My dear friends
I was about to apologise for not having written for a while, but let’s be frank, you haven’t written either. I don’t blame you, mind – writing is difficult, and most of us are out of practice when it comes to letters. It’s so hard to get the tone right: when you have good news you don’t want to brag and when you have bad news you don’t want to grumble, so next thing you know time has gone by and you haven’t written. Don’t worry, I’m not upset with you. We’re friends, and friends shouldn’t be a burden to each other.
What have you been doing since last we spoke? Me, I’ve mainly been walking. Jo and I have just finished a long walk through the Dordogne valley in France. It’s the same walk we did last year, but this time we did it with two much younger friends.
When we invited them, I think they were a little confused as to why we wanted to do the same walk again. When there are so many experiences still to be had, why repeat one? I explained that last year we walked in autumn, and this time in spring. In October there were ripe apples on the trees and the smell of cider vinegar and orchards of trees heavy with walnuts and almonds. In the mornings an autumn mist rose off the river and you would walk through the diamond haze and see the looming shapes of horses and cows and trees until the mist dissolved in the bright cool sunshine. This time there were wild strawberries alongside the paths and there were fields of spring flowers and each village you walked into was bright and fragrant with roses. The white and red and orange roses were vivid but scentless; the pink ones smelt of Turkish Delight.
Our friends are young and the young don’t yet appreciate the differences between seasons. Or rather they do, but they don’t yet feel it. Or rather they do feel it, but that difference doesn’t yet feel as important as it will. But that wasn’t the only reason we were happy to do the same walk again, so soon. We loved the walk last year. It came after a time of difficulty and grief: I had briefly been dangerously unwell; Jo’s father had died. The long walk from Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, for a week up and down the river valley and the ridges and hill-tracks, following sections of the Camino de Santiago along ancient stone paths through ancient forests and ancient stone villages finally to the pilgrimage town of Rocamadour was the lifting of weight. We arrived lighter of soul than we set out.
A pilgrimage is an adventure, but perhaps you can only take a pilgrimage once; after that it becomes a ritual. As I grow older I realise the equal importance of adventure and ritual. Adventure keeps us young; ritual gives us comfort. We wanted to walk to Rocamadour again, and lighten our hearts again, and this time we wanted to share it with our friends. We wanted to perform a ritual, and to give it to them as an adventure.
It is an interesting experience, walking a long path with younger people. On the first day they kindly slowed their pace uphill for fear of leaving us behind. The young are very strong and very fast: they can get there before you, so long as they can get there today. By day 5, as we waited for them at the top of a hill, pretending to examine some nettlesome shrub so as not to make them feel bad, I remembered what Ernest Shackleton said to Frank Wild on the Antarctic plain in 1910, as they leant into the icy winds of the Beardmore Glacier, walking back to fetch help for Bowers and Evans, both much younger men, incapacitated in their tents with exhaustion. “Well, Frank,” said Shackleton, with what you have to imagine was a twinkle in his eye, “it’s the old dog for the hard road, every time.”
And so we walked the same path we walked last year, walked the same tree-shaded corridor to the waterfall at Autoire, placed our feet on the same steep stone steps up to the ruins of the Chateau des Anglais, ate the same lunch of cheeses and breads between the broken walls of Taillefer before Carennac, overlooking the green valley and the silver river and the distant turrets of Castelnau, and we watched as they took the same journey we had taken: the excitement and uncertainty, the surprise of discovery, the soreness, the tiredness, the slow recognition as the path taught them how to walk, the lightness and satisfaction, the exhilaration.
Our next walk will be somewhere new: it will be a discovery again, an adventure, but we will also keep walking old paths, like returning to favourite books as an older reader, walking deeper tracks into them and also noticing what is new in them, what has changed.
From France we caught the train to England to visit my mother. My mother has two artificial knees and at least one, possibly two artificial hips. She has emphysema and has had Covid twice. She lived in South Africa for 81 years, all her life, until earlier this year when she packed up her home, sold her furniture and called me to say that she was moving to England.
“Um,” I said. “Why?”
“I thought it was time for a change,” she said. “And your sister lives in Tunbridge Wells, so I’ll move there. And you live in England, so you can come and see me.”
“I don’t live in England,” I said.
“But you go there a lot.”
“Oh well. You can come visit when you’re near to England.”
My mother lives in a ground-floor flat on a nice street in Tunbridge Wells, about twenty minutes’ walk from my sister. When I arrived I asked her what she’d like to do, and she told me that she would like to go to London for the Queen’s birthday and jubilee. She was eight years old on the Queen’s coronation, and of course she wasn’t in England then.
On Thursday morning we caught the train to Charing Cross. The train was full, and we listened to a posh man in a blazer and straw hat with a wicker picnic basket who said he was going to St James’ Park, so we thought we would try that.
When we stepped out of the train station there were flags and bunting and people everywhere. There were people in Union Jack dresses and children waving little paper Union Jack pennants. It was still early in the day so Trafalgar Square was still only 100% full. We walked between the lions where the pigeons would be if there weren’t so many people. People were sitting in deck chairs and perching on lampposts and trying to spread blankets on the cobbles. There were people having picnics between the lions’ paws.
“What are they all doing here?” demanded my mother. “You can’t see anything here.”
We tried to walk to St James’ Park and realised why they were all in Trafalgar Square. They were all in Trafalgar Square because there was no space anywhere else. Pall Mall was full. The side-streets were full. You couldn’t get to St James’ Park, but St James’ Park was full. There were great rivers of people trying to find a way to somewhere where they could see something, and turbulent counter-currents of people coming back again. You couldn’t walk without touching people and being touched by them, without bumping and jolting and stopping and shoving and being shoved. We had to walk in small agonizing shuffling steps, like penitents.
I kept losing my mom because she is not quite as tall as many other people in the crowd. I worried she would be taken by some perilous cross-current of people and end up in Shoreditch. It was madness to continue but I wanted to find her a place where she could see something, whatever there was to be seen. Finally after two hours I was starting to drown. I felt bruised and sore and my legs hurt and my back hurt. I couldn’t go on. Where was my mom? I swam back against the tide and found her walking in a different direction, chatting to a tattooed Canadian man about Meghan Markle. “Everyone is in a very good mood,” she said.
We never did see anything, no horses, no carriages, no marching bands, although we were on one side of a wall when something happened on the other side of it, and everyone cheered and waved their pennants so we cheered too. Somehow we even managed to not see the fly-past, I’m still not sure how. Finally we poured ourselves into our train seats, heading back to the south-east and Tunbridge Wells. I collapsed like a wet paper crown. My mother with her plastic joints and metal knees and her 81 years and her emphysema sat fresh as a rose, peering out of the window as Canary Wharf whooshed by. “What a lovely atmosphere,” she said. “How nice to be able to say we were there.”
I am in Turkey now, in a small town on the Mediterranean coast, where I am working on a book. I was commissioned to write it a month or so ago, and it is due at the end of September. It is a wonderful book, or it will be if I manage the impossible and put down on paper the lovely shapes that are in my head. Outside my window is a blue bay with a hazy island and a hot yellow sun, but my head is in the ice and snows of the Weddell Sea and the South Pole. Writing a book, it strikes me, is like a long hard walk that doesn’t end the same day. You have to be ready for the excitement and uncertainty, the surprise of discovery, the soreness, the tiredness, the slow recognition as the book teaches you how to write it. It’s a hard road, but hard roads need an old dog.
Thank you for being there. I think of you fondly and often. Do write some time.
With great love and affection,