Posts Tagged ‘Bernard Ollivier’

On walking

August 1, 2019

Having been very critical of a book about walking in my previous post, I realised that I could write about being a walker and what it means to me. But I’m no philosopher…

I’ve always walked. When I was a toddler, once a week I had to walk from the village where we lived into the town a couple of miles away, when my mother went to the market. And back! My stamina was fed by a bag of loose broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover, where my sister rode. And then when I was a little older, I had to do the walk again on a Sunday with my father, to go to church. But the treat was, we got the bus back. When I was five, just after I’d started school, we moved into the town and I could walk to school; at seven, the journey to the juniors was just over a mile each way, and I did this on my own, most of the time without batting an eyelid.

There were also frequent walks for pleasure, usually on a Sunday afternoon if the weather allowed; we went to the town meadows or to the park. Either way, we hoovered up a few miles, and I only recall occasionally being tired.

When I got to boarding school, I could have won prizes for skiving sport and games, which I truly loathed. Instead, my choice to go for a long walk in the surrounding countryside, along with a couple of like-minded friends, was acceptable to the powers that be, so this was what regularly happened, at least a couple of times a week. We explored all sorts of places, woodland, canal and riverbanks, an abandoned airfield…

What I realise is that I have always walked a great deal, finding walking anywhere within reason a normal and usually pleasurable activity, as long as the weather wasn’t truly foul. I developed a reasonable sense of direction and road sense, and an ability to estimate how long a journey would take.

As a student, I walked miles, around the streets of Liverpool, and home across the park at night – ah, those carefree days when I thought little of the city’s dangers. Then, when I moved to Lancaster, I lived in a village again, a couple of miles outside the city, and frequently found myself walking home through the night (buses were never that frequent). And there was the beauty of the Lune Valley and the Trough of Bowland, as well as the Lake District to explore. I walked miles around the streets of London when I lived there for five years.

Cities are best explored on foot, I think. I used to know Paris really well, though it must be over ten years since I was last there. And, although the Metro was quick and efficient and cheap, I walked everywhere as I explored; it was impossible to get lost as there was always a Metro station with a huge helpful map every few hundred yards. You really get the sense of a place when you walk its streets. I’ve explored some of Berlin like that, and found all sorts of wonders. Food and drink are easily available, and I’ve always found locals friendly and helpful.

Having had a number of holidays in Europe with our children when they were young, I got used to country walking there: footpaths and walking trails are so much more clearly and helpfully signposted than in Britain, we found, and often it was not necessary to use a map at all.

Now I travel to the Ardennes every year for a walking holiday. I have learned to use maps reasonably well, although I also find that maps on my phone are very helpful if I think I’m lost. And since I’m on my own, I am beginning to be rather more sensible about safety and security, rather than just blithely striding forth…

So, what, if anything, has my experience of walking taught me?

I prefer to walk alone. If I’m with someone, or with a group, I will find myself paying less attention to my surroundings, to the nature, the flora and the fauna, the views and landscapes, and these are the things I really enjoy when I’m walking for pleasure. You can’t stalk a heron for ten minutes in a group of people, or outstare a wolf or a mouflon if you’re busy chattering; you won’t get face-to-face with a deer who hasn’t noticed you because the wind was blowing the other way… And if you meet someone who’s up for a brief chat rather than the usual polite walker’s ‘Hello!’ (or Bonjour, Guten Tag or whatever) then that’s a brief additional pleasure. I shared half an hour’s walk with a couple of French folk in the Languedoc because we were trying to find a particular track: I’m sure we enjoyed each other’s company, but equally were relieved to make our farewells.

I prefer to walk in forests or woodland, rather than in open space, which is why I prefer the Ardennes to the Lake District, for example, and I’ve written here about my fascination with forests. The birdsong is astonishing – and no, I can’t identify more than a couple of birds by their call, I just like the accompaniment as I go – even though I have poor hearing. And there is always the possibility of spotting or seeing other interesting wildlife.

