I’ve been walking again, in London, with my old friend Dr. Martin Bax. Martin is 84 years old, suffering from dementia, and is sinking fast. He seems to be in good physical health, lives in his own home, and is well looked after; even so it feels as though his mind and personality are evaporating, as though there’s less and less of the person I used to know, although what remains is still very much the man himself.
An example: Martin told me he’d only ever voted once in his long life. “That’s because I’m an anarchist,” he said. “Anarchists don’t vote.”
“What do anarchists do?” I asked.
“They don’t do anything,” he replied. “That’s the best part about being an anarchist.”
Martin walks every day, more often than not by himself. He has a new carer who told me she was initially amazed and alarmed by this, and so she did a “risk assessment” which consisted of following him up the road, and concluded that he was a safe enough walker.
Martin only has one walking route these days, along the road where he lives, which has a bit of an upward incline, then at the top of the road he turns left and heads down a considerably steeper hill, heading to a little park, usually deserted next to some allotments, and giving a fine view of Alexandra Palace away on a distant hill.
When I’m with him we sit on a bench for a little while, and then go back, the return journey being somewhat harder because of the steepness of the hill. Martin takes his time, and has certain places where he stops, rests and supports himself, first on a tree and then on a post, always the same ones it seems, and then he soldiers on. The trip is less than a mile all told and takes a little less than an hour.
It was spring in London and the city looked great. As we walked, Martin was fascinated, and so was I, by some markings on the pavements of his neighbourhood. Somebody had been marking broken or uneven paving stones, and drawing outlines around the base of trees.
We assumed it was a council worker who’d done it. I thought that wouldn’t be such a bad job, walking around London marking problems on the pavement, although now that I think about it, I suppose it could have been a concerned citizen drawing people’s attention to ground level problems. Either way it did create a strange and appealing affect, especially for lovers of the terraglyph.
Martin walks slowly, of course, and he says that a time will come when he won’t be able to do the walk at all. This is surely true, and a melancholy thought. It would be nice to keep walking to the end. Some do, some don’t.
It so happened that while I stayed with Martin, I was rereading Thomas Bernhard’s novella Walking prior to a trip to Vienna.
The piece is only intermittently about walking. More often it’s about the nature of thought, the nature of madness, the horrors of the Austrian State, the repulsiveness of children, and there’s also quite a lot of stuff about trousers. All this is pretty darn hilarious, although I think it also becomes in the end, somehow, absolutely heartbreaking.
And at one point Bernhard’s book does discuss the relationship between walking and thinking. Of course it’s done in thoroughly Bernhardian fashion.
“Whereas we always thought we could make walking and thinking into a single total process, even for a fairly long time, I now have to say that it is impossible to make walking and thinking into one total process for a fairly long period of time. For, in fact, it is not possible to walk and to think with the same intensity for a fairly long period of time, sometimes we walk more intensively, but think less intensively, then we think intensively and do not walk as intensively as we are thinking …” and so on.
This seems transparently true. The harder we walk, the harder it is to think. Would anybody disagree?
And then later, more intriguingly,
“If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks … There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking, in the process of which we can easily say that we see how the walker thinks just as we can say that we see how the thinker walks …” and so on.
This strikes me as interestingly problematic. And I’m not sure it’s true at all. I know some quite elegant thinkers who walk clumsily. I know some quite elegant walkers who are very clumsy thinkers. Martin’s walking is slow, cautious, plodding but quite determined: he gets where he’s going even if he’s decided he doesn’t want to go very far, and who can blame him. I do wonder what he thinks as he walks. And I wonder what it would be like to spend half an hour inside his head and see how it feels, how he perceives the world, to see if he thinks at all. It is, we all know, quite possible to walk without having a thought in your head.