OCCUPY HITCHERS, ALPHABETIC ABSTRACT ART THAT MAKES SENSE & OVER 60s CREW REQUIRED – Kirsty Allison does a whirlwind camper trip to a canal near Nancy, losing keys in Luxembourg, breaking down in Belgium – finally finding peace in Dungeoness.
The hippy hitchers think I’m a Buddhist. Telling me about a commune where kids grow up without adult supervision, 800 of them. 800? Babysat by Buddha? Checking Stoner-pedia, dudes…
Jakub and Gem looked the part, that’s obvz why I picked them up. Anarchic warriors, bright as his red T-shirt, which bears radical calls in frat-house lettering, Jakub pulls the obligatory beanie on and off and on, off and on. He’s clean shaven with a billy goat’s gruff of a beard. He looks perfect with Gem: fresh as the blonde dreds she’s paid for, Teva sandals, hippy skirt, layers of T-shirts, huge outdoor smile. She does horticulture in Poland, where they’re both from.
Waiting strategically at the car entrance to the ferries at Dover – their sign says Calais, I’m going to Dunkirk, but we’re drawn together: I’m driving Freddy, a mid-90s Nissan Vanette. Same engine as a Datsun Sunny. No one will provide breakdown insurance. What’s the worst thing that can happen at a max speed of 55mph? Converted by a boat builder, styled by myself, Freddy has day of the dead cushions, star curtains and seats covered in deck chair fabric. Scooby stripes were lovingly sprayed a couple of years ago, on a campsite in the Pyrenees (admittedly noxious – around all the organic chickens which the dog chased). Beneath an upside-down tub on the roof, a thick white shower curtain crumples up for extra ceiling height when you stop and invite the giants in. It has to be roped-down or it flies off. Freddy has water, a cooker, a bed, music. What more do you need? I like being at one with the flowers and decomposing ground, or running over the dunes in the Camargue, past wild white horses – into the sea, the bath of the med, after a week of wild camping down from the Alps, skinny-dipping in the purest of cold rivers.
There’s no extra cash needed by the ferry company, DDFS, for the extra passengers – only passports. Yup, I’m passing through with the resistance – Jakub squats in the Occupy building in London.
“What’s going on with the movement at the moment?”
“Nothing…” Off the record, there are paradoxes within every organisation.
“Do you have to contribute to the ideology as a resident?”
“No. But for the last couple of years I’ve been working in the trance parties. We were about to do a three day festival, but after the kid died in Croydon, we called it off.” Glad to know the leaders of subcultural politics are being responsible about bombing kids with drugs. Psychedelic uprisings, at the very least, carry the risk of labelling you as opponents to our moral leaders. Value war? Sure good start, yes, standing against them, in a warehouse – if your brain gives a shit. Just remember to read the label: a bucket load of psychedelics enables critical thinking, just don’t ever call it paranoia, call it truth. You stand in danger of becoming a conspiracy theorist forever, and in my experience, drugs take up a lot of time. Far better to get into something more modern, like ISIS, or Call of Duty, or Facebook, or the propaganda of a binge-watch…
This leads Jakub and I to the standards of squat parties being lower in the UK than across Europe. Having one toilet for 700 people seems acceptable in England. He suggests governments make money from drugs in the Eastern countries. The mafia all tied in. Can’t imagine a mafia house having only one loo.
You have been warned kids – there’s shit out there that’s addictive…find what you like, let it kill ya. Those repetitive beats, they get in yer mangled head!
We watch the cliffs fall back into the horizon, hanging at the back of the deck. You know you can only see 12 miles at sea?
I went to a bar on the boat and edited my novel (it has a lot of drugs in it). We met again and I drove the wrong way off the boat at Dunkerque – French signage was without names of towns, as ever. I end up driving them down to Calais because there are no petrol stations to dump them at – and that’s it – toodle pip. Hitching is a good lesson in making the most of life, as you’re never likely to see each other again. I spent a summer in the 90s hitching around England, hustling pool, sleeping in old ruins.
Through the night – I failed to read the signs – the cats eyes, flashing white like a discotheque – it is Saturday night. I feel I am on slow zig-zags towards Paris, when I’m trying to get down to Nancy. I end up pulling into the car-park of a neon green bar, just as Mr Allo Allo is going to the trash. It’s 11.30pm. He lurches towards me, pupils wide. It is his car park, and my vehicle is hardly undercover. My dog is going ballistic, Rosie, a two-year old Patterdale. She’s a good wingman.
