Paying Attention

I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me. My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.

Hermann Hesse,

By day four, the worst of the storm had passed but it was still overcast and grey. I cooked up my rainwater porridge and started to try to dry my clothes in the early morning sun. I sat my meditation and collected my thoughts. I suspect I might be unhinged. What was I doing? Wouldn’t I be better off in an office or on a sofa stroking a cat? I’d only just got up and I was already knackered. My shorts, t-shirt, socks and shoes were soaking. But there was no point staying there, so I moved on.

I rode the 3km into Estrée Blanche. The steep hill out of the village towards the café on the edge defeated me. If I ever publish this, I thought, “No Shame in Walking” would make a good title. I was exhausted from yesterday, and my left leg was feeling the strain and stiffening, but I thought that if I could reach Arras I’d be doing well. Everything seemed heavier. I sat in the café weighing a small handful of heavy change in my hand. I can see why they call it ‘shrapnel’; burdensome metal. It comes to something when you want to throw away money to save weight – and it was still 55km to Arras.

The terrain was much the same as yesterday: a rod-straight road across a gently undulating plain of wide, windswept and featureless fields with no shelter from the wind. By 3.30pm, Arras looked out of reach. I stopped at Le Auberge Virginie, a small roadside restaurant set within a row of terraced houses, where a precocious three-year-old with baby-blonde curly hair and a very curious nature insisted on showing me her collection of dolls, her make-up case and her collection of clothes hangers. Her parents, who ran the restaurant, kept apologising for her but I said it was no problem.

DSCN0489It seems much easier to communicate with kids because their language is simpler and they articulate more clearly. And they are used to having things explained to them in simple terms so they naturally do that for others. When I was on my way back overland from India in 1985 I’d visited some Austrians I met in Goa, but I spent half my time playing with a six-month-old baby. When one of my hosts asked me why I was so preoccupied with the kid, I said “We have a lot in common: I don’t speak German and neither does he.”

Almost as soon as I set off, I felt the road surface shudder up through the front rim to the handlebars as another puncture interrupted things. A tiny thorn from last night’s woodland camp had worked its way through the tyre and took quite a while to find and extract. A new tyre in Arras, to put an extra couple of millimetres between the road and the tube, was definitely now the priority.

After an hour of pedalling, I needed to stop again. My right ankle was suffering, and my feet were consumed by intense burning, my left leg was coping. Weather warm and a slight, shimmering sun, but  no let-up from the rag-damp north-westerly tearing at my right shoulder. At that angle, it was almost helpful. Almost. I was beginning to develop my rhythm, learning not to push too hard but not get impatient with the slow progress. On slopes, I’d push harder with my right leg to rest my left.

In the distance, over to the north-east, lay Vimi Ridge where, in just three days in April, 1917, as many as 10,000 Canadian and German men, most under 21, killed each other by any means they could. A large swathe of land there is now a memorial park. You can visit the reconstructed and sanitised trenches and even buy souvenir shell-cases.

DSCN0494Looming out of the distance on the left, came a ghost-like, yet familiar monster: a 40 metre water-tower  swooping skyward like a mutant mushroom with an upside-down cap. I remembered it from my first ride and I found reassured my sense of place and time. It was brightly painted, just as it had been before, in abstract blotches of orange, white, and pale blue and brown. Swooping unknown shapes; perhaps white ranges of clouds and doves, perhaps some rural Rorschach but, to me, the interesting thing was that it was painted at all. So few things are in England, and this was almost psychedelic. It was also the subject of one of the 36 photos I took on my little Kodak instamatic in 1984.

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Therein lay another huge difference between the rides: this time round I’d already taken 36 photos before I’d reached it, and would go on to take another 1,700 before I’d see Athens, all stored on a piece of grey plastic the size of my thumbnail. And I could see them instantly without the four day wait and the two trips to Boots, only to find you have only three decent shots on the roll.

