Saturday, 19 May 2007

Kitty, Esra and Chantal: a pit-stop


Kitty, Esra and Chantal grew up in Dreumel, a Dutch village; they were close for a long time, but with college they grew apart, coming together again at the funeral of Kitty’s father, ten years later. Nothing had changed, they began to meet regularly, to cook and talk; soon to travel together, not building their friendship but evolving it: this friendship has roots.

Now in their thirties they all live and work around the town of Breda. Esra is expecting a child.

Abbeville is the lunch-time pit-stop of their latest weekend break from Holland, Kitty says; tonight they will be together in Ault, or Le Trépart. “Eating fish, maybe we’ll rent some bikes.”
“At least the weather is good, and the people are so much more friendly than in Holland. It rains there, and people are closed, it is too cold.” Esra says. “Dining and wine, and laughing, the weather…” Chantal says, that’s what is needed.

They found the Bed & Breakfast at Ault with the internet, know nothing about it except that it is confirmed. This is an adventure: not necessarily of place but of renewed connection. What is “there” can only be a bonus. Good food and drink, conversation, and they are content.

English is a given in Dutch education, and they are fluent: are mildly surprised that in Northern France the bug for English hasn’t caught on everywhere. “To graduate in Holland we must have English,” Kitty says. “It’s the language of the world now, and computers.”

Kitty makes the signage and the interiors for shops. “Someone else does the psychology and the marketing, I make what they need.” But she, like Esra and Chantal, is not happy about the way the world evolves. “When I was a child I went to the grocery store and there were three or four kinds of yoghurt; now there are fifty. It is too much, we don’t need it all.”

Chantal agrees. “Too much choice. Once, you went to the meat shop, the vegetable grocer, the fishmonger, cheese…now you visit one hyper-market where everything is about choice and speed.”

“It’s business,” Kitty says. “I often say to my mother, ‘I wish I had been you, born after the war, growing up in the sixties and seventies’. That was a ‘real’ life. This – us – it is all too much.”

But what would that have meant? “I’m 34, that means I would have been married, had children, a house. No job. But there was a logic.” Kitty says. “They had a great marriage – we were lucky, so many end up in divorce.”

They think Amsterdam has grown like London, or Paris. “Too expensive for real life,” Chantall says.

Our times do see progress though, Kitty says. “My father, he was ill for a while. Mentally unwell, he was so ashamed to go into a hospital. When I told him I was going to a psychiatrist he said: ‘I am so proud of you, confronting your problem.’”

The women get together because it is fun, freedom; they can talk at a natural rhythm. “In Breda we have jobs, lives. It is all too busy,” Esra says. “When we come away we can just be.”

Chantal says that she was most happy in Egypt and India: each place gave her something unique. “India showed me other ways. Yoga, the spiritual, but perhaps the best was the desert in Egypt. The people were so friendly, and we were away from everything – the tourists, people. Even language. We didn’t need language, we just needed to see and experience.”

I too have felt that feeling: away from it all – the tourists, commercialism, language – and have heard so many of us telling similar stories from Madagascar to Tierra del Fuego. Of course our freedom has been bought: we are the tourist that the man and woman over the next dune are trying to avoid. For all our unique experiences, there is someone around the corner having much the same. And yet we need travel.

In The Attractions of France, a brief piece found after his death, Bruce Chatwin writes a short story about Africa. In it an Arab boy with “hard thighs” tells the narrator that he is:

“From Atar,” he said, “I will go to Villa Cissneros. I will take a ship to Gran Canaria. I will go to France, to Yugoslavia, to China, and continue my profession.”
“As sanitary engineer?”
“No, Monsieur. As adventurer. I will see all the peoples and all the countries of the world.”

Is this not all of our dreams?

And now there is Google Earth. All three women use the internet every day, but worry about its hermetic nature. “The kids now, so aggressive, so forceful. I think it is the games.” Kitty says.

She has been to Australia, which changed her way of seeing the world: “it is beautiful, but it is not a place for shy people. I learnt not to be shy.”

Now all three are “not shy”, there is communality as they speak, a shared confident view. “I think all of us northern Europeans need lightness sometimes, the sun,” Esra says. “Even just to go to Spain.”

I thank all three for their time. “No, it is different. Meeting new people. We saw your boots, we knew you were “travelling.” ‘

“We thought you were a writer,” Chantal says.

Sometimes I think the same.

On blogging

To Abbeville

The sacrifice of blogging is poise; the pleasure of books is their craft. It is hard to read the many books and extracts I carry on my tiny memory stick without feeling a surge of jealousy as I revel in their depth and fluency. I’m still finding my voice against the backdrop of northern French internet-absence. (Perhaps everyone is still on Minitel).

When I came “home” to London last year after most of this century abroad I instinctively liked my new city. But it would take years to know it as it is now. Who was it that said memory is how we think about then, now? Now the new memories are things such as HSBC bank adverts in Polish, in South London. In Golders Green there are swathes of Japanese food stores. Free newspapers grow in the tube, telling stories of bad behaviour by performers who I’ve never seen or heard in nightclubs which surely can’t exist. Pilgrims flock to Top Shop to buy clothes they will immediately sell on E-bay.

And now, like Tom, I’m trying to respond to fresh European places after a few hours observation: I have many resources, aide-memoirs, Wikipedia; my eyes and ears. But little hope of depth. I hope somehow that the manifestation of the journey can exist online as a somewhat surrealistic snapshot of a trip that my friend Ian has always said should be called The Last Tourist.

But I remember all that fuss about The End of History. This is merely an attempt to follow one man closely, and celebrate the lives – real and imagined – of thousands of others.

War: virtual, almost and back to Boujis

Almost every town in Western Europe has them now, well-thought-out shops in neat streets whose uniformity is striking. These stores come with compelling logos and fittings, and windows designed by the great-grandsons and daughters of Lorelei the Siren of the Rhine. Here, in quiet northern France, we can find dresses and foods and communication tools, and book holidays to Zanzibar or Rome – and still be in Picardy-country for an early paté and wine lunch. Everything, Everywhere. That's how it is now.

Abbeville, very close to the Somme river is the first place I’ve visited that doesn’t appear over-run with tourists or travellers – or bikers. It is full of local inhabitants moving around. I like it for that immediately.

In “Continental Drifter”, Tim Moore’s take on Tom Coryat, he observes early on that the French do averageness much better than the British. He says Montreuil is France’s equivalent of Ashford, Kent. In that case Abbeville is Maidstone, but a Maidstone in which the pace of life is not dictated by London. Abbeville doesn’t appear fast; sandwiches and fish and pizzas are lingered over, for the young and old. Later in the evening drinking is slow, calm. Very un-English.

As the sun comes out on Friday lunchtime it is easy enough to take the unilateral decision to avoid the First World War memorials in the countryside nearby, despite their potency (I have been before) and continuing allure for visitors and travellers. I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.

This morning my fellow Contemporary Nomad posts that Prince Harry won’t be going to fight in the current war in Iraq. Iraq being too dangerous for Princes. Pas du merde, Sherlock: wars, however justified, remain the ultimate “Betwixt” experience, demanding a personal bravery we don’t naturally possess, I suspect. And yet on those computer games “bravery” comes so cheap.

As I re-read Coryat, rushing to churches, quick to condemn Popery and yet clearly – naturally – filled with a faith that draws him to all manifestations of religion and the spiritual life, I wonder about our religious and secular compulsions now, and wonder how on earth we are still at war. [This is one of the dangers of solo travel: it doesn't take much to start thinking and speaking like Captain Kirk].

