Ren asks for some more questions. Not surprisingly, no-one is very keen to ask one. The only person putting his hand up is Alan Pettigrew.
Alan is a former civil servant, now retired. He turns up most weeks with a couple of plastic shopping bags full of newspapers. No-one knows why he has the bags. There is a spectrum between eccentric and mad, and in Alan’s case there is a lot of week-to-week movement of the swingometer that points to his position on this spectrum. There is usually a short discussion each week in the staff club as to what position Alan was on that day. A few months ago he was definitely on the milder end, talking lucidly, asking some reasonable questions, making some half-decent witticisms. Recently, though, he’s been starting to show signs of becoming unglued again. And when he goes downhill his jokes go from being lame to indecipherable, and he chuckles at them more. So Ren isn’t that keen on calling on Alan. But Tyson takes matters into his own hands.
‘Question,’ he says, pointing at Alan.
‘My question is this,’ says Alan in his mumbling, breathless monotone, which is worse than usual today. You can also tell it’s a bad day because he’s fiddling with the newspapers in one of his plastic bags, which he has on his lap. ‘When I used to work in the civil service we had a work rota where we’d all fill in the shifts we wanted to do, or had to do, and as you can imagine, it got very complicated, didn’t it, and we came up with numerous systems, and no-one could decide which was the best system, so we tried to devise a method that could determine which was the best system, but we came up with two of those, so how could we decide which was the best one of those, so we spent a few months trying to come up with a system that could tell us that, but that was beyond the range of our abilities, and how did we know that there’d only be one of those systems? So Jock Landers, who was a bit of an expert on logic, got talking to this Oxford chappie who was a whizz at logic, and he used to work on radar in the war, and he said that with radar systems you’ve got a similar problem, because of the calibration needed, although Ted Sanders reckoned it wasn’t similar at all with radar, and he said the problem that Jock was on about was due to an issue with the electronics, but then that leaves us in what is a similar situation, isn’t it, because how do we decide between Jock and Ted? Mmm? So my feeling is that perhaps we can’t, or for all intents and purposes we can’t, so we’re left with relativism, aren’t we, and if it isn’t relativism of facts, it’s relativism of knowledge, because even if there are facts we can’t get at ‘em, can we? I used to talk about this with the old Professor who was here years ago, McConogill, and he wasn’t very keen on this talk, but then I’d say to him, how do I know you’re right? And he’d say, Well Alan, he’d say, think about it like this.’
Alan rambles on in this vein for ages. It’s material the philosophers have heard before quite a number of times. It doesn’t form anything remotely like a suitable question for Tyson’s seminar – in fact it doesn’t even form into a question at all – but it’s filling in the gaps for now, while Ren points at people and silently asks them whether they want to ask a question. No-one gives a firm commitment to ask one. While Ren is doing this Tyson silently rises from his seat and goes over to Alan, who looks up at him, but doesn’t stop talking.
‘Don’t mind me’, says Tyson, who takes one of Alan’s newspapers out of a bag. He takes it back to his seat, sits down, and starts reading it. Alan is looking most flustered, but keeps talking, like his language centres are on autopilot. He looks like he wants to get his newspaper back and tell Tyson off, but here he is finally being given the chance to talk and talk in front of a large captive audience, he can’t let that chance go, he has to ignore Tyson, as hard as it is when one of his newspapers has been taken without permission, and just let the words flow for as long as he can.
‘And what if it all comes around in a circle? What if one of the systems you’ve now reached turns out to be the same as one of the systems you started with? That puts you in an impossible situation, doesn’t it? I mean that could happen, it may not be very likely, but it’s logically possible, as you fellows say, and that means you’re trapped in a loop and you can never get out, and do we not know, I mean we can’t, can we, we might be in a loop like that now, we don’t know we are, but we don’t know we aren’t, you might as well toss a coin, mightn’t you, all these things you think you know, but really we don’t know anything.’
‘Oooh, nasty bus crash,’ says Tyson, turning a page. ‘Twenty-four killed. Tragedy.’
‘Is it all an illusion, and does it all goes back to Plato and the cave?’ says Alan, getting really rattled now, and making less sense than ever. ‘It always does, but Plato thinks there’s truth, but is there? How do we know they’re even in a cave? Maybe it’s the bottom of a well. Maybe it isn’t either, it’s both, no, not both, but not either either, but it could be both, but not really because maybe there’s no truth.’
Alan is starting to mumble now, and his words are gradually getting harder and harder to make out.
‘So maybe they’re not even there, and the flames can be described as flames or as turnips, who’s to say that’s wrong if we call them turnips? Well, not turnips perhaps, that’s not a good example, but something that’s like a flame but isn’t a flame, but isn’t a turnip either, but isn’t that far removed from a turnip, I mean, who decides? Is it a flame? Is it a turnip? Does a flame or a turnip look upon the situation and decide which it is? Do we know who or what is deciding? How do we do that?’
‘I get it,’ says Tyson.
‘You do?’ says Alan. ‘What?’
‘I get what the newspapers in the plastic bags are for.’
Alan says nothing. Tyson lies on the floor, and starts placing sheets of newspaper on top of him.
‘Please don’t do that,’ says Alan.
‘It’s a tramp kit, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a tramp kit. You carry the bags around and whenever you need to sleep you just take out the papers, and hey presto, instant bed?’
Alan looks flustered and angry. His lip starts quivering, and he looks like he’s ready to attack Tyson. Ren thinks he’d better step in now. Secretly he’s enjoying this bit of drama, which is a welcome relief from the usual seminar tedium, and he suspects that most of the audience is secretly enjoying it too, even if they’re affecting to be appalled, but he’d rather not have another physical fight on his hand as seminar organiser.
‘Right,’ he says, ‘we’re going to wind things up early today, I think. Tyson, please give Alan back his newspapers. Thank you for coming everyone, and can we have a big hand for Tyson Kipnis.’
(Later on Ren is praised for his decisiveness here. He wasn’t decisive, of course. He should have stepped in earlier. He only seemed decisive by philosopher standards. Most other philosophers would have still been umming and aahing long after Alan and Tyson had finished punching each other.)
There is some desultory applause, but mostly there’s silence. Then everyone pours out of the room, clearly because they want to start gossiping about what they’ve seen as soon as possible. Tyson just lies there under the sheets of newspaper. Alan goes and snatches them back, helped by Ren. He stuffs them back into his plastic bag, but they don’t fit now because he hasn’t folded them up properly. He stalks off out of the room, furious.
Ren’s not sure what to say. Eventually he says, ‘Come on Tyson, let’s go.’ Tyson gradually rises to his feet without a word.
Ren corrals a group who are still gossiping in the corridor. ‘Can you lot take Tyson to the staff club? I’m going to put a note on the door of the Philosophy office in case Tyson’s wife comes back there and finds it all shut up for the day.’