I finally pitched up about 10km from Arras. More or less the same area as last time – except I couldn’t remember where I had camped last time, just the water tower. I was regretting not organising my journal better. But was it really a bad thing? This was definitely a different journey.

In his dharma talks, Goenka points out that you can cross the same river twice in the same place, but it’s not the same river. Every molecule of water will be different. I may be following the same pencil-thin line across France as last time, but it’s not the same France and it’s not the same me. Although it did seem to be the same water tower and that accounted for my relief at seeing it. Some things remain or, at least, change much more slowly than others.

I’d begun to notice how deserted the area felt. In pock-marked village terraces strung along the roads, it was plain to see that one in ten of the houses were empty. There was no-one in the fields, which made them seem bleak and desolate and, apart from the little girl in the restaurant, I’d seen no children at all. They must have the same trouble with keeping village schools open as they do in England. With the young families leaving so they could live from rat-racing around working for insurance companies and all manner of urbanity.

I scrumped a big, crisp juicy apple from a roadside tree and was just settling down when Teresa phoned. She was having a tough time. Divorce is never easy, especially where money and other joint resources are concerned. And the thought that she was still having to sleep on the couch in her own home always grated with me. I wondered if Gary was right in going back to Suzi, whether relationships should always take priority over a selfish indulgence in adventure. I wasn’t enjoying it just at that moment. And the thought of the two or three day climbs to come over the Massif du Vercors and the Col du Larche was nowhere as near as romantic as it had seemed before I’d set off and experienced just how old and unfit I had become. Right then, I would have preferred to be the filling in a duvet pie with Teresa.

Eventually I crashed out. The night was cold. I slept through it but the phrase ‘well ventilated,’ as it said in the blurb that advertised the tent really meant ‘well draughty.’ I woke to the two sounds cycle-campers like the least: traffic and rain. A man in a white van cruised up to the fence of the industrial unit I’d camped next to. I squinted through the zip to keep an eye on him but he didn’t see anything that interested him much so went about his business, which was driving a big four-wheel-drive digger of some sort. The thing with wild camping is to keep out of sight. It’s always a balance between hospitality and hassle. The rain stopped while the porridge was on but the skies were still heavy and grey.

Once on the road, I found every bit of me was aching and tired. I needed a rest day. My legs were shot, my wrists ached, my shoulders were sore and my feet were still burning. But I was determined to get through Arras and get a new tyre before taking a day off. There was no logic to that, it was just a thought, a way of setting myself goals to keep going. I needed a bike shop and a swim or a shower. There was still air in the front tyre, at least.
I set off towards Arras and stopped at a café on the outskirts for morning coffee. I really appreciated the simple comfort of a proper chair and settled down to write up my log. A pattern for the weeks ahead was starting to emerge: an hour in the saddle, a coffee and write.

A man in his late thirties or early forties came in. He was dark-skinned with thick, wavy black hair and wearing a bomber jacket and jeans. He walked straight up to me, wished me “bon jour” and shook my hand. He then did the same with the three other customers and the woman behind the counter. It seemed it was his habit to shake hands with everyone. How very civilised it was. I’d never come across anything like it in England. The best you’d get from casual acquaintances is “’oright”, and this man was a complete stranger, yet completely welcoming.

I remembered, when I’d set off on my first trip, I’d been warned about the kind of indifference that the French seemed to be famous for. But the direct warmth of this customer’s humanity completely contradicted that stereotype. In total, I’ve probably spent three years travelling around in Europe and Asia and a pattern has become clear to me. Most nations have negative opinions of their neighbours, ‘the others’. When leaving India, I was warned about the Pakistanis; the Pakistanis warned me about the Iranians; the Iranians warned me about the Turks; the Turks warned me about the Greeks and so on. The worst example had been leaving Belfast where the attitude of the local loyalists towards the people of the south was nothing short of hate-riddled racism. A notable exception had been the Czechs and Slovaks, many of whom still had a nostalgic fondness for their previously united country. Those I’d spoken to about it claimed it was purely the ego of a Slovak politician, Vladimír Mečiar, who wanted to run his own country and so stirred up differences that had led to the split ¬– once the ‘Velvet Revolution’ had cleared out the communists.