Just as Tom’s generation was “Betwixt” the ultimate sanctions of a cruel, medieval god, and the cool liberating discourse of science and the Enlightenment, so quite a few of us are now “Betwixt” a visceral sweated world and the odourless synthetics of the virtual. How do we ensure the merging of these two is creative, not divisive? That the overwhelming desire to destroy in computer games does not manifest itself in other ways: in personal relationships, say.

In “Monocle” magazine recently there was an article about a nightclub in Barcelona where entrance was solely possible via an in-house computer recognizing an “embedded” microchip in the guest. VIP meaning precisely: “very injected person.” Whilst absurd enough for any era’s most fashionable club, the injected chip is an apt image of Early-Adopter syndrome: those who get the first benefits of technology are the rich.

And the strange. People like Coryat…

On this walk I’m trying to at least see how we will soon enough have access to knowledge and information wherever we are; can look at a church or a mosque, modernist architecture or a painting, even the hills from the rampart, and “know” a little more than how much it costs, or how to destroy it with a “magic” sword. Day by day these stores of information grow, not always accurately but neither as bad as some might say. This doesn’t mean I think we’ll all become “Terminators” one day, watching the world through Rose-Tinted-Google Goggles, but we are in midst of an extraordinary transformation in what we know, see and experience.

And yet still Princes (almost) go to war.

It seems apt, I think, that in quiet, modest, Abbeville, close to the Somme river, there is wi-fi and it works.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Tom's Montreuil and a Question

The Citadel Ramparts this morning, after Bill Brandt

“Montrell is a strong walled towne, situate on a hill, having a very strong fortification on the toppe thereof, invironed with a strong wall. There are two gates at the entrance to the towne, at each whereof there is a guarde of souldiers that examined us before we came into the towne. The principall Church of the towne is our Ladies Church. Our Hostesse of Montrel prayed the Virgin Mary to blesse me, because she thought I was a Papist, but when shee understood I was a Protestant, shee seemed to pitty me.”

Tom is a polemicist for the Protestant way, and a geek for the Classics – he’s allowed, it was one of the big things then, Baroquely post-Renaissance and very Wiki-friendly. In a sense his Crudities do set a template for much travel writing: disengaged by nationalism, it arrives, takes and often makes a joke or two. Subjective superiority is all, damn the context. In Tom’s case his raw enthusiasm – which hasn’t emerged yet, five days in – overwhelms much of his observation, which makes it all quite lovely. For Tom literally everything was brand new, and definitely not viewable on Google Earth.

But I am aware that my kind of “knowing” project has severe responsibilities: to honesty at the very least. Tom’s view appears to be that of well-educated Jacobean Roast Beef, but I’m already nagged – have been for months – by what on earth he was really after on this journey. Others who travelled came for trade, diplomacy, education, even spying. But they would go home with glory (as long as they hadn’t turned Catholic, Gay, or Both), and their careers be made. Tom was “Betwixt” all that.

Tom got home, hummed and hawed, finally wrote up an account, invented modern travel writing, and then…left again.

What was it?

Very Easy Riders

In 1969 towards the end of her marriage to the French film director, Roger Vadim, Jana Fonda went with her father, Henry, to a screening of a new film her brother had just produced and co-written.

“My father didn’t know what to make of it but was awed that his son had co-written and produced it. I loved parts of it…but I secretly thought it would be too rough and far-out for most audiences. It was Vadim who understood that here was a no holes-barred cinematic breakthrough that would resonate immediately and become a classic.”

I’m with Fonda today in Montreuil because I’m reading her life story: Paris, Vadim, the Sixties, marriage, fame, radicalism: these are all areas I’ll consider in the coming weeks; Fonda and Vadim too. Fonda is 70 this year: that makes people like me think.

But now as I sit watching bikers at breakfast in Montreuil, chilling out over corn-flakes to the ambient Indian music that plays in a breakfast bar with light design out of a 1990s nightclub’s chill-out zone; and as I sat last night watching German bikers fidgeting over beer at dusk (literally: “ach so, Montreuil” the rest was silence); and considering the memories and memories to come of the many bikers at Jeannette’s hotel, I’m wondering how influential was that film?

One of the key ideas of this trip is to explore the technologies and artistic creations that changed the way we see the world. I’m going to see the places where printing, the web, surrealism, photo-journalism, the documentary, mirrors, even modern accounting got going. In Amiens – in a few days time – I can confront Jules Verne (and John Ruskin). Here in Montreuil there is Victor Hugo to come, but he must wait until I can write clearly. Instead I think about Easy Rider. A picaresque creation, like Coryat’s, or Sterne’s sentimental journey. Like Don Quixote, published three years before Tom’s trip; like Candide. Only with cocaine in the side pouch, and Steppenwolf on the soundtrack.

Did Easy Rider inspire all these roads to freedom that buzz past me? Now so many people can be high-speed road movies, after all, though I am not sure what is gained in passing through countries at 120 miles an hour other than the act of passing time itself. There are the sweaty pit-stops; the aching evenings, surely; the sense of having passed through but not committed. I will have to ask. It can only be a matter of time.

And the one that got away in fifth.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Not so miserable at all - sur mer...almost

At eleven this morning Montreuil resembles one of those perfect and utterly empty villages that The Avengers stumble across in black and white – sometime around 1965. In those old television shows everything was happening around the corner and underground, and Montreuil has the same sense. It is Sunday, after all: even if it is really Thursday.

Henry IV of France came here a few years before Thomas Coryat and declared the town Fidelissima Picardorum Natio, which means “quite nice”. Two years after Coryat was here Henry was assassinated on the same dateas Thomas and I set sail, but that is for Paris, perhaps.

High up and to the north west of the town on the Citadel, built in 1567, it is easy to feel content. There is a great view across the country; ramparts; sheep-flocks of people with audio guides; and even a Shell-Suit, though it is a rare sight in northern France these days, like an old Citroen DS or a George Sand novel. I can imagine Tom up here, checking out the cows.

From 1916 this was the British Army’s communications centre: its internet hub, only its wi-fi (if only) was more like wi-fly, as the major form of message-sending was carrier-pigeon. Douglas Haig who led the British forces lived a chateau a few miles away, but this was where plans were sent, and lives first lost.

Montreuil has pleasingly winding streets, and is high: thus its long-term military importance; once it was the northern most point of France. It wouldn’t be so great a surprise to see Binoche selling spicy chocolate here in a shop on the main square; no sign of Depp in bad Irish accent though, or Leslie Caron (of whom more soon). There are more bikers (ditto) in town, taking a pit-stop, and I’ve read that the Knights Templars made this a centre for a while.

As I will be hot on the grail-trail in Paris, I search Montreuil’s churches, including the one Coryat visited, in search of a bloodline, or a painting to misinterpret. I even try making an anagram of Montreuil-sur Mer. I quit on Coca-Cola two and: “Um, Les Mort Rien". There was this mysterious symbol though.

And this:

In the courtyard of the Hotel de France there’s a lively outdoor painting of Laurence Sterne looking every inch the late-starter success story. I’ll write more about Sterne later, but it is worth remembering that his classic, Tristram Shandy, was an immediate best-seller in France, some time before the English got it. Here, on his – as it were – promotional tour, he picked up a Press Officer.

“Nor was it till I got to Montreuil, upon the landlord's asking me if I wanted not a servant, that it occurred to me, that that was the very thing.

A servant! That I do most sadly, quoth I.--Because, Monsieur, said the landlord, there is a clever young fellow, who would be very proud of the honour to serve an Englishman.- But why an English one, more than any other?--They are so generous, said the landlord.- I'll be shot if this is not a livre out of my pocket.”

It’s easy here, compact, circular, carefully nurtured, customer-friendly (very friendly); cyber café-less. A tourist town though, with its West Indies bar and quotes from Hemingway, but restrained; not theme-park. The visitors are older, largely, driving through.

