Death is all around... only in the graveyards is the grey defied
THESE November mornings the shutters no longer open to that blast of heat that wilts the plants and bakes the land to cracked stone.
Instead of a cobalt blue sky, a haze of heat shimmering the horizon, there is just grey – dank, pinpointed grey that penetrates both clothes and soul.
Most days the parc is eerily shrouded in mist. Sometimes I can see no further than the fig tree near the entrance of Cesar’s compound.
The frelon trap, now empty of its hornet-enticing beer, swings forlornly on its branches, a swaying repository of dried-out insect bodies.
Other days the fog ends at the beginning of my land, obliterating the crossroad with its two single-track roads to the same destination – Lavit.
As the last of the leaves fall, turning and winding in a final bright candle of colour, there is once again a pounding sense of the cycle of life.
Birth, growth, death – year after year; obeying a tune we hear but faintly, and as humans turn quickly from, unwilling, unable, to face our own mortality.
But one cannot be insulated from destiny in La France Profonde. Death is all around this melancholic month, starting with All Souls, or Halloween.
Only in the graveyards is the grey defied. Huge pots of chrysanthemums are placed at almost every tomb, brought by the families in remembrance.
For days before, supermarkets, village shops and florists have had these monstrous heads on sale in yellows, oranges and the favourite, purple. But we’ve moved on now. Toussant – All Saints – is over and all are ready for the coming solemnity of Armistice Day.
It is not hard on these mornings to conjure up visions of young men seeing similar mist from their First World War trenches before launching themselves into oblivion. Books and films in our graphic age have fleshed them out for us, or so we believe. Even those fast-trotting moving pictures have been slowed and colourised until we are surprisingly jolted into the realisation of dear, familiar – human – faces.
Faces like ours: or rather faces of men; desperately young men, marched from villages such as those all around me. They banter; they jostle each other like naughty schoolboys, share a clope (fag) and often are shown tending to the weary horses equally ripped from farm and smallholding.
Some gently cradle a tiny kitten as if in its heartbeat they will find a way back home. We contemplate both boy and kitten and their undoubted, dreadful fate. We contemplate from the momentary seat of life.
We need to focus on the singular. The scale of numbers is in truth beyond comprehension.
In France alone 1.3 million mobilised men were slaughtered; 4.2 million were wounded and 537,000 were listed as POWs or missing.
Only Russia suffered worse deaths and injuries. They were drawn from the land – country boys whose lives were curtailed by village boundaries and expectations.
Some race memory may have hardened them to battle, for France has been the crucible of war since man first walked. Invaded, conquered, prized and routed, she has sacrificed her bewildered children generation after generation.
Since coming here I have been drawn to the squares or corners in even the tiniest hamlets where the memorials show a version of the same stone soldier.
Always small, head bowed, hands resting on rifle, he has a tired resignation and, I fancy, recognition of his fate, unlike the heroic facades of many UK monuments.
And then, as I became acquainted with my neighbours, I saw their names repeated over and over in the memorial tablets beneath those sad figures. Those same names will be carried tomorrow by those who will gather on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Our sashed mayors will read out the names, and children will do similar. They are taught in school, from their first years, of their history – their local history, their forebears. Their story – their place in this world.
All in town or village will be invited to the mayoral parlour or village hall to toast those who died and tales will be told family to family of those who returned and those who didn’t.
The splendid remembrance service in Paris is immaterial here where all is personal, very personal, and nothing is forgotten.
With populism – fascism by any other name – seemingly rising worldwide, I cling to this ceremony as hope that all is not lost; memory will not be eradicated even though in this centenary there is not one soul alive in France who was there.
It is particularly poignant this bruit year but I don’t intend to labour the reasons why. If you don’t understand why our common union has kept peace and changed the destiny of our ever-warring lands, there is no hope for you.
Meanwhile, after the morning mists there is usually a raising come early afternoon. It starts with the dim outline of the sun behind the grey and, bit by bit, almost like a magician pulling the tablecloth, it has gone.
Voila! The melancholy lifts, as do the spirits. And one is reminded once more: there is always hope.
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PICTURE: ANGUS BREMNER