My head says that the perfect wayfaring is to follow an ancient trail through the hills, where the eye can roam to horizons beyond where the feet can tread: a Himalaya or Grand Canyon of the soul.
So much for my head: my feet know better.
The other day, I set out on a banal errand, accompanying Karleen to town on a Saturday morning to the Post Office and thence to the market where she would buy yam, green banana and other West Indian staples. She usually undertakes these trips alone, as our shopping styles are incompatible. Mine is purposeful, I don’t slacken my pace. Shops and malls in principle are enemy territory. So when I saw the queue at the Post Office, I left her there and walked on eastward. I’d promised to get her some memory for her computer. I also wanted an LED light on a flexible stalk that clips on the bedhead, for reading and writing without disturbing her sleep in the hours of stillness. There’s a retail park along the valley which has such things.
This was when my feet expressed their gladness, like a dog when it sees its master unhook the leash and put on his walking boots. I’d unconsciously planned to break free as we set out from home, for I’d already put on those boots. Part of my glee was to subvert the whole concept of a retail park, for it’s designed as a place out of town to be reached by car. But I know a footpath beside the secret river. In town you only catch glimpses, as it’s largely hidden within culverts. In the outskirts it flows past industrial premises, the sewage works and a disused railway line. It splits and runs either side of the Rye, a park with children’s playgrounds, football pitches and an open-air lido in summer.
As I traversed the park, ideas started fluttering into my head like bats in twilight. It wasn’t so much thinking as being receptive to everything, including ideas from within. The surroundings were pretty enough but it but wasn’t their picturesqueness that set me off. It was something bigger: the joy of the morning, the perfection of the moment. As if these were raw materials, no finished product; a modelling clay ready to be shaped into anything. Ready for new beginnings.
Following the river-bank, I saw that what stops us learning—synonymous with a new beginning—is that part of us which doesn’t really look. This, we say smugly, is something we do know. We have a ready-made opinion or nugget of knowledge. Thus for example we know what is meant by the unconscious mind, and the various ideas of Freud. But “knowing what is meant by” has nothing to do with knowledge. It’s the antithesis of curiosity. And perhaps we say to ourselves there are too many ideas already. Let them be silenced. I will say “aye” to that. For when I’m free from thinking that I know, there’s a freshness like this morning, where I observe and listen, while moving in this crisp air.
This is what I call wayfaring: not to admire the picturesque—that tree, this leaf, yonder panorama—but to sense the universe put back together: me a thinking walking man, part of this landscape, this river valley, this county, island, continent, planet. My consciousness, in the centre of all this: the very environment which evolved it in the first place, over the millennia. *
I wrote the other day about The Centaur; about not wanting to be just the rider, but fused completely with the horse.
In the world of ideas, there is too much abstraction. In the world of books, you need to read the original, not the gossip around it. Let your own ideas spring up unbidden, just as the author’s did. Procreate, don’t plagiarize.
I suspect there are innumerable discoveries to make but we have to be like a child in front of them, hungry to learn, not weighed down with the staleness of the preconceived. Darwin was like that. BBC radio celebrates his centenary, and also the 800 years of Cambridge University, which started as a group of students fired by eagerness to wrest secrets—theological or scientific—from the bounteous æthers.
It’s always worth going back to the source: to the moment when something began. Where did man begin? In Africa, they say. I have never set foot on the continent, but my body, or if you will, my unconscious mind, dreams of it constantly, for though my skin be white, my ancestors come from a region around Kenya, like your ancestors, like everyone’s. The closest I got to Africa was in 1946 when my ship anchored at Port Said on its journey through the Suez Canal. Passengers could get off to buy souvenirs and feel dry land under their feet after weeks sailing from Fremantle, but I stayed with my mother, looking over the rail at naked boys diving for pennies. I was astonished. Some of them were scarce older than me (I was 4) yet there they were, in Paradise, unconstrained by mothers. Mine gave me a couple of coins to throw and each time the boy caught it before it sank to the bottom, and bobbed up like a cork grinning and holding it in high triumph.
I’m trying to convey some of what went through my head as I walked to the retail park along the valley floor beside the humble river. It was a very quiet sense of exaltation. I felt privileged to participate in the world’s discovery: not to be celebrated as a discoverer, but merely for the joy of looking: finding new ways of looking. I’m not talking about a particular discovery, a new idea that runs through academia like a benign infection, but just a kind of seeing. For anyone can do it, I believe, though I have no evidence to back this up. I prefer to speculate like a philosopher. Others will be scientists. They’ll want to prove their theories, but that’s hard or impossible. So they look for certainty in scepticism and disproof.
