Me and Michel Chapter Eleven

‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am on my way to see one of the natural wonders of Europe, it’s biggest sand dune, and a jewel in the crown of the Gironde region; Grande Dune du Pilat, sixty million cubic metres of sand, five hundred metres wide, two point seven kilometres long, rising up from the flat coastal plain to stand a hundred metres above sea level.

With more than two million visitors a year, despite the recent fires this year and the August holiday season reaching its end, I am sure I will not be alone on the massive dune. But as I chew up the miles, my mind wanders its own path, unfettered by reality, and I’m beginning to invent a cunning plan to beat the crowds and lay the groundwork for a very personal epiphany. I’m thinking to climb the dune in the evening, as late as regulations permit. I want to sit atop all that sand and watch the sun sink in the west over the ocean, and I want to invite a few friends to join me. I’m used to having a natter with Montaigne as I ride, but I’m now imagining a small group of notables, each of which in their own way has been there for me at critical times in my life when I’ve sought guidance and wisdom.

I am refining my guest list as I ride, but given the location and the short notice, it may be as well that everyone on the list is dead. This also means none are likely to be otherwise engaged and takes the pressure off the catering arrangements, which might well amount to little more than some bread and cheese and a few olives. I’ve had a definite yes from two invitees, three if you count my grandfather who was there for me at the roadside on Day One. Montaigne has no choice, given that he’s come this far and goes where I go. Odysseus, ditto. And given that he – or Homer, or both – love a good rosy-fingered dawn or dusk, I think he’ll find the view spectacular after so long riding the coastal plain at sea level.

There is someone else I would very much like to come, a well known man who lived for many years in a place called Plum Village, that happens to be just down the road from Montaigne’s home. His name is Thích Nhất Hạnh, the most famous Buddhist monk and Zen master in the world. He wrote many books and became a global spiritual leader, a man who lived a simple life surrounded by nature, with his acolytes around him, retaining his precious humility right up until his death, only a short time ago. I shouldn’t be greedy, but I’m tempted to ask Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius if they can make it. I read that in the nineteen-twenties, funeral urns from ancient times were discovered in the sand, and given the dune’s vantage point on the vast ocean and the setting sun, I think the spiritual and mythic qualities of the place will be a draw for each of my guests, all in their own ways.

There is a glaring gender bias in my guest list. But if this little soirée smacks of locker rooms and drinking parties, I can only say there have been very significant women in my life who been there for me in critical times, and in a much more tangible way. Grandmother, mother, sister, my two daughters and those partners who’ve shared time with me, for example. All have provided guidance and wisdom, and above all love, at a very practical level, where my boy’s own club have tended to be there for me on paper only.

I am also open to charges of bias in choosing only dead men. Here, my reasoning fails. The excuse that I am fearful at the prospect of my own death doesn’t altogether hold water, though knowing these guys are making their way from the afterlife to join me in a light repas atop the dune does something to calm my fears.


I wonder if some part of my brain didn’t invent my fantasy repas as a distraction to stop me thinking about Phil, because he’s been much in my mind, especially today. As I cycle along the unchanging path, he is sitting in a clinic with a drip that feeds a concoction of chemicals directly into his veins through a surgically implanted ‘junction box’ in his left shoulder, close to his neck. This will be his fourth and last round of chemotherapy before the operation. We agreed when we spoke there was no option but to surrender one’s body to these experts and put your trust in them to know what they’re doing and to do it well.

I like doctors, dentists less so, but I do like doctors, though it’s fair to say I try to avoid seeing them in their professional capacity whenever possible. When I do go to see the local GP, I never whinge and I’m always clear and concise in describing my symptoms. I’m frank about the conclusions I’ve reached myself, referring to precedent in my medical past. And when I hint at treatments, I’m always respectful and tentative, never precluding possibilities the doctor’s training and experience might throw up. In effect, I see our brief five or ten minutes together as an open debate between equals. That is my opinion, though I freely acknowledge the doctor may have a second opinion, so I don’t advertise the idea too openly.

As a boy, I was given a microscope. I began by looking at bugs to reveal the tiny hairs on their legs, or their compound eyes with hexagons that stared back at me unblinking, in lurid purples and reds. I graduated to cutting thin slices of heart tissue or the lens from a cow’s eye. My mother bought bits of offal back from the butchers for me, and no doubt hoped that suggesting I become a doctor was the lesser of many possible evils that might spring from my ghoulish obsession.

My mother believed I should have become a doctor, but a lack of aptitude for maths or chemistry at school put paid to that ambition. And if not a doctor, she said, then anything in the caring professions. ‘What about a chiropodist?’ she said to me once, ‘People always need their feet done. Its good regular work.’

Poor old Michel had a very different attitude to doctors, very likely based on his very different experience of the practitioners of his own day. Almost every mention of medical professionals in the Essais, and there are quite a number, are derogatory, suspicious, and downright rude. He goes so far as to ask why, if they’re so good at healing people, do their own lives show no more ‘felicity or duration’ than our own. Here’s an example, again from On Experience:

‘…doctors take advantage; when they have you at their mercy, they cudgel your ears with their prognostics; and having once surprised me, weakened with sickness, injuriously handled me with their dogmas and magisterial fopperies — one while menacing me with great pains, and another with approaching death — … ’tis always agitation and combat.’

Times have changed, thank goodness, but having said that, all the advances in medicine put together are still not quite enough – for me, and I’m sure Phil too – to live without fear of all that could go wrong.

