Walking with a purpose

 

You pass them everywhere in Bristol now—and in what town or city do you not? In residential porches and corporate doorways, on benches and in bus shelters, living in tents, living in vans. Homelessness, the raw, incontrovertible evidence of fractured social policies and failed governance, is visibly, palpably increasing. A man that my wife spoke to had just been discharged from hospital. Though a friend had kindly paid for one night’s stay at a bed and breakfast, his address thereafter was, once again, a tent pitched on a strip of grass above the river. The hospital staff knew he would have no roof over his head but had no choice in the matter. The Secretary of State for Health assures us that there’s no crisis in the National Health Service and, since the United Kingdom is currently the world’s fifth largest economy by GDP, it can’t be a question of money—so it’s a puzzling business. It’s also a moral quandary for the individual walker. With my limited resources, if I give change to this person, what about the next—and what about the fifth and the tenth and the twentieth after that? Who do I choose—and how? And should I really have to?

There’s a moment in Richard Cobb’s essay, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, when he remarks of the abbé Germain Brice, author of the early eighteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris, that he ‘provided a completely comprehensive tour of the city; and he was not afraid of exposing his more delicate princelings to some of the filthiest, most stinking, and most overcrowded quarters of Paris; it was not just a Tournée des Grandes Ducs of the high spots, of the new centres of luxury. Perhaps his walks were also to have a moral purpose.’[1]

‘A moral purpose.’ Yes, this in turn recalls George Eliot, in a letter of 3 November 1851, telling the anecdote of Thomas Carlyle, ‘angry with [Ralph Waldo] Emerson for not believing in a devil’, in a determined effort ‘to convert him took him amongst all the horrors of London – the gin shops etc. – and finally to the House of Commons, plying him at every turn with the question “Do you believe in a devil noo?”’[2]

‘More delicate princelings’? Certainly, some of those wealthy and cushioned politicians so enthusiastic about penalising the undeserving poor or forcing invalids into morale-boosting work as roadmenders or steeplejacks, should be forcibly steered around a few choice areas of our inner cities.

‘Do you believe in a devil noo?’ Devils, like angels, are difficult to disentangle from religion. ‘The devil’, Hugh Kenner wrote, ‘it used to be thought, could only move in straight lines; pious Christians could thwart him by moving in zigzags. They did that on their knees, praying their way along labyrinths diagrammed on the floors of churches: there are still fine ones in Chartres cathedral and in the parish church of St. Quentin, in the Loire Valley. Meant to humble but not bewilder the faithful, such mazes have no branchings. They spiral haltingly inward, as if to Jerusalem.’[3]

The Simoniac Pope 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, Dante’s Simoniac Pope: Tate)

Though often in touch with religious concerns, evil can, like good, occupy determinedly secular territory. Great wickedness and immorality, the dictionaries say, especially—but not necessarily—when regarded as a supernatural force. And to be sure, from time to time, in my agnostic fashion, I picture the architect of the pernicious Universal Credit scheme (among many others, admittedly) placed by Gustave Doré or William Blake in an extremely hot environment, illuminated by a luridly flickering light, and subject to the relentless and gleeful attention of gigantic figures wielding toasting forks.

And what might we set against the intellectual vacuity so demonstrably prevailing in several citadels of power as the year closes? There’s always poetry, of course.

emily-dickinson

The Devil – had he fidelity
Would be the best friend –
Because he has ability –
But Devils cannot mend –
Perfidy is the virtue   
That would he but resign
The Devil – without question
Were thoroughly divine[4]

Yes, devilish tricky things, devils. Stories, then, perhaps the inexhaustibly quotable Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing to William Maxwell, 31 December 1966:

‘It was the kind of hotel which has a great many old ladies in it, and as a writer of short stories I was enthralled to discover how a single sentence can place a character—“Mrs Walker has China tea”—or rouse one’s deepest curiosity, as when one of the two Miss Grays (sisters but they don’t often meet) said informingly to the other, pointing to an empty table with a paper napkin in a tumbler on it, “That’s Mrs. Washbourne.” Valentine said it was like living in one of my stories but worse.’[5]

Whose story we are living in just now will no doubt become clearer as we lurch or tiptoe into 2018. I’ve heard several people say that next year can’t be worse than 2017. I hope they’re right. Always remembering that resistance is fertile, as I think I heard somebody say.

 
References

[1] Richard Cobb, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, in Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings, introduction by Richard Gilmour, preface by Julian Barnes (New York: New York Review Books, 2004), 154.

[2] Mentioned by Rupert Christiansen, The Visitor: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 118.

[3] Hugh Kenner, the title essay (1986) of Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 250.

[4] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 624-625.

[5] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 169.

 

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