Day 20 of Walking Out of the World, in which the last few kilometres from Le Boullay-Thierry across the plain of Beauce completes three weeks of walking from Worcester to this major mediaeval pilgrimage hub. There will be a two day stop here.
And there she is! Can you see her? Beyond the vast wheat fields of the plain of Beauce, as if nesting in the tree line to the right of the bourdon. The cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres with her distinctive asymmetric spires and the almost discernible green of the vast copper roof, laid over a forest of beams. She is still twenty kilometres from here, across the ‘bread basket of France’, this vast plain of wheat from where the faithful have looked up from their toils to see those distant spires, as to a mother waving across the fields.
It is a clear day with only the gentlest breeze rippling the early wheat and the footpàth is easy to follow: the red and white balisage of the Chemin des Anglais is clear at every junction or gate or post placed at a turn around a hedgerow. However, the main signage in my head remains the little pilgrim character from the welcoming B&B, Le Jardin du Presbytère.
When thanking Pat and leaving on my way, after a good breakfast of coffee and toast, and with a packed lunch of sandwiches and fruit, the metal pèlerin reminded me of something foolish.
I am closing on Our Lady of Chartres and my pace quickens. I watch her getting closer on this Chemin de la Folie. I say the Jesus Prayer more quickly, in time with my faster steps.
The Pilgrim Fool now walks alongside me. I had wondered what I was to do with myself after graduating with a new-found expertise in setting stained-glass to music. There was only one thing for it: to repeat the performance at postgraduate level, and a good ‘Vis Comms’ degree opened up a place at the Central School of Art.
I had the idea of going into Educational Technology – as it was grandly called then – and I pitched my idea of ‘Improved Visual Literacy for a Multimedia World‘ to the Central’s department of postgraduate studies. ‘Graphicacy’ had been proposed by two geographers, Ballchin & Coleman in an obscure journal article I had read. Their names sounded like two in that list of pseudo-academics from Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, and my interlocutors at the Central School might have been Vladimir and Estragon waiting in a barren land for God to appear to them. And in the bored world of fallen men, I had at least turned up to spout something different, which was good enough for a five minute diversion.
The vast horizon of the plain of Beauce is like the meseta – the great high plain in Spain – says Jabba, commenting in this virtual pilgrimage yesterday, as we walked towards Chartres. It is exactly like that. I had not seen it that way before. The irrigation systems too. The tractor towing great coils of water tubing, kilometres long. Yes, this is just what the Camino Francés is like after Burgos, before you drop down to Hontanas to quench your thirst with a bottle of Galicia beer. But here we are only ten days walk from Westminster cathedral… and Worcester was a lifetime away.
The Pilgrim Fool now walks alongside me, but in his own landscape. He came down from the tin sign outside the B&B in Boullay-Thierry to walk with me. Is he walking with my soul?
I lost interest in my ‘graphicacy’ project after precisely two weeks. It was obscure – which was good – but not metaphysical enough. I needed more mystery. Teaching your students to recognize shapes on a map was something for driving instructors. Just get a copy of the highway code. Sorted. Not my business.
To improve my drawing skills I regularly attended the life class run by Cecil Collins in the Central School. The one-time surrealist and mystical painter was a legend and his life class was a complete immersion in a different dimension. We had to dance before he would allow us to draw. We had to become the model before we drew her. We had to do ink drawings in ten seconds and “Stop!” to pick up red chalk and draw for another ten seconds…
In those days Cecil Collins was a legendary presence around the school. In icy weather he would arrive with socks worn over his shoes, which he would continue to wear around the school all day and he never removed his overcoat, even at lunch in the small centrally-heated and overcrowded Central Club, where his nose still seemed blue with the cold wind that swept through the land of fools.
The world was a place that only fools could know, and Cecil Collins’ paintings and drawings of fools and angels were a door into a world of lost innocence roamed by sad Pierrots in Les Enfant du Paradis and wounded young romantics as pictured in the dreamy passages of Le Grand Meaulnes. My reading was now confined to anything that had a good Fool in it. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Erasmus In Praise of Folly, etc.
The result of all this was my MA dissertation, Towards a Foolish Design Theory, which my tutor Pat Musick predicted would either fail or be awarded a distinction. I can honestly say that it contained no more substance than the folly related in this conversation, as we walk across the plain. To this day I have no idea what my dissertation was about, but I was indeed awarded an MA with Distinction.
Meanwhile, I had exhausted the entire supply of the 20th century’s popular mysticism. I had finally spent all my pocket money collecting most of the Complete Works of my hermetical hero Carl Jung, in blue hardback volumes. I immersed myself entirely in the archetypes of the collective unconscious for about a year. This wonderfully improved my dreams: I began to get advertising breaks in them.
It all finished for me when I attended another weirdo’s public meeting in Bloomsbury. Someone called Benjamin Creme who said he was the messenger of the Maitreya, “The Avatar for the Aquarian Age.” After half an hour of this I stood up and said, “This is the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard in my life!” There was a hushed English silence, like when a loony gets on the tube train at Clapham Common. I walked out before the heavies at the door could expel me.
That was the end of the New Age. In retrospect, I was perhaps too harsh on Mr Creme’s spiritual powers: one of his many mystical predictions – direct from the Messiah for whose franchise he was the licensed voice in the wilderness – was that Margaret Thatcher would resign. Seven years later, she actually did. How uncanny was that?
I arrive in Chartres. The town with the cathedral where everything is solid and complete. Where no vandals and no reforms have touched the full programme of the craftsmen and masons. Where the whole story from the Creation to the Resurrection of the Dead begins again every day, in stone and coloured glass.
The nonsense fades away into the night, complete with its adverts. The Pilgrim Fool turns around without a word of goodbye to retrace his steps across the plain of Beauce to climb back on his tin sign at Le Jardin du Presbytère. He will await another soul to walk hand-in-hand on the meseta through the wheatfields to Our Lady of Chartres.
We shall stay here for two days. The pilgrim must not hurry forward on the Way of Saint James when he reaches a place of great Presence. Here we must learn again the lessons we learned before, but forgot.