People seem to have an innate tendency or, at least, a common social conditioning that tends to insist we distinguish our own goodness by exacerbating the badness of ‘others’; we identify ourselves not only by who we are, but by who we are not. We cannot help but compare distinguishing features. Perhaps the most bizarre was being asked, later on in the south of France, on the second trip, whether I preferred salted or unsalted butter, as that was a clear distinction between good and bad taste to some people in the region. The simple fact is that there are only two sorts of people in the word: people who categorise people into two sorts and those who don’t.

It was during my second coffee that I began to feel email withdrawal. I wanted to find out what was going on in friendsville, update my blog and see if there was any news from my French students in Paris. My daily rituals were changing, adapting to the task in hand, but the inertia of previous habits of mind was resisting and protesting and demanding an outing on the internet.

The coffee was good and the little chocolates that came with it welcome, but my left eye and leg were aching. I thought about heading to Paris and calling it a day. Going home now would be good for my new relationship with Teresa, but I’d be left with the same sense of defeat and uselessness I’d left Radstock to get away from, and would have deserted myself in the same way as Gary had ditched me in ’84. But following the same road twice would make a better story.

A diversion to Limoge and my cousin’s insect museum, with a bed and a shower, now seemed like a great idea. On the first trip I didn’t take a rest day until I was south of St Quentin – two day’s ride away. I felt as though I was failing to “surrender gracefully the things of youth” by being so determined to carry on. But I’d been dreaming about repeating this trip for years, and I wasn’t about to let a stiff dose of reality get in the way.

Arras proved to be a breezy little town with a busy high street and a large medieval square just like the one I’d seen in Telc in the Czech Republic. It was made up of long lines of façades, each slightly different from the next, with an arched corridor in front of a row of shops on the ground floor, all arranged around a cobbled square. I love these places; they have a real hand-built, human quality about them that concrete and glass just don’t have.
In the town centre, I stopped a trio of swaggering, almost arm-in-arm gendarmes and was pointed towards a bike shop. Relieved, I bought a new front tyre and two spare tubes and was given a handful of free patches by the very tall, friendly and helpful shop guy; one of those stick-slender sporty types who make lycra look good. He also assured me my chainset was fine. More importantly, he let me borrow his track pump. I changed the tyre in the street outside the shop. I now had a front tyre fully inflated to 75psi. Although the new tyre didn’t seem much thicker than the old one, it looked tougher. The previous one must have been at least six years old and had taken me all across the Czech and Slovak Republics and over the High Tatras to Krakow. The bike felt better on the road, with the right pressure, but the double vision was troubling me as much as the persistent headwind. I could either look at the road just in front of me or sit bolt upright and close my left eye to get single vision.

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The road from Arras to Cambrai is as straight as a road can be, and that makes for monotonous cycling. The countryside was much the same flat plain and the sky the same windy grey. However, my anxiety had subsided just as the new tyre stayed inflated and the simplicity of a flat, straight road and a steady rhythm was gentle on my mind. Under these conditions, cycling can become meditative. You’re able to pay attention to your breathing and every bodily sensation without having to worry about missing a turning or struggling up a hill. I tried practicing vipassana on the move. It’s not the recommended method, you’re supposed to practice sitting cross-legged on the ground and in absolute silence, but what harm could it do?

