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Life with the Blind

One night in late 1964 I assisted at a bizarre ritual which involved three blind men climbing up a drainpipe. It led them to the easily opened window of the Junior Common Room in Queen’s College, Oxford. I had been drinking with them because they were school friends, from Worcester Royal College for the Blind, of my college friend, Bob Tebby, who had some sight. In the rituals of Oxford in those days college doors and gates shut for the night, normally at 11pm, and latecomers had to make their way back by the known unofficial routes. In many respects both technological advance and more understanding attitudes have made life easier for blind people since then. But it isn’t all good news and they still have to be tough: in 2020 social distancing has made life extremely difficult for blind people. According to the RNIB in their prolegomenon to their “World Upside Down” campaign, instituted in July 2020, two thirds of people feel they have lost a degree of independence – which makes me think again of that night and my introduction to an extraordinary character called Roger Williams.

A decade later Roger Duclaud-Williams, as he now was, having married a French lady, became a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Warwick where I already had a job. We were friends and very frequent companions, usually lunching together and often traveling to and from work together. I often walked with Roger, holding his elbow, though attempts at country walks over rough ground proved difficult. I never shared his love of jazz, but was with him all the way in his exploration of the varieties of “real” beer. Going to football together wasn’t an enormous success, but the races were. Roger regarded being a punter as a serious intellectual activity and I have vivid memories of reading to him from the Racing Post about how horse X had beaten horse Y at Kempton, but that was over shorter distance and on heavier ground than today’s race. It was far more detail than I would ever have bothered with on my own. On reflection it helped that there is live commentary at racecourses and that most of the punters don’t see most of the race anyway.

Roger died in 2012 and I still miss him. Not in a soppy way, of course – he would have hated that, but in a specific intellectual way. I still have moments when I am curious about his opinion on something or want to put an argument to him before the speedy and inevitable realisation that it’s not going to happen. Brexit would have been the extreme case: I support it and he would have opposed it, but we could have discussed it at length without rancour. Lunch always started with Roger eating whatever he had that was sweet – cake or fruit – before his sandwiches and simultaneously beginning his cross-examination: “If, as you claimed yesterday . . .” This is not an obituary, but it is an exploration of what there is to be learned from knowing a highly intelligent blind man for nearly fifty years, thirty of them as a close colleague.

Even though I’m not writing an obituary I must make it clear that everyone regarded Roger as a remarkable person. He was completely blind, but had no dog and used his white stick principally as a signal of his condition. He traveled alone round the USA on Greyhound buses. He hitch-hiked! When it was put to him that perhaps things could go wrong he laughed and said he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He much preferred my banter to the audible whisperings of “Isn’t he wonderful?” we could sometimes hear as he passed. (Roger: “I saw your wife yesterday.” Lincoln: “No you didn’t – you’re blind.”) He was my model of unsentimental tough-mindedness and his contempt for religion was beyond atheism. Not for him any mealy-mouthed theological justification of how a loving and omnipotent God could allow him to be afflicted. Instead, “Shit happens. Get on with it.”

Being blind means, prima facie, a lack of visual awareness and being as tough as Roger was meant not bothering to correct your lack of visual awareness. I used to chide Roger for dressing in winter in exactly the same way as he did in summer because he wasn’t aware that other people had coats and hats on; he shivered, but he was hardly ever ill. It also meant facial expressions that expressed emotion in a child-like way. On the racecourse this could be pure delight as the horse he’d backed was called home at the front. In the seminar room when a speaker was talking guff or sliding into contradiction Roger’s silent laugh of contempt was something the speaker wouldn’t wish to see.

The blind life is limited and frustrating and nobody should ever pretend otherwise. Professionally, Roger was a good teacher and a wonderfully constructive critic of work in progress, but he struggled with producing published work of his own even though he was in many ways one of the hardest workers I knew in academic life. His expertise was in the policy-making process and he had many interesting things to say about it, but he was one of those academics who never quite got full value for his expertise in the matter of publication: it’s yet another aspect of life that is exponentially more difficult if you are blind. He was certainly one of the most regular and disciplined workers in academic life because the organisation of his squadron of readers required him to be in the office all day every day.

