It is another cold night and I hardly sleep. I’m up, packed and ready to leave long before anyone is about. I decide that Belcastel can live without my camping fee, whatever it would have been, and push my bike up out of the village.
It is an expansive June morning, the sun up long before people, the blue sky vast, the untenanted, uninfringed air rich with oxygen as I breathe deeply in and of the silence. Detail. The last wisps of mist are dissolving from the tops … are gone. Just green and blue. The quiet munching of a horse by a gate, the shiver along its back and the shake of its head as it eyes me before returning to its munching. There are simple roses in the hedge, small, delicate, pink. Again, I’m full of memories from living here. Of cutting a sapling of ash for a hay-rake handle, stripping the bark off the damp, bone-white wood, splitting and fitting the handle in the chestnut head, the work unfolding perfectly, all this to a chorus of bantam cocks one early midsummer morning before the neighbours’ alarm clock had shaken them awake. Standing on the top, and seeing my small shadow cast on the snow-like mist below me, surrounded by a rainbow nimbus, a glory – what was it, what did it mean? Years later I discovered it’s called a Brocken spectre.
But now, as my thoughts have been meandering, my footsteps have wandered. I’ve no idea where I am. I am in a maze. Every tiny lane looks equally important, there are no signs, the lane that begins upward deceives and curves back down, I return to the crossroads several times, once to the village itself. Should I have left a camp site fee? Is this Hermes’ early-morning trick, a little pipe-opener for a day of mischief? What to do? Keep trying.
After two hours, I emerge unexpectedly from the maze, onto the D997, at Colombiès. I am back on the map. I head south, to the junction with the D911. I am at the highest point, 750m. The land falls away, spreads before me, this is my ‘first smile of the south’.
I pass a roughly-painted sign by the road, ‘No to wind turbines. Ecological imposture.’ (How French, on a protest sign, ‘Imposture’!). And a small, new factory unit, ‘Tripous. Fabrication. Vente directe’. In English ‘tripe’ means rubbish; in French, trickery. Hermes must be the patron-saint of tripe-dressers. The best tripe I ever tasted was in a sandwich, peppery and hot, on a thundery day in Florence, between heavy showers, outside the church where Beatrice is buried, close to Dante’s house. We had a tripe shop when I was young, the seams slithering around on the marble slab in the window, and billowing like formless albino marine creatures in the vats of water. The young woman at this establishment has returned to the family farm to ‘devote myself to tripe’. They can it as well as selling it fresh. Perhaps the pigs’ trotters (we sold those as well) come here from the abattoir I worked in.
Heading south and down, a wind at my shoulder, pushing me on, the whole of the South spread before me, ochre and green fields softening in the distance to a misty blue. There is one last sharp reminder of the west-draining streams I have been crossing for days as I descend to and climb up from the Viaur.
Then I cross into the Tarn. Which markets itself as ‘Coeur d’Occitanie’, and welcomes me ‘Benveguda!’ As the Aveyron department becomes the Tarn, the buildings change almost instantly, from grey stone with steep scalloped-slate roofs, to ochre render and shallow red-tile roofs. The road margins (I’m sure) lose definition, from road to verge, from verge to field. There is something altogether looser about the South. I pass through the village where a friend and her new husband came to live, in their fifties. He liked it, she didn’t. She went back, he stayed. They divorced. I had intended to stay with them.
Through Carmaux, but no time to visit its museum of mining. And there, at last, is Albi.
Albi For miles, on the long, straight run into Albi, the cathedral is visible side on, a huge presence dominating the town, a brick oblong with a fat chimney, industrial-looking. An appropriate look for a building designed to remind the people below of the thousands burned to death by its inner mechanisms.
I stop at the bridge over the Tarn. It is a lovely view: the wide river, crossed by the two rhythmic-arched bridges and the diagonal weir, fringed by dark trees, the town heaped up in attractive cubist geometries, the cathedral sailing high. I had forgotten how pink Albi is! The raw red of the ubiquitous brick mellows with age, and the pale mortar further softens the effect. It has a dusty, rosy, salmony pinkness, set off by the green tinge to the river, the white water off the weir, and brightened by the Midi blue of the sky.
