I eat breakfast in the bar. Bright sun outside, washed streets, deep shadows, few people. A bar waking up, stretching, preparing for the long day. It is run this morning by a red-haired girl, competently in charge. This man is tolerated, served quickly with his too-early glass of wine. This man, a valued customer, is greeted with extravagant air kisses. An old man shuffles wearily in, disappears at the back. She rushes after him with coffee, more coffee, and then a plate of food. He is to be kept sweet, the chef. I could sit here all day, watching from my invisibility a day in the life of a Paris bar, making notes that by closing time would be a book, as George Perec did near Saint-Sulpice. But I have to get on.
I suddenly realised in the night, recovering from the physical strain of the day, and my loss of nerve, that the best way to cross Paris is by bike early on a weekend morning. It is, after all, hardly 6 miles from péripherique to péripherique. Without the weekday traffic, and knowing the streets along the Meridian well, having walked them many times, it should be straightforward. So now I can do what I intended to do, connect two lovers, once joined in Paris, long separated.
I cycle to Saint-Ouen cemetery. It is vast, ordered, municipal, the graves are in tight, symmetrical rows, with gravestones like stone coffins. How Suzanne Valadon, ‘the mistress of Montmartre’, would have hated it! Here is her grave. Her funeral was attended by Picasso, Braque, Derain, and her troubled son, Maurice Utrillo.
She was born illegitimate in 1865, and from nothing she worked her way, from laundress to trapeze artist to the model and mistress of artists, to acceptance by them as an artist. A woman who lived in her own uncompromising way in a man’s world, and in her female nudes showed a new way not just of representing, but of seeing the naked woman.
One of her very many lovers, and for a very short time, was Erik Satie, the composer and musician, a gentle, otherworldly soul who was drawn like a moth to the flame (how well the cliché fits!): illuminated by the light, and heated, just once in his life, by the fire of this life-filled woman. He embraced it, pressed it to his neglected heart. But when he was left holding emptiness (how quickly she moved on!), and he had ‘nothing but an icy loneliness that fills my head with emptiness and my heart with sadness’, his angel’s gossamer wings vaporised, and he fell. Hard. Now wingless, he crawled away from the exuberance, vitality and vivacity of Montmartre, to the grey anonymity of the suburb of Arceuil, south of Paris, to remake his life. And of course for me Suzanne was Melanie, the femme fatale of my youth, and Satie a tragic hero I could identify with. And wouldn’t I, like Satie, with ‘nothing but icy loneliness …’ etc, limp away, live secretly, change unseen, become who she had seen I could be (how clearly she had seen! How we need that!), and would say, ‘is this you? You did it!’ Of course I never saw her again. But she changed me, and I changed my life.
The flea market at Saint-Ouen, the biggest in the world, was once a place of quirky characters, both sellers and buyers, who had the knack of making the discarded the desired, of creating a theatre of imagination. It was a favourite place of the Surrealists.
Now it is an enormous commercial enterprise.
Except at the edges where, a sign of the times, it has reverted to what it was when it began, the market of the chiffoniers, the rag-pickers, who in ‘the zone’, the glacis by Paris’ defensive wall, built squatters’ shacks and gathered and sorted and sold Paris’ waste. This was before M Poubelle with his dustbins and municipal dumps put them out of business from the 1880s. The wall, having proved useless against the Prussians in 1870, was demolished in 1920s, and the péripherique ring road built on the line of it in the 1960s. So, gathered in the dank gloom under the péripherique is a sorry collection of desperate-looking people, with pathetic objects, worn cases, broken toys, old clothes, rags, anything to sell. The rag-pickers are back, the squatters’ shacks are back, the brief era of reducing inequality is past, and the poor are once more powerless.
I cycle under the péripherique. In wealthy areas, the ring road has been put expensively underground. In poor zones, like this, it passes on stilts at bedroom height. It is 35km long. The record time for completing the circuit is 9 minutes 57 seconds, on a motorbike.
Past Saint-Ouen’s giant silver ball, inside the péripherique, I am in Paris. Bronze medallions were set into the ground along the 9.2km length of the Meridian through Paris in 1994. I have walked it several times, recording buildings, places, people, associations along the way. ‘Cycle across Paris? Remember the first time you tried to cycle in Paris …!’ But that was long ago. Now there are vélibs, bike lanes, and a new regard for the cyclist. And it’s a sunny Saturday morning, early, there are few cars, the bright sun is flickering through the plane trees as I rush along, and water is gushing from the gutters, across the fan-shaped patterns (echoing Suger’s fountains of stone) of pavés.
