Through a glass darkly – 54

Abroad

We had an excellent early summer here in Edinburgh; dry and sunny with the temperature hovering around  23ºC.  Good weather for enjoying the garden. And also for church walks. But now it is raining again. I feel for our children who are heading for the Scottish Highlands in a camper-van. For the little girls the highlight of the week may be an excursion on the Hogwarts Express across the Glenfinnan viaduct. At home I am turning the pages of Abroad by Paul Fussell, a survey of British literary travelling between the wars. Fussell is a North American Professor of English Literature. He wrote a very good book [published in 1975] on The Great War and Modern Memory, looking at the literature of the First World War and its influence on writers that followed.

Paul Fussell: Abroad

Abroad [published 1980] is a slimmer book, a discursive survey of British travel writers between the wars, an elegy for the lost art of travel before it was overtaken by tourism. Some of these writers have more or less disappeared from public view, such as Patrick Balfour and Norman Douglas; Robert Byron, who looked like Queen Victoria and who drowned in 1941 when his ship was  torpedoed on the way to Africa, is remembered only for The Road to Oxiana; and Evelyn Waugh, remembered more as a Catholic apologist and novelist rather than travel writer. 

Fussell notes the emergence of the Mediterranean as the preferred destination for many travellers. Which involved redeeming the sun from the social stigma it had borne in the previous century. When the young Rupert Mayne went out to India, his parents told him that “the three most dangerous things I had to watch out for in the East were wine, women, and the sun.” Ironically these were the very things that drew travellers to the Mediterranean in the 1920’s. André Gide, Hermann Hesse and D.H. Lawrence all wrote of the therapeutic effect of [nude] sunbathing. Cyril Connolly created a sensation in the 1920’s by suggesting that the time for the Riviera was not, as had been previously assumed, the winter season but the very hottest summer months.

Les premiers pas

This is the time of year, perhaps relatedly, when I am nostalgic for cross-Channel ferries. Sixty years ago this month was my first venture overseas. In the summer of 1961 Paul and I spent a month or so working at Battersea Fun Fair making popcorn with a girl called Mary [Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou was in the charts at the time]; going home at 10.30pm every night when Goodnight Sweetheart came over the loudspeakers. I’ve never really liked popcorn since. And then it was time to apply for a first passport [it didn’t take so long in those days; I think our applications may even have been dealt with on the spot at the offices in Petty France]; to renew our YHA [Youth Hostel Association] membership; and to buy a train ticket to Paris. And a return boat trip across the Channel. I think we got some traveller’s cheques too. Our budget for three weeks was £15.00 each.

1961 passport

Arriving at the Gare du Nord showed the deficiencies of my five years of school French. We had done endless grammar exercises and vocab lists, dictations and French prose composition. But not spent any time on the spoken language, on speaking and listening skills. Asking the way from a man in uniform [I thought all policemen were gendarmes in those days] was met with a vacant stare.

We stayed in a UNESCO hostel in the Boulevard Emile Levasseur, down in the wilds of the 13ème arrondissement, not far from the Porte d’Ivry. The cost was 1,60F a night for bed [in dormitory accommodation] and breakfast [bowls of what was probably coffee and chicory and buttered baguette].  The exchange rate in those days was about 13.00F to the UK pound. So I guess the hostel was costing us about 15p a night ! But it was a long time ago.

On our first evening we went to a local cafe, bought two glasses of wine at the bar, and took them outside to sit on the terrasse.  Cue an angry exchange with the waiter who was being bypassed. It was a year of tensions in Algeria. The 13ème had a sizeable North African population and we were a bit shocked to see frequent street patrols of French soldiers with sten guns. [This was more than two decades before similar scenes in Northern Ireland.] We spent a day, perhaps two, with Charlie, an Austrian from the hostel, who foolishly larked about shouting ‘Je suis plastiqueur’.

Paris in the 1960s

I don’t remember having a guide book, but we must have had some kind of map. On the first day we took the Métro, noisy trains, connecting tunnels with a warm smell of sweat, dust, urine, and Gitanes, to Palais Royale, the Tuileries gardens, and Place de la Concorde.  We walked up  the Champs Elysées, took the lift to the top of the Arc de Triomphe; and then walked to Invalides. In the afternoon we took the Métro again and climbed the steps to look at the Sacré Coeur. It was a long, hot day. My overwhelming impression was of monumental buildings and very wide roads ! On the second day we did Notre Dame, the Boul Mich, and the Left Bank. Then we slowed down a bit. We spent two afternoons in the Louvre and were a bit underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. 

