I should be pressing on south. Instead I go west, the few kilometres to the Meridian.
Away from the main road, it is strangely faery. There is a stillness that yet vibrates with a sense of something having happened, or about to happen, a suspense. It is a place of dells and woods where transformations might take place, where creatures glimpsed from the corner of the eye are not there when you look – were they ever? –where have they gone? I experience the tableau, of a secret river lost in vegetation, a waterfall, a railway viaduct of stepping brick arches disappearing into woods, with Palmer’s vision, de Chirico’s mystery, a vibration left by the departed. The lane I’m on twists through a farmyard, I’m engulfed by animal warmth and scent of hay, I almost climb off and enter; and by it is an ordinary house. Yet it has a round tower with a conical roof of scalloped slates, a spiral staircase up to a room of solitary work – what was it once? What is it now? Who is there?
But my destination is pure science. I am on latitude 45º north. Which is not only half way between the North Pole and the Equator, the quarter of the earth’s globe from which the length of the metre was derived in 1799, but also the origin point of the Bonne Projection used to map France. All map projections are distortions, as they map the spherical onto the plane; the origin point is where the distortion is least. Four trees, I read, have been planted around this point, at the four cardinal points, near the village of Ayrens. I find the exact spot. A field of pasture. And no trees. An absence.
And close by, another absence. Near here was the Château of Clavières. Built by the Duke of Rochemaure, ‘grand, megalomaniac lord of the manor, majoral of Félibrige, historian of the pope Gerbert, and of Cantal troubadours.’
The château was built in the late nineteenth century, in the ‘Troubadour’ style. I’ve seen photographs. It was a fairytale castle, of turrets and steep roofs and pinnacles, filled with furniture, paintings, ceramics, tapestries, sculpture in every and any style, as long as it was ‘old’. The Troubadour style is what in England would be a mixture of Gothic Revival and William Morris medievalism. It brings to mind Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, even the Russell-Cotes house in Bournemouth. A confection of revivalism. And yet, with its ‘magnificent park with a lake and stream, pavilions, gardens, troubadour statue, monumental gateway, and commons’, it must have been disconcerting and magnificent at the same time.
The duke would entertain on a grand scale, holding dinners for a hundred guests and more, the beau monde of the belle époche, until his death in 1915. There is a photograph of the duke and friends in a motor car, dressed in the highest style, like characters out of Proust. The château burned down in 1936. The surrounding park and buildings remained accessible until it was recently bought. It is now fenced and gated. Again, imagine entering the ‘magnificent park with a lake …’ etc that surrounded, danced round, was inspired by, the now-absent centre. What would Meaulnes have made of it, on a winter’s night? And perhaps it explains the strange mood that came upon me as I entered this area.
Returning to the duke. Whereas English medievalism tends to evoke a romanticised Arthurian world, the French had the troubadours. And the troubadours were real, leaving real songs. And in an old language. And suppressed by the victory of the northern barons in the Albigensian crusade. The majoral of Félibrige was the council of fifty of the Occitan revival movement, founded by Frederic Mistral in 1854. But whereas Mistral’s Occitan was that of Provence, the duke championed the Auvergne Occitan. (Cantaloube’s ‘Songs of the Auvergne’ are in this language.) There was a group in Aurillac writing in Auvergne Occitan in the duke’s time. But when he started a magazine, he founded it in Paris.
The duke died in 1915, his widow in 1930. There was an eight-day sale of the contents, drawing buyers from all over Europe. Reminding me again of Beckford’s great sale in 1822. And then the empty house went on fire, on the day of Aurillac fair in 1936. The lakes had long been emptied, so there was no water for the firemen. All they could do was watch.
Another place I could stay, go deeper into (that winding staircase up to that tower room …). But, onward!
Gerbert of Aurillac But, wait: ‘historian of the pope Gerbert’. As I bypass Aurillac, a city of ‘unpretentious provinciality’, the department capital furthest from a motorway, a city besieged several times by the English and sacked in the Wars of Religion, reminding me how ravaged the middle of France was from the 13th to 16th centuries, the city of Auvergnat poets, I must celebrate ‘the most remarkable man of the tenth century’ (Wolff), Gerbert of Aurillac.
