The Massif Central Climbing out of Chambon, I am soon at 500m, and in the upland world I will be crossing for the next seven days. The Massif Central is 200 miles long, a third of the Meridian, averaging a thousand metres in height, as high as Scafell, a ‘much-dissected plateau of ancient crystalline rocks, surmounted here and there by masses of volcanic rocks … with a cincture of limestone,’ says Ormsby. An ancient core that resisted and thrust aside the earth movements that threw up the Alps, and against which the ancient seas broke, their beaches and shells forming the sandstones and limestones of the surrounding lowlands. Ancient and stubborn. And a barrier to movement – only since the opening of the Millau viaduct in 2004 has there been a north-south motorway, and there is still no east-west motorway for 150 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand. I will be crossing its western side, up and down the valleys that drain to the west, familiar names, Creuse, Dordogne, Lot, Tarn. Old rocks, poor soils, high rainfall, forests and pasture, low and declining population.
I am on yet another of the lines that French geographers love to draw across their country: la diagonale du vide, a band of low population from the Marne to the Landes. In the last 150 years the population of the Massif has halved, while that of France as a whole has doubled. It is the result of emigration, mostly to Paris. The Creuse masons sing of walking to Paris and building the great monuments of the capital. Men of the Aveyron ran most of the bars of Paris, and proudly proclaim there are more Aveyronnais in Paris than in their department. The bougnats of the Auvergne built rafts and transported coal and wine along the Allier river and the Briare canal to the Seine; in Paris they broke up the rafts and sold the wood as well as the coal. Some stayed, becoming water- and coal-carriers, and eventually metal workers, settling in the Rue de Lappe near the Bastille. Often they would settle in enclaves, retaining their trade, patois, cuisine and ways, and their connection with their pays, hoping always to return home. I can remember even in 1970s the ‘friendship with a view to marriage’ small-ads in newspapers in Paris often requested partners from a particular department or region. A friend’s parents living in Paris spent every holiday building a bungalow in their parents’ home village. The yearning for home. They are more like international migrants, like for example the Irish in London. Maybe, again, that deep Celtic connection. And another indication of France as a mosaic of peoples rather than a nation.
The town names now give the alternative Occitan form. But mostly I am, simply, in the Massif Central. For most of its length it will be a place to cross; only towards the southern edge, in the Aveyron, will it be a place to visit. For I lived there for a couple of years forty years ago. I might have stayed. But I didn’t. And I have never been back.
I head west, back towards the Meridian. I am now on the Plateau of Millevaches – not, the guide books insist, a thousand cows, but a thousand lakes. This is impermeable granite. It reminds me of upland Wales. But although I’m much higher, the grassland doesn’t end, and turn into moor and bog, but has fields to the tops. An undulating road, through pasture and woodland, Limousin cattle, small scale, few houses.
Through the village of Lupersat, on the Meridian, no marker, of course. A sign records the catastrophe of 1511 when lightning struck the steeple and burned down the church and most of the village. The population is a seventh of what it was in 1850. And yet it looks solid, prosperous, with an upmarket bar-restaurant.
Remembering I cycle on, through the increasingly familiar: small fields, pasture, brown cattle, cut hay, foxgloves, bracken, distant blue views, and then – hen harriers. One, two, four, six of them, high in the blue sky, supple, flexing, playing together, moving from east to west across the sky like energetic, absorbed children passing, playing along a town street, appearing, being, gone. And I am back.
