I wonder if the swallows that nest in the chimney of my Suffolk farmhouse have the faintest idea how profoundly they affect my emotions. When they first arrive from the south in Spring, and I hear the thrumming of their wingbeats amplified to a boom by the hollow brickwork, my heart leaps. They seem to bless the house with the spirit of the south; the promise of summer. Swallows have such a strong homing instinct that it is quite possible this same family of birds, by now an ancient dynasty, has been returning here to nest for the four hundred and fifty summers since the chimney was built.
Everything about swallows says ‘South’. They are a shiny, metallic, gregarious, nomadic tribe, decked in magenta and ravishing deep blues like the Tuareg, Bedouin and Berber people, whose deserts they must soon cross as they set out in September to fly due south all the way to Cape Town on their winter migration. As they gather talkatively on the telegraph wires, they seem no more afraid of the great distances they must travel and the hardships they will encounter on the way, than you or I picking up the telephone to make a long-distance call. They speak a glittering desert tongue, calling to each other incessantly across the chimney tops as I have heard Berber women call like birds across the evening air to one another as they roam the quiet stony desert south of the Moroccan Anti-Atlas mountains, cutting dried scrub as fodder for their donkeys.
When the household swallows fly away to Africa, I get restless. I suppose I envy them. I certainly miss standing by the fireplace at night, eavesdropping on their dormitory conversations in the mud nests above. Swallows never fail to stir the nomad in me too.
I belong to the generation whose migrations south began at Victoria Station. It was E.M. Forster who said, in Howard’s End, that everyone who has lived in a great capital has strong feelings about its various railway termini. ‘They are,’ he says, ‘the gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.’ Architecturally, Victoria had less character than some of the other great London stations, but it had by far the most romantic trains: The all-Pullman Golden Arrow (which connected in Paris with the Orient Express) and the Blue Train, which I rode each year of my early teens to the south of France to visit my pen-friend, Jean-Francois, in Menton. I suppose both of us must already have had travelling in our blood because our fathers worked for the railways and our exchange had been arranged through the British and French rail unions.
I peeped under the blind and saw the Mediterranean on fire as we steamed along the coast past the empty beaches of Frejus and St Raphael.
The Channel crossing on the ferry, sometimes rough, slipstreamed by seagulls, not swallows, and the sight of the mailbags being hoisted ashore in huge nets by the Calais cranes, the dockside alive with blue dungarees and stevedores, already conferred the status of rite of passage on that first journey. For an English adolescent, the Train Bleu provided the full range of initiation rites: the customs, the crossing of Paris by Metro from the Gare du Nord to the Gare du Lyon, the need to utter the first halting words of classroom French. At the Gare du Lyon I walked up the platform admiring the high blue carriages of the Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits and the enthralling roster of the Blue Train’s itinerary: Paris – Dijon – Lyons – Valence – Avignon – Marseille – Toulon – St Tropez – St Raphael – Cannes – Nice – Monte Carlo – Menton – Ventimiglia. I travelled almost to the end of the line. Sometime in the night I drifted out of sleep to hear the insistent ghostly voices of the station announcers ‘Dijon! Dijon!’ and later still ‘Lyons!’ At breakfast time, I was woken by stewards clattering along the corridors. I peeped under the blind and saw the Mediterranean on fire as we steamed along the coast past the empty beaches of Frejus and St Raphael. Everything was so much brighter and clearer than in my cool native suburb near the Kodak factory north of Harrow, and the sky was a deep bold blue I had never seen before: much more like Kodachrome, in fact. Shadows were inky black and had sharp edges. Suddenly, in Menton, the French of my textbooks came vividly, even deliciously alive. Café, croissant, pain chocolat, la mer, le soleil, la table: all took on a vivid brilliance like a revelation. Along the rocks towards Cap Martin, men in bright blue denim trousers twitched silver-backed olive leaves bound on sticks to lure the wily octopi from their lairs. When we bathed in Menton, shoals of small fish skidding across the harbour’s clear water like shadows, I felt I was being baptized into a new life.
