Mr Cudbird asked me to review his book on the strength of my Amazon review of Graham Robb's `The Discovery of France'. And it is true to say that Cudbird himself, in his circumambulation of the far corners of France - 4000 miles in 300 days - has been his own intrepid explorer: by keeping off the tourist routes, he has seen sites that have remained `undiscovered' since the Romantics ushered in our modern view of the picturesque and sublime. And this book certainly makes manifest the view that the landscape of France is continental in its extremes and variety.
But by keeping off the tourist routes, and by seemingly intending to make his journey - certainly through the mountains - as hazardous as possible, it is unlikely that many others who read his adventures will follow in his footsteps. But one can only admire the grit and determination of sixty-something Cudbird in undertaking his adventure. When his friends asked, "Why not just do the best bits and leave the rest out?" he replied that he just could not compromise: "I had said I was going to walk the circumference of France and round I was going to go." I can empathise, having myself undertaken my own adventures-in-walking.
But, strangely, Cudbird does not actually walk the circumference. For instance, he barely touches the Mediterranean, and only views the Rhine from the Vosges. But if he barely touches the border, we are though treated to perceptive insights into the effects on these parts of France of the neighbouring language, food, architecture, and customs: thus we can talk of Franco-Spanish (or Catalan), Franco-Italian (or Savoyard), Franco-Swiss, and Franco-German influences.
And there is no gentle introduction to the walking, either: from the get-go we march headlong into the high Pyrenees. I would perhaps have liked something first about the things the English walker needs to know about when walking in France, such as the laws about where one can and cannot walk. When he reaches the lowlands and the flat country of the north, the route is still often off the beaten track. If the landscape is no longer physically challenging, he reports seeing much more variety than he expected: "For a hiker bent on discovery it was an ideal environment", although I noted the word `unremarkable' being used twice in a couple of pages. One other result of being off the beaten track is the lack of eating choices at the end of a long day's trek. It is remarkable how often all over France, if the worse comes to the worse, there is always pizza!
Cudbird's writing style, presumably like the man himself, is assured and pleasant. He is good with descriptions - they are short but he is always able to discern contradictions. But the prose is not poetic, not purple, and not full of wonderfully astute metaphors. He is intelligent and perceptive. He writes as he finds; he is not out to impress either those he comes across on his travels (I was going to write `rambles', but this is not the right word at all) or the reader. The book comes with some excellent photographs taken by the author; it's a shame they are in black and white. Each chapter has its own monochrome map too, though I am not sure as to their veracity: Geneva is shown as in France. It is also unfortunate that he uses imperial measurements.
Cudbird writes, "Some readers might expect a book packed with heroic incidents and exotic adventures, in which case they may find my story disappointing ... My adventure was lower-key than some but it was an adventure nevertheless." There is no denying this, and I am truly in awe of Cudbird's achievement. In the first chapter we read of knife-edge mountain ridges, of snowbound cols, and of gites where 6am showers are ice cold. Death waits at any turn. But, as when some acquaintance asks you to view their holiday snaps showing photos of mountain after mountain after mountain, you really had to be there with them to fully appreciate and understand their joys and fears. Otherwise - and this is at heart the problem of Cudbird's book - we are often in the realms of `and then' syndrome, especially with the one-line throwaway paragraphs.
This is perhaps being a little too hard on Cudbird's book. Not only does he supply a little gentle humour, but he also makes the effort to provide a little history along the way, providing some interesting information - for instance, on the derivation and meaning of place-names, or the lost industries of the Languedoc. He summarises some conversations he had along the way too, but the summary alas is often all there is, for the details of the conversations, some of which sounded deep and meaningful, are rarely reported. Instead, he has to move on. In short, I salute Cudbird's charm, his persistence, his dogged indefatigability. Avoiding the tourist honeypots where possible, striding out on often lonely paths with only those seeking to escape the world as passing company, which made for some lively and fascinating conversations
But there is a second thread running through this book, and that is the walker's own attitude of mind: "It is not France itself which is important, but rather the personal transformation brought about by immersion in a non-Anglo-Saxon culture." Walking abroad is a way for Cudbird to escape his responsibilities at home. As well as the bravery of his trek, we must also recognise the bravery of his telling the reader of his own problems trying to cope with two aged parents back in Britain. Their lives intrude via his mobile phone. (Being partly in the same boat, I can both empathise with his need but also condemn his selfish recklessness.)
At the end of the penultimate chapter, there's another call from home, and Cudbird has to admit that, "My sense of direction was an illusion. I was trying to find some respite from reality. I had no idea how I could come to terms with it." In the book's epilogue he refers to his guilt, his anger, and his denial. We are our memories. And as those of his mother and father started to fade back in Britain, Cudbird clings to his of France, is trek having "opened up new experiences, new perspectives. The slow rhythm of walking was like a silent meditation." This book might have been more interesting with more of these meditations and less of the landscape.