A poor Auvergnat, he was a monk at Aurillac monastery of such quality that in 967 he was sent to study at the abbey of Vic in Catalonia. (It is due south, on the Meridian. It was a monk from near Vic, visiting St Fleury monastery to beg a fragment of St Benedict, who witnessed and wrote about the burning of the Orléans heretics in 1022.) The libraries and learning of the Catalonia monasteries was much superior to any in the north, as a result of their contact with the Islamic world. From there Gerbert could meet the great Islamic scholars in Cordoba and Seville.
He returned to France, bringing Arabic numerals, with which, on an abacus of his own devising, he amazed scholars with the speed of calculation when compared with Roman numerals. He had learned arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, the quadrivium, long neglected in the north, which he taught at Reims. (The north had focussed on the trivium, grammar, rhetoric and logic, the skills of the clerk, not of the intellectual explorer.) He reintroduced the armillary sphere, used to study the stars, adding sighting tubes for accurate observation. He wrote a treatise on the astrolabe. He built a water-powered organ tuned to an accurate mathematical scale. Obsessed with learning, he wrote to a friend, ‘you know with what zeal I am everywhere collecting copies of books … I use large sums of money to pay copyists and to acquire copies of authors.’ ‘I am diligently forming a library.’ A humanist before his time, he read the classical authors, ‘the treasures of Greek and Roman wisdom’ he called them, and had little interest in theology, or administration or politics. His two years as Pope Sylvester II were not a success, although he did help Otto III advance Christianity into Poland. But, his practical approach to the ‘sciences’ – his method was used for over 200 years – and his knowledge and respect for Islamic learning was a thread of connection with the forgotten learning that would power the Renaissance. ‘I teach what I know, and what I do not know I learn.’ This from a tenth-century pope.
But within a century tales were circulating that Gerbert had derived his knowledge not from study but from a book of spells stolen from an Arab philosopher in Spain, or from a pact with the devil. He was also said to have a brazen head (another detached head!) that would answer any question with ‘yes’, or ‘no’. (Sir Thomas Browne considered this to be a misunderstanding of the alchemical work of scholars.) Perhaps, as with Jacques Coeur at Bourges, any exceptional talent is, in fearful (they would say respectful) times, ascribed to the devil. But alchemy, and ancient and mysterious knowledge, keep appearing along the Meridian.
After Aurillac, I head along the road towards Rodez, the department capital of Aveyron. I’ve never been there, and won’t be going there this time. I know it only as as the place where Antonin Artaud was put in an asylum. His friends had taken him south, out of the Occupied Zone. To cure him of his habits of crafting magic spells and creating astrological charts, he was given electroconvulsive therapy. While there he wrote ‘Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society’. In his Theatre of Cruelty (closer to Nietzsche’s ‘dionysian’ than cruelty as we use it, more a return to the origin of theatre in magic and ritual) performers and audience shared a ritual of extreme confrontation to shatter false reality. His ‘spectacle’ – his name for the theatrical event – was intended to shatter what Debord coincidentally called le spectacle, the world of mediated experience created by consumer capitalism.
Aveyron I am heading for Entraygues, simply because the man in the snack bar by the orgues at Bort and told me he liked the place.
Up and down, in long Trésaguet sweeps, and then at the top, ‘Bienvenue en Aveyron’. The first time since we came back briefly, my wife and I, with a baby, to sell the house. It was the day mains water arrived in our little hamlet, the day the old way ended.
It is more beautiful than I remember. How much my memory has been coloured by the troubles we had, that need not have been! The door that opened. That I did not walk through. Laid out before me is a distant, airy panorama of blue hills with, nearer, the land swelling and dipping, my hand automatically following its line as I stand by the Aveyron sign. Dark woods of oak, for building-timber and feeding pigs; sweet chestnut, for furniture wood and the nuts that were once the staple food, so much more secure and nutritious a staple than imported potato and expensive wheat; lighter ash, for winter fodder and tool-making. With, claimed from the woodland, the bright green pasture, the coloured patchwork of cut hay, potatoes, barley, wheat. And among them the grey houses clustered in small hamlets, as ours was.
