It is another very cold night, and I’m up early, walking into the village to warm up, but also to visit the abattoir.
The Abattoir We had left London and moved to rural France to live in peasant self-sufficiency. And yet I worked for a year on the production line of an industrial process in which squealing pigs were herded, stunned, bled, scalded, butchered and processed into products shrink-wrapped in plastic film printed with country scenes and a smiling girl, ‘La Rouerguaise’, a celebration of locality, pays, a taste of the country brought to supermarkets by enormous lorries that battered their way between trees and over stone bridges from this factory.
‘What goes into them?’ I asked Serge, who stood all day feeding an endless tube of plastic onto the machine that shot a stream of bright dyed-pink meat into it, which he twisted every few inches to form the sausages that mounted by him like coils of rope on a sailing ship. ‘Une pharmacie!’ he wailed. He had been a village butcher, killing and butchering the beasts as they came, sheep, cow, pig, whatever, one by one. He had been forced out of business and into the factory by mechanised competition and government regulations. It has been happening at least since the first spinning machine was invented in 1764. The beasts that had come one at a time to his shop in a small trailer, or in the back of a 2CV, arrived at the factory in a huge lorry that had driven around all day, from farm to farm, and the pigs arrived parched, groggy, and sometimes dead.
My friends, who wrote for Undercurrents, who were anti-capitalist protesters, animal-rights activists, who squatted street farms, would have seen me as a mole, on the inside, able to gather information to attack the system, or at least stir up unrest, unionise and even recruit for the Revolution. It was here that I realised how little ideology, perhaps even principle, I have. We had no money. We needed money. I was here to work.
And it was here, that I learned how to work. How to put in a shift, learn a trade (boning hams!), employ manual skills, get on with blokes, endure and then make use of boredom. I learned to work a twelve-hour shift, humping carcasses, emptying frozen moulds in the freezer room, boning hams all day at a conveyor belt, heaving pig after bleeding pig into boiling water for two hours, cleaning up to be ready to do it all the again the next day, just the same. And then drive home and work in the garden, and make, mend, fix an abandoned house, day after day.
Perhaps more important, it was here that I wrote two stories. One about employing zen, tao, meditation methods, not in the formality of tea ceremonies or the stillness of meditation, but in mundane, repetitive, productive factory work. The other was about a simpleton who worked in the factory. That story was possible because I had learned how to be a quiet, almost invisible presence (having spent my life till then being schooled to be noisy, assertive, to stand out), to observe respectfully. And when to observe, and when to invent.
I learned, too, that for the workers, mostly young sons and daughters from paysan farms too small to support them, this was a place to earn money while staying in their locality, to assert their independence, to joke and play tricks and work with their peer group, girls and boys, instead of the endless isolation of the farm.
I walk up the hill out of the village. The factory is still here. Silent on a Saturday. There is no name board, no big collecting trucks, no delivery lorries. His name, the patron’s, is nowhere. It was, then, everywhere. The place was about him, it was the expression of his determination, hard work, his will. There was not a job he couldn’t do, and better than anyone else. Often he would be on the production line, chivvying us, as the shepherds chivvied their sheep. They say most companies rise and fall in three generations. His has come and gone in one. He must be long dead. No one took over. What was it for, all that hard, obsessive work? The factory is now owned by a Marseille company. It employs thirty. They still process pig products. But it’s no longer a slaughter-house.
I walk back, make coffee, pack up, and am on the road by eight. I cycle through the silent village. How slowly France gets up, these days! I can remember bars open at 6, men drinking rum with their coffee before work. Only the boulangeries open early. This one is full of the warmth of the ovens, and has delicious croissants and pains au chocolate.
Fortified, I head out on the empty road, alone in the morning freshness. I am cycling away from that time in my life, away from the world of Diggers and Dreamers. And away from the Meridian, further east. But back on the Meridian trail, in search of one of the important figures in that first survey, who became ‘The Sage of Puech Cani’.
Over the empty top I come upon a field of sheep! The first I have seen in this land of sheep. Their shadows long on the sloping field, their presence, reinforces the emptiness. There are fields laid out neatly, rectangles of green and gold, all tidy and farmed, but with no animals. And no signs of life in the farms I pass, or the hamlets I cycle through. As if all living beings have been spirited away. Or perhaps it is a land made ready for the first man.
I pass a small memorial stone, ‘Here fell Raymond Crayssac, mortally wounded, for the liberation of France, 7 July 1944, aged 24 years.’ I wonder if Gaston knew him?
The Tarn I descend to the Tarn. It’s a great river, wide, placid and green, somehow reassuring. Its forested slopes rise evenly on either side, its valley is varied, sinuous and very beautiful. I cycle along its bank, into the sun.
