Breakfast is a self-service buffet, and I keep piling on the cheap pastries, front-loading calories for the day. The radio is loud, the voices are quiet. Conversations are whispered, less for fear of being overheard than from a reluctance to break into the silence. There is none of that French acknowledgement of the room, and by the room, as someone enters, no ‘bon appétit’ and a nod to each. Everyone is in their bubble, and the surrounding silence is what keeps the bubbles intact. There is no society, each is here not as a person but as a set of functions. Privacy, anonymity is all.
The radio programme has two presenters, a man and a woman. The man talks non-stop, that upbeat logorrhoea of the morning drive-time presenter, as desperate as the bore in the street not to let you go. She laughs. She has a bright, tinkling laugh, delightful, the oral equivalent of the bright-eyed, adoring look. She laughs a lot, the laughter carefully placed to point up and reinforce the brilliance and wit of what he says. Which, given the number and quality of her laughs, must be brilliant and witty indeed. I can hear him preening at each laugh, puffing himself up. She has her job because of her laugh. She is ear-candy. What he says is insufferably banal, he is complacently self-satisfied. Her laugh stays with me all day. And what I hear, beneath the tinkling prettiness, is the hard, metallic undertone of irony, mockery, even savagery, of one whose time will come.
And he does say ‘sh’ for ’s’. Time to talk about language.
Dunkirk, ‘the most northerly francophone city in the world’, is in fact buried in the Nord department where in 1874 most people spoke no French, and still in 1972 the majority were bilingual. This was part of the Netherlands until 1659, and the native language is French Flemish, a Dutch language still spoken by 40,000 here.
But 8km away is Bergues, the setting for Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, the most popular French film ever, which satirises the local Ch’ti or Picard language. A post office manager is exiled, for a misdemeanour, from the South to Bergues, where he finds the local language all but incomprehensible. When he asks one of the postmen if they all speak like this, the postman replies (in the English version) ‘Yesh, the Ch’ti all shpeak Ch’ti – although shome shpeak Flemishka.’ ‘It doesn’t even sound like French,’ the manager complains. It is an amiable comedy, built on the humanistic premise that we’re all French in spite of our language differences, with a happy ending, a feel-good film to draw all together. Although, with not a single non-white face, it is, like many popular comedies, conservative and nostalgic, dealing with the last problem not the current one.
And Ch’ti, Picard, is French, spoken by 700,000 people, one of the languages of ‘Old French’ or langue d’oïl, of the northern half of France. Within five miles I will have encountered three languages. And this in a country that has only one language. (more on Language on the Language page.)
Finding my way out of Dunkirk, with the usual inadequate signage, seems to involve my cycling through most of the town.
I want to buy paperclips, but I’ve forgotten their name in French. (It’s trombone, of course, an unexpectedly humorous word for a symbol of bureaucracy, hopefully carrying with it sly, subversive French intent.)
I come upon, how odd, a beautifully restored Simca Aronde (Old French for ‘swallow’), the first French car I ever saw, in a showroom in my home town in the 1950s, imported by an adventurous distributor. I never saw one on the road. There was something noticeably different about the design, an elegance, what we would learn to call chic.
Much of the town has a run-down feel, a general down-at-heel apathy. Interrupted by the brave attempts of individuals who’ve opened shops, often in wild colours (shades of puce and lilac are popular), and in styles that are just off, which may or may not succeed. And with some cosmetic municipal interventions – planters, benches, flowerbeds – that try cheaply to cover over the lack of the real, the costly investment that would be needed to give the area a chance.
At last I find the road to Bergues, alongside a wide canal with tall, slender poplars either side of it, shimmering and scintillating in the air and dappling the water on this sunny, breezy day. It is one of the oldest canals in France, constructed in the sixteenth century, connecting Bergues to the sea.
Bergues And I arrive to a watery world, bastions with green moats and an encircling canal. Bergues calls itself ‘the other Bruges in Flanders’, and it is yet another reminder that this area, as far south as St Omer, is Flanders, a region that grew prosperous on the wool and textile trade from the thirteenth century. Entering, I could be in Bruges, with tall buildings reflected in a narrow canal.