I like to think. Being alone, and in motion, is very conducive to being reflective, I find. I can review where I’ve got to with my life, make future plans, ponder the meaning of life and existence, feel at peace and contented with my lot; I often find that where I am stimulates what I can only call spiritual thoughts, meditation, if you like. It’s peaceful, and reassuring. And technology is helpful here, too: if I have a moment of epiphany, or just a useful flash of inspiration, I can record a message to myself briefly on my phone so I don’t forget it…

I’ve read about walking, too. When I was quite young, my father introduced me to a fascinating book by a fellow Pole who had escaped from captivity in Siberia with some of his comrades and walked to India. It’s called The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz, and is an astonishing tale of hardship and endurance, a tribute to the human spirit and urge to survive. And I’ve previously mentioned the books of Bernard Ollivier, who walked the entire Silk Route from Istanbul to Beijing. There’s someone whom I can admire and envy, for I can’t really contemplate such lengthy journeys myself because of a problem with my right foot, which will allow me to clock up getting on for fifteen miles a day for a couple of weeks, but does begin to complain quite a lot if I overdo things.

In the end, I suppose I regard walking as natural. It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy, and I’m not obsessive about my 10,000 steps a day, which apparently is a myth anyway. It gets me about at minimal cost, and as long as the podiatrist and the orthotist can sort out my wonky foot, I’m looking forward to many more years and miles…

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Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

July 30, 2019

91BBJbiHQXL._AC_UY218_QL90_  It’s a long time since I came cross such a frustrating book. I count myself as a walker, in that I try and walk everywhere I can in my normal daily routines, and in that I love going off on walking tours, exploring hills and forests and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Although I’d also like to undertake some long-distance trails, I think that age and a foot problem probably exclude this. So a book about walking ought to be right up my street (!).

But reading this was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Gros hardly ever seemed to be going anywhere clear, he rambled (verbally) and spent a lot of time stating what I’m afraid I have to call the bloody obvious if you are a walker yourself, leading me to think that, if you’re not a walker, then you won’t find this book very helpful, either.

He writes about famous people who apparently walked a lot – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant and others, but I could never really see what he was achieving by using them as examples. A good deal of what he had to say was plain common-sense dressed up a philosophy, banal to any serious walker, I would have thought. I found him most (and that wasn’t very) interesting on Thoreau and the contrasts the latter drew between frugality and austerity, and between benefit and profit, when considering decisions about how to run his life. Gros also had a few thought-provoking comments about the idea of pilgrimage too, and I learned more about Gandhi and his many non-violent protests, which also involved a lot of walking.

So, what was the purpose behind this book? What can it say to us ordinary walkers? To this one, it was vacuous and ultimately forgettable, as well as pretentious in a way that only a certain type of very annoying French writer can be. Professional, long-distance walkers and pilgrims could write something far better and more interesting: let me point you in the direction of another French walker who is miles (!) better: Bernard Ollivier. I’ve written about many of his books, if you care to search my posts. He writes about the astonishing walks he’s actually done, the people and places he’s been to and encountered, and, more to our point here, a real philosophy of walking (though I’m not sure he’d call it that) emerges as he walks and writes…

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

Bernard Ollivier: Sur le chemin des Ducs

May 9, 2015

downloadI became a fan of Bernard Ollivier through reading his epic account of walking the entire Silk Route, from Turkey to China, which took him three years and which he completed in several slices. He’s an interesting man, who has also set up an organisation in his native France which aims to help young offenders rethink their lives and get back on the straight and narrow through long-distance walking, and this has had some success.

In this book he’s in his home territory of Normandy completing the pilgrim’s walk from Rouen to Mont St Michel – not a long trek compared with his previous ones. I was also attracted to this book because of my own love of Normandy, where many aeons ago, it seems, for a year I was an assistant at a secondary school. I came to enjoy the food and the landscape.

Ollivier is more relaxed as he walks, in familiar territory, including passing through the town where he grew up. He describes well the beauty of the Normandy landscape and his love of solitude, nature and contemplation comes strongly through his writing. There’s also rather more humour than I recall from his previous books. The episode where he recounts the installation of a new weathercock on a village church is interesting: tradition demands that he takes it to each house in the village to show it, and he is treated to coffee and a shot at each house. He is totally plastered when begins to climb the spire and totally sober on his descent!