Bon soir. I try explaining that I am Ca Va and looking at the map, GPRS on my phone is pulsing, heartbeat. He doesn’t leave. I feel like a woman with blonde hair, alone, in a camper van.
“Est il ya une probleme?” I ask, forcefully. Non. He fucks off. But sends out a couple of young, short-haried buffoons – “Lose?” they ask and again, Rosie is going berserk.
“Non. Ca va.” Je ne suis pas loose. Freaked out, I reverse. Van roams the lanes. Stop roadside to make a duck egg scramble after connecting the new gas to the built-in cooker. The only food I brought are a couple of eggs. Thought I’d stop and stock up on French swag, but with the hippies…
The sustenance helps me make the choice to get on the Peage. I loathe paying for motorways when there are roads that loosely skirt the same route – in a vehicle that goes so slowly, the promised speed is of little advantage – but I opt for the ease of a more direct route and stop at an Aire – tucking up for the night, pulling the curtains close, using my torch to read beneath the blanket. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. There are a few lorry drivers, sleeping, only getting out to piss – but I’d rather our paths don’t meet.
Sunday 6th July 2014
We woke in the Aire layby, well- rested. It is now Sunday morn – Rosie has skinned a tennis ball while I’ve done some some yoga. I take her for a little wander, playing my harmonica, she sings along to it. Always brings me to think it’s one of the most precious moments. She’s now lying on the words above these, in my notebook. I always write travel journals by hand. That’s why it’s different to the writing I do on a word-processor, moving words, and sentences around all the time till they find their best order…
We must put some miles behind us.
Getting to Lens, there’s a Louvre museum outpost – the sign makes it look expensive and expansive and all big glass – so we sail through and it’s only when I escape the Peage, having chatted to some Manx bikers whom I subsequently pass back and forth all day, that I see a sign for a Musee de Matisse in the town he was born in, Le Cateau Cambresis. In my survivial level French, I find a bank, pick up enough words to think I have the gist of a sentence, which of course can send en deviations, wandering misled, through the country, but I arrive at the Musee de Matisse explaining I am a journalist without a press card and I would like to come in (ie. for free) – and places of culture are free across France on the first Sundays of the month anyway.
Amazing collection. Chagall donations, etchings and pop art coloured painting, Giacometti, the Picasso, the Rothko. An explanatory journey of Matisse whom I did a project on at art school, or before, A-levels with the printmaker, Peter Smith, the teacher who stopped me getting thrown out. It was in the days before Wiki, and I was so comforted by some bad information I’d picked up somewhere, saying he was in his 40s before he started painting. It’s untrue. He was in his 20s. But there’s still solace in George Elliot not publishing her first till she was 40. Mark Twain, 41. With my book trajectory taking as long a Ralph Ellison, I question whether it’s because of my love of wandering. Into situations and galleries such as this. Strolling through another’s practice of still lives. Fortunately brief, and then his Windows – one I’ve never seen with a rude nude. I notice the same strumpet whores, and models and wife, Amelie, with their faces painted into pictures on the walls he’s sketched, and these women working themselves into photos of his homes with huge line sketches of faces en the ceiling and stencils of those geranium-style shapes and birds, like McQueen’s recent silver bird logos.
And another discovery – my new fave artist – Auguste Herbin: all Thomas Moore Utopia font and geometric pre-pop/Mondrian-esque placing. Incredibly, he has devised an alphabet around shapes and colour – coded triangles and circles and squares, in different colours and orders – he then spells out names such as Peace, Love and Union, using nothing more than his representational colours and shapes. The paintings make sense. They are more than abstract compositions. J’adore. And another new artist (to me) Genevieve Claisse – a French Bridget Reilly. All black and white and angles and some gorgeous circles – again called Union. The museum was perfectly designed with Eames chairs and stained glass by Josef Albers. I remember visiting the Chapelle de Vence with my parents as a child – mind-blowing stained windows by Matisse. Art rules.
So Herbin demonstrates the line from 80s Pompidou and Mondrian. And I walk out of the Musee de Matisse, spellbound by everything France can be – there’s a charming bistro, undoubtedly selling Stella, perfectly cold, with crunchy and soft calming lettuce salad and frites. An old Citroen, grey, wartime-looking, parked in front of the beauty of the town, of France – the je ne sai quoi, ah, j’adore – I step in dog shit.
I clean my Nike in the ville fountain. Buy some frites mayonnaise. We’re near Belgium, Rosie won’t eat potatoes. Atkins dog. We leave.