Across the boulevard and into the housing estates Céline wrote about so vividly in Journey to the End of Night. Then the familiar world of Paris quartiers, five-storey walk-up apartment blocks, with bars, local shops, and life revolving around small, oddly-shaped squares, with trees, benches, a play area, green iron newspaper kiosk, and maybe a metro station, a street market setting up. Climbing up to Montmartre,with its windmills and vineyards that thrived because it was outside Paris, subversive and cheap, where the Commune began, the heart of art for a generation, the dream of art ever since. Suzanne and Erik lived on this street, Toulouse-Lautrec … too late, past. An obelisk marks the Meridian, invisible in a private garden. I drop down, past Theo van Gogh’s apartment, past le Chat Noir where Satie played, across the crossroads where Nerval saw the star that would lead him to the river. An extra horse was hitched here, to get the omnibuses up to Montmartre. Across the Haussmann boulevards, past Proust’s cork-lined apartment, through the passage des Panorama, one of the arcades that so fascinated Aragon, Walter Benjamin – I shouldn’t cycle, but can’t resist a Bande à part moment as the astonished shopkeepers preparing their displays shout after me as I skid across the washed tiles. Into the heart of the State, the stock exchange and national library – but where Isidore Ducasse, having written his incendiary Maldoror died in a cheap hotel, starved to death in the 1870 siege. Past the Palais Royal, Nerval in his youth walked his pet lobster here, through the Louvre and out to where, following the star, he hanged himself. And the river.
I stop. After swift motion between narrow, enclosing grey buildings, this vast, still expanse of sky, wide, bright, softly-flowing river, the dreamy world of the quais at the water’s edge. I stop, to allow myself to catch up. I’ve been like the Aborigine in Songlines, trying to sing the song of walking the landscape while travelling in a jeep, so many people, places, memories I’ve passed. In thirty-six minutes.
Upstream the river glitters around the Île, Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf. It is the view that haunted Lantier in Zola’s The Masterpiece, the view so many, hand in hand have fallen in love to, perfect Paris. Christo once wrapped the Pont Neuf in gold. Imagine. I push my bike across the Pont des Arts. It is eerily empty. It’s a pedestrian bridge, and used to have wire mesh at the sides, heavy and shining with lovers’ locks. Now they’re gone, replaced by solid panels painted with a wire mesh pattern, and ‘love is the key!’ in English. I have never understood the association of love and locks, but, with their spontaneous felt-tipped initials and hearts, their memories of moments, they humanised, democratised and brightened up the bridge. So, they’ve been removed, and the view of the softly moving water has been blocked off.
Over the river, and on. North of the river, the streets zigzag across the Meridian, south they follow the line directly. Past the street of Christo’s first ‘intervention’ (he blocked it with barrels), and the site of Debord’s famous graffiti (how they must wish they had not painted it out! See Footnote at end of this page), through the once-Bohemian Left Bank, now smart galleries rather than radical bookshops. Into St Germain, past Café Flore and Deux Magots. The cobbles used in 1968 to build barricades, beneath which is the dreamed-of beach, are now sealed under two inches of tarmac. Past the bar where seventeen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud electrified literary Paris with his reading of “Le Bateau Ivre”, and the wall on which the text of the poem, vastly enlarged, has mysteriously appeared. Past the church of Saint-Sulpice, key to The Da Vinci Code. Through the Luxembourg Gardens – ‘no cycling!’ – and past the Observatory, the point of origin of the Meridian. There is the brass strip embedded in the pavement, and there the plinth on which stood a statue of Arago (surveyor and director of the Observatory), until melted down by the Germans in 1940. Past the last vespasienne in Paris, very smelly. Over the Catacombs, the quarries from which the stone that built Paris was dug, now full of bones. Through the Montparnasse of Picasso and Modigliani, another heart of art, long lost in modern developments. To the Villa Seurat (I have to pause, touch the door), where Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer. On, exactly on the Meridian, between Soutine’s studio, where the neighbours complained of the smell from the rotting carcasses he painted, and the vast mental hospital of Sainte Anne, where Breton’s tragic Nadja was detained. Up to the Parc Montsouris where the Dreyfus conspirators met, to the 1806 obelisk that marks the Meridian. Look down into the tunnel where the ceinture railway that circled Paris inside the old wall ran. A last look back across the panorama of Paris, down and then up to Montmartre, wide, bright and open along the river. Then I cross the péripherique, and I’m in the ‘red ring’ of old Communist suburbs. I have crossed Paris in an hour.