Before I enter the town proper, I pause to ponder what Albi I am entering. Our market town forty years ago, where we’d drive once a month in our ancient, canvas-seated 2CV to stock up in the whole-food coop and Mammouth hypermarket, and have showers? The town I invented and reinvented in Diggers and Dreamers? Another chakra close the Meridian, the fourth cathedral of my journey, my entry point to the South? The town that gave its name to the heresy and crusade, that colours so much of my relationship with the South? All, of course, interfolded, overlaid, with abrupt shifts between. I cycle across the bridge, and up to the cathedral.
The Albigensian Crusade, the first against heretics rather than infidels, was proclaimed in 1208 by Pope Innocent III. (I love the names popes give themselves!) It happened because of a coming together of interests. A centralising pope seeking to extend his control over the lackadaisical church of Languedoc. A French king concerned that Aquitaine was now, by marriage (the Eleanor his father had divorced) part of England, and wishing to extend his realm beyond the Loire. A hysteria about ‘heresy’, stoked up especially by Cistercians, fanatics like Bernard. (Nicely skewered by Moore as ‘not so much a hound of heaven as a blunderbuss that could be relied on to explode with a loud bang when aimed and primed by others.’) The crusade was led by one of his successor abbots of Clairvaux, Arnold Amalric. And Northern barons willing to march south and fight, in return for indulgences, booty and land. The result was a war of atrocities and destruction that ravaged the South for thirty years, and eighty years of the Inquisition, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered and thousands burned to death. A Christianity closer to the original Fathers, and a culture of subtle traditional relationships and high artistic achievement (celebrated by Dante) were destroyed. The resentments have flared up ever since, in the Wars of Religion, the Camisard revolt, the vine growers riots of the 1900s, and the Occitan revival from the 1950s.
Its name was less because Albi was the centre, than because Bernard had received a notably hostile reception when he preached here in 1145. Albi fell in 1209 without a fight, after the massacre at Beziers. But in 1234 the Albigeois, outraged at the torturings and burnings by the Inquisition, forced the bishop to take refuge in his cathedral.
His successor, Bernard de Castanet, was made of sterner stuff. He had both religious and secular power, and this was useful because, although the church pronounced on heresy, the state carried out the sentence. As Inquisitor for Languedoc, and ally of the Dominican inquisitors, he first built in Albi a fortress-like bishop’s palace, la Berbie, as base and detention facility for the Inquisition. By 1287 he felt powerful enough to pick a fight with the town, increase church dues ten-fold, and begin to build, using these dues, a new cathedral, modelled on his brick redoubt.
Cathedral What to make of it, this church-fortress? It is built of twenty-nine round buttress-towers, connected by walls that rise sheer and blank to lancet windows fifty feet up. The walls are topped with battlements. It is the largest brick building in France, possibly Europe (maybe the world – who has counted the bricks?). Each Albigeois could count the bricks his taxes had paid for. And hadn’t the exiled Hebrews in Egypt slaved at making bricks?
As the followers of Suger were building Notre Dame, with pointed arches and flying buttresses and expanses of glass, flooding the apse with light and expressing spiritual aspiration, even yearning, this fortress was an expression of the church’s oppressive power over the community.
I am reminded of another church that was built at the charge of a community, as an ever-present reminder of their defeat at the hands of authority, the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre. That sugar-loaf confection was built in the years after the Commune. It was, perhaps still is, a tradition for the locals to spit and curse as they pass.
Inside, it gets weirder.
It is a vast space. There are no aisles and it is the widest transept in France. In contrast to the blankness of the outside, the walls and ceiling are covered in trompe-l’oeil patterns, as if to confuse the eye and draw it to the mural on the west wall. For in here the congregation, by some vindictive reversal, faces west, backs to the high altar (like naughty children facing the wall), and looking at a vast and ghastly picture of the Last Judgement. Behind them, from which they are excluded, in the richly-decorated choir, the Holy of Holies, in the company of a host of beautifully-crafted Bible figures, in the presence of the Virgin and child, and in the light from the apse, the canons sang the holy offices. I can’t wait to get out.