I was not the first Englishman to feel that way. Entering Italy for the first time through the birth canal of the Mont Cenis tunnel, the Bloomsbury painter and writer Adrian Stokes felt born into a new world and ever after experienced a new vitality in the south, both emotionally and in his work. His contemporary, the composer William Walton, reacted to his first sight of Italy in an almost identical way. His train went into a tunnel and when it came out on the Italian side he found the most marvelous sun, and the brilliance illuminated the rest of his life like ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’.
I had lucked out, of course, in landing a pen-friend with a place in Menton. The Villa L’Hermine was on a steep hillside behind the town, surrounded by orange orchards, olives and prickly pears. At night, geckos strolled upside down across the ceiling as we dined, serenaded by choirs of crickets and tree frogs. Jean-Francois and I would creep up in the dark to the concrete irrigation tanks that served as the frogs’ echo-chambers and catch in our torch beam rows of vivid green males with their bubble-gum larynxes comically inflated. We glimpsed others in the shadows apparently in flagrante, still singing lustily in their passion. In the mornings, the cicadas took up the song in the Corsican pines, cranking up like old gramophones as the sun rose higher.
The French have the perfect phrase for this ‘I will arise and go now’ impulse to drop everything, walk out one midsummer morning, and head south. It is a la derive, adrift.
It was these raucous creatures who lent their name to Cyril Connolly’s Cicada Club at Oxford in the early 1920s. The half-dozen members dedicating themselves to flaunting the English convention of visiting the Cote D’Azur in winter, choosing instead to roast themselves on the beaches of Villeneuve or Menton at the height of summer, when the rasping song of the cicadas hits the top notes in its frenzy.
Never mind magnetic north, it was the south that drew us like iron filings. My appetite for the sun now fully aroused, and my French somewhat improved, my later migrations as a teenager and a university student were as a hitchhiker. I was a Cicada Club member by nature, willing to venture south regardless of season or convention whenever I had money in my purse and time to spare. The French have the perfect phrase for this ‘I will arise and go now’ impulse to drop everything, walk out one midsummer morning, and head south. It is a la derive, adrift.
In the late fifties and in the sixties, hitchhiking was an entirely dependable means of transport. It was an age of considerable trust and hitchhiking, for me and my friends, was above all an education in human kindness. At the time, however, we saw it in more practical terms: getting a foot in the car door, getting your bottom on a seat. In those pre-Thatcher days, a surprising number of people actually thought it was pretty selfish to go bowling along alone with empty seats in your car when there were bums aplenty waiting beside the road to occupy them. After several days hitching south and sleeping rough, most of us soon transmogrified into the other kind of bums: bums with thumbs. Hence the expression bumming a lift, I suppose. Quite why one thumbs a lift I’m not sure. Perhaps because the thumb is the least aggressive, or suggestive of the digits, the other four being reserved for varying degrees of sexual innuendo.
The favourite gateway for the southbound hitchhiker was the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry because you could then follow a route through Rouen, Chartres and Orleans that took you to the Route Nationale Vingt – the N20 – and bypassed the hitchhiker’s graveyard, Paris. There were no lifts to be had there. At Dieppe, your thumb would join the forest of others raised aloft at the roadside in a mass demonstration of faith in the essential goodness of human nature and its willingness to chauffeur every last one of us south. Right from the start you would have to face the eternal hitchhiker’s dilemma: whether to choose a good spot, beside a lay-by for example, stay put, and risk appearing lazy, or whether to plod on southwards, as if preparing to walk the seven- or eight-hundred miles to the Mediterranean, in the hope of inspiring sympathy and approval. The latter course had two disadvantages. Either it meant having your back to the oncoming traffic, depriving motorists of the opportunity to study in advance your eager, open, honest features, or you turned to face them, with the consequent risk of walking backwards into a milestone, pothole, or parked car.
Like angling, hitchhiking required patience and cunning. We were fishers of cars, and we were all connoisseurs of the varied species of our quarry. Most of them are now long-extinct: the Simca, the Panhard Tiger, the slender Renault Dauphine, the hilarious Fiat Topolino, the stylish Citroën Flat Fifteen – as driven by Inspector Maigret. The only survivors seem to have been the two real eccentrics: the ubiquitous 2CV and the car you most hoped to ride in, the Citroën DS, known colloquially on the road as ‘Le Crapeau’ – the toad – with its wide-mouthed bonnet and all its sleek, invisible power somehow concentrated in the car’s slender haunches.