I started to focus on the top of my head and pay attention to any sensation there, and then moved my attention down through my head, face and neck to my shoulders. I continued the routine down through my entire body and up again paying attention to every spot in turn, noticing heat, cold, itching, tingling, pain and even the absence of sensation. It’s a structured way of listening intently to your body which, after all, is where we all live and a place I’d been taking for granted for most of my life. The essential point is that you direct your mind to the various sensations that occur constantly but of which you’re not normally aware. By being conscious, or mindful, of how you direct your attention instead of passively allowing various twinges and itches to them drag your mind around after them as they demand its attention, you learn not to be so reactive to the vicissitudes of life. I was getting the knack of swimming – on a bicycle.

It was an illuminating exercise. I started to pay attention to the movement of every joint, even the knuckles of my toes. I could feel the pulse in my thigh and found I was timing my pedal strokes with my heartbeat. But, by the time I’d completed two full body-sweeps, the main sensation I was aware of was an emptiness in my stomach that needed to be filled. It’s best to listen to that one when you’re exercising hard.

I arrived at a small town that looked vaguely familiar yet unrecognisable. Here, or a ghost of here, I had come for bread before. For the first time I’d tried shopping with my schoolboy French and some tips from Joelle. I remembered the shop was on a corner, with two narrow glass doors painted pale blue and one of those old-fashioned brass bells on a spiral spring that rang when the door opened. A kindly-faced woman with a big bun of grey hair and a floral pinny had greeted me with a cheery “Bon jour!”, but then said something else I didn’t comprehend.

She’d recognised me as foreign immediately.
“Allemand?” she enquired, prodding a finger in my direction and frowning.
“Non, je suis Anglais,” I said, in my best accent.
Her mood lifted immediately.
“Ah, Anglais!” she exclaimed, and raised her palms skywards and then patted her cheeks and tilted her head to one side in a happy smile. From her age, I guessed she must have been a child during the war and that would account for the difference in attitude towards the English and the Germans.

I pointed at a small white crusty loaf and mumbled “celui-ci, s’il vous plait.”
“Celui-ci se? Une?” she asked, holding up one finger.
“Oui, merci,” I nodded. She picked up the loaf and wrapped it in paper. I felt triumphant. I’d just had my first real shopping conversation in French. But when she gave me the price, I didn’t understand a word, so I just held out my handful of change and let her help herself. Then she headed towards the door in a bustle of excitement saying “Attendez, attendes. Une minute, une minute.”

I was pretty sure I was supposed to wait a minute but had no idea what for. She dashed out of the shop and hurried off down the street. I stood looking at all the cakes and buns, enjoying the smell and the charm of the place and wondered what was going on. Two minutes later, she returned with an entourage of half a dozen schoolchildren, all in navy blue uniforms and white shirts and another woman in her forties in a tweed twin-set. They all crammed into the little shop. I was surrounded by a sea of small, silent, popping eyes all staring up at me, curious.

“Il est l’anglais, parler anglais,” said the baker. Nobody said a word.

Both women started to talk to the children at once. The kids looked at the women, then to me, then back to the women, then back to me again. Still not a word. So I jumped in with “Hello, how are you?” and “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” The kids just stared and giggled before a perplexed headteacher came to find out where everyone was, knocked on the window and the kids scuttled off again. No “parler anglais” today, then.
If that bakery was ever here, it was long gone now. In its place was a chain convenience store which, of course, was closed.

On the outside wall of the shop was a mural made up of painted ceramic tiles. In it, a baker in a flat cap with a traditional moustache and white apron was carrying a wicker basket full of loaves on his shoulder. In the background were two narrow doors painted pale blue. On the plate glass window of the shop was a large stuck-on picture of a wicker basket full of loaves. Someone was obviously trying to evoke the spirit of a traditional past.

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I pressed my face against the window and peered inside. The shop was modern and entirely fitted out in glass, plastic-covered wood-effect worktops and aluminium cabinets. Not a trace of wicker anywhere. The saddest thing was the two red and silver vending machines standing either side of the mural like mechanical sentinels, the one on the left selling bread, the other selling potatoes and advertising “Déliceux héritage de l’Artois.” It seems the delicious heritage of Artois now comes in pre-packed, 2kg polythene bags from a vending machine.