Montaigne shared the same weakness. In his essay, On Imagination, he says:

‘…the very sight of another’s pain materially pains me, and I often usurp the sensations of another person. A perpetual cough in another tickles my lungs and throat…I take possession of the disease I am concerned at, and take it to myself…’ 

My hypochondria reared its ugly head again recently, and in the worst of all possible circumstances. I can only thank the gods that friendship came to my aid, allowing me to be forgiven and more important still, to forgive myself.


Life and Covid meant that Phil and I had not met in person for five years when I decided to hop a plane on impulse, or maybe instinct, to see my old friend. That was the trip when the day I left I confidently predicted indigestion. With the diagnosis of cancer confirmed, the least I could do was to go back down to where he lives in the countryside between Nimes and Montpellier, and look him in the eye. If I felt like a fool, I felt worse still when it became clear I’d brought a Covid infection with me, probably picked up in the overcrowded airport. I got it first, and he got it from me. For a week, we were both brought low.

As we each slowly recovered from the virus, it was clear Phil didn’t want to talk much. Nor would I in his situation, so we busied ourselves with chores in his building that required two people and tried to avoid thinking about what was to come. We had both been feeling our age in recent years, long before the cancer. I’d had acid reflux symptoms for years, just as Phil had, and I’d ignored them or taken some pills to calm things, just as Phil had. I’d cut down on spicy food, tomatoes, wine, all the usual suspects, just as Phil had. But the more I understood the jeopardy my oldest friend in the world was facing, the more – to my shame – my gullet began to hurt in a way I was not at all sure it had hurt before now. There was no reason to panic, and of course I said nothing to him. What could I say?

When I got home, I kept my own counsel for obvious reasons. I was sure that if I just waited and stopped worrying, I’d be fine. Only the pain didn’t go away. It got worse, to the point where I decided that I might have to check out what was going on. The coincidence might be vanishingly unlikely, but that fact alone did nothing to reassure me.

To say I was mortified – and still am – is to wholly understate the case. But despite feeling terrible, and because he is my oldest friend, I called Phil. He took it all in his stride. He didn’t berate me, or laugh at me. He said I should go ahead and check it out. He said he wished he had done the same a year ago. That’s maybe what friends do, but still I was humbled and decided the only thing I could do, was follow his advice.

The first thing I said to the doctor was that I had confession to make. She looked worried, as if I may have committed a crime or a violent act. And in a sense, she was right on both counts. She asked for me to detail the symptoms, and said there were no ‘red flags’ as far as she could tell from what I’d told her. She prescribed some pills to take for a month. ‘See if that helps,’ she said, ‘If not, we can think about a camera investigation.’

To date, the pills seem to have worked. I don’t know why I get to take some medication and my friend gets to face the surgeon’s knife, but all I am sure of is the only way for me to bury my shame and be a good friend, is to be there for him whenever he needs me.

It was a friendship with a man a few years older than himself that became probably the most important relationship in Montaigne’s life. It was the death of that friend, Etienne La Boétie, that could be said to have precipitated his retreat from the outside world to the relative seclusion of his study and so in time, gave us the Essais.

Montaigne inherited La Boétie’s library and it’s perfectly possible to conceive of the Essais, not simply as the writer in dialogue with himself, but as a conversation between two friends, one metaphorically ‘surrounded’ by the other if you count La Boétie’s books on Montaigne’s shelves as more than metaphor. When Montaigne talks about his experience of ‘infinite loss’ on a journey without a like-minded companion, he was no doubt thinking about La Boétie, a man he knew for only five years in total, but someone who had had the most profound impact on his life and mind:

‘If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say…I think ’twas by some secret appointment of heaven.’

Phil and I were not brought together by any heavenly power, but by happenstance. I was at Kent University when we met. Phil was drumming and making music but in a bored, peripatetic way. He was bright enough for any university in the country, but wary of conforming. For a while, we shared digs and spent many happy hours, smoking and waiting for the dawn to come up back in the day as we planned the revolution. Then we would trudge along the seafront, collars turned up against the cruel north wind that comes straight off the sea from the arctic on that coast, before settling down to a full English at Macari’s coffee shop, windows dripping with condensation.

We’ve now known each other for almost fifty years, and he’s lived in France for more than thirty of those years, having fallen in love with a French woman he met in London and followed to her home country. I went to his wedding with my then-wife, and commiserated when he got divorced, just as he listened to me wail when my own marriage fell apart and I took my daughters to stay with him for a few weeks and we both became single dads. We’ve all been back many times since, and I spent a year living with him and helping with the building work before I became my mother’s carer. My car is still rotting in the garden of his farmhouse. My guitar is there too. The camera I left behind when I had to race back to sit by my dying father’s bedside, broke long ago, and he tells me he wore my new pair of Birkenstocks until they fell apart. He sounded almost aggrieved when he told me, and for a brief moment, I had the absurd thought that I should replace them for him. That idea didn’t last very long.

Ancient history now, but the point is that certain coincidences, nothing out of the ordinary, and a series of life events that are common to us and to many of our contemporaries, have served to bind Phil and I rather loosely together. We are very different people, though we’ve fought similar battles and suffered similar defeats. I wouldn’t like to say which of us is more sour about the world, but we both still enjoy a good rant. And yet, despite living in different countries and quite distinct cultures, despite the many differences between us as personalities, we have kept in touch, almost by accident. There is not the intensity to our relationship as there clearly was for Montaigne and La Boétie, but sheer longevity has made us by default, close in a distant kind of way, and so de facto guardians of each other’s histories.

Which is why tonight, on the evening after his final chemo session, when I know he’ll be feeling pretty shitty, I’ve finished my meal at the campsite restaurant, and found myself a place where I can sit and talk with him by phone undisturbed.

‘Hey,’ I say when he finally picks up, ‘it’s me. How are you?’