As the bow doors creak open, I prepare for the young man next me, who’s been revving the engine of his black Range Rover impatiently, to speed onto the ramp. Instead he looks across, smiles, and waves me on before him, with a courteous gesture. I acknowledge with a gesture equally courteous – thank you, but do please go ahead. I follow him, freewheeling down the steep, wet ramp, as the enormous lorries thunder past me.
Calais. It is a grey Sunday afternoon in Calais, with rain sweeping across. There’s a strong southwester, and Dunkirk, tonight’s destination, where my journey begins, is to the north. But first I’m heading to Sangatte, south, along the coast.
Through the centre of Calais, past the splendid Flemish-Renaissance-Revival town hall, across the Place d’Armes, the open market square, which today is a windswept, empty and bleak place, made more so by contemporary ‘art interventions’: fountains that wee weakly, and a grey sculpture of a grey couple huddled against wind and rain.
It is Sunday afternoon, there are glass-fronted restaurants like aquaria all around the square, and in them the diners bob slowly, in after-lunch repleteness and vacancy, digesting.
I turn south, along the coast, into the wind, towards Sangatte. Past a water-tower decorated to commemorate Bleriot’s flight across the Channel, past the colourful bungalows of holidaymakers and retirees safe behind grass-sprouting sand dunes, as old-fashioned as Newhaven. And then nothing but dunes. I had expected fences, and black and brown faces staring unblinkingly through. But of course the Sangatte camp, that symbol of the desire, having crossed continents, to cross that last narrow strip of water, was closed years ago.
So I turn round, and am flying back up the cycle path by the coast road, caped against the rain, when I see a cyclist bent over his bike. I stop, ask him in French what’s the problem. He replies in English. He’s Belgian. His problem is with the dynamo built into the front hub that charges his smart phone. I look at all the complication of disc brakes, and gears operated by brake levers, of ten-sprocket cassettes (we called them blocks), and of cleated pedals (I still have toe clips and straps), and realise that this is all beyond me, incomprehensible technology. And that I am on a sixty-year-old frame, with nothing that wasn’t around seventy years ago. In my zip-up jacket, baggy cotton trousers, tweed cap, and voluminous rain cape, I am from a former era.
Tim Hilton, art critic and lifelong cyclist, writes, ‘Another cycling legend concerns the old-timer. In song and story he is not awheel but is encountered by the side of a road. He wears unfashionable clothes, carefully washed and stitched where necessary. He is not the sort of person who takes his rest in a haystack. He might be a ghost. The old-timer’s bike is ancient. Some of its accessories, in this story usually the mudguards, are held to the frame by twisted pieces of wire. But the transmission – chainset, chain and back sprocket, the heart of a bicycle – is expertly and beautifully maintained. The old-timer has climbed off to eat his sandwiches or to smoke a pipe. Other cyclists instinctively brake and stop to say a word in fellowship or homage. He replies only with the words, “it’s a grand life”. Just as no one has seen him ride, nobody knows where he comes from.’
I met him once, outside Chepstow, when I was young, before I’d read about him. Now I have become him. I have become the old-timer.
Back into Calais, and I have a problem finding directions to Dunkirk – the official signs are either to local services and businesses, or to motorways. Perhaps it’s a French thing, having two scales, the jealously-guarded local, and the centrally-imposed national. Whereas in England the signage is hierarchical, through levels. Reflecting our careful gradations of class?
I follow yet another sign to Dunkirk, which takes me, along roads full of parked lorries of every European state, yet again to a motorway. Under it, there is a squatter camp. This is ‘The Jungle’, the camp that grew up after Sangatte was closed. Black and brown faces looking through the fence, patiently waiting, eyes ever watchful for that opportunity, the single chance (an unlocked car boot, the back of a freezer lorry, under a railway carriage, walking the thirty miles – around fifteen die each year) that will get them through the Tunnel, across the Channel, to England. Having crossed continents, passed through EU countries, still they want to cross this narrow strip of water, the final gap to where they will at last feel safe.
The narrow strip of water that has always been for the English the symbol as well as the practical guarantor of their separateness. An island race, on a sceptred isle. What is to the French descriptive, La Manche, ‘the sleeve’, is for the English possessive, the English Channel. At times of weakness, they (we) are the plucky underdogs, on the ramparts of Shakespeare’s ‘white-faced shore’, and ‘water-walled bulwark’, who face and outface overwhelming odds. In the time of Imperial greatness, they (we) had the arrogant condescension of ‘Fog in the Channel – continent isolated’. But now we are in Europe.