I’d planned to stop at Charleville Mezier – but it looked industrial north. It’s the funniest part of travelling, the towns you don’t stop in – on appearances, often.*
Instinctively, I had to follow La Route de Rimbaud et Verlaine – obvz – I pull over (in a contemporary poet pit-stop, an industrial estate backing onto the countryside – door on camper is flung open, dog can wander safely). It’s only when I’m reclining, reading Donna Tartt in the back of the van that I see why the hippy hitchers took me to be a Buddhist – my loo roll in the van hangs off a necklace on the back of the passenger seat. I was given it. And I realise they were looking at its giant Buddha head pendant.
The landscape changed 50 clicks back, from the dangerous Norfolk flats of Dunkirk have vanished for verdant mounds and rolling Roman roads. The churches vary from orthodox-esque mosque-y bumps to Bavarian castles with multi-turrets to Baroque greys and simpler chapels. Most are curvy and sexy with those gorgeously well maintained houses / chateaux in the centre ville with iron filigree or cut -out metal decorative gates – there’s some shite too, bad PVC conservatories adjoined to otherwise perfect farmhouses – chip shop squalor. I like the make-do metal and bumpy glass porches, different panels in diff colours of glass.
It’s nearly 5 o’clock – I must try to edit a lil film as part of a pitch I want to send in tmw – for £20K or more. [It’s worth noting that I never even received a thank you for submission and stressed myself with shite internet and completing this film for the whole time I was away – GRANTS SUCK].
On Sunday night, the rain hit hard on Freddy – the windows mist – I break the silence of my thoughts and the engine with an album by Adam Ant – one that I’ve left for the time when I had space to listen. We’ve hung out recently – he’s got great stories, is ultimately cool, yet knows his worth which can make him hilarious. Another time – but I played him and let his lyrics reveal his bruised angelic sides and male mania. I sang along to the instrumental, finding a voice in myself I had not found before, driving through the country, stopping at industrial mosaics and ceramic stone circles in remembrance of dug up children lost in two mine collapses on the same site. There are so many memorials to dead soldiers on this side of France – bordering Germany and Luxembourg, over to Belgium – it’s depressing – it all looks like a set from Band of Brothers yet the archetypal squares where I can take a coffee and croissant are rare – particularly this side of Longuyens, where it suddenly changed to being alpine.
Before darkness comes, I need to eat – the Turks in the kebab shop gave a plate of meat for Rosie. I tipped them well, running back to the van in the rain. They understood a travellers journey and sympathised my lack of language with charm and humour. Ma Francais est en Angleterre. It pissed down in twilight – passing the Pharmacie Marx and trying to find a place to stop for the night in Chatel de Saint Germain, or a room in the castle would have been nice – so beautiful but I ended up caught in one way hell of bungalows before heading down to Metz and finding a cycle path in darkness with the moon shining on the Moselle.
I woke so early, I’d slept badly, imagining my brutal murder – being cut up to kebab brochette du poulet – I’d locked all the doors and drawn the starry red and white curtains but the door could be prised open. Waking early, I skirted the Moselle – down to Nancy – my relatives told me they lay a couple of hours east. Through alpine Coronation Streets, all with no perfect cafes, all Merthyr Tydfils, hamlets and one chicken towns. And my people were nowhere. I’d only travelled for 500 miles. I asked in the Captainerie if they had been through, a Dutch barge, OUI OUI OUI – sent off in the wrong direction. Its amazing that one can lose such a large boat. I eventually called from a lock, several miles away, which I had walked to, carrying gifts from Fortnum’s and tonnes of magazines and the weekend papers – the dears’ starved of reading such things.
Aboard, the smell of contentment – of smells they don’t notice. Home. There are fresh flowers cut, and sofas, and tonnes of books. It’s all very ship shape. And we set sail, on this floating cottage, overflowing with chilli plants and herbs and flowers. A two-berth boat, each with their own bathroom. Between each bedroom lies a lounge and kitchen, most travellers have a television satellite which they’ll spend time pointing through trees towards home. I have an amazing hot shower. The only problem is Freddy, having to borrow a silly fold-up bike to bring him back to our new mooring. It’s about 10 clicks. There are few buses around these parts.
A gay couple – of Swiss descent, on a gorgeous boat, are moored aside. I don’t want to talk. I am wound up by the pressure of getting here, maybe needing to return too fast. And the deadline for the grant application. Perhaps I’ll stay a little longer.