Arceuil was one of the red suburbs. Familiar from the immensely tall bridge, with its slender pillars and round arches (de Chirico again!) that I’d thought was a railway bridge, is in fact it is a breathtaking Roman aqueduct. I’m looking for Satie’s apartment.
I pass a block that looks familiar from photographs, but there’s no plaque, so I press on. Eventually I get back to it: it is the block, recently done up, repainted, with new windows and security doors. The simple plaque has been replaced with a stainless steel cut-out of Satie as a Chaplinesque tramp, and this, by his friend Cocteau, ‘Satie est un ange (bien déguisé), un ange d’Arceuil se cachant’. (‘Satie is an angel, well-disguised, an angel of Arceuil in hiding.’ Or, ‘hiding in Arceuil’.) His apartment was a squalid chaos when he died. As he lay dying in 1925, lacing his medicine with opium and champagne, he reproached his opinionated friends, ‘why attack God? He may be as unhappy as we are.’ The apartment will now be tastefully chic, perhaps with artful references to the two grand pianos on top of each other, the seven identical grey suits, and the collection of umbrellas.
Of course Satie moved here not because of a broken heart, but because it was cheaper, and away from the temptations of Montmartre. How easily I used to fall for romanticised bourgeois tales of poets and artists ‘maudits’. In Arceuil Satie was a respected citizen, who walked each day to Montmartre to play the piano in night clubs, and meet his avant-garde friends, stopping on the way (at rather too many bars) to telephone them to make appointments. He was championed successively by Debussy, Ravel and Cocteau, worked with Picasso, was one of the original ‘Les Six’ …
I cycle around, up and down, looking for the cemetery where he is buried. At last I see an undertakers. They’ll know. Hot and sweaty I burst in. One of those moments. Inside, a hushed solemnity. The dark scents of flowers and wood, gentle music. A woman behind the desk, professionally compassionate. A small man, with a sad face and drooping moustache, cap literally in hand, sits in front of her, making himself small. Bewildered, his wife of fifty years gone, poor, and faced with pressure to make this a good funeral – does he not owe it to her? It will be the only time he travels in so big a car. But, the prices … I burst in. He looks shocked. She looks pained. ‘Pardon,’ I stutter, ‘Desolé – ‘la cimetière?’ Coolly she looks at me. Coolly she looks past me, with the faintest of head movements. Across the road, twenty yards away, where his wife of fifty years will be buried in two days time, he looks and droops a little more, is the cemetery. I back out, apologising, cursing myself.
It is a simple grave in a small cemetery, very similar to Suzanne’s, like a coffin. But it is set against a wall, warmed by the sun, with a plaque, ‘Ici repose un musicien immense, un homme de coeur, un citoyen d’exception’. There was to be a monument, but they couldn’t raise the money. I place the flower I brought from Suzanne’s grave. The least she owes him. And then I water the other flowers.
What is it, this searching out of dead heroes? Why fifty years ago did I so want to look up at the window of the apartment where Vincent van Gogh lived with his brother? Why have I followed him from Zundert to the Hague, London, the Borinage, Drenthe, Brussels, Arles, Auvers …?
So, cultural tourism. When I first went to Saint-Remy, fifty years ago, there was no sign of Van Gogh. He was simply a former patient of the nuns who still ran the hospital there. Did one of the older nuns, in her eighties, maybe even remember him? Nobody asked, in those days. Now his room has been recreated as it was then, there is a gallery and shop. Around Saint-Remy reproductions of his paintings have been set up at the places he painted. In Arles, the hospital has been repainted in the colours he painted it, not as it was when he painted it. The bridge he painted, long knocked down, has been replaced with a similar one brought from elsewhere. It won’t be long before the Yellow House – destroyed in the War – is recreated, again as he painted it, not as it might have been. This is cultural tourism as theme park.
