The new year seems to have started in much the same way as the old ended, with no real advance but, at the same time, no backward steps. We are gradually moving on, but only because we’re keeping pace with all that is going on around us, whether it be political, health and safety, or societal. Now and then the rules are hardened, or relaxed, and then hardened and relaxed again, and it is difficult to see exactly what the future holds, what we should be preparing for, and I suspect that is half the problem. People are starting to get tired of the constant yoyo of political decision, as if they expect an immediate solution to something which cannot be easily solved, and slowly fighting back in different ways. Although, I am pleased to say, in all the areas where I am involved, there has been nothing but compliance and an understanding that we need to take these measures to have some form of hope for the future, some chance of survival. In other German states that is not the case; those with the highest infection, hospitalisation and death rates are those where people are more likely to go out on the streets, unmasked, and demonstrate against the restrictions, while refusing the get the vaccinations.

And in other areas the new year is a mere continuation of what we have been worried about, as it is, again, considerably warmer than would be normal. By normal, I mean that which we accepted as a correct winter temperature about a decade or so ago, when the temperature went below the freezing point, when water developed ice across its surface, and when we had snow. I suspect this all, both the pandemic and the problems with climate change, have a good deal to do with the relaxed way we have been living our lives for the last generation; nothing is important but ourselves, and someone else is responsible for sorting out any problems.

We have had no further lockdowns, as such, but an enhancement of the rules for meeting together, for going into leisure centres – museums, galleries, cinemas – and for shopping. A certain type of mask is a requirement – FFP2 or FFP3 for most – and that covers public transport too. When I want to go to a restaurant, or visit the new art exhibition in the Bremen Kunsthalle, I need to show that I have been vaccinated with the latest certificate, and my identification papers, to ensure that the certificate refers to me. Nothing difficult, you would imagine, but there are still a few who cannot seem to get to grips with this simply idea. When I go to draw money out of the bank, I have to identify myself; when I go for medical treatment, I have to identify myself; when I go to work or travel overseas, I have to identify myself. Now we are merely showing that we are relatively safe, that we’re less likely to be infected, even though this is something which doesn’t quite match the truth. People who have been vaccinated – and I had my third last week – can still be infected, can still carry the virus and pass it on to other people, they will merely be protected against the more serious effects of the illness. The vaccines fight against the results of infection, but do not stop a person from being able to carry it, or be mildly – less seriously is perhaps better – affected.

So, to my way of thinking, moving infected people into quarantine makes sense, but moving them back into the general run of life – whether in your institution or elsewhere – when they are still infected, unless there are very good medical resources and all around them have been vaccinated, is foolhardy. We have generally had a fourteen day quarantine period in Germany, although that could be reduced in the future, but no one has been released from it until, after that period, they have tested negative. It is pointless quarantining a person to protect others, and then bringing them back before the danger has been banished.

Aside from these restrictions, much of life here is returning to a sort of normal again. We can go shopping, go to the theatre, cinema, art galleries and museums, meet up and hold parties so long as we are careful and considerate. And my considerate I mean, of course, not the standard I am vaccinated, nothing can happen to me, but the more humane what about those around me considerations. Last weekend I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a good swathe of friends, imbibing a few drams of decent whisky, holding long and deep conversations, and eating an excellent meal in a new Afghani restaurant. There is still a small amount of guilty feeling wrapped in our meetings, after so long being away from the social scene – even if we have met regularly – but perhaps this is caused by other matters and not by any restrictions, since we take care not to break them. Perhaps more with the thought of those who have not been able to keep up their social lives, or who have lost members of the family and circle of friends for whatever reason.

Fortunately the pandemic and any restrictions it has brought with it has not managed to impede my reading, as yet. My small bookshop in Berlin is still sending me new titles on a regular basis, and the flow of English-language works across the English channel has not been damped too much by the political changes across the water. Of late I have taken a look at the life of Susan Sontag, and am now reading a biography of Clarice Lispector by the same author – Benjamin Moser – with an interesting selection of new biographical titles next to my reading chair. There is a new work on Elizabeth Stuart from Nadine Akkerman, which was put back by Oxford but has now been delivered, and what looks like a fascinating retelling of a legal action between the poet Alexander Pope and a certain publisher. In between times I have had a few crime thrillers pass beneath my nose, from Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø and Nele Neuhaus to Richard Osman – Scandinavian, German and British – as well as several titles from the exiled Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. Also in the biographical section of my reading, and excellent work on the very secretive operations created and carried out by a certain military intelligence operative between the major wars – from the Boer War onward – and especially during the Second World War; issuing visas and passes to Jewish citizens trying to flee Austria, then working on a large spy network across Europe, the interrogation of prisoners of war, and Rudolf Hess, called Spymaster by Helen Fry.