The cathedral took 200 years to build, and in that time Albi grew wealthy, growing and trading in saffron and pastel, woad. Woad was the only blue dye of the Middle Ages, before indigo arrived from the East. (Weld provided yellow, and madder provided red, and the wools of the great tapestries were dyed with these.) ‘Woad hath made that country [the Toulouse-Albi-Carcassonne triangle] the happiest and richest in Europe.’ So the cost was easily borne. In 1794 it became a Temple of Reason. In 2010 it became a World Heritage site. It is a great draw for tourists. So, like the people of Montmartre, the Albigeois have learned how to turn a profit from the instrument of their oppression.
Toulouse-Lautrec To take a break from Albi (too much is dashing around in my head) I go into the bishop’s palace to look at the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. I am instantly back in Paris. For the crippled son of fading aristocrats fled as soon as he could to Paris. Not just Paris, to Montmartre. Not just Montmartre, to the compass of a few streets, where he lived, drank too much, and died age 36.
Looking round (it is a great museum, I can’t stay long enough, I have to get back to Albi) I realise how exactly he understood the market of the late nineteenth-century city. Not the market for his paintings, but for what the the subjects of his work were selling. His brothel scenes are shocking in their matter-of-factness. They are drained of all eroticism, allure. These are weary prostitutes who, although between clients, are still working. And the work is selling access to parts of their body. They dress, adopt poses, take on characters that will interest (‘arouse’ is too strong a word) the imagination of the client, they wait in positions they hope will invite his jaded attention. Each is trying to create a market, and thereby a buyer. There is something irremediably bleak about these pictures of girls selling the use (misuse) of their bodies in a buyers’ market.
And, needing to earn money, Henri learnt lithography in 1891, and was soon making iconic images to be reproduced as posters, to advertise bars, cabarets and, above all, artists. New laws allowed bars and cabarets to open, and a new freedom to put up posters. What care he took in, for example the posters he designed for Aristide Bruant, Jane Avril! In each, through many sketches, he works to create a very specific image, an iconic pose that captures, for the artist, their place, their niche in the market (their usp). As with the prostitutes, he creates a representation of exactly what they are selling. Seen beside a photograph of the person, the poster is of the person, but more so. Again, for each venue, the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergère, there is the sense of action caught at exactly the moment when … you want to, have to know more, what happens next. So, intrigued, the potential customer who sees the coloured image fly-posted on the wall has to go there, has to find out. Henri is the perfect ad man.
But also a great artist. Because at the same time as he is selling these images, he is showing the artifice, the frailty of the individual, the falseness of the situation. Reminding the viewer that this is not substance but image. He is the Warhol of his time. I return to Albi refreshed.
Diggers and Dreamers opens in Albi, at the railway station, with Jane going back to England, Kris staying. As he leaves the station, he is ‘aware suddenly of the space all around me, aware that I do not have to do what I intended to do when she left, the one thing I promised myself I would do for her, so that she can return, the one big thing.’ Instead of driving back to their place in the hills, he stays in Albi, and the adventure begins. He goes to the public bathhouse for a long, voluptuous shower. Back outside, while the town slumbers in the midday heat, in the spell that French towns used to fall under at midday, the collective retreat into individual dreams, he has a vision: of the red cathedral filling with the blood of the murdered Cathars, overflowing through the streets, flooding around the war memorial, causing the trees to flower with the talking heads of his heroes. Then a crane lifts a giant anchor, hooks under the round arch of the brick war memorial, pulls it up like a huge bath plug, and the blood gurgles away and the heads shatter to white gravel, and the inhabitants wake slowly, scratch themselves, shake their heads at the strange dream, look around at a world unchanged, clear their heads to get on with business. ‘Was it a vision? Memory? Premonition? Or my imagination, simply, long buried, emerging …?’
It had taken me a long time to dare to imagine, invent, make up, to be able to ‘tell stories’ (which as a child meant ‘lying’), to act upon Picasso’s ‘art is the lie that leads to truth.’ It was a while before Barthes’ deconstructions in Mythologies showed me that the self-evident is simply the unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing ideology. Before I learned from Levi-Strauss in La Pensée Sauvage that different cultures don’t just express, but they experience ‘reality’ differently. Before Harari in Sapiens showed that myth-making, the ability to imagine, and ‘to transmit information about things that do not exist at all’ is the defining feature of Homo sapiens.