There is, I believe, a deeper level of cultural tourism, which has the elements of pilgrimage. There is the journey, which costs, in money and time, and perhaps discomfort. There is the object, whether cathedral or house or painting. There is the preparation of the self, with knowledge, anticipation, and focussing. And there is the sense, presumption even, that the self will be changed by experiencing, in a heightened state, the revered object. I participate fully in this sort of cultural tourism. Crudely, art as religion, art objects as relics, art galleries as churches, art the locale of whatever spirituality we’ve left ourselves with.
But why our interest in where heroes were? H V Morton, the interwar travel writer, titled his books In Search of. Richard Holmes writes of travelling ‘in the footsteps of’ his biographical subjects. This in order to make a connection with the subject, so one can exist in parallel to him, with the subject as imagined presence, as the biographer unfolds their life. For me, it’s about being in the presence of the hero. This is where Verlaine stood, fish in hand, and, looking up, saw Rimbaud’s grinning face, heard his mocking laugh, and turned on his heel and left, initiating a chain of events that led him to shoot Rimbaud and end up in prison. Across this threshold Satie stepped each morning, turned – left? right? – and walked along the Meridian, through a gate in the city wall, Montparnasse, across the Seine, up to Montmartre, composing to the rhythm of his footsteps, the tapping of his umbrella.
And what may become clearer to me, on this journey that is fixed in its central, linear purpose, but where the choices of what to be interested in around that line are so great, is noting who and what registers, interests, engages me, and how much. I imagine locating the ‘me of me’ in a three-dimensional venn diagram, with ‘location of interest’ on the plane, and ‘degree of interest’ in the height.
Edward Thomas wrote: ‘Stay, traveller, says the dark tower on the hill, and tread softly because your way is over men’s dreams; but not too long; and now descend to the west as fast as feet can carry you, and follow your own dream, and that also shall in course of time lie under men’s feet; for there is no going so sweet as upon the old dreams of men.’ I descend to the south.
Towards Vigneux-sur-Seine, and Gabrielle’s flat. The traffic is heavy, cross-currents of shopping, visiting and heading for outbound motorways. I get to the Seine, wide and green, and make my way upstream, to Vigneux.
At the end of my novel, Diggers and Dreamers, set in 1976, Kris is leaving La Balme, their smallholding in the Aveyron where he has been working for two years towards self-sufficient sustainability. He faces a choice. He can return to England, to his wife who will never return to La Balme, and pick up the pieces of the life they left behind in London. Or he can go to Paris, to the French schoolteacher who believes in La Balme, and in her short time there has renewed his vision. ‘Suddenly Gabrielle sat back on her heels, looked around, and exclaimed, ‘it’s so beautiful here!’ I looked up and suddenly, unattached and without the habitual weight of responsibility, as if through her eyes, I saw, again, the beauty. I am here. For a reason. Gabrielle has brought me back to the surface of things. I can see, touch, feel. Anxieties recede, dark thoughts sink down. I have risen up. I have returned to the surface of things.’ In the following, unwritten chapter, he arrives here. His finger is poised over the bell-push. And the story divides. In one version, he presses the bell, enters, lives with her for the winter months teaching in Paris, the rest of the year works at La Balme. She comes for the long school holidays. Gradually they make it work. In the other, he doesn’t, and returns to England, and a commitment that hadn’t yet run its course. Two different lives. A choice I made. And now my finger hovers over the same bell-push. The name is different. But women’s names change. But this is absurd! It’s thirty-nine years! There is, anyway, an ecoactivist of her name busy in the south. She has followed her path. But I too found my path at La Balme, and have followed it.
Why am I here? A few months ago I had thought I was about to embark on a new phase of my life, a new beginning, the third of my life, a fine, fanfared finale! Such excitement, such vitality! But it had not happened. ‘You cross the bridge, or you fade away.’ We hadn’t crossed the bridge. My life has settled back. I am surely now destined to spend the rest of my life making sense of what has been, rather than discovering what might be, at last accepting my place. And, having decided to follow the Meridian across France, and finding that both Vigneux and our place in the Aveyron were close to the Meridian, this journey, down the spine of France, is a journey through some of the chakras of my life. My finger hovers. There is an electric charge between my finger and the bell push – to press, not to press, forward, back? I pull back, my hand drops, I turn away, and cycle on.
It is a complicated journey through the outer suburbs, including a cycle path alongside the N7, ‘the holiday road’, ‘the road of death’. I followed it down the Rhône on my first trip to France fifty years ago.