The bronzed quartet from Ramsgate recognize a fellow Brit with a smile – what is it that gives us away, even without the England shirt on? The four often travel in Northern France, they enjoy the food and drink. “It’s more civilized than Kent, you can stay out to eat and drink without the fights.”

How is Abbeville [the next stop] I ask.
Katie says: “It’s beautiful. We go there often, but you could try Berck as well.”
Katie’s partner has a great-great grandfather who died at the Somme.
“It was sentimental really, to start,” she says.
We return to roots, and then we just return.

“I’m on a route, I have to follow,” I say.
Her partner finally speaks: no hostage to familial emotion.
“Then it’s straight down the N1. Easy”

Everyone’s a car driver now. Or a biker.

Mystery Two: a love story via Wodehouse

But who is Valentin?

I’m in Montreuil-sur-mer looking for the hotel with the courtyard painting of Laurence Sterne, the eighteenth century English writer – one of the Godfathers of the modern novel. He came here in 1765.

I ask the guide at the Citadel: “ah, yes, and your Mr. Forster?”
Well, if E.M Forster stayed in Dover with Auden, and the Hill of Devi in India, he could manage Montreuil, I am sure.
“Mais oui.”
I am given a guide to L’hotel d’Acary de la Rivière, it is down the road and around the corner. And so it is: gated up, a museum now only in July and August.
Ok. No Laurence Sterne painting today.
Around the corner some more and there is the courtyard to the Hotel de France: Sterne, the picture, the flowers…and in the dark faded grandeur of its woody reception there is no information whatsoever about my man.

…but what about L’hotel d’Acary de la Rivière, and E.M. Forster?

I read the guide brochure to L’hotel d’Acary de la Rivière that I am given at the Citadel. What follows is a kind of Eddie Izzard translation, and a tale worthy of Laurence Sterne: in 1910 after a day of golf at La Boulie, Le Baron Eugène Fould-Springer heard an Englishman, Frank Wooster, talking about une ravissante maison in Montreuil…in 1914 they met again and the Baron asked if he’d bought it. “Hélas non,” said Frank.

Whist convalescing from “Phlebité” in 1917 the Baron said to his wife: “It’s a shame you never met the Montreuil-boy.” Because meeting Frank Wooster changed one’s outlook on life, it seemed.

Wooster contracted typhus at Gallipoli, was rushed home on the orders of George V, and then was taken prisoner at the battle of L’Yser. In 1922 he moved to Paris, and was friends with all the Fould-Springers and le Vicompte Joseph de La Goublaye de Nantois.

In 1928 everyone went to Montreuil and bought the house, L’hotel d’Acary de la Rivière. It’s not Forster, but Wooster, ah-ha. Then next year the Baron died, in Shanghai. The hotel wasn’t big enough for children and so Wooster built another house, the Chateau de Montreuil. Then he married Marie-Cecile de Springer [who I assume is the Baron’s widow, though where the “de” came from, I am not sure] in Paris, but they came home that night, to their “dreamhouse.”

They went to Canada for the Second World War. Frank died in London in 1953.

If P.G. Wodehouse had co-written written this with E.M Forster the characters would have probably told each to bally well connect. But “Fould-Springer’s End” doesn’t sound right, though “Wooster Springs To”, might just.

Instead the true lives of the Woosters and the Fould-Springers remain the second mystery of my footsteps.

So Fashionable

Thursday has long been the new Friday in England; but today in northern France it is the new Sunday. Anne-Marie at Boulogne Tourism explains why the streets have that empty early on in a George Romeo movie feeling. “It is Ascension.”
“For Sarkozy?” I say: Nicholas Sarkozy assumed the Presidency of France yesterday. She thinks this funny. “No, for Jesus.”
“Oh yeah.”
“So it is like Sunday, everything is shut, all the hotels are full – and there are no buses.”

Self Portrait after discovering people have holidays on Thursdays outside America.

I’ve just quit my hotel and am planning to follow Tom Coryat to Montreuil-sur-mer, seventeen miles away, he says. In fact it is about 32. “So I walk?” I say to Anne-Marie with confidence.
“Non, non, non.”

Outside the main church there is a solitary taxi-driver with Barry Gibb’s old hair from the strutting days of Saturday Night Fever. We haggle. A little. I will never win The Apprentice with these kind of skills. “Why is every hotel full here?”
“Ascension,” says Barry Gibb.
“For Sarkozy?” I say, seeking friendship.
“You have the cash?” he says.
And thus carbon-heavy we drive in the rain past wind-farms and mobile-home showrooms and George Clooney adverts to Montreuil, an old walled town, and the part location for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It is also where the English genius Laurence Sterne picked up a servant in 1765 on his sentimental journey through France and Italy.

Let’s see.


Jeanette is tired, “It is a lonely life waiting for guests,” she says, dragging on a long cigarette. “They come, and then they are off to the centre, to the old town. It is empty here for long hours.” She’s had the hotel she runs with her son, Jean-Paul, for fourteen years. It used to be so much better: ferries came to Boulogne, day-trippers and others: her rooms were full and the bar busy. Nowadays the ferries have stopped, and there are too many chain hotels in the centre of town: they’ve cut her out. “Formula” places, she says, what can she do? At the weekends it is ok, with the people doing the drives around the region, but in the weekdays, like now…it is “plus calme, and yet every hotel in the centre is full.” Hers is located far from the front, close to the railway station, but perhaps not close enough.

Her parents came from Polynesia, in their early twenties. She grew up with them in Cambrai, where she had a big shop when she grew up. There are three children she had with a guy from Le Tourquet, but he left, “pushed me away,” and now two of the other children have “gone away” as well, only Jean-Paul remains, working in the centre, or here. There were other gentlemen, one took her to Italy, to Turin, but he died of cancer. “It is better in Italy, they have more family hotels, not all the chains. There is work there.”

She’d booked up next week with a load of motor-bikers – there’s a bike store nearby – and she’s happy when they are around. There was a convention in February and the entire street is filled with biker-boys, she has photographs, one signed by an “American champion”. Other parties come too, cyclists, X-treme bikers, gymnasts. But a lot of the people she talks about are from before, fading photographs in the Guest Book now: a Hen Night for “Lulu” in 1996, photos of a Croatian Heavy Goods Vehicle; cards from travelling salesmen, a Tunisian family. She’s been to England, on the ferry, to Dover and Folkestone. But Italy is better. Cambrai too.

“That’s the trouble here,” she says. “Too much formula.”

Escape From Clooney

I used to want to write a film titled, Escape From Sting: the Whole World is My Prison. Sting was everywhere a few years ago. Everywhere. But mostly in elevators. Now I’ve found the sequel: Escape from Clooney.

Ulysses in Search of an Apple

This is a walking trip; much more than I realized. I am in the footsteps of Thomas Coryat, and oh, my, were his big. I think he was on horseback more than he lets on. But for me, with a duty to write every day, I need time sitting down as well.

So I am surprised to find I walk so far in the towns as well as from town to town; not just to see sights and talk to people, but to find some kind of internet access. To date this is hard: the language that is most difficult for me to speak I find is not French, but Windows.

How do people use Windows? It is built to confuse. And in French it becomes a Babel of methods to lose work. Where is the USB memory stick? Why can’t I read that Word file. Why is this all so slow? And most of all: where has it all gone? Where is the Wi-fi?

I fantasize about wi-fi for my own beloved Apple Powerbook; walk all of Boulogne in search of it. Get close in the bar of an Ibis hotel; but not close enough. I am Ulysses in search of a cyber-café with Apple computers. Or a café with wi-fi. Everyone is helpful, but rueful. In a computer games store a young couple laugh: they have the answer. “McDo” they say. “Mcdo has everything.”

Perhaps McDonalds has not quite “everything.”

