Camping I wake to the nightmare that I am lost in rural France, frozen to the marrow, having pulled on every garment, one after another, as the night has gone on, getting ever colder as a north wind knifes through the tent wall. I had forgotten that in a tent you might as well be outside: you hear everything, the fabric tints the light but doesn’t keep it out, and there is no insulation.
My first night camping began with the late arrival of a large family in a motorhome, which, on an empty campsite, the driver chose to park opposite my lone tent, backing in so his headlights blazed through the tent fabric into my face for an hour as they prepared and ate a multi-course banquet using dozens of metal pots. Then, as darkness returned, there rose out of the silence the sounds of a cat-skinning abattoir, screechings, yowlings, blood-freezing screams that continued for most of the night. Then the wind got up, and for the rest of the night the security lights, my tent the focus of several of them, kept switching blindingly on, and off, triggered not by movement but by the Brownian motion of atmospheric particles. And it got colder, and colder.
The only gain from camping is the night sky. Which was spectacular when I crawled out for a pee. To be caught, as I stood up, pants down, in the cross-fire of the klieg-lights, standing there, expecting a cry of ‘put down your weapon!’ – frozen, who was I kidding?
In the morning it took half an hour walking up and down the lane to recover any semblance of bodily feeling, and the minimum of brain activity needed to decide what to do next. On the way I passed the cat abattoir, a rookery of birds smiling as they slept, like drunks after a night out. First, a cup of tea. Second, another cup of tea – no, no, pack up, go into town, find some breakfast. Another thing I miss when camping is breakfast. I’m discovering that when camping, you have to do everything for yourself, and it all takes so much longer.
For some reason – I still believe I’ve entered a dream of France – I expected there to be breakfast in the town. That I would walk into the right bar, and speak in the right way, and boiled eggs, and croissants and tartine avec confiture would appear, and good coffee, the smiling moustachioed patron in his long white, if a little work-worn, apron, clucking as I tucked in, inquiring anxiously, ‘encore?’. I remember when it was routine in a bar at breakfast time to put a basket of croissants by your coffee. You’d be charged for those you ate, then it was passed to the next customer. Now sugar comes not in a wooden box of irregular cubes but in paper tubes. I remember …
I go into the first bar I find, and ask for a grand crème. The woman is thin, energetic. She is vigorously, almost violently washing the wine bottles they use as water carafes. I imagine that, in a good mood, in the evening with her familiar customers, she is a friendly patronne. At 8am on a Monday morning, with an oddly-garbed foreigner, she is not. Without looking at me, working with brittle energy but without grace, she says very quickly something incomprehensible that doesn’t sound promising. I decide to be Mister Reasonable, and say if it is too much trouble, that’s not a problem, I can go elsewhere. In the time it takes to me to stumble through this, she has made coffee, boiled milk, poured coffee and milk into a cup and plonked it down in front of me. It is an ordinary cup. I put down the money for a grand crème. She pushes a euro back to me and takes the rest and smiles the big, sincere smile, see I’ve really got a heart of gold. No, a heart of gold would have made a grand crème.
On this off-balance note I leave Pithiviers. It is an unsettling place, with its strangely-shaped iron church steeple, its vast, open, windswept hilltop square that even in June feels full of winter blizzards. And it is a place full of the unspoken. It’s Lago in High Plains Drifter. Are there people here who remember the deportation camp? There must be. And people who made money from it. The camp had been built before the war for the expected German prisoners-of-war. The Vichy government used it first for political dissidents and then, after the 14 May 1941 roundup of French Jews, as a transit camp. In 1942, 6,079 Jews were sent from here to Auschwitz. 115 survived. Among those who died was Irène Némirovsky, whose account of the German invasion and occupation was discovered and published in 2004 as Suite Français. In 1957 a memorial was raised on the site of the camp, near the railway station. In 1994 a plaque was placed on the station. I freewheel down the hill away from it, and head for the Forest of Orleans, and the Loire.
On the way I look for Meridian markers. At Courcelles there is a small ash wood, a triangle with its apex pointing north. This seems to be the limit of the tree planting, small woods, like the patches of millennium planting in England. There are markers at Nancray and Nibelle. But, really, what’s the point of simply visiting markers from the millennium, when nothing has happened since? I need to think about the Green Meridian. But not now. Now I turn west and plunge into the Forest of Orleans.
The Forest of Orleans Although ‘plunge’ is hardly the word. I had high expectations for this. At 35,000 hectares it is the largest forest in France, and state-owned. I had expected an ancient woodland, with rides, coverts, and the feel of a place with memories from the time of the Troubadours, Richard the Lionheart.
