My first trip across the English Channel was back in 1966. ‘For five quid each,’ the London travel agent said with a wink, ‘I can get you and your girl friend to Paris for Christmas and back, by air! Howzat?’
Pretty good, I thought – I can just about afford five pounds, a third of my weekly wage. But by air? Did he say by air?
A very old bus took us out of London through the frozen winter countryside. Many hours later – it seemed like days – we arrived at the edge of a windswept icy field overlooking the sea. We strapped ourselves into the canvas seats of a World War II vintage DC-3 with its two gigantic petrol engines thundering and lurched off the edge of the cliff into the teeth of a snow-storm.
An endless and fear-filled fifteen minutes later we slammed down onto an abandoned airstrip near Calais, and began the fourteen-hour bus trip across sleety Normandy to Paris.
The weather was so bad that December weekend that even the mad captain of the DC-3 refused to risk the return flight, and it was cancelled, to my great relief. We came back by train, and ferry, and train again.
To the English, for thousand of years, the Channel is what has made their ‘sceptred isle’ different. Shakespeare described England as a ‘fortress built by nature … against … the hand of war’ and the Channel as ‘the silver sea which serves it in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands …’
But they’ve been invaded from across the Channel so many times, beginning before the Romans, that the ‘they’ who have been invaded keep changing as the population becomes mixed, mingled and multiculturalised with last season’s intruders.
Now, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, what was once a moat is an open door. The latest invasion is made up of a weekly tide of envious bus-drivers and housewives from the ‘less happier lands’ of France or Belgium, crazed with a lust not to loot and conquer, but to shop at Harrods. The high-speed ‘Eurostar’ train takes them from Brussels or Paris under the Channel, and they clamber out in the middle of London, wallets at the ready.
I was in England again a few years ago, much older and a little wiser, and took the 9.53 a.m. Eurostar to Paris. I’d been invited to read my work at the twentieth annual Festival Franco-Anglais de Poésie in Paris, and I wanted to check out the new ‘Australian Bookshop’ on the Left Bank of the Seine.
Years of Thatcherism had taken their toll, and in England the railway tracks were not in such good shape – the train barely made a hundred miles an hour. On the French side where things were less technically challenged they let her rip and whistle along at three hundred k.p.h. – close to two hundred miles an hour. The carriages were air conditioned and eerily quiet. The train tilts gently like a speedboat as it goes through the curves.
In fact it feels like a large jet plane, except safer, and it has a bar. The tinted windows are double-glazed and hermetically sealed, the seats are two-by-two, and everything’s upholstered. When we took off, I folded my tray table, fumbled anxiously for my seat belt – there are no seat belts – and waited for the captain to say ‘Will the cabin crew please arm the doors and cross-check’. Why wasn’t there a safety demonstration, I wanted to know.
And the tunnel? I thought I’d be terrified, rattling along in the dark under millions of tons of water and schools of migrating haddock, but I hardly noticed it.
The train glided to a stop at the Gare du Nord, in the middle of Paris, just in time for lunch in one of those Latin Quarter cafés where James Joyce scribbled at his books and where Jean-Paul Sartre used to sip coffee and tinker with his exact position on the French intellectual mât totémique.
The trip had taken three hours – just time to browse through a volume of Proust or a paragraph of «Finnegans Wake». That’s less time than the equivalent plane trip — jet plane, these days — would take from city centre to city centre, and you don’t have to worry about storms.