Back forty years. Back to the Aveyron. How intense the memories of a place I settled in, lived in fully, but briefly! A pair of hen harriers, gliding, swooping, playing, dancing with each other above the meadow I was scything, alone, having been left, close then far apart, stretching to the limit, and then rushing together, and weaving round each other, close, touching. Driving to the abattoir early in the morning, and seeing foxgloves still quivering from the withdrawn rufous paw. And a hare, big as a dog, ‘cantering gracefully’ in Muir’s words, loping ahead of me down the road. Driving home after a day’s work in the abattoir, brilliant evening sun on emerald grass, sheep vivid as in pre-Raphaelite paintings, I would stop at the high point, fill the back of the old 2CV with bracken for compost, the scent intoxicating as I drove the last miles into the blinding sun. Pruning vines in grey, winter stillness, and the sudden irruption of a flock of tiny, chattering birds, each a vivid chip of life, and as quickly disappearing, leaving the air vibrating, as if about to shatter, then, slowly, so slowly solidifying and becoming once more still. Harvesting potatoes like golden eggs. Lying in the summer vines, beneath tendrils and leaves and the swelling fruit, under a mauve-pink sky, watching the yellow sun set and the white moon rise at opposite ends of the dome of heaven, like orbs on a balance, and my self at the fulcrum …
But these had been experiences, speaking to our love and idealism, in a time of being that we shared after I had worked too hard, at school and university, at becoming what they had wanted me to be. No, not too hard, necessarily, but too much against the grain of my self. I had been too impressionable (on the ‘softened surface of the soul’, to use Murray’s devastating phrase), too easily flattered about my cleverness, to know what that grain was. But aware, as I would later see it in a piece of wood I was planing, of something wrong. So I had, for the five years after university, lived in the present, resolutely not ‘getting on’. (‘Living for nothing, keeping some kind of record’, in Leonard Cohen’s words. Volumes of diaries, sheaves of stories and poems …) Five years I wouldn’t trade for anything. I had drifted into working in the Ecology section of Watkins esoteric bookshop. The move to France, to the country, to be ‘self-sufficient’ had come from books, and was an attempt to leapfrog the five incremental years my contemporaries had put in, to a sustainable life. We had no skills. But I was good at experiences. After a year my wife had gone back. With Gabrielle, a chance meeting, a brief time together, I had imagined making it work. But I, too went back. I learned the skills that might have made it work. But by then we, my wife and I, were on a rack-and-pinion that has its own mechanics. And I had written and rewritten those experiences, falsifying them and making them truer in writing my novel, Diggers and Dreamers.
I cross, in the middle of nowhere, the carefully-carved cutting, straight walled and deep, through solid granite, of a railway. Green-walled, overgrown with flowering shrubs, no rails, curiously dream-like. As if something magical might happen. Or an enchanted road to – somewhere. Had it been built, but the tracks never laid, a grand project never fulfilled? Or had there once been a railway across this remote part of the Massif?
I arrive at Aubusson. For lack of cheap hotels, and even campsites on this section of my route, the seven days across the Massif, I am having to zigzag across the Meridian.
It is one of those small towns that, above shop-window height, has preserved its old-world, even medieval feel – steep roofs, frontages of brick and wood, or local stone, narrow, curved streets following the old building lines so the buildings almost meet overhead, creating intriguing geometries of sky between them. This image of a pre-industrial world has been continued into the modern age of leisure on large murals that depict a whole range of modern, but, crucially, unmechanised activities – painting, tapestry-making, fishing, cycling – taking place in ‘unspoilt’ landscapes, with lots of water, and lots of green. There is a tapestry in a window of a fragment from the ‘Lady and Unicorn’ tapestries that Rilke evokes so vividly in The Journals of Malte Laurids Brigge, and that I make a pilgrimage to the Cluny museum to stand before every time I am in Paris. Tapestry-making was brought to Aubusson by Flemish weavers. The Unicorn tapestries weren’t made here, but for five hundred years it has been, with Beauvais and Gobelin, one of the centres in France. I imagine that working in the industry was not the pleasant and leisured occupation it is for the amateur tapissière making, with her tapestry kit, rabbits and flowers to frame.