I cycle into the centre, into the square, and enter a carnival – or even a film set! I could be in Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis! The square is full of stalls and entertainments, the carillon ringing out from the familiar tower, sturdily, if not with the extravagant exuberance, or heartfelt soul, of Antoine in Bienvenue. There is the yellow lunch wagon, and over there the post office, and behind it the sorting office … It is market day, a delicious French market day, with stalls spilling over with fine foods, and stalls selling cheap necessities. The town feels as warm and engaging as in the film. There are a few references to the film in shop windows, but in passing; this fame is just the latest ripple in the many tides of its history.
Its pride and its resilience is shown by its belfry. Independent of the church, it was and is a mark of the town’s status. Each time it was demolished, it was rebuilt: in the fourteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then after it was dynamited in 1944. On it is a proud plaque: ‘symbole des liberties communales’. Communale one of those French words – in this case incorporating ‘common, commune and communal’ – for which English, and the English, have no exact equivalent. To our loss.
Outside the town hall sits one of the giants beloved of Flemish towns. This a splendid gent a dozen feet tall, in stovepipe hat, with mauve jacket, cream trousers, an umbrella and the quizzical look of one who knows the world never really makes sense, but that’s life. They are still walked with pride through the streets in annual carnival. (The last of England’s perambulating giants, in Salisbury, ceased walking over a century ago.)
Panels show the destruction of the town in both wars. This area was invaded three times in seventy years, as well as countless times through history, demonstrating that it is fluid in more ways than one. It is still surrounded the defensive wall, built in the thirteenth century to resist the French, and then upgraded by Vauban against the Spanish, with its characteristic star pattern ‘crown’ around the abbey. I perambulate the wall as the market winds down, and a lunchtime torpor begins to settle. The defences were part of the pré carré, Vauban’s line of fortifications from Dunkirk to the Ardennes, built in the 1680s to defend the new border of France. This line, if maintained, would have better served the French in both world wars in resisting the German invasions through Belgium, in this area long called ‘the cockpit of Europe’.
I resist the temptation of the Ch’ti menu, with carbonade flamande – beef and onion stew, made with beer – and ch’ti cheese (which is washed every day for a month in beer), and leave this delightful and friendly-feeling town as it is beginning to nod off after lunch, and head south-west, back towards the Méridienne verte.
I can’t follow the line exactly, as Nicholas Crane walked the English equivalent in Two Degrees West, for I must travel on roads. They spiral around the Meridian. The Meridian is, for me today, the axis mundi, that links earth and heaven. It is the caduceus, the herald’s wand of Hermes, god of travellers, who both guides and leads astray. Of him John Michell writes, ‘He is a god of both life and death, of initiation, inspiration, prophecy and delusion, the traveller’s friend. Yet to his earnest, uncritically devoted followers he is a wilful deceiver and ‘fool’s lantern’. His company is kept by the high-spirited of all temperaments, and the course of his study is a popular way to madness.’ I have been warned. And the roads I follow are the serpents that writhe and spiral around the caduceus. ‘Roads are the serpents of eternity … the only things that are infinite. They are all endless.’ (Edward Thomas.)
Cycling south-west, in sunshine, into the wind, across rich agricultural land reclaimed from the sea, towards a Meridian marker at Bollezeele, I pass through the village of Socx. It is twinned, a flower-garlanded sign announces, with two small villages three miles from my home town. How did this happen?
Bollezeele lies at the centre of a seven-pointed star. I enter a village in thrall to that midday spell that seems cast more deeply in France. A thick stillness. Every shop is closed, with shutters down, never to wind up. In the bar, the squeak, squeak of a cloth inside a glass slowly turned. The wide square has been emptied of vehicles. I expect, looking up, to see birds fixed in the air. There is the sense that behind every closed window there is a beating heart pressed against the stillness, waiting. ‘Boredom waits for death.’
Is it because of the excessive self-consciousness, the excessive self-centredness of the French, that ennui, that ‘dull glib sadness’, is such an issue in their literature, their ideas? For the solipsist, if nothing is happening to me, how can anything be happening anywhere? Waiting. But, no. Here, beyond waiting, the consciousness behind each heart, the face above each breast, has surrendered to time, so that time is simply passing through.
As I am passing through.
