It is common for writers to follow in the footsteps of their more august predecessors, either literally or metaphorically. It’s less usual for their notebooks to do it for them. But that’s just what mine has done. The original footsteps are those of Robert Louis Stevenson, he of Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde fame. When the great Scot was still in his twenties he spent twelve days hiking through the Cévennes, a wild and beautiful region of Languedoc, along the southern edge of the Massif Central. The result was a highly readable travelogue entitled Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1878) , the donkey being Modestine, who emerged as one of the more vivid – and indeed sympathetic – characters in the book. (It seems a good few of the locals were decidedly wary of the RLS, and kept their distance.)
I was near the Cévennes earlier this summer, and took with me a notebook, as I always do when travelling. It was rather a nice one - a gift - leather bound with a hard cover. I wrote many notes for The Valley of Unknowing in it, and I had I stuck to things literary, I might never have lost it. Unfortunately on this trip I used it to write down directions to a nearby supermarket (and a shopping list, for shame!) and then left it in the trolley, on one of those little fold-out seats used to torture small children. I could never have suspected that the next person to use that particular trolley would be a man from the Cévennes, who makes a living taking visitors through the region on donkeys; but that’s just what Christian Brochier does. (I am told that his donkeys are as lovely as Modestine was, but that the locals are now a good deal friendlier. Nor are you required, as RLS was, to share a bed with any of them – unless you want to.)
A few weeks later, the notebook turned up again in England with a card from M. Brochier, in which he wrote: “I thank you for this moment of poesy and adventure in the great temple of consumption. I felt like a detective trying to resolve the question of the lost booklet – important for somebody, probably for a book or a film – and was especially puzzled by the map with the shops.”
I think the great writer would have understood this reaction very well. And I offer M Brochier my sincere thanks for his kindness.