I was talking to Dirty Dave at my friend Adrian's 50th birthday party on Saturday night. Dave's a big gentle bear of a man, with a nose ring, a beard of W.G. Grace proportions and a pair of those ear rivets that turn your lobes into flaps of parchment. I was asking him about the house he co-owns in the wilds of the Massif Central, not too far from the town of Le Puy en Velay, with its religious icons on top of its extraordinary volcanic plugs.
We were sitting next to the wood-burning fire, which really wasn't necessary given the unnaturally mild weather of the weekend. I assumed that Dave had a good wood burning stove for his outpost of civilisation. 'Well there is,' he told me, 'but it only brings the temperature up to about two or three degrees. Which is OK,' he hastened to add. 'When it's minus 25 outside, you step inside and it feels almost warm in comparison'.
Five months of snow. Minus 25. It's not something that I could cope with. Dave doesn't live there, but he visits from time to time to make sure that everything's all right and maybe to check what life must be like for the Inuit people. 'I tell you, I've never experienced total silence until I stayed there for a few days. And I mean total silence. Not a sound. Not even a bird in a tree. They've got more sense than to hang around there in winter. How many of us can say that we've experienced total silence in our life?'
Not many. Certainly not at Adrian's party, where his band were 'giving it large' in his living room. There were moments when I yearned for some distant corner of the Massif Central. There's something about the place that has long fascinated me. All that wild beauty, all that windswept solitude. There's life there, Jim, but not as we know it.
Not that long ago, I wrote about an epic two-part journey I took from Clermont-Ferrand to Beziers down the A75 that follows La Méridienne (as the motorway is popularly known), the line of longitude that cuts the Massif roughly in half. It was a journey of discovery that opened my eyes to the untamed beauty of the region. For several months, I’ve been trying to persuade the editor of France Magazine to commission a follow-up journey, but this time by train. She finally relented.
Having tried in vain to plot a route using SNCF's dreadful website, I went down to the station at Saint-Denis-lès-Martel – or près-Martel, as it's known only to the railway, for some strange reason. The little station is an architectural classic. It has featured in a couple of period dramas and has probably appeared in miniature on many a French child's train set in a time before the white heat of technology irrevocably changed our world.
There's always someone different behind the safety glass at the guichet. This time there was a bloke with an alarming facial twitch, which made me glad of the glass between us. I kept wanting to take evasive action, sure that the poor guy was about to nut me. It was a little like a localised version of Jack Douglas's exaggerated whole-body twitch, if anyone out there still remembers the big northern comic who appeared in many a Carry On film, often sporting a trademark flat cap and rimless glasses.
Our conversation didn't start very propitiously. I asked him if they had a timetable for the whole Midi Pyrénées region and he looked at me as if I'd asked to buy a book of first-edition stamps. So I checked, sarcastically, that this was indeed the Midi Pyrénées region and therefore not unreasonable to think that one of its stations should carry aforesaid timetable. It turned out that he thought I'd enquired about the Mediterranean region. Dear God, is my French accent so bad? Anyway, no, he didn't have a timetable that he could let me have. Only for one branch line which wasn't on my likely itinerary.
With another sudden disarming leer, he asked if there was any other way he could help. I outlined my planned article of a journey across the wilderness and back purely by local trains. This prompted dark mutterings of catta-stroff, which I strained to comprehend. The catastrophe in question appears to be a five-year plan of some malevolent Docteur Beeching to close down all these lovely little latitudinal lines in favour of the longitudinal lines of the network's showpiece, the TGV. Grand Vitesse, the bywords of the modern era. You can travel fast but very, very expensively between the country's cities and principal towns, but soon you won't be able to join up the little dots in a leisurely and just-about-affordable manner. I learnt that they have already cut the speed limit from 80 to 60kph along our local line between Saint-Denis and Bretenoux (and thence to Aurillac in the Cantal by way of the scenic gorges of the river Cère), because it costs too much to maintain it. The bell is already tolling with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.!(upload://cW6purxqPmljlaHDT7gXL5jf6fi.jpg)
Even the Train de Cévennes, the special tourist line which follows the spectacular gorges of the river Alier, is under threat. He phoned the nearest station for me to check that I will be able to ride on it next May. I nodded sympathetically and made all the right noises, but – had I the necessary vocabulary and clear head – I was just itching to toss in a few heartfelt beefs about the SNCF and its ranks of pampered public servants with their outmoded privileges and inflated pension rights. You know Monsieur, if you had been a little more realistic about the age we live in, and a little more prepared to compromise, instead of stamping your feet and calling all those wildcat strikes that alienate the public you are meant to serve, you might have been able to engineer a deal that could have saved these local lines.
I left him to his disgruntlement, heavy with the knowledge that my projected journey next spring might be the last opportunity available and with a sinking feeling that I was going to have to work out the itinerary myself – via the SNCF website. As usual, I felt a customary sense of ambivalence. There's something both maddening and admirable about this defiant resistance to anything that seems to smack of globalisation. When you hear, as I did last week, that a new snack bar in St. Céré is calling itself Le Snatch – no doubt in some misguided attempt to appear hip, trendy and global (solicitors since 1995) – you understand why the guardians of the French language in their official Parisian salon try to preserve its purity.
The trouble is, it all smacks of King Canute. Surely there has to be a more intelligent way to hold back the waves. If there is, our politicians will probably find a way to shelve it. Were it not for my fear of five months of snow and sub-Arctic domestic temperatures, Dirty Dave's house in the middle of nowhere might sound rather more attractive than it did on Saturday night. There's something quite appealing about the notion of total silence.