If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited
Today’s walk from Villeneuve to Saint Maurice was entirely along a tarmac cycle path and thus deviated from the official route. I chose it because I was feeling knackered after only getting a few hours sleep last night. The flat rather monotonous walk triggered memories of a walk I used to occasionally make with my father when I lived with my parents in Sweden in the mid 1970s.
There wasn’t a huge amount to do in Gothenburg during the school holidays apart from reading books. I didn’t know anybody my age and didn’t have any siblings. We lived in an apartment in Kungsportsavenyen in the centre of Gothenburg and that was where I spent most of the time – reading.
There was a library in Gothenburg but it only had a small section if books in English. I remember borrowing one of them – 1984 by George Orwell. Not exactly the most cheerful book but a great read nonetheless.
Luckily my father had a large library of books, so I read everything I could lay my hands on. Fiction, crime novels, all the classic works of English literature and poetry. Often I would read from dawn to dusk, getting through a book a day!
When I wasn’t reading, I used to wander the streets of Gothenburg alone window shopping. In hindsight, I realise it wasn’t a terribly healthy life for a teenager, particularly during cold grey winter days when there was snow or sleet in the air.
Occasionally, at weekends, my father would take me for a walk. We would set off early on a Sunday morning from our house and walk along one of the tram lines which ended on the coast at a place called Saltholmen. The walk took four or five hours and was, as I remember, conducted in total silence. When we got to Saltholmen, we would get on the tram and go home.
Auberon Waugh, the Private Eye journalist, in his brilliant autobiography, ‘Will This Do?’ recounted his troubled relationship with his father, Evelyn Waugh. Irascible and often absent from home for long periods, Evelyn Waugh never developed a close relationship with ‘Bron’ who lionised him as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Yet nothing ‘Bron’ did ever lived up to his father’s expectations. Evelyn Waugh was a tough act to follow.
Growing up I idolised my father. In my eyes there was little that he couldn’t do considerably better than me. He could complete the Times crossword in under 10 minutes whereas I would struggle to solve more than a handful of clues. He would play a round of golf with a handicap of 5, whereas I would struggle round on an 18 handicap. He could compose iambic pentameters and elegiac couplets with consummate ease, whereas I would struggle to find the appropriate words or the simplest meter in a poem. He would catch trout whenever he went out fishing, yet I would struggle to get any fish to take my fly. He had been a scholar at Winchester whereas I had flunked the College scholarship exam and only been a ‘Commoner’. By the time I went to university, I had developed a massive inferiority complex and felt like a complete failure compared to my father.
I remember one embarrassing occasion at Winchester when my English master, ‘Runty’ Clark, had requested us to compose a short wildlife poem over the half term exeat. The task proved totally beyond me. So on the last day of half term I knocked on my father’s study door and casually asked him if he could compose a short wildlife poem. He looked up from his crossword puzzle and in less than 5 minutes, handed me a piece of paper with some verses written on it.
When I returned to Winchester I handed in my father’s poem under the guise of my own handiwork! ( the first and only time I pulled this trick!). At the beginning of the following week we were sat in class as ‘Runty’ Clark handed back the poems to each boy, accompanied by various disparaging remarks. As the pile of paper in Runty Clark’s hands got lower and lower, I began to worry that maybe my act of deception had been uncovered. Finally, all the poems had been returned except mine and there was just one piece of paper left in Runty’s hands.
“All in all not a bad effort at all boys. Some nice poetry buried amongst the dross”. At this point, Runty paused for dramatic effect and continued ” But there was one poem which stood out for its sheer brilliance. In the last 20 years I can’t remember reading a poem that was so original and so humorous”. And with that he read out my father’s poem to the entire class! I believe it won the school poetry prize but it left my ego severely damaged and never again did I submit my father’s work under my own name.