Olliver notices the gradual rural depopulation as the flight to the cities continues, and the continuing gentrification of the desirable areas of the region. He clearly loves walking, deploring our increasingly sedentary world where few make the effort to get out on their feet and encounter the natural world and engage with it. A voice crying in the wilderness, maybe, but it’s a great pleasure to accompany him on his travels.

Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

Ollivier: La vie commence à 60 ans

May 5, 2013

51+U8MrxdVL._AA160_I’ve written about Bernard Ollivier’s epic walk along the Silk Route in earlier posts; this is more personal and biographical, and explains more of his thinking about life. I decided to read it as I approach the ‘six-0’ in a short while, and I found it quite inspirational.

One of his major ideas is that walking solves everything, and I agree with him: he discovered this by walking from Paris to Santiago di Compostella in Spain, and I read his book while on a walking holiday in the hills of Luxembourg. He explains how he came up with the idea of walking the Silk Route, how he planned it and the reactions of family and friends to the exploit. There is honesty in the way he approaches ageing and its inevitable effects, and coming to terms with these; plenty of material for thinking about here. Above all, it’s an attitude of mind which I’d hope to emulate. One can’t escape growing older and gradually weaker, but one doesn’t have to be oppressed by it; being retired brings opportunities and freedoms along with it.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche III

November 16, 2010

51KKE2v8M1L._AA160_The final volume covers the last two sections of his journey, from Samarkand to Turfan, across the Taklamakan desert, and then from Turfan to Xi’an, where he completes his walk, at the age of 64 (!) of somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand kilometres.  The achievement is astonishing – he realises at the end that he is possibly the only person ever to walk the entire length of the Silk Route.  The section in China is rather weird as he knows nothing of the language, meaning that his contact and communication with people is somewhat restricted, and yet he has many friendly contacts and encounters with people. He communicates a powerful sense of the dynamism of the Chinese as a people, reinforcing my impression that China is the nation that will mould the 21st century.

I really enjoyed these books.  If you read French, read them.  If you know someone who will translate them for English readers, tell them.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche II

November 16, 2010

51c4INK4KQL._AA160_A year later, he’s back on the road, in the most interesting of the three volumes, in my opinion, as he walks through Iran, heading for Samarkand. Given that Iran seems such a closed society to us in the West, characterised mainly by its nuclear ambitions and its – as presented though our media – rather bizarre regime, it was really refreshing and eye-opening to read of an ordinary person’s travels through this country, and his encounters with ordinary Iranians, their lives, cares and friendliness.  He had problems and difficulties at times, because of the regime and its restrictions, but I found myself warming to the place and the people second-hand, as it were, through his account.  Bernard does revive one’s faith in human nature.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche 1

October 18, 2010

51rBtL2fDoL._AA160_ I’ve been fascinated by the Silk Road/ Silk Route, and descriptions of travel along it, for a number of years; there are a lot of very interesting accounts out there.  But Bernard Ollivier was a sixty year-old retired journalist when he decided to walk from Istanbul to Xian, carrying only a backpack and trusting to fortune.  He didn’t do it all in one go, but planned a route carefully to allow him to complete a section one year, go back home to Normandy and then go back and begin again where he’d left off, the following year…

This volume follows him across Turkey almost to the border with Iran, when he is floored by amoebic dysentery and eventually evacuated as a medical emergency, and taken back to Istanbul.

He’s trusting (sometimes to the point of naivete) and open to all encounters and situations, and meets a wide variety of people as he walks.  The standard reactions to him are that he must be insane to walk – so many people want to offer him lifts – and that, as a European, he must be very rich, and therefore worth robbing.

The book is a straightforward account of his travels; it could have done with a better map.  I admire him for his guts and energy, and his willingness to encounter the world when so many of us seem increasingly to be afraid of ‘the other’.

I’ve begun the second volume…

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