Brother Walter and his life of solitude somehow fits the moment…

As a man in danger of being admitted to the Accidental Brotherhood of Hermits, I was pleased to discover the Hermit of York.

For ‘discover’ you may read, stumbled on something others already know while half-listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4.

Brother Walter Willman was interviewed in 1961 for the Tonight programme on television. The interviewer was Alan Whicker, whose three-decade run of Whicker’s World began there as a segment. The clip is available online and is worth five minutes of your time.

Whicker is brusque, with a military bearing he never lost (during the war, he was an officer in the Devonshire Regiment, before moving to the Film and Photo Unit, according to Wikipedia). He may bark out his lines, but he is empathetic and asks good questions.

Brother Walter lived for 30 years in a tiny room in All Saints Church in York. If he’d had a catchphrase, it might have been I’m not so pious as all that, something he said in the interview, speaking slowly and carefully, each word popped on the scales before being allowed out. No saint about me, was something else he said, another catchphrase, this one suggesting levity behind his considered manner.

Whicker talks to Brother Walter in his world’s orbit, a tiny medieval space, ten foot by eight and no room to swing a gargoyle, with a window into the church known as a squint. He asks why Brother Walter chose this solitary life. “Well, I don’t know that I’ve chosen it,” he say. “I’ve been sort of drafted into it.”

Brother Walter moved in 30 years previously, when he was aged around 40. That’s not old, Whicker points out with a twinkle behind his glasses. Although he doesn’t mention the fact, Whicker was 40 at the time of the interview.

“You don’t recommend your type of life for anybody else?” he asks.

“Oh, certainly not,” says Brother Walter. “Very few people would be suited to it.”

The programme on the radio, A Short History of Solitude, was made by historian Thomas Dixon to reflect the ways in which we all have become isolated to different degrees thanks to Covid-19.

Not as isolated as Brother Walter, whose story is featured, but separated from normal life for sure. Isolation comes in shades: wanting to be alone, not wanting to be alone, or at work a world in which the rules have changed and nothing is quite the same.

My own office life/university life has disappeared and the four walls of this study have moved in, while I plot what happens next, in the crime novel I am writing, and in life too. That novel is made up as it goes along, as is this life.

Working from home is now so familiar it has its own acronym, WFH – a little close for comfort to WTF, although perhaps that is not accidental. Plenty of people WFH might think WTF happened to my life. Others might enjoy this aloneness.

As Coleridge observed of his fellow poet Wordsworth – “He is a man of whom it might have been said, ‘It is good for him to be alone’.”

Whether it’s good for the rest of us, whether it was truly good for Brother Walter or Mr Wordsworth, it is hard to know.

Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely, as you can be lonely in a crowd or content with your own company. Or you can return home from work tired to your core, and have to listen to the evening wittering of a man who has spent too much of the day by himself in the study.

That’s the cross my wife sometimes has to bear. Still, at least we’ve just discovered Young Wallander on Netflix, so we can be companionable watching that.

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