WHEN YOU WANT A QUICK REPLY, SEND A LETTER (and other quirks of communication in 2017)

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I had a delightfully retro experience last week.  I needed to contact someone to arrange to meet for lunch.  I didn’t have their email address and, for various reasons, it was possible that they didn’t have one in active use.  For completely different reasons, it was also inappropriate to phone.  I therefore wrote a letter.

Apart from thank-you letters, I haven’t put pen to paper and hand-written a letter for years and I realised it used muscles that hadn’t been exercised in recent memory.  The style was slightly different from the one I’d use in an email – not necessarily more formal, but less clichéd.  I thought about the words more carefully and I knew I had to fill a certain amount of space.  But I enjoyed it – the phrasing; the sign-off; wondering whether my first name alone would be recognised (and adding my surname, in brackets); the addressing of the envelope and applying a stamp; posting the letter and imagining it landing on the recipient’s doormat.

The shock came when I received a reply two days later, so much sooner than the replies I usually receive to emails and texts.  Before going any further, I do appreciate that my friends might be dropping hints in not always responding by return, but I sense that people generally don’t reply to emails and texts quite as rapidly as we might imagine.  We’re told that email makes us accessible and communications clamour for our attention 24/7, but that doesn’t always translate to dealing with them instantly.

And that got me thinking about a discussion a few weeks ago on phone etiquette and how that’s altering.  Occasionally, I call friends out of the blue, but I generally text or email to ask if they’ll be around or fix a time to speak.  Similarly, friends usually (but not invariably) do that before calling me.  Where the phone was once the means of contacting someone immediately, a phone call is now seen by many as an intrusive demand for immediate attention.  There’s a risk that it will be as inappropriate as someone appearing on your doorstep unannounced and uninvited.  It seems to be a generational point, with older people looking blankly when this was explained and youngsters looking equally bewildered at why anyone would make a phone call in the first place.

And if you do call, don’t leave a voicemail message.  I know a lot of people who don’t listen to them and more who regard them as time-thieves.  For work these days, I send an email if I can’t reach someone by phone because that’s the convention now.  Emails can be picked up more easily than voicemail messages and are quicker to deal with.

I’ll keep sending emails, texts and the like (as a precursor to phone calls, as well as communications in their own right), but I did enjoy writing that letter by hand.  Judging from the speed of the response, there might be a few other people who do too.

Caesars and Judges

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Last week began with the International Crisis Group presenting its top ten crises for 2017 at Chatham House.  Those crises barely got a look-in:  most of the discussion was about the US under its new President.

Most of the commentary and answers to the questions came from Mark Malloch Brown, former UN Deputy-Secretary General.  His insights were excellent and there was one that struck me in particular.

Rather than seeing the election of President Trump as being linked to – and in a line with – Brexit, it would be more appropriate to see him as the latest of the “Caesars” – authoritarians with a populist appeal.  A number of examples were given and more occurred to people during the session; I’m sure you’ll be able to work them out.

Caesars do things that liberals regard as breaking political and/or social norms.  Some voters see them as an aberration, but others consider them an admirable breath of fresh air.  One thing Caesars generally have in common is that they seem very comfortable exercising power without an array of checks and balances.

It’s a while since I studied the development of the US constitution, but my recollection is that it was designed and drafted to avoid excessive power vesting in the executive, whether called a president, a king or a Caesar.  Congress (as the legislature) and the judiciary are given their roles to produce a balanced constitution with inherent checks and balances on power.

The judiciary is important as one of these branches of government, as we’ve seen in the UK on the Brexit appeals.  The role of judges is to interpret and rule on the law.  It isn’t to make decisions about implementing the will of the people or (picking up on the court decisions in the US over the last few days) to determine what makes a country or people safe.

The rule of law is a pillar of a properly functioning polity and the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government is the foundation on which the rule of law is built.

‘Jackie’ – and finding the truth

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It’s my favourite time of year for going to the cinema.  We all need cheering up in January and – in the UK, at least – we have the award-contenders on release.

In the last week, I’ve seen La La Land, which is cheerful without being saccharine and has songs with tunes that stick in the head in a good way.  The people I saw it with were in tears at the end, but that seemed to add to their enjoyment.

I’ve also seen Jackie, which is far more intense.  The performances are superb and I particularly loved the score; it feels more like a score than mere music.  But there’s a but on the way.

Most of the people seeing it won’t remember the assassination of President Kennedy and the events that followed his death, although I expect more or less everyone will have heard of him and his widow.  There is, though, a need to introduce the characters and their lives.

On the whole, I thought that was well done, but there were a few occasions where it felt as though the script ground to a halt while we were given a fact.  For instance:  Mrs Kennedy saying that she could have been hunting in Virginia, when there seemed no reason to mention that; some of the references to the son and daughter who died.

