It’s confession time. Earlier this year I wrote that I was a compulsive chatterbox whenever travelling on busses or trains and that I had resolved to give the habit up [Pipped at the post, Greyhares, 5 May, 2016]. I failed. My silence only lasted a few weeks and I was soon chatting again at full tilt. I never know how a conversation will develop and, more often than not, there is an element of surprise.
This was certainly the case a few weeks ago when the conversation, which lasted only ten minutes or so, was at one and the same time searching and surreal. To be honest, the conversation took place not on a train but between trains, in fact in a cafe on a walkway linking two platforms. We were at Clapham Junction station; one of my favourites.
It was 9.00 am and I was playing for time. I was on my way to an appointment and was travelling with the wrong type of ticket and, because of the vagaries of the ticketing system I risked being fined if I ended my journey before 9.30 am. The train timetables were such that I had ten minutes to waste, and, as is sometimes the case, my legs demanded that I sit down.
On the walkway there is not a seat in sight, save for those in the various cafes so, despite having no intention of buying a drink, I found a cafe with seats outside and hidden from the view of the woman at the counter. There, I sat feeling guilty both about avoiding the full train fare and about not buying a drink.
Soon a man came up and asked – more mumbled – if he might sit at my table. I welcomed him warmly; being next to me would, I told him, serve to ‘legitimise my presence’. As I saw it, chatting with him would give me a good excuse both for occupying the seat and for delaying the next stage of my journey. He looked puzzled and sat down.
My white knight, or that is how I saw him, was between 18 and 25. He was unkempt and with gingery hair and similarly coloured stubble. His pullover and trousers were grubby, in places threadbare. In one hand he had a crumpled scrap of paper and in the other a bacon sandwich. He spoke indistinctly, with an accent that sounded East End – my parents would have labelled it ‘cockney’. Understanding what he said required concentration.
He was keen to pursue the idea of legitimising and, belying his looks and accent, he carefully distinguished between legitimising as ‘making something right’ and ‘giving someone or something a stamp of approval’. He argued that, while he understood my sentiment he did not see how his action easily fitted either definition. However, once I repeated my side of the story he conceded that by sitting and chatting he had indeed given this elderly stranger a certain legitimacy.
I had not expected such erudition from someone with his demeanour and my prejudice was soon brought into even greater relief. I asked what he was reading to be told it was an article about knowledge and perception; how could one know if anything one perceived was real? For my sake he added that such issues fell into a section of philosophy called epistemology. He went on to say in his now familiar mumble that he was going to be late for an epistemology seminar at Sussex University where he was a third year philosophy student.
With the mismatch explained and my prejudice debunked, I responded to the epistemological issue by saying that, as far as I understood it, the one thing outside ourselves that we know is real is algebra, adding that it continued to be valid whether human beings were there or not. Now it was his turn to look surprised. How could a strange old man, found by chance loitering in a cafe, make such a comment?
I explained that I was a retired doctor who, over the years and as part of the university of life, would often chat about matters philosophical with his wife; herself a graduate in, and a one-time lecturer of, philosophy. Mid-explanation, he checked his watch and, looking more like Alice’s white rabbit than a white knight, upped and ran down the stairs opposite and towards his platform.
As he went I could swear I heard him say, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Epistemologically speaking, perhaps neither he, nor our conversation, were real after all.
Illustration: John Tenniel – optimization of Image:De Alice’s Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 02.jpg, Public Domain, Link