The girl with long fair hair, a pulled down black hat with a narrow brim, a backpack with a yellow toy mascot hanging from it, and a broad and engaging smile, who I pulled over for just by the junction of the National Road outside Lamballe, turned out to be a man, of perhaps any age between thirty-five and fifty.
'So you still picked him up?' asks everyone I've told about it, incredulously. Well I wasn't going to drive away again having stopped, that would have been discourteous and contemptuous, unless I had had a very strong sense that there was something amiss about him. Rather like giving up too many of one's civil liberties in the War against Terror, there are some measures against risk which are more destructive to the soul than taking the risk. The aura of engaged friendliness of the figure by the side of the road, the look of scruffy, anarchic, open, clownishness which put me in mind of some of my younger relatives, if not of my younger self, which triggered the impulse to stop for her/him, still stood, whatever the gender. People like that are not threatening.
He quickly twigged to come round to the other side of the car to the passenger seat, and offered greetings and preliminary exchanges in English. English people often picked him up, he said. Yes he hitched a lot now. Six years ago, he lost his marriage, lost everything he had, and it was like when he was young, he had nothing. But he had begun to live again as he had as a young man, and he had found time again. You don't understand what you have when you are young and you have nothing. But surely, I said, there is a difference between having nothing when you never had anything, and having nothing when you have lost everything?
The exchange proceded along these lines in a mixture of English and French, with occasional bits of Spanish thrown in. He had just been to Spain for ten days, he said, to learn the language. He worked with Roma and Romanian people, they often know Spanish better than French. He wanted to know and understand them, to help them in society, he said. We talked of the fear between settled people and the intinerant, which I suggested was to some extent visceral and inevitable, but which he maintained was taught and learned, a strategy of divide-and-rule on the part of the rulers. I had come from studying a text with Maxime, an extract from Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, the portrait of Paddy the tramp, abject, gentle. scrupulously honest, and beaten. We had, Maxime and I, talked briefly about Alexander Supertramp, the pseudonym of Christopher McCandless, and WH Davies, of those who choose vagrancy and those who have vagrancy thrust upon them, but of how the former may still genuinely suffer the hardships and consequences of their choice: Orwell dead at fifty of tuberculosis, McCandless starved, poisoned and alone in the wilderness. I suppose these thoughts were still in my head somewhere below the threshold.
My passenger smelled pungent, but not offensive, a smell of travelling, the leathery smell of a body unwashed but well-aired, of clothes that had stood up to all weathers. He carried an old-fashioned hook-topped polished walking stick. The old, he said, should keep the spirit of youth, youth is only wasted when young people are alone and kept apart from the old. We are being governed and controlled more and more by fear, we relinquish too much for a false sense of security, we grow lonely and depressed and ill as a result. He was nostalgic for a holistic and communitarian vision of mediaeval times.
As he became more impassioned, he slipped entirely into French, and I became rather lost in his analyses of the class system and such like, what with driving and all. Also, and this is always a problem for me in having any kind of intelligent conversation in French, I am easily waylaid by my own reactions and responses; taking the time and energy to consider inwardly what I think about what is being said means I often miss the next bit and lose the thread. But I gave hime the best hearing I could manage. I left this dreamer and wandering philosopher, modern-day Lavengro and supertramp at the foot of the mediaeval ramparts at Moncontour, where he strode off, his yellow gonk mascot swinging behind him, having bid each other many good days, good weekends, good roads and good courage.
I have never been so convinced that the world needs to change, and never more persuaded that it probably can't and almost certainly won't. I hang tenuously but tenaciously to the quietist haven I have constructed for myself, or been fortunate enough to find myself in, at this stage of my life; I am more concerned with preserving its boundaries than with breaking down barriers, these days. Universal brother- or sisterhood is not something I hold a lot of faith in now, if I ever really did. Those who are marginal and alien elicit my fear and incomrehension quite as much as my compassion or admiration. And I am no longer sure that there is an external 'them' who is keeping us in the bondage in which we find ourselves, and of whom we only have to deprive of power to free ourselves and all will be well.
Yet it still does me good to know there are those like my momentary acquaintance at large in the world, walking the walk, and hitching the ride, filled with dreams and visions of past and future and finding ways to talk to people about them, however mistaken and hopeless my mature and cynical current self tells me they are. My stock of good courage did indeed feel just a little higher for meeting him.
3 hours ago