I sometimes think that my desire list for books is far too long to be manageable, but it is gradually being whittled down, and then added to as new titles emerge. At the moment I only have six titles I will be ordering in my next round, probably in a week’s time, and about ten which are on the possible list. Then I get to see a whole stack of reduced price new titles in my local supermarket – marked down to about half price because they might have some slight damage to the cover, and are considered sub-standard but sellable – and all my good resolutions fly out the window. That’s where the Nele Neuhaus comes from, but also a few from Michael Robotham and Lucy Foley. I’m just as comfortable reading books in English as in German, so these slight aberrations from my desire to only buy books through my Berlin bookseller, as support his business with my custom, have to take a backseat sometimes. There are very few things which excite my purchasing interest as much as books.

That said, I did take a little wander around the original art on offer in the internet. Sometimes an artist springs to the eye and grabs the imagination, and sometimes I sit there and wonder how anyone can imagine that whatever is before my face is art at all, or that this so-called artist has any talent. I am not one to smash other people’s delusions, but there have to be limits, even for those who have a major name in the art world. I am, of course, more attuned to increasing my collection of older photographs, but now and then something will grab my attention, and I tend to hit the buy button before my normal level of sane understanding takes hold. Fortunately it is not too often, as I am well aware of the need to eat during the rest of the month! And the same goes for kilts, which have a far greater hold on my mind and desires than jeans, suits or anything similar.

In December I came across a kilt tartan which managed to get into my mind and remain there, but a restricted use one. This means that not everyone is allowed to purchase and wear this design, permission has to be obtained first. Normally, with a real Scottish tartan, the design would be connected to a certain Clan or clan name, and that is certainly the case with my own tartans. Now and then there are companies, military units and corporations who bring out a tartan design – Hello Kitty and Disney spring to mind – and these are restricted or unavailable to anyone else. The design I came across was also marked as copyright, but clearly as a fashion item, and not connected to any company name or family. So I sent off an initial enquiry about gaining permission to buy and wear the design as a kilt, expecting a long, and perhaps costly, period of negotiating. The mere enquiry was answered with an approval – which came as a real surprise to me – and so I placed my order. Normally I would expect to have to pay additional import duties, as the United Kingdom is no longer part of the single market in Europe, and subject to taxes, but the customs people happily passed over my delivery this time, which pleased me even more. So now I am waiting for my kilt maker to turn his hand and needle to this new material, and then we shall see what the whole looks like. This will be my fourth kilt, and by far the brightest! Later on in the year I will order myself the Caithness District tartan, which is the area surrounding my direct family home of Wick, rather than my Clan family home around Perthshire and Stirling.

Generally people have become used to me wearing a kilt at odd times, even when I wear it to work. I am still approached by people on the street, with their various questions and comments, but am fairly sure I have all my answers down pat now – especially the one about what Scots wear under the kilt which, up until recently, was the number one question. Of late this has been replaced with either aren’t you cold? Or do you come from Scotland? and in Berlin, late last year, I was the centre of attraction for Russians and Brazilians who wanted to have their photograph taken with me. I think it is fair to say that my generally introverted nature has taken a severe beating over the last few years.

There is a slight problem with your request for Shakespeare, in that I am not allowed to send books to you. Your regulations state that booms can only come from certain suppliers, such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and rule me out. That said, I only have collected works of Shakespeare, and not individual texts any more. However, having done a little bit of very quick research, there are cost-free versions available for anyone to download, for example from Gutenberg, on the internet which you might be able to access with permission. I’m not too sure that you mail room would necessarily be quite so understanding were I to enclose a printed copy of the plays – which would come to about one hundred pages for Richard II and Richard III – but since I do have these versions on my computer, it would be possible if you are certain that such a large envelope would be accepted and passed on to you. It would be difficult to pass such a large print out off as a simple letter – quite aside from the manner in which the play is laid out, which would be a dead giveaway at first glance – although, in my youth, I did once write a seventy-four page letter from Belfast to a friend in Australia. To be honest, this longer letter was written during a weekend military duty period as I had finished the book I was reading rather quickly and had no access to anything else, so it was more to pass the time than anything else.

On the work side of life things are settling done into a new routine again, for the time-being. I have moved on from simply doing digitalisation of immigration files to handling permissions and the extension of passes and identification papers. My archival work is due to be handed over to an external firm sometime in the near future, although there is still o set date of when this might happen. My employers are not exactly the most efficient when it comes to work contracts and employment. So I am now filling in for someone who retired in December, but whose position has not yet been published as vacant. The chances are this position won’t be filled until the end of the year, if the normal process is followed, and it is still not clear whether I will be eligible for it or not. In the meantime I have a comfortable office, not too much work – and certainly no pressure – with reasonable hours, and I can wear my kilt whenever it pleases me. I would almost call it a win-win situation. Of course, I can’t simply shut up shop and read a book, which is what I was effectively doing in my earlier position here, once I had all my equipment set up and running, but that is hardly a disadvantage. It’s warm, settled, and I can brew myself a fresh cup of tea now and then, so there’s that.