In 2000, to mark the Millennium, the French government designated the Paris Meridian, la Meridienne verte, the Green Meridian. (See Meridian page for more detail.) It was celebrated on Bastille Day with one long party, from Dunkirk to the Spanish border, and a ‘Grand Inauguration’ in the centre of France. Markers were put up in each of the 337 communes it passed through. 10,000 trees were to be planted, one every 100m, oaks in the North, pines in the Centre, olives in the South.
In 2015, to mark my 70th birthday, and 50 years since I first cycled in France, I cycled the length of the Green Meridian. I wanted to see how France’s millennial ‘green spine’ had developed in fifteen years. And to travel through the length of the country, from the Flemish-speaking North Sea coast to the Catalan-speaking high Pyrenees, through langue d’oïl, and langue d’oc, a dozen cultures, a dozen cuisines.
French geographer Vidal de la Blache called France ‘a medal struck in the effigy of a people’. Ormsby’s standard geography of France goes on: ‘France, it has been said, is more one country and one nation than any other country and nation in the world; and few will deny that, to the outside world at least, France speaks with one voice. More perhaps than most lands, she has developed the sense of nationality, of unity.’ France’s famous ‘exceptionalism’.
And yet locality is stubbornly preserved, proudly celebrated. It was with pride as well as exasperation that de Gaulle exclaimed ‘How can one govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?’
But has global capitalism done in a few decades what centralising government failed to do in five hundred years: – unified patterns of consumption and behaviour? And is the celebration of locality, of pays, a paysan survival, or a bourgeois revival? A revival in the interests of their self-definition. But also in the interests of marketing. What dies at the bottom is revived from the top, often by the parties who killed it, or at least allowed it to die. What dies as actual is revived as spectacle.
Each day of my journey is on a separate page. (Hover the cursor over Day by Day for the dropdown menu of days. Or click on it for a fixed list.) 600 miles as the crow flies became over 1400 miles on the road. Partly of course because no road follows the Meridian. But also because I wanted to visit places that drew me. Nicholas Crane, in Two Degrees West, his walk along England’s central meridian, allowed himself a 1000m deviation from the line. I allowed myself more latitude, to follow ‘desire paths’, to make ‘a journey of my own desire’, a spiral around a spine. Although in fact many of my most precious experiences and insights came in places I had to, rather than would have chosen to visit. Serendipity works within formality.
As well as the diary pages, there are pages where subjects are explored in more detail. These are flagged in the text. (Click on tabs at the top of the page.)
What did I gain from this journey? It is encapsulated in the email I sent to friends when I arrived at the last Meridian marker, high in the Pyrenees, on Day 26.