Nigel Jarrett went out walking in his local area almost every day after the first lockdown ended. It was an experience.
F’rinstance, there was the time I met a retired university professor on the Monmouthshire-Brecon canal. Honest. We were on the towpath, of course, not the velvet water. That’s one thing walking teaches you: precision of thought. He would have appreciated the distinction, philosophy having been his subject. I wondered how much of the voluminous arcana he’d ingested over the years had stayed with him. Was it leaching away to the extent that he knew the outline of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit but no longer its finer dialectical points? I wasn’t inclined to ask him, any more than I wanted his opinion on whether or not we’d been destined to meet on that day at that time or the likelihood that our respective presences had been the work of an omnipotent dice-thrower. He told me he had relatives living nearby and was visiting. I knew he wanted to ask me something from the way he slowed down as we both prepared to establish our social distance.
He spoke first, as if initiating a Socratic dialogue, though I hadn’t sensed that until I discovered he was a superannuated prof. ‘Emeritus?’ I asked. It’s amazing how one word opens the door to a blast of assumptions. I might have been someone who’d never heard of the word ’emeritus’, a manual labourer with no learning and no interest in learning and I wondered if that would have changed anything. It would have if I’d admitted I were a manual labourer with no learning but then quoted something from Voltaire. What divides us is greater than what unites us, an inverted aphorism that might have interested him as much as the Inverted Aphorism as a concept.
You see, already these idle thoughts were working their way via logic to reasonable propositions. All he wanted to know at the start was the site of a tramway that during the Industrial Revolution had brought iron manufactures to the canal for transport to the southern docks and then abroad. Looking for a connection, as philosophers do. I knew where that was. Anyway, having established vague intellectual credentials, we talked some more before he had to continue his journey. What I didn’t admit was my ignorance of The Phenomenology of Spirit, not to mention – but I shall – Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. I might have suggested, though, that we were in a beautiful place, and that what we think and feel often have their explanations in the thoughts of others, not our own: Hegel, f’rinstance, and philosophy professors who have yet to succumb to memory loss. They explain things, or offer possible explanations.
Once, walking through the park on what my perambulating (and golfing) neighbour calls ‘the back nine’, I came across a book left on a bench. Though its title matters not, it was Our Souls At Night, a squirt of sentimentality by Kent Haruf, later made into a Netflix film with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.
I took the book home, read it in two hours and placed it in my Oxfam bag, the one with my personal sticker that enables the charity to work out how many standpipes in Ethiopia the sale of my donations has paid for. My normal instinct would have been to leave it where it was. But I recalled some appeal for readers nationwide to secrete books they’d finished at bus stops, in restaurants and on park benches, for others to pick up. On my next walk, the one overshadowed by the daemon Misanthropy – more later – and passing the aforementioned bench, I took umbrage. Only when walking, idling, does ‘taking umbrage’ seem like the self-administering of Dr. Jayne’s Tonic Vermifuge (a walk would soon become tiresome if it did not invite at least a shred of amusement). Not only that, but my processionals also trigger memories, in this case the weekly errand I ran for Opas Powder as a twelve-year-old for my great aunt. It was a twenty-second flit across the road to the chemist. Opas was for indigestion, and she had a populous gut. She bought in bulk. I was her fixer.
Anyway, I took umbrage because I felt that leaving a book for someone else to pick up did not imply endorsement and recommendation but subversion, even allowing for subterfuge as a proper function of a writer, an author, if not a reader. Philosophically, it works like this: a book, newly orphaned, is left on a bench in a public place. If we have anything about us, it will be picked up and read, the reader succumbing, in this case, to a squirt of sentimentality it could do without if only some former university professor were around to explain why. That the book subsequently helps pay for a brass nut on a standpipe near Alaba Kulito would be spotted by the prof as fallacious, because the person who left the book could not guarantee that it would end up in Oxfam or that Oxfam, during one of its book surfeits, wouldn’t send it with others for pulping or flame-throwing combustion by Dragon Recycling Solutions.