But this astonishingly advanced and beautiful car was also known by the punning pronunciation of the initials DS in French as ‘La Deesse’ – the goddess. The philosopher Roland Barthes, who was later killed in a car crash, compared the genius of the design of the Deesse to the building of the great French medieval cathedrals as a supreme expression of the spirit of the age. He mentions the many-spired cathedral of Chartres, an ever-fixed mark to which we steered across the yellow oceans of maize and sunflowers from Rouen, and in which I once spent the night hidden between pews in a sleeping bag. Modern France’s new religion of mobility was all there in the Deesse.
And Roland Barthes was right. The Deesse was a kind of miracle, and a lift in one after a long, dusty vigil in the sun could feel like divine providence. Perched on the Deesse’s sighing white leather seats hugging our rucksacks, we marvelled at the way the steering wheel appeared to float like a halo, magically suspended by an almost invisible stalk. Shakespeare wrote ‘My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.’ You’d never say that about the Deesse. The car floated, gliding forward effortlessly, having levitated itself with unhurried dignity from its parked stance, slumped on all fours. You wouldn’t choose a DS for a bank robbery. And there was so much glass. No car had ever been this transparent. Even the headlights swivelled about like two eyes, mysteriously coordinated with the steering, so the Deesse had the uncanny, almost supernatural ability to see round corners at night. Even now, the ineffable design remains outside time, more modern, more confident, than anything that has come since.
The car floated, gliding forward effortlessly, having levitated itself with unhurried dignity from its parked stance, slumped on all fours. You wouldn’t choose a DS for a bank robbery.
The main roads south, the Routes Nationales, were wildly dangerous then. Traffic hurtled along in both directions either side of a common central overtaking lane. Saying a prayer out loud, our hitchhiking chauffeurs pulled into the face of the oncoming traffic, willing it into submission, hoping to dive back in again to their side with a nanosecond in hand. We prayed too, and held our breath. August 1st, the opening of the holidays, was a gigantic national game of chicken.
But however dangerous, those pre-motorway roads were beautiful. The endless avenues of overarching plane trees dappled the tarmac with shadow as you bounced along in the back of a 2CV or sped comfortably in a DS. Cyril Connolly wrote in The Unquiet Grave of ‘Peeling off the kilometers to the tune of ‘Blue Skies’, sizzling down the long black liquid reaches of the National Sept, the plane trees going sha-sha-sha through the open window, the windscreen yellowing with crushed midges.’
Songs on car radios figure prominently in my recollections of these journeys. French idols like Johnny Halliday and Françoise Hardy:
‘Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age
Se promenent dans la rue deux pas deux’
And the exhilaration of The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ in an old Peugeot as we drove full tilt out of Blois towards a first bathe off the sandbanks of the sparkling Loire. The Beatles’ ‘Baby You Can Drive My Car’ booming out of a Morgan Plus Four along the coast road from Narbonne to Perpignan one July night, with the moon reflected in the salt pans beside the Mediterranean. ‘Good Vibrations’ trailing from the open windows of a Citroen Safari driving through the hill villages of the Corbieres one hot evening towards Limoux from Carcassonne, families sitting out on kitchen chairs before their shadowy front doors, girls in espadrilles and cotton housecoats and the clink of boules beneath the village trees.
It was Cyril Connolly who drew a magic circle on the map of France around the river valleys of the Dordogne, the Lot, the Aveyron, the Tarn and the Garonne, from Tulle to Toulouse, from Bergerac to Rodez. Connolly daydreamed of a house there, ‘A golden classical house, three stories high, with oeil de boeuf attic windows and a view over water. A great tree for summer and a lawn for games; behind it a wooded hill and in front a river, then a sheltered garden, indulgent to fig and nectarine, and in the corner a belvedere, book-lined like that of Montaigne, the wizard of this magic circle.’ Connolly dedicated his circle to Montaigne’s own two ruling passions: liberty and laziness.
This is the circle to which I returned again and again on my journeys south, often with Connolly, Orwell, Kerouac or Montaigne stuffed in my rucksack. Reading seemed much the same thing as travelling, journeying down the sentences, new landscapes unfolding, two hundred miles or two hundred pages at a time. I sat drinking Bergerac wine under Montaigne’s statue in Perigeux, bathed for the first time in the Dordogne near Souillac, helped a friend fix a ruined stone house perched above a trout river that dashed down to St. Cere through steep chestnut woods. Every other stone on our pile concealed an adder, and on our first fungus-foray we misinterpreted the pictorial guide we’d borrowed from the chemist’s and poisoned ourselves.
