Without a shadow of a doubt, this small letter will be one of many that you receive, initially, in reply to your hope of finding people to write to, people you can get to know through the wonderful art of letter writing. There will be short and longer letters, offers which you can’t refuse, promises for the future as much as for the present, and these few sheets of paper will probably be pushed further and further down the pile as you pick and choose, as you make your decisions on who will be the most suitable suitor for your written affections, for the unnamed plans you have in your mind which, sadly, no one else has a gist of yet. It may well be that you have a great deal of experience with such things, with sifting and sorting, with keeping the grain and removing the chaff. In that case you’ll know at a glance who is serious, and who is merely a player after your affections, with nothing behind their calligraphic smile. Or perhaps you will need a little more time, and the chance to gain experience by delving deeply into the pile of words, and bringing the literature out from among the penny dreadful.

I am not one to deprive another of worthwhile experiences, of the chance to try something out for themselves to see how, and whether, it works for them, whether it could be a success, or whether it is doomed to failure from the start. We all have this path we need to travel, and personal experience is far better, in the long term, than taking someone else’s word for it, and ploughing on regardless without making our own decisions. And, yes, I realise that the risk of being overlooked, of someone lesser taking my possible place in your agenda, is high. After all, when so much is on offer, who comes back to the long-winded letter, to the convoluted language, to the strange terms and sentences which make us pause to think, pause to figure out what could be meant, what could be hidden behind the ink, between the lines. How many people, when we are honest with ourselves, take the easy option, rather than rising to a challenge?

Life, though, is full of challenges, and full of easy routes which we could take, which seem to lead us to that El Dorado of good times in the future. Sometimes it takes a while to realise that the City of Gold, in the Land of Honey on the horizon is a mere illusion, and that the harder road, the one strewn rather than paved with stones, is that which we will enjoy the most, because it has the most challenges, because it has been travelled by so few other people before us. And isn’t letter writing a challenge in itself? How many of us were lucky enough to have a letter writing course at school, to have been shown how to prepare for a good writing session, to vacate our mind of all other thoughts but those which we wished to communicate initially? How many of us discovered that this is an excellent method for beginners, but that we wanted the further challenge of sitting down with pen and paper ready, a slight thought of what we wanted to communicate, and then just letting go and writing as each mood swing took us, creating an unknown journey through our minds on paper for an unseen person in another world? The formalities of letter writing that I was taught at school, where we had to write a letter to our parents each month and then, horror of all horrors, have to graded by the teacher, are long behind me now, and thankfully so, otherwise, as with the reading of a good book in the months and years after school English literature courses, it would have vanished forever. I know of too many people who blanch whenever Shakespeare is mentioned, recollecting their in-depth forays into the intricacies of Macbeth and Hamlet, the loss of pleasure over the intricacies of humour in Evelyn Waugh’s works, the dimming of eyes whenever Robert Frost, Robert Burns, or Alfred Tennyson are mentioned, even in passing.

It’s having our freedom removed, as I am sure you can well understand, which daunts and then diminishes us; whether it be reading a good book, or writing a letter, being restrained to follow a specific and straight pathway, with no hope or chance of deviation, is like calling upon Death to visit in a party frock and run the show. Of course there have to be set rules, but also the freedom to work within these rules, to break out of them now and then, to deviate and create and to be ourselves, despite the constraints and restraints of social norms, social demands, society itself. How many brilliant works of art have been created because someone did not follow the brush strokes recommended by the Académie des Beaux Arts or some other harbinger of artistic taste and social acceptability? How many books have been written which were rejected time and time again by the finest publishers of the land, and now stand high and mighty upon the pedestals of the classic literary works of our age? If we do not break with what everyone else demands of us and wander a little from the path, see our own sights, live our own lives, then we are nothing, and have wasted the little time afforded us by the chance of creation. And if we only answer letters which make us feel comfortable, which do not challenge our minds, cause us to pause and think, with words that effortlessly comfort the reader, then what have we gained? Our mediocrity dies a death, as surely as night follows day, and we must begin the search for someone new from the beginning once more.

Letters are the thinking person’s means of discussion, because they allow each of us to work through all our thoughts, from germ to fruition, without being interrupted, corrected, educated by someone who has seen a video on the internet and now knows more than the deep-seated expert. We can reveal as much, or as little, of ourselves as we wish, and also reveal a good deal for those who are able to read; where the words are interesting, but their underlying meaning and reference is important. We can create a different personality, be, for a short while, that person we wish to be. We are unseen, but not unheard, and it can be a wonderful feeling, an exhilarating experience. But letters can also be very shallow, can show a person for what they really are, what they really desire, and reveal them in their fallibility. Anyone can prance and preen in the clothes of this fashionable season, but few make it further through their choice of words.

