18th July

Big Mac

He was a man of subtle thought and bold accomplishment. His erudition stretched across the Humanities. Literature, music, cinema, art – all lay within the compass of his mind; but he also had a profound understanding of philosophy, natural history and science. If there was a subject on which he did not have a view, it was only because it was not worthy of his consideration. The trivial and populist passed him by like so much fluff in the wind. Accused of elitism, he proudly acknowledged himself guilty as charged. ‘I set myself the highest, most exacting standards,’ he said, ‘and I expect others to do the same.’

Leading, though of course lesser, figures in the various fields of his knowledge bowed to his superiority, some with gratitude, others with resentment. Critics expounded on his genius. Professors studied his work and lectured on it. Their best students wrote dissertations and theses on it. Conferences were organised around its themes. Long before he grew old, his place in intellectual history was assured.

Yet his reputation existed only in a certain stratum of society. Outside the walls of academe, beyond the pages of learned journals and the most sophisticated cultural radio programmes, he was unrecognised. He understood this – that singers, film stars, footballers and comedians were celebrities in a way that he never could be. Physically, he was an unremarkable human being. There were streets – whole districts of his city – where he could wander in complete anonymity. He found this comforting.

Nothing, in his last years, gave him greater pleasure than to leave his book-lined home in one part of the city and take a bus to another part – a journey between two worlds, he felt – where he would buy a burger, vanilla milkshake and fries at McDonald’s. He would eat this meal crammed in at one of the restaurant’s little plastic tables, then sit for ten minutes, watching other customers arriving, ordering, consuming and departing, before taking a bus home. He did this once a week. The staff treated him as they treated everybody else, and served him exactly the same meal every time. To them he was nobody special. And this was what pleased him most.

Reader: Kate Molleson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Subscribe here for more stories & music