Oxford is one of those places which has big open green spaces very close to the city centre. On a recent visit and taking advantage of a sunny morning, I started my day with a walk into Port Meadow, an extensive area of low-lying flood plain which has been common land for centuries. But such walks always cause me a bit of anxiety. I make them without any props and often find myself the only person out and about who hasn’t got the kind of excuse which a prop indicates; I am just a solitary walker, without even the cover which coupledom provides.
The dog-dependent are out at this time of day, their presence in the meadow justified by the dog. A notice at the entrance to the meadow tells me that to reduce the risk of dog faeces spreading parasitic infections to animals grazing in the meadow, those faeces must be gathered up and disposed of into a bin. In addition, a single person may not bring more than four dogs into the meadow, perhaps to discourage those who depend on dog walking for their livelihood and for whom the meadow would be a convenient, unpoliced shittery. A more prominent notice tells me that one of the horses which graze in the meadow has recently died in a savage dog attack and the Meadow custodians would like to know whose dog.
This makes me a bit anxious and I guess does the same for the joggers and runners who are out, mostly young women dressed in clothes which indicate seriousness of purpose and justify their presence in the open air on a sunny morning: I am here because I am keeping fit, though I rather anxiously hope that my Lycra legs do not attract the attention of a savage dog.
Then there are cyclists, most heading south towards the city centre and most, I guess, with the practical aim of getting to work or class. They look rather intense, as if they might be late for an important date. But the bicycle is the prop which legitimates their rapidly passing presence.
A few of the joggers and the cyclists greet me but, of course, there is no reason for them to stop and pass a time of day in which I would tell them that I have just been watching a pair of young goldfinches, feeding on dandelion clocks.
There was a time when, in response to anxieties about walking alone, I used to carry a stick - an indication that I was a serious walker, up there with the jogger or cyclist. But I could never bring myself to don the expensive garments which signify someone as a Rambler, garments made all the more signifying by their binary contrast with the Naked version. Eventually, and despite the fact that I was getting older, I gave up the stick and now present myself, albeit uncomfortably, as that species of solitary walker who pays some attention to what can be seen and what can be heard around them, but with no real excuse for being there in a meadow on a sunny morning.
Later, I walked down to the city centre, a world crowded with young people and, of course, seething with props: smartphones with their own human beings permanently attached. Where are the flâneurs and the flâneuses, I asked myself? Surely there must be other people nearby, strolling and trying to pay attention to the viewscape and the soundscape. But I don’t see many.
As for the smartphones, their human dependents would be so full of the beauty of youth if they would but detach themselves, look up, look around, pay attention, stroll or strut their stuff. This, after all, is Oxford and the young people I see clearly have the benefit of good diet, good dentistry, and effortless taste in the way they dress. They are quite unlike the young people I see each day in the decayed south coast resort where I live. But, fortunate or not, both rich and poor all now have in common that they are not looking at the world around them, or listening to it. Especially, it seems, when crossing a road.
But then I said to myself, In your day surely you must have had your own props; and then I thought, yes, the smartphone has replaced the cigarette. Back then, it was a cigarette which solved the problem of what to do with your hands, or at least, one hand. The cigarette - mine were always Turkish - gave you an excuse for your existence and a prop to navigate social life. If not a cigarette, then maybe a handbag or even just a rolled up newspaper - the latter a common sight in the past.
Human beings are natural fidgets; so many of our problems stem from our inability to sit, stand or walk quietly, without a prop to soothe. In the days of portraits in oils and into the early days of photography it was a big problem, partly solved by equipping the sitter with a fan, a flower, a book, a riding crop.
I walk back to my guest house. A woman approaches, perhaps a grandmother, pushing a buggy and addressing soothing words to its occupant. She passes and I half turn to look at the baby: big-eyed, big-eyelashed, and wide-open mouthed; an old-fashioned pink plastic doll.