Besançon is the French capital of time so it was the right place for me to take some time and the right place to reflect on the time I was having.
I’m not doing any ‘sight-seeing’ as such. I’m just walking from one place to the next. However, I had a day in Besançon and I decided to visit the Time Museum.
The Time Museum
In 1900, 90% of the watches produced in France came from Besançon where, at the same time, they also built what was then the most complex watch in the world, the Leroy 01, with a movement containing 975 parts. They were up to speed with electric and atomic time but the undoing and collapse of Besançon’s place in time was its failure to respond to the arrival of quartz.
At the museum, I had the chance to observe the earth move because they have a Foucault’s pendulum. The plane of a swinging pendulum doesn’t change so if you see it swinging over a different part of a circle, it’s the earth moving, not the pendulum. I thought I’d have the patience but, no, the earth didn’t move for me.
All this led me to reflect on doing the walk. The daughter of one family I stayed with put it so succinctly when I told her I was walking to Rome: “Why?!”.
I suppose retirement and the onset of the third age had to be marked perhaps with the defiance of meeting a challenge but also with taking the opportunity of time off for good behaviour to have an adventure. What also captivated me was something to do with space and time. When I asked people how long they thought it would take me, I was surprised by how many thought just a few weeks. Me, I thought it was inconceivable, unachievable, beyond anything I could imagine in terms of either distance or time. I thought it couldn’t be done – no one could walk that far!
For a steadily moving object (me, if you like), time and distance are inter-changeable. We measure vast distances in light years. In a landscape of consistent, unremarkable features, I’m better off measuring the distance to the next left fork in the minutes it will take me rather than the metres I’ll travel. How long and how far I was about to walk thrilled my sense of encountering whatever was beyond both my understanding and experience.
Crossing Europe, yes I was moving through very much the known world but, in a different way, in terms of space and time, I was moving into, for me, the unknown. What would happen to me? Where would it take me? What would I discover about myself, and everything, as a result?
As for revelation, I have been sadly disabused. I just can’t think deep thoughts. The cogs are spinning all day but I end up rehearsing the same things I always do, the same plans, fantasies, bits of songs, voices, banal reflexes (‘that was hot / high / long / beautiful’). Nothing, nothing beyond that.
When asked, in recent years, for my favourite literary character, I have replied, without really thinking, Nogood Boyo (Under Milk Wood) and Huck Finn. Nogood Boyo may have had other less savoury characteristics but what he represented for me was lying in a boat thinking about nothing (except in his case possibly sex). This nirvana is gifted to the utterly innocent or feckless or the supremely achieving or insightful. It is total immersion in the pleasure of being in the moment and it is possibly the richest pleasure we can hope for.
A couple of people have jokingly suggested that pilgrimage should surely be about penance and, of course, strictly speaking, it should be. But not in my case. I walk for day after day, as Nogood Boyo lies in his boat. In just the present. I walk from here to here … today, now. No past (no guilt), no future (no responsibility). Yes, all day, everyday, time is an insistent factor (how long, how far?) but at the same time, it is a space free of time and how it normally operates with predetermination and consequence. Finally, I am bobbing about in Nogood Boyo’s boat, in an endless moment. TIME.
And, Huck Finn. Every time he encountered human society we could see how venal and corrupt it was. Huck, I don’t think made judgements. But he knew instinctively to ‘light out for the territory’. I have met, all too often, all too briefly, some fantastic people on this trip, but over and over again, I engineer to walk alone. (This is to exclude, for the moment, time with Ange, and more at a later date of the central part that plays in this story.) But I engineer to walk alone, in the vastness of the landscape, in the vastness of the journey.
The Huck Finn paradox is that, always moving, he is both constantly free and must also inevitably arrive somewhere which is doomed to disappoint. But the illusion that I can just keep moving through the landscape in a state of grace is given me for such a long time I experience it as real. SPACE.
Time and space. I have no explanation or insight other than to observe the journey is about something to do with time and space. And it’s not, so far as I am aware, for me, some manipulation to stave off the ultimate end of personal time and exclusion from the world. That’s to deny the point of it. I am in the now, with no thought of future, good or bad. Though the day after leaving Besançon I did encounter this phenomenon, perhaps.
I had found a suitable patch of shade and was lying, as I had a habit of doing, against my backpack, staring up through the leaves of a tree, in truly Nogood fashion, when a woman walked past me and down the hill. She was no longer young and walked with painstaking concentration and effort. Oddly, she pushed her two hands forward with each step as if pressing on the rims of a pair of wheels. She was striking and heroic.
So, when she returned, up the hill, a few minutes later, I sat up and called out in my terrible schoolboy French: ‘Tu es le mieux piéton que moi.’ She stopped. And gave me a long explanation (in French) of how she was suffering from Parkinson’s and how the daily walk helped her to fight off the physical deterioration. My responses were naturally clumsy but downright hero-worshipping. She turned and moved off up the road, her hands working at the inevitable arrival of time’s chariot, to take over, but not before she’d fought her damndest.
The Redundant Blog
So, the internal life of this journey has turned out not to be. Neither Nogood Boyo nor Huck Finn could articulate what they were doing, and neither can I. There is nothing to say. I am, thankfully, delightedly, too busy just being. I have struggled to write this blog, which I had thought to be the outcome of the walk, because it is the walk that’s the thing, doing it, not thinking about it. And that has brought me the deepest of pleasures and satisfactions and I can’t articulate how or why and that may be the point after all. I am just being on my walk. That’s the discovery for which there are no words.
And, so, the blog, as advertised, becomes redundant. In the words of the song: ‘a little less conversation and a little more action’.
The greatest anxiety about producing these posts is tedium for the reader. I guess I’m proposing swapping the possible tedium of the travel anecdote for the probable tedium of the holiday snap. But from this point on, I intend to make these posts more about ‘it’, less about ‘me’, more pictures and fewer words. I have had the most brilliant and extraordinary experience. I can’t convey it in words. So, pictures, will be my best attempt, with enough narrative to string them together.
A Couple of Personal Things
But before I close this post and change style for the next, a couple of personal things. People have asked me how I’m doing and, despite the drama queen histrionics, the answer, as is clear from this post, is great. My Achilles returns daily as an old friend and the heel raisers, anti-inflammatories, Voltarol and stretches do their bit to ensure I never feel it’s going to stop me. Of course, the effects of the Cortisone injection have worn off and the shoulder is painful at night and I never tighten the strap of the backpack on that side, inducing an eccentric carry, but it never preoccupies me. Apart from the strange illness, that I’ll relate in time, I have been remarkably fit. The weather has just been extraordinary. Time and again, people turn out to be extraordinary.
It was at Besançon that I developed a kind of syndrome that Bill had warned me of: was I doing enough to raise money for Save the Children? I even contacted my old school to see how they could help. And then Bill’s words: remember, this journey is for you. And I let it all go. And the strange thing was that, at that precise moment, I realised just how much I had raised. I can now say I’ve raised thousands of pounds to help those children.
And that is because of the generosity of you people who have given your money to sponsor me and, as it happens, are sponsoring me again and again right now as I write this.
And all this talk about being alone in space and time is, of course, a complete nonsense. I have depended more than I can say on the support of people I know and love and the support of people I have known and are suddenly there and, for goodness sake, the support of people I don’t even know, who have taken the trouble to read these pages. And I say ‘read them’ because I know not everyone expresses that support in social media. And so my final thoughts are my thanks to you, all of you, for your part in this story.