I have few regrets: life’s too short to waste time contemplating what might have been, murmuring “if only” – and the path not taken may well not have led to better things, or even to anything much different.
However, there is one occasion where I have often wished that I’d had the courage to follow my impulse. Maybe my curiosity would have been satisfied, more likely not – but at least I wouldn’t be haunted by the thought that I missed a golden opportunity.
One wet, windy day about ten years ago I saw an elderly man sitting on the pavement in the old town of St Gallen, with several A4-sized bundles laid out before him, carefully covered in polythene sheeting as protection against the weather. I wasn’t in a hurry, and went over to see what he was selling. “Gedichte,” he said – poems. His poems. I picked up a bundle to see what they were, and he looked a bit irritated that I might get them wet. I reassured him that I would be careful with them, and asked how much he wanted for them. “Whatever you think they’re worth,” was his reply.
I’m ashamed to say that I gave him only five franks – I hadn’t really read them, only glanced at them. He raised his eyebrows as he thanked me, and at that point I went on my way, looking for shelter from the weather. His reaction made me feel uncomfortable: was it ironic? did he expect more? I read the poems on the train going home, and immediately regretted not giving him notes rather than a coin.
Had I only stayed a little longer, invited him out of the rain and wind to a warm drink or even a meal! We were only a few metres from one of my regular haunts, a small, cosy Greek restaurant run by a big-hearted couple and their sons who treated all their guests like extended family. If this vagrant poet had accepted my invitation, he would have received a welcome as warm as the food. And perhaps I could have found out more about him, who he was, where he came from, how he lived, what inspired him to write …
He was not unkempt, though his clothes were obviously well worn, and all his worldly goods were neatly piled up on his bicycle that was propped against the wall where he was sitting. But he wasn’t a beggar. Also, there was something in his self-assured manner that didn’t encourage familiarity, and I was too shy to intrude into his privacy.
I looked out for him whenever I was in town, but never came across him again.
The poems – or rather, poem, as the stanzas actually form one long lyrical piece – were entitled “Die Harmonie der Welt – Lyrik eines Landstreichers” (The Harmony of the World – Lyrics of a Vagabond) and I passed them on to my granddaughter as a birthday present.
Since then, I have found out a little about this man through the Internet. It seems that many other people had a similar encounter to mine, including one man who sent the verses to a publisher. They were released anonymously in a 56-page illustrated edition, which sold very well. A television appeal brought this fact to the attention of the poet, who identified himself as Uwe Schade and informed the publisher that he didn’t want the royalties or the copyright: the money should be given to people who were in real need. He was content with his way of life, and saw no need for any more than he already had.
How did he come to write this lyrical poetry? He claimed that he had a vision, and wrote it all in one nocturnal burst of creativity, having never written anything before or since.
Who was Uwe Schade? Google brings up very little. It seems he was a typesetter from the GDR, born in 1923, who set off on his travels with his bike after the Berlin Wall came down. There are Internet accounts of meetings with this real-life Steppenwolf in towns throughout German-speaking lands. He died in Schleswig in 2009. If 1923 is correct for his year of birth, he was already around 80 when I met him. And still cycling his way around Germany and Switzerland.
The published edition of his work is now sadly out of print, but can be found second-hand. There is no copyright, and so many people copied the photocopies they bought from him “for what it’s worth to you” that it is hardly surprising to find the full version – usually with an account of meeting the author – on several web sites, for instance here and here.
Why do I come back to Uwe Schade today? Because I came across another vagabond poet this morning, this time in Brazil. Though this is a slightly different story, and hopefully with a happy ending because someone did have the courage to stop and spend time with him.