From a bookshop in Montreuil: the Tour de France and Windows - made for each other


Boulogne's hilly old town auditions for the remake of Don't Look Now

In the old town high above the shopping malls of Boulogne I catch the first whiff of Tom Coryat; a smell that eluded me in Calais – as most things did. The winding streets up here remind me, curiously, of the streets of high Buda, close to the Hungarian Palace. It feels familiar.

In an old town café for breakfast I see that Hungarian-related man, Nicholas Sarkozy, on the front of the newspaper. “Installé,” I say.
“Hmm.” says my waiter.

Hills help cities and large towns, give them that necessary depth and difference: that’s what I missed in Calais, though the beach and its backdrop of high-rise apartments has – probably for me only – a quirky modernist charm. I imagine Tom marching along there (on a bloody horse, I suspect). No doubt the high-rises will fall again, be replaced with sea-view low-rises, and retirement homes.

“Formula”, as Jeanette says.

The Taste for Others' History

In the upstairs rooms of Calais’ Museé des Beaux Art, under the general title of Les Liaisons Heureuses there are pieces by Joseph Beuys, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. But I am taken with a work by Annette Messager.

A “History of Dresses” appears to be about the layering of our history, and the physical representations that we use to understand it. In Boulogne, at my hotel, it is Jeannette’s Guest Book, old and faded, held together by thick rubber band that is this type of representation. Jeanette turns the pages with a smile, remembering each encounter.

For me – as for all tourist/travellers – it is the buildings first of all, which is why I am so hesitant to generalize from a church, or a shopping mall. Tom Coryat loved his churches, I do too: but I am not sure they tell us much these days, not here in northern France, anyway. They speak of architectural moment, and that strange Philip Larkin-esque compulsion we have to visit them, despite our fiercely secular nature and, even more, the knowledge that we will understand little, so far divorced are we from the mythologies of the religions celebrated here.

In a sub-section of the show in Calais, Annette Messager gives us a wedding dress framed so that it is displayed horizontally. A photograph of a face, distorted beyond recognition, lies at the centre of the dress: once there was a woman, and a man. She is whole but absent, he is present but pulled apart.

Perhaps we are looking at a cloud, or the shapes of a Georgia O’Keefe flower. Or a religious relic, like the many items Thomas Coryat tried – but usually failed – to see on his trip. Is this a wedding dress or shroud?

The catalogue uses a phrase by the art historian, Harald Szeeman, who talks of the artist’s “individual mythology,” and I think this is right. “History of Dresses” considers how we conceive our personal history and other people’s. For me, though, the piece is redolent of death, not life. Perhaps it is history that must be forgotten for life to happen.

Two histories: first Calais, below that Boulogne, close to the Dance School

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Leaving Calais faster and slower than Tom

Self Portrait at the Station Feeling Bad

Leaving Calais early but sick – one of those sweating ache-ridden fevers that keeps you one quarter awake all night – I’m struck that 399 years ago today Coryat walked 25 miles to Boulogne along the coast, though he writes it is only 17. Perhaps his map was better. I’m not sure I can make it in this condition. Yesterday afternoon, after posting, I slept and sweated and Coryat-at-sea’d through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (no suspense: it being the one when the writer done it), news, a cop show, a history of CCTV, news, a French film about a nymph terrorised by the internet so much she lost most of her clothes and kept cutting her hair, and finally Newsnight.

I’m still in the satellite dish-path of Southern England, it seems.

One story I consumed at some time last night lodged in my mind. A building society employee in Sussex has gone missing; is believed to have taken the Dover Calais ferry on Monday (like me) with her Peugeot, and she’s now on the run in France. Also missing is a large – rumoured over £100,000 – amount from her building society. “Sara”, naturally, has a MySpace page. Perhaps we met, or will meet in the coming days. She is 23 and is in search of Mister Right, she explains on her website.

At least she has a dowry now.

The problem is that I’m not sure if this story is part of last night’s dream-state, a slice of Agatha Christie, Holby Blue or some other drama - or a criminal reality. I think that illness and confusion often come on like this, as travel begins, that there is a certain relaxing of the body after the thick tension of departure. It happens on my holidays; it has happened here as well. Walking this morning is like being at altitude, and on a Dal and Yak Himalayan Diet.

Sixty seven years ago this month 3000 Brits and 800 Frenchmen sacrificed their lives here in Calais to allow Dunkirk to happen, keeping the German 69th Tank regiment busy just long enough for others to escape; one of the survivors of this defence was Airey Neave, later Margaret Thatcher’s campaign manager; later still a victim of the IRA. Neave was captured and sent to Colditz but escaped and set up something called MI9. Murky spy-stuff, networks through Europe to fight first the Nazis, and later the Soviets. Some say Neave was behind a plot to assassinate Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, in the mid seventies; others that Neave was just “connected”. He took confessions – or not – at the Nuremberg trials. One of the old-school English men we don’t see at all these days.

I walk the coast almost as far as Sangatte, the one-time camp for “visitors”, without seeing any of the “immigrants” who are so frightening the British Home Office and the Daily Telegraph:

France has promised John Reid that it will not allow a new camp for British-bound illegal immigrants to develop in Calais, the Home Office said today. The Home Secretary and his French counterpart Francois Baroin have agreed they are opposed to "any type of centre" that could "encourage the trafficking of illegal immigrants", according to a spokesman.The pair met in London today after charities have been given permission to provide food and washing facilities at a single site in Calais. It prompted fears that the centre could become a second Sangatte, reviving the controversial camp that was closed in 2002 after lengthy negotiations.

Over three years, 67,000 asylum seekers used the camp as a waiting room to hide on lorries or jump aboard slow-moving freight trains before they crossed the Channel Tunnel. Reports suggest smuggling gangs are already targeting those at the new centre.

But that is it, I’m faint: and not going to make it. In fact the only begging I see all day is up-market in designer sweater and trainers, back at the railway station, hours later, when I’ve turned around and admitted temporary walking defeat.

Coryat was not so much a culture hunter as a classical sleuth. He liked churches and inscriptions best – and opportunities to denounce the Catholics (sometimes so hard it feels forced, protesting too much to keep his Royal Patron happy).

There are two Churches in this towne, to the greatest whereof I went on Whitsun-Day, [Or Pentecost, this year May 17th] where I saw their Masse (but not with that superstitious geniculation, and elevation of hands at the lifting up of the consecrated Wafer-cake, that the rest used) and many ceremonies that I never saw before. This amongst the rest: about the middle of their Masse there was an extreme crackling noise from a certain hollow place in the vault of the middle of the Church. This is the same place, as I take it, where they let up and downe their Bels. After the noyse there was powred downe a great deal of water, immediately after the water ensued a great multitude of Wafer-cakes, both white, redde and yellow: where ceremony was done to put them in minde of cloven tongues that appeared that day of Pentecost to the Apostles in Hierusalem…

… Also I saw their mutilated Sacrament, whereof I much heard before. For I saw the Priest minister the Sacrament to the lay people under one kind only, namely that of bread, defrauding them of the Wine, contrary to the holy institution of Christ and his Apostles, and the ancient practice of the Primitive Church, which was ever continued from age to age till the time of Alexander the third of that name Pope, who about the time of Fridericus Barbarossa, Anno 1170, began to deprive the Laity of the other part of the Sacrament.

The high Priest being in very rich copes, went abroad in Procession round about the Church-yard, after one of their Masses was done (for that day many Masses were said in Church) having a rich silver Crosse carried before him, and accompanied with many that carried silke banners and flags after a very Ethnicall and prophane pompe.

The train to Bolougne is in two hours, so I visit the Museé des Beaux-Arts in search of my white-haired man from Dover. No sign, of course. Just like my Building Society robber. Though there is a “Viell Homme” by Picasso. Perhaps the painting comes to life in the presence of French people: it’s not one of Picasso’s best.