One of the fascinating things I discovered, when leaving my native England and settling here in Germany, was how many similarities these two nations have, while professing nothing but differences. The two countries are, of course, inextricably entwined in a joint history which encompasses not only the obvious and highly visible royal families, but also customs and a shared passage through time which has not been cut by differences of political or geographical nature. There are many differences, many things which we – and I can claim the we now as both English and German – do differently, but which have the same roots. And it is the Germans, surprisingly enough, who are more prepared to accept this conjoining of nature and history, rather than the English who, despite this, are very proud of their history, and especially anything to do with their mythical Empire. It is hard to not overlook the fact that both followed the same path of conquest and colonisation, of parliament and dictatorship – at different times in their histories – and came, eventually, to the same ending by different paths. The same culmination, that is, if you discount this idea of the British leaving the European Union, which is going to be a further branch of joint history for the two nations, glancing at one another across the narrow strip of water which separates continent from island.

Like you, I came from an area I was used to, had known my entire life – although there were several moves from one area of the country to another which brought their own differing social experiences with them – and was cast into a completely different environment. First, naturally, was the difference in languages, which could be equated with a difference between the language of the streets and that which we normally use, as every environment has its own words and interpretations. There were strange habits which threw me slightly, having some from a major city and major city life in London, to small town, provincial life in a northern town. Restaurants which closed at ten in the evening, for example: my previous experiences had been those of enjoying the nightlife until three or four in the morning, and then going for breakfast. Bars and public houses with table service, and where the bill was paid at the end of the evening: London pub life is self-service at the counter, and pay on the spot for your warm – beer. Couples dancing in clubs as if they were taking part in a classical waltz, rather than flinging their arms and legs in all possible directions. Life came at me as a sudden rush, before I even thought of becoming a civilian and settling here, because no one around me knew what was outside the barrack gates, because they had never ventured out into the wider world. And we’re talking about young soldiers, not old married couples.

Life would have been different if I’d not gone through those gates and explored the world outside, although it is difficult to say whether better or worse, but this is the chance we take when setting off on a new adventure; not that we necessarily realise it is a adventure, or a change of life even. Before that, long before the idea even entered my head to sign-up, I was happy selling books in London, one of the mass of almost anonymous salesmen and women who crowded into the underground tunnel, passed the quick, but accurate, looks and checks of the security officers, and then hurried to our departments and desks in Harrods. An ideal place for anyone who loves books, along with Foyles in Charing Cross Road – but for the fact that they only hired students are their salespeople, and had a habit of firing them before the end of a six month probationary period in order to save on staff costs – and a time of my life which I enjoyed immensely, but for the exorbitant cost of living in the nation’s capital. Here I started building my first book collection, my first library, if you will.

Books, and reading, have been a part of my life since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, even though I was a late starter when it came to bot reading and writing. My father had a decent sized collection of paperback crime thrillers – and a good sized collection of books on art, archaeology and cookery – which I would occasionally riffle through until it came time for me to move on, find my own living quarters and adorn the walls with my own titles and tastes. One of my earliest experiences on the importance of reading was when a teacher at my school – a boarding school in the depth of North Yorkshire – confiscated a title because she didn’t like the title, or the cover, or whatever, and then returned it a few days later having learned, from my father, that it was his when she called to complain about my reading choices. By that time I had long discovered the pleasures of the school library and, in order to get hold of titles considered too old for my age – a fallacy if ever there was one – where I was school librarian for my year. It was surprising what was kept hidden under the counter, so that the young, impressionable students wouldn’t get to see the wisdom between their covers.

I’m told that you can tell a person from the books on their shelves, but I also know that you can judge a person by the books they leave out for all to see. Two very different things. I’m not sure how people would judge me by the books I have, since they are stacked on the floor, double-stacked on shelves, some still in moving containers from fifteen years ago, and a very wide variety of subjects. An author at Penguin books recently commented on the several types of people who own books, and compared them alongside someone living a minimalist life, then going up from under fifty books ownership, to over five hundred. His comment on the final category was explicitly to talk about people with over five hundred unread books, as if such a number precluded the reading of each one. I have books which I have not read, and am happy to admit it: they are all in my To Be Read pile, and number, as I write, sixteen titles – but that is only because I received two parcels of books from my bookseller earlier this week. And I come most decidedly into the final category he named, those with more than five hundred titles, and do not feel the slightest hint of guilt as a result.

And I shall be turning to one of those titles – The Burns Supper: A Concise History by Clark McGinn – as I close this letter, fully expecting it to sink under the weight of those others you will have received, to disappear from view and memory. I do, however, think that I have quite successfully achieved one small thing, though: your profile consisted of a description containing only nine words. Writing a letter to someone based purely on such a short sentence as description and invitation by a person to enter into a correspondence which could be deep and long-lasting is, I think, something of a challenge. At the very least, I can claim this one thing as a success, even if those others, as shallow as they might be, gain your attention, and my few words sink into the abyss of memory.