The tide is full
[ places - april 06 ]
With Eurostar charging £190 for a six-hour day-trip to Brussels, where I briefly had business, I cast back to simpler times when there was more choice in how one travelled to what was then called ‘The Continent’, and speed was of less concern.
In those days, you reserved a day for the trip from Charing Cross to Dover and the cross-Channel ferry forward to your destination on the other side. My immediate concern was whether it would be cheaper to go solo through roads our grandfathers took to Flanders, rather than pay the exorbitant price demanded by Eurostar, a bankrupt company that has secured a near-monopoly on land-based travel from London to Paris, Brussels and Lille.
Opinions of Eurostar have changed since the service was launched 12 years ago this November. Those who use it tend to approve of it and, in so doing, participate in the EU vision of a first-class Europe free of borders, of seamless travel and windows on the world that do not open. To that extent, it is a medium with a distinctive message.
Eurostar carved new roads through virgin landscapes in France and Belgium that were unencumbered by the brown-field sites that steam travel encouraged - and which are a mortification for the new Europe’s image of itself. A Eurostar ride to Brussels became a revelatory exploration of a misty, fictional utopia, though a ‘state’ journey through the rusting steel mills along the River Meuse arguably provides a more acute snapshot of people’s lives in contemporary Belgium.
Armed with a copy of Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘Dover Beach’, and an egg-and-tomato baguette, I trained down through the November sunshine falling on Kentish orchard and hop-field - emptied of fruit, but still warm from their touch - to the ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’ of the poet’s Channel (£24.10 return).
‘Dover Beach’ is such a modern poem in its language and subject - the retreat of spirituality in the face of materialism - that it is a surprise to discover it was written as long ago as 1867 when the high arrogance of the Victorian era was still in its adolescence.
It sounds more like a page torn from an early draft of ‘The Wasteland’, published 80 years later, than a paean to the age of steam that took Arnold to his epiphany in Dover - the singular appeal that love should fill the void left by the rejected spiritual - and his subsequent retreat through sea-mist to the dappled certainties of France.
The voluptuous scene of the earth’s demise gave way to a litany of the sea routes once used by Wilde, Monet, Van Gogh and their fellow-travellers on their priapic, cross-Channel expeditions, mostly abandoned now, alas. Is it possible to live in a world where one cannot sail through furlongs of spray to Ostend to consume mussels? Are you not stirred when Zeebrugge is no longer a viable destination - but Bergerac somehow is?
I was the only passenger on the Ophare Port Shuttle that connects passengers from Charing Cross to Dover Port (£1). A sign on the door promised ‘Low Floor Technology’ and I pondered its meaning as we passed beneath the town’s venerable, chalk forehead towards a funeral procession of long-haul trucks - including a rare Willi Betz from Hamburg - disgorging from the shipping ranked at the edge of the water.
The Dover Port ‘travel centre’ was deserted apart from two lovely Customs and Excise inspectors exchanging banter between seizures; £5 secured a return ticket for a ‘foot passenger’, good for 24 hours, the timeframe of my foray. Dreary orange gangways led to the embarkation area where scarcely a dozen passengers waited to board. Five were co-workers cruising to a bruising on the Calais tiles before returning on the last ferry at 10.30. Still, not bad for a fiver.
By 4.23, the English sun had settled into its wintry decline and Englishmen were doing what men do all over the world: watching powerful beasts that throb, while they are at rest. A half-moon hung perpendicularly in the sky above pearl-grey clouds that looked as if they had been stolen from a Eugène Boudin seascape.
The ‘ignorant armies clashing by night’ - the climax of Arnold’s vision of life after organised religion - were no more consequential than the badly-paid truck-drivers grazing on sandwiches or playing slots in the near-deserted Circular Bar. A sailor hosed down a window in which the blue neon words, ‘The Pub’, were reflected against the setting sun and Arnold’s retreating shore. The quivering Jupiter had set sail.
To the museum of forgotten travel sounds - the groaning of slaves in the hold, for example, the stamp of hooves in Mayfair or the barking that erupts when a caravan moves on - let me submit the following artefact for consideration: the frottage of cutlery and condiments as they jingle on the rhythms of an engine cradled upon the obscure dynamic of the sea. This eerie noise reached a crescendo in the duty-free shop. I went for a steak frites in an empty restaurant as big as the Royal Festival Hall.
We docked 90 minutes later at Calais where a free shuttle carries passengers into the town’s main square. Hope of any financial advantage I might have obtained from my subterfuge evaporated on learning that the last Brussels-bound train had left at 19.15 and I would be forced to camp in Calais, taking the first train on the morrow. But I was still in pocket: excluding the steak and baguette, I had spent £30.10 on return tickets, enjoyed a bracing sea cruise and was halfway towards my destination.
On the promise of a wake-up call, I checked into the Bonsai Hotel (£24.13) opposite the railway station, bought a single ticket to Lille (£9.80) and watched the night unravel in the News Cafe, owned by a crimson-haired voluptuary named Zsa-Zsa. In the local Nord-Littoral daily, I was reassured to read, news of the riots raging through the French suburbs would be found on page 38.
I poorly recollect the transition from mattress to platform, though I am well aware of the prod I received from the Bonsai’s conscientious staff. In a corner window of the slow train sat a woman from the Mekong Delta, with a gold ring in the right place. She stared out into the blackness with moist lips and a look of such abject sadness, ebbing in and out of sleep, transfixed by the distance through tearless eyes.
At Lille, one changes trains and stations, but also perspective. It has been transformed from the Manchester of France into a centre of computing and fashion, a regional capital to rival Brussels and only 38 swift minutes away. But they are expensive minutes at €23.20 (£15.90) for a one-way ticket with Eurostar. As the 07.29 pulled in to my empty platform, I thought: ‘All style, and no passengers’.
So far I had spent £55.80, excluding the night at the Bonsai, and could expect to pay a further £25.70 before regaining my mooring at the Calais waterfront later that evening. The total of £81.50 was 43% of the Eurostar fare I initially scorned, but I had not factored in the cost of food and taxis, nor the time spent travelling.
The business in Brussels was swiftly concluded and by three, I was ready to leave. On the home run, I met a professor who swore he had paid €38 return to fetch his daughter back from a London university, and, no, this had been no special deal; and a South Korean student for whom I translated Arnold’s ‘darkling plain’ as a ‘plateau foncé’, and though this clearly was inadequate, it somehow appealed. Naturally, I had brought Zsa-Zsa chocolate but when I asked how she was doing, she replied: ‘Comme une dimanche.’ I wished her a lifetime of Sundays and went looking for a taxi.
Like Tangiers, Calais has survived on the ferry trade since Roman times and nothing much happens in either city that doesn’t have something to do with smuggling. When my driver finally arrived, he mentioned, a propos of the riots, that he earned €800 a month at a stretch, while fielding calls on the network from tobacco-buyers desperate to reach the Holiday Inn.
This white man spoke no English and wanted €12.50 for his mission to the harbour. He understood that there was something profoundly rotten in the state of France, but didn’t have a clue how to fix it.