I know that he lies buried, the man I am looking for, at Saint-Cirice. And I know Saint-Cirice is on the other side of the river. But it isn’t on my map, and I can’t work out where to cross to reach it.
There is a bridge across at Brousse-le-Château, one of the ‘Beautiful Villages of France’. Should I cross here? A dozen Ferraris, ten red, one blue, one yellow, drive past me, in a concourse of drivers’ self-delight and passengers’ perfectly wind-blown hair. They cross the bridge and draw up in a line beneath the ramparts of the village, gun their engines throatily, and fall silent. It is their coffee time. Or an early stop for a leisurely lunch. And then a run of motor bikes passes me, twenty, thirty, men who wave briefly, going my way. There is my sign. Four wheels bad, two wheels good. I follow the bikers.
The ghost railway I pass lengths of empty brick tunnel, horseshoe shaped, overgrown. This is the railway that was never built. In 1880, with growing wealth from the industries of Roquefort, it was planned to extend the railway that ran from Roquefort to St Affrique on to Albi, along the Dourdou and Tarn valleys. La Compagnie du Midi constructed the tunnels and bridges, many of each, zigzagging across the river. But the rails were never laid. It exists as a line on the map, with ghost tunnels and bridges. There are even signal boxes and station platforms. In places the road has colonised the bridges and tunnels. The next bridge was built for the railway.
The tunnel I cross the bridge. Immediately on the other side is a tunnel entrance, with traffic lights so the traffic alternates in each direction. It is a horseshoe-shaped blackness that is both a solid and a void, a wall I will hit and an emptiness that I will disappear into. It is the tunnel in The Vanishing. It is terrifying.
The lights change to green. But how long is the tunnel? How long before the lights change back and traffic starts thundering towards me, not expecting me, blinding me, mowing me down? I must hurry. But within yards the tunnel has curved and the light is gone from behind me, and nothing ahead. I am in the midst of a blackness that both buries me in suffocation, and retreats from me in a limitless emptiness. The temperature drops. My light beam is a tiny dot on the road. But where are the sides? I will crash into the side, or cycle ever further out and be lost in an ever-receding nothingness. My light illuminates a point on the road, but I can’t stand not knowing where the side is. I unclip it and shine it on the wall and wobble slowly along, the pale light-beam acting as my fingertips as I feel my way.
Cycling so slowly, so uncertainly, the tunnel curving, curving, how long the tunnel, how long before the lights change? In these few seconds (minutes? hours?) I’ve lost all sense of time, of space. It is cold and I shiver. There is only a cold, clammy unknown. If I’m long in here, I’ll go quite mad, my thoughts flying out to be lost in emptiness, my being crushed to a black pinhead.
I limp on for hours, beginning to wish for the approaching roar and blinding light to restore me to myself for one brief moment before annihilation.
Then in the middle of this black crushedness, an anger, a red fury erupts, I shout, “Bastard! Bastard!! Bastard!!!”
It means nothing. It means everything. I cycle on through black emptiness.
At last a paleness on the distant wall. It curves into the solid horseshoe of dazzling light, nothing to see. And then the road reappears. And the tunnel sides reappear. And I reappear, in all my simple form. I exit the tunnel, pass the traffic light. It is green.
‘The Sage of Puech Cani’ Where am I? It is a favoured place, warm, full of sunlight, with birds singing. There is a terraced hillside of emerald grass, the ribbon of river is sky blue, there are vines, a mosaic of hedged fields, and shaggy slopes of chestnut trees. A buzzard soars high above in the blue. Where am I? Where is Saint-Cirice? I look back at the black mouth of the tunnel (how will I return through it?) –the tunnel it is called ‘Saint-Cirice’.
There is no village ahead, but there is a narrow lane up to the left, back over the top of the tunnel. I push my bike up, come to a cluster of houses, knock on a door, a woman comes to the door, half opens it. I ask, is there a village of Saint-Cirice? She says, there is no village, but there is a church; continue up the hill, follow the road round to the left, it’s there. Up and up I go, and at last, high above me, there is a simple chapel, silhouetted against the sky, reaching up.
The chapel was built by the Hospitallers (a companion military order to the Templars) as a place of pilgrimage and refuge for those with mental illness. In the churchyard is the grave of a surveyor of the Meridian. Chapels are intensifiers of the upward connection to the divine; surveyors flatten the earth onto a plane. How did they come together?
