Footsteps, p.1Richard Holmes
ADVENTURES OF A
London, New York, Toronto and Sydney
For Vicki and those children
ONE 1964: Travels
TWO 1968: Revolutions
THREE 1972: Exiles
FOUR 1976: Dreams
About the Author
ALSO BY RICHARD HOLMES
About the Publisher
1964 : Travels
All that night I heard footsteps: down by the river through the dark trees, or up on the moonlit road from Le Puy to Le Monastier. But I saw nothing except the stars, hanging over me where I wanted to be, with my head on a rucksack, and my rucksack on the grass, lying alone somewhere in the Massif Central of France, dreaming of the dead coming back to life again. I was eighteen.
I had started a travel-diary, teaching myself to write, and trying to find out what was happening to me, what I was feeling. I kept it simple:
Found a wide soft dry ditch under thorn hedge between the track and the little Loire. Here lit candle once more, studied ground for red ants, then set out bed-roll with all spare clothes between me and my waterproof cloak-sheet. Soon I was gazing up at stars, thinking of all the beats and tramps and travellers à la belle étoile from RLS to JK. Story of snakes that are drawn to body-heat and slide into your sleeping-bag. Cicadas and strange sounds river makes at night flowing over rocks. Slept fitfully but without disturbance from man or beast, except a spider in my ear. Saw a green glow-worm like a spark.
I woke at 5 a.m. in a glowing mist, my green sleeping-bag blackened with the dew, for the whole plateau of the Velay is above two thousand feet. I made a fire with twigs gathered the night before, and set water to boil for coffee, in a petit pots tin with wire twisted round it as a handle. Then I went down to the Loire, here little more than a stream, and sat naked in a pool cleaning my teeth. Behind me the sun came out and the woodfire smoke turned blue. I felt rapturous and slightly mad.
I reached Le Monastier two hours later, in the local grocer’s van, one of those square Citroëns like a corrugated garden privy, which smelt of camembert and apples. Monsieur Crèspy, chauffeur and patron, examined my pack and soaking bag as we jounced along through rolling uplands. Our conversation took place in a sort of no-man’s-land of irregular French. M. Crèspy’s patois and Midi twang battled for meaning against my stonewall classroom phrases. After initial skirmishing, he adopted a firm line of attack.
“You are walking on foot?” he said, leaning back into the depths of the van with one arm and presenting me with a huge yellow pear.
“Yes, yes. I am searching for un Ecossais, a Scotsman, a writer, who walked on foot through all this beautiful country.”
“He is a friend of yours? You have lost him?” enquired M. Crèspy with a little frown.
“No, no. Well … Yes. You see, I want to find him.” My chin streamed hopelessly with pear juice.
M. Crèspy nodded encouragingly: “The pear is good, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yes, it is very good.”
The Citroën lurched round a bend and plunged down towards a rocky valley, broken with trees and scattered stone farmhouses, with pink tiled roofs and goats tethered in small bright pastures where the sun struck and steamed. The spire of a church, perched on the far hillside, pointed the horizon.
“There is Le Monastier. Look! Perhaps your friend is waiting for you,” said M. Crèspy with great confidence.
“No, no, I don’t think so,” I said. But it was exactly what I hoped.
I rummaged in my rucksack. “You see, here is his book. It tells the story of his walk on foot.”
M. Crèspy peered at the little brown volume, and the Citroën swung back and forth across the road, the sound of rolling fruit growing thunderous behind us. I hastily propped the book up on the dashboard, being careful not to cover the St Christophe medal or the picture of Our Lady mounted above a cone of paper flowers. I ran my finger down the sketch map on the title page: Le Monastier, Pradelles, Langogne, Notre Dame des Neiges, Montagne du Goulet, Pic de Finiels, Le Pont-de-Montvert, Florae, Gorges du Tarn, St Jean-du-Gard—to me already magic names, a litany of hills and rivers, with a lone figure striding along them, laughing, beckoning, even mocking: follow! follow!
M. Crèspy considered the map, and then my face, then the map again, and changed gear with a reflective air. “It is far, it is far.”
“Yes,” I said, “it is two hundred and twenty kilometres.”
M. Crèspy raised a finger from the steering wheel. “And you, you are Scottish then?”
“No, no. I am English. My friend—that is to say, Mr Stevenson —was Scottish. He walked on foot with a donkey. He slept à la belle étoile. He …”
“Ah, that!” broke in M. Crèspy with a shout, taking both hands from the steering wheel, and striking his forehead. “I understand, I understand! You are on the traces of Monsieur Robert Louis Steamson. Bravo, bravo!”
“Yes, yes, I am following his paces!”
We both laughed and the Citroën proceeded by divine guidance.
“I understand, I understand,” repeated M. Crèspy. And I believe he was the first person who ever did.
Robert Louis Stevenson came to Le Monastier in September 1878. He was twenty-seven, spoke good French, and had already spent several summers abroad; near Fontainebleau, and on the canals of Holland, paddling a canoe with a friend. The experience had produced his first book, An Inland Voyage, which despite its whimsical style captured an attitude to travel that enthralled me, a child of the Sixties.