Everywhere we discovered, half-ruined and half-strangled by their own vines, the golden houses of Cyril Connolly’s dreams. In an abandoned mill-house by a steeply flowing tributary of the Lot, we found the miller’s cobwebbed coats still hanging on the nails where they hung them when they left, or died. Eel traps and bee skeps littered the baking loft. In a channel cut in the stone kitchen floor a small, clear leet still danced. Outside, cowbells clanked like a prison riot and in a lean-to shed was enough kindling to keep the damp out of the place for another winter. Here in this chestnut valley we Cicadas honoured Montaigne, the presiding genius of Connolly’s magic circle, by idling on the sandy riverbank for days, observing metallic green shield beetles browsing on the big white flowers of umbellifers, and regularly submerging ourselves in a small swimming pool we had constructed by damming the torrent with stones. We used to sit about on the rocks there reading, as Shelley did in a Tuscan woodland pool where he reports bathing in the summer of 1818 in a letter to his friend Thomas Love Peacock:
‘The water of this pool … is as transparent as the air, so that the stones and sand at the bottom seem, as it were, trembling in the light of noonday. It is exceedingly cold also. My custom is to undress and sit on the rocks, reading Herodotus, until the perspiration has subsided, and then to leap from the edge of the rock into this fountain – a practice in the hot weather exceedingly refreshing.’
On another occasion two of us found an abandoned fishing punt somewhere upstream of Beaulieu on the Dordogne, recaulked and tarred it by the riverside, improvised some rough-hewn paddles and set off downstream on a voyage that lasted several days with our damp belongings lashed with baling twine into a plastic fertilizer bag. Returning south the following year, we raised the sunken boat from the river bottom, baled it out with a baked bean can, and continued the voyage downstream, eventually abandoning it to subside again into the riverbed.
Like any serious addiction, my need to go south kept on deepening over the years. I had to go further. I followed the swallows across the Pyrenees into Spain, then on into Morocco, past the Atlas mountains, to the beginnings of the Sahara. Here I experienced the local Berber techniques of hitchhiking from the motorist’s point of view. Driving a Renault Four towards the little town of Tafraoute in the Anti-Atlas mountains, my ten-year-old son and I were halted by a tortoise in the road. Springing out to rescue it, we discovered it was attached by a string around one hind leg to two small boys hidden behind a rock. They demanded a lift and as we drove towards their village they slyly smacked their lips and explained how very much they were looking forward to enjoying the little reptile for dinner. My son duly expressed a desire to rescue it, and having paid over a hefty ransom in Polo mints and fruit gums, we eventually settled into room eleven at the Hotel Redouane in Tafraoute with our new companion. We fed it on lettuce and tomato, and eventually released it in the remotest desert place we could find, far away from boys or roads.
Travelling thousands of miles on such serial migrations, one builds up a cumulative debt of gratitude to one’s hosts, and it is always good to find the opportunity to pay some of it off now and again. One Easter in the mid-sixties, I travelled south with a friend to the Camargue and the great festival of nomads at Les Sainte Maries de la Mer. Thousands of gypsies had gathered from every corner of Europe for the annual celebration of the miraculous landing on the shore near the little town of the three Saint Marys on their storm-tossed voyage from the Holy Land. On the first evening, after enthusiastically joining in the festivities I went for a stroll under the stars and fell into the Rhone, fully clothed and wearing an overcoat. The current was strong and the water deep and muddy. I clambered out somehow and made my way back to the hotel, where my companion had already sensibly retired for the night. I stood fully clothed in the shower to wash off the mud, then crept up to the flat roof above, undressed, and laid out my clothes to dry in the next morning’s sun. I also solemnly laid out all the ten-franc notes from my pockets in the stillness of the night and retired to bed. Early next morning, a sea breeze arose, swirling my francs into the air above the streets, distributing them from the heavens amongst the gypsies, who must have thought it another miracle, as banknotes and swallows wheeled above them.