Nothing to Be Afraid of
The Bayeux Tapestry was, for centuries, brought out of storage and hung annually in the town cathedral. Now there are not one but three museums dedicated to it all year around. To walk through its long zigzag strip cartoon narrative is to be immersed in an imagination which loves heraldic images but also insists on mess and chaos. On one level, struggling pairs of men fight, and prone, beheaded figures are laid out underneath the ground which beautiful horses prance across. The colours are sepia, and the bodies of the men seem to be absorbed into that background, their dotted armour all that allows us to tell one side from another. The horses stand out against that background, dark wine-red, or chestnut (marron),or deep, mahogany browns, their long manes showily combed and draped. And above them all, the comet of course, like an uprooted sunflower, augur of change … In 1989, Europe took on a very specific new reality, broken open as idea by the destruction of the Berlin Wall. A few months before that, my own wall -breaking moment arrived. I had turned sixteen and our annual school tour was to take us first to Paris, and then Bayeux. It was a time when I was beginning to separate myself, maybe a little belatedly, from family and town, moving on from my parents’ record collection to an excited enthusiasm for new British music, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Cure, the Waterboys, a variety which seemed to reveal whole new skies I might walk under, at the same time as I was reading books which chimed with this music, speaking more truly to how I felt than anything written in Ireland: The Outsider, Steppenwolf, The Trial, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I might have gotten a taste for that on family holidays. We had been travelling from Ringaskiddy to Roscoff and down the west coast of France for the previous four years. I loved the heat, and the food – croissants, moules marinières, the crêpes,Orangina, the boulangeries and hypermarchés. The wonders of Eric Leclerc. My parents would ship back wine from vineyards, carefully arranging the bottles in my sisters’ suitcases before we loaded them for the long drive home.
But the school tour, the big smoke of Paris, was a differently adult France. I clicked through an entire disposable camera photographing the city from the Eiffel Tower’s viewing platform, queued for ages at and around the Louvre, walked the last day wondering in the vicinity of the lego-coloured Pompidou Centre, and snuck off into the side streets with my classmates when we were given a free hour by our chaperoning teachers. That hour showed how ill-prepared we were for Europe, for liberty, although this only became apparent next day when we left Paris and, on our way back to the ferry port at Cherbourg, stopped at Bayeux. We lined up to see the tapestry, and as I remember it, it seemed like a slow line inside too as we wound around the room’s display of its seventy-metre narrative. I bought a tea-towel in the giftshop to bring home. And then I went back to the hostel which the school had booked out for us.
The hostel had a central atrium which a dark wooden stairs spiralled around. At each floor a railed landing circled the stairs. You could see the railed landing of the dorms above you and down to the floors below. In no time, as we shared the alcohol we had been able to buy so easily in Paris, it became apparent that this was an ideal setting for a water-fight. Soon, someone had the bright idea of using the Paris condoms, which could be filled with water, and exploded on contact with the enemies above or below. I can’t remember when the gendarmes were called, but by the time they arrived, water had been replaced by fire. Each floor had boys racing along the banister, or sliding down to launch something at the floor below. Bangers, just as illegal in Ireland as the condoms, were fizzling through the banisters. Liberty had seemed absolute; suddenly it became apparent that the police were still a factor. Three of our class were marched down the stairs and spent the night as guests of the state. And when our bus left early next morning, a police car followed us out of town.
What have I omitted? The riverboat on the Seine? Climbing out of the streets to float between the beautiful quays, arrayed on deck, sun-struck, not quite knowing how to tell one acre of white stone from another. If they had been there, “Incredible Floridas / among whose flowers panthers’ eyes in human forms” might well have passed us by. Then, another school tour clambered on board at a bend on the river. They appeared to be speaking German. Bored by the procession of boulevards, a chorus of “We won the war” started up among us. At which point the other school sent a peacemaker towards us to explain that they were not German but Dutch and had fought with us against the Germans; outraged at the idea that we could be identified as British, we forcefully explained that, au contraire ...
The customs area in 1989 was a fraught affair. Anxiety about our European booty – condoms, fireworks, pornography – increased after our run-in in Bayeux. Some of the contraband may have been left at the hostel, or in the terminal. At least one of my friends held his nerve. He told me, as we walked out from our last Legion of Mary session at the district hospital a few weeks later, how much he had made from selling his copies of Playboy etc. to elderly neighbours. A small fortune, if he was to be believed.
My friends and I never talked directly about Paris, or about Bayeux. It was complicated. Afterwards, we were all crazy for experience, and that summer’s wildness, its new appetites, must have had something to do with what we had tasted and glimpsed. The police were real, yes, and that had been a shock for those of us who thought that punishment was something that only happened in the next world. But the idea that there was another world, here, had dawned on us too. Our eyes were opened and when, years later, I read Rimbaud I recognised like an augury his discovery of another entire dimension, and the revelation that there was nothing to be afraid of:
“I saw starry archipelagos, islands whose delirious skies open to the wanderer:
is it in their endless nights that you wait, in exile,
a golden exaltation of their atmosphere, the forceful future?”
 Both passages are from Arthur Rimbaud, "Le Bateau ivre” (The Drunken Boat). My translation.