To Decathlon, a chain of sports retail sheds, where I buy a tent and a sleeping mat. I will be camping for most of the next fortnight.
In Fleury-Mérogis I pass a wedding party outside a church, all black, men in black suits, with smiling faces, women and children in brilliant colours, an easy, festive air, and arrive at my second Première Classe hotel. The same stacked containers, this one on three levels, the same heavy security doors, burglar-proof window shutters and prison-like skeleton of stairs and walkways. (The biggest prison in Europe is in Fleury.) And inside the room, the finish that resists imprint.
You have to bring a lot of resource into this room, because there is nothing here. I didn’t notice in the Première Classe at Dunkirk, because I was full of myself and the coming trip and I’d arrived on a following wind. Now, after a tough week (too much wind, too much heat, bike problems, the first week of four, I’ve hardly begun), with little sign of the Meridian, I’m not sure I have that resource.
First, where to eat? The hotel is on a wide access road to the motorway, lined with council blocks. The small shopping centre is closed. There’s a communal party outside one of the blocks, multi-ethnic but run by white for black and brown. The young brown girls in pastel shades of pink and turquoise run around together, holding their mobile phones ostentatiously, more talismans of possession than instruments of communication.
There is a fast-food takeaway, Quick. But every time I go there, even at 10pm, it is busy, a place of incipient chaos that unnerves me. Cars are coming off the motorway, fast-feeding, rushing back on. Is there more to Fleury than this cut-price version of architectural modernism – the wide boulevard, the tall, slab blocks set in green, the specialised zones? I can’t be bothered to look. So I spend a long evening in my sensory-deprivation cell, with no food. Low blood sugar brings a mild depression.
It is the end of the first week. It is unnerving to look at the map of France and see how far north I still am. Am I waiting for something to happen? I expected la Meridiènne Verte to have substance, a suggestive dynamic. But it’s not there. I’m following something that doesn’t exist. It might have existed by now, it was intended to exist by now, as a line of trees, a spine, a stitching-together of the length of the midline of France. That it isn’t there is as significant. I had expected this journey to be an experiencing and recounting of the various ways the Meridian is being celebrated, with each place expressing both its own individuality and its place in the larger frame of la belle France. As each pays has its food, its language, its culture, so it would have its own way of celebrating.
But maybe I’ve got this wrong. The original surveying of the Meridian was a grand endeavour, a dangerous exploration in which men lost their lives, by which France was revealed to be a terra incognita, new places were discovered, science at last got the measure of France, it was the beginning of the modern state. The scale of the endeavour was so great that it was celebrated with obelisks along the line; it was heroic, a source of national pride. Perhaps, in contrast, la Méridienne Verte is just an idea, something dreamed up by an architect, a PR stunt seized upon by a government desperate to find a way of celebrating and commemorating the Millennium, but that, because it is an artistic and bureaucratic invention, without substance, has no resonance for the French, for la vraie France? Or, more worrying, that in the contemporary atomised world, in which businesses are more powerful than states, and Facebook ‘friends’ more real than neighbours, in which Guy Debord’s Spectacle, the commodification of culture and the recuperation of dissent, is ever more apparent, there is no place for nationality, locality, anything beyond the isolated consumer … My journey has become the story.
A worried black face appears at my window. Mine is the only window with the shutter raised, where the resident is visible. He’s locked himself out of his room, his key card’s inside. Can I help? I try my card, which of course doesn’t work. We go down to reception, which closed an hour ago, and find an emergency number to call. He calls the number, and they tell him that help will arrive within five minutes. How can that be? I imagine someone driving from a central office. But in a couple of minutes a tired, faded woman emerges, climbs the stairs with him, opens his door, walks heavily down and disappears into the back. It’s not the receptionist, and I never see her again. There must be one living behind every Première Classe.
I drink tea, dream of food, and go to bed.
In 1954, Guy Debord wrote on a wall in the rue du Seine, ‘NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS’. Never work. This was photographed and sold as a postcard by a commercial printer. In 1963, Debord reprinted the postcard in his magazine. The seller of the postcard demanded a reproduction fee from Debord, for reprinting the image of his own graffiti. Who owns what?
‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ was a 1968 graffiti. Another was ‘Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible’.
George Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
Bruce Chatwin, Songlines p291.
Edward Thomas, The South Country p60.