I take it, in short, that I was about as near Nirvana as would be convenient in practical life; and if this be so, I make the Buddhists my sincere compliments … It may be best figured by supposing yourself to get dead drunk, and yet keep sober to enjoy it … A pity to go to the expense of laudanum, when here is a better paradise for nothing! This frame of mind was the great exploit of our voyage, take it all in all. It was the farthest piece of travel accomplished.
That was the kind of travel which interested me too: as far out in Nirvana as possible. After ten years of English boarding schools, brought up by Roman Catholic monks, I was desperate to slip the leash. Free thought, free travel, free love was what I wanted. I suppose a foreign affaire de coeur would have been the best thing of all; and that, in a way, was what I got.
It did not immediately occur to me to wonder what Stevenson himself was doing in that remote little town “in the French highlands”. I knew he wanted to be a writer, had published essays in the London reviews, but was still struggling to establish his independence from his family in Edinburgh. They had brought him up a strict Calvinist, an outlook which he had rejected; and they had wanted him to be an engineer. Instead he had adopted the life of a literary bohemian, was a friend of Edmund Gosse and Sidney Colvin, affected wide-brimmed hats and velvet jackets, and fled to France whenever he could.
Staying at the little hotel at Le Monastier that autumn, he made friends with the local doctor and “Conductor of Roads and Bridges” and completed a little sketch of the place, A Mountain Town in France. His account had immediately captivated me.
Le Monastier is the chief place of a hilly canton in Haute-Loire, the ancient Velay. As the name betokens, the town is of monastic origin; and it still contains a towered bulk of monastery and church … It stands on the side of a hill above the river Gazeille, about fifteen miles from Le Puy, up a steep road where the wolves sometimes pursue the diligence in winter …
Stevenson had decided to pursue t
At Le Monastier that morning, the question of Stevenson’s donkey bulked large. Unloaded from the van, I was taken into the backroom of the épicerie and given breakfast by Madame Crèspy.
“When Monsieur Steamson was here, they used to make lace,” she said, also using the local pronunciation. “But you will want your donkey, like him. You must go and see Le Docteur Ollier.”
Mlle Crèspy, who looked at me with dark dancing eyes, was deputed to take me to the doctor. “It’s no fun without the donkey,” she observed, prettily rolling the colloquial word, rigolo, and seizing me by the hand. Mlle Crèspy was about nine.
Le Docteur, a tall patient man, ushered me into his surgery and poured me a yellow medicine, which turned out to be a liqueur. “Of course, there is the question of the donkey. You will have to consult the Mayor. Everyone takes a donkey.”
“Mlle Singer took a donkey. She was lost in a storm, on the Lozère. It is high up there. The fire brigade from Bleymard went out to find her with lanterns.”
I accepted another yellow medicine. “This was recently, Miss Singer?”
“Oh yes, this was in 1949. You must pay attention to the vipers,” concluded Dr Ollier.
“So you desire to hire a donkey,” said the Mayor, as we paced in the cobbled courtyard of the old Bishop’s palace.
I looked abashed. “I am following Stevenson. But I have my sack.”
The Mayor reflected. “You see, Monsieur Steamson, he had a donkey. It is in his book. It is charming for a writer to have a donkey. It is his companion of the route.”
The sun beat down, the liqueur rose in my head, I had a vague sense that things were getting out of hand even before I had started. The reality of Stevenson’s presence in Le Monastier was uncanny. I asserted myself rather desperately. “No, no, I do not desire a donkey. My companion of the route—is Monsieur Stevenson himself!”
The Mayor stopped short, took off his small gold spectacles and tapped me on the chest. “Of course, of course,” he said, beaming suddenly. “You are young, indeed you are young, and I wish you a good journey with all my heart.” He replaced his spectacles and shook my hand many times, and I shook his quite as often. “You know,” added the Mayor as we parted, “Monsieur Steamson purchased his donkey for sixty-five francs. I could not easily find you such a bargain. But still, after all, if you should desire …”
Stevenson purchased his donkey for sixty-five francs “and a glass of brandy”. He christened her “Modestine”, and described her as the size of a large Newfoundland dog and the colour of “an ideal mouse”. She was to play a large part in his story. With her, he intended to cross over some of the highest and wildest country in France, moving across the remote borderlands of four départments— the Haute-Loire, the Lozère, the Ardèche, and Gard—and over the top of two notable peaks or highland ridges, the Goulet and the Pic de Finiels, between four and five and a half thousand feet. (For comparison, Snowdon is 3,650 feet and Ben Nevis 4,405 feet.) He intended to be solitary and self-sufficient, and loaded up his donkey with a huge sleeping-sack of his own design, six foot square of green waterproof cart-cloth, lined inside with blue sheep’s fur: “there was luxurious turning-room for one; and at a pinch the thing might serve for two.” The last phrase seemed rather at odds with the rest of his plans. The sack had open sheep’s-fur flaps at both ends, to act as pillow and foot-warmer by night, and as the double mouth of an enormous saddle-bag by day.