Privately he enjoyed jazz and eating and drinking and, as activities, rowing and bell ringing, but I was acutely aware of how few things a blind person can enjoy. He loved lively and uninhibited conversation. The first and simplest lesson I learned from him was a sense of contempt for problems. So – your garage bill is astronomical, your book has been badly reviewed and your team failed to win the cricket trophy you thought you were going to win. Diddums! Try being a blind man living on his own with little money to spare. (He and Hélène in their rational way had agreed to part when the younger of their two children reached adulthood.)

I was one of many people who found Roger’s toughness inspiring, but there was a great deal else to be learned in his company. For example, as Warwick had set itself up to be blind-friendly there were other blind lecturers and students about; one consequence was that I became extremely suspicious of the use of any kind of visual aid in teaching and often boasted that I was not going to use any technology not available to Socrates. I guess that with audiences that can see but don’t understand English very well that would get me sacked pretty quickly these days. But that was the tip of an iceberg: in Roger’s company I learned a suspicion of the value of the visual as such. A horse to Roger was potentially something to feel and smell and to hear galloping through the mud. But it was primarily a set of propositions aspiring to be facts, a sire, a dam, a size and a set of details about past races all merging into an estimated level of probability. In other words I felt that blindness could allow a kind of pure intellect of language and logic. Roger was a superb interrogator and adviser because he could focus entirely on the structure and coherence of what was being said.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” The phrase is sometimes attributed to an American journalist called Tess Saunders about a century ago, but the basic sentiment goes back to an ancient Chinese proverb and has been endlessly repeated. It doesn’t look so clever when you’re in the company of a blind person. In what respect and to whom does the value of a picture accrue? Pictures can actually say anything you want them to say depending on how they are angled and chosen. Think of the disingenuous Orwell basing his evaluation of the state of capitalism on the photograph of a woman scrubbing on her knees when he might have chosen one of the same woman enjoying a Saturday night dance. Think of how newspaper editors choose their photographs of politicians. The value of pictures accrues to propagandists and not to those who seek to engage in sincere intellectual inquiry. But visual images can also be a substitute or palliative to thought and an alternative to dealing with ideas expressed in language. (I’m grateful, in retrospect, that I was brought up without television.)

I took Roger to many events and places though never, of course, to an art gallery. Perhaps it would have been fun to describe a Botticelli or a Miro to him, but it wouldn’t have got us very far. It was surely as impossible for him to imagine the visual arts as it was for me to imagine being blind. Perhaps if several people had described the same picture . . . ? Which led me to reflect on the peripherality and the triviality of the visual arts. I’d love to qualify fully as a Philistine, but I don’t: I go to galleries, buy art, watch art programmes, have been on courses etc. But I have to conclude that art is trivial; it doesn’t “say” anything at a serious intellectual level, but it’s nice. Otherwise not being able to see would make you less than human, wouldn’t it? Whereas Roger seemed more than normally human. In some ways this parallels our discussions of music. I only occasionally warmed to jazz and Roger had a curiously intense loathing of Mozart. When I asked him why he said that because you always knew which note was coming next. He loved jazz because it was spontaneous and moody, completely disconnected from the rational world he inhabited most of the time.

There’s a consoling old wives’ tale that if you’re blind the other senses intensify to compensate. Sadly it’s not true: when he was in his sixties Roger’s hearing was deteriorating. On the other hand he did have a preternatural ability to identify beer though usually when I introduced him to a new one he pronounced it too sweet. But what he also had, as a highly intelligent blind man, was an intellect stripped down to its essentials, free of baggage and imagery. He was a Labour Party member of an open-minded and centrist kind. So our political positions were different, but I knew of nobody who could better interrogate me about my beliefs and their implications than Roger could.

Lincoln Allison July 2020

(An edited version of this essay was published in Times Higher Education in October 2020.)