The cars drive faster, wilder, there are more beeps, more arms waving from car windows, more shouted encouragements. I am entering the South.
Why do I think that? I am still high in the Massif. It’s been a tough day, with lots of climbing, and I still have 10km to go. But now, as if by magic, the road starts to go down, and keeps on going down. I hadn’t realised that I had been climbing ever since I left Aurillac, and that I am now descending, in a few miles, 600m down to the Lot. Like the cars on a roller-coaster ratcheting slowly up to the highest point, I have been storing up potential energy. And now, released to gravity, I fall, leaning through the sweeping bends, in and out of dense woods, without turning handlebars or touching brakes, steering simply by shifting my weight, my centre of gravity. I swoop down like a bird, on the edge of control, fast, thrilling.
I pass a blur of warning signs for lorries, telling of an emergency exit 6, 5, 4km ahead, with the graphic of a runaway lorry with speed streaks behind it about to pitch off a cliff onto a steepled church. It lacks only a screaming figure with fright hair leaning out of the cab.
I sweep through curves, the wind in my face streaming out my hair, I’m cutting through. The air is holding me back and letting me go. For these falling minutes I am released from my load, freed of responsibility, liberated.
Entraygues-sur-Truyère I land at the bottom, soft as a bird, by a mirror-smooth river, with an elegant bridge. I have fallen into a different world.
I cycle along the river bank, in the narrow cleft between high wooded hillsides studded with houses, towards the bridge. Elegant is the wrong word for this bridge. It is leaner, more active. It is a bridge of pointed arches, built at the same time as the great Gothic cathedrals of the north were being built. One theory brings the pointed, the ‘Gothic’ arch, from the Moslem world, brought by Crusaders returning from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. It echoes, this bridge, a Byzantine bridge in Turkey, an Arabic bridge in Iraq. It has the panache of the necessary curve of Moslem architecture, worked out in such brilliant extravagance in the Alhambra. Here, in a practical bridge, the curves rise up to meet at the thinnest, highest, weakest point, and thereby carry away the strain, with a satisfying grace. Perhaps the new bridges were built in the south on the Arabic model, seen by returning nobles and clerics, and the idea carried north, taking fire in Suger and his builders …?
And this. The pointed arch, together with its mirror image in the water, creates the almond-shaped aureole, the mandorla or vesica piscis. Which, variously: depicts the sacred; frames the figure of ‘Christ in Majesty’ in early church art (revived in Graham Sutherland’s Coventry cathedral tapestry); is the ichthys symbol of Christ; is the vulva, entrance to mysteries, exit to new worlds. A whole restless realm of possibilities. Surging out of the Moslem, this river flowing through it, a gift to the Gothic. The long descent had, deliciously, freed my head for fancy.
As I cross the bridge over the Truyère and turn into town, then follow the road out of town along the Lot (Entraygues means ‘between the rivers’ in Rouergat Occitan; the rivers join here), across the bridge over the Lot, and back to the campsite, I progressively re-inhabit my prosaic self.
It is a well-appointed, busy camp site, well shaded, and with tents and motorhomes, by the Lot. I am now in a real tourist area, moderately busy even in June. I had cycled a long way into and out of the village, but the loop has brought me back to the centre, and the village is just a short walk over a pedestrian bridge.
As soon as I have set camp, had tea, showered and changed, I head past the football pitch and cross the Lot. The Truyère is the bigger of the rivers, with several dams, flowing wide and even. The Lot is shallow and turbulent. But the combined river is the Lot. It was navigable up to Entrayges, and of course bridgeable, therefore strategically important. There is a reconstruction of a river boat. It is more punt than boat, the size and shape of a Cambridge punt but solid, made with inch-thick planks and with many robust strengthening ribs. Running the river, before the hydroelectric dams were built, must have been quite a trip. I suppose that, as on the Seine, when they reached their destination, they pulled the craft to pieces and sold the wood as good timber.
