It’s believed by some that the town we use for shopping has something therapeutic in the air. Those who have looked into it go further. They say that the town stands beneath an intersection of ley lines, which subtly energises the inhabitants. This belief that occult energies permeate the town attracts to the area people who are well off, educated even, but permanently tired, dissatisfied with themselves and assailed by minor illnesses. They come in search of that spiritual key, pin number or magic word that will restore them to health and imbue their lives with significance.
Last week a philosopher came to town, name of Freke, and I went along to hear him. The venue was a Tudor period meeting room in the High Street, not far from the King Bill pub. The time, early Friday evening. By and large I get all the philosophy I need by reading the advertisements on the London Underground. But Freke sounded intriguing. In the local paper’s preview of the event, he described himself as reviving the ancient tradition of the itinerant philosopher spreading enlightenment from town to town. Further down the piece was an endorsement from someone calling himself Ram Dass, which sounded to me suspiciously like a schoolboy joke in the Ben Dover tradition. ‘Tim Freke’s work,’ gushed this Ram Dass, ‘is an open door inviting one and all into the Mystery.’ I reasoned that I would go along, find out what I’m doing here, then go to the pub and get hammered, as usual, and be able to claim afterwards that I’d spent an improving evening.
It cost £4.50 to get in. Under the elaborate, bowed, plaster ceiling were about 40 chairs, which soon filled. More people pressed in. Extra chairs were brought in from an adjacent room and distributed. One was passed over my head to a thin, pale young man who took it as if it was the most dangerous thing he’d been party to for a very long time.
Enter Freke. Late thirties. Bald. Unshaven. Sideburns the thickness of a line of coke. Dove-grey sports jacket over a black T-shirt. He stood before us, ready to give us his shtick. But a party of latecomers was still threading its way in. The room was too small and too crowded for latecomers not to be a major distraction. So Freke waited and watched, philosophically, as yet more chairs were passed in and we all budged up. Far from being apologetic, the latecomers glared accusingly at us, as if our own punctuality betrayed an allegiance to fascism.
‘Good evening!’ said Freke when they’d settled. But yet another latecomer, a young woman, appeared in the doorway. Freke put his hands together as if to pray and exhaled loudly into his fingertips. A woman in my row who looked like Cecil Rhodes groaned loudly.
An official directed the latecomer to edge her way along the front row, to a spare seat on the far side of the room. She was unsteady on her feet. At every step, the floor was a good three to six inches lower than she imagined. Willing hands prevented her from toppling into the audience, which monitored her progress, first with almost palpable irritation, then with growing appreciation of her pluck. It was like watching one of those ‘Strongest Man’ challenges where the contestant is harnessed to a truck and each ungainly step towards the finishing-line is an achievement.
Halfway along she encountered Freke. ‘Oh, hello!’ she said, genuinely glad to see a friendly face. She leaned against him for a moment to renew her strength. ‘Anybody with you?’ asked Freke, pleasantly enough. She gestured vaguely behind her and pushed on. In came her friend. Big coat. Beret. As off his face as she was. Drugs rather than drink, I thought. Drunks humbly aspire only to equality. Druggies think they are chosen by God. And this bloke, though stupefied, had about him that classic druggie’s air of bored condescension. As he passed in front of Freke, he paused to size him up in such an insulting way that, if we’d been in Sicily, it would have been remembered for generations.
When Freke finally got going, his theme was: ‘What is this moment?’ The opinion he offered us was that this moment is in fact a dream, from which it’s possible to wake. If we can wake from our dream, snap out of our identities and our petty narratives, we can become one with everything. In particular, we can become one with that greater love encompassing the universe. Love is therefore really nothing more than seeing through the veneer of identity that divides us.
I can’t tell you what a massive disappointment it was to learn that if I wanted understanding I’d have to turn in my identity, as the BBC has been telling me all along. But at least I know now what’s going on, what it’s all about, which I didn’t before.
That first pint of Fosters in the pub afterwards hardly touched the sides.