A Frenchman's Plea for His Country
NEVER before have we moved more swiftly across France than last March. We left the Gare de Lyon in Paris with the T.G.V. - train a grande vitesse - and were due in the southern city of Valence a mere four hours later. Faster than fairies, faster than witches, Robert Louis Stevenson could have written about our train. All the way south the sun shone on reddish-brown soil, on faintly greening woodlands, mile upon mile of blossoming peach and cherry trees. At each fresh return to France, I turned over in me mory a lifetime of crossings from Scotland, remembering student days in Touraine and Paris, the liveliness of mind there, the douceur de vivre, holidays along the shores of Brittany and Gironde, wanderings about the chateaux of the Loire and in Sologne, visits to friends in Ardeche, l'Ile de France, and now in la Drome en Dauphine-Provence. Rudyard Kipling wrote, "God gave all men all earth to love but since our hearts are small, ordained for each one spot should prove beloved over all." For us, perhaps, Dr ome is that place best beloved.
With dear old friends we went walking and climbing around the countryside there under a warm spring sun. In the village of Vinsobres, we sniffed the perfume of fresh-baked bread, that wonderful French bread from the family boulangerie, heard around us the lilting music of the accents of Provence. In high-perched Le Cresset, an ancient woman passed slowly along the narrow street. At our: "How beautiful it is!" she nodded with a smile of proud satisfaction. "Oui, on dit que c'est bien beau - Yes, people sa y that it's very beautiful." Snowcapped Mont Ventoux rose up like a friendly presence in the landscape. We visited towns and villages with poetic names - Vaison-la-Romaine, Dieulefit, Buis-les-Baronnies, Puy St. Martin - and we drove deep into the Parc Regional de Vercors, into the heart of the mountains. Up there hawks fluttered, hares rose at our feet and loped off across the grass and up banks of primroses and heartease violets. "C'est un petit paradis," the old woman kept repeating, "It's a small paradi se."
On our last evening, there was a meeting of the municipality and the ratepayers of our friends' village. It might be dull, they told us, but it wouldn't last long. The dim, fusty little hall reminded us of our own Scottish one. The mayor and his councilors sat facing their audience, the mayor a wispy little man, fussily and nervously arranging his papers. The issues raised were the same as in Scotland: the rates ("Far too high! What do they think we are? Millionaires?"), litter and dustbins, vandalism, t he safety of children on the streets, a room for the village youth, another for the musicmakers. Everything was going smoothly; the mood was predictable and uninspiring.
Relieved, the mayor tidied his papers back into his briefcase, smiled at his councilors, and then, as if a certain omission had only just occurred to him, he tossed off as an afterthought that an extension of the train a grande vitesse through the region had been proposed. At that, drama erupted. The young man beside us who, up until that moment, had been nodding in agreement, was transformed into a fury, hair ruffled, eyes blazing. "Monsieur le maire!" he shouted, springing to his feet. "I demand the tr uth." His voice had a trumpet sound, like a disturbing call to arms. The mayor winced. "So that's it, the cat is out of the bag !" the young man exclaimed. "We're to be sacrificed to the high-speed train!" There followed a furious exchange of insults - "Anarchist!" "Reactionnary!" The milder ratepayers tried to restrain the angry young man: "Calm down!" Others egged him on, "Go on!"
He needed no encouragement, he was launched, like a latter-day Zola with his J'accuse speech. He listed the enemy - selfish moneyed interests, faceless businessmen, planners, and plunderers, who wished to send ever more prosperous people rushing more and more swiftly across the fair face of France, despoiling it. "Tell me, Monsieur le maire, what do they care about our rivers, woodlands, and mountains, our villages, and all our best-loved places? What matters most to them, tell me!"
The mayor tried to answer. His mouth opened, his lips moved but nothing came out, for the young man swept relentlessly on. "I'll answer for you - it is profit! They would poison the whole planet for profit. What is at stake, Monsieur le Maire? Notre beau patrimoine - our beautiful inheritance." He lingered over the words, repeated them, his face softening. He quoted the poem that all Frenchmen seem to know by heart, one of nostalgia for the homeland, Du Bellay's Regrets of 1558: "Quand reverrai-je le clo s de ma pauvre maison qui m'est une province et beaucoup d'avantage ... " His sentiments echo Robert Browning's feelings about his own country: "Oh to be in England now that April's there!"
As he quoted, he became almost a poet himself. He evoked the fields and woods where he played as a child, the rivers where he went fishing with his father, their first climbs together - les Dentelles, Mont Ventoux, Vercors - his growing closeness to the countryside, their countryside, until it became part of him, the best part. Now he took his children there, hoping that they in their turn would take theirs. We had a sudden impression of generations of Frenchmen and women passing through the village, thr ough this very hall, inspired by love for their native soil of Drome en Dauphine.
THERE was by now complete silence among the ratepayers as the mayor and the young man stood confronting one another. "I am nearly finished," he said. "No, I don't wish to put the clock back, there has to be progress, but what exactly do you mean by progress, Monsieur le maire? Not shifty, devious entrepreneurs selling off our inheritance behind our backs, then saying, 'Yes, of course it's a pity, it spoils the landscape but it pays. Material prosperity is what matters.' Here's my last question, Monsieur le maire: 'Are you prepared to gain the whole world and lose your soul? What's the profit there!' "
He sat down, flushed, triumphant, the hero of the evening, while the mayor looked increasingly like a thief caught red-handed, stealing the family silver, a conspirator divulging state secrets. For weeks he would have to put up with sarcastic jibes at how a young anarchist got the better of him. He would not be allowed to forget his lack of frankness.
He wound up the session somehow or other, and we moved out of the hall into the night. We were aware of complicated, universal issues stalking about us, challenging us, refusing a simple solution. We walked up the street, discussing, debating, disputing. A crescent moon hung over Mont Ventoux; the air was sweet with the perfume of the first brooms. The clamor of talk set the village dogs barking. Then, little by little silence fell, doors closed - "Bonne nuit!" Under a wide and starry sky the village sle pt.
On the way home, on the journey between Valence and Paris, we noticed a change in nature since our days in Drome - the trees were in full leaf, the blossoms still more profuse. The T.G.V. that had caused the commotion of the previous night, stirring up so much strife, swept us again across France, and we felt a sense of guilt at our unthinking acceptance of its speed.
Instead of faster than fairies, faster than witches, we now called to mind a very different means of transport. In 1879, before jet planes and trains a grande vitesse were conceived, Robert Louis Stevenson trotted very slowly through the wild and beautiful region of the Cevennes on his very thrawn donkey, Modestine.
Could those two paces - speed and slowness - exist together? What would lie ahead for our planet in the fast-approaching 21st century?
We kept hearing in the mind's ear the voice of the young man speaking of notre beau patrimoine and the need to cherish it if we wish to inherit the earth.