Seeing the collection of small tents, the shelters improvised with plastic sheeting, figures squatting down in the rain and walking patiently to and from the Tunnel entrance, having done or about to do their shift of waiting their chance, I see figures walking out of Africa, as they have for tens, hundreds of thousands of years, Africa the origin of sapiens, a forever bubbling spring. And I see a world of rising inequality and reducing friction of distance, so that more poor people know about, and are desperate to reach, and can actually reach, the gates of the golden city. Making the gate stronger, building the walls higher, guarding more vigilantly won’t work for long. The solution has to be to reduce inequality. It’s physics.
I eventually find my way out, under grey skies, pushed along by the wind in my back, across land flat as Flanders, with canals, dykes, and pasture, through Gravelines to Loon-Plage. It was once the island of Lugdunum, ‘which means “fortress of Lug”, the Celtic god of light’, and is, according to Graham Robb, the northernmost point of the Gaulish or Celtic meridian of mid-longitude, their equivalent of the Paris Meridian, which lies 10km east. The Celtic Meridian will haunt, flicker in the background of my journey down the Meridian, the echo, the trace, the mysterious, the barely-remembered predecessor to rationalism’s boldly stepped and clearly recorded line.
And on to St Pol-sur-Mer, a suburb of Dunkirk, which is both the northerly point of the Paris meridian, la Méridienne Verte, and the location of the Premiere-Classe hotel I’m booked into.
Dunkirk. The hotel is a stack of containers, storage units on two floors, set down in an industrial park, its enormous yellow sign visible from the motorway. I go to reception and collect my key card. I climb the prison-like skeleton of stairs and walkways. My container has a heavy security door, and a steel-shuttered window.
And inside, the room has a finish that resists imprint. It has no presence. It is not built to age, to absorb, nothing sticks, it will never develop character. Every morning it is swept, sluiced clean, all traces removed, its memory wiped. I can imagine a Tarantino massacre one day, and the next day: business as usual.
It is a pod of plastic. I remember literary theorist Roland Barthes’ comments on plastics (and this in 1956, as they first entered consumer culture). It is, he notes, a material named after a quality. He goes on: ‘it is the first magical substance that consents to be prosaic; its one substantive quality is resistance, the absence of yielding; it abolishes the hierarchy of substances, replaces it with one substance, so that the whole world can be plasticised.’ The magical consenting to be prosaic. The whole world plasticised.
And how, in the sixty years since, that has happened! The steps are on the outside, and the room is a cell, slotted in, like a safety-deposit box. Even though the car park is full, and the pods must be occupied, no one has raised their shutter, which makes them even more cell-like. This is not a place of shared space, but of privacy and guarded anonymity.
Inside, most of the room is filled with a bed. In the corner, there is a plastic bathroom module. But, there’s a small desk, power points, and it works. I unload my bike (I’ve brought it into the room with me), shower and change. I make tea, heating the water in my tin mug with my in-the-cup boiler. It works well. I’ve arrived at my starting point.
After a snooze, I cycle out to the long, empty beach that was, for a few days in May-June 1940, full of Allied troops, the scene of ‘the Miracle of Dunkirk’, the evacuation of 350,000 allied troops, when the expectation had been that 10,000 would escape.
For all the proud talk of disciplined crisis management, the romance of the small boats, it is hard for me not to see Hitler’s order to hold back, halt the advance, as giving the British a final chance to come to their senses and, if not join an ‘Anglo-Saxon Alliance’ (in 1914 there had been crowds in Berlin howling ‘rassenverrat!’, ‘race treason!’ at the news that Britain had entered the war on the French side), at least to see the sense of coming to terms with Germany. Even today the Germans seem constantly surprised that we reject their overtures to join them in running the EU, over the heads of the French.
And yet, we never quite trust the Germans. We don’t go and live there, holiday there. German competence, relentlessness, their ability to carry things through, to win, if necessary without style, leaves us cold. Our relationship with France, on the other hand, is somehow domestic, an incompatible couple who exasperate each other, and yet spark life into each other. We each have something the other wants. French self-importance, grandeur, ‘exceptionalism’, which results in what Michel Winock has characterised as an open and a closed nationalism, intrigues us. ‘To put it simply, their [the French] desire to shine in the eyes of foreigners, no matter how childish it may seem, does tend to promote an attitude towards the rest of the world which is generous and cosmopolitan. On the other hand, the ‘closed’ version of nationalism tends to promote selfishness, exclusiveness, narrowness, defensiveness.’ How familiar, these two versions of the French, in my experiences in France!
And this is an updating of de Tocqueville’s 1856 exasperated list of their contradictions:
‘Has there ever been any nation on earth which was so full of contrasts, and so extreme in all its acts, more dominated by emotions, and less by principles, always doing better or worse than we expect?
‘A people so unalterable in its basic instincts that we can recognise in it portraits drawn two or three thousand years ago, and at the same time so changeable in its daily thoughts and tastes that it ends up offering an unexpected spectacle to itself, and often remains as surprised as a foreigner at the sight of what it has just done.
