It’s a strange thing, and something that I have been considering for the last few weeks, but I have decided that neither the pandemic – as bad as it could be – nor the United Kingdom leaving the European Union – as bad as it will be – have really made too much difference to my personal life. That is, aside from one or two small changes on the social side of things, nothing that isn’t acceptable or which makes life not worth living any more. I don’t go out socially any more, as this is practically impossible, but my social life – which revolves around the Lodges I am a member of – continues in a virtual form, with the background work I do as an official. I am still in constant touch with all those who are involved with me, regardless of their status or which country they happen to live in, but we don’t meet personally any more. I would, of course, love to be able to travel into Bremen and Hamburg two or three times a month, as we used to do, and settle down to a good conversation over a meal and some wine with them, but not being able to has not changed my life as such. To be honest, not going out has meant that I have a small amount of money extra each month, which would normally have been spent on fuel and the restaurant bill, which I can either save, or devote to my library.

Now, some of my friends would be surprised to hear me say this, but I also believe that they would understand what I mean. The friendships are still there, and the contact is still there, but it is carried on by different means. And while I am not a fan of social media and virtual social life, it is something which can be adapted to for a while; not as a permanent replacement, of course, that would be horrendous, but as a temporary necessity. And I also have to admit, but don’t tell anyone in a position of authority over here, that we have met, secretly, behind closed doors and curtains, you might say, also out of necessity. We may well not have been able to enjoy a meal together, as all the restaurants are closed for everything but takeaway, but certainly coffee and biscuits and, now and then, a glass of wine, a cigar and a whisky. Or two. Because there are still some things which have to be done in person, which you cannot do online or without personal contact.

This is all possible, though, because we are all convinced that it is firstly for the general good, no matter how many might complain about personal inconvenience, and, secondly, because we see an end to it in time. At some stage the virus is either going to be made impotent, or we will have reached such a stage in our acceptance of change, that a new normal begins to work, and we live our lives under these changed conditions. Not everyone will wish to accept this; there will still be those who go out on the streets and complain that it is unacceptable they have to wear a mask, and that the whole thing is a massive conspiracy by Bill Gates to fill our brainwashed minds with computer chips and 5G telephone waves, but I think the majority will understand and comply, for their own good if nothing else. There are already societies where the wearing of masks is a normal, everyday thing, even if this is merely to combat the smell and dangers of pollution. Why should we, in the West, be any different; are we more civilised by not wearing a face covering? By not being vaccinated?

I have no problem with vaccinations. I received them as a child without being asked whether I wanted them, without any guarantee, as some seem to demand today, that they are one hundred percent effective and safe. The only injection I have had in my entire life which had a negative effect on me was one for flu which, as you know, is an injection of flu germs into the body to build up immunity. For me it had a different effect, as the immunity was not increased, and I fell to a two week bout of the illness, with the first week flying by for me, as I was in bed and asleep except when woken to be fed. However, when my age group comes up within the confines of the vaccination process here, and my name can be added to the list of those to receive it, I shall meekly go forward and accept my fate, as much to protect other people as to protect myself from them. I see the masks in exactly the same way, they are a pain, I admit, and I am not allowed to wear the masks I had specially made – with my own family tartan – in some areas, but they protect other people as much as they protect me, and what possible excuse can I have to risk the lives of those around me? Risking my own life is a different matter, should I ever decide to take on a risk or expose myself to personal danger, but bystanders?

However, the main group of people receiving inoculations at the moment are those over eighty, those in risk groups, and those who work on the front line of society, such as nurses, doctors, teachers and similar. My name will be a long way down the list for quite a while yet and, since some of the pharmaceutical companies are not living up to their promises, and are delivering considerably less than contracted to deliver, it will be longer than planned any way.

As to the variations of this virus – the English, the Brazilian and the South Africa, or whatever name people wish to call them – it has much the same as with any other virus: the mutations are bound to happen as the virus evolves. It has as much an interest in retaining its own small grasp on life, as we have in retaining ours. But it says something about the human species when a virus, a seemingly simple cellular construct, can adapt faster than we can, or will.