But at street level there is the usual mixture of tourist shops, boutiques, chain shops and food outlets, discount stores. It could be anywhere. Only by looking up, at first and second-floor levels, does one see difference, individuality, regional style, local quirk, only then am I somewhere. And there is one big difference from English towns, I notice as I wheel my bike down the pedestrian-friendly main street: there are no charity shops. The equivalent English street would be full of them. I have been passing signs everywhere for vide greniers, car-boot sales. Is it a sign that the peasant mentality, in which everything has a use and therefore a value, remains close to the surface even of town dwellers in France? Or is it a lack of the English reticence that shies from laying out their ‘things’, exposing them for all to see, and then, heaven forfend, bargaining the price?
Cyclists are arriving, in ones and twos, like swallows, and gathering chattering at the main hotel. They are on lightweight bikes, without panniers. An organised group, I imagine, who have their luggage transported by van from hotel to hotel.
I ask at the tourist office for a camp site, but there isn’t one. The nearest is at Felletin, five miles south. Felletin is also a tapestry centre, and where the Graham Sutherland tapestry in Coventry cathedral was made. They explain how to get there along a minor road. It looks, on the map, like a gentle meander along the banks of the Creuse. In fact it involves a very long climb back onto the plateau, and an equally long descent. The camp site is signed at the edge of Felletin, and I follow it without shopping first. It’s a long way. It’s taken me halfway back to Aubusson, on a minor road that would have brought me there along the river. By now I’m too tired to care, and decide to make do with the food I have. I’ve only done 48 miles – is it the problem with the slipping gears, the accumulated effort so far, or am I not eating well? Whatever, it’s worrying. I should be feeling better than this.
Felletin The camp site is run by an English couple. After the anonymity, the neutral municipal sites, I am disconcerted by the ‘home-from-home’ feel of this one. It is laid out attractively, almost in the picturesque landscape style, with trees and viewpoints, in contrast to the formal and functional French sites. Even the toilet block is more English, with less of the exposed and dubious plumbing of the French. In a brief conversation the woman tells how they fell in love with the place at first site, and knew that they had to … etc. How we need our narratives!
There are several English motorhomes. An overweight man with a neat white beard passes at the slow motion of aldermanic self-importance, announcing to me as he passes without stopping that he is from Felixstowe, smiling at this white-haired man with his old bike and small Decathlon tent, for he has done well, he has his house and his motorhome. And I realise how much I don’t want to be part of anything that has the claustrophobia of England. Or rather the given of the English abroad.
And I’m reminded, in my instant alienation from these English, how unalien it has felt, and I have felt, all this time in France. Without any sense of ‘belonging’ here. It reinforces that, for me, France is a place I can be. Without belonging. Or wanting to belong. I am comfortably a stranger here. Perhaps it’s because of the famous French ‘neutrality’, of letting you be, of not intervening, not even being curious about your life. The other side of that is the essential self-centredness, even narcissism, that means they don’t give a bugger about you, they don’t even register you. That they would step over you as you lay destitute on the pavement – as I was shocked to see them do when I first came to France. Is that why there are no charity shops?
But I also have the sense that if I have a problem in France, I will find a solution. It’s a place in which I can survive. And it’s a place where one grows up, it provides the environment, the circumstances in which one can grow up.
And I remember how I needed to come here at twenty to begin to grow up. As Lawrence Durrell’s Clea writes: ‘Do you remember how Pursewarden used to say that artists, like sick cats, knew by instinct exactly which herb they needed to effect a cure: and that the bitter-sweet herb of their self-discovery only grew in one place, France?’ And How I needed to live here, at thirty, to begin to find my way: in the same letter Clea writes of ‘stepping across the threshold of one’s imagination and taking possession of it, once and for all.’ And now, at seventy… ?
It is a fine evening, with ‘the ceremony of sunset in a tranquil, ensanguined, quietly travelling sky’, over the still, bright, tree-margined lake. But, after a hot day, there is thunder around, and a bruised, purple, perturbed look to the clouds.
Ormsby, France p29.
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.
Rilke, The Journals of Malte Laurids Brigge pp127-135.
Lawrence Durrell, Clea p243.
Edward Thomas, The South Country p259.