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Midnight Rambler

The Blues - Down South

The Blues – Down South

It was nearing midnight on a hot velvety evening in August. The sky was the colour of a wild blue iris. From time to time purple black clouds masked the orange moon.

It was now too late for me to find a hotel. And anyway, I couldn’t afford one. I’d been driving for several hours and I needed to stop for a sleep. Ahead lay a motorway service station. With a bit of luck I’d find a place to park my car and there I would spend the night.

Away from the bright unforgiving lights of the motorway café I saw an area where the trucks had aligned themselves. And nearby was a lonely place for cars. I parked the car next to a large white camper van. The number plates said that it was from Denmark. In front of me was a just-discernible picnic area. The pine trees looked stately and forbidding in the dim light. When the lightning began to flash I felt a strange shiver of fear. Far to the west I could see the electric storm and I could hear the distant thunder. I began to sort out how I was going to sleep. The back seat of my car was just big enough for me: I could curl up and rest my head upon my arms.

I took a last look across towards the picnic area; the moon had now disappeared behind a heavy veil of cloud. And yet I saw a tiny point of light moving slowly amidst the sparse undergrowth; it weaved its way around the trunks of the tall trees. Then the lightning flashed and I glimpsed the outline of a person. I realised that the tiny point of light was a torch. Someone was searching for something. I watched – and then I saw that the torchlight had outlined a bench – a concrete bench. The person hovered around the bench and then they removed their rucksack. I could just about make out what was happening: a traveller was looking for a place to sleep.

I felt a moment of intense nostalgia. I remembered the times that I had hitchhiked around Europe and had slept on concrete or iron or wooden benches. I remembered that time on the shores of the beautiful lake at Annecy when life was so much simpler and when I had slept beneath the glittering stars. Those days back then seemed safer and far less crazy.

Then I started to worry about the traveller: maybe the thunderstorm was going to move closer; Maybe they weren’t safe at all; maybe a psycho was lurking in the darkness …

I had a good night’s sleep. Once or twice I woke up and, each time I looked out of the window, more and more cars had come to join me. It made me feel more secure.

At daybreak I decided to get a stove out of the boot of the car and make some coffee. As I was making the coffee I could see the midnight rambler still wrapped in a sleeping bag; and, all the while they lay on the narrow grey concrete bench. I began to sip my coffee. As I did, the traveller stirred and began to get ready for the day. To my surprise I noticed that the midnight rambler was a girl. She was maybe about 20 years old. I watched her as she adjusted her clothing and packed up her sleeping bag. She wore faded burnt orange trousers and the rest of her clothes told me that she’d been on the road for a long time. She rolled herself a cigarette for breakfast.

Then she began to set off for the road. As she passed me I invited her to drink a cup of coffee. She accepted. We sat in silence whilst she drank her coffee. Not a word was spoken. After she had drunk her coffee she rolled another cigarette. Then she adjusted the cardboard signs upon which were written, in huge letters, the names of towns up along the way. The last of her signs read: ‘To the end of the world’.

The imagined grave of Henry Cook

A work of art in Farnham's Museum

An old map in felt

My town has a museum; it’s a small museum that is housed in a beautiful old Georgian building. It records and celebrates the history of the town.  In one of the rooms on the first floor there is an exhibition that is mainly devoted to the achievements of the great political commentator and social reformer, William Cobbett – who was born just a few hundred yards away from the site of the museum.

One of the exhibits in that room has the perfect title: ‘The imagined grave of Henry Cook’.

It is a work of art – in wool, silk, stone, shell and plastic – that has been made by a felt maker. The work is accompanied by the following text:

In the widespread agricultural riots of 1830 and 1831, Henry Cook, a local Micheldever labouring lad took part in a skirmish and knocked Justice Bingham Baring’s hat off.

Cook was tried for attempted Murder at Winchester and subsequently hanged as an example to others.

His body was brought back to Micheldever (a small nearby town) by the sorrowing villagers and was buried in the Churchyard. It is said that snow never settles on his grave – but the site of his grave has now been lost.

Based on old maps, ‘The imagined grave of Henry Cook’ is a representation of the original churchyard at Micheldever. It is a beautiful design in colours that are sombre and sad.

During his libel trial in 1831, William Cobbett made reference to the tragedy of Henry Cook: through Cobbett’s words, we learn a little more about the events leading up to Henry Cook’s burial:

When Cook was taken home in a coffin, the people went to the confines of the parish to meet his corpse; indeed, may I say, the whole parish went to meet it … six young women dressed in white, went to hold the pall which a tradesman had gratuitously lent. Twelve young men went out to the bearers and the corpse was conveyed two miles, to a place where it was interred in solemn silence.

I think it’s worth going to my local museum just to see this one exhibit.

Footnotes:

1. The feltmaker who made ‘The imagined grave of Henry Cook’ is Chris Lines

2. The Agricultural (or ‘Swing’) Riots were a widespread uprising by agricultural workers; the uprising began with the destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Kent in the summer of 1830. By early December the protests had spread throughout the whole of southern England and East Anglia. The Riots had many immediate causes, but were overwhelmingly the result of the progressive impoverishment and dispossession of the English agricultural workforce over the previous fifty years, leading up to 1830. (Source: J. Harrison: ‘The Common People’)

3. The quote taken from the records of William Cobbett’s trial is found in R. Ingrams ‘The life and adventures of William Cobbett’.

How do we get acquainted with ourselves?