I find it divided into neat parcels of trees by arrow-straight earth roads, with crossroads of four, six, even eight radials. These were laid out for hunting: the crossroads are for the chase, the radials, created later, for the shooting. I imagine game driven across, enfiladed, mown down as they cross the road.
The woodland itself, oak (60%) in some areas, Scots pine (30%) in others, is given over to timber production, It has the stillness and emptiness of the monoculture. The only interest is the strong, resinous smell of sawn wood from the large lumber mills I pass. I had expected something wilder, looser. 35,000 hectares is, after all, 135 square miles, big enough for rambling pathways and cycleways, mixtures of trees and lakes, habitat diversity. And yet here I am, at a crossroads, by a cast-iron signpost that points down eight straight roads, like points of the compass, next to a sign that says that walkers are likely to encounter stag-hunters on horseback on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and gun-toting hunters of wild boar and deer on the other days. Except Sunday. After the Revolution these forests, previously the preserve of nobles and church, were opened up to all, but in the 1820s, under the new king, restrictions were placed on hunting and wood-gathering. The forest is now divided into rectilinear plots of hunting rights. Close by, within sight, is a national observatory, but the road to it is closed to the public.
Canal d’Orleans Sorely disappointed I turn south from Engrannes, pass lakes used for fishing, and reach the canal d’Orleans.
It was constructed in the 1690s by a businessman to transport timber and coal. Eventually it was part of a system that linked the Loire with the Seine. This was over sixty years before the first significant canal in England. Again I wonder why France, the richest country in Europe, scientifically advanced, was so late to industrialisation. But of course the ruling class of the eighteenth century had no need of industrialisation: there were plenty of peasants to labour and tax, no middle-class to push them aside or demand the sort of products English industry was producing, and all the luxury goods they wanted being made in Paris or traditional specialist centres.
And I ponder why this canal, closed in 1954, was simply abandoned, until the state decided to renovate it for leisure use. In England there would have been local volunteer groups campaigning, and working on each stretch. There seems to be a lack in France of what we call ‘civic society’. So there are no real equivalents of the National Trust, RSPB, Ramblers’ Association, Civic Trust, Woodland Trust etc. It is the State’s job to do this stuff. While the citizen focuses on self, family and friends. Which is perhaps why the French are prepared to pay a higher a proportion of their income in taxes. Maybe this is another reason for the lack of interest in the Meridian.
The Romance of the Rose I cross back over the Meridian, to the village of Lorris, simply because Guillaume de Lorris came from here. He wrote the first part of The Romance of the Rose, a poem of courtly love, of which Huizinga writes, ‘Few books have exercised a more profound and enduring influence on the life of any period.’ And: ‘Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.’
If my education, in its scientific and intellectual attempt to understand and codify the world, was the modern equivalent of scholasticism, then romantic love was my way of embracing the noble life. I was one of those sucked out of the working class by that curious hoover the eleven-plus, to add to and energise the middle class in the one-off post-war doubling of the administrative class. Deracinated, (Richard Hoggart writes of us being ‘uprooted and anxious’) and supposedly grateful for the opportunity to be grafted onto bourgeois society, I found it intellectually stimulating, ideologically suspect, and emotionally numbing. Through school, emotion was the sentimentality of pop songs. At university I added Romantic poetry and literature. And although I was forever seeking it with those at the racy edge of the middle class, especially art students, when love hit me, it knocked me for six, changed my life.
The narrator of The Romance of the Rose has a dream: on a perfect May morning he arrives at the Garden of Pleasure, a place of surpassing beauty and perpetual enjoyment. The garden is enclosed, access is granted only by Idleness. Inside, gazing into the Spring of Narcissus, taking care not to look at his own reflection, he sees all the beauties of the garden reflected. Then, in the Spring he sees, beauty of beauties, the rose. As he approaches the rose, Love shoots him with his arrows, infecting him with the divine madness of love.
Lorris is a sleepy place. Two men lounge outside a bar. I buy orange squash in a general store with little for sale, run by a woman who laughs a lot, but as if to stop herself crying, oddly tragic. The church modulates between Romanesque and Gothic in a comfortable, non-ideological way, with a Romanesque porch, a Gothic window above, and topped by a sixteenth century brick clock tower, surprisingly harmonious. Nothing is known of Guillaume, how he got his education, how he came to write his poem.
I head south-west, on a straight road through the forest, towards the Loire, heading for le Carrefour de la Resistance, the memorial to le Maquis de Lorris, which lost 36 men in the Resistance in August 1944. There are giant sequoias close by. But the road is closed.