We travel from Xures – Einville. It’s raining, but beautiful to chug along the canal. Life can be so relaxing. Although, I have to bring Freddy back to the new location again, 15k, this time borrowing a bike from Qantas Suicide Pilot and Alex Gibbons. These two shipmates, each with peniches well over 20 metres, and several bicycles between them, they travel together on their huge houses – beautiful Fidutia and Unity, full of geraniums. We’re moored next door and all stop for a drink together. The inland waterways board demands two crew to be essential on any journey on boats as large as theirs. So they roll along together. Advertising everywhere for fe-company, to rare avail. Over 60s-only! Such nice guys. “Dog rolls over, just like my ex-wife” – etc etc. Funny. Get in touch! They cook, they travel, better than living cooped up by yourself, no? Even for a few weeks, they wouldn’t even need rent…You could paint pictures on the back of their boats. It’s a healthy life.
Later that day, I walk into Nancy. Stanislas Square, drips with filgree gold. It’s Venetian in scope and Parisian in grandeur. But we were hit with awful weather. The only clothes I bought with me were a load of summer dresses, and it’s waterproof trouser weather – been working on the pitch. Now back to Donna Tartt. xxx
Did a flight of 10 locks or so, up the embranchement de Nancy – currently moored near a grand chateau of Fleville – iron gates and silver roofs of imperialism – grain for land – guys in a cafe do peace signs as I drive past in the van. Sad to leave so soon.
Friday 11th July
Lost my keys in Luxembourg – kinda thing that makes you double aware of the people on the street and the women with too much time on their hands. I’d stopped at Metz shortly before 1pm to send this application – the video was too phat – the wifi too thin – I sat outside Mac Ds, with lil german girls taking my pic as I attempted to upload the film which would never load. Compressed it, emailed that it’ll be up on Dropbox by Monday. Metz is a stunning micro Paris with uber Goth cathedrales, rivers, narrow pedestrian streets and I ate vietnamese with Rosie in the church yard which sat in the split of the river like Notre Dame. Driving out I saw a campsite by the Moselle that I’d loved to have stopped at – and would have if I didn’t have to be at work on Tuesday, I have to deliver a lecture…
It would have been a good idea to stop because as I write this, Freddy has just survived one of those weather driving experiences of having a tornado whizzing towards you in the front and the wing mirrors showing lightning spikes on dark grey behind you. Christ. So I found my keys in Luxembourg – having retraced, they’d been handed in to the guy with the shop selling souvenirs and keyrings with climbing caribas, the kind of thing I should have had my keys joined onto in the first place…I stopped to admire the lush ravine gardens and grey fairy castles creeping up the other other side, to another land. Walking through the square in Luxembourg – jazz played. Safe jazz. There were rebels against the clear conservatistism everywhere – kids in blacked out Jaguars – finest clothes on show, hip-hop ghetto blasting, on a Friday nite. The kind of place keys get handed in.
The good thing about breaking down in a camper van is you have somewhere to sleep. The dog was getting paranoid – looking at the road, realising the speed we were going at, 55mph – could kill her – I’d just spoken to Alex, my husband, back in London, and we, dependent on how he felt in the morn, were gonna meet in Dover or Hastings tmw night or Sunday morn. I thought I’d truck on – make it to this swimming pool museum in Roubaix – But I’ve fucked it – blown a gasket. Gone too far – so wanted to stop earlier – should have. The temp gauge was suddenly up – like at the top – I pulled over – the time it did this was just before Christmas eve, en route to drop the dog in the country before we went to LA for a while – I grabbed the dog and the wedding dress I thought I may be wearing in Vegas – was getting mum to hem it – and got out as it smoked. There’s no smoke without fire, I was thinking today as I noticed wafts after letting it cool to crawl up the hard shoulder another 500m before stopping again – I opened the engine – it stank of death. The doggy had her head out of the window – away from the mortuary – I sat in the back and pulled open the Hoegaarden I’d bought for 1E10 at the garage by the vet earlier. Petrol and it appears beer being a reason to visit Luxembourg – it was £30 for a full tank earlier. Had my vehicle been tampered with? I opened the engine, which is inside the van, between the two front seat. Oil was fine as it had been earlier but I’d added water before leaving the boat. I used the water can and it drank and drank over a litre. Cool again. I did another 500m up the hard shoulder before the temp gauge pinged. My brother had forewarned me to try n get off motorways if something did go wrong. I’m near a village, Courrieres. Napoleon make a brandy here and I’m hoping there may be a garage. I’m wearing an orange fluoro vest – a legal requirement in Spain, certainly, and the orange triangle is out and the hazards are flashing Fuck. The orange triangle has been blown over as the trucks fly past. It’s gusty and raining – I have to get off the motorway. 500m to go.