Of course. Here, in this empty square, with my loaded bike, in the shadow of a clock that surely will never manage to push that oh so heavy minute-hand up, up, up to the zenith so that the hour may strike, I have for the first time a sense of what I am doing. I am on a journey. But more than that, a quest. I write of ‘following’ the Méridienne verte, but in fact I am searching for it, seeking it out, locating it, even creating it, with my attention to, my interest in what is along the Meridian. More than that, I am journeying through France, where I first tasted the ‘bitter-sweet herb of self-discovery’, and so much since. (See the footnote, below, from Clea.) And through my life. For, at my age, three-score years and ten, twice Dante’s ‘midway along the journey of our life’, all beyond is uncharted. But the dark edge, the line beyond which there is nothing, is visibly approaching. In the months since I planned this trip, four friends have been diagnosed, out of the blue, with illnesses that will soon kill them.
I feel Crane’s unease with the do-as-you-please approach to journeying of those who follow ‘desire paths’, and to a degree I share it. But, the many places I plan to visit off the line will be my desire paths, places I desire to visit. And yet, like a washing line on which a dog’s lead is looped, to allow it not just the radius of the lead but the length of the line, the Meridian will tether me. And the accumulation of experiences will register each time I return to the line.
A wheezing above me, as the minute hand heaves up to the vertical. A rattling and meshing of cogs, and, ‘bong … bong’. A shutter cranks slowly up. ‘La Vie en Rose’ plays in the café. And I have a brief, intense sense of pattern, and aliveness.
I find the Meridian marker on the edge of the village. It is in the standard form of a metre-high concrete cylinder, with the bronze medallion on top. The bronze has gone green, the marker has stood, untouched and unnoticed, since it was put here. North, there are empty fields out of sight, with not a tree. To the south is a copse of trees. It could be fifteen years old. But again there is an empty field beyond. Where is the long march of trees, where are the signs of annual renewal that keep symbols, emblems, the chosen, potent?
A few yards west of the marker is the Le Chemin de la Procession, running due south, parallel to the Meridian, with a sign towards the Source Notre Dame. ‘The pious duty of settled people is hospitality to travellers, for they are acolytes of Hermes, the errant spirit of the earth, who, as Mercurius, is also the Virgin Mary.’ Such springs are celebrated and processed to and reinvigorated on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. I cycle along Le Chemin. It runs for a couple of hundred metres then veers suddenly west. Over the hedge, on the line, in the middle of the field of ripening wheat, is a vivid green patch, the Source Notre Dame. It is so close, the spring, to the Meridian. It might have been included in the celebration of the Meridian. It has, like the Meridian, been forgotten.
Cassel I head south-east, towards Cassel. It is set on a conical hill that rises oddly and uniquely 570 feet from the flat polder, not unlike Glastonbury Tor. But this, a defensible hill in the cockpit of Flanders, is inhabited to the top, and has traditionally had a military rather than mystical role. Its commanding height has been repeatedly fought over. It is said to be the hill up and down which the Grand Old Duke of York ineffectually marched his British forces, before he was defeated by the French in 1793, and fled back to England. Although it was incorporated into France in 1678, it was still, in 1845, according to Disraeli, ‘quite French Flanders, where few of the inhabitants, and none of the humbler classes, talk French.’
It is tree-covered, and an even ride up. At the top is a wooden windmill, the last of twenty-nine that once turned noisily up here, and a statue of Marshal Foch, on horseback, facing east, where he spent ‘some of the most distressing hours of my life’ staring out over the mechanised slaughter of the Western Front less than 30 kilometres away. The horse gives a clue to his hapless dismay.
The Front ran south from the North Sea, through Ypres, Armentières, Vimy, Arras, Somme (such evocative names!), then swerved south-east, away from Paris (which was saved by the troops ferried to the front-line in a thousand red Paris taxis – each charging, it is said, the full fare). On through Verdun, to the Swiss border. It was the line at which the German advance was held. It quickly congealed into a barely-moving killing zone in which half a million British and a million French and a million Germans died. My map marks cemetery after cemetery along it, ‘Brit’, ‘All’, unmarked. There are 350 in Flanders, 280 in Somme. And many ‘ossuaires’.
It is a remarkable, light-filled view, mile after mile of flat, open land. What is now productive agricultural land was then an industrial landscape of supply depots, railways, muddy roads, hospitals, camps of reserve troops, the daily exchange of casualties and fresh troops, the madness of it all laid out. It convinced Foch that the only way to prevent it happening again was to dismember Germany; he said, of the Versailles treaty, ‘this is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.’ As it proved to be.