There are some good fighting rabbits though, by Barry Flanagan, once a pupil of Anthony Caro.

I write more about the Museum and Calais later.

Learning what to forget

In his marvelous – there will be a lot of marvelouses during this journey – Shakespeare and the Origins of English, Professor Neil Rhodes writes: “Watching television has long assumed the role that novel-reading did in the early nineteenth century, while in some quarters reading a book now seems to be as arduous an activity as writing was in the bone-chilling abbeys of the eleventh century…” And it’s hard not to agree (apart from the fact that internet exploration is cutting fast into that television viewing) as we lurch into beach-book lite-reading, I-Podded against the sound of the sea, too tired by everyday life.

And perhaps that’s why the first manifestation of my journey is via the current medium of intransience and speed, the web. I say current because something will replace it, at sometime – perhaps even in our lifetimes. Or merely augment: just as cinema seemed so destructive to the photographer, and photography to the painter, so the web appears to spell the end of books. I don’t think so. Not yet.

Coryat’s generation were faced with similar issues: what is Hamlet’s dilemma but in part a strong unease with theatre, the courtly rhetoric of Elizabethan “media”; what is Prospero’s island problem but a realization that magic – art – is not enough?

T.S Eliot in The Sacred Wood says, and I’m quoting Professor Rhodes’ edit: “The Elizabethan age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it has this great form of its own which imposed itself on everything that came to it…To have, given into ones hands a crude form, capable of infinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities – Shakespeare was very fortunate.”

So we’re not the first to be overwhelmed with stuff; nor to learn – in time, I hope – that as another literary critc, Kenneth Muir, writes, “The great poet is the one who forgets most.” He alludes I think to Ovid’s Narcissus who complained plenty has made me poor. Or as Professor Rhodes puts it: “Creative forgetting remains the work of the human imagination.”

So what to forget, what to remember, with this new “great form” that is digital communication? And what to explore in the past as I live absolutely for the minute, carpe diem-ing away my five months in Europe armed with the virtual history of the world at the end of my computer? Age means something: I’m fifty soon, experience is important now. And the experience of the first three days tells me I have to forget a lot if I am to see clearly in the coming months.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Gigi: roots and routes

Gigi is from Cavaillon, a town between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. She is in Calais for three days working in the tourist office, researching tourists’ responses to the town in order to improve facilities back home, where wonderful food and wine lure tourists from America, England, and the rest of Europe. She is thirty-one, and single. She thinks that Calais is nice, but, oh, the weather.

Gigi has recently returned from university in Colorado Springs, and a “sunny, healthy, happy life” in America. She is not anti-American, contrary to so many fixed ideas in the US about the French. But she was surprised by some of the questions she was asked on campus. “What about the French in Vietnam?” one boy asked her. Another said: “What about Napoleon in Mexico?”

“I didn’t know about the French in Vietnam, I wasn’t taught it at school, and I thought I had a good sense of history, with my education.” I tell her about the way “Ireland” was taught in English schools in the 1960s and 70s; of how in 1981 I had a knife to my neck on a train travelling through northern Spain. A group of young Basques had heard our English accents. “You killed Bobby Sands,” they shouted, “you killed him.” We didn’t really know what that meant, nor had a balanced view of Ireland, or understood why Basques would be in solidarity with the IRA. Two years before the IRA had blown up Airey Neave, famous here in Calais for very different reasons. Of course the teaching of Irish history has changed radically in the past thirty years.

Gigi smiles: she believes that showing a smiling face makes life easier. “I said to these American students: ‘I don’t know these things, I am just living my life.’ I think that Americans don’t want to be not loved. They don’t realise that in saying for example that we are against the war in Iraq doesn’t mean we are against America, or Americans. We don’t care that much.” But when she had a bad bike accident in Colorado and was rushed through hospital, “they want you out after two hours!” she found the comfort of strangers to be profound. “People on campus spent time with me, spent the night making sure I was ok, brought me food. But I was really sad because I suddenly saw how expensive health is in America. I felt sorry for the millions of people who can’t afford it.”

She says that the team she worked with in Colorado Springs was comprised so: a Russian, a Mexican, a Japanese, a German, an Italian and her – a French-Italian Corsican. “We lived as a team and a family, and we saw over the year together that we get stronger together, it was fantastic to see how close we became. Americans like to think about re-invention, about changing their lives, but I went to a Thanksgiving in Wyoming, real cowboy land, and it was clear that family and roots were incredibly important to these people, who came from all over to be home. One boy said: “wow, these flowers [his mother had cut] will sit on my desk in Los Angeles, that’s better than a photograph.”

Life in the south of France has changed because of tourism and travel. “That film with Russell Crowe, based on the Peter Mayle book. It’s like that, rich people come, buy houses, but they only come for the holidays, they don’t spend enough money. So there aren’t many jobs around, for younger people it is very hard now. We call it the “wave” (la vague). It makes it hard for the community to stay together, to keep its roots. I don’t believe in films, they can be good or bad, but they are rarely ‘right’ about a place. Like that film, Notting Hill, people die at your Notting Hill carnival, every year, right?”

Her uncle told her once that we are all like trees. “To be healthy we need good roots, and I want to be a good tree”. She has trouble keeping men, she says, because they are frightened of her strength, the fact she has travelled, knows who she is. “He [her husband to be] doesn’t have to be from my roots, but we must share values – about family, and the idea of roots,” she says. She lives in a small town where people are quick to make judgments. “I move a little and for other people it is a lot. They say you are special, I know I am not. Men leave me because they think I am too strong. Travel is the snake who bit its own tail. In travel I can find my balance, I believe in it, and yet I want to go home to Corsica. But it can be a vicious cycle, I think. Too much travel, and where do you belong?

Making money or not you still can’t afford Paris, she says. “I had a friend who went there from Provence. He couldn’t go out, have fun. Little by little he grew tired of the place, became very depressed. I like Paris, I study the History of Art, so I love the galleries, I had an internship at the Gare D’Orsay, on Mondays when it was closed I would walk the rooms, and study perhaps four or five paintings. But it’s not a good life in Paris, nor London. It’s ok for a few days.” Besides, she has cousins in New Malden. She knows London is far too rainy for a woman from the South of France. The key, she says, is to keep to the route, and don’t forget it.

“We have a problem in France, we call it the children of Don Quixote”. Homeless children, many who work, but they sleep outside. She took dinner with a policeman the previous night here – “we were both eating alone and so why not?” and he told me about Calais, about the homeless here. The “Sandgatte” people who have come from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. “They ask for money,” the Policeman said. “We don’t know who they are, and I wonder if they do,” she says.

Her identity is solid, she says. She is part of Amicol, a Corsican association, a kind of overseas fraternity. They speak Corse, listen to its music, read its poetry. “There’s a Sting song,” she says, (of course, there is always a Sting song) “that’s part of our tradition.” She laughs when she tells me about the habit of the local Corse singers with one hand to the ear as they perform; I tell her I’ve seen English folk singers do much the same.

She says that having Corsican roots – her grandfather came to France in the 1930s – means everything to her, if she ever moves again it will be there, to “home” in Corsica. “We are like ex-pats in France. I am proud to be a European, but I am a Corsican first of all.

“I am 31 and single, and where I am from this isn’t normal. I see so many girls, women who are forty or forty-five, and they don’t have children, and people look at them as guilty people. At the same time I don’t want to be them, I’m afraid to become like these women.

“Moving is painful, and coming home is hard too. You feel safe in moving, and safe in cleansing people you’ve known. Opening your eyes to people you know is not easy. How many people do you meet in a life, 5000, 10,000? If you really know two per cent of these people that is good.”

