Hitching to Gomorrah

by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2013)

When I was sixteen years of age my parents allowed me to hitch-hike my way round England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Switzerland. Perhaps they were pleased to disembarrass themselves of a youth who, around them at least, was sullen and uncommunicative; but what would nowadays seem a decision of parental irresponsibility did not then seem at all extraordinary. I doubt that many parents now would give their sixteen year-old son such permission; but I am not sure whether this tells us more about the increased dangerousness of the world or a change in parental attitudes towards risk.

Certainly it seemed a gentler, and therefore a freer, world in certain respects. Sometimes I would hitch-hike on my own, sometimes with a French friend. I remember once arriving together in the northern industrial city of Leeds late one rainy day; the youth hostel was closed for the night and hotels were beyond our means. We went to a police station and a friendly desk-sergeant, seeing that we were naïve but well-behaved adolescents, put us in a cell overnight on his own authority, that is to say without any reference to the rules that almost certainly would prevent him nowadays from acting in this way. The following morning, at an early hour unfamiliar to most of the middle classes, a policeman woke us from our bed of concrete and gave us a cup of tea before sending us on our way. We thought the world was a friendly place.

In the countryside we practised what the French call ‘camping sauvage,’ wild camping, without fear or interference: that is to say we pitched our tents whenever we were tired and wherever we could find what seemed to us a good enough corner. In Europe, at least, such camping is now strictly forbidden, verboten, vietato, prohibido, the inevitable consequence, I suppose, of the vast increase in the numbers of people moving around. People who wish to camp are now dragooned into camping sites, where there are all kinds of facilities for them. It is one of the ironies of the world that the freer people are to roam, the less worthwhile it is to do so, and the more constrained by regulations their supposed freedom is.

Not that our camping sauvage was comfortable, far from it. I can still feel, in my mind’s back, the stones poking through the bottom of the tent preventing sleep until sheer tiredness overcame discomfort. And in those days tents were not the hi-tech contraptions they are now, easy to erect and with all mod. cons., homes from home; they were small, cramped and crude canvas affairs, that let the rain through if you so much as touched the inner side of the canvas – which, of course, it was almost impossible not to do, so that one woke in the morning damp and cold. Although I have never been one much for physical discomfort for its own sake, I think that I understood that some of the value of the experience was actually to put up with it; and certainly there were few more ecstatic days of my life than rising early after a bad night’s sleep to spend much of the ensuing day eating the wild raspberries that grew on hedges that lined the narrow country roads of Scotland. I have always loved raspberries; but none were ever half so delicious as those.

Once we hitch-hiked round the whole coast of Ireland, from Dublin back to Dublin. In a wild part of Galway we found a soft field, very comfortable for camping, but it was next to a house, to which it evidently belonged and we felt obliged to ask permission of the owner to pitch our tent in it. He was the local doctor, and by that time in the evening was perfectly drunk, his bottle of whiskey on the table beside his armchair.

‘Tell your friend,’ he said (for these were the days of President De Gaulle), ‘that I think De Gaulle’s a f…..g bastard.’

This was beyond my French; I translated it as M. le Docteur does not like De Gaulle.’ But even if I had been able to translate it more in keeping with its original spirit, I doubt that I would have done so. Strange to relate, even at that late stage in the decomposition of civilisation, I felt girlishly inhibited about the use of bad language. In fact, I still do.

In France, some monks put us up in a monastery. Little did I realise that I was witnessing almost the last generation of people who chose this immemorial way of life; and contrary to my expectation (for at the time I was a militant atheist) I was much impressed by it. The monks were not at all unworldly in their manner, nor were they wretched or dour; they predisposed me greatly in favour of the religious, and later in my life, in Africa, I came to respect and like them ever more, both nuns and monks. Once, when I subsequently wrote an article expressing my admiration for them (though I still had no religious faith), I was astonished by the tone of vituperation and hatred of the responses. It was as if the religious were a deep existential threat to those who responded. For myself, I can only regret that there are no more monks and nuns, and that Africa must now send missionaries to Europe.

One event, which I have recounted before but which was so important to my development that I do not hesitate to recount again (a sign of age, no doubt), occurred when I was hitch-hiking in Scotland. It is astonishing that even in a land as heavily populated as Great Britain there should be areas of wilderness such as the west of Scotland, where inhabitants are very few, you can go do miles without seeing a house, and the roads are one track with passing places at intervals.

It was on one of these roads that a honeymooning couple picked me up. They were an educated couple, teachers if I remember. They exuded an ordinary happiness, that of good people content with their place and duty in the world, that I now find moving. As we were driving, me in the back of the car, we passed a sheep that had evidently been hit by a car, by the side of the road, its green guts spilt from its burst-open abdomen and its legs kicking in what I suppose must have been agony.

