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From the Camargue to the Alps
A Walk Across France in Hannibal's Footsteps
By Bernard Levin
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 1985 Bernard Levin
All rights reserved.
The Elephant Wakes
IT BEGAN INAUSPICIOUSLY. Orly-Sud is not the most romantic of places from which to take off in search of adventure, particularly at six o' clock in the morning, but that would have mattered less had it not been for the rumour, which speedily proved true, that the pilots of Air Inter had greeted the dawn by going on strike, so that it looked as though I would not be taking off at all. Joining the mob at the Information desk, I discovered that there was no Information to be had; my breakfast rendezvous in Aigues-Mortes was rapidly receding, and my adventure more rapidly still.
First, then, to telephone the news of my plight. I hurried off to the airport shop for some change, only to discover (not, alas, for the first time) why the French are not the most passionately loved of all the earth's peoples. Behind both cash registers sat ladies familiar with Gresham's Law and patriotically determined to prevent the collapse of the French economy through a run on the franc caused by importunate travellers seeking solid coin in place of insubstantial paper. Ah, non, we have no change; ah, oui, we know there is a strike; ah, non, we cannot think how then one may telephone. While the argument continued, a genuine customer approached, and as the till flew open, I saw in it at least a dozen paper-wrapped rolls of coins of every denomination, for change; the tricoteuses did not even blush.
The British, of course, are at their best in mutual adversity, presumably because they love adversity so much. For the Germans, the Austrians, the Dutch, the transaction would be effected without comment or surprise. The Italians would ask after your family while counting out the change, and the Americans would jostle one another for the privilege of giving you the coins. As for the Swiss, before the strike was ten minutes old they would have set up a bank of emergency telephones for stranded passengers. (The Swiss, though, wouldn't have had the strike in the first place.)
I solved the problem by buying seven newspapers, one by one, and proffering a banknote each time. As I finished telephoning, I heard shouts coming from the Information desk. A riot? A lynching? Things were definitely looking up, and I hurried off to join in the fun. There was none to be had; the excitement had been caused by the announcement that a plane would shortly be going to St Etienne. But where is St Étienne?
The day wore on; occasionally a blockade-runner left, for Quimper, Périgueux, Clermont-Ferrand. More and more unsuspecting travellers were arriving for flights that no longer existed, and Orly was beginning to silt up with the lost, until it looked like one of those scenes, familiar from television news programmes, of refugees fleeing from earthquakes or persecution.
See, see! A plane is going to Toulouse. That, surely, is in the south, is it not? Or am I thinking of Toulon? All I could remember of French geography was a riddle from my youth; why are a sailor's trousers like two French towns? Because they are Toulon and Toulouse; but that gave no clue to their whereabouts, besides being less funny now than I used to think it.
Back to the shop I went, to consult a map, quite prepared for the tricoteuses to tell me I couldn't look without buying. On to the ticket desk for an endorsement to Toulouse. 'But you were originally going to Nîmes,' said the clerk. 'Yes,' I replied. 'But, monsieur, Nîmes is far from Toulouse.' 'Yes, but it is even farther from Orly.' This dazzling display of logic convinced him, and soon I was airborne, then trainborne, finally taxiborne. It was a little late for breakfast, but I was in Aigues-Mortes, and the adventure could begin.
In a sense, it had begun when I was a boy, and by the oddest of routes. The Fifth Form at St Dominic's, by Talbot Baines Reed, is ghastly trash (not that I noticed at the age I was when I read it), and I doubt if it is widely read by schoolboys today; they demand rougher fare. I have forgotten everything about the book except the denouement, in which the hero, under a terrible cloud of suspicion (I think he had been accused – wrongly, of course – of cheating in an examination), manages to prove his innocence, while the real villain is unmasked. But the plot turns on a vital piece of paper that has been tucked into a copy of the Satires of Juvenal. I read The Fifth Form at St Dominic's before I went away to school, and thus before I had begun to study Latin; who Juvenal was, and for that matter what a Satire might be, I had no idea, but for a reason I am still unable to understand or even guess at, when I had finished the book and rejoiced in the triumph of virtue and the downfall of vice, there remained with me a curiosity as to the work on which the plot had hinged. Somehow, I got hold of a copy of Juvenal, presumably in the Loeb edition, and read it with bewilderment. But when I got to Satire X, The Vanity of Human Wishes, I discovered the existence of the great Carthaginian who was to become my hero:
Weigh the dust of Hannibal; what do the mighty commander's ashes amount to now? Yet for him Africa was too small ... He added Spain to his Empire, then he crossed the Pyrenees. Before him lay the Alps, drenched in snow ... Italy lies prostrate; on he goes. 'It is nothing', he cries, 'until we are through the gates of Rome, until we pierce with the standards of Carthage the very heart of our foe.'
