A place of horror: a place of inspiration
To mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Geoff Dyer recalls how a visit to the site
There is nothing special about travel. It's not a distinct activity, just a part of the normal course of living your life. If you don't have a job, then that is all you do: you live your life. Part of that life will probably be spent in - or getting to - the place that for Larkin, the landlocked librarian, remained only a distant possibility: elsewhere.
In 1991 I went to live for a couple of months in that perennially popular, immensely familiar elsewhere, Paris. It was a really miserable time. The apartment I'd rented was a disgusting pit in a boring part of the city - the first arrondissement - and I arrived on 15 July, just as everyone except tourists flees town for the summer. One thing should have compensated for this. Just before leaving London I'd met Anna, an American woman who lived in Paris and was going to be there for the whole of July and August. She was gorgeous: a model, in fact. When we walked down the rue de Rivoli she left a trail of awe-struck men in her wake - and I was sleeping with her! I couldn't believe my luck. Couldn't believe how bad my luck was, because in no time at all Anna and I began hating each other. I preferred my miserable life in my miserable apartment to being seen with this beautiful model.
I'd gone to Paris to write a novel that was intended to be a version of F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, but I made no progress with it. None at all. I couldn't concentrate because I was so miserable. Everything about my life was miserable. I wished I was back home, back from elsewhere. It was the most wretched and wasted summer since records began.
Then, on 5 September, I made a trip to the cemeteries of the Somme. The ostensible reason for going was the scene in Tender . . . where Dick Diver visits the old trenches of the Western Front, but it was something I had always vaguely wanted to do. I wasn't sure exactly where to go, so I took a train to Albert and from there hitch-hiked to places such as Beaumont-Hamel, Auchonvillers and Pozières - names familiar from histories of the Great War. There were plenty of cemeteries, large and small, all meti culously maintained. I hadn't brought a guidebook, but from a map I saw that at Thiepval (not a name I recognised) there was a large British memorial and cemetery. I got there at about two in the afternoon of a perfect, windless day.
The gravity of the place was tremendous. I mean that literally. As soon as I approached I was held by the force emanating from it. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the memorial declares its purpose in words of immense, mossy resonance: smaller letters explain that it is dedicated to the men, more than 72,000 of them, who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme and whom war denied the honour of proper burial. Every one of their names is listed on the memorial.
To cut a long story short: I abandoned my Paris novel and ended up writing a book about what the Great War meant to me, to us. So, what does this have to do with travel?
We travel to places. Certain places have a special power. Sometimes this is a fluke of geomorphology; occasionally this natural advantage acquires a religious or cultural dimension that can be explained anthropologically or archaeologically. Then there are places - unexceptional in themselves - which become invested with a power because of what happened there. Attempts are sometimes made to preserve, commemorate or reinforce that power. The idea is to help time stand its ground: for the temporal (history) to manifest itself in the spatial (geography).
My question that day was simple: what led me here? But to answer that, I had to ask another: what baggage (cultural, autobiographical, historical) did I bring with me? What rendered me susceptible to the specific gravity of this place?
Travel starts with departing, leaving. This can be exciting (though the threat of terror makes it, as often as not, simply irritating and inconveniencing). En route there will always be incidental pleasures and distractions, and further irritations, but at some point, you hope, you will have a sense of arrival. Akin to what was so conspicuously missing from my abortive summer romance - the experience of meeting someone and falling in love - this feels like destiny. The analogy would seem tenuous, in that the memorial at Thiepval is always there, whereas the chance meeting - at a party, say - that initiates a romance is dependent on a multitude of contingencies. Yet the sense in these circumstances, however serendipitous, is always of a kind of inevitability. It feels, as the saying goes, as if you were waiting for each other. This is exactly how I felt at Thiepval. "It's as though there's a wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it," explained the photographer Walker Evans. "Only I, at this moment, can capture it, and only this moment and only me."
It's not unusual for lovers, once they are safely cuddled up in a relationship, to reflect on how one of them almost didn't turn up at the fateful party where they happened to meet. In the years to come, I often found myself reflecting in similar terms about that accidental pilgrimage to Thiepval. What would have happened if I hadn't gone that afternoon? I could, theoretically, have gone another day, and maybe the weather wouldn't have been perfect, but the question actually misses the point: this wasn't just a visit, it was a meeting ("only this moment and only me"), a rendezvous. The other possibility - what if I hadn't gone at all? (not so unlikely; my time in Paris was running out ) - scarcely bears thinking about. I went to the Somme in the midst of a period of complete stagnation and frustration. From that moment on I was revitalised. I had a new interest, a purpose, something to do, something to live for. There was a place for me again.
Geoff Dyer's book "The Missing of the Somme" is published by Phoenix (£9.99)