In 1769 Jean-François Loiseleur-Deslongchamps was twenty-two years old, one of the idealistic, Enlightenment young men recruited as a surveyor on the triangulation from which the Cassini map of France would be drawn. It was the first modern, science-based map. Surveying was not, as Robb entertainingly describes, an easy job. One surveyor was killed by a mob. Others were attacked, their survey platforms destroyed by suspicious locals who spoke no French and saw the fancily-dressed young men squinting one eyed through glass and metal mechanisms as sorcerers or, even worse, tax collectors. When looking for lodgings, everyone turned him away, even the local squire. At last a farmer allowed him to stay while he surveyed the area. One of the farmer’s six children, Marie-Jean, a thirteen-year-old shepherdess, was fascinated by him, and his work. Romance flowered. The survey moved on, but whenever he could, Jean-François returned. In 1774 they were married.
When the survey finished, they travelled around for work. But she was always homesick, so they returned to the Rouergue, and never left. He did various jobs, even working for a time as one of Trésaguet’s new road menders. At times they took church charity.
He was active in support of the Revolution, and in 1789 he became administrator of the new department of Aveyron, working in Rodez to unify the administration, money, weights and measures. He helped Méchain with the Meridian measurements that established the metre. He managed to survive the the political changes emanating from Paris as the Revolution passed through its various phases – he was sacked and reinstated twice – before finally returning to his work as a surveyor in 1799.
In 1808 the couple retired to Puech Cani, a couple of hundred yards from this chapel, above this bend in the Tarn, in a place of ‘calmness and beauty’, with glorious views over the land he had surveyed. There they created a vineyard, and a jewel of a garden of delight ‘exhaling happiness and the sweetness of life’, with plants of every kind, watered by a spring, and where, after a day’s work the ‘Sage of Puech Cani’ would meditate under a cypress tree.
He corresponded with his famous botanist nephew, and other scientific men of the day, and continued to survey, measuring the heights of all the hills around.
When he was 90 he presented, at the Society of Arts and Sciences he had helped set up, his invention, a portable barometer, that enabled heights to be determined. This added the third dimension to maps. He died aged 96. Marie-Jeanne died six weeks later. His story a film script waiting to be filmed.
There is a man tending the gardens by the chapel. There is something about the way he gardens. He gardens as one who loves. He is a care taker. I can’t open the gate into the graveyard; very gently, he shows me how to open it. He says that the chapel is closed, but if I follow the path behind the chapel, there is a viewpoint – he forms a crest with his fingers, and circles his hand, and smiles.
The graves are on the edge of a precipitous drop to the river. They share the same gravestone. The view is terrific. But there is more. I follow the path up through the trees and scrubby vegetation behind the chapel, and emerge at the pinnacle.
From the pinnacle there is the all-round view he promised. Looking down, I follow the bend in the river as it flows from the left, disappears under my feet and emerges and disappears windingly on the right. It is a series of curves that I follow with my hand, lean through as if on the water. The valley sides are mixed woodland and open fields, pasture and crops. The view around is clear in every direction, an undulating landscape mosaic of dark woods and lighter and variously-coloured fields, fading into the blue of far distance. How wonderful, for a surveyor to make a place to live in this inspiring place. And that the mechanics of his trade hadn’t blunted his love for and wonder at the beauty of the land.
And, for the mentally-ill pilgrims, however valuable their communion with God in this place. I cannot but believe that this landscape helped calm them, and bring lucidity to their minds. I imagine Artaud being brought the few miles from Rodez, and his mind clearing in this wonderful place. I have come out of my way, and I am glad I have come to the resting place of a remarkable man; and woman.
As I descend, I realise that, in my journey from bridge to chapel – through the tunnel, my cry at the mid-point, emerging into Deslongchamp’s paradise – I have enacted, in miniature, Gilgamesh’s journey through the mountain of Mashu.
At the traffic lights I stop a car going my way, and ask if he will drive slowly ahead of me, to light my way. He readily agrees, and in his slipstream I pedal fast the 600 illuminated curving metres, and as we emerge I wave my thanks. He beeps his horn and accelerates across the bridge.
The Tarn I cycle back to Albi along the banks of the Tarn. The road switches from bank to bank, sometimes through railway tunnels, past ghost railway platforms. I lunch at Trébas, by a camp site where a petanque competition is under way. Each team wears club colours with a sponsor’s logo. A team saunters over to drink between rounds, ‘Castelvision Garages Albi’ across their ample fronts.
On past the hydro-electric barrages that now divide the length of the tarn into a series of lakes. Through Ambialet, one of the prettiest river views, the village heaped up around its steepled church and an ‘ideal’ combination of grass, trees, craggy rocks, water and beach. I enter Albi through St Juery, the working-class suburb where Jaurès founded the bottle-making cooperative.
After the detour into my past, tomorrow I will be back in the present, resuming my journey along the Meridian.
Robb, The Discovery of France chapters 1 and 9.
Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet IX.