If you are having a bad day, I suggest that you keep in mind the events that unfolded on the night of 21stSeptember 1788 near the Transylvanian town of Karansebes. A large contingent of the Austrian army was on a night march to engage with an equally large contingent of the Turkish army. History is not clear how the battle started, or what really happened, but by the time the sun rose on the scene, around 10 thousand Austrian soldiers were dead, which turned out to be about 10 thousand more than the Turkish slain.
Which might have had something to do with the fact that the Turks hadn’t been present at all, and the Austrians had attacked themselves by mistake, and then fought themselves to a standstill in the darkness.
Pausing briefly to wonder how the battle finally got reported back up the chain of command to the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, this has rightly taken its place as the most pointless battle in history.
I was thinking about pointlessness as I spent last Friday evening walking down the Thames path, 28 miles from Richmond to the Thames Barrier. No plan, no route, no sponsorship, no deadlines, just a long and pointless night march, of the sort I used to do 30 years ago at the taxpayers’ expense with the Royal Green Jackets. And the conclusion I came to is that there isn’t nearly enough pointlessness in my life, and that part of this winter is about seeking it out.
You may feel that I don’t have to look very far: Mrs May’s negotiating strategy, for example, or Philip Green’s personal PR agency. But I would argue that most of our lives are governed by doing things for a solid reason, and that doing this without a break makes our existence poorer. If we can persuade ourselves to do things ‘because they are there’, or because we had ‘a funny feeling’ about it, I have found that we automatically enter a world of adventure and surprise, and that doing so normally makes us more cheerful
‘What you doing that for?’ I was asked by the security guard at the all-night Macdonalds on Wandsworth roundabout when I told him why we were there at two in the morning on our long walk through London.
‘Don’t know,’ I replied. ‘Just fancied a walk. Do you want to come along?’
‘That,’ he said in a rich Barbadian brogue, ‘is the coolest thing I have ever heard.’
And our sense of pointlessness led us on through Chelsea and Waterloo, past Borough Market and Tower Bridge and out through Bermondsey on our way to Greenwich and beyond. With the river on our left, and our feet getting steadily sorer, we saw urban foxes that would move aside for no one, and small-time drug dealers that scarpered as we approached; we saw the Battersea Power Station in its midnight red, and the Cutty Sark with the sunrise showing up through its rigging. We saw the gothic beauty of our mother of parliaments, and the tawdry ordinariness of the O2 centre. We saw revelers spilling out of the early morning clubs, and freezing lovers sorting out quarrels on the side of the embankment. All fascinating, and all pointless. And as free as the air we breathed.
I’m not saying that the previous two years when we did the walk for sponsorship were a mistake, just that it was liberating to do it for no particular reason. To know that you could call an Uber if it all got too depressing, or stop in an all-night bar if the mood took you. At the end of it, it was one of the most enjoyable walks of my life.
And, to explore the concept of pointlessness a little further, I have bought a ticket for the cheapest flight I could find online to wherever it happened to be going in two weekends time, Ljubljana, as it happens, and to spend the inside of three days just being there. No accommodation booked, no tourist trail, no nothing. Just a new place to be, and in which to see what happens, or doesn’t happen.
You see, I have spent the majority of my life asking and answering the question ‘so what?’, and so have you, in all probability. And I have always wanted a ‘so something’ answer to emerge. So we did the deal. So we bought the car. So the hero got the girl. So we made bubble and squeak. And having that mindset has produced narrow tramlines from time to time, and squeezes out the fun.
Because one day, you and I will be standing in front of St Peter, or his equivalent, and we will be trying to explain how it all went. And I want to tell him or her about that sunrise on the Cutty Sark before I tell him about my mortgage; and I want to tell him that at this late stage in my life that I made time for wonderment, long after I stopped thinking about bloody house prices.
And about that one, rippling, cover drive of the endless summer.
That’s what I want to tell him.