The film purports to look at the days after President Kennedy’s death and how the label Camelot became attached to the Kennedy White House.  As I watched, I was trying to distinguish fact from artistic licence and I wasn’t at all clear whether scenes that gave the film its depth and allowed the character of Jackie Kennedy to be portrayed were, in fact, accurate.  Did she walk around the White House at night, after her husband’s death, wearing various dresses from her days as First Lady?  Did she throw her children’s toys in boxes when packing to leave the White House?  Did she use the words in the film when she told her children that their father was dead?  Did John Kennedy Jr cry and have an understandable tantrum where that appears in the film?

They’re small points, but I believe that these things matter if you’re purporting to tell a story about real people and real events – even if those real events were about the creation of Camelot, conjuring an image that we’ve come to accept as defining the Kennedy era.  Particularly at a time when post-truth and fake news have become part of our lives.

Sunhat or Scarf?

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I have very fair skin. The only prospect of a tan is if my freckles meet. Sun, for me, means SPF50, long sleeves, shade – and either a sunhat or a scarf.

For those of you who don’t have to undertake sun protection on this scale, there are two problems with sunhats: carrying them around and keeping them on your head. The first sunhat I remember losing to a gust of wind was in Tennessee at the age of nine; it landed in the middle of a cotton field, leaving the elastic strap under my chin. I’ve chased hats across beaches, down streets and along country lanes. And those are the ones I didn’t leave in a café or in a friend’s car after carrying it around, waiting for the brief blast of sunshine when it would be needed.

Which is why I favour a scarf. It can be tucked in a bag, slung round the neck and brought into service without fuss and kerfuffle. But recently, I’ve noticed that the scarf is attracting too much attention.

The thing about a scarf is that it, too, has to stay put, while avoiding the Queen-out-riding look of a scarf knotted under the chin. I suppose I’m aiming for chic-in-the-south-of-France, with the scarf wrapped round my head and very large sunglasses. (The less said about the success of these intentions the better, but you get the idea.)

But a woman with a scarf wrapped round her head – even a crinkly-cotton blue-and-white-striped job – now has overtones of a hijab. The long sleeves, to cover up fry-able skin, probably contribute to the impression.

In Washington, DC last year, I went into a smart restaurant on a sunny day to book a table for lunch. I had my trusty blue-and-white scarf wrapped round my head and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. There was a sharp intake of breath from the woman at the desk when I walked in and a bit of dithering before the table was booked for an hour or so later. I didn’t think too much of it until I went back, having changed – and abandoned the scarf. The woman on the desk welcomed me into the restaurant, chatted away and then stopped when I said that I’d been in an hour earlier and had booked a table. “The scarf,” she said. “It’s you?” I nodded and clipped the English accent to a point where it would cut glass. The service was fabulous, but I wonder what it would have been like – and which table I would have been given – if I’d gone back with the scarf wrapped round my head.

It’s not the only time this has happened, in the UK and in other countries. It’s made me realise the attention and prejudice that women wearing the hijab attract. And how easy it can be to judge by appearances.

Jerusalem

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I was in Jerusalem over New Year, the first time I’d visited the city.

The overwhelming impression is of people being in competition. At the most obvious level, there’s a division between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, between Jews and Palestinians, competing claims for land, for religious sites, for heritage. I was expecting that.

However, I wasn’t expecting there to be such blatant competition between the various branches of Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been allocated to so many different branches of Christianity – all claiming it as their own – that it’s become a series of chapels and shrines, rather than a single church. The Greek Orthodox church has an area up to a red marble slab; the Catholic church has the area beyond that. The Armenian church has the basement crypt and cistern, but that’s far more desirable religious real estate than you might think – it’s close to the rock, the place where the “true cross” is said to have been discovered, and it’s the site of the original church.

There’s an uneasy truce between the different branches of Christianity. The Ethiopian Coptic monks were thrown out of their quarters one day and so built new ones on the roof. YouTube has footage of fights that have broken out to settle points of precedence. It’s all a competition – for who leads, who follows; who lights candles, who watches.

My experience is that this extends to the street. In London, the streets are crowded but there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that everyone will dodge out of the way in what looks, at times, to be a highly-choreographed dance. In Jerusalem, think a highly-evolved game of chicken. Whether walking on the pavements or driving down the streets, it’s a competition – a power game – to see who will move first.

In a market, I stood to one side to let an elderly man through. He pushed past and other people swarmed into the gap I’d created. In shops and at a pharmacy, the response was No before I’d asked a question – until I stood up for myself.