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When I shopped here before I’d gone to a little greengrocers and, because I only wanted one large potato, the shopkeeper had just given it to me. There’s absolutely no point in buying two kilos of potatoes on a bicycle trip and it was no longer possible to get just one, at least not here.

Even more startling was the shop next door, built as a concrete block extension to the old building. It was painted in bright red, orange and yellow and emblazoned all across in two-foot high white letters was the legend Friterie Pao, and it sold chips, burgers and kebabs. It was almost the same as the kebab shop round the corner from my house, the Radstock Grill. The same counter, the same products and the same colour photos of the fast food on offer. On this trip, I was to discover that the homogenisation of Europe is well advanced; you can get a doner kebab of an almost identical nature in any town from Radstock to Naphlion – European standard nosh.

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I pedalled off, saddened by the modernity, and back on the road to Bapaume. Just down the road, I came across the first of many war memorials. But this wasn’t a WWI memorial, it was to the French soldiers who died in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. It seems this area has been a favourite place for fighting for many years.

DSCN0512The next town on the horizon was Bapaume, a quaint and friendly little town. I popped into a bar advertising Kronenbourg and calling itself ‘Le Tonic’, which made me laugh, and asked the barman to fill up my water bottle. He asked me if I wanted a beer, I said no and mimed a wobbly cyclist, which made him laugh.

A few hundred yards down the road, I saw a small brown sign pointing the way to the Australian cemetery and decided to take a look.

Bapaume is on the northern edge of the Somme where, in just five months, a million men were killed or injured making it one of the bloodiest slaughters in human history. As Harry Patch, one of the last survivors says, it was “organised mass murder.” The cemetery itself is tiny and beautifully kept, holding the graves of a hundred Australians (about an hour’s worth) from the Pioneers and about fifty Germans who weren’t mentioned on the signpost although, in all, only eighty-seven men had been identified and named on headstones. The rest were just bits.

??????????I was moved to tears. I couldn’t help it. Grief and regret and some kind of survivor guilt just bubbled up from my stomach, grabbed me by the throat and squeezed tears from my eyes. It was a real surprise. I’ve have no real connection with WWI. I’ve never known anyone who fought in it and I’ve never studied it, but something about the very smallness of the cemetery made it all seem so much more personal than the huge acreages of cemeteries I was to come across later. It seemed surreal to me that men from a country with such a happy-go-lucky culture and one of the sunniest places on Earth ended up six feet under its surface on the other side of the planet. It’s places like this where Warren Farrell’s book about the disposability of men, The Myth of Male Power, tolls true like a great bronze bell ringing down through history. Whatever the traumas and tragedies women have had to endure at the hands of men over the millennia, they’ve never been sent out to murder each other in such numbers or been considered so disposable. A hundred years ago, I would have been one of them. Willingly, too. I so badly wanted to join the tank regiment when I was 14. That was the connection. Those men are me; I am them. We are all one. I dried my eyes, read some of the inscriptions, took some photos and moved on.

I pitched up on the far side of town behind some woods feeling glad to be alive, unloaded the bike and gave it a good going over, including tweaking the front wheel bearings and spokes. Then I cycled back into town to do some food shopping. It was a real treat to whizz along without any luggage: it felt like those film clips you see of pit ponies being retired to pasture. I couldn’t believe how fast I could go without the baggage and how manoeuvrable the bike was in traffic, and it made me appreciate all the more how much work I’d been putting in. I scooted back from the shops to my little tent and made a simple stew of lamb, potato and carrot – because it’s good to keep things simple.

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As dusk fell, I washed-up in my plastic box, dried everything and packed it all away ready for the morning. Another essential practice to increasing happiness is not to drag the past around with you. This also applies to not leaving the washing up until the morning, polluting your new day with the remnants of the last.

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