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Books blog: The author who walked from France to Italy in honour of Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc, one of England's most prolific writers (AP Photo)

Recently I have had the pleasure of reading In Belloc’s Steps by Jim Malia, published by New Millennium for £7.99. As his title indicates, Jim walked from Toul to Rome (with some help from wheeled transport when desperate) in honour of Hilaire Belloc, starting in 2000 and concluding, after a break, in 2003. Belloc, as lovers of his writings will know, did this same walk a hundred years earlier and wrote about it in The Path to Rome.

Jim, who had just retired from teaching aged 65, carried out a youthful ambition. He describes the blisters, the weather – always important to walkers and often uninviting: “In the mountains one does not presume on the weather; one hopes” – the wine, the people he met, and the incidents, pleasant and unpleasant. It is a lively and sympathetic account, illustrated by short sketches of the route and comments on the hospitality savoured on the way. Apart from the fact that I am a poor map-reader, hopeless at erecting tents and have never tried cooking on a primus, Jim’s account definitely makes me want to follow in his and Belloc’s footsteps.

So I ask him what had inspired him to imitate Belloc. He relates a famous anecdote: “Belloc was a Catholic, forthright and unashamed. Standing for Salford in the General Election and speaking to a largely evangelical group, he took out his Rosary beads, showed them to the crowd, explained what they were and told them he said his Rosary every day. If that fact deterred them from voting for him, he didn’t want their vote. They voted for him. Throughout his book this attitude prevails.”

I suspect that Belloc is not much read today, so I ask Jim which of his many books he would recommend to modern readers. He tells me that he is not an expert on Belloc’s writing, but that The Path to Rome (Belloc’s own favourite) would be his first choice. He adds that he has enjoyed “the delightful Cautionary Tales, his Histories, such as The French Revolution, Oliver Cromwell, Danton, which are very readable, with a wonderful eye to background and environment, though it is generally agreed they are also somewhat superficial and sometimes inaccurate.”

I quote from Belloc’s famous statement, “Europe is the Faith. The Faith is Europe” and ask Jim what his own response to this view is, given his own pilgrimage through a very different Europe over a century later. He answers reflectively, “Rome built an empire. The barbarians tore it apart. Christian missionaries rebuilt it. Having rebuilt it, the Christian Church nurtured the land and its people: Celtic missionaries, nuns in enclosed convents, monastic communities which farmed the land and the building of the great cathedrals tells us of the Faith that was Europe.”

He continues: “Then came the Reformation, Belloc, brought up in England, saw only vestiges of that Faith. Even in France, the land of his birth, he saw only its flickering flame. Then he came to the village of Undervelier and heard the vespers bell; as the bell tolled he saw all the villagers making for their church, where he joined them and sang the beautiful hymn praising God at the end of the light of day – and felt he was very much part of what had been Christendom.”

Warming to his theme, Jim adds that he too had “occasional glimpses of the practice of such faith: evening Mass in a full village church in the valley of Formazza; Castagne, with its tiny oratory where the villagers gathered for prayer and where occasionally they were privileged to hear Mass.”

But “it was in Parma that he dichotomy was revealed. On Holy Thursday I witnessed the solemn beginning of the sacred Triduum, the stripping of the altar, the empty tabernacle, the extinguishing of the sanctuary lamp, the darkened church and the prayerful silence – while outside there was the noise and bustle of holiday-makers, indifferent, moving among the expensive shops, the bright lights and the noisy traffic; the beginning of the Easter holiday.” He concludes with a sigh, “Europe is now devoid of shared faith.”

Returning to Belloc, a writer I confess I don’t know, I ask Jim what he has to say to a contemporary readership. He thinks that “travel stories are always acceptable and Belloc spins a good yarn. His disregard for the conventions of formal writing is refreshing. He turns literary hyperbole into a fine art. He writes as he likes, wandering off into lengthy discussions with neither compunction nor excuse. Belloc, in his early 30s when he did the walk, was a tough specimen of manhood – a French mind in a bulldog English frame. He writes for himself and enjoys what he writes.” Belloc, Jim thinks, “remains to be rediscovered.”

I note in Jim’s own account of his walk that he relishes the local wines, so ask which ones he would recommend. He smiles: “Who can write on Belloc without bringing in the fruits of the vine?” and agrees jocularly that his book reads “like a drinker’s charter – but in that I was but following my master’s footsteps.” He informs me that “the wine of Brule, which held a firm place in Belloc’s recollection, is acceptable. The Riesling of Rupt has left a memory that lingers. The wine from his son’s vineyard in Burgundy near Macon, which I shared with an old gentleman in his garden under a pergola as the noonday sun shone, is another happy memory. There are no bad wines – though some are better than others.”

Our conversation is coming to a close. What are Jim’s final thoughts about his walk? He admits that his book “was a labour of love, in homage to an earlier masterpiece.” The highlights: “Sitting by the Moselle, talking to the fisherman and sharing a fine cognac in the cool of the evening till the stars came out; the visit to the exhibition of the Deportation at Charmes, which opened my mind to the suffering of a people under enemy occupation; the friendliness of people everywhere; their acceptance of a wandering foreigner and their generosity; the glorious sights and scenery and the thrill of the mountain-storm.”