Me and Michel Chapter Nineteen

‘The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.’

 Paul Valery


I am one hundred metres above the sea, and like a hovering bird, I can see for miles and miles, or kilometres and kilometres. And after so long on the flatlands of the coastal plain at only bicycle elevation, save for that one memorable night on the dune, the view is exhilarating.

Behind me, one point five kilometres of the Viaduc de L’île d’Oleron, the immensensely impressive arc of a bridge from the mainland, snakes eastward to the horizon and beyond. That’s the ascent I’ve just made to reach the apex, where I’m standing now.

About the same distance stretches ahead of me to the west. In a few minutes I will be coasting all the way down the gentle slope of the bridge to île d’Oleron, France’s largest Atlantic island at thirty kilometres long and eight kilometres wide.

From this elevation I can see the Gironde estuary, the way I’ve come, and to the north the port city of La Rochelle and another island, île de Ré, clearly visible on the horizon. I know this area of old. I’ve cycled here before and long, long ago, passed through on my honeymoon. Past and present collide on what is both the next step on my journey home and a chance to reflect and relax, until it’s time to catch the train to Paris.

It’s taken two days to get here from Montlivet, what with the car ferry across the Gironde and around sixty kilometres from Royan, where we docked, to where I am now on the bridge. I didn’t want to risk injuring myself any further and so I decided the better part of valour was to give my legs a break and overnight in a campsite. I’m glad to heading for my last stopover on this trip. It’s time to go home for all kinds of reasons, so it’s something of a joy to remount my trusty steed and begin coasting downhill towards Boyardville, my destination on the east coast of the island.

An hour later, and I’ve signed in at the same campsite I stayed in many years ago when, post divorce, I was going through another break up with a partner I loved and who loved me, giving us time to think things over. Which we did, only to conclude there was no future for us. There we go. I’ve found myself a pitch on a mound with trees around it that offer some boundary on a site that is otherwise wide open, if mostly deserted. I’m amongst the last to camp in a tent, though there’s a gaggle of camper vans I noticed beyond the shower block, close to the sea.

I clear the ground with some diligence and take my time placing the tent so my head will not lie lower than my feet and any and all rocks or pinecones are swept away. I’ve got four nights here before catching the train to Paris, and I want my last pitch in France will be as comfortable as I can make it. I’ve even got a chair. I found it in the recycling at the site, a folding chair with a broken arm that was discarded by someone who came before me. For the first time on this trip, I will be able to sit outside the tent and read or eat in comfort, and maybe just watch the world go by as I get some late summer sun.

Just as I’m settling in to my new chateau on a hill, Megs calls.

‘Kins!’ she said, ‘A little bird tells me you’re coming home. ‘

I say the rumours are true and reassure her that I’m ready. ‘I’ve done six or seven hundred kilometres all told, my darling, and I’m proud of my old legs, but it’s time to go home. I miss you guys and I owe my sister a break, but mostly, I just want a bed, a duvet and pillows.’

‘You’ve done so well, Pa, can’t wait to catch up.’

‘How are you my love?’

‘Work, work, work, you know the score. But there’s one bit of news, more a decision really, and I’d like your advice.’

‘What is it?’

‘It can wait, Dad, honestly, enjoy the time left there.’

‘You don’t get away with that. I’m intrigued. Is it good or bad news?’

‘Good, I think, who knows anymore? I might have a chance to go to Toulouse to study, and live I guess.’

‘That’s definitely good news, or great news, isn’t it?’

‘It is, I’m just trying to figure out what it means…’

‘It means change my darling, but I think it sounds great, and Toulouse, that’s Lot-et-Garonne. I’m thinking orchards!’

I spend the first of my days swimming in the cooling sea, having coffees in the town by the sea canal, and walking the beach. I am rediscovering the island with gentle bike rides through the interior and taking some photographs as I go. I am often shooting black and white in keeping with the atmosphere here. I’m riding on back roads that go from one small town to another through the mainly abandoned salt beds, some of which have been given over to oyster farming, the mainstay of the economy here after tourism.

Île d’Oleron is not, like its neighbour, île de Rè, a big draw for wealth Parisians looking to escape the city in the summer months. And whilst I’m sure hoards of tourists descend at the height of the season, especially since the bridge, at the fag end of summer there’s a forgotten feel to an island that marks the fringes of land and sea, one only barely distinguishable from the other and with almost no trees. The whole landscape is eerily featureless and entirely flat. I doubt it’s more than a few metres above sea level at it’s highest point, and much of the eastern and southern parts of the island are so covered in oyster beds as to be part of the sea. On the coasts too, oysters are farmed in beds marked by blackened crosses that resemble watery graveyards. There’s been an effort to restore the wooden huts used by the farmers to store gear and process the oysters, many of which are painted in all the colours of the rainbow, and would not be out of place at La Jenny.

The camera I have with me is – you guessed it – my phone, the very same phone I said I wouldn’t rely on to get me around. The irony is, that for me, the best thing about our phones, is the camera. And whilst I’d kill for Leica or A Fujifilm X Pro, phones have miniaturised the technology in an incredible way. One of the things I like about a camera – or a phone with a camera, or indeed a sketchbook – is that it encourages you to look and so to see, to notice and pay attention. And all of these recording methods allow you too to break the world down into it’s constituent aspects, and so to see in a different way, to see line and space, light and shade, and here on the island, earth and a huge sky.

