I’m not too sure about a voice of sanity: there are times when I feel that there is no voice which understands a situation clearly enough to take any action, to comprehend what is happening around us and how we should combat it. The world is filled with too many voices, most of them fighting for their own corner of this planet, and not caring about the wishes, desires, needs of others. I was recently told that many people in the United States, although this could apply to s many other countries too, do not appreciate, and do not wish to appreciate that things are not getting any better, despite political promises, boasting and rallies. Rather, they see that things have become worse for other people, which makes them feel better as a result. As long as their situation is not threatened, it makes no difference, and they accept this lack of betterment as being an advance, as the politicians claim. The shops still have the goods they wish to buy, their dollar buys much the same quantity as it always has, and the new cell phone they wanted can be picked up in the shops right on time. But, of course, there is still always something to be complained about, other life wouldn’t be worth living.

For your young bunkmate, moaning about anything and everything, I wonder how her life will shape out. Will she, in thirty or forty years time, be able to look back without regrets, as having achieved something despite all the odds, or will she see a life stretching out behind her, unchangeable, filled with moaning and complaints? Will she have taken the best chance available, or wasted her precious life? I see and hear so many people who complain about the youth of today, who are bitterly opposed to youngsters getting out and campaigning for culture, for rain forests, for the climate and wonder what they did in their youth. Was their life a bowl of roses without any thorns? Did they never seek to improve their environment, their position, their status? Protests have been part and parcel of our society for hundreds of years, and will remain so – hopefully, as long as we can steer clear of a totalitarian government – and they bring changes which are to the benefit of all, even those sitting on their prized possession complaining at the noise. Sometimes you have to make a little noise to be heard and seen.

A few years ago I played host to a group of Americans visiting Germany, and they had a chance to spend time in the small back alleys and winding, cobblestoned roads of the Schnoor in Bremen. This is a small village within the larger city which has managed to preserve its charm, if not its original purpose. The houses are small and date from, at the earliest, about 1492, and were once built on the side of a river leading to the main harbour for Bremen. The river has been covered, the harbour is gone, but these small houses remain and attract tourists with, as you might expect, teashops, restaurants and art galleries. A small house in the Schnoor, currently on the market and with a living area of about 60m², can be bought for the small change sum of just over half a million euro. The group spent some time in this area, and then came back to their hotels, out in the countryside, for an evening meal and celebration. One slightly older pair – that is, a couple of my age! – drew me to one side to tell me how amazed they were at having seen a wedding cake decoration of two men, rather than man and woman. Openly for sale in a shop window in Schnoor. Being an artistic area, Bohemian, some would say, this shouldn’t really surprise anyone, but it did affect their sensibilities. I told them that we have a very open society here, that gays can marry one another in a civil ceremony, and do not get thrown out of bakery shops for wanting a wedding cake. They have the same in the States, I was told, but these people are so loud. Loud, I thought, but did not say, because they are still fighting for their Rights against a very conservative society which only cares for itself, while we have long gone through that cycle and found solutions. Loud, too, because otherwise those in positions of power, in lobbies and committees with vested interests in their own pocketbook otherwise have closed ears. We see exactly this in Portland at the moment, and elsewhere, where the Right to protest has to be used to try and get through to those with concrete for brains, rather than a heart for their obligations and responsibilities to the public.

Not that Europe is necessarily any better, but in different areas. We should all be taking a look around us and making honest assessments to help others, rather than concentrating just on what works for us, to the detriment of others. In theory this is what religion was all about, back when it was being lived rather than when it was being written. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah (2006), where she goes beyond the written religious records we use today, and unto the world as it was then, before the texts were committed to paper, and the religious beliefs changed beyond what was intended. A time when, for example, Muhammad was very clear about all religions being able to live and work together, and when the first problems arose from within the one religion, rather than from other religions. I consider myself fortunate in being brought up on Faith, and not the dogma of a religion or a specific religious direction.

Hoch deutsch, or High German is the standard language of Germany, rather like the Queen’s English or Oxford English are in the United Kingdom. As with all nations, there are various forms of language here, with regional dialects as much as other officially recognised German languages – one of which is Platt deutsch or Low German. Le Carré is referring to the type of German which would be used in court, in official documents and the like, which can be understood throughout the German-speaking world, and which is carefully regulated. Other forms of German can vary greatly from one region to another, so Platt deutsch, for example, has many different dialects, according to whether you are in the south or the north, from one farming region near the border with the Netherlands, or another on the border with Poland – although this area also has Sächsische – or anywhere else. Some people claim that Hamburg has the best German, as a clear and easy to understand language, but each region makes that same claim for itself.

