cannot read their body language, cannot judge from their appearance, dress, mannerisms, accent, reactions. A letter writing relationship, regardless of the form and depth, is more of a matter of trust than most others, initially, although easier to walk away from. It is less of a wrench to break off from a written friendship, where the correspondents have never met, than a personal one. The connection is much looser. And yet.

And yet a letter writing relationship can have a depth and breadth far greater than any other form of friendship. We are freed from the necessity of allowing the other person to talk, of letting them interrupt what we wish to say, of diverting us away from the course we want to follow, our line of thinking. We are freed from the restraints of time, as a new sheet of paper can always be added to a letter, words can be changed, sidelines from a thought followed. We can explore philosophical discourses freely, as I am doing here, as much as any other form of discussion, from experience, from desire, from gathered and heard opinion. We can move from the shallow to the depths of thought with the stroke of a pen, without missing a stroke, and know that the recipient of our thoughts, our meanderings, is not constrained to read them all in one sitting, that they have time, that the words will not simply vanish, as in a personal conversation. And, better, there is time for them, too, to think before putting pen to paper and airing their considered views, their opinion, their experiences.

As to honesty and trust, which I have played down here, it is possible for them to be built up to a far greater degree through letter writing than by any other means of communication, The words, the ideas, are on paper, permanent. We can go back over them at will, pick out anything that does not match what comes, what has been said, and challenge, and take our time in doing so. We can also put down on paper those things which, speaking in a group, wouldn’t be considered apt, although I suspect there are few who would trust themselves that far early in a friendship for fear of its loss.

Right now I can imagine you reading this initial, introductory letter – if you’ve got this far – with a furrowed brow, and wondering why you bothered opening the envelope, why I would have thought it worth the time, energy, paper and stamp. We are both in the middle of life, myself being rather further past the middle than I care to mention, but close enough all the same. We have both gathered our own experiences, formed opinions, spoken to countless people over time, and come away with impressions, ideas, plans. Being in the middle of life, it might seem strange to go right back to the start all over again, simply because of one person: life continues around us regardless, and we have enough time to catch-up, as much as to continue. We have to accept that other people have already lived up to this point, and formed their opinions already, learned their lessons, gathered their experiences. It’s not as if we are setting out on a from-birth journey. It is better, I believe, to dive straight into the deep end and see how quickly you can surface to draw a new breath of air than to dabble your feet on the side of the pool and wait until the water suits your temperament. For me, in letter writing, diving straight into a challenge on a deeply philosophical level is the best way to assimilate immediately, because if a recipient of one of my letters can dive in too, and come up breathing, it’s going to be good, and expand both of our minds.

We live in different worlds, of course. I am in the centre of Europe, where the Enlightenment began just as much as most of the oppression and discord recorded through history. Our views are going to be different, through differing life experiences, education, outlook, politics, environment. This is what makes the whole so interesting, especially for me when I find someone who is not put off by the first two pages of an introductory letter, but allows themselves to be dragged into discussion, into airing their own thoughts and opinions. Outside of my few work hours – I work part-time due to a work accident several years ago which removed me from my normal trade through disability – I spend my time writing letters, travelling and reading. My reading tastes tend to be towards the more serious end of literature, the realms of philosophy, biography, history and current events. Now and then I will take up a crime thriller or a piece of modern literature and allow myself the pleasure of not having to think for four hundred pages or so. This is my brain candy, which allows the mass of grey cells to rejuvenate before the next onslaught. I am as at home reading Camus or Woolf as I am learning about Frederick the Great or Jane Welsh Carlyle, exploring the ideas of Sartre and de Beauvoir or Locke and Smith, Darwin and Reza Aslan. I read between two and three books a week, predominantly in English but also German titles, and have a small book next to my computer with an ever-growing list of names and ISBNs for future orders, future interest.

Travelling, another interest, to broaden the mind and, perhaps, to challenge the minds of other people. I have been travelling since I was a young child, initially as family from the age of about 14 alone, and managed to get to quite a few corners of the world. These days, in my old age, I am not quite as open to the lifestyle of my teenage years, and prefer sleeping in a hotel to the open station concourse in Venice, or the top landing of an enclosed set of stairs in the Gare du Nord in Paris. Challenging the minds of other people, in a manner of speaking, because I tend to travel wearing the colours of my clan, and there are few who have seen a man wearing a kilt in real life – without the bagpipes. To be able to visit and explore the countries and cities captured through the words of those who have gone before, even centuries before, is something special. I am hoping, once this virus has passed, whenever that might be, to get away to Florence and Pompeii, thereby closing a massive gap in my personal understanding of places. Reading Pliny the Younger’s eye witness account of the destruction of Pompeii, or descriptions of the battles around Milan, Florence, Sicily and other principalities in modern-day Italy is all well and good. Having the place before your gaze, being able to touch the stones, walk the streets, is another matter entirely.

I generally do not ask questions in my letters, unless I really haven’t understood something. I think a letter writer should be allowed to unfold his life slowly and at his own volition, rather than being forced to turn down tracks which, perhaps, he is not yet ready to follow. This is not a lack of interest, more a very relaxed idea of letting each person do their own thing, create their own picture of themselves for me. It would be far too easy for me to jump to the wrong conclusion, to make assumptions which are wrong, which would then colour my responses and the manner in which I picture a person, how I interact with them. I also tend, sometimes, to get carried away and write longer, more intense and involved letters, especially when a subject which interests me comes into my mind. At the same time I believe that each correspondent should write according to what they wish to bring to paper, and not have any need to fulfil a certain quota, to cover specific topics, or to follow a certain line. Sometimes a shorter letter can convey far more than a longer one does, sometimes we simply do not have the time to sit and write a fuller version, but feel the need to communicate without delay. We all have our own speed, our own interests. It would be a boring world if we did not.

On the other hand I am more than happy to answer any questions you might wish to pose, as I do not expect anyone to follow my ideals on letter writing.

That’s it for now, as you can see. I shall mail this tonight, and return to a fictionalised version of the life of Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot, a nineteenth century painter who was also muse or model for such people as Manet, and see whether this invented life inspires as much as an actual biography.