Ian McMillan: I pulled the hat down and walked into the wall

Years ago, when I was a young lad in a striped polo shirt, I remember sitting on the settee with my dad, an older man in a cardigan, to watch a serious discussion programme on the TV. My dad liked serious discussion programmes, and he’d often quote bits of what he’d heard the next day to the rest of us at tea, often, I have to say, to general boredom or mild derision. That night, however, I thought I’d give serious discussion a chance.

As far as I could see, on our tiny black-and-white telly, the show consisted of men in suits speaking sentences that were so long I could go and get a packet of Spangles from the kitchen and eat half of them before they got to the end of a clause. The camera zoomed in on one chap with a forehead so big and wide you could have slalomed down it and as he rambled on, a caption suddenly appeared on the screen that said PHILOSOPHER. I asked my dad, “What’s a philosopher?” and he replied, “It’s somebody who thinks for a living”. I didn’t understand. “You mean thinking is his job, like your job is working in an office?” I said, and he nodded, and at that moment I decided I wanted to be a philosopher. I wanted to think for a living.

I started the next day, after school. Yes, I know, I should have been doing a lot of thinking during the day, but at the time, like certain 20th century French philosophers, I drew a distinction between thinking and learning. I made that last bit up, but it’s the kind of thing philosophers say, isn’t it?

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I sat on a chair and furrowed my brow because that’s what I thought philosophers did. The chair was too comfortable, so I moved to a dining chair which was harder and more conducive to deep thought. In my Arthur Mee’s children’s encyclopaedia there was an illustration of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, with its much imitated pose of the naked bloke with his hand on his chin, deep in contemplation. I imitated the pose, with my clothes on, obviously. I refurrowed my brow, almost knitting it. I tried to snap my fingers because I’d seen grown-ups do that when they were trying to think of a word. The trouble was, nothing was happening.

My brother came in and, when I’d explained my thinking mission to him, told me that I needed a cap, a thinking cap. I was sceptical but he pointed out that the phrase ‘put on your thinking cap’ came from the actual caps that Philosophers in Barnsley used to wear in the Thinking Dens of Gawber.

“This’ll do,” he said, jamming one of my dad’s old trilbies down over my hair, my ears, and almost as far as my chin. I couldn’t see, but perhaps that would make it easier to think. He was laughing, but perhaps he was laughing with joy at the thought of me becoming a great philosopher.I stood up and pulled the hat up a little so I could see. ‘Walk up and down’ my brother suggested, ‘so the blood circulates to your thinking lobes’ and he said it with such seriousness, I believed him. I pulled the hat down and walked across the room into the wall.

I think it hurt. A lot.