She would like to finish her doctorate, on nineteenth-century stained glass. “In the south of France the light is stronger, and the wind. So the glass windows are smaller, but the colours are deeper. I went to Oxford, the glass is beautiful there, but it is different in the South.” Where is the south, I ask. “It depends where you are. If you are in Marseilles, Avignon is ‘north’. If you are in Avignon then Valence is. We have a proverb, a quote, ‘where you feel good, this is your home’. And education is part of this.” She is for Europe but not the brutalities of “pure capitalism” ; she is worried about the new President, but his rival “had no charisma.”

She prefers rugby to soccer as well, following Toulouse, though she sympathises with the Marseille football supporters who travelled to Paris last week for the cup final, and lost. She thinks football is corrupt, part of big business, and is worried that rugby is following suit. “Taking all those drugs to make the body bigger.” Her great-great uncle was Jules Rimet, founder of the World Cup. “I didn’t know him,” she says: he is history, like the French in Vietnam; my grandfather crossing the Channel eight times during the Dunkirk evacuation.

But she knows herself. And is longing to go home.

One of those wet nirvana moments

Those Hamilton Women

Not so far from the Richlieu park, right into a side street - on the corner of Rue Jean de Verne and the Rue Francais, is a plaque commemorating the death place of Emma Hamilton in 1815. “That” Hamilton woman: she died on the same date, January 16th, that Susan Sontag was born – in 1933.

Sontag wrote The Volcano Lover in 1992, a novel about Emma, her husband Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, Horatio Nelson. It is set in Naples where Hamilton was the British Envoy, and where the three worked out a sometimes uneasy mÈnage against the backdrop of poverty and the constant threat of war. Her novel is exquisitely cool, appears to be about the aesthetics of collecting “things”, and an indifference to the real world that can come from being “abroad” – of being somewhere else, but at home in art – or war, or academia. When I had read The Volcano Lover, I felt I understood Susan Sontag a little better, but not her characters.

Hamilton was born Amy Lyon in Cheshire, the daughter of Henry Lyons, a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. She was brought up by her mother but by the early 1780s she was down in London. At seventeen Emma was already notorious, leaving the brothel in which she worked and taken as mistress to several upstanding men – one “patron” was a Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, with whom it is thought she had a daughter, Emma Carew. She also posed as the model of the "Goddess of Health" for a Scottish “Doctor” named James Graham.

But it was another, longer-term “patron”, the Honorable Charles Greville who helped in the process of mythologizing Emma. He introduced her to the portrait painter, George Romney. And later he sent her to overseas to Naples to be the mistress of his uncle, that Hamilton Man.

Emma married Hamilton, eventually, and in Naples created an art-form that she named: "Attitudes". This involved movement, dance, a little acting and a lot less clothes. Europe approved. With the discrete aid of a few shawls she “became” various classical figures from Cleopatra, through Medea. Even Goethe liked it; she was the Kate Moss of her day: launching not just a fashion for draped Grecian dress, but also new kinds of dance.

Emma’s affair with Nelson has inspired many: there are lots of books, fiction and fact, and numerous films about their relationship. Sontag gets at the physical reality of their love well, I think, stripping it of much of the romance of, say, Vivien Leigh’s Emma in the war-time film, That Hamilton Woman. For though when Nelson returned to Naples he was a perhaps the most famous Englishman - after his decisive win at the Battle of the Nile - he was a broken man: had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by much ill-health. It’s said that Emma fainted when she saw him. Nevertheless attraction brought them together, and was perhaps approved of by Emma’s husband, who in what seems a typically English way, thought Nelson a marvellous felllow. I tried, this morning, to imagine a French Envoy having much the same feelings, but couldn’t quite. Perhaps because I’d been reading Jane Fonda on her one-time husband, the French film director, Roger Vadim.

The affair of Emma and Nelson led to a child, Horatia, born early in 1801 at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, near Piccadilly. And within a few months the trio lived openly together at Merton Place on the outskirts of what is now Wimbledon. Such behaviour fascinated the British, and others too. Journalists door-stepped them, and tried to discover any information about the domestic set up. As a consequence, Emma became a kind of Martha Stewart, leading the fashion in clothes, dance, and even recipes. The Italian dessert, Zuppa Inglese, an English trifle with more booze, is claimed to date from Lady Hamilton's time in Naples.

But sailors always return to the sea. With the death of her husband and pregnant with Nelson’s second child she found herself alone at Merton Place, spending much of the time on interior decoration awaiting her husband’s home-coming. The child died after a few weeks, and a grieving Emma went out gambling, spending lavishly on everything.

Journalists – especially social writers - then and now love the rags to riches to rags story best of all. Nelson died two years later, as we all probably know, and Emma, who’d already spent her husband’s pension, fell quickly into debt. And whilst Nelson had left clear instructions for the government to look after Emma and Horatia, they did not. She spent a year with Horatia in jail, for debt, and finally – with the threat of her love letters being published (I suppose the modern equivalent is those “at home” videos that get posted to the net), she fled here, to Calais. She drank too much in Calais, and died of liver failure in poverty soon after.

I try to imagine her escape from London, by boat, her feelings of betrayal. I feel also that sense of her being not of her times, that her sensibility would make for a very different kind of life today. Exiled perhaps in Los Angeles, or running a LifeStyle Business in Manhattan. Unhappy, maybe, but successful.

Emma Hamilton has huge symbolic value, I think. Though I do wonder if her behaviour would be any more approved today: Emma rose from the “comfort” of too many male patrons, and that is a career path of which many disapprove.

Churchill loved Nelson, and he loved the story. In the darkest hours of the Second World War in 1941 he enjoyed watching Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in “That Hamilton Woman,” with its implied comparison of Napoleon and Hitler: the Producer, Alexander Korda, was knighted in the year following its release.

Now I return to the plaque, paid for by two contemporary American philanthropists, Jean and Jay Kislak, whose foundation and collections are immense. I emailed them recently to ask why they had put up the memorial – in Calais.

Ms. Fromm replied for the Kislak Foundation:

Mrs. Jean Kislak is a great fan of Emma Hamilton, as a woman of power and influence in the 18th century. She has collected quite a number of artifacts, artwork and books which are associated with Emma Hamilton. In the early 90s she realized that little recognition remained to this remarkable woman in the city in which she spent her last years. Thus, she organized to erect a monument to her. The day the statue was unveiled was quite a festive day, supported by the elected officials of Calais.

Money well spent, I think.

The Man Who Wasn’t Quite

Last night in Calais I heard my first mysterious tale.

The Art Museum close to the Richlieu park has a daily visitor. He is old, perhaps as much as eighty; tall with a shock of white hair and long beard, intellectual looking and very English, I am told. He is said to travel forwards and back every day from Dover on a ferry: he has some kind of cheap deal. Once in Calais he makes straight for the museum and looks at the art, very slowly, and when the gallery closes he goes home to Dover.

When asked why, he is said to say: “Why not?” The art is good; he likes art. And so he makes his daily journey. Today I went to the Museum to meet him; but on Tuesdays the gallery is closed and my white-haired man remains in Dover, I suppose. I ask the man on reception. An old man, from Dover, every day, I say. “Yes, perhaps he is a journalist,” the young man says, though he is not sure. “I am sorry. Come tomorrow.”

But tomorrow I follow Tom Coryat to Boulogne. Instead I try to imagine this man: he must be of the sea, just old enough perhaps to have fought in the second world war. What brings him here that cannot be satisfied in Canterbury, or in the museums of London? Why does he return to these paintings and sculptures, what is their hold on him?