General Pétain, too, commanded from here. I will meet him in St Omer.
The descent into the village, on foot from this belvedere, is enchanting. It is one of those nineteenth-century curiosities, ‘pseudo-rustique en mortar’, (concrete and mortar, shaped to imitate rock and wood. Instead of a simple set of even, granite steps, the way down has been transformed into the path down a romantic rocky defile, through towering white rocks, where plants nestle and cling, on ghostly white, uneven steps, with railings and seats of wood uncannily turned to white stone. The information board reminds us that the same feature is used in the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, one of my favourite places in Paris. Aragon writes of the Parc’s Bridge of Suicides ‘which claimed victims from among passers-by who had no intention whatsoever of killing themselves, but found themselves suddenly tempted by the abyss,’ in ‘the park in which nestles the city’s collective unconscious’, where we are ‘caught in the trap of the stars’.
I have descended the pseudo-rustique staircase. I emerge into a Flemish Grand’Place, with cobbles and fine houses and substantial restaurants, colourful and comfortable. I imagine an awakening small-town adolescent, who has read Aragon, seeing Paris, as he climbs at night these uncanny, blanched steps. Alone, out of the noisy solidity of the given world, up to the belvedere of his dreams, to stand, to lie caught in the trap of the stars. And I want to walk at night, after a convivial meal of carbonade and Ch’ti beer, away from the chatter and colour and warmth, up this ghostly, bone staircase, to a canopy of stars, and the view of a memory, of the flashes and arcs and thunder of war laid out everywhere below.
Instead I am soon freewheeling down the helter-skelter of Cassel hill, and out onto the road to St Omer, into the sun.
St Omer I enter the fringes of St Omer with the gathering commuter traffic, and come upon another peculiarity of French roads – a major road, signposted with my destination, that, without warning, turns into a motorway, with no bikes allowed, and no alternative signed. How to get into St Omer now? I have to pick my way through villages and suburbs, using a map of too small a scale, and hard-to-read maps on my phone.
But, as I grumble my way along, I find that I have inadvertently diverted along the river Aa to the Fontinettes boat lift, an impressive piece of nineteenth-century engineering, a hydraulically-powered replacement for a flight of five locks that lifted boats the 43 feet from the Aa, on the Flanders plain, to the Neufosse canal, on the plateau of Artois. I climb up to the now-dry canal (the new junction is further along), and find myself in an edgy, liminal place, with too many figures apparently aimlessly hanging around, with no eye contact. I have walked into something (drugs? Sex?), I’ve no idea what. But it’s no place to stay. I withdraw, as I would withdraw from a rough bar, carefully, leaving them their private world.
My hotel is by the elaborate Second-Empire railway station. At the door is a shocking-pink torso of Venus de Milo, as if painted with nail varnish, rather attractive. It is a cheap hotel trying to remake itself, as all must do, against the onslaught of the low-cost chains. At the weekend it is a ‘venue’, with music to keep people drinking. During the week it relies on the trade of those, like me, passing through.
It is at the bottom of town, by the canalised Aa, so I decide to follow up Robb’s intriguing descriptions of the marais, the low-lying land reclaimed for market gardens between the canals that are the only means of access, ‘The “floating islands” to the east of town farmed by a community which had its own laws, customs and language. They lived in the low canal houses in the suburbs of Hautpont and Lysel, which still look like a Flemish enclave in a French town.’
As I cycle through, instead of a drowned, raffish-sounding other world, I find a neat suburb of bungalows, on narrow winding lanes and canals, of domestic gardens and grazing cattle, a thoroughly domesticated landscape with, here and there, the beginnings of tourism – kayaking and boat trips; and of revivalism – a basket-maker. We domesticate the wild, turn it into tourism. We destroy practical working-class trades with factory goods, and then reinvent them as middle-class luxury trades. The basket-maker runs basket-making courses. It is very pleasant.
St Omer, at the edge of the limestone Artois plateau, overlooking the plain, has a long history. Walking up into town, I pass the ruined abbey church of St Bertin. Notre Dame in Paris was founded as a daughter house. For Christianity came to Gaul, not from the south, from Rome, but from the north, with the Franks. The rivalry between the abbeys lasted for centuries. St Bertin had a copy of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, one of four in France, which came to the city after the Revolution.