The United Kingdom – as it still is – leaving the European Community is another matter entirely. I was against the move back in 2016, was interviewed in the local newspapers about it in 2017 and wrote several letters to all and sundry in positions of power at the time, to no avail. Those convinced that the British Empire would be restored, and that this tiny island nation could do better on its own, won the day, and are now paying the price. Sadly along with all those who were not convinced. And, equally sadly, but I have no real feelings of compassion for them, many of those who voted to Leave are also feeling the squeeze, the pain, as their businesses go to the wall. I’ve seen enough filmed interviews with fishermen, with smaller companies whose entire turnover is based on exporting to the EU and who voted to Leave believing that all the tariffs and duties would disappear lamenting their decision now that the hard facts are thrown back at them in the form of a total loss of business. Some fishermen have reported a loss of eighty-six percent of their business, some more than that. Exports are down by about sixty percent, and the costs involved with those exports which do manage to get through have increased.

My supply of books has been affected by the change, but not in the same way. Because books and similar publications are not subject to certain forms of tax in England – Value Added Tax, which was introduced in 1973 when the UK joined the EU to replace Purchase Tax – my orders come straight through, and the necessary German tax is added at the bookseller side of the transaction. For me an absolutely painless change which I do not notice. The thing that I do notice is the slowing down of deliveries, since everything now has to go through customs either in Frankfurt or in Leipzig to be cleared. Deliveries from England which used to take two weeks now require much longer, and I even had a panic moment a few weeks ago as a result. I had several larger orders of English titles running through my bookseller in Berlin to cover me when what I already had had been read. I usually manage to calculate reasonably accurately how long I need to read a book or two without pressure or loss of pleasure, based on experience. With the transport and customs delays, though, I reached my last two titles, and had no guarantee that a new supply would breach the gap.

The German system for ordering books is quick and efficient. German titles which are readily available – and that is most of them – from a wholesaler can be ordered before four in the afternoon, and will be delivered the next working day. It is very rare that this system doesn’t work. So I decided to take advantage of this, and ordered myself the complete Harry Hole series of detective fiction, written by the Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. I’ve always had a preference for reading a complete series which follows the same characters, to see them developing, and to catch all the nuances and cross references from previous books. With twelve titles, I decided I’d be fairly well covered until the next set of books arrived from England. And then it turned out to be similar to London buses: you wait hours for the scheduled bus to get to where you’re waiting, and then three or four come along together. The German books arrived on time, and were sent to me, along with a note that one of the English books had arrived and was on its way, then a later note that another eight English books had arrived, and, a day later, another two.

It’s fair to say I have a few books sitting on my reading table, and on the floor next to that table, awaiting my attention, and that I will not go without for a while. That said, I have read three of the German titles, plus another one I had on the side, and two of the English titles already, but there is a different reason for that. I have been doing this Home Office working. The only difference between Home Office and working normally, for me, is that I read my books in my library, and not sitting in a car during work hours.

We had our small attack of the snow monsters in February, with more snow falling here than I have seen in one place – in Northern Germany – since the late Eighties. I received the message that there was no point in me coming in to the office, and that I could stay home for the week – on full pay – and we’d see how things go after that. I’m not sure my co-workers were too happy, since they can all do office work instead and I work exclusively outside, so they had to turn up. But I managed to suffer the extra week at home, and get on with my reading, plus a few other minor things about the house.

And now, as of today, I have exactly the same situation, where there is no need for me to go into work, but can sit in my comfortable chair and read – or write letters at the old desk in my library – but this time because of a software problem. Once more my co-workers can come into the office and will be sent out to different sections to fill their time and I, exclusively working outside, stay inside, at home. In February a few of them threw me annoyed glances when I got back, but I think this time there could be a few knives and other sharp instruments in their gazes whenever I turn my back. However, we all choose our place of work and the type of work we do, and some of them chose office because they get a slightly higher rate of pay, and are in the warm and dry cosiness an office affords. No one is jealous of me when I’m out on the road, setting up and working in minus ten degrees or more, or in pouring rain, or the middle of the night.

