Discover more from Streetwalking with Howard Jacobson
GET LOST ALONG WITH ME
The best is yet to be
I haven’t jumped out of an aeroplane but I doubt it would be as frightening as this.
Until today I have never digitally posted anything. I have never blogged. I have never tweeted. I have never cyber-liked or cyber-disliked or sent an emoji, though I did once try to send one back. I am a stranger to WhatsApp and neither chat nor date. Though I possess a smart phone, we are barely on speaking terms - it goes its own way, turning itself on and off when it wants to, refusing Wifi and choosing whose calls it will accept and whose it won’t. As for my computer, it is no more to me than a glorified typewriter. I say glorified but there is little glory in my typing which, after more than twenty books, I can only manage using one finger.
So posting these words is like arriving from another planet.
Ask me why I’ve not availed myself of the joyful amenities of the internet and the best answer I can come up with is that I’ve been trying to stay above the fray, avoiding argument, thinking my own thoughts. ‘Howard would do better if he didn’t spend so much time inside his head,’ an early school report said. My father believed I needed to get out more and used to drive me to any house that had loud music coming from it and leave me there. ‘Enjoy the party,’ he’d say, ‘and don’t come home till you’ve danced with a girl.’ Once, I only pretended to ring the front door bell and as soon as my father drove off I ran away and hid in someone’s front garden. That, however, was shyness and it isn’t shyness that’s kept me off Instagram and TikTok. Rather, it’s the idea that the writer’s only friend - and sometimes only enemy - is language and it would have felt like disloyalty to have come out into the world where people use words to insult each other with rather than to think and doubt and wonder.
So what’s changed? Everything. The world today is one big chat room and, like it or not, you can only stay away from the conversation so long without ending up talking to yourself. Such monks of words as I have been are irrelevant now, lonely relics of a quainter times. And maybe there was always a degree of vanity in holding oneself aloof from the march of time. What, after all, is so special about one’s own head that it’s worth sacrificing the great spectacle of life for. My father, who had so few words he had to make up his own, but loved socialising to distraction - said I needed to get out more. Now I realise he was right. This, then, is my statement of reconnection with humanity. Hello, life.
As for where I’m going to find this life, I don’t entirely know, but it sure as hell won’t be on Twitter or Tinder. I have begun, instead, to take my cue from the nineteenth century French symbolist poet Baudelaire, and try the streets of London. Baudelaire walked the streets of Paris, ‘experiencing the immense joy of taking up one’s dwelling among the multitude.’ He called himself a flâneur, that’s to say an idler or saunterer. Not so caught up in the business of life as to be just one more person among the multitude, but finding joy in the spectacle of others’ multitudinousness. ‘The lover of life makes the world his family,’ he wrote. ‘He is an “I”, insatiable in his appetite for the “not-I”.’
Last week, in this spirit of being simultaneously inside myself and out of it, I took to the streets. Does that sound revolutionary? Well for me it was. ‘Stay out of your head,’ I chided myself in advance. ‘Pretend this is the party you would never go to as a boy.’ And lo, as though by miracle, as I crossed from Mortimer Street into Great Portland Street the life I had come in search of, came in search of me - a very small woman, dressed in a miniature leather jacket and flimsy polka-dot shorts, pushing a very big pram. I remembered that Dickens had noted a similar sight on one of his perambulations across London, then I reprimanded myself for letting literature nudge out life. ‘Look at the mother,’ I said. ‘Let yourself be touched by the arduousness of her life - a child to look after and she scarcely bigger than a child herself.’ Why, even at first glance, was she so affecting? And then she stopped to lean into the pram and soothe the crying baby. ‘Any more of that and I’ll be taking you home,’ she said, firmly but not without kindness. And as, with tremendous effort, she lifted the baby out to make it more comfortable, I saw that she was not a mother but a little girl, no more than eight or nine years old herself. The sister of the child? Who knew? A host of questions: was she walking the baby to give the actual mother an hour off; had the actual mother died or run away leaving this little girl with a baby to look after for the rest of her childhood; was her tiny body strong enough for the task of caring for a child; was she resentful or was she consumed with love for the occupant of the pram and delighted to be trusted with it; was this a sorrowful tale or a happy one?
Two days before, I had walked this very street. A dinosaur could have reared up and stolen three babies from as many prams and I would not have seen or heard a thing. But two days before, I was not heeding Baudelaire. Two days before I was living, in increasing loneliness, in a world of words only. Now, the world was all before me: what Baudelaire, with a painter’s no less than a poet’s eye, called the undulation, the movement, the fugitive, the infinite. The infinite might be a bit beyond me, but undulation, movement and the fugitive aren’t. I intend to give them a try anyway. I am no flâneur. I am not sufficiently the dandy. But I like the idea of streetwalking with no aim. As I write, so I walk, with no idea of where I’m going or where I want to get to. Sceptics mistrust the certainty of destination and I call myself a sceptic. Out into the unknown we go, then, STREETWALKING with no pre-determined purpose.
Get lost along with me, the best is yet to be…
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