I like photography for all these reasons. I like taking photographs and I love the images created by artists like Bob Willoughby, Brassai, André Kertész and Jacques Henri Lartigue, all of whom share an ability to capture the contingent and the fleeting with incredible intimacy. I like the documentary bias of the photograph, imagery without the intercession of an artist’s brushwork, capturing with an artist’s eye, but without the hand. I like the democracy of the photograph with its infinite capacity for reproduction, thwarting the silliness of the rich and powerful cliques that scrabble around the fine art market. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is valued at around $70 million, the Mona Lisa at $850 million. I can get a print of Bob Willoughby’s Audrey Hepburn, or Lartigue’s early muse, the supreme narcissist, Chou Valton, or Kertész’s wonderful Winterscene, timeless and spiritual, for a few thousand dollars. Not that I have ever had a few thousand dollars to spend on a photograph.

I’m taking photographs, but I’m not thinking about photography. With the conscious mind engaged in the landscape, I’m aware that my subconscious is once again gnawing on what it means to be a hero. Not because I want to slay dragons or lead armies, but because I’m going home, all too soon, and I will need courage to return to the life I left behind only five or six weeks ago. And I’ve been thinking especially about the people I left behind when I took to the road. My sister, for example, who has held the fort and taken care of our mother without my help and for my sake. I owe her the same privilege when I return. About Lilly and the courage I could hear in her voice when we spoke on the phone. She too is a hero in my eyes because I know she battles her demons as I do mine, and I will do all I can to help her get to Greece where I know the folk there will love her and encourage her to love herself. Megs is even now making decisions about her future that are hard and involved loss, and there’s Phil, counting down in days now and due to go into hospital, by some strange twist of fate, the day I catch the train to Paris and then to London. Heroes all.

I have a not terribly original theory that heroes are mostly invisible most of the time, and almost always the most ordinary of folk. The folk who take care of us when we’re sick, or teach our kids, or drive the buses we never catch because our luxury cars mean we haven’t caught a bus in years, or the carers who come to us every day to help care for my mum. And it’s not just the unsung heroes that work for others who show us how to live – better than all the philosophers of the ages put together in my opinion – it’s us, or it could be us, every day of our lives, with just a little thought, a little adjustment in the way we see the world and ourselves, and how we value others.

In an age of celebrity, wre have lost any clear notion of what it means to  be a hero, someone who give something back to their community. Instead, we have maudlin memoirs of marriage break ups and eating disorders, written by ghosts to sell books and keep flagging careers afloat. Self-pity has taken the place of self-sacrifice and we are worse off for having debased what it means to be a hero, not least because we trash the notion of service in the process.As the writer and philosopher of myth, Joseph Campbell put it:

‘A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something

bigger than oneself.’

The notion that the real heroes are often the least celebrated of mortals may well be considered banal. Maybe it was ever thus. Back in the day the Greeks and the Romans had their own heroes, many of whom I’m certain were capable of behaving every bit as badly as a footie star in Lambourghini with a stash of white powder in the glove compartment, but the expectation – the outward expectation – as far as my limited reading allows me to judge, was one of civic duty and responsibility.

In ancient Athens – which was a democracy for just two hundred years of its long history so we should keep what we read in proportion – only the rich paid tax and ostentatious displays of wealth were frowned upon. Houses were plain and simple, even the very rich adhered to a certain discretion. It was the rich who performed a special kind of public service called ‘leitourgia’ or liturgy. This might mean paying for and equipping a trireme – the Greek warships we’re familiar with from images of rows of oarsmen and fearsome prows used to ram the boats of their enemies, and it might mean leading their boat into battle. Mostly, it seems the rich welcomed the opportunity to serve their community and win glory in defence of Athens.

So does one have to be humble, to serve others in a useful capacity, as a nurse or a teacher, to work for the public good in order to be considered a hero? Am I talking about some kind of Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, or any other creed’s idea of a good life? The short answer is no. You don’t have to help others, or be a worker or be poor, but, yes, an iota of humility, some sense of the common good and some feeling for your fellow human beings, some sense that inequality is the root of all evil, especially the pernicious inequality of rich and poor, haves and have nots, is a plus. Everything, bar everything, that marks you out as special marks you out as separate, too. And separate, is alone, not better, and you can’t hide that fact behind the highest fences of gated communities and darkest of tinted window SUVs.

It is in our relationship with others and with the natural world that we find meaning and purpose, not in clicking ‘Likes’ or posting Photoshopped fantasies of ourselves. The Japanese philosopher, Watsuji Tetsurō, has coined a word, ‘betweenness’, for a way of being that encompasses not just human interactions, but also our relationship with nature and climate. He talks of a ‘space’ where ‘compassion arises,’ and we find our ‘home ground.’

Tonight, I’ll eat with Sylvie at the campsite catering van, as I did last night and the night before. She does the cooking and owns the van and we’ve become firm friends in just a couple of days. She has taken to giving me free deserts or an extra glass of wine, insisting she has to deplete her stock before driving home to the Ardèche. A season drawing to a close and two people waiting to go home sharing time together is betweenness in action, and if she insists I speak French only to tease me for my poor pronunciation, that’s part of it.

A very ordinary life, like mine, is also a very special life because it is a shared life. I’m beginning to remember that out here in the pines. It’s exhausting and sometimes it’s difficult to find the will to keep going, knowing there’s no plateau, no safe harbour, just the need to constantly adjust your course to take into account the wind and the sea and the tide of events, but to be so connected – in the human sense – is a form of ataraxia nevertheless.

And if from time to time, our courage deserts us or is all used up, as happened to me, and as happens to all of us at one time or another, we try again, inspired not just by all the philosophies of the ages, but by the everyday heroes who share our lives and show us how to be our own philosophers.