In consideration of the cold, wind-chill world you are living in, the worst experience for cold weather that I have had in recent years is working by -10°C for four hours outside, as I waited for a few speeding cars to make my day. This was before the department decided to replace its cars with a kind fitted with heating, after a few complaints from others. For me it made little difference; I can walk about a bit to get warm again, and then settle down in my thick Russian overcoat and read until my fingers turn blue again. The lack of a heating facility in the cars for when they are standing came as no surprise to me when I first got there; I also discovered that the personnel department, responsible for issuing authority for us to purchase jackets and work-boots, hadn’t realised we work outside. What they thought we did all day, I have no idea.

I suppose we all have some fixed ideas of what works, and how the work environment can change according to where we are. Many years ago I was amused at people flying to Belize with me who insisted on wearing summer clothing – right down to short dresses with no warming for legs and arms. We stopped off for a few hours in Canada, with deep snow. And then in Saudi Arabia in the early Nineties, a senior officer laughing at me for packing my pullover and a heavier jacket. It didn’t take long for him to discover that 40°C during the day can change to zero overnight very quickly indeed, and the last thing we needed to concern ourselves with at the time was frostbite or cold; there were other things awaiting our attention right across the border.

And then we come to the ideas around scientific and medical knowledge, and the sudden discovery that so many people out there know considerably more about virology than a person who has studied it their entire life. The lack of care, hygiene and understanding about the transmission of an airborne virus comes as no surprise to me whatsoever. I have another friend I write regularly with serving time in Texas, and he has told me much the same. Except that the lack of hygiene goes considerably further than just in this case, but is linked to profit margins and a lack of oversight by the judicial authorities. Prisoners, as I am sure you appreciate, also have a very low standing in society, regardless of the severity of their crime, and are overlooked purposefully by many. It’s almost as if society – civilised or otherwise, as you care to call it – has learned nothing from the countless historical problems in slums, in areas of extreme poverty and close proximity. Or, perhaps put slightly better, they have learned, but only for themselves and the society that they care to be seen in.

We are gradually working towards returning to what we once called a normal state of affairs, although many restrictions will remain for quite a while to come. In England the government has ruled Corona beaten, and dumped all restrictions, even the counting of infections, hospitalisation and deaths are now no longer undertaken. In my part of Germany we are taking it a little bit slower, no Freedom Day from masks and checks, but a gradual removal of some restrictions over the coming month, and then a reassessment at the start of April. The English government has also, quietly, removed millions of pounds of health service funding, which is going to create massive health problems over the coming months, regardless of what happens with the pandemic. If I ever go back there, then it will be to Scotland, where the devolved government is considerably more cautious, and has been following the medical advice from real experts, rather than the whims and wishes to a decidedly inept Prime Minister.

Although I cannot spend my time sitting in a car reading my books any more – and regardless of the advantages of tea drinking in a warm and comfortable office – my reading time has not been diminished. I only work part time at the moment, and have done so for several years, and thereby have the advantage of a few hours extra for myself each day. Not that all my time is spent reading the many books I get sent through Berlin, far from it. I also write my letters, as you see, and have been slowly expanding my photographic collection; something which takes quite a bit of time since I do not just collect, but also catalogue what I have collected, and publish the results on one of my web sites. At the moment I have about three thousand two hundred images published, and four or five large boxes of photographs still awaiting my attention. Today I received about thirty new photographs – all from my own area – and these will need to be added to the mass at some stage soon. I am lucky in that this type of collecting has not yet caught the eye of the professionals., When I first started, many years ago, with postcards I could buy some of the oldest lithographic examples, from the 1890s, for about one Mark. Nowadays such a work starts at sixty euro, and is really only there for those who are exceptionally dedicated, or have more money than sense. The Carte d’Visite that I collect can still be found for one euro, and only occasionally do I see them on offer for double figures, and then only when the photographer or subject are exceptionally well known. Rarity does not come into the bargain, since all such images are rare.

At one stage I wanted to collect works of art, and I do have one or two No Name works which I enjoy looking at, and which stop those bits of wall not covered by bookshelves from looking too bare and forlorn. Now and then I see something at a good price – the advantage of internet auctions – which appeals and divert food money in that direction, but vary rarely. Even though my eyes wander, I know what I want to collect and seldom let myself be sidetracked. That said, there are also kilts.

Another fairly well known name for kilt wearing is Robbie Williams, who I believe used to be in a boy band and then made something of a name for himself – good and bad – as a solo artist. Then there was a film with African leanings, but kilts for all the main players. Admittedly with bright African-style patterns and a lot of Bling which doesn’t appear around the Scottish original. And, of course, Braveheart and Outlander to push the ideal even further – the later one have not seen, but their tartans are registered, to Sony, and I do lust after at least one of them. Whether I would be able to get an Outlander tartan is a question I have not yet addressed, but I suspect that the material is not generally available. Instead I have set my sights on a district tartan, as my next one, then a military one – for part of my service – and one based on the colours and history of whisky. The district is Caithness, in Scotland, which is where my direct family come from, although might take a glance, in a few years time, at the district tartans for Perthshire and Stirling, which is where the Clan originated. I’m in no rush, plenty of time, even at my age.