Sully-sur-Loire A dramatic arrival, with the long bridge over the wide river, and the town guarded by a fairy-tale castle of white stone, with round towers and conical slate roofs, rising up from a moat. It was built to guard the river crossing, and added to by Henry IV’s minister the Duke of Sully from 1600. The five-arch bridge is recent, replacing the suspension bridge built in 1839. It was destroyed by the retreating French in June 1940, then again by Allied bombing in June 1944. It reminds me of the phases of the war here, the German invasion sweeping south, the Allied invasion moving north, in between France a partitioned and occupied country. The suspension bridge was rebuilt six times, finally falling down in 1985, damaged by fierce frosts.
I go straight to the Office de Tourisme – why is it not Bureau? Strange, this unnecessary creep of English words – where two young men compete to demonstrate their English and their knowledge. Disappointed that all I want to know is the location of the campsite, one directs me there, adding hopefully, ‘and if there are no vacancies, please come back and I will phone around.’
The campsite is by the river. It’s a large, efficient site, mostly motorhomes, the few tents are, pleasantly, by the river. The woman at reception is friendly, intrigued by the out of the ordinary. I book two nights. I’m having a break from daily packing up and moving on, a lateral day, along the placid continuity of this great river, its meandering flow west, under the given of gravity, a corrective to my headlong willed rush south.
I make tea, and sit by the river that murmurs softly past. The sun shines, glittering on the water. There are ducks and water fowl on soft sand and among thick grass. The Loire must have been in Guillaume’s mind when he wrote: ‘I bent my steps towards a river which I heard murmuring close by … not quite so great as the Seine, but wider. Never before had I seen that stream, which was so beautifully situated, and I gazed on the delightful spot with pleasure and happiness. As I cooled and washed my face in the clear, shining water, I saw that the bed of the stream was all covered and paved in gravel. The fair broad meadow descended to the water’s edge.’
I’ve been shot by the arrows, infected with the divine madness of love, three times, at intervals of decades, out of the blue.
The first time flew me high, cast me down, fused circuits of feeling, knocked me off the rails of my given life, into a wilderness, led me at last to making art.
The second time was the mutual attraction of magnets, the sudden coming-together energising and illuminating each, while laying waste all round. The beloved was the muse, bringing art of a new quality. But the repeated reversals eventually draining the magnetism. Time to eat.
I walk along the river bank towards town. The river is wide, shallow and flat, with sandbars and islands. ‘Loire’ means ‘alluvium’. It seems odd, seeing this benign, slow-moving stream, that it is called ‘the wild river’. But this is because its shifting shoals, summer droughts and winter surges have always made navigation difficult. ‘One arch is sufficient for the passage of its waters when it flows at a depth of two or three metres only above its sandy bed; fifteen arches are not sufficient when it rages through them on a level with their keystones.’ (Ormsby.) By the bridge is a marker for the water high-point; it is above the top of the bridge. Although well used since earliest times, with quays all along it, navigation was quickly abandoned after the coming of the railways. Imagine the different history of France if this, the longest river, across the middle of the country, with timber and sheep, coal and iron in the uplands, rich agriculture along its length, had been easily navigable along its length, with a harbour at its mouth! In the Hundred Years War it was the boundary between English and French territory.
I walk into town. There are few places open, not even the kebab shop. In the bookshop window, ‘Le Bateau-Lavoir dionysien’, which promises tales of wild goings-on at Picasso’s studio in Montmartre, but is about a laundry-barge on the river at Saint-Denis-en-Val. (Inhabitants of towns called Saint-Denis are dionysiens, perpetuating Suger’s myth that Denis was Dionysius the Areopagite.) There are many local books: on Clogs and clog-making; Salt-smugglers at the time of the gabelle (salt tax); Miracles of the Loire; Gauguin in Orleans; Criminality in Berry in the eighteenth century; In the pays of Sologne … This interest in what has gone allows us to romanticise the past, to (at a safe distance) mourn its passing, and be silently grateful that ‘progress’ has moved us on from then.
Next door is a shop filled entirely with products made of wood and straw: carpet-beaters, bellows, straw-seated chairs, shopping bags, baskets of all shapes, straw hats, hay forks, all immaculately made. And made for display. Unlike the rough-and-ready but serviceable ones made by our neighbour in the Aveyron, and by me under his tuition – a basket made in an hour from hazel and willow, a rake rehandled in fifteen minutes at dawn with a freshly-cut ash bough. And I remember the basket-maker in the village, with knotted fingers and bowed back. Curious, this world of craft revival, items for conspicuous display rather than practical use, often made by well-paid middle-class professionals, rather than the ill-paid artisans who made them when they were actually used.