Of course, the book could have been The Second Plane, by Martin Amis, about 9/11. On page one will be found the word ‘sharking’, with which Amis, an enemy of cliché, describes the motion of plane No. 2 as it passes over the Statue of Liberty on the way to including the occupants of the second Twin Tower as partners in mutually-assured destruction. Sharking? I once saw hammering a nail into a tree described as ‘woodpeckering’. You have to laugh, even while out for a walk. Ton of bricks spoiler, but I associate such idiocies with Creative Writing, so often the unknowledgeable in pursuit of the hyperirritable. But for some reason that not even an Analytic Philosopher could explain, I’m happy to read of an injured prop forward’s being ‘stretchered’ off the park with a ripped hamstring.
By this time, kicking my way through fallen leaves and talking to myself (though with what looks like cotton wool in both ears I am actually speaking into a hidden mobile phone), Misanthropy taps me on the shoulder. Heading my way on a beeline is a T-shirt shouting SOCIAL DISTANCING SUCKS. The ‘small minority’ to which so many attribute the tardiness of our climb away from pandemical torpor is, as we all suspect but are not allowed to assert, a hefty-ish majority. The number of times I’ve stepped into the road to make space for some dead-eyed bullnose is legion.
My walks often take in the local Esso garage, which doubles as a Spar shop. It’s where I often discover fat punters NOT wearing masks and where I buy a newspaper. I wish I could say – my walks give me plenty of time for self-communing – that it’s a journal which doesn’t reflect my views about news selection and politics. Here are two questions for my canal-side prof: Why pay daily to have your views and shibboleths confirmed? In the spirit of the parleying Plato and Socrates, isn’t it better to be prodded daily by propositions that challenge you and oblige you to refine your arguments, even if it means, mutatis mutandis, rolling the Daily Mail inside the Brecon and Radnor Express, just as we callow youths used to sandwich Fiesta magazine between the centre-spread pages of the FT?
By the time I’ve reached the banks of the skidding Usk I have to remind myself that when Heraclitus said a river stepped out of and then stepped into only seconds later was a different river, he also said the person doing the stepping was rendered different too. Not all the sayings of philosophers remain mute when nudged with a pointed stick. The worst one could be accused of after stepping into then out of the Usk around here is eccentricity or foolhardiness.
For the rest of the journey, if it isn’t raining, I thus ponder the state of being accused, for all sorts of reasons as enumerated or only just avoided in this travelogue. Do I read modern fiction by anyone other than white superannuated males (Amis Jr. is older than you think)? Am I making a joke about the plight of Africans who have to walk to an Oxfam-financed hydrant for their water? Is it patronising to refer to a manual labourer who can or cannot reach for a bon mot by Voltaire? Are all ‘anti-maskers’ and anti-social-distancers dull of countenance and overweight?
As a writer, I should find Political Correctness anathema, the idea that someone, anyone, should dictate to me what I can and cannot say. When acts of Political Incorrectness are pointed out, the defence is always that they were inadvertent. Amber Rudd, then a government minister, had to apologise after referring to ‘coloured’ people, realising too late that the association of the term ‘coloured’ with apartheid and other forms of segregation based on skin shade had rendered the description verboten. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel identifies the notion of ‘forgiving recollection’, which would let perpetrators of Political Incorrectness off the hook (cliché, Amis – deal with it) if they admitted that their remarks reflected their true character and that they were not only contrite but committed to a régime of continuous self-examination so as not to repeat their error. It’s about freedom of expression and moral standards involving the giving of offence. But once the giving of offence is outlawed we shall find ourselves in a dangerous place. That’s assuming I understand not only what Hegel was on about but also its implications. A meeting with a former philosopher on the canal bank might help. And if the provenance of this one be doubted, let me give you not his name for reasons of discretion but a description of his headgear: he was wearing a leather cap of the sort Oskar Werner sported in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Werner was also the blond one in Jules et Jim. How many clues do you want?
I’m on the homeward stretch. There’s no-one about. I pass homes in which everyone is working, working from home. Kites circle the skies, having displaced the mewling buzzards. I scuff through drifts of Sycamore leaves, each with Blind Pugh black spots, which I’m told are viruses; every year the Sycamores succumb and every Spring they push out shoots. If I get a move on I’ll be home in time for Pointless.
Nigel Jarrett is an award-winning fiction writer and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.