Juvenal was writing centuries after the death of Rome's most successful enemy, when the sun had already begun to set on the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Yet he knew that Hannibal's name would still be as familiar to his readers as it was to their ancestors, and indeed as it still is to us. For Hannibal, two thousand years ago, captured the imagination of the world, and has never let it go.
Anyway, it was from Juvenal's twenty lines that I learned who Hannibal was and what he had done; in addition to the catalogue I have quoted, I also discovered (though this bit must have been quite incomprehensible to me) that he had split rocks with vinegar, and also that he had come to a bad end: he was defeated, he went into exile, he was obliged to humble himself before those who had given him refuge, he died by a ring (another detail that I could not have understood). Juvenal, as I learned some years later, was not a man whose spirits gladdened easily. But I like to think that even his cold heart would have warmed a little when he discovered that I had fulfilled his prophecy most expertly: 'Onward, you lunatic, over the frozen Alps, to become the delight of schoolboys ...'
When I went to my boarding-school, I began to discover more about this dramatic figure who had captured my childish imagination. We did not, thank God, study Livy in my Latin class (Virgil was quite bad enough), and it was some time before I learned that ten books of his Histories were devoted to the second of the three struggles between Rome and Carthage, and contained the fullest account the world has of the life and achievements of Rome's great enemy. By the time I discovered Salammbô, therefore, I knew that Hamilcar Barca, the hero of Flaubert's novel (if that blood-soaked book can be said to have a hero), was Hannibal's father, and I knew also the story, almost too dramatic to be true, of the nine-year-old Hannibal's vow. When Hamilcar was appointed to the Carthaginian command in Spain, his son begged to be taken there, and was made to swear upon Carthage's holiest altar that he would always be an enemy to Rome. Only later did I learn that the man who grew up from that child would keep his vow, letter and spirit, as few vows in history had been kept. And I learned later also that when the child had sworn his man's oath, he embarked on a journey from which he was not to return for thirty-five years, and that in the course of his odyssey he would carry his native country's war into the heartlands of her enemy, and be recalled to Carthage just in time to fight, and lose, the battle that decided her fate.
As any schoolboy must be, I was thrilled by the elephants; to cross the Alps in winter was heroic enough (the most ancient legend in all this legend-filled story said that there had been no way through for man or beast until Hercules cut the passes), but to do it with thirty-seven elephants turned the story into magic. It was many years before there began to stir in me a desire to follow in Hannibal's footsteps, and of course my first thought was to do it on an elephant's back (an idea which I abandoned much more reluctantly and gradually than the obvious impracticability of it really demanded); when more modest thoughts replaced this grandiose one, I toyed with the idea of a camel, then a donkey, finally settling for my own two feet. Well, the army with which Hannibal had started out consisted of some 60,000 foot and 9,000 horse, so I would be in good company.
We know tantalisingly little about the details of Hannibal's preparations for his march, apart from the account, a mixture of the most prosaic logistical thinking and, a haunting reminder of the Hobbesian bleakness that governed such times, of the problem of victualling so huge an army. Hannibal's Quartermaster-General, having done his calculations, declared that it was impossible unless the army could be inured to the practice of cannibalism. Hannibal considered the suggestion, but rejected it, probably not on grounds of squeamishness. At least, I thought, it was unlikely that the problem would affect me as starkly as it did Hannibal, any more than the Gaulish tribes, through whose territory I would also be passing, would be likely to attack me with anything worse than hotel bills. (Nor did I feel obliged, as he did, to take along a soothsayer to cast the omens, and if I had thought it necessary I trust I would have engaged a prophet with a less memorably inapposite name than his: Hannibal's holy man was called Bogus.)
With no really useful guidance from Hannibal's own list of stores, I began by taking down my old rucksack, which had served me so well on so many walking holidays in my youth. I was amazed and appalled by the weight of it; without so much as a handkerchief inside it, my collarbones began to creak ominously beneath its straps. Surely there was something lighter on the market?
I had reckoned without the passing years; delighted to discover that there had been a revolution in the design and manufacture of rucksacks (they had even changed their name, being known now as backpacks), I bought one that weighed as many ounces as my old one did pounds, yet so strong that the makers felt confident to offer the most remarkable guarantee I have ever heard of: given no matter how much ordinary use, they promised, they would replace it if it wore out at any point in the purchaser's lifetime.