I’m not just coming to terms with my privileges, as a white male, but also my prejudices. Sometimes it is very hard to see, and certainly to admit, that you feel differently to one type of person, or a person who appears to follow a certain form, or has a certain appearance, and you consider all these reactions to be perfectly normal. The other, be it a Black person, an Asian or whatever, often also finds the reactions to be normal, this prejudice, because they come from a white male, and white males are simply so. We talk to people in a different manner because of the colour, their ethnic origin, their workplace. Last week a white Texan woman yelled at a Native American, protesting his own lands and fishing rights, and told him to go home to his own country: prejudice from appearance. She was blocking his freedom to carry on a normal life, by being part of a boat blockade which prevented the local inhabitants from fishing for their daily food, but probably did not understand the concept of prejudice, or Rights, or origin. She, of course, is the foreigner. Where she is part of a large group who fish for sport and fun, he and his tribe fish to feed themselves, it is their livelihood, and something they have done in this one area since long before white people arrived in the country.

Yesterday I began reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, and had to throw myself back to the start after about three pages. I am not in the habit of reading the blurb on the back cover of a book, but prefer to let my own mind be inspired by a story unfolding, rather than have a taste of what is to come, and the chance of someone ruining my impressions by giving too much of the story away, in their attempt to sell more copies. So I was thrown back onto myself, and deep into thought, when reading about the judge, who is the main character in this book, retiring, and the retirement ceremony. The throwback, the awakening word was very simple indeed: She. My inner eye had a male as the main character, perhaps because I have been influenced my whole life by images of male judges sitting on the bench. I am now reading the whole work with a very slow and careful open mind, aware that the characters are a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, British, South African and Malaysians. And, as luck would have it, this book is also about confronting prejudices, as the judge – who was a prisoner of the Japanese, tortured and disfigured during the Second World War – confronts her own feelings about the Japanese in the form of the former gardener to the Japanese Emperor, who she wishes to build a Japanese garden for her, in memory of her murdered sister.

Most murders are committed by family and friends. It seems to be a strange thing to say, and I am not sure whether it works for every single country around the world, but it is certainly the case here in Europe. And, no, we have very few mass or serial murderers, such things are very much the exception just the same as killings in schools are rare. Not unknown, but rare. Sex abuse, though, is something different, with rape and child abuse usually committed not just by family, but also by those people who are in so-called positions of trust. You’ve named the main areas, priests and sports people, and that covers it more than anything else could. Family members, of course, usually the father, often with the connivance of his wife, and brothers or uncles, often with the family being well aware of what is happening, or has happened. But they don’t want to upset the idyll of the family image, bring a bad reputation to their names, be exposed to public scrutiny. And the child who has been raped or abused? This is something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives and that, for me, is not worth saving the good reputation of an abuser.

The recent murders in Europe, which could be called mass murders as several people were either attacked, or died, have all tended to be not so much a family tragedy, but caused by religious fanaticism, or prejudice. Attacks against Jews – or an attempted attack which did not succeed, but resulted in the deaths of passersby – are of greater concern than anything else in Germany, for obvious reasons. But we have also had the prejudice of murder revealed to us, as the police were convinced that the murder of a Turkish man was linked to drugs, and was not the work of a small, hard-left terrorist cell. And, of course, the hard-right terrorists, the other fanatical group out there, with the murder of over seventy young socialists trapped on a small island by a fascist in Norway. Bear in mind that weapons are harder to come by here, and that is a good thing. We do not need the added security of a gun on our hip just to go shopping or, as I have seen recently, an anti-tank weapon, just to show that we support the Second Amendment, and can take it completely out of its original conception to make our point about Rights and Freedoms (for us, not for them).

There is something else that you need to bear in mind when it comes to serial killers in the United States, and that is the manner in which the various police forces work. Without a working relationship, on all levels, between State police departments, even between county and State, there is no sharing of information which could highlight a serial killer. Many murders slip under the radar too, because of the after-death systems. Not all States have a medical examiner, a qualified forensic doctor capable of finding the signs and elements pointing to a crime. Many still have the politically appointed but unqualified coroner system which, when it comes to finding a murder victim, relies too heavily on chance and a doctor’s whim.

The grass, as you say, is not greener on the other side, it is greener where you take care of and tend it. Rather than being jealous of what other people have, which is precisely what this saying refers to, we should look to our own attitudes, our own surroundings, and improve them so that, eventually, we can help others improve their lives and surroundings too. I am a great fan of introspection, of examining yourself – thus my looking at my own prejudices, my own education and upbringing – and seeking improvement there, so that I can eventually put myself in other people’s shoes and see their point of view. It’s all very well giving someone advice and offering them a helping hand, but useless if you do not see the problem from their side of the fence. But I am also a fan of helping people by offering them guidance to do something for themselves, to boost their own confidence as much as anything, rather than telling them how to do something explicitly. Someone who does a thing, learns how to do it better than a person who is told how to do it, but does not experiment, does not make their own mistakes. A person who makes no mistakes cannot improve themselves with any ease, as the learning experience is someone else’s experience, and not their own.