Give me learning and keep your belief. When I learn, I tune into something I never knew was there. Once I can tune to it, then I can begin to see it all the time. This is a true beginning, as celebrated for example by Dante, in his Vita Nuova.
The retail park has been built on the site of an old paper mill which took advantage of river-water to dissolve the wood-pulp from the trees in these surrounding hills, and the water-power to drive the machinery. I’m so glad at my discovery of this route to get there: glad that this trail, this old railway line, have not yet been razed by bulldozers.† I reach a point where I tell myself I should write about it: a piece entitled “Enjoy while you can!” We should never cease from celebrating that which cannot last. This is where I differ temperamentally from those mystics who claim we should celebrate the eternal and infinite. No! If it’s eternal, it can wait. Let me rejoice in the ephemeral, gather rosebuds while I may.
All will disappear: not absolutely for the world will remain and miracles never cease. But this unique combination of body and ever-sharpened intelligence, with consciousness added as a bonus, consciousness that allows joy: it’s like the original cast and crew of a film. Once they have dispersed, there is nothing left but a record on celluloid or digital media; which is perhaps all that others will value. A good reason to write this down.
I’m not saying “stop the world”. Of course not. Change the world. It needs change along with people who can effect that change, whose fulfilment is to change the world. (As I compose this, I am walking down the old railway line. No rails, no sleepers any more: just raised earthworks and a ditch like the prehistoric settlements that abound in these parts.) It’s not my aim to leave a legacy of writings, or to change the world, or even to populate the world with my offspring who may do it on my behalf. I just want to go on being excited about life, and if some of that rubs off, it’s good too.
And here in the woods near the old railway line is a sewage works, at the town’s lowest point, whose input arrives in a large iron pipe and whose output is pumped into the river, making it flow faster downstream. You hear the sound of a man-made waterfall and the constant low hum of pumps. And here if not before, I see that my heightened feeling, my overflow of joy can’t be explained by a mere “love of nature”. I stand in a triangular hollow, bounded by the river, the diagonal path and the old railway line together enclosing a shallow pond over which the big pipe and a smaller one are supported by brick columns. The pond’s surface is disturbed in more than one place by evidence of a spring: you can see one in the middle of the photo under the pipes. I must be an engineer at heart for I find all this completely fascinating. The more so because I have been here before. I come again. It’s a place of anticipation, of pilgrimage. Just like the eagerness in my feet when I contemplated this walk, I receive information from the part of me that isn’t censored and controlled by conscious intellect. It tells me what interests me.
I see that in a child’s world, a mammal’s world, a true human world, there is an endless fascination in repetition: the same only different. Music: rhythm, melody. We seek the new, we return to the familiar. I don’t seek to understand or explain this. I merely observe and report.
There is nothing grand about this river. It runs behind industrial premises, some derelict. It’s twelve-foot wide at the maximum. The path is muddy. But it has the power to evoke parts of my past life. Good parts. Parts I never understood at the time. I don’t mean just my life, but the world I observed. Things that were happening in the world, that I was born into. I give awed thanks for that life.
Anyhow the footpath eventually debouches into the retail park, for which too I give thanks, I cannot explain why. It’s ugly enough. PC World doesn’t have the computer memory. Argos does have the clip-on flexible-stalk LED reading-light (and it works wonderfully!)
On the bus home there are two boys in front of me. The larger one is a pink-faced flaxen-haired lump of a lad. The other is a dark-haired boy with wires going into his ears: quiet, he looks more intelligent or from a more privileged family than the pink-face, who holds forth loudly whilst he remains quiet. I don’t tune in at first but the larger boy is speaking of another, compassionately recounting his shortcomings and peculiarities. The smaller or younger boy is attentive, admiring: so am I. He has to get out, presses the bell-button for the driver to stop at the next bus-stop. The pink-face says “Oh, is that what you’re doing, seeing how late you can leave it to press the bell?” Then the smaller one gets up to go. “And you’re seeing how late you can get up to go?” I wonder if the shapeless pink-faced boy is in some way seducing the other, charming him with the way he can make the most trivial events in life into something of note, something to remember. It’s not aimed at me, but it works on me anyhow. As a person’s companion, he knows how to be as attentive as an imaginary friend.
* [Eight years later I discover that whilst dictating these thoughts I was passing the site of a Roman villa.]
† The bulldozers came sooner than I expected. Some time after this post, the footpath was closed for several years while a new housing estate was built alongside. I wrote another post about the day I discovered it had been reopened: “Infinite are the Depths“.