Written on May 4th 2009, rediscovered on a search for Apollinaire, French poet
On a morning like this I feel a strong call to take the Valley Path (which I’ve written about a few times) on account of the clear sky, the expectant hush as in a theatre when the curtain is about to go up, the pure tang in the air. I speak as if these are qualities of the valley itself, affecting equally all who live and breathe and toil in its folds, rather than my own state of mind. Outer or inner? Such a question is always unknowable, but as I put on my boots and take my grey shoulder bag with pen, notebook, and other unnecessaries, to navigate the less frequented paths, I commence a parallel trek through memory.
It felt just like this in 1962, when I travelled through France with a grey canvas duffel bag slung on my shoulder, stepping out to this same expectant void each chill morning, tasting this same tang of adventure in the air. I was a newly-bearded virgin, but forty-seven years between now and then haven’t filtered out the impulsive inwardness which ruled me that Spring. Or perhaps my memory has filtered out everything else but this inwardness, which I see now as a probe which connects deeply into the inward pulses of Nature.
I take the valley path. On the map it’s a string of playing-fields, small housing estates and a public park linked by paths through wilderness or behind back gardens. To my inward eye it’s a primeval route, destined to persist through future cataclysms which may wipe out most of civilization.
Even as I take in the familiar route, it’s Marseille I’m thinking of, back in a time of Charles de Gaulle as President of France, when the town was uneasy and restless with exiles: ethnic Algerians and Pieds-noirs—white colonists in flight from the newly-independent Algeria. I got to know Marseille well: the Canebière, main street in which I climbed to my little room from an inconspicuous door between two large shops; the Foreign Legion garrison; great slabs of apartments on the skyline, built by le Corbusier; the cathedral, Notre Dame de la Garde, landmark overlooking the Mediterranean; a certain street market where they sold salted anchovies out of barrels and where I subsisted, in the end, on damaged fruit which the traders had thrown to the ground, joining other down-and-outs in this scavenging before the street-cleaners finished the job.
You may ask what I was doing in Marseille. I ask myself the same question. It started in Paris. When April turned to May I was infected with a mood to leave the city. Robert Tristan was amongst others to feel the same way and suggested a trip south, hitchhiking. He was an agency journalist on a mini-sabbatical, taking leave from a high-pressure assignment in Munich. I met him with the raggle-taggle assortment of colourful exiles who gathered on the Square du Vert Galant, that pointed bit of the Île de la Cité near the Cathedral of Notre Dame. So we left for the south.
I was a free agent. I’d intended to sign on to courses at the Sorbonne, but through impatient arrogance I hadn’t filled in enough forms before leaving England and the funds to finance my studies and subsistence never arrived. When I realised that my six months in France and Italy would be dedicated to Lady Poverty and not Academia, I moved to simpler accommodation: out of the Cité Universitaire and into the École Polytechnique, not to study in that prestigious institution, but sleep and wash there.
We used to climb a wall, squeeze through the bars of a small window and sleep in a dusty space of boilers and chimneys—till an old woman reported us and the window was chained up one day, with my precious duffel bag still inside. I had to strip to my underpants to squeeze through the chains to retrieve it, with the old woman screaming all the while as if I were attacking her virtue. After that I went to stay with George Whitman at Shakespeare & Co, on the Rue de la Bucherie. Actually George hadn’t at this point taken over the name from Sylvia Beach who ran the original bookshop, so it was still called Librairie Mistral. George offered a free bed in the shop to travelling writers. I told him I was writing a book on Zen Buddhism. By way of rent, my allotted task was to mop the floor tiles each morning, after he’d kept his large dog in all night. Conscious of being but one step from living on the street, I found this a small price to pay. It seemed a Zen thing to start the day cleaning up dog excrement.
When Tristan and I were ready to leave, I wanted to tell Karina, but didn’t know where she lived, or much about her at all, except that she was Swedish. She wore a tweed trilby low over her green eyes, shading the freckles and upturned nose. We’d recently met, and gone at her suggestion to see Orfeu Negro, a magical film about the carnival in Rio. Like everyone I knew in Paris, she was in exile: in her case from a mysterious relationship with an older woman—not that she herself was lesbian, she hastened to explain. We became friends and I wondered if I might fall in love with her.
Tristan was a good hitchhiking companion, bold, ready to take on anyone. He’d once tried to interview Ray Charles, who had other things on his mind and told him to get lost. On our trip we found ourselves taking on some bizarre strangers: such as the Communist who picked us up on the basis of my superficial resemblance to Fidel Castro, (Tristan reaffirming our fervent support of this Cuban leader I’d hardly heard of) so that he took us to drink brandy in his hunting-lodge in a Provençal valley full of cypresses like a van Gogh painting, and showed us paintings he’d done himself, in Vincent’s “swirly” style; or such as the old man in a donkey-cart who took us back to his mas (traditional homestead) and let us stay the night in a hayloft with chirping yellow chicks, in return for favours which neither of us were prepared to grant him.
With youthful optimism, Karina and I agreed to meet at a certain camping site about 40 km north of Marseille. I took the train down, stayed overnight at a cheap hotel, then hitched up to the camping site. It was well-known to travelling students, had noticeboards full of messages from those passing through, trying to reconnect with their buddies. I decided not to stay there, but left a note.
Back in Marseille, I realised I must change my hotel to an even cheaper one, on the Canebière, where my room was no more than a windowless cupboard under the stairs, the walls thin, with an Algerian couple for neighbours, she coughing with consumptive desperation, and heart-rending rows breaking out regularly between them. I read Apollinaire (Alcools was on my course reading-list) and Moby Dick. I spent my waiting days a-wandering, meeting sometimes an exiled Englishwoman, also stranded in Marseille, for unstated reasons. She told me of a man who the previous day had tried to molest her. She had summoned aid from a passing policeman, but he tried to molest her too. Who would rescue her this time? It was a tall sentry from the Foreign Legion barracks, who left his post and chased away the policeman. He guaranteed that all his comrades would do the same, and ask nothing in return. So she spent her days on the rocky beach opposite the barracks, reading her novels, taking an occasional swim, feeling safe. We had this one thing in common, that we were waiting.
My money was running out. I couldn’t wait any longer for Karina—I’d been here four weeks—so I decided to go on to Florence, where some fellow-students would be sure to lend me some cash. I’d earned a little in Paris from decorating George Whitman’s girl-friend’s flat; when that ran out I’d sold all my things to Algerians in Marseille. Now I had no means of continuing to pay the daily rent on my room, and my food-money was used-up too. One Friday afternoon, about five, I came in from the dazzling sunshine and heard a radio playing “Apache”, an instrumental hit by the Shadows. It lifted my spirits. The landlady gave me a telegram, which said my parents were sending a bank draft of £25. But the bank wasn’t open till Tuesday. Hope filled my belly for a few days. I paid the landlady, got a train to Florence, found the fellow-students after some days. Again, my money ran out. I got a job as assistant to a cinematographer making an educational movie about Michelangelo. But that’s a tale for another day.
Thirty-five years later, I picked up a hitchhiker in England. Our conversation turned to hitchhiking in France. He told me how he’d once had all his money and belongings stolen when he’d hitched a lift and the driver had asked him to get some cigarettes at a service station, and then driven off with all his things. He also told me about a girl who went to a rendezvous in the south of France, but the boy wasn’t there and she waited, and couldn’t manage to contact him … “Oh, that must have been me,” I said. Was it Karina yearning for me as I yearned for her, each blaming ourself for having missed the other? It must have been, and it makes me feel bad to think of it.