The newly-wed wife cried out when she saw it, and in distress said that the sheep was still alive and suffering. Her husband, solicitous that she should not suffer distress herself, said that the sheep had clearly been dead. Then he turned to me and asked me for confirmation that it was dead.

The words ‘No, it was still alive,’ rose – or descended – to my throat, but I managed to stop myself in time and said instead, ‘Yes, it was obviously dead.’ ‘You see,’ said the husband, and the wife, perhaps because she so much wanted to believe what we said, was much relieved.

In that moment, I realised the absurdity of the supposed categorical imperative to tell the truth on all occasions, as Kant would have us believe, irrespective of circumstances. There are situations in which there are higher values than truth, or at least than truth-telling, as every doctor has eventually to learn.

I was also soon proud that the husband, so much older than I (which is to say at least ten years, an eternity when one is sixteen), had enough confidence in my intelligence, undertsanding and savoir faire after his brief acquaintance with me to have entrusted me with his question, that he would surely not had he thought I was of slower apprehension.

Now I often think of that couple, who seemed so happy then, so freshly, hopefully and insouciantly started out on the path to old age that they must now have nearly completed, being already well on into their seventies. How mature and sophisticated they seemed to me at the time, how young and inexperienced they seem to me now in my memory! I hope that their life has been a happy and contented one, as it seemed then to presage, that their children brought them joy and not pain, that no tragedy befell them. In my heart, however, I can hardly believe that it was so, for few of us entirely escape tragedy even if the fleetingness of human existence from the vantage of age were not itself a tragedy. They must long ago have reached the age at which contemplation of the past was more interesting to them than that of the future (as it always has been to me). I thought of them again when I happened on upon the following lines by Edward Fairfax that I had never previously read, and that reflect on that perennial theme of English (and other) poetry, the shortness of life:

So in the passing of a day doth pass
The bud and blossom of the life of man,
Nor e’er doth flourish more, but, like the grass
Cut down, becometh wither’d pale and wan.
O! gather then the rose while time thou hast;
Short is the day, done when it scant began,
Gather the rose of love, while yet you may’st
Loving be lov’d, embracing be embrac’d.

This, apparently, is very similar, almost a plagiarism, from Spenser: but (in my opinion) improves upon it. Be that as it may, the lines were my madeleine that brought back to life that couple in the lanes of Scotland nearly half a century ago.

Ever since my youth, and in moral recompense for all those people who took me when I was by the side of the road, I have always taken hitch-hikers unless they positively had the appearance of serial killers, which few of them have. I have never had any cause to regret it, and it seems to me a small and very easy way to be generous, to give away something for nothing, and to give hikers a more favourable impression of their fellow-beings and of life in general. One of the ways to destroy trust, an invaluable social asset, is to mistrust when there is no need of it; and mistrust is the most frequent reason given for people not to pick up hitch-hikers. I much regret that there are so few of them nowadays, either because the trust no longer exists to sustain hitch-hiking as a means of getting around (the mistrust of those who give the rides as great as that of those who want them), or because young people now have cars or money enough easily to afford public transport, and render hitch-hiking unnecessary. I regret the latter almost as much as the former, for youth should be an age of exigent means rather than of ease, comfort and opulence.

The other day I picked up a couple, a young Frenchman and a young American woman, who were together, though he spoke little English and she no French. I joked that they had chosen the best method of language tuition, and they laughed.

He was a history student, and his long brown hair was done into dreadlocks, as if he were a Rastafarian. I suppose he must have admired Jamaican culture, since imitation is the highest form of flattery; I did not much approve his choice of cultural model. But he was very polite (I have found even the drunk hitch-hikers polite in France) and I liked him.

When I picked the couple up, I was playing Brahms’ marvellous string sextet on my CD player, a work I love. I asked the young man Aimez-vous Brahms? – a question not only about the composer, but an ironic (as I supposed) reference to the title of a famous novel by Françoise Sagan.

He neither caught the literary reference nor did he know anything of Brahms. ‘I don’t know much about him,’ he said. In fact, I am not sure that he had ever heard of him.

I was deeply discomfited, though I did and said nothing to show it. It is, after all, my generation’s fault if decent and intelligent young European men (and I was sure that he was a decent and intelligent young man) identify more with Jamaican culture than with European.

The couple were on their way to a festival of Jamaican music. The question now, then, is not Aimez-vous Brahms? but Aimez-vous reggae? A civilization collapses, I thought; but that is just what my elders said. And the young couple were, after all, very nice. Perhaps our civilization will go quietly, nicely.



Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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