If countries , or their administration at the very least, were true meritocracies, we would have a different world. At the moment it is pretty much based on which school or university you went to, and who you know. That does nothing to prove that a person is even halfway competent to take on a political or administrative position, merely that they could afford a private school, and made the right friends as a result of family or educational connections. One of the fascinating aspects of the history of China is that they did indeed have a meritocracy for their administration, for a while. In fact, I think it was for several centuries, but that is an aside. The Mandarins managed to pass an exceptionally difficult entrance examination to become civil servants, which many thousands of people studied and applied for. Their administration, thinking about the size of the country, was meticulous and successful. It only really began to fall apart when the British decided that they needed to expand their empire, and when the Japanese decided they needed to expand their empire too. But this was more of an internal marketplace, for the Chinese, and had little to do with the rest of the world as, prior to the interventions from outside, as with Japan for many years, they followed an isolationist course.

Can we have a meritocracy with a party political system in place? When we have presidential or other appointments to the higher echelons of government and the civil services, it is almost impossible. This is where good connections and friendships work again, and not the ability to do a job. There are very few people in either the British or the American civil services, in the appointed positions, who could be generally called qualified for the job that they have been given. Admittedly, the work is done by career civil servants, but the direction and the general slant of the political appointee brings certain politically motivated, and often personally beneficial strains out, rather than ones which could benefit all. And we are biased by a massive and very influential lobbyist group, which destroys any idea that a person of merit is likely to make headway, as merit means knowing what you are doing, and that would prevent being swayed by certain agendas and political fads.

The party political system is, however, here to stay along with all its problems. The lobbyist is here to stay, with all its corruption. And the civil servants who do the work will remain anonymous, working in the background, doing what their political masters desire, and making the best of their own promotion chances by watching the political wind, as much as seeing who they need to suck up to next, who will be in the top person’s chair at any one time. The current Conservative government in the United Kingdom, for example, is predominantly made up of people who know one another, but who have failed miserably at a series of jobs and appointments in the past. When their failures get to be too much to bear, they are moved on to another high-ranking job which, undoubtedly, they will also fail at. A prime example is the person currently in charge of the health service’s electronic application to track and trace the corona virus. She was in charge of a company called TalkTalk, which failed miserably with massive job and financial losses. Through good connections she has been put in charge of the private track and trace system in England, which has also failed miserably, cost billions of pounds, and delivered nothing. For this abject failure she has been rewarded with a promotion into the House of Lords and a title.

The Foreign Secretary did not know the importance of the Calais to Dover ferry connection, and is now working on a scheme to make an internal border, cutting off the county of Kent from the rest of the United Kingdom, unless you have a transit pass and have filled out customs forms for businesses, to compensate for a proper customs area and border checks near the south coast and into France. A transport minister gave a multi-million pound ferry contract to a small company which, surprisingly, had no ferries, and which then went bust. The government has given out multi-million pound contracts to companies – belonging to friends, political donors and others – with no track record whatsoever, to provide Personal Protection Equipment for the health services. Here they would definitely need a system of meritocracy or, at the very least, people who know geography, business and finance, but it will not happen. And if you’re thinking that the British civil service, as one example, operates as a meritocracy: it does not. People are promoted often on the basis of seniority, and not skill.

Such an idea is desirable, and would probably make for a much better world, but the educational facilities are being eroded day by day. The Humanities, which formed the basis for the bulk of good educated workers in higher levels in the past, are being removed. One university in England recently removed English from their programme. There are universities in the United States which teach a form of Christianity where Jesus was alive at the same time as the dinosaurs. The people who decide to follow this trend are those appointed by political masters, and not raised through the ranks on the basis of their skills and knowledge. It would need a massive and bitter overhaul of society, of the civil service, of education and business to return to anything like a meritocracy, or even to get people into areas where their expertise is correct for the job, and can be utilised. I don’t see that happening any time soon, do you?

However, if you work down the system, and take a look at what is available on the lower levels, you’ll often find the right people in place with the right skills. They work themselves up to a certain ceiling – not just to the glass ceiling many female workers have to contend with, it goes for class and colour too – on merit, on ability. Once you get to this level, your face has to fit, or you’re not going to get anywhere further.

As to letter writing and the gradual loss of the use of my hands, this is hardly a problem. It is the physical act of holding a pen, of manipulating it across the page to form words which cramps up the muscles in my hand. My hand writing was never of the best, many people had problems reading what I had written and, even today, there are complaints that the official protocols I write and sign at work are illegible – they’re perfectly readable to me, as I’m used to the English style of hand writing, and they are used to the German style – but I’m the only one who really needs to read them. As long as I can point my two index fingers in the right direction and hold them steady, I can type. I suspect that my mind, my memory, my understanding will collapse before my fingers give up the ghost.