Crossing the Pyrenees at Dusk
Last month, I walked from Guildford to Gomshall across the North Downs. It was Remembrance Sunday, and before we began we visited a Tesco Metro. Under the glaring lights, our transaction was halted by an earnest manager in order to take the two minutes silence – a ritual made meaningful in the midst of banal ephemera.
After a gentle climb by the River Wey and wooded glades, we arrived at the lonely church of St Martha’s, which sits high on the hills presiding over one of the most spectacular views in southern England. The fog had cleared by the early afternoon and a belt of bronzed forest stretching towards the South Downs, still strewn with distant mist, was our reward for the climb. No pylons clutter the panorama, and only a village in the valley below indicates the presence of humans. We had a way to go before we arrived at our train station of Gomshall which would take us back to Guildford, and eventually home. Being late autumn, we estimated that we had just enough time until darkness fell and the welcome of a pub.
As we were never for from green belt habitation, and, considering we had as a whole family, walked in sliders and sandals across the Pyrenees at dusk in the summer, I was not concerned. Our holiday base of Cerbere, a tiny Catalonian resort consisting of one beach and a tiny hidden cove, is the last train stop before the Spanish border. This is where the Pyrenees meets the Mediterranean; by this point they are a series of craggy hills, covered in olive groves. The coast line is wind swept, almost Cornish in colour and texture, covered in gorse that scratches your skin on the rubbly paths. The village boasts five restaurants, a square shaded by plain trees and the faded Art Deco Hôtel Le Belvédère de Rayon Vert, shaped as a ship that teeters not on water but over the side of the numerous train tracks. This is vintage transporting heaven and more about counting empty tracks and infrastructure than actual trains. Since the advent of the TGV, Cerbere sees only about five trains a day, yet boasts enough tracks to rival Clapham Junction. Those in the know will have a thrill seeing where the track gauge changes from French to Spanish. There are so few trains that to see one enter the tunnel leading to Spain, which lies four minutes away on the other side of the dwindling mountain range, is an event.
Once upon a time, Cerbere was a stopping point for the great and the good on their way to Spain. They stayed at the Hôtel Le Belvédère, awaiting their visas in style and frolicked in the diving school, a 1920s building that still remains at the harbour. Orson Welles once drank cocktails at the bar and dinner suits floated along the narrow decks and viewed the trainscape beneath. My vertigo on the tour took a hammering especially as the balustrade was not convincingly secure.
One day we took the four-minute train journey to the Spanish resort of Portbou over the border. It had been exciting in the morning; most of our fellow travellers were young backpackers and an air of neglect filled the huge stations built for yesterday’s crowds. Needless to say, they were empty of staff and buying a ticket was a complex affair (I had to admit we gave up when trying to use the line on other days and so travelled free).
After a day in the scorching sun, lapping up cervezas and tostadas we reckoned it was time to catch the penultimate train back to France. Inexplicably it had disappeared from the board and the last train was cancelled. A few disorientated inter-railers were hovering in the waiting room. The information desk was closed and an elderly bearded man sat feeding pigeons. He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘taxi?’ after our attempts at asking for advice. Giddy after a day languishing in the sun, we wandered back into town, now with melancholy dusk hovering in its wings. A hotel proprietor said wistfully that the last taxi had left for Cerbere two minutes ago. Other enquiries promised a three hour wait and meanwhile the day began to tire in earnest as the heat mellowed. We had a family argument by the memorial to Walter Benjamin, a philosopher and cultural critic who died in Portbou, 1940, in mysterious circumstances after fleeing the Nazis. Walking was the only option; the Sat Nav gave us an hour and a half before complete darkness fell.
The way was craggy and slippery in our beach shoes; the cliff path grew higher while the view over the Mediterranean crystal waters was distracting. The doorless openings of ruined casas gaped by the side of the climbing path. We arrived at a deserted concrete checkpoint, frescoed with graffiti on a hairpin bend. Standing on the crest of the mountain we could see a couple of hippy girls ahead of us, also wondering where the path continued. Eventually we realised that we would have to walk along a few metres of the road to meet it, not pleasant with fast cars careering towards you, but at least the sight of Cerbere harbour and the train tracks were in sight. The descent was treacherous; a rusted carcass of an overturned car at the bottom of the ravine did not inspire confidence, and it was becoming difficult to see with the encroaching night. Light fell shut just as we neared the town and the welcome of street lamps. We entered one of the long gloomy underground tunnels, which had been built to connect one side of the village to the other after the railway blasted its way through with the arrogance of modernity.
We had made the same journey as thousands of refugees before us during the Spanish Civil War, only to find their journey ending in internment camps. In the other direction, a few years later, many used this route to flee from Nazi occupation, like Walter Benjamin. Considering I’m stuck on a plateau with my second novel and since I’ve developed a duty to read all those that have been censored, either by murder, imprisonment or prevailing ideologies I ordered a copy of Benjamin’s The Storyteller Essays.
From Storytelling and Healing:
‘If one thinks of pain as a dam that impedes the narrative flow, it becomes clear that the dam will burst if the gradient drops sharply enough to sweep everything that stands in its way out to the sea of blessed oblivion.’
Thank you, Benjamin – I now know I need to weep before I can finish this story.
From The Art of Storytelling:
‘…at least half of the art of storytelling consists of keeping one’s tale free of explanation.’
In this essay, he laments the 20th century preoccupation with information, ‘almost nothing occurs to the story’s benefit anymore, but instead it all serves information.’
He goes on to say, ‘Information is valuable only for the moment it is new… A story is different: it does not use itself up. It preserves its inherent power…’
How liberating for the story to exist without the trammels of context, analysis, criticism – it just is, its power no longer chipped away by an academic apparatus that dissects, examines then stitches the story back together sucking all life and virility from its original words. I began this novel inspired by oral storytellers – who know the power is in the telling, not the examination. Yet, with aeons of research I’ve fallen into this trap of explanation, comparison, analogy. I just need to tell the damn thing.
Back on the North Downs, the sun was melting on the sylvan canopy. We turned onto the path to Gomshall flanked by beech and birch; the sun was setting and the woods were settling into darkness. Ahead we could see a sloping field filled with warm pools of melting autumn sun. Cows grazed and a gate welcomed. Leaving the woods, we entered a clear, green bowl, surrounded by forest. Colekitchen Farm presided over this valley which, as we looked more closely, was clearly barricaded with top security and a statue of a Civil War hero of the roundhead type, sporting a metal hook for a hand. The slopes were still and silent except for the eerie cawing of distant crows. We gladly loped ahead in the dwindling light and just as night consumed our vision we entered the haven of the Compass Inn.