I considered his equipment with professional interest, from the point of view of minimum necessities. It included the following items: two complete changes of warm clothing; several books, among them Father Peyrat’s Histoire des Pasteurs du Désert; a Scottish railway plaid; a spirit-lamp and cooking pan; a lantern and candles; a twenty-franc jack-knife with assorted blades, openers, and instruments for removing stones from donkey’s hooves; a leather water-flask; an eighty-page blue-lined schoolboy’s exercise book, which he used for the first draft of the Travels, composed en route usually in the mornings or at inns where he lunched; many blocks of black chocolate and tins of Bologna sausage (as hard rations); and, on his first morning, a basket containing a leg of cold mutton and a bottle of Beaujolais. He also packed an egg-whisk, to make the egg-and-brandy nog he loved to take at breakfast with his cafe au lait.
In the pocket of his country-velveteens he secreted a revolver, a brandy-flask and a large tin of tobacco and papers for rolling cigarettes. Most intriguing item of all, he wore on his wedding finger—though not married—a large silver gypsy ring. At first I assumed that he simply wanted to be taken for a gypsy or a pedlar himself, in the true “bohemian” spirit. Needless to say, I had started wearing one myself; to be exact, a large tin ring—being the best I could afford—previously bought from a gypsy stall at Les Saintes-Maries, two hundred miles south in the Camargue.
Stevenson’s journey lasted a there twelve days. But its shortness was made up for by its intensity: it was a complete pilgrimage in miniature. He started from Le Monastier at dawn on Sunday, 22 September 1878—though Modestine’s reluctance to become his beast of burden meant that everyone had gone to midday church by the time he made any visible progress on the further hill; and eventually arrived at St Jean-du-Gard on the afternoon of 3 October. On his way, he spent three nights sleeping in the open—à la belle étoile; seven nights in country inns; and one at the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges. He wrote some twenty-three thousand words of journal entries (slightly more than half the length of the final Travels); made a dozen or so pencil sketches; and expended—according to his frugal notes—eighty-five francs ten sous.
I set out to follow him as accurately as I could, without modern maps (until Florac) but going by the old tracks and roads between every village and hamlet that he mentioned. I also took twelve days, spending one night in a country hotel at Langogne; seven nights in fields and woods; two nights in barns; and one night—my last—under a venerable spreading chestnut tree in the valley of St Germain-de-Calberte. I spent ninety-eight francs fifty centimes—but I had only one hotel bill, and people gave me refreshments almost all the way. Most of my money went on the evening meal. I always saved a bit of bread, some sugar and sometimes a piece of pate for my dawn petit-déjeuner in the fields. Lunch was usually a bottle of Pelforth beer and a handful of black olives. At farms, when I asked for water for my bottle, I was almost invariably given cold citron or red wine as well; or black coffee made as in Greece, very strong, with sugar poured into it, from a saucepan often kept on an open-fire stove. I smoked a pipe, which was often a useful point of conversation with people I met on the road: shepherds, woodsmen, old grandfathers out for a stroll near the village cemetery, farmers working the corner of a remote upland field. I exchanged tobacco as many times as words, and English flake could be sweet under the loneliness of the stars.
I also wore a hat, a brown battered felt object, somewhat like an old fedora, with a wide brim, and a curious leather band round the crown which gave it a backwoods character. I have had many hats since, but except for a certain cap from Dublin none of them ever quite achieved such talismanic properties and powers. This hat, Le Brun, besides performing the normal hat-like functions of keeping sunstroke at bay, and mildly redirecting heavy rain on to my left or right shoulder (at choice), had several magical virtues. One was deflecting lightning. Another was helping me see in the dark. A third was giving me the most vivid dreams about Stevenson whenever I slept with it tipped over my nose.
But most important of all, perhaps, was Le Brun’s power to make other people laugh. It is a vital point. A stranger with a bag, when he appears at your door, perhaps at dusk; or knocks at your cafe window before the bread and milk have been delivered; or comes clambering over your gate, or surging out of your wood, or lumber
The girl in the pâtisserie at Florac, the prettiest blonde in the whole of the Cévennes, was so overcome with laughter at the way Le Brun doffed himself with a sudden farcical stream of rainwater flowing on to the polished tiles of her shop that she offered him a plate of eclairs gratuit if only Monsieur would go out and do it again in five minutes, “quand mon amie Sylvie est descendue.”
But these are lighter considerations. The beginning of the journey was hard for us both. For the whole of the first day, from Le Monastier to Le Bouchet, a distance of twenty-five kilometres over steep country roads, baked in hot golden dust, Stevenson had endless and humiliating trouble with Modestine. She refused to climb hills, she shed her saddle-bag at the least provocation, and in villages she swerved into the cool of the beaded shop-doors. He was forced to beat her relentlessly, first with his own walking-cane and then with a thorn-switch cut from a hedge by a peasant on the long hill up to Goudet. At Costaros, the villagers even tried to intervene, taking the side of French donkey against foreign tyrant: “‘Ah,’ they cried, ‘how tired she is, the poor beast!’” Stevenson lost his temper: “Mind your own affairs—unless you would like to help me carry my basket?” He departed amid laughter from the Sunday loiterers, who had just come out of church and were feeling charitable.
Footsteps by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes