Saturday, 28 September 2013

Nessun dorma

It's been another magical day, much of which was spent in the glorious city of Amiens, the capital of the Picardy Region of France. Amiens was a strategic place in both world wars, and as a result was damaged very badly. Twice. For most of the First World war it was tucked firmly behind the front line, miles away from the danger zone. It was however, hugely significant as the place where trains bringing Allied soldiers to the front lines terminated. Nearly all British soldiers passed through Amiens.

There are hundreds of accounts of the city buzzing with soldiers from all over the world, all trying to buy war souvenirs from locals lads determined to make a fast buck, many asleep under the trees in the Cathedral square. The cathedral itself was a Mecca for soldiers arriving at the front for the first time. Some had never seen a building so impressive. It remains one of the largest Cathedrals in the world. After nightfall Amiens' dark streets were lined with dodgy taverns and  good time girls all ready to offer a sex and booze-starved soldier the chance to spend his King's shilling. 

We headed straight for the cathedral, a hugely impressive place, which was made a little more atmospheric by a British chorus practising for a concert this evening. Elgar and Faure buzzed around the building, drifted to the roof and floated down to the floor a few seconds later, creating the most remarkable tonal clashes. 

From the cathedral we disappeared into the Medieval Quarter, which is a network of ramshackle buildings and bridges climbing over and clinging to tiny canals which flow into the infamous River Somme.

We took a hugely eccentric excursion into the "Hortillonnages," which can only be described as a series of allotments floating on marshland. A chirpy local took us through a network of tiny river channels on an electric punt.  We floated past hundreds of gardens 
lined with the brightest flowers and the biggest vegetable patches. I have seldom seen such large pumpkins! The place is filled with wildlife. We saw kingfishers, herons, cormorants and scores of butterflies. I'm genuinely not doing the place justice. The experience was deeply calming and green, oh so green. 

We came back to the hotel and Nathan and I went on a little adventure to find Bus-L'es-Artois, the village just north of Albert where the Leeds Pals were billeted in the weeks before they went over the top. I'm not sure what I was expecting from the place. A few old buildings. A little monument to the Pals which I knew had been erected somewhere in the village...

We headed for the church. I'm not quite sure what prompted us to walk around the back - sometimes, it seems, I have a homing instinct for these sorts of things - but we found, scrawled into the walls, ancient graffiti, most of which was in English and marked with that magical date, 1916. Some of the graffiti listed a name and a regiment. Some names were simply marked with the letters "RIP."

As we emerged, somewhat stunned, from the churchyard, a man appeared from the house opposite and came running over. He didn't speak a word of English. We have a pitifully small French vocabulary. We asked him where the Pals memorial was. He told us it was down the road on the tiny village green. We explained that we had a great interest in the Leeds Pals. He asked if we had five minutes and indicated for us to follow him into his house. He led us through the front room, past his wife and a son and a strange yappy dog who tried to jump into my arms and into the garden where he unlocked a little shed. 

...And what magic met us inside. At first glance I saw that the walls were lined with hundreds of shell cases, machine gun magazines and curious pieces of rusty metal no doubt dug out of local fields... But then my eyes became accustomed to the place. There were tins everyone. The first that caught my eye was a large Tate and Lyles golden syrup jar on a shelf with an empty pot of Mackintosh toffees and load of biscuit boxes. There were cigarette tins, porcelain jars, empty Guiness bottles, Sheffield-made spoons, forks and knives, empty mess tins and little pill boxes. These were the little things which the Pals had left behind. No more than bits of rubbish to them, but of deep significance to me. I felt so privileged to be picking them up, running the objects through my fingers and trying to feel their energy. 

We left the little shed almost shaking. The man asked if we'd like to see something else and we followed him like love-struck puppies. 

He led us next door and opened the door to an enormous barn. "Dormir" he said, "Leeds Pals dormir." And there it was, the place where some of the Leeds Pals had slept 100 years before, and it had plainly barely changed. A hayloft, ancient wooden beams, ladders and barrels against the walls, straw on the floor. 

This felt like the most important by far of all the sites I've had the pleasure of visiting over the last few days. For the first time I'd made a truly human connection; a connection which felt every bit as momentous as the time I got to hold Pepys' diary at Magdalene College in Cambridge. The experience of standing in that barn this evening will never leave me. 

As the sun set, we drove back to Serre to say goodbye to the Pals and my Great Uncle. We walked into the field behind cemetery number 3, the spot where the Pals clambered into no-man's-land, and we watched the sky darken. Crows and starlings flew around. Lights on a distant wind farm flashed and twinkled. The occasional sound of a gun, or perhaps a bird-scarer, echoed from the dark trees, and then, as we re-entered Queen's cemetery, a curious sound was carried to us on the air. The sound was like a blast of heavy gun fire. Neither of us could work out where it had come from. It wasn't so loud that we ran screaming from the spot, but it was significant enough for us both to say "what the hell was that?" Perhaps it was an ancient memory. A time slip. An endless echo of the incomparable din of the Somme. 

At the same time the sound of very distance traffic (I think) sent a pitched whistle to me on the breeze; an A. A few seconds later I heard a C... The start of an A minor chord. For a few perfect, magical seconds, the two notes oscillated and then sounded briefly together. I would be utterly foolish not to use what nature delivered to me in such an awe-inspiring package, so watch out for a sequence in A minor! 

As we left Serre, Nathan called out to the men lying in the graveyard that I was going to honour them with some very beautiful music. Gosh, I hope he's right... 

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