That’s another 100m. My eyes are burnt with the lights of the trucks that hurtle towards us. I must get off this road. I’ve got sore tits like my period’s about to start. Christ. I’ve made it to the stem of the off-shoot – the smoke hangs in the midnite air like we’re over a daybreak lake already – but we’re not. We’re just burnt out road trash – I’m going up the junction with Rosie, see how far uphill is left. The triangle is out. Leave the hazards and light on. Black slugs cover the road between Mailles and Courrieres.
Slowly, Freddy hobbles to safety, I pull him over on the side of a field, off the slipway up from the motorway.100m at a time. I have no idea if I’m in Belgium or France.
THE NEXT DAY
I’ve walked a few miles to a garage which is closed and now have to get to another. If a bus comes to Namur, 20 kilometres away, I’ll get on it. Saturday today. If anything happens, it has to happen today – it’s Bastille celebrations tomorrow. And as my French relative oft says, Everything closes on Mondays. I think I’m in Belgium. There are German looking flags for the FA Cup Final tmw. I consider that I will have to leave the van, and get up to Holland, where I can get a boat with the dog to Liverpool Street. You’re not allowed to take dogs on the Eurostar.
And then I find a garage in the middle of this Norfolk desert – a young native guy is manning the car wash. He even speaks a little English. His boss will return soon, despite it saying the place is closed on Saturday.
I wait and wait.
The mechanic only gets embarrassed as the dog chases a frog, un grenuile, leaping about, in their back porn room…women looking hot on paper. The Belgium mechanic is amazing. He shows me where the water tube had split, having pulled the van right up 6 feet above us. He checks everything over, and I feel safe. He explains it all to me, where the smoke had come from, and yes, of course there was smoke without fire. We communicated in French, and I pay happily.
I stop, now starving, in Mons “city of culture 2015” – ie. the last town in Belgium, with a prison on the way in. It’s got a long way to go – they always label the shitest, no-hope towns aspirationally – desperate it’ll bring new investment to places with destroyed industries. The culture is largely of five euro shoe shops and shut down businesses. Cheap fabrics and cheap waffles, gauffres – leige ou Bruxelles. I love the gauffres. And the lights of Levis and The Body Shop, oh, I wish I did not wander around stores looking for the answers, but could wage my eyes heavy beyond their attention-seeking neons. Be undistracted in this cobble-streeted town. Full of medieval wander and amazing architecture. Proof that capitalism destroys culture. I gobble a waffle, decidedly better than the service station one earlier, after Manur, and the saviour mechanics in the village of nothing. Thank you so much.
I could keep this show on the road for a long time – yet I’m back on British soil – happy to have returned. We reached Calais when the evening light broke with the first sun I’d seen for days, England promised beauty. Once aboard, the islands shone through a Turner haze. I’d walked Rosie around a lake prior to leaving and also made it to the Roubaix art museum in an art deco swimming pool – blagged it in as a journalist – ran around in 15 minutes – all the naked statues of women around the bath – it was funny, like being in a decadent hotel or Arabic lodge. Roubaix is industrial – I considered moving there – so much to rent – art nouveau industrialia – warehouses more delapidated than the deco of Berlin. There was a poet’s cave – it’s just the street art was a bit shit. Everyone showcases in London but I could defo hang in Roubaix for a while. Slow. Write. The pieces in the gallery were like a hall of fameless – so many romos and impressionists who made little impression on the international hit lists of collectibles. The only things I recognise are Majolica vases and tiles. There are studies for portraits – hundreds of portraits – the pictures that carried the known artists’ names, the pieces that this old town can afford. I wonder whether it’s profligacy, or being first that preserves the great artists, as there are so many beautiful pieces here, by lesser knowns.
Driving through, looking for this place, I notice a museum of the working class – does this mean they are dead? In Mons, yes.
We sleep by Rye Harbour. I brought the shite weather with me. I’m gonna go down to Hastings now. Meet my husband. See my friend, walk on the beach. Had a bad dream, woke in terror – this journey has been part dexedrine, part valium. Too much in too little time.
On Monday, we slept by yellow sea poppies and giant sea cabbages under the big skies of Dungeoness.
Did I tell you my keys went missing Luxembourg. Ahoy? xxx