Now to revisit these bits of Albi. There’s the cathedral. I soon find ‘douches’ next to the hospital, and still cheap, only 80c. And close by is the brick arch of the war memorial. The crane is long gone. It was there for the rebuilding of the old quarter of Albi, a run-down area with washing flapping across the lanes, the buzz of an overcrowded area. The buildings were replaced with exact replicas. But the new apartments were expensive, so the poor had been moved out, and the shops and cafés were upmarket, not for cheap, everyday living. It became a place that time passes through, as styles and fashions change, but that doesn’t age. It lives in an eternal present – take a photo, and you could fix it, years later, to a specific fashion season.
But where is the giant anchor? Surely I didn’t dream it, invent it, the anchor, ‘set on a plinth, eighty miles from the sea. I sniff it to see if I can smell the sea. It smells of iron and heat’? It must, I realise (how little I knew, then, about this area!) have been a memorial to le comte de Lapérouse, naval officer and explorer, native of this town, whose scientific expedition to the Pacific in the wake of Cook explored and mapped the coasts of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Korea and Russia. He sent back his invaluable records, then disappeared. His last message said he expected to be back in France by June 1789. Just in time for the Revolution. (Apparently a benevolent and just captain, what role might the returning hero have played in the Revolution?) After many searches, remnants of his ship was finally found in the Solomon islands in 2005. Captain Edwards, in his single-minded search for the mutineers of The Bounty, had seen a smoke signal from the island in 1791, and ignored it. And I never find the anchor.
I have remapped the Albi of memory and invention onto its present actuality. It is a town busy with commerce, busy with tourism. And, now, busy with children. Because the streets have been roped off and waiting zones established, for an evening of children’s cycle races. Disorientated, I stare at my tourist-office map, trying to work out where my night’s lodgings are.
As I peer hopefully around, I become aware of a young man sitting, staring at me. I say, hi, and he clicks into life, as if he’s been waiting for me. He scoffs at my tourist office map and pulls out his own. He asks where I’m heading, indicating my bike. I say proudly, to Perpignan. From Dunkirk. Ah, he says, unimpressed, ‘une Deeagonaale’. What, others have done this? He recites the six Diagonals, bike rides across the Hexagon, between Brest, Dunkirk, Strasbourg, Menton, Perpignan, and Hendaye (near Biarritz). They are organised, I learn later, by Amicale des Diagonalistes de France. Each has a time budget. Dunkirk to Perpignan is 100 hours. He tells me how to get to my destination, and sits back down, inert once more. As if he is an automaton waiting to be switched on. Or an actor awaiting his cue. He is another of those characters, like the woman at Saint-Denis station, the man in the square in Pithiviers, who seem to have been placed, either to guide me, or to lead me astray. Spirits of Hermes, of the hermetic path. Was this character’s role to deflate me? To show that what for me is something special, is in fact something ordinary. And by extension to make me ordinary? Or rather to stimulate me to say, defiantly, this is my particular journey, my own diagonale, that I fully acknowledge and own …?
I cycle past the new Grand Théatre, ‘designed by the international architect bla bla’ the town guide notes nervously. It is another piece of overblown civic-architecture statement. This one, for all its idiosyncratic appearance, seems to be simply a rectangular box draped, in a misguided attempt to give it a ‘look’, in asymmetrical netting.
I find my lodgings. An odd word to use, but it is neither hotel nor hostel, an informal conversion of a two-floor flat, with individual rooms and a big shared kitchen.
It is good to be back among people, even if it is with that awkwardness of difference of language and type, and the simple desire in each of us for privacy. An old French couple, who seem to have taken up residence, the wife having that way of turning every place into a version of her home. A woman on her own who seems at once to want to talk, but at the same time has a way of deterring conversation. But, my room is comfortable, it has a decent bathroom, I can shower, do laundry and sort out my things.
I bring my bike into the lobby, and put it in the cellar. The building is the classic nineteenth-century block of apartments, the provincial version of the block in Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, which opens, ‘Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way, in this neutral place that belongs to all and to none, where people pass by almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds.’ The heavy outer door that slams shut no matter how carefully you try to close it, the bare, dark, neglected lobby, undecorated for half a century, the stone staircase of uneven, worn steps spiralling past door after door, the sounds and cooking smells of different lives seeping out from behind each, big keyholes and big iron keys, the curved wooden handrail loose on the iron holders, ancient light switches, the general neglect that enables cheap living now, on the capital (including labour, of course) expended when it was built.
