Self Portrait at the Station Feeling Bad
Leaving Calais early but sick – one of those sweating ache-ridden fevers that keeps you one quarter awake all night – I’m struck that 399 years ago today Coryat walked 25 miles to Boulogne along the coast, though he writes it is only 17. Perhaps his map was better. I’m not sure I can make it in this condition. Yesterday afternoon, after posting, I slept and sweated and Coryat-at-sea’d through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (no suspense: it being the one when the writer done it), news, a cop show, a history of CCTV, news, a French film about a nymph terrorised by the internet so much she lost most of her clothes and kept cutting her hair, and finally Newsnight.
I’m still in the satellite dish-path of Southern England, it seems.
One story I consumed at some time last night lodged in my mind. A building society employee in Sussex has gone missing; is believed to have taken the Dover Calais ferry on Monday (like me) with her Peugeot, and she’s now on the run in France. Also missing is a large – rumoured over £100,000 – amount from her building society. “Sara”, naturally, has a MySpace page. Perhaps we met, or will meet in the coming days. She is 23 and is in search of Mister Right, she explains on her website.
At least she has a dowry now.
The problem is that I’m not sure if this story is part of last night’s dream-state, a slice of Agatha Christie, Holby Blue or some other drama – or a criminal reality. I think that illness and confusion often come on like this, as travel begins, that there is a certain relaxing of the body after the thick tension of departure. It happens on my holidays; it has happened here as well. Walking this morning is like being at altitude, and on a Dal and Yak Himalayan Diet.
Sixty seven years ago this month 3000 Brits and 800 Frenchmen sacrificed their lives here in Calais to allow Dunkirk to happen, keeping the German 69th Tank regiment busy just long enough for others to escape; one of the survivors of this defence was Airey Neave, later Margaret Thatcher’s campaign manager; later still a victim of the IRA. Neave was captured and sent to Colditz but escaped and set up something called MI9. Murky spy-stuff, networks through Europe to fight first the Nazis, and later the Soviets. Some say Neave was behind a plot to assassinate Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, in the mid seventies; others that Neave was just “connected”. He took confessions – or not – at the Nuremberg trials. One of the old-school English men we don’t see at all these days.
I walk the coast almost as far as Sangatte, the one-time camp for “visitors”, without seeing any of the “immigrants” who are so frightening the British Home Office and the Daily Telegraph:
France has promised John Reid that it will not allow a new camp for British-bound illegal immigrants to develop in Calais, the Home Office said today. The Home Secretary and his French counterpart Francois Baroin have agreed they are opposed to “any type of centre” that could “encourage the trafficking of illegal immigrants”, according to a spokesman.The pair met in London today after charities have been given permission to provide food and washing facilities at a single site in Calais. It prompted fears that the centre could become a second Sangatte, reviving the controversial camp that was closed in 2002 after lengthy negotiations.
Over three years, 67,000 asylum seekers used the camp as a waiting room to hide on lorries or jump aboard slow-moving freight trains before they crossed the Channel Tunnel. Reports suggest smuggling gangs are already targeting those at the new centre.
But that is it, I’m faint: and not going to make it. In fact the only begging I see all day is up-market in designer sweater and trainers, back at the railway station, hours later, when I’ve turned around and admitted temporary walking defeat.
Coryat was not so much a culture hunter as a classical sleuth. He liked churches and inscriptions best – and opportunities to denounce the Catholics (sometimes so hard it feels forced, protesting too much to keep his Royal Patron happy).
There are two Churches in this towne, to the greatest whereof I went on Whitsun-Day, [Or Pentecost, this year May 17th] where I saw their Masse (but not with that superstitious geniculation, and elevation of hands at the lifting up of the consecrated Wafer-cake, that the rest used) and many ceremonies that I never saw before. This amongst the rest: about the middle of their Masse there was an extreme crackling noise from a certain hollow place in the vault of the middle of the Church. This is the same place, as I take it, where they let up and downe their Bels. After the noyse there was powred downe a great deal of water, immediately after the water ensued a great multitude of Wafer-cakes, both white, redde and yellow: where ceremony was done to put them in minde of cloven tongues that appeared that day of Pentecost to the Apostles in Hierusalem…
… Also I saw their mutilated Sacrament, whereof I much heard before. For I saw the Priest minister the Sacrament to the lay people under one kind only, namely that of bread, defrauding them of the Wine, contrary to the holy institution of Christ and his Apostles, and the ancient practice of the Primitive Church, which was ever continued from age to age till the time of Alexander the third of that name Pope, who about the time of Fridericus Barbarossa, Anno 1170, began to deprive the Laity of the other part of the Sacrament.
The high Priest being in very rich copes, went abroad in Procession round about the Church-yard, after one of their Masses was done (for that day many Masses were said in Church) having a rich silver Crosse carried before him, and accompanied with many that carried silke banners and flags after a very Ethnicall and prophane pompe.
The train to Bolougne is in two hours, so I visit the Museé des Beaux-Arts in search of my white-haired man from Dover. No sign, of course. Just like my Building Society robber. Though there is a “Viell Homme” by Picasso. Perhaps the painting comes to life in the presence of French people: it’s not one of Picasso’s best.
There are some good fighting rabbits though, by Barry Flanagan, once a pupil of Anthony Caro.
I write more about the Museum and Calais later.