150th birthday year

(Note: for information on my bike ride along the Green Meridian, see ‘Welcome’ and ‘About’ pages.)

of Erik Satie. On Day 7 I recall the devastating effect of his affair with Suzanne Valadon. After Valadon left him, Satie wrote ‘Vexations’. It has been called ‘the strangest of break-up ballads’. It’s a complex, brooding piece that takes around a minute and half to play. But Satie’s instruction is ‘to be played 840 times’. Was he serious? Some of his instructions to pianists are very odd. And yet isn’t repetition exactly what we do in that situation? A single played over and over. A track set on ‘repeat’. To lose oneself in the endless circularity of repetition. You don’t have to come out. You don’t have to move on. You can wallow.

But repetition can be a way of getting over, passing through, moving beyond. The girl in my story ‘The Divided Wood’ says, “I played the liebestod again and again, again and again, until the groove was worn smooth and there was just a hiss and I was like that groove.” And Satie writes, “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” Played by one person, it becomes a prolonged meditation, the equivalent of an all-night Indian raga, or an extended African drumming event.

And to listen to? ‘Vexations’ will be played at the Cheltenham Music Festival, beginning at midday on 15 July 2016. It will be played by a relay of pianists, for 22 hours. Listeners are invited to bring sleeping bags, and stay for the whole time. What will be the effect? Will I go? I haven’t decided.

Google ‘Satie Vexations’ for a 10 minute sample.

One hundred years ago

The first day of the battle of the Somme, the beginning of a phase of the war that would cost a million casualties, and change ‘Somme’ from Ruskin’s silky green chalk stream to a metonym for futile industrialised slaughter. Larks sang as I visited, on Day 4, the last battle line, and the Australian war cemetery there. Photos of my grandson arrived this morning from Australia, the country we almost moved to after the war. At the cemetery, I imagined the 2000 white gravestones multiplied two thousand times, spreading as far as the eye could see, for all the dead of the Great War. And there I was first aware of something that would keep coming to me on my journey – how war and occupation, battle and destruction, the tramp of alien feet, have marked the land, the memory, possibly even the soul, of France, in a way that never happened in England.

Forty years on

Forty years ago was the hottest June day ever recorded in UK, 37ºc. During that drought summer of 1976, I was living in the uplands of southern France, trying to make a go of living the rural life. Several days of the blog are about my feelings on returning for the first time since, imagining different possible lives … On Day 7, I revisit the home of the woman with whom I might have lived that life. On Days 14 and 17, I remember the rural Aveyron of forty years ago. And on Day 20, I return to our old place. It was a time I wrote about in Diggers and Dreamers. I found the place much changed, and was glad I’d recorded a world that’s now gone forever.

Brexit

My first reaction, on Friday morning, was physical, a sick, sinking feeling. And then the sense of a world grown dimmer, colour drained away. After that, exclusion, that UK, and with us aboard, had slipped a barely measurable but significant distance from Europe, that we had excluded ourselves. (An English friend emails from Crete, ‘I feel very small as a Brit abroad in this Brexit debacle.’) I remembered a conversation a month ago with the German proprietor and Austrian guests in a b&b in Apt in the Luberon, about the future of the EU (a conversation in English, of course), and realised it was one I’d never be able to have again. I’ve been a signed-up Europhile since my schooldays. I was living in France during the last referendum. And now …

And then the realisation that not only did the Brexiters (Johnston, Gove) not expect to win – they didn’t want to win. They had been playing internal Tory politics. They had been lying and misleading for party advantage. They didn’t care a jot about the concerns that led 52% to vote for Brexit. Concerns that had begun when the Labour government chose not to apply transitional arrangements when Poland joined the EU in 2004, for the short-term advantage of getting in skills UK lacked because we hadn’t put the money and effort into education and training. Our governments have never taken the EU seriously enough, have been ‘in’, but not ‘of’.

Perhaps UK leaving will enable the EU to reshape itself into a form nearer to what Britons want. But of course we won’t be in it.

Welcome

This is an account of my cycle ride across France, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees, following la Méridienne verte in June 2015. (See About and Meridian pages.)

La Méridienne verte, the Green Meridian, was the name given to the Paris Meridian in 2000, to mark the millennium. I had read about it with growing interest in Graham Robb’s excellent The Discovery of France. There had been celebrations along its length on 14 July 2000, with a great party half way along, at the centre of France. Markers were set up in every commune, and 10,000 trees would be planted, oaks in the north, pines in the centre, olives in the south. That’s one every 100 metres.

How intriguing, this ‘green spine’! This new knitting together of France, marked by trees now fifteen years grown, a spine surely consolidated by the local efforts of communes and individuals. How had it developed, this millennium – even millennial – idea? I wanted to see.

So, to mark my 70th birthday, I cycled the length of the Green Meridian, from chilling rain in Dunkirk on the North Sea, to baking heat at Py, high in the Pyrenees.

As I cycled south, keeping close to the Meridian, other themes and points of focus came up in this ever various and diverse country. Some big, even grand: the great cathedrals and the emergence of the Gothic; the contrasting cities of Amiens, St-Denis (and Paris, of course!), Bourges and Albi; the impact of war, from Dunkirk beaches through Great War battlefields, German occupation, the Wars of Religion to the Albigensian Crusade; the mystery of the ‘Centre of France’. Some more personal: revelations of Alain-Fournier and the sources of his marvellous novel, Le Grand Meaulnes; going back to where I lived a rural dream forty years ago. Sudden moments: seeing the mosaic in an oratory on the Loire; visiting the grave, high above the Tarn, of an original surveyor of the Meridian; crossing a bridge one early apricot morning, the sun a bouncing bomb exploding … And the question of whether the Paris Meridian, that product of scientific rationalism, has a deeper, possibly mystical meaning. An idea refreshed by Graham Robb’s recent The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, a map centred close to the route I followed.

But really it is the daily record of my journey through a country I find fascinating, in which the details build into a mosaic picture of endlessly beguiling France.

Route and overnight stops:Scan 1