Wil­fred De’ath

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

Friends are al­ways ask­ing me, ‘Why do you spend so much time in France?’ I am go­ing to try to an­swer them…

There is a scene in An­thony Pow­ell’s great se­quence of nov­els, A Dance to the Mu­sic of Time, when the mys­tic Mrs Erdleigh tells the hero, Ni­cholas Jenk­ins, ‘You must try to un­der­stand life bet­ter.’

That, I sup­pose, is why I love France. It helps me to un­der­stand life a lit­tle bet­ter.

There is a sec­ondary rea­son, which is that I suf­fer badly from self-ha­tred. In France, this di­min­ishes a lit­tle. As soon as the Brit­tany Fer­ries ship docks at Ouistre­ham, near Caen, af­ter an all-night cross­ing, I be­gin to like my­self a lit­tle more – not much, but a lit­tle.

I am writ­ing this on a train be­tween Tours and Li­mo­ges. Two charm­ing girl em­ploy­ees of the SNCF have just ac­cepted my Bri­tish se­nior rail­card, which gives me a 50 per cent re­duc­tion on the cost. Since rail fares in France are much lower, I am trav­el­ling for al­most noth­ing. The girls know per­fectly well that the Bri­tish se­nior rail­card is not re­ally ac­cept­able, but they do not want to trou­ble a poor old man of 81.

Can you imag­ine a guard on, say, South­ern Rail, let­ting a French jour­nal­ist get away with the French se­nior rail­card? (I have not both­ered to get one be­cause it in­volves too much French bu­reau­cracy.)

Some­times the con­troller no­tices the Bri­tish cars and we be­come in­volved in a dis­cus­sion about what used to be called the Com­mon Mar­ket. We all agree that Brexit is a ter­ri­ble mis­take.

Here in Li­mo­ges, I have trou­ble find­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion. The ho­tels are too ex­pen­sive, and the foyer, where I have of­ten stayed in the past, now only ac­cepts im­mi­grants in a fu­tile at­tempt to in­te­grate them into French so­ci­ety. So I am forced to sleep un­der a tree in the lit­tle park in the front of the rail­way sta­tion, the Gare Béné­dictins. This com­pares favourably with the cock­roach­in­fested bed­sit that Cam­bridge city coun­cil thought ac­cept­able for me. Sleep­ing un­der a tree is fine as long as the good weather lasts and if I man­age to avoid the wa­ter sprin­klers.

There is a restau­rant in Li­mo­ges, La Bonne Assi­ette, which of­fers a free pe­tit dé­je­uner of cof­fee and stale bread. There were 17 of us this morn­ing; no other English­men – not even any French­men. The rest were ei­ther Arabs or Ethiopi­ans. They do a good lunch (soup, smoked salmon, sar­dines, cheese, fruit) for only €1.50.

But, my dear, the com­pany! Tony Pow­ell, who was, let’s face it, a bit of a snob, would not have felt at home here, and it would cer­tainly not have helped him un­der­stand life!

Last night, I was lucky enough to catch the end of a Mass at St Pierre, the main church of Li­mo­ges. It calmed me down and helped me come to terms with my death, which I be­lieve to be im­mi­nent.

As the great ex­is­ten­tial philoso­pher Martin Hei­deg­ger wrote: ‘If I take death into my life, ac­knowl­edge it, and face it squarely, I will free my­self from the anx­i­ety of death and the pet­ti­ness of life and only then will I be free to be­come my­self.’

Be­ing in France en­ables me to do this.

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