There is a shop, closed down and metal-shuttered, with, in that art-nouveau-influenced early-twentieth-century script of so many older French shops, in big letters, ‘Gunsmith’. Around it, in smaller letters: ‘Cutlery, Gifts, Men and Women’s Clothes.’ What a mix! Are they ‘lines’, brought by commercial travellers? Or an illustration of what could be sold in a small town, before cars and buses made larger centres accessible?
There is little choice of eating place, but fortunately my standby, the Chinese takeaway. I select my dishes at the glass-fronted counter. They are identical, the rices, the noodles, the meat dishes and salads, in identical pots, to those in the place I ate in Paris. I imagine a factory in central France – perhaps next to the Norbert Detressangle lorry park – where the dishes are prepared in great vats, decanted into identical polythene containers and shipped across the country to be displayed in identical takeaway counters. There would be the ‘Chinois’ line, and the ‘Libanais’. The ‘Indien’ line is coming soon. I select rice, noodles, and chicken with black mushrooms. They are microwaved and brought to my table on a china plate, with cutlery, serviette, a glass of water, and a bottle of Chinese beer. I eat with relish, writing in my notebook from time to time.
Walking back, I pass a notice on a lamp post about a lost cat, ‘answers to the name Gribouille,’ and a phone number. A rather lovely word, Gribouille. It means rashly naive, ‘someone who throws themselves into the river to get out of the rain’. It was also the name of a popular TV puppet who taught children to draw (gribouiller means to sketch). And of an intense, troubled French chanteuse of the sixties who died of drink and drugs at 26. I try to imagine who Gribouille’s mistress (I’ve decided it’s a woman) named her for. Is it to remind her of a loved TV character from her childhood? Does it describe the endearing scattiness of the cat? Or perhaps it reminds her of her own rash naiveties, good and bad, that have made her who she is. Maybe she’s a no-nonsense schoolteacher, settled in job and life, who plays, late at night, cat on lap, the songs that enchanted her student days, that take her back there, perhaps to when she had something of the troubled chanteuse about herself. I imagine stories about her and her cat, paths not taken. I always see a woman alone, in an upper room, like Rapunzel spinning, like the Lady of Shallot with her mirror, as I pass.
The walk back across the long bridge, looking to the side, stretches out the view horizontally, like a wide Flemish picture, pierced vertically by a single sharp church spire, the wide river glittering with the low sun that shines between golden clouds, the sandy shoals, the grassy islands, the small still stick figures of men fishing, the evening-busy birds. The foundations of the old bridge below remind me of home, and the view recalls a shared walk on the Severn water meadows at Tewkesbury. For me, on the bridge, something has changed.
Is it the place? The turreted castle? Thoughts of courtly love? Or the sudden halt in my headlong rush south, the dissolving of the bubble of self-containment in which I have been travelling, inside which my life has simplified to practicalities, desires have progressively fallen away, until all that matters is the journey? I can understand, now, those who cycle on and on, around the world, and then around the world again, a life simplified to the setting and achieving of goals, in which there is no arrival, for there is nowhere to arrive. Whichever, it is not an evening to be comfortably alone.
But I am alone, midway across this long, empty bridge. I reach for my notebook, and pen. No pen. And my reserve pen. Gone. Panic. I hurry to reception at the campsite.
The owner sits in her globe of light in the gathering gloom, attractive, fiftyish, reflective. I ask if she has any pens for sale. She looks at me, ponders, then says, in French, no, but I have something else. She reaches into a drawer and pulls out a pen that advertises the site. As she hands it to me, with a smile, she says, or I think she says – ‘then when you use it you will remember us, and write the light.’ I smile and thank her. Of course, she has seen that I am different, a writer, the French notice and respect these things. She sits in her office and watches travellers come and go, and has stories for each of them, and scraps of their travels stay with her, and shreds of herself go with them. Maybe she is chained by circumstance to this place, condemned to be the eternal observer. Or perhaps this is the perfect place to dream of possible journeys and other lives.
Ah, the romantic French, ‘you will write the light.’
I make tea, and sit outside the tent to write in the last soft light, the trees on the far bank charcoal silhouettes. When I press the pen, a light comes on. As I write, the pen illuminates the page. She was telling me that the pen has a light in it.
Ah, the rational French, ‘you will write in the light.’
Huizinga, The Middle Ages p105.
Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy.
Romance of the Rose, p103-115.
Ormsby, France p159, quoting Reclus, Geographie Rapide p49.