At the end of the first day, I said to the guide who’d shown me round that everyone seemed to be competing to hold onto what they have. He said that I was right about the competition, but people aren’t competing to hold onto what they have; they’re competing to take it all. They want everything. That’s the beauty and the tragedy of Jerusalem.

Serious Reading 2016

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2016 is the year I took stock of where my reading had slipped to; a serious upgrade was in order. The report card as the end of the year approaches? Much improved. New authors have been tried – and liked. New styles of writing have been tried – and have been appreciated, if not always loved. Here are the highlights.

1 The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante – I posted in the summer about discovering this set of four novels and they are – by a whisker – my pick of the year. Immersive (which is my default preference), they explore friendship and how it evolves over time, the ties of family, traditions and cultural norms and how we never really break free of our families, our early friends and our pasts.

2 Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – this runs the Neapolitan novels a very close second. Full of twists and turns, but also immense insight and fiercely contemporary. That age-old adage of never knowing what goes on in another couple’s marriage given a new lease of life.

3 Hemingway – I’ve only read two of his books (and both in the last few months) and neither would make the list, but I’m curious to read more by this writer. I find his style irritating plain – almost Janet-and-John at times – but by the end of the book I feel that I’ve been told a story from the heart. Thank you for the suggestion that I try A Farewell to Arms. Any more suggestions please?

4 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – another US writer, he produced this gem of a book with parallel stories of a blind French girl and a German boy with a flair for science who become teenagers during the Second World War. Both stories are utterly convincing and I’m in awe of the patient research across a range of topics that was needed to write this. The penultimate section of the book jarred with me, although other people I’ve spoken to found it essential to the story as a whole. (Sorry to sound cryptic, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.)

5 Any Human Heart by William Boyd – a journal that’s so real you need to pinch yourself, even when you know it’s written by a fictional character. Logan Mountstuart has an astonishing knack of encountering writers, artists and public figures in the course of his daily life. But they’re peripheral to his personal life that’s full of incident but also profoundly empty at times. I spent a lot of the book puzzling what was fact and what was fiction and decided that it didn’t matter because it was such a good read.

Thank you to everyone who recommended books and I’m on the look-out for more to explore in 2017 – all suggestions very gratefully received.

A Merry Christmas to you and best wishes for 2017

A travel pick-list

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Over the last week or so, I’ve seen various lists of top tips, discoveries, disappointments, old-favourites and newly-emerging destinations as travellers pass judgement on where they’ve been and where to go next.  It’s inspired me to put together a list of what was supposed to be my top ten favourite places.

Unfortunately, I ground to a halt after seven, so that’s all there is.  But that’s because these seven are places I could go back to and slide into.  Some are spots where I feel at home.  Some are where I can recharge the batteries, no matter how flat they might be.  I have a special fondness for all of them, eclectic though the list might seem to be.

1          The Northumbrian coast – forget palm trees and the sun beating down.  Beaches, to me, mean miles of golden sand, empty because it’s too damn cold for any sensible person to venture near them.  I spent my early childhood in Northumberland, near the coast, and I can remember being wrapped in layers of clothing, cheeks red-raw and screaming when the waves crashed over my wellies.  It was early June.

2          Gheralta, Ethiopia – a golden landscape of rocky outcrops with centuries-old churches carved into the rock.  At night, the stars seem to be touching-distance away.  The people are some of the kindest I’ve met.  Gheralta Lodge is a delight and their white Tigrayan honey is the best I’ve ever spread on toast.

3          Chicago – I loved this city from the moment I stepped off the plane.  The lake, the museums, the architecture, downtown, the suburbs, the people.  Ok, I haven’t been there in the depths of winter, but I’m sure I’d still love it.  Pretty sure.

4          Peninsula Valdés – it’s the bit of land that sticks out, two-thirds of the way down the coast of Argentina.  Flat as a pancake, it’s peaceful and there’s amazing wildlife.  Elephant seals shared their beach with me for hours on end, although I did shuffle back to higher land when some of the more purposeful bulls came ashore.

5          Oxford – yes, there are tourists and students, but I can’t imagine anyone not loving Oxford.  The buildings are beautiful and there are so many things to do.  Everything seems possible when you’re there.

6          Luberon – it’s no more specific than that.  Although Bonnieux is special, anywhere in the Luberon will do nicely and pretty much any time of year is fine.  Like the Northumbrian coast, it’s a place I slide back into and weeks can disappear in a flash.

7          Chesapeake Bay – a new discovery, but a place I’d wanted to go to for some years.  I’ve now been to the Maryland side and the Virginian side of the Bay and they’re both beautiful.  Tillman’s Island (MD) and The Inn at Tabbs Creek (VA) are worth a visit – and best slightly out of season when the beaches are empty and you need to wrap up warm.