I miss him already, my mysterious old man of Dover, the art lover of a museum I have never seen.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Crossing with Thomas Coryat

Coryat gets Going

My Observations of France

I was imbarked at Dover, about tenne of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth of may, being Saturday and Whitsun-Eve, Anno 1608, and arrived in Calais (which Caesar calleth Ictius portus, a maritime towne of that part of Picardy, which is commonly called le pais reconquis; that is, the recovered Province, inhabited in former times by the ancient Morini.) about five of the clocke in the afternoone, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach, as desiring to satiate the gormandizing paunches of hungry Haddocks (according as I have hieroglyphically expressed it in the front of my booke) with that wherewith I had superfluously stuffed my selfe at land, having made my rumbling belly their capacious aumbrie.

Presently after my arrival, I was brought with the rest of my company to the Deputy Governor of the towne, whose name was Monsieur de la Genet: the principall Governors name (whom we saw not) was Monsieur de Vic, who hath one wooden leg. The deputy was a very worthy and gallant gentleman, and shewed himselfe very affable unto us. For he asked many questions, as about our King, and the newes of Ireland, &c. and very courteously intreated us; and after this familiar parle dismissed us to our lodging. For it is the custome of the towne, that whensoever any strangers arrive there, they are brought before the Deputy Governor, to the end to be examined about the occasion of their coming thither, whither they travel, and to have their names inrolled before they goe to their lodging.

Crossing Me

On the waterfront
Whitstable last night for Oysters and swanky fish and chips. No sign of the many YBA artists who live here; perhaps they are all walking to Venice as well: for this summer’s Biennale.

Dover saw a little sun this morning, but mostly in the newsagents. The sky is gray as I walk along the sea front, and brings on nostalgic feelings as I’ve been here so often for over 40 years, but never before to walk to the ferry port. About half a mile out from the complex it becomes clear that foot-passengers are low in the food chain in the twenty-first century. In fact the social hierarchy when traveling to France is something like this:

First class Eurostar; then second
Privet jet; then Air France; then Easyjet
Car to the ferry
Coach to the ferry

At the SeaFrance ticket desk there are apologies about the absence of shops and internet. “We had it, but it broke,” said a woman, as if this didn’t matter. At immigration a pair of Brazilian girls in full Vogue make up and red-red nails say: “soo sorree” when the official asks them to remove their Versace sun-glasses. And finally the Berlioz, one the newer SeaFrance cross-channel shopping malls.

Inside the ship is rather chic: retro faux leather in limes and off-reds. Hoardes of kids; many nationalities. Two games arcades: this is not a SAGA holiday ship, but a SEGA one. I go out on deck and photograph the old signal station, where my grandfather worked for twenty-five years.

William Avery made the local television news when he retired. He won the MBE during the Second World War for his bravery at Dunkirk, when he took his small merchant boat back and forwards eight times during the evacuation. His tales were of a Europe that is long gone; of German battleships smuggling their way through the Channel; of the good man Bertram Ramsey, who masterminded Dunkirk. Later it was Soviet subs, as well as the vastly increased tourist traffic that caused him sleepless nights on duty. We argued about knots: I was never really a man of the sea, though I loved going to the signal station, which seemed very James Bond.

William Avery; Kathleen Hunt; Me
As we leave the harbour I think about a few of the millions who have made similar leavings: Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s lover, who fled England for Calais in 1814, left via the Tower of London because Dover would have been staked out by journalists – no, really. I’ll write about her tomorrow. Instead I remember my favourite scene in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, John Le CarrÈ’s definitive novel of the Cold War. Towards the end of the book when the wise old master spy, George Smiley, is closing in on his mole, Bill Hayden (who in real life is Kim Philby), a trap is set.

Ricky Tarr, a “lamplighter” – which is nuts and bolts spy who does the dirty work – has come to Smiley with a tale of corruption at the top of The “Circus”, let’s call that MI6. In the novel he is sent to Paris via Liverpool and then Ireland to make the Russians know he’s about to sell his story, and thus cause the “mole” to panic.

“At the dockside, a sense of fellowship touched the small crowd as the ship’s lights bobbed quickly into the gloom. Somewhere a woman was crying, somewhere a drunk was celebrating his release.”

In the television adaptation by Arthur Hopcraft a new scene was created on the deck of a Cross Channel ferry here at Dover. Tarr is accompanied by his boss, Peter Guillam, and he tells the “lamplighter” not to make any mistakes. But it is the backdrop of the White Cliffs, gray in 1970s depression – not the comic-book gray of the BBC’s recent Life on Mars – that lifts the scene. The backdrop makes clear that what is at stake is a kind of post-war Englishness, not necessarily for the good, that will in real life be blown away in the 1980s by the Thatcherite revolution. The short scene is dripping with dirty grandeur, as Dover did and still does.

More pictures via Picassa as I learn French Windows keyboards soon

Today there is far less deck space for grand drama, but many more retail opportunities. I see John, an Australian copy-writer, having a cigarette. Later he and his wife tell me they are off to pay their respects to his grandfather who died at a small village on the Belgian boarder in 1916 fighting the Kaiser’s men; after that they go on to Auscwitz before Bloomsbury again to meet their daughter who has just graduated from Oxford in Medieval History. “Make sure there’s leather on your shoes,” John says, when I leave them. “Betwixt Europe,” I say, but John has got it memorized already. Les, from Ireland is headed for Vladivostok. He’s been to the most westerly railway station in Europe – in Ireland. Now he’s traveling to the most easterly, in Vlaidvostock. He has six months medication in his back-pack and is worried the customs might think he’s a drug dealer. He’d be an elderly one. I wish them all well: historians all, in search of their own vision of Europe.

Coryat had to check in with the Deputy Governor. We just need Tourist Information. Once I have a hotel they pounce. Would I do a survey about tourism? Madame Gigi is up from Cavaillon, near Avignon, to study techniques at successful French tourist operations: down there they are a little behind. She’s observing at Coquelles as well, the hyper-super market that brings thousands of day-trippers from England. Travel and shopping growing ever closer. She has a form and a mini-disk and after twelve minutes in Calais I am an authority for her survey. “Walking?” she says, dubiously.

More on Calais and the channel tomorrow.


Passports tell stories, don’t they? The old one I have swapped to enable this trip was a litany of new lives I’ve lived over the last decade in London, New York, Cairo, Budapest and Ljubljana. These seem to be key places of arrival for me, though Buenos Aires and Bucharest bring back strong memories too. Its pages as a whole signify financial success, a wandering nature, and a lust for the new. But most of all discontentment with something, that’s for sure.

When that passport arrived the internet was about the spluttering whoosh of slow modems and infinite possibility of boom without bust (I’d recently worked on a magazine about the internet whose advertising copy was: everything you know is wrong). Early 1997 was also about the excitement of a new kind of government in Britain; Hong Kong was shortly to be given back to China; Gary Kasparov was about to become the first world champion to lose to a computer at chess; and Diana, Princess of Wales, was said to be larking about with a man named Dodi. So recalls Wiki-news.

Today I’m looking at a set of empty pages and wondering about the next decade. How will that be new? For me, for those I love, for Europe and for the World? Who knows? I know only that technology is enabling us in ways we really have no firm understanding of yet, that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in the way we perceive the world, its history and its future: it’s up to us in terms of our environment, our belief systems, and our creations – in art as much as medicine and astro-physics – to do justice to what we have been handed so readily on a plate.

In Jacobean England – the England of Thomas Coryat, of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon – the post Renaissance world also gave its most able some of the tools (and materials, such as books) to create the marvelous: King Lear and The Sonnets, Science, the modern English language itself are just a few. Coryat’s life saw the arrival of the telescope, Opera, theatrical sets, Gallileo busting up our vision of the universe. In another light: Englishmen and women walked on American soil – as the Queen demonstrated recently, and George Bush almost did - and began the slow colonization of India.

