Nicholas Lezard: Where's the wild, straggling beard?

You can't appoint a 'hermit' and then let him have online conversations

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The news that someone called Ansuman Biswas has been chosen by Manchester Museum to live in a tower for 40 days and nights and be its very own hermit would be entirely welcome were it not for the nagging thought that no one saw fit to send me an application form, and the additional news that he is to be given a computer with web access so that he can write a blog about 40 selected artifacts from the museum's enormous collection.

It is not bad enough that Mr Biswas looks like the opposite of a hermit – he is bald, clean-shaven, and does not look noticeably demented; it is this business of being allowed not only to blog, but to have online conversations with the public world. I bet he's even going to be allowed to eat a rather more varied diet than roots, nuts and berries.

But I shouldn't be too harsh. It is one of the traditional duties of the hermit to offer advice, and even the greatest hermit of them all, Saint Simeon Stylites, who perched on top of a pillar in the Syrian desert for 37 years, allowed vertigo-free pilgrims to climb a ladder and ask him questions about how to live their lives.

If only he, too, had had access to computer technology, so that we could now retrieve his advice in a form which would be accessible and comprehensible to us:

Q. Dear St Simeon Stylites

I covet my neighbour's ox. And his ass. Come to think of it, his wife's a bit of all right too. How should I go about purging myself of these unworthy desires? Yours, Perplexed of Canaan.

A. Dear Perplexed of Canaan, or should I say Miserable Wretch Destined for an Eternity of Damnation

I used to have this kind of trouble myself. Then I found that sitting on top of a pillar for 37 years pretty much stopped me from thinking about anything else but the Ineffable Majesty of God and how not to fall off in a high wind. Think big. Anything under 60 feet high simply isn't trying hard enough. And don't call me St Simeon, I haven't been canonised yet.

And so on. Mr Biswas's brief will be wider, though. One wonders which of the museum's 4.5 million items he will be ruminating on. Among its almost incomparable collection of ancient Egyptiana, will he be allowed access to the museum's more sacred arcana, some of which, such as the unpublished lyrics of the Ian Curtis song entitled "Actually, Life's Pretty Wonderful When You Think About It", or the 1843 declaration of the Manchester Corporation deeming "Liverpudlians the salt of the earth, and their city a dashed fine place to boot", exist only as whispered rumour? Only time will tell.

But in the meantime, please, Mr Biswas, take some time off to get things right. Grow a wild, straggling beard. Cultivate a few running sores. Acquire a taste for locusts and wild honey. And if the authorities can clear it with Health and Safety, would it be too much to ask of you to run around the museum in nothing more than a filthy and bedraggled loincloth, screaming prophecies at bewildered visitors?

It's all very well being allowed to blog, but there are some traditions that simply shouldn't be allowed to die out.

n.lezard@independent.co.uk

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