Heading for the Med

One of the myths in those days was that you could search the streets of Les Halles, find a lorry with an 06 or a 13 registration [Alpes Maritimes or Bouches-du-Rhône], and secure a one-stop lift down the Mediterranean. Easy ! But it didn’t work. We spent two sleepless nights at les Halles. And discovered that none of the lorries were returning directly south.  Making that discovery cost us two nights trying unsuccessfully to sleep on Paris street benches. Very uncomfortable !. 

Les Halles, 1960s

Our first day on the road, pre-motorway [I think there was a motorway, but not for hitchhikers] took us to Fontainebleau, about 40 kilometres. Fontainebleau was the elephants’ graveyard of hitchhikers in the 1960s. In the morning there were couples and small groups hitchhiking south of the carrefour as far as you could see. A second night in the youth hostel where Paul picked up a flea. Our third night was in the hostel at Dijon. The fourth night we bedded down in a hotel garden at Tournus before the night porter invited us to sleep in the reception area. On the fifth day a young man in a Citroen DS swept us south down the Rhône Valley, round Lyon [of which I remember nothing], stopped to buy nougat at a motorway service area near Montélimar, and eventually dropped us off in Aix. From where we made our way down to Marseille. The Med at last !

We had three days along the coast in La Ciotat, trying hard not to notice the shipyards, followed by two nights in Cassis. On the road we had lived exclusively as I recall off ham sandwiches, made with crisp baguettes and what is now called ‘artisan’ ham. At La Ciotât we lay on the beach every day, all day, covered in a generous layer of brown Ambre Solaire. In the evening we bought eggs in a paper bag, butter cut from a slab and wrapped in grease-proof paper, and giant, mis-shapen tomatoes from a little old woman in an alimentation générale, and ate tomato omelettes. In the evening we played ping-pong in the hostel. Every night we shed a few more layers of skin. Before returning to the beach in the morning.

Cassis was different.The youth hostel was out on the cliffs, quite isolated. It seemed to attract amorous young men with guitars and girls of assorted nationalities. The whole thing was like a prequel for A nous les petites anglaises. We were a bit out of our depth.  There was a long, stony descent to the sea and glorious swimming.

Cassis youth hostel

Homeward bound

Getting home was a bit of a struggle. After nearly three weeks we were seriously short of funds. A couple of guys from Manchester had offered us a lift back north from outside Nimes. We spent an evening at a bullfight at the amphitheatre in Nimes with a predatory gay [the word hadn’t yet been invented], and stayed with him overnight. It was a troubled night, and next day the promised lift didn’t materialise. We made a swift Plan B decision. We bought the cheapest railway tickets that we could identify, took the train to Marseilles, and boarded the express to Paris. Without tickets. It was a very hot day and a very crowded train [French army reserves had been called up because of a crisis in Berlin]. For which reason there were no ticket collectors. Many hours later at the Gare de Lyon we were stopped briefly but made a run for it.

The next day we hitched back to the coast. Our last night in France was in a cinema porch somewhere up the N1. It was no more comfortable than the Paris bench. But the very kind cafe owner next-door brought us coffee and ham sandwiches [again] in the morning, without any suggestion of payment. Later that day we were home in south London, broke and hungry and flea-bitten{Paul] – but happy.

Envoi

The trip seems a long time ago. I have forgotten a lot, and I remember mostly trivial things. The sound of flipper machines in French cafes. Early Shadows records on French juke-boxes. The idiosyncratic suspension of the Citroen DS. Long straight French roads with three lanes [… one lane in the middle for idiots to kill themselves]. Roads with steep cambers and a mass of loose chippings. The heat of the Mediterranean. The smell of Ambre Solaire. Putting big plastic bottles of Coca Cola in the edge of the sea to keep them cool. The distinctive blue overalls of French railways workers.

We have lived in France twice since then; in Paris in the 1970s, and more recently in Lyon. I’m sorry not to be going back there just yet.

August 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

One thought on “Through a glass darkly – 54

  1. Have just found now 53 and54.. I remember reading Barnabas when it came out but have lately Beijing wondering how it was! So very glad to have your overview of it. Thank you! Love your blogs. Love to you both. Virginia

    Like

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