A knight of St Omer, Geoffrey, was one of the founders of the Knights of the Temple, the Templars, in 1118.
For centuries the city, on the border of France and Flanders, and close to the English possessions, was on the front line of battle and siege. Crecy and Agincourt are close. It was to a St Omer knight, fighting on the English side, that the French king John II surrendered at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Henry VIII conducted his only field campaign here, and must have witnessed the stylish panache of the St Omer swordsman-executioner, as he employed him to behead Anne Boleyn. So vividly dramatised in the television version of Wolf Hall. And the Jesuit college, set up here to train English Catholics as priests to infiltrate Protestant England, contributed to the town library one of only two copies in France of Shakespeare’s first folio. It was the property of Edward Scarisbrick. He came from a family of English Catholics, several of whom died for the faith. One ancestor served Henry in France as his standard-bearer before being executed for ‘conspiracy’. Edward, the faithful Catholic, reading Shakespeare, the possibly-Catholic? He became James II’s chaplain. Titus Oates studied here, briefly, on his eccentric journey to inventing ‘the Popish Plot’.
For all its colourful history, it is a solid, undistinguished town. A good place for a career-soldier, after an uneventful thirty-seven-year peacetime career, to retire to.
As Colonel Pétain intended in 1913.
He was born a few miles from here and at 58 had bought a house in St Omer, and selected one of his many mistresses (he was a notorious womaniser) to marry. He proved to be an excellent wartime soldier, considerate of his men, and sensibly defensive-minded, against the prevailing French command philosophy of furious attack (De Tocqueville, on the French: ‘more capable of heroism than virtue’). After the war, as ‘the lion of Verdun’, and appointed Marshal of France, he was flattered into politics, and began to see himself as indispensable to the good governance of France. The Germans invaded in 1940, advancing rapidly towards Paris. (The chaos of the civilian flight south is brilliantly evoked in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française.) Pétain was appointed to head the government, and agreed to the armistice in 1940. Was there any alternative? Churchill, of course, would happily have fought to the last Frenchman. He even offered to unite France and England into one state to keep them fighting. But Pétain had spent much of his time since 1918 warning of the inadequacy of the French army, and knew its lack of capabilities. And having seen the slaughter on the Western Front, and imagining that slaughter spread across the whole of France, saw no alternative.
France was divided, the north and west under German occupation, the south and east under French control, governed by Pétain from Vichy. The armistice was widely welcomed in France. But Pétain, already 84, became ever more authoritarian and collaborationist. He declared himself Chef de l’État Francais, the dictator of Free France. He replaced ‘Republic’ with ‘State’, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité with Travail, Famille, Patrie. He proposed a ‘social hierarchy rejecting the false idea of the natural equality of man’. And yet there was little resistance until the occupation of the whole of France in 1943, and the Allied landings in 1944. As de Tocqueville wrote of the French: ‘led on a string so long as no one resists, ungovernable as soon as the example of resistance appears’.
If he had retired in 1914, Pétain would be an unremembered colonel, living quietly in this dull town, dreaming of what might have been. If in 1918, as the celebrated marshal who had had ‘a good war’. If in 1940, he would have been the wise statesman who saved France from destruction. In 1945 he was a traitor, sentenced to death for treason. This was commuted, against much opposition, by de Gaulle, his former lieutenant, and he died in prison, quite mad.
As I wander back, I am heartened to pass, in this most prosaic of towns, the office of an architect of modernism, his buildings and extensions relentlessly rectilinear, white, and classically-proportioned. It is like drinking, after sherries and red wines, a spring water that turns magically into pure alcohol: it refreshes then jolts. I step out, back to my hotel.
Thanks to Dave Castell for introducing me to Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis.
‘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?’ Lawrence Durrell, Clea p243. In the same letter Clea writes of ‘stepping across the threshold into the kingdom of one’s imagination and taking possession of it, once and for all.’ I ate the bitter-sweet herb, stepped across the threshold, at least began to, many years ago, in France, because of France.
John Michell, The Earth Spirit p23.
Edward Thomas, The South Country epigraph, from Where there is Nothing, by WB Yeats.
Aragon, Paris Peasant pps 150 & 157.
Robb, The Discovery of France p22.