The thing about reading a complete set of books following one character by one author is, you get to see patterns. Now, anyone who settles down and reads Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories will be able to tell you that out of about twenty-two titles, nineteen follow the same idea: he arrives in a town, sees there is a conspiracy or a crime, befriends and sleeps with a woman involved, solves the mystery at great loss of life, and then moves on. In one case the female interest was a pensioner, in the other a lesbian. He has a format, a template, which he follows religiously, and his readers are quite happy with that. It is regular, comfortable, and easy to overlook when you only read one title a year. Read them all one after another, as I do with some books, and it smacks you across the side of your head, and then it gets mundane. You start skipping bits of the story, because you know what’s going to happen.

The Jo Nesbø detective Harry Hole, after three titles in the series, has a similar pattern. Harry has managed to steer clear of alcohol and is doing good. He is given a murder case, falls in love with a woman involved with the case – or with a woman he is working with – that woman is then killed, he goes back to drinking heavily, then pulls himself together and solves the case. End of story. Fine, this is the impression after only three from twelve titles, and I know that the final one states that he is having problems in his marriage, so something changes along the way. Although I suspect that change will be merely that he has stopped drinking, gets case, marriage breaks up, starts drinking, pulls his socks up, solves case.

Fortunately I also have other books, so I do tend to mix them all up. I read two of the Hole books in one sitting, then changed to a set of short stories by Yoko Ogawa, then a Hole again, and now a life of Pliny. Not that the distraction removes the idea from my mind that all the books from Nesbø follow the same pattern; I’d need a year between each title to get to that stage. And one of the amusing things about the story: I’ve been reading them in German, so my immediate reaction was to pronounce his name in German – these accents and dialects again – whereas you will undoubtedly have been reading the name Hole in English. At the start of the first book he travels to Australia to solve a case, and spends quite a bit of time explaining to the Australian police there that his name is pronounced Holy – although I would have gone, following German rules, for Holer or even Hola.

There was an equally annoying thing about the delivery of the German titles which few would, perhaps, understand. The publisher has brought them out, as a form of set, with new, black covers. All twelve match up, one with another now. It would appear that the publisher still had a few copies of the old series left over, with white covers, so I have two books out of the twelve which do not match. It hardly bears thinking about.

Last year I had a long conversation with my kilt maker, here in Germany, about what we felt over the United Kingdom leaving, and he was of the opinion that it was a good thing, would have voted to leave if he’d been able to vote but, like me, he’s been out of the country for too long to be eligible. He highlighted the ease of movement and the lack of tariffs which, he felt, would be a good thing. On Thursday last week he telephoned me, telling me my new kilt is ready for dispatch and will be here this coming week. We talked for quite a while, and then he spoke about having to put his prices up, because of the import duties he had been promised would never appear, and the cost of paperwork involved in getting materials from Scotland into Germany. Now he is hoping that Scotland will break away from the United Kingdom and, as an independent nation, come back into the European Union.

I think he will be luckier than most, since his business here, as one of the very few expert kilt makers in Germany, let alone Europe, has a uniqueness which could protect it. He accepts now that he believed the lies he was told, both my the Leaver organisations, and by the British government but, as with everyone else, there is nothing he can do about it now. He has to accept the delays in delivery times, and the massively increased import duties and tax, which were not there before, and hope that his customers remain true and loyal. For me the increase in prices will be minimal, as they are on his wholesale price, and not on my end-product price. But if I were to buy direct from Scotland, as I have done with other materials, I’d be looking at a twenty percent increase in my costs, and then it stops being worthwhile. I’ve already written to one Scottish company, thanked them for their service, and closed my account because of the changes. My heart goes out to some cheesemongers, though, who did not support the change, and have not been able to sell a single gram (their words) of cheese to Europe since 1 January.

The government response has been to tell the English to eat more fish, and even to try renaming some fish so that they appear more attractive to English sensibilities. They don’t seem to have grasped the idea, yet, that sixty-three million English mouths are not going to be able to simply buck up their act and consume the fish formerly provided to four hundred and thirty million. Another government response has been to complain about the “sudden” changes in import laws, only for the EU commission to remind them that the changes between an EU member and a Third Country trading partner were ones that the British government either wrote an proposed, or voted for in Brussels. None of the rules are new and specifically aimed at damaging the British market and their exports. The renaming of things is amusing, though, as the English now have Lancashire Sprouts – and a few other local varieties – which will undoubtedly make them even more desirable for children around Christmas. I was blocked on the social media platform Twitter by one Englishman who had lauded his finding of cherry tomatoes from a British producer in a British shop. Blocked because I pointed out he had paid something like two pounds and eighty pence for them, and the price in Europe –and in England beforehand – was less than a pound.

