I wouldn’t call Hall a friend exactly, but circumstances
threw us together that evening. The others had cleared off in search of
somewhere more exciting but we weren’t interested in excitement. After one more
pint Hall suggested that we should watch the sun go down over the salt marshes.
So we left the pub’s bright lights to stroll off down a
quiet track in the general direction of the sea, eventually finding a vacant seat
on the path by the marshes. We sat for a while in the gathering gloom without
saying anything. Men sometimes do that, feeling no need to break a silence.
It was one of those memorial seats with a little metal
plaque set into the back. A favourite view of somebody no longer with us. I
could guess the import of the inscription without even reading it. Couldn’t
read it anyway in that light.
An old chap sat nearby, apparently perched on some kind of
shooting stick jabbed into sandy earth by the path –
“Do you watch the news much?” Hall broke into a train of
thought which wasn’t going much further than the practicality of shooting
sticks. I’d never tried one you see.
“I’m not much of a news buff,” I replied. I wasn’t in the
mood for the outside world. I’d assumed that was why we were sitting there
under that great slate sky flecked with shades of pink and deeper tones of red.
Not quite beautiful or majestic but still impressive in a louring kind of way.
Worth absorbing after a few drinks.
“No neither do I. The news - it’s all so bloody gloomy these
“Ignore it then. I do.” Wasn’t quite true but near enough.
“I can’t ignore it – what’s that?”
“It’s an oystercatcher somewhere out there in the marshes It can sound quite eerie.” I
caught Hall’s faint sense of unease. Perhaps he wasn’t a nature lover.
“Hell of a spooky sound. Can’t say I appreciate that kind of
thing myself - atmospheric though.”
“Yes it is atmospheric. I love it – come here quite often.”
“Nice sunset too,” Hall added. “Maybe I ought to do this
kind of thing as well. Get away from things.”
“Get away from what?”
“Oh all kinds of things. Work, the general grind, events –
no not so much events. Trends – global trends.”
“Well – here’s one I think about a lot. Imagine a world
where you can go wherever you like at the drop of a hat.”
“Sounds wonderful.” I could tell Hall had something to get
off his chest. Dusk over the marshes, the oystercatcher’s call, a modest sunset
and that faint rumble of the sea giving the shingle what for. The natural world
was not what he was here for.
“Does it sound so wonderful? Maybe it does from some angles.”
Hall paused and scratched his head. He sat silently for a while, as if
gathering something together, some slowly maturing idea lying deeper than the
“From some angles? Not yours I presume.” I realised I didn’t
know Hall well enough to grasp his angle without an explanation. If he’d been a
friend I’d have known, but then perhaps our conversation would have been more
superficial, a skating over known surfaces.
“Suppose – oh I don’t know. Suppose in a world without national
borders there are jobs which might be anywhere in the world. If you want one
you just have to go there because you can’t get anything local.” Hall paused
again. The old chap on the shooting stick hadn’t moved and by now it was getting
dark. Maybe he was listening to our conversation. Maybe he wanted to know what
Hall had to say.
“Okay let’s suppose that,” I prompted.
“Well – suppose everything is known about you – suppose it
is all in the global computer systems –“
“Which it is already.”
“Yes - which as you say it is already. They probably know
more about us than we do ourselves. Now suppose a job pops up on your screen
and it’s a job which would actually suit you – really suit you. Location,
salary, the job itself – every box ticked. The global systems already know it
would suit you and they are right and you know they are right.”
“Even if a distant job suits you, what about leaving friends
and family?” I asked. Obvious question but Hall had all that worked out too.
“In this global system you never lose touch with anyone.
Doesn’t matter where you are in the world you never lose touch. It’s making a
“Okay what about children, what about relationships?”
“Eventually children will no longer be a parental
responsibility. Things are moving that way too. Children will be brought up in
official crèches, taught and socialised professionally. Nothing left to chance
or the vagaries of human behaviour.”
“That’s not new though is it?” I relied. “Skinner had all
that mapped out decades ago. Who takes it seriously now?”
“It is taken seriously by some. It must be because it’s an obvious
trend – we are moving towards it and there is no alternative trend which says
we shouldn’t go there. It’s all down to a fundamental weakness in our ability
to reason, to work out what we really want out of life.”
“You may say that here on this bench,” I replied, “but in
the final analysis people won’t stand for it.”
“They will stand for it because we have a deep problem with
happiness. We pursue happiness as if it is a desirable state, as if it is the
ultimate desirable state. Achieve happiness and there is nothing else to
achieve. That’s the crucial driver, the crucial assumption.”
“Well it isn’t a bad state to be in – happy. I’d go for it
and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.”
“I agree, who wouldn’t? The best possible care and complete
freedom within our capabilities. That’s where we are headed and there is no way
of stopping it.”
“Do you want to stop it?”
“Yes, even though I can’t decide if the whole idea is
wonderfully liberating or a new kind of serfdom.”
“Yes that’s about it and the more I think about it the more
nightmarish it sounds, yet sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t like that either -”
“I’m so sorry but I could not help overhearing your
fascinating conversation.” A pleasantly modulated voice oozed out of the
darkness behind our bench. It was the chap with the shooting stick. He loomed over
us like a crusty old teacher delighted to catch a couple of pupils smoking
behind the bike sheds.
“It all sounds most satisfactory to me,” he added, his head
on one side like a huge bird. It made his smile rather odd, more like a leer. By
now the sun was merely a livid gash in a sable sky, reflected in crimson glints
deep within his old, old eyes.