Contemplation (Jocelyne in Munich)

Contemplation (Jocelyne in Munich)

During the summer I read two novels by Andre Gide – both of which raise serious questions about identity and self-knowledge. The first was published in 1902 as ‘The Immoralist‘ and the second in 1909 as ‘Strait is the gate‘. This latter novel can be read as a study of character, or, more anthropologically, as a study of culture and character. Most usually it is read as an account of almost unbearable tragedy: set in the context of a deeply religious middle-class milieu in early 20 century northern France, it describes how Christian teaching and belief can devastate the lives of young lovers. Gide’s text is always brilliant; it is full of depth and subtlety. It’s certainly a masterpiece and it’s not surprising that he was eventually awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1947.

In this short note I shall simply focus on the way Gide depicts one of the two central figures in ‘Strait is the gate’ – a certain ‘Jerome’. Then, through the stimulus provided by Gide’s account I shall ask a very basic question about how we arrive at the picture we have of ourselves. I shall also outline a reply to that question.

Right from the very beginning of Gide’s story we can begin to build a picture of Jerome; there are a number of clues as to ‘who he is’ – clues as to his fundamental psychology and his deepest dispositions. He wants, for example, to be entirely truthful in the story that he relates to us; his love of work is ingrained – and was so even from a very young age; for example, his diligence leads him to read books late into the evening; his feelings reveal complex emotions – emotions that can be felt very strongly. His upbringing has been disciplined; he seems very ‘proper’ and inclined to piety.

However, there is one passage in the early pages of the text that tell us more directly about the kind of person that he is. They also tell us how he arrived at the picture he has of himself.

During the preaching of a sermon the young Jerome finds himself consecrating his life both to God and his older cousin, Alissa (with whom he is in love). This exceptional and intense response did not, of course, come out of the blue. As Jerome mentions the austere teaching of Christ’s words, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate‘ fell on fertile ground: ‘It found my soul ready prepared and naturally predisposed to duty.’

As the text moves on we learn how Jerome’s personality character and ‘soul’ had been formed:  he had not only been set an ‘example’ by his parents but had also experienced, at their hands, a ‘puritanical discipline’. The result was that, inter alia, he had an unusual degree of self-control. Jerome declares that:

Self-control was natural to me as self-indulgence to others, and this severity to which I was subjected, far from being irksome, was soothing.

Then, after experiencing a sudden ‘illumination’ the fourteen year old Jerome is able to provide us with a thumbnail sketch of his character:

‘A sudden inward illumination made me acquainted with myself. I saw myself as a brooding, half-fledged, wistful creature, somewhat careless of others, somewhat unenterprising, and with no ambition save for such victories as are gained over self. I was fond of my books and cared only for games which needed reflection or effort. I did not much frequent the society of my schoolmates, and when I did take part in their amusements, it was only out of affection or good nature.

And so, the reader is left with a clear idea about the nature of this person, this character, Jerome. Two things strike us:

– first, and remarkably, the destiny of his whole life has been determined because he has consecrated himself to Alissa and to God

– second, self-control and a disposition to master the self are at the heart of his character – and conduct. He aspired to be one of the very few who would follow, to the letter, the most demanding of the teachings of Christ.

Gide’s sketch is riveting because as we read about Jerome’s experience it seems both entirely plausible and a reflection of how individual character might have been forged within the devoutly religious milieu of a wider culture that existed at a certain time in northern France. I think that we have to read the text very carefully because the magnitude of Jerome’s commitment reflects extremes of devotion and fervour – and yet, at the same time, it does not seem too far-fetched. There is something sobering and enlightening in Gide’s portrayal of the young Jerome. ..

In this second and very brief part of my note I return to the subject of self-knowledge – and in particular, the means by which we become acquainted with ourselves.

Jerome, in ‘Strait is the gate’, has, at the age of fourteen, a ‘sudden inward illumination’ that made him acquainted with himself. This may or may not be unusual but it certainly must count as one of the ways in which we arrive at self-knowledge. So, in answer to the question: ‘What are the ways in which we might acquire self-knowledge?’ I would include ‘a sudden illumination’ amongst them. On reflection, I think that there are at least seven other ways and I list them as follows:

– We may see someone (another person who we may like or dislike – it doesn’t matter) and then realise that they are a mirror of ourselves or that they reflect a distinct part of ourselves.

– We may be fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find ourselves in favourable conditions of feedback in which information about ‘how we come across’ is shared with us.

– We may, as Primo Levi once articulated, have long familiarity with ourselves – with our habitual ways of reacting and feeling, and we may simply come to  ‘know who we are.’

– We may compare ourselves with others – and conclude that we are or are not ‘like that.’ (This may be a very similar process to the ‘mirror’ experience that I have noted above.)

– We may identify ourselves with a character in film, on television or in novels.

– We may discover something about ourselves through our dreams. For example, we may recognise ourselves in some or all of the way we are manifested in a dream sequence.

– And lastly, we may use some sort of psychological profiling device (or even psychoanalysis) to arrive at a description of the type of person we are (and this may include a detailed outline of our traits of personality).

Are there any other ways? There may well be. It is perfectly possible that the mind will operate mysteriously and yield knowledge about the self that is pre-articulate or that remains tacit rather than explicit. I’m referring here to some ideas that have been surfaced in the philosophy of mind – as well as to those researchers who have tried to explain the nature of consciousness…

Footnote: I am taking Gide’s phrase ‘a sudden inward illumination’ to refer to a spontaneous event that has occurred independently of any discernible stimulus.