I was thinking about what people consider to be essential, as you mention in your letter, and fully appreciate that many do not consider books to be high on their priority lists. Bookshops were not exempt the lockdown here over the last few weeks, but have been allowed to reopen now, after many weeks of only doing online and click and collect services. I’m also not going to say that they are necessarily essential, as we can live without them when we have other sources of entertainment, although I find them essential for my peace of mind, for my way of life. In most other areas I am a minimalist, and only have that which I really need, retaining things – including clothes – for as long as possible, rather than just replacing them after a new fashion, or because a new edition has come out. I’ve never understood people who need a new cell phone every year, simply because a new version has been brought out. I have t-shirts I bought in the Nineties, and while the slogans might be out-of-date, they are still good.

As a child we were well aware that a television was a luxury, and that many people did not have them or, as time went on, that many only had a black and white version, where we had colour. A television is not an essential thing, for me, but it is for other people, much the same as their cell phone is, their iPod, or whatever. But more than a decade, now, a television has no longer been classed as a luxury item. That means that it is not assessed when someone applies for welfare in Europe, and can even be included on the list of things to be purchased using social security payments. People on welfare and old age pensioners also no longer have to pay the license fee, they can be exempted from it – although the British government is trying to change the law and get everyone to pay, so that they can cut down the amount of financial support which comes from other government sources. Bookstores here have been classed as the second level of essential, opening at the same time as hairdressers and hardware stores. I think that is a fairly good level.

Mind you, in England eighty or ninety years ago, it was not considered essential for a family to have beds, bed linen, heating, an inside toilet and so on. Evacuated children from the poorer districts of London were found, when they arrived in well-to-do households in the country, sleeping under the beds, because they didn’t know that they could sleep in them. I read a tale of a child being castigated by its parents for relieving itself in the middle of a room, where they were seeing whether the child could be accepted during the war, and told to go in the corner the same as at home. We all have our ideas of what is essential, what is a luxury, and what is an everyday item.

Another storm is gathering behind my back as I sit here and write. We have had some foul weather of late, with torrential rain, wind lashing the trees and houses and dropping temperatures. Twice, sometimes three times a week I need to go out to the street and brush debris from the length of pavement, clear the gutter and check the drains. I’m not sure where the leaves and twigs come from, none of them match those in my front garden, but the area in front of the house seems to be a collection area. The wind is stopped by tall deciduous trees on my property, and the houses to either side. My own house is set well back from the roadway, it was formerly a carpenters shop and has a large paved area between house and street. In this windless area all the rubbish from everyone else’s garden congregates. I had the same during our snowstorms; large banks of snow right in front of my house, and clear patches by every other building in the street.

My main worry is that one of the trees, either in my garden or by a neighbour, will finally give up the ghost and throw themselves to the ground. This is based on a tree a few years ago, in my garden and close to the house walls, which did just that. It wasn’t in a storm, the tree had simply rotten right through and then collapsed. Fortunately it fell across the garden, across their neighbour’s garden, and not in the direction of my house. It was big enough to have taken out my first floor balcony and half a wall, I suspect. There was no one living in the neighbouring house at the time, as they had suffered an attic fire over Christmas the previous year – there was no one at home – and decided to just move elsewhere. One of the advantages of renting, I suppose. The sound of their attic burning, under the tiles, not great leaping flames reaching up into the night-time sky, woke me up in the middle of the night. The falling of the tree didn’t disturb my sleep at all. Once at school I slept through a practice fire alarm, with fake smoke and everything, and only found out about it by chance the next day, when one of the prefects was called up for a strict talking to. He’d refused to go back into the building to wake those in my room. I blamed the teacher in charge, though, as it should have been his job to ensure our safety, and not that of another child, prefect or otherwise.

Time to return to Pliny, the Roman Empire, and a few hours reading before dinner.