My greatest disappointment was when I received news that I’d been awarded a first class honours degree at Oxford. Shortly after I had announced the news to my parents, I overheard my father wryly remark to my mother: ” I think that child may be vaguely intelligent!”. I was 21, and those comments stung.
After I left university I went off to live and work overseas. First in Dubai, then Hong Kong and subsequently South Korea and Japan where I lived and worked for 15 years. I only saw my father when I went back to England on holiday once a year. He never seemed very interested in what I was up to. In fact I’m not 100% sure he even knew where Seoul ( or Sioul as he used to pronounce it) even was. He certainly never showed any inclination of wanting to come and visit me there. So, over the years, we grew further and further apart. I always got the impression that I was a great disappointment to him.
I didn’t have the best of nights at ‘Les Horizons Bleus’ campsite. It wasn’t so much the cold that was the problem as my sleeping mat which had developed a large bulge which made sleep nigh impossible despite much tossing and turning. At 3am I gave up, got up and went back to the communal eating room to try and snatch some sleep. There was nobody about apart from a large stuffed fox on the fridge! The floor was hard, but at least it didn’t slope and the room was heated.
When there was just enough light, I packed up my tent and headed off up the Rhone Valley towards the Abbey of Saint Maurice.
Pretty much the entire’s day walk was spent trudging along a tarmac cycle path that ran alongside the River Rhone. The mountain scenery was sublime but after the first hour or so I began to tire of it. The towering valley walls felt overpowering at times. Maybe it was down to the fact that for most of the day I felt like a walking zombie, robotically putting one foot on front of the other. Walking 30km after a few hours sleep is never generally a good idea!
I didn’t meet or speak to anybody all day en route to Saint Maurice. I was passed by innumerable lycra clad cyclists but none of them stopped for a chat. Pretty much the only interesting things I came across all day was a trout fisherman and a couple of horse riders.
When I struggled into Saint Maurice at 3.30pm I was ready to hit the sack and catch up on lost sleep. Unfortunately the Abbey wasn’t open until 5pm, so I was sent away and told to return in an hour and a half’s time.
I made my way into the Basilica and sat down in a pew. It was a time for silent contemplation about everything that had happened over the last 8 weeks and also about my own emotional journey, about putting the past behind me and coming to terms with the fact that although my father was far from perfect, he’d probably had issues of his own to deal with, including the tragic loss of his own father when he was just two years old.
As I sat alone in the Basilica, I thought how lucky and privileged I was to be able to stay in the Abbey as a pilgrim.
Founded on the ruins of a Roman shrine of dedicated to Mercury, the Abbey is dedicated to Mauritius (later to be martyred and canonised as Saint Maurice) who was a Roman legionary who was executed in 285 AD for his Christian faith together with his brothers in arms in the Theban legion.
Several decades later in 380 AD, Bishop Théodule built a church at Agaunum to shelter the remains of the martyrs. In 515 AD Duke Sigismund of Burgundy founded the Abbey of Saint Maurice and inaugurated the tradition of perpetual prayer (laus perennial) at the Abbey – a tradition which has lasted for over 1,500 years without a single interruption. In the early years after its foundation the monks rotated round the clock to sing in the chancel; today the canons maintain the tradition by singing several services every day. The 1,500 years since its foundation make the Abbey of Saint Maurice the oldest in the world to hold continuous services over such a period of time.
As I sat lying on my bed at the Abbey, contemplating the last eight weeks walk and thinking about the penultimate leg of the journey tomorrow, I realised that it had been a hugely cathartic experience for me. I’d visited my parents’ grave in Surrey, been to the place where my great uncle had lost his life in 1916 on the Somme and, in some strange way, come to terms with my troubled relationship with my father. For all our differences, he had influenced me in so many different ways.
At almost the end of this year’s walk to Rome, having covered over 1,500km, if my father was here now, I’d like to reach out, give him a hug and just ask him “Will this do?”
If you’d like to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ to help renovate the roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, you can do so by following this link: