September 29, 2005

Finders weepers

I walked out of Barons Court Underground station on Monday morning already tired enough for Friday. It had been an insomnia night from about half-three in the morning onwards: destroying all the rest that I had had over the weekend. I fought for sleep for an hour or so, in skirmishes, in between bouts of television-watching: after that I fought with the television itself, which had responded to my purchase of a brand new aerial with alarming ingratitude, going off station whenever I switched it on and making me retune it, at some small hour, short of sleep and temper.

By the time I had been able to sleep, it was too late for any sleep worth having. I could have used a morning off - or a week, a month, a period indefinite - but had instead to drag myself, three-quarters conscious, from East Dulwich to Hammersmith to open up the library. I cannot, in that state, have been entirely alert. But I was still, apparently, more alert than some. As I turned right out of the station and came close to the road, I heard a gentle thud, the sound of padding breaking an object's fall, and noticed that on the near side of the road, a wallet had fallen to the ground. A fairly fat wallet by the sound of it, a lot of leather, wrapped, by the look of it, around a fair few notes. Nobody else seemed to have seen it fall - not even the driver of the car which promptly ran right over it.

There were two men who had just finished crossing the road just before the car went past, and though I had not seen which one of them was the owner of the flattened wallet, it had to be one of them or the other. So rather than ask either of them directly - I wasn't sure that I was capable of coherent speech, or even of remembering that such a thing existed - I tried to get their attention by waving my arm in the direction of the errant article and trying to activate my speech centres in order to emit some form of noise. To let them know that something of moment was occurring, like an animal warning the herd of an approaching predator. Eventually I managed to muster something to the effect of:

Er, excuse me, your, er, your, er,

and erred my way through a few more syllables until both of them had looked round and one of them had realised the object, apparently undamaged by the car, belonged to him. He could also, presumably, identify the object as a wallet, which was more than I could manage that particular morning. I had managed to approximate the concept of a wallet close enough to suggest a purse, but despite realising my error and recalling the word in mid-utterance, I had been unable to refine it any further. It was not a morning when I could manage exactitude: everything was blurred.

No matter. Despite descending almost to the level of an evolutionary ancestor, I was able to make myself understood - and even, with a further wave of the arm and a sympathetic grunt, perhaps the human side of simian, acknowledge the thanks of the grateful owner of the fallen wedge. I walked on. I walked through the cemetery that leads up to the hospital next to which I work (I always rather like that walk and the conjunction, hospital and cemetery representing before and after) and assured myself that even if I achieved nothing whatsoever in the current week, which seemed entirely possible, I had at least made my contribution to humanity. I had earned my place on the planet. I was ahead of the game.

It was, in fact, not until several hours later, sitting in the foyer at the Barbican and about to catch a moment's sleep, that I realised I could have picked up the wallet myself. Nobody else had seen it fall. Nobody would have seen anything, save a man picking up a wallet that, they would have have assumed, belonged to him.

It was, as I say, a fairly fat wallet. You'd expect it to be: Barons Court is not the poorest part of London. If there are notes in a Barons Court wallet then more than likely there's a few of them and more than likely those are notes of a sizeable denomination. I could imagine rationalising it to myself: if you're in a position to lose loads of money, it usually means you can afford to. Nobody with a fat wallet is gong to be poor if they lose it. I could have told myself about all the breaks I've never had and how I owed to myself to take advantage when I had the chance.

I could have told myself anything: once you start off down the road to rationalising, once you find yourself resorting to rationalising, then it doesn't matter much what your rationalisation actually is. It merely matters that you have one. I've never much been skilled at the art of believing what suits me rather than what's true. I've cost myself dearly in the past through the lack of that common characteristic. On Monday morning I cost myself a wallet.

I wonder if I would have taken it if I had had presence of mind enough to think of it. Probably not. I've had the opportunity before. Just a few months ago, I was walking down the steps at South Kensington Underground, changing from the Circle to the Piccadilly Line, when I heard a clatter at my feet and a mobile phone came skittering down the stairs. It was a rather better phone than I possessed and with the exchange of my SIM card for the one inside, it could have been mine. Instead, I phoned round some of the numbers on its directory until I got a message to its owner: he turned out to work at one of our sister hospitals along the road and came to collect it later the same day.

Or there was the time when, living in Thame, I got a bus back from Oxford, after a football match and a subsequent spell down the pub, and after a while noticed through the beer that the young Korean tourists at the back of the bus had got off, but had left a camera on the seat. I appropriated it immediately and took it back to my room, playing with the zoom lens, taking a few photos on the film they'd left inside. The next day, I went back into Oxford on the same bus service and handed it in to the police station.

But that was different. in each instance, I had reflected: I had asked myself whether or not I wanted to keep what I had found and decided I did not. In each instance my motivation was partly asking what I would like somebody else to do if I lost something important: "do as you would be done by", the premise on which civilisation depends. (The likelihood that they would probably keep it is of lesser significance, since "do it to them before they do it to you" is the premise on which civilisation is denied.) But more importantly it was about myself. How I would feel. Did I want to be using a camera for several years afterwards and every time I used it, think "this is a stolen camera", have that thought spoil everything, have that thought interfere with everything as I if I were Raskolnikov? Not me. Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me. Or, better, I will remove that cup myself.

But this was different: there was no impulse to claim the object found as mine by dint of fortune. There was no twinge of conscience because there was no triggering of the moral turmoil that makes the conscience twinge. And this, I think, is what is bothering me. For where is the credit in doing anything which you have not decided for yourself? Do you reject Satan? they used to ask (and presumably still do) at Catholic services like baptisms and Confirmations: one can scarcely answer "yes" when the thought of doing otherwise has not occurred. You cannot Do The Right Thing if you have devoted no thought to what the right thing and the wrong thing might, in practice, be. In fact, it leaves you in the same position as Alex in A Clockwork Orange. As the chaplain says:
Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?
To which the answer is, surely, yes, certainly yes, if only because there is no virtue in simply doing what you are told, except for the virtue implicit in obedience - and even that virtue is absent when that obedience is automatic. It might seem in some way virtuous to have no compulsion to sin, as if one had purged oneself of an imperfection, but to me, it is the opposite. Rather the ill-considered act than the act unconsidered. Rather the man who behaves foolishly than the man who has forgotten how to be a fool.

Well, all right, I was tired: but not all day, and not so tired that I didn't reflect on what had happened and what I felt about it. But it took all day before it occurred to me that I might have acted differently. I'm not so sure that that's a lack of sleep or an excess of ethics, it just strikes me as a lack of imagination.


At September 29, 2005 5:33 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Insomnia? TV? Fatal combination. A small battery operated radio under the pillow with either World Service, FiveLive or Radio 4 quietly murmuring away is my solution. Even if your mind won't shut down at least you are lying down, eyes closed and resting.

At September 29, 2005 6:25 pm, Anonymous ATP said...

I picked up £15 in the street and kept it.
My parents berated me for having kept it as it could have belonged to an old person who would be short.
"No", I thought, "It was definitely that woman who had pushed in front of me in the queue earlier in Budgens that dropped it".

At September 29, 2005 9:53 pm, Blogger Ed said...


Yes I see what you're saying. Don't think I agree though - I would much rather live in a society in which people were 'good' (sorry about scare quotes) because they had been raised/educated to think that way than in a society of existentialist individualists raging against imposed norms.

It's the socialist way innit.

At September 30, 2005 9:23 am, Anonymous CP said...

I found that quote by the Chaplain annoying.
It reminded me of when my ex said that my father giving money to Charity was a selfish act because it made him feel better.
You cannot "impose good" on someone.
You can teach them by word of mouth or by way of example, but at the end of the day they are still making the choices.
Justin, face the fact that you are transformed from a regular Anarchist to a respected Member of Society (and fast heading towards the coveted title of "Pillar of the Community").

At September 30, 2005 10:41 am, Blogger edjog said...

or pillock of the community, depending on which group of individuals we're on about, eh? or how EJH feels about his 'lack of immagination.'
personally, i'd have had it. without a moment's thought or rationalisation and thanked my good fortune. i'd have probably posted anything important to the owner, if there was an address, or dropped off anything i didn't want at the local nick, if it wasn't too far out of my way.
it's a pain in the arse to lose stuff, after all.
perhaps you, EJH, could try to be 'bad' next time and see how you feel, at least then you'd have perspective.
good luck, ex

At October 03, 2005 1:06 am, Anonymous Paul Lyon said...

Damned fool Kantian!

[It was Kant who insisted that only an act on principle against one's inclinations was virtuous; doing the right thing because that's the way you felt was not to act from reason, it was act heteronomously rather than autonomously.]

At October 10, 2005 10:38 am, Blogger Rowan Berkeley said...

this all sounds a bit Kierkegaardian to me

At October 12, 2005 3:54 am, Blogger Mark K said...

Maybe the wallet was Megaman's. . .

I recently lost nearly $500 in a wallet. It wasn't returned to me, despite my driving licence being in there. It was my flatmate's rent money. Bastards.


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