‘Insubordinate by temperament, and always readier to accept the arbitrary and even violent empire of a prince than the free and orderly government of its leading citizens; today the sworn enemy of all obedience, tomorrow attached to servitude with a passion that the nations best endowed for servitude cannot match; led on a string so long as no one resists, ungovernable as soon as the example of resistance appears.
‘A lover of chance, of strength, of success, of fame, and reputation, more than true glory; more capable of heroism than virtue, of genius than common sense, ready to conceive vast plans rather than complete great tasks.’
Ending: ‘France alone could give birth to a revolution so sudden, so radical, so impetuous in its course, and yet so full of backtracking, of contradictory facts and contrary examples.’
And yet de Tocqueville’s listing of these contradictions is full of pride, to the point of bombast. Because it demonstrates exactly that French exceptionalism.
I return to the hotel. It is time to find the first Méridienne verte marker. It is here in St Pol-sur-Mer. But where, precisely? I have all the markers (hundreds) marked on 1:200,000 maps, and can see that it is close, but the map’s scale is too small to locate it exactly. Fortunately, geocaching has one of its Méridienne verte caches at this marker, so I can use their app on my smartphone. My first combining of old and new technologies.
Across car parks, through housing estates, it takes me to a small traffic island in a suburban street. The marker shares the island with a large, yellow buoy. Its coordinates are: 2º 20’ 11” E, 51º 01’ 44” N.
There is a tree on the opposite side of the island. Is this the first of the millennium trees?
As I walk back a falcon lands suddenly in front of me in a fluster of wings, carried down by the weight of the mouse in its claws. It quickly heaves itself up and flaps away in a flurry, close to my face, leaving a space of charged energy. It reminds me of a story I have just written, in which such an encounter sets the hero on a quest: story and life interleave, and more and more I’m unsure which is real.
Time to eat. I had passed a street of shops, and return there, hoping for a small, family-run restaurant. But of course, as in England, such places are long gone, and only the immigrant entrepreneurs are open in a quiet suburb on Sunday evening. There are two Libanais takeaways. One is the hang-out of youths in vests with flexing muscles. The other, ‘Snack City’, is busy, the place that feeds the community. An old white couple are eating in the dining section. A group of Africans shake hands shyly all round as they enter. People of all ages wait to be served.
It is run with remarkable speed and efficiency by two men, the man in charge, and his small, busy, almost manic assistant. With remarkable energy and speed the assistant bales out chips, shaves kebabs with an electric shaver, splits pitta breads, drops in meat and any or all of the several salads, and various of sixteen sauces of worryingly vivid colour, wraps them in foil, slaps them on the counter, starts again. I order frikandelle and chips. Frikandelle is a chti (more of chti later) speciality, a deep-fried sausage.
As I wait, a new raw kebab is fitted. It is huge and pale, and looks like a giant meat- and fat-filled condom. The condom is stripped off, the kebab lifted into place, and begins slowly to turn and brown and drip in the fierce heat. All the food, from bags of chips and containers of salad, to bottles of sauce, has been bought in, ready prepared, the takeaway trade industrialised into factories, the profit for the retailer dependant on speed and turnover.
I look at the man in charge. It is his place. He is North African, mid-thirties. He has the vision of the good entrepreneur, aware of the room, checking who’s waiting, for what, being sociable but always with an eye on the supply chain. And too, as he prepares a complicated order immaculately, he has that ability to change scale instantly and keep many moving situations in view and under review, always on top of things. These are the skills that could run a major company. And he works longer hours. When my food is ready, foil-wrapped and handed over, and he sees me heading for a table, to unwrap and eat with plastic fork, as I would in England, he adroitly takes my package from me, points me to a table, unwraps it, arranges it carefully on a warm china plate, brings it to me with metal knife and fork, my coke now in a glass, with a napkin, and sets it down, asking which sauces I want. There is a grace to it, and I am touched. I imagine him training as a waiter, this is his chance to run his own business, his ambition is to open a ‘proper’ restaurant. Until then, any place he runs will be run with quality.
The frikandelle tastes of nothing; it is all filler; it has no recognisable meat taste. But my stomach is filled. As I leave he makes a point of catching my eye and saying ‘bonsoir’. I have been served with grace.
I return to my room, check tomorrow’s route, and sleep well: whatever these units are made of, they are self-contained and well insulated; the ideal of the modern, solipsistic world.
Hilton, One More Kilometre and we’ll be in the Shower p77-78.
Robb, The Ancient Paths p10.
Barthes, Mythologies, Plastic.
Michel Winock in Howard & Varouxakis, Contemporary France p113.
Alexis de Tocqueville in Howard & Varouxakis p1.