By the bridge is a poster for a concert of Breton and Auvergnat accordion music. It is promoted by the ‘Association of Music and Tradition’ and is a ‘Spectacle Auvergne et Bretagne’. There is an open-air concert on Saturday evening, and a thé dansant on Sunday afternoon. So the connection, which results in so many town-twinnings, is cultural as well as practical. For they are two regions, or provinces – in the best sense of ‘provincial’ – that have maintained their connections to the old ways, and are sharing and strengthening them in mutual support, against the metropolitan and the commercial.
It is a pleasant little town of solid, sixteenth-century houses, grey stone, tall, with steep slate roofs, the grey, vertical severity lightened by the scalloped slates, and an almost oriental curve up at the eaves that adds a fairy-tale element.
I find an unpretentious café-bar and sit outside, at a pavement table. It is noisy inside, the loudness, the flattened vowels, the twang, of southern voices. It is louder, more rumbustious than the north, but there is an inner gentleness. Travelling south in France is like travelling north in England.
I order a canard burger (a burger with a slice of duck on top) and sip my wine, as the swifts scream and the swallows silently flash up and down the river in the violet evening light. The patron was so welcoming when I went in to ask about food, his wife so gentle in her service, it was the welcome for the stranger. And now, listening to the vehement voices inside, and sitting in the flickering light of a single candle, between the bright lights inside and the gathering dusk outside, and smiling at the occasional strolling couple, I am, happily, a stranger in a strange land. But I’m also filled with a sense of having come back, come home even, to the place I grew up; or rather, began to be grown up.
The view at the top – had the Aveyron ever looked so beautiful? The sign, ‘Welcome to Aveyron’ (how easily that becomes Avalon!), the view. And then the exhilarating ride down, and my arrival at the river, the bridge … they are with me, in me. And how easily I entered that view, enter once more a garden, a house, woods, yes, even an abattoir.
Could I have been a part of it? Should I have stayed? Had my wife’s role (she who loved being at home in France) been to bring me (I who loved being a stranger, however accepted, in France) here, to leave me here, and return to the mainstream of her life? Should I have stayed? Was it a mistake for both of us that I followed her back? Could I, with Gabrielle, in Paris and at La Balme, have made it work? I learned, here, how to work manually, after an education designed to take me away from my hands. I learned, in the abattoir, how to work among men whose way is actions not words, for whom words are as clearcut as actions (how in my education I had learned to make words malleable, slippery, crafty!). Men who I could, would work among, with, for the rest of my life. (I spent the first twenty-five years of my life escaping from my brother’s world of manual trades, the second twenty-five getting back into it.)
And yet I returned, to a London I hated. Why? Because there was something unfinished between us, my wife and I, a commitment that had not yet run its course.
But something else had happened, I learned something else, that summer on my own, something that Gabrielle’s arrival and presence, however explosive, had not disturbed. I experienced, and began (however intermittently at first) to learn how to access the deep, continuous, imperturbable stream that I can only call creativity. I moved from the idea of writing, to writing. Not that I hadn’t ‘written’ before. But I had written in and with my head, invention. it didn’t happen, that discovery, in the grand way I depicted it in Diggers and Dreamers, of a fully-realised prophetic work wrought in the solitude of a cloud-shrouded tower. But in two short, poorly-written pieces. But once that line, that you drop down hesitantly, arduously, touches, connects with that stream, something changes, irrevocably.
I stop, fork halfway to my mouth, look around, be around. I come alive in this moment. Because this moment is what the journey is about. I have returned home, but to a home I had to leave, and that I must now pass through. It had been an arrival, coming to the Aveyron, living here. But it had been an arrival at a beginning. What was important was, not what I had done here, but what I did when I came away from here. And having the experiences and the memories to call upon when I doubted, which I often did, and often acted badly, but I carried on. I imagine returning here, becoming strong once more, becoming young once more. Coming back. Except, ‘you can come back, but you can’t come back on the way’ …
Today I crossed my highest point in the Massif. Tomorrow I will leave on the level.
Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe pp 111, 172, 181, 182.