First into my backpack went my Swiss army knife, the official, full-sized, schoolboy's dream – two penknives, three screwdrivers, a bottle-opener, a tin-opener, a corkscrew, a saw, scissors, a file, a fish-scaler, a ruler, a wire-stripper, a magnifying-glass, tweezers, a toothpick and a thing for taking stones out of elephants' hooves; I was equipped for any ordinary emergency, and a good few unlikely ones as well. From the old days, there remained my whistle (for summoning help), my all-enveloping cycle-cape (not for cycling but for walking in the rain), my rubber coat-hanger (it inflated into the top half of a torso, so that even a sweater could be dried on it and keep its shape), my compass (as a plaything only, since actually using it was precluded by my lack of any sense of direction) and my plastic mug (for drinking from mountain streams). To these I added some devices that, like the lightweight rucksack, did not exist in my day. The strangest was a collapsible plastic wash-basin weighing half an ounce (you pour water into it and as it fills the sides straighten, collapsing again when you pour the water out). In addition I had picked up a towel made of some strange plastic – bath-sheet size, it folded into a packet not much bigger than a matchbox – of which wonderful properties were promised; just dab yourself with it, the makers swore, and lo! you will be instantly dry, though you had just taken a shower beneath Niagara (I had only one occasion to test the claims made for it, which was just as well, because it had no effect at all, dab as I would). Even stranger (and, in the event, even less called upon) was a 'survival bag'; this was a huge transparent plastic sack, which also folded up into virtually nothing; trapped on a lonely mountainside with darkness and snow descending simultaneously, the lost traveller simply climbs into the sack and lives to sing its praises – especially if a St Bernard with a brandy-barrel round its neck should arrive in time.
Add to these a miniature quartz-driven alarm clock; drip-dry shirts; a sewing kit (any man educated at an English public school can sew); paper handkerchiefs; a pocket torch; a battery-operated razor, together with an unbreakable shaving mirror; reading matter (paperbacks only); and a pair of boots.
I thought first that I would rely on my ancient walking shoes, still going strong three decades after I had bought them; in the end, however, I decided that the terrain I would be traversing demanded something that came up above the ankle (a wise decision, as it turned out) and I set out to find a pair of comfortable boots.
The adjective very nearly proved my undoing; some of the things I put on my feet in the shops I visited would have had me confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life if I had attempted to walk the plank in them, let alone cross the Alps. Yet I was assured wherever I went that if I ventured a single yard on to ground more rugged than a deep-pile carpet I would inevitably perish miserably unless my feet, ankles and calves were bound in leather so rigid that it could scarcely be dented with a pickaxe. I decided to risk the hideous fate I was promised, and bought – in a sale, moreover – a pair of handsome tan boots with uppers that were soft and flexible; the consequence was that throughout the journey they gave me not a moment's trouble. What is more, the enchanted boots gave me the opportunity for a boast that I dare swear few can match; because the laces that came with the boots were too short to tie firmly round the tops, I looked in at a bespoke shoemaker and asked if they had any bootlaces four feet long, whereupon Hans Sachs cut two such lengths from a large reel, fixed metal tags on to each end of both, and sold me the result for £1, thus making me the only man I have ever heard of with a pair of made-to-measure bootlaces. (With socks I was considerably less lucky; I wear only silk ones, which I deemed unsuitable for the task I was to set them, so I went to what I believe libel lawyers call 'a well-known Knightsbridge store' and bought six pairs of stout socks in pure wool. One pair wore into holes during the first day's walking, and none of the other five pairs survived as long as a week.)
Finally, I had to be practical in another respect altogether. To write and walk at the same time is impossible; to stop every hundred yards, whenever a thought occurs, to jot it down, very nearly so. I had to rely on modern technology in the shape of a mechanical notebook, a pocket recorder taking a tape no bigger than a packet of razor-blades. It dangled from my wrist, it could be animated with a flick of the thumb, and I could talk into it without slackening my stride. Like almost all journalists, I loathe the act of writing; with this machine I could sustain the illusion that I was working when I was only talking, and put off until I was safely home the job of making sense of my electronic notes. I was almost ready to go; all that remained was to put my straw hat upon my head and take my noble walking-stick in my hand.
The hat had been my companion for at least a quarter of a century. I bought it in Athens, to replace one that had flown from my head as I was eating a picnic lunch on the very edge of the cliff at Cape Sounion, where that magic temple stands, its blinding white marble set off by Homer's wine-dark sea rippling far below; the building is desecrated by the 'Byron' carved into one of the columns, though the implausible freshness of the incision suggests that someone rather later than the poet was risking the wrath of Poseidon. (Disconcerted by the loss of my hat at Sounion, I had consoled myself by remembering John Wesley's account of being beaten up by a mob of the scandalised orthodox. 'I lost my hat,' he said, 'and never got it again, which cost me 1s. 6d., but so long as I was able I never ceased to preach the word of God to them'.) As for my stick, its knobby top worn shiny and comfortable by years under my hand, perhaps this trip might be the one on which the miracle, for which I had been waiting most of my life, would take place, and the dead branch would burst into blossom, to show that the sinner had found mercy in heaven. More practically, my stick, which like any good walking-stick should become an extension of the walker's arm, would serve me well on hills, provided I could remember, against all the dictates of instinct, the rule that when crossing a slope the stick should be held in the upper hand, not the lower.
Excerpted from From the Camargue to the Alps by Bernard Levin. Copyright © 1985 Bernard Levin. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
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