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.