Before he died, tragically young, exploring India, Coryat could have read Rabelais and Cervantes in translation; could have smoked one of Walter Raleigh’s finest fags – though King James was not a fan. He experienced the liberal acceptance of courtesans and fair divorce laws in Venice, and met in Paris with the finest classical scholar of his times. He was a lucky man, Tom Coryat, patronage by Henry, the precocious Prince of Wales, gave him the chance to explore a Europe changing fast. He took his chance, he wrote down what he saw, listened to what he heard, brought home new words and invented some more (friend Ben Jonson said of Tom, “He is an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating…” – and so Tommy lives on today. When he published, three years after the journey, Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, John Donne finishing his Anatomy of the World, and the King James Bible was ready to play its part in the World. Coryat wrote – in words that seem bizarre now, with our numerous libraries and the vast resources of the web - of there being already too many books on offer, “we want rather readers for bookes than bookes for readers,” he said. It’s a joke, I’m guessing.

It’s easy to meet people who don’t read books any more. In fact one young turk editor I know used to boast he’d got through his Oxford degree without reading one in full, and the upward velocity of his successful life now suggests things haven’t changed.


Western civilization is becoming universal, the race a homogenous one. And before we die, half the variety of the picture will be gone; as if a showman had sold his swing-boats, his hoop-las, his fat women, and even his merry-go-round, and invested in the proceeds in one superlative chairoplane. The view is enlarged, the motion more poignant. And then: all is dull.

The Station Robert Byron, 1931

Bruce Chatwin just left a postcard, off to Patagonia, he wrote. No such anonymity now: I’m deliberately visible on Google Earth, another speck moving slowly and nervously to France; and who knows what GPS signal my new passport gives off.

Several months ago a friend brought her son around for dinner; they came with the son’s exchange student, a poised 17 year old from a large new city in Northern China I’d never heard of. We asked where he lived and two minutes later were looking at the roof of his house on Google Earth. The boy wanted to go to business school and was interested particularly in becoming something solid, like a Master of the Universe.

The world is smaller now; and we know so much about it – even in the seventy-five years since Robert Byron wrote the quote that begins this entry. The huge success of online multiplayer games set in violent mythical worlds of conquest (and simple quest) should be no surprise to those of us lucky enough to be jaded by the apparent futile fertility of 24/7 culture in the real world. Not when an Easyplane can take us to Istanbul in a few hours, and holidays in the Antarctic or the deserts of the Wadi Rum are so relatively easy for those with money. Of another online game a friend’s son recently told me “I’m fourteenth century Egypt, the Pope has just issued a Fatwah against me so I’ve aligned with the Vikings.” It made sense to him – he was winning though his alliance – but I found myself thinking of A.J.P Taylor, the historian, spinning in his grave. I felt like a grunty Caliban to my gaming-playing all-powerful Prospero – who was enabled not by Arial, but The World of Warcraft.

What’s new? That’s the question, in travel as well as everyday life at the breakfast bar or in front of the laptop. For every one of us wants a new, a shake-up, even if it is just a hobby for the weekend. A new car or a new wife; a new job or a new experience; new nose or novel. “Are you going on this trip because you’re having a mid-life crisis?” Prospero’s brother asked me last week at half-time in the Chelsea Manchester game. “I’m in my fifteenth year,” I said.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Dover, Sunday: girls, champers and guns

"When the King's messenger came there, they gave 3d in winter and 2d in summer for horse passage. The burgesses found a steersman and 1 other assistant. If there was more labour it was hired with his own money."
From the Doomsday Survey, 1086

Dover has been around a long time. Many of the stories can be found here. And here. When its name comes up in immigration scare stories on Google Alert – which is often - it is worth considering who exactly was looking out on the civilized Romans who bowled up here two thousand years ago; proto stag-party in Prague fodder, I suspect. If the Romans were lucky. The Romans left excellent remains here, built the first fortress, and there’s a museum in the town now, after a planned car-park threw up great excavations. And with global warming as it is, the Kentish vineyards will soon be as good as they were in 44AD.

Just over 400 years ago, in 1606, a Royal Charter brought the ‘Dover Harbour Board’ into being, comprising of eleven commissioners. The chairman was also Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Shipyards came in the 18th century.

Wars against France (Napoleon) were organized from here, but today I am interested only in the Second World War; and in particular a solitary image. Buried beneath the White Cliffs, and accessed via tunnels now part of English Heritage’s Dover Castle complex, is the HQ of Britain’s border battle with Nazi Germany, a labyrinth of underground tunnels and cavernous rooms where soldiers, doctors, sailors and nurses, plotted first the withdraw that is “Dunkirk” , the “Battle of Britain” in the skies, and later the D-Day invasions of 1944.

These days there is a marvellous guided tour of the tunnels, with audio actors playing out an emergency surgery for a downed fighter pilot. At the entrance it is possible to look out to France. In the spring and summer of 1940 Winston Churchill often did this; champagne glass in hand. Sometimes he was accompanied by the first of the enigmatic women who fleck this trip, his new young daughter-in-law Pamela, who had recently accepted the proposal of Winston’s son, Randolph, on their second date in London. Randolph had proposed to several women that spring.

Winston's spy...

Churchill in the Jamaica Gleaner news, this week.

Pamela – who we know as Pamela Harriman, and was (amongst many things) Bill Clinton’s Ambassador in Paris - had quickly become a great asset to Churchill as her “proximity” to several very important Americans and journalists in London made her at 20, an English rosy-cheeked version Martha Hari.

She was born Pamela Beryl Digby in Farnborough, Hampshire. But she saw more of the world than most Hampshire debs, then and now: Pamela, her men, and possibly even a philosopher or two, return in Paris.

Thus much of Dover.

Dover and Writers

"We must love one another or die."

The poet W.H. Auden has been a source of comfort for many years. I discovered him at school, wrote my dissertation about him at University, and have returned to his works, poetry and prose, ever since. He angered many in the English establishment when he and then boyfriend Christopher Isherwood moved to New York shortly before the beginning of the Second World War, but there are worse sins. (Some say the muted British response to his centeniary this year harks back to his exile in New York).

In 1937, just before they volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, Auden and Isherwood took lodgings on the front at Dover with Alice Slaughter, where they wrote On the Frontier, the last of their joint plays. As drama the piece is not great, though in its subject, tyrant-industrialists creating wars to keep up the profits, seems very modern. Auden was very interested in frontiers and borders, and few still are more potent than the White Cliffs.

I’m standing on them now in the grounds of Dover Castle looking out to sea. A few hundred meters below me in the Charlton cemetery are the graves of my grandparents, William and Doris, my mother, Kathleen, and my younger brother, Jonathan, who died in 1964. In the old town itself I saw one of my first films, Help, with the Beatles; later in the park just by the Shakespeare Tea-shop I almost negotiated a first kiss with a girl named Mary Jane who aged 14 and wearing hot pants got engaged to a Prefect from a Grammar School in Folkestone.

At Kathleen’s funeral I read a version of Auden’s Dover, written here during his stay with Isherwood seventy years ago, two years before Britain went to war, and three years before the relentless three-month aerial dogfight above this town known as the “Battle of Britain”. (On September 11th 1940 over a hundred fighters, British and German, were downed in a single day). Please read it.

At the reception after the funeral a great uncle, an old childhood hero of mine as he had played rugby league for Castleford, up north, found me in the kitchen and told me he’d enjoyed the poem I had written. It was very accurate about modern Dover now, he said.

Chance, strange allusions, found things, love: these are the true ten Power-point plans to life, whatever INSEAD tells us. I lived in New York through 2001. Within a few days of September 11th a poem was buzzing around the web, being sent by email; posted on blogs; speaking to many. It was one of Auden’s most famous pieces, timeless suddenly – as Dover had been for me - and with a chilling imperative: “We must love one another or die.”