Towering above this medieval French village is dun-coloured cliff of volcanic rock, dramatically floodlit at night, topped by two ancient lookout towers. A wide waterfall once flowed over this cliff and at night the floodlights pick out the grooves and caverns worn away over thousands of years. For the last couple of millennia these caverns have been the dwelling places of all sorts of refugees and paupers and one of the larger ones was turned into a hospice for old soldiers of Napoleon’s citizen army. The rock is too hard and impervious to allow for much modification of the cavern walls, but a rough stone wall with window and doorway built across a cavern opening affords a perfectly dry and secure dwelling place. I can vouch for this because since last Thursday I’ve been living and sleeping in one.
The bed is at the narrowing whitewashed point of the cave and lying there with the living rock hanging just above one’s head, it feels a bit like sleeping in a big cool vagina. A chimney in the tiny cave which is the kitchen has been in use for the last 1,500 years. In front of the hobbit-like door in the rock is a ledge about the size of a tennis court where it never rains and which has been made into a cactus garden. A circular metal table and four plastic chairs under a pollarded mulberry tree constitutes the living room. From my plastic seat under the mulberry tree I can see for 30 miles over the hills to the south, and for the last few nights, weirdly, and slightly ominously, the planet Mars has appeared low in the sky as a huge solitary red blob after about the third evening gin and tonic. And if I’m not mistaken, I will have a grandstand seat for Friday’s Blood Moon and total lunar eclipse.
Shelley von Strunckel has been warning me for months that this once in a century lunar eclipse in Aquarius will render null and void even the pitiful few certainties which I am currently entertaining about who I am and what I think I am playing at. (I must remember to tell Professor Brian Cox the next time I see him that if he or any of his learned colleagues need to locate the exact centre of the universe, it’s me.)
But I think I might be feeling the effects of this unusual planetary alignment already. The second evening of my new troglodytic life, I went to a party. It was about half an hour away by car and I cadged a ride. There were three of us in the car, all journalists of one sort or another, and for various reasons we would have to leave the party early, we said, at around ten, and on the way we solemnly pledged to try and stay our hand — not drink too much while we were there. The woman said she was going to try and stick at three; the chap at the wheel, not known to be abstemious, surprised me by agreeing that three was indeed a plausible ambition. I hadn’t had a drink for 13 consecutive days and as I was rather enjoying life being stone cold sober among the stalactites, I too signed up to the plan of three drinks only and coming home rejoicing.
Well, it was a fantastic party, with a ten-piece peripatetic jazz band strolling among the guests and playing, among other party classics, ‘I’m the King of the Swingers’, and the chap who was driving and I had three in the first ten minutes alone, which made us feel completely above the struggle, and thereafter we speeded up. And after what felt about ten minutes later, I found myself ejected from the car somewhere at the foot of the cliff and wondering how to reach my cave from there.
Myriad narrow cobbled paths meandered upwards through the medieval part of the village, some of which lay in moonlit ruins. Higher up, ruins, and long abandoned caves, and dead ends, became the norm, and I was doing that three steps forward, one sideways, and two backwards routine. I think it took me about an hour to get up there and find my little door in the rock face. (Going down, sober, to fetch the croissants in the morning takes about two minutes.)
And while I was groping my way back through the ages, I fell prey to a terrifying feeling of estrangement and dislocation. England, dear old England, by many accounts is already in the process of dissolution. And here was I, on a floodlit cliff, among abandoned, thousand-year-old ruins, in an unfathomable country, among an ungentle people, under a big red Mars, aged 62, looking for a hole in the rock.