I go out. The heavy door slams. I stand on the street, by the big elaborate coach doors that lead into the courtyard, watched by the glittering eye of the amateur concierge behind the lace curtain. Which way to go, in search of a meal? It is a long residential street, with trees, the evening sun dazzling along its length, the evening pink and warm, a few shops but most of them closed down. Do I want to go back into the centre? Too fashionable, too far. I want a quick meal. There is a burger place across the street.
It is not a shop-window formica place, but a small restaurant that has adapted to the modern eating habit that demands burgers. The small, energetic woman ushers me through the dark empty restaurant, with candles and gingham tablecloths, into a garden, shaded by the buildings around, with a couple of small trees, mild and comfortable. Oh, this is surprisingly nice. I order cheval burger and beer. How do I want it cooked? she asks. I say ‘moyen’. ‘On dit, à point’, she says, less correcting than informing, nicely done. Of course! I’m mentally kicking myself for having forgotten. Then I remember Barthes’ essay on steak-frites, how bloodiness is the steak’s essence, and ‘even a moderate degree of cooking cannot be explicitly expressed; such an unnatural state requires a euphemism: a medium-cooked steak is said to be à point, more as a limit than a degree of perfection.’
I sit back, sipping my beer. There is a family, with a noisy child demanding attention, a listless mother, and a man who spends the whole meal on the phone, chewing as he listens, swallowing before he speaks. An old couple shuffle in, regulars on their night out. They order quickly, automatically, and then settle down to the puzzles that are printed on the place mats. Instead of tablecloths, cheap restaurants have individual paper place mats, advertising the town, or shops, or products, with, in this case, puzzles, and horoscopes. Mine reads, ‘Do not throw yourself lightly into a hazardous project. Be more prudent, your finances will be less impoverished.’ This is the usual advice for the supposedly impulsive Aries. I decide not to have a pudding.
As I wait, I ponder something that had occurred to me while writing Diggers and Dreamers. What if we, my wife and I, having got off the train here, with our trunks, instead of taking the bus up into the hills, as we did, to stay with English friends who had persuaded us to come and do the ‘self-sufficiency thing’, preliminary to buying our own place, what if we had stopped in Albi? What if she, who wanted to be French in France, had got a job here, while I, who wanted to be a stranger in France, stimulated by both the distance and the freshness of a new country, had written? As I look around the little garden, observing, noting – the accent, panse for pense, merci bieng, the people around, local colour, the vividness of the unfamiliar. What if, instead of a year working in an abattoir (120 pigs a day, killed and processed), and a year working on a house and the land, gardening, pruning vines, scything hay, making wine, bottling vegetables, making baskets, mending tools, fixing a cuisinière with an iron plate from the blacksmith and fire clay dug from a bank, struggling with an old car, roofing a house, I had just written?
Except that it had been exactly those two years of hard manual labour, of being practical, of débroulliage (getting by) and bricolage (improvising) that had separated me sufficiently from my privileged bookish upbringing to enable me to reconnect to a self I had been losing touch with since I was eleven. And that in the years after, back in England, had informed my writing.
Dinner arrives. The difference between burger places in France is less the burgers than the chips. These are chunky, not greasy, excellent. I had been trying to believe that cheval burger is made of horse (having conceded that canard burger isn’t made of duck), but this, the second I’ve had, also has a fried egg on top. How did it get the name? I eat well, and saunter back. The glittering eye through the lace curtain does not blink.
I close the shutters, those ingeniously-designed but fiendishly complicated wood and iron French shutters, definitively old France, and am in bed before ten.
Here in Albi I have a sense of arrival. But, as when we first arrived, also the sense that this is the beginning, that one centre of the journey, one of the chakras, is just ahead. Tomorrow I will head east, across the Meridian, into the hills, and revisit our house of forty years ago.
R I Moore, The War on Heresy p147. ‘Hounds of heaven’ was a common name for the Dominicans, who operated the Inquisition.
Diggers and Dreamers pp 3, 5, 8.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies.
Claude Levi-Strauss, La Pensée Sauvage Chapter One.
Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind p27.
Georges Perec, Life A User’s Manual p3.
Barthes, Mythologies ‘Steak-Frites’.