I would tend to disagree about there being a lack of interest in wearing tartans and kilts in the United States, though, as I know of at least two kilt making companies which have grown and prospered over the last ten to fifteen years, and which make instructional and chatty videos to good viewing figures on YouTube every few days. They are considerably rarer here, of course, although quite a few German tartans have been registered, but the connection to Scotland is very weak. Back in the days of finding a new home away from home, avoiding plague, war and famine, the United States was the chosen destination for Germans as much as for Scots and the Irish, and many have taken their culture with them, and managed to keep it alive over the succeeding generations. But there is also a strong interest in wearing kilts, even if it is more during St Patrick’s Day celebrations, or at a local Highland Games. Even in Scotland we do not see people wearing kilts every day of the week, they are mainly reserved for special occasions. The standard wisdom is that if you see someone in Edinburgh wearing a kilt, he’s a tourist. And much as I would like to wear mine every day, for the sheer comfort if nothing else, I still go to work most days in jeans, and try not to overdo the fishing for compliments when I do turn up properly dressed, which is guaranteed once a week.

I certainly hope that you do manage to get hold of your Shakespeare, and I would have thought it a given for anyone who is taking a course of study. To a certain extent I can well understand the lack of internet, but there has to be some leeway allowed where information needed or course work is concerned, even if it means that someone else does the research, or someone is breathing down your neck while you do it. The internet, in comparison to what I knew it to be at the start, is packed with those things that Tim Berners-Lee wanted to have available, as well as a small percentage of things that aren’t really wanted, and a lot of photographs of cats. It’s no longer a (virtual) place where you can just wander around and find something of interest, you need to search with specifics, which should make it easier for anyone concerned about controlling access to follow. And anyone with a little bit of computer savvy can limit the destinations available on a browser, to the Gutenberg organisation, a university web site, or whatever with a simple tweak of the firewall, or a series of specific passwords. Although, admittedly, the easiest way is to just say no to the internet, and leave it at that.

I am sure things would be completely different for me had we been able to use the internet when I was studying. Back in those days we had books, and we had debates or discussions – sometimes even friendly conversations over a mug of tea, a coffee, or a pint of Guinness – but research was done in the library, and learning in the lecture hall. The Open University, open to anyone who could find time to study from home, was a relatively new thing being distance learning but then, as now, students still had to come together at some stage for a meeting, for the examinations or whatever. I seem to remember, as I was thinking about where to go, that the Open University required a fortnight of presence teaching once or twice a year, and that would have been my holiday taken up. Nowadays I can sign up for a diploma course through Harvard, Cambridge or wherever, and complete the bulk of it online, with presence teaching being through a video link, and the occasional trouble of having to prove that it really is me sitting and learning, and not someone pretending to be me for payment. Not that this makes life easier, even though I have completed quite a few course, as the distractions are considerably more present. One advantage, though, is that I can sign up for a course over six or ten weeks, and often complete it in half the time, with breaks to make myself a new mug of tea by using the pause button.

Another advantage of the internet which I greatly appreciate, and which you mentioned in your letter, is the links to cultural events. There was a time when we relied on newspapers, magazines and playbills – although the playbills are still here, in Germany, for many events – to find what was on. Up until recently I would get a fairly large monthly publication delivered which listed almost everything going on in Bremen, details of which are also online now. Now I can check all the local centres, all the cinemas, and get travel information at the same time. I don’t need to take any cash with me, I can pay for the tickets through the web site’s booking facilities, and pay for bus and train with my smartphone. Under normal circumstances I would have travelled into Bremen on Sunday to watch the Bolshoi Ballet, live, in a cinema – since my local one does not have the live events this year. Normally. However, with current events I suspect that the connection will be capped, and the event called off. As a youth, always wanting to get into London – having always wanted to leave the city until then – gong to a concert or an exhibition was a real day out, complete with all its bother and fuss. I cannot say that I miss those days, although I’d happily wish for a chance to get to the Albert Hall or Southbank in London to watch some of the better classical concerts. If I miss them, I’m pretty sure it will only be a matter of time before the very concert I wished to see is available either on the web site of the concert hall – such as the Royal Ballet or Royal Opera House in London – or on YouTube. How times change.

And still there is more satisfaction to be gained by writing a letter and sending it through the post, or reading a real, paper, book. And especially in receiving a card or a note – such as the card you sent me, with your own work – where you know that some thought and time has gone into production, and it’s not just one of thousands picked out from a 7-11 because the heading almost fits the opportunity. Technology is wonderful in its way, but it can’t replace, with all that ease and simplicity, something personal.