Peter Hammill - Bill, Ben and Mede

Read the questions carefully. You are advised not to answer any or all of them. Marks will be awarded only for empathy with the protagonists.

Three resolute merchant seamen arranged to run a race from Southampton to Winchester. They agreed on no rules bar the fact that they should use only the main road, and not the pavements.

Bill, a stoker, choose to run in the gutter on the left hand side of the road. Ben, a second lieutenant, elected to race on the right hand side, also in the gutter. Mede, whose rank, status and mental attitude are to this day unknown, ran down the centre of the road, along the dotted white line and at the brow of both cambers. In common between them all were three things: an unshakeable belief in their own victory, and in the justice of such; acknowledgement of the fact that a run of seventeen miles would exhaust them; hope for the sight of the spire of Winchester cathedral.

Each had a different style of running. Ben was a fast sprinter, and hoped to burn up the others' will by his initial speed. Bill was not particularly fast, but the power in his legs and chest and his overall stamina would, he believed, see him through. Mede was neither hare nor tortoise, but a tactician, and hoped to carry away the victory by conserving his energy for the final burst into the cathedral precincts. There were advantages and disadvantages for each of them in their chosen positions. Bill had a clear view around right-hand bends, none around left-hand ones, but was in no danger from oncoming traffic. He was threatened, however, by cars coming from behind him. Ben had reversed advantage as regards his view of the road, and had no need to concern himself about traffic coming from behind, but was in dire peril from every vehicle out of Winchester. Mede had a relatively unobstructed view of the road ahead at all times and, furthermore, was in no danger of being disqualified by accidentally running into the pavement, as were the other two. However, every car and lorry stood a good chance of running him down and he therefore had to zigzag along the road in order to avoid these threats.

It should be mentioned at this stage that the entire complement of their ship had bet heavily on the outcome of the race, from the captain to the lowest cabin boy, and this lent further importance to a contest which was already of vital interest to the three participants.

The race proceeded much as had been expected: Ben took off at an incredible pace and was soon a hundred yards ahead of the others. They were, however, unconcerned at this apparent setback, Bill sure of eventual triumph due to his massive strength, and Mede using him as pacemaker and having, as he would have wished, a clear view of the race as a whole. Neither attempted to match Ben's initial burst of speed.

One mile out of Compton, on the Southampton side, Ben's energy was almost spent and he glanced round despairingly as Bill and Mede pounded up to level with him. By now Bill was confidently into rhythm and Mede, too, had his second wind and could see that the race was running according to his projected plan.

They ran precisely even for about two hundred yards before Ben, sensing his imminent and abject defeat and rolling from side to side in the agony of his onwardm stitch-torn rush, stepped onto the easier tread of the pavement in his desperation, brazenly breaking the rules of their game in the process. Ben [note: prob. should be ''Bill''. HJ], seeing him, was momentarily furious but then, not wishing to run at any disadvantage, however illegally wrought, ran onto the pavement on his side of the road and, in doping so, changed the rules by a two-to-one majority. In essence, this little drama merely exemplified the arbitrariness of rules and the perversity of human nature but it left Mede at a decided disadvantage, for there was no pavement to which he could transfer his course, and he had to continue zigzagging his way down the centre of the road: such was an innate failing of his original choice.

So they continued, three abreast across the road, Bill keeping a sure and steady pace, Ben clinging desperately to that speed, Mede inwardly seething but all the more determined to win. Perhaps there would have been disputes in the close of the cathedral; perhaps (it was not unlikely from the start) they would have come to blows; perhaps the victory would have been withheld. The resolution of these various options is unknown, for another tripartite drama was already unfolding.

A Globe Tours coach tried to overtake a Carter Paterson pantechnicon, while a bright red Sprite driven by a Southampton veterinarian on his way to cure a sick boa constrictor was approaching on the opposite side of the road. The stretch was narrow, and there was no room for the three to pass in safety: lorry and sports car, in a screaming duet of tortured tires and brakes, swerved off the road and took out Bill and Ben. Mede was crushed under the front nearside wheel of the coach. There was no victory.

Some questions arising from the matter . . .

Did Winchester exist and, if so, who would have got there first?

What difference would it have made if they were running

i) from Tubingen to Ulm?
ii) from Bethune to Canterbury? (assume all crossed the Channel on the Hovercraft)

What happened to the crew's bets?

Who was guilty?

Is there any point?




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