John B Keane: Those walkers with their hands behind

NOT many people walk with their hands behind their backs these days. For one thing affluence has seen to it that every trousers has pockets and we are told by members of the medical profession that it is beneficial to swing one’s hands while walking. These are sound contributory reasons but against them is arrayed the well-known fact that, for some reason best known to themselves, fewer people use walking sticks. This should mean that more people would be free to walk with their hands behind their backs. In practice, however, it is far from so. The cold truth is that very few people walk with hands behind their backs.

NOT many people walk with their hands behind their backs these days. For one thing affluence has seen to it that every trousers has pockets and we are told by members of the medical profession that it is beneficial to swing one’s hands while walking. These are sound contributory reasons but against them is arrayed the well-known fact that, for some reason best known to themselves, fewer people use walking sticks. This should mean that more people would be free to walk with their hands behind their backs. In practice, however, it is far from so. The cold truth is that very few people walk with hands behind their backs.

In my youth almost all schoolmasters who did not use walking sticks walked with their hands behind their backs and their heads down. It was widely believed that the use of a man’s brains exhausted him and particularly so in the case of teachers who were supposed to have more brains than anyone else. I myself have heard teachers and clerks say that brainwork is the toughest work of all. I disagree, of course.

I have always believed that working in a quarry on a windy, sleety day is tougher than brainwork, but who am I to argue against so many? As I said, schoolmasters were fond of walking with the hands behind the backs. They were, no doubt, just as fond, if not fonder of other things, but that is neither here nor there and anyway is no concern of ours anyway you care to look at it.

To press on, it was also widely accepted and still is, that those who walked with their hands behind their backs were in deep thought and should be treated respectfully. If a poor man walked with his hands behind it was felt that the poor fellow was not right in the head but if a rich man did so it was agreed that he was working out solutions to problems and was quite entitled to do so. In other words, before a person dared to walk with the hands behind the back that person had to be a person of consequence. One could hardly be expected to take a poor man seriously. After all he had no money and no position and, therefore, nothing to worry about. It was different with those who were blessed or cursed with material wealth. The more they had the more they were expected to walk with their hands behind.

Clergymen were also forgiven if seen to be walking thus. Being men of God it was more or less expected of them. When so walking they might be considering ways and means of improving the human situation, of alleviating misfortune and distress. They might be meditating and who had a better right?

More important still they might be involved in the working out and development of a sermon for the approaching Sunday. Let me state emphatically, however, that while it may have helped to put the sermon together it did not give any guarantee of quality. Some of the longest and dullest sermons came from preachers who always walked with the hands behind the back, while some of the most interesting and enlightening came from men who swung their hands like pistons whenever they were out and about.

What I wish to convey is that it is difficult to make a dull man better than what he is. If you look around you you will notice that young men or boys never walk with the hands behind. This is because they have little time for thought. There are too many things to be done and walking with the hands behind the back would be the same as being fettered.

No, sir. It suits older men better and elderly men best of all. The latter have put most of the fences in chase of life safely behind them and it could be said, in a manner of speaking, that they are at pasture.

I really believe that to walk with their hands behind their backs becomes them. It is what we expect of them and it alerts us when we see figures in the distance. When we do not see the hands swinging vigorously we may assume that an old person is approaching. It gives us an opportunity to get ready. It behoves all men to treat old age with respect, but when we see old men acting in accordance with their years we should be more respectful still.

Lastly, but by no means least, mark you, comes he who has lost a valuable. More so than anybody he has the right to walk with the hands behind. The very posture arising from the disposition of his hands commands respect and as a result he may attract disciples to assist him in his search.