I spent nearly half my life behind a camera, travelling the world, filming news stories for Independent Television News of London. I covered everything from ganja-fuelled election campaigns in Jamaica to a three day shootout in Moscow. In between were places like Rwanda, Goma, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Jerusalem, Gaza. Those are the places that stuck with me and made me wonder…how can human beings be so bloody cruel to each other? Again and again, I felt I was working the frontlines of good and evil. That notion became the stuff my first book, War Junkie (Transworld 2002), a non fiction account of one year in the life of a TV news cameraman. A year that ended with me on the floor of Heathrow Airport babbling words that made no sense. I stayed on the job, trying to document proof that evil still reigned mightily in the world until Baghdad, 2003. By then I’d had enough. Evil had beaten the crap out of me and I surrendered. I put my camera on the ground and quit.
I hid out in south of France, to a small town in the Tuchon Valley of les Corbières. It was a secluded and idyllic place bordered on the south by the Pyrenées, and all other sides by hills atop which sat the remnants of Cathar fortresses. Some of the locals in the valley grew wine, some grew dope. High speed internet had yet to arrive. I had no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no telephone. The local shopkeeper made wonderful roast chicken on Sundays and homemade pizza on Wednesdays. There was one café run by an ex-cop from Carcassonne. Some of the locals still spoke Occitan and Catalan, the languages of the land before it was made France. My neighbor had a goat to whom I fed leftovers. I took long walks in quiet places. And it was there I began to think…
We’re taught in the Holy Bible that long ago, in beforetimes, there was a war between the forces of light (the good angels) and darkness (the bad angels), and that the forces of light won the day in the name of God. It’s a fine story on papyrus, but there’s a problem with the plot: since then, millions upon millions of innocent men, women and children have been slaughtered in the name of God. And while in the trenches, as if working on the frontlines of good and evil, questions came to me about the supposedly divinely inspired words of the Good Book: What if scripture got it all wrong? What if all I witnessed from the trenches, all the slaughter through human history, was the continuation of the same damn war? What if we humans had been tricked into thinking the good guys had won the day?
As those questions tumbled through my mind, I found myself one night in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the north shore of Lake Geneva. A friend was driving me along Pont Bessières into the old city. He pointed to the cathedral…‘Look up there, in the tower. Do you see the light?’ There was a light moving slowly around the belfry, a night watchman I thought. ‘Non, mon ami,’ my friend said, ‘c’est le guet de Lausanne.’…it is the watcher of Lausanne. My friend explained that once upon a time all cathedrals had a watcher in the belfry through the night. Someone to watch for fires and other dangers. But as the world became enamored with marvelous inventions, the watchers vanished from the face of the earth…except for Lausanne, where there has been a watcher in the tower calling the hour through the night, each night, for nearly nine hundred years.
‘He is the last watcher on earth. Would you like to meet him?’ my friend said.
‘Duh,’ was my response.
And a little while later, I was standing at the bottom of the cathedral belfry, bottle of good wine in my hand (as is the tradition when you are presented to the watcher) and my friend was shouting up...‘Renato! I have an American writer with me! He wants to meet you!’ Three hundred feet above, I saw a shadow peek through the railings of the lower balcony, and I heard a mumbling voice…‘Ah, j’arrive, j’arrive.’ …I will be there, I will be there. And the shadow disappeared. I thought the shadow must be coming down the tower to let us in, but instead, it reappeared at the railings, attached the key to Lausanne Cathedral to the end of long line of string, and lowered it down to us. I remember mumbling to myself…‘You have got to be fucking kidding me.’
My friend undid the key and we let ourselves in and climbed round-and-round-you-go steps of the tower. We came reached the lower balcony and it felt like flying…high above Lausanne and Lake Geneva and the Alps on the far shore. And from the shadows of Clémence, the execution bell, stepped a small man in a large black hat and a black coat. In his right hand was a very old, candle-lit lantern.
‘Hello, it’s only me,’ he said.
It was Renato Haüsler, the present watcher of Lausanne Cathedral.
He led me to his tiny room tucked between the two largest bells in the belfry, Clémance and Marie Madeleine. (Marie rings the hour, and when she does, the tiny room between the bells shakes in the wake of her massive voice.) We drank wine and talked, then Renato took me all through the tower, introducing me to all seven bells of Lausanne Cathedral, and telling me stories about the timbers, the stones, the statues. And each time Marie rang each hour, Renato relit his lantern and carried it to the east balcony, then the north, west and south, and at each balcony he would stop, raise his lantern and call, ‘C’et le guet! Il a sonne douze! Il a sonne douze!’…It is the watcher! The hour sounds midnight! The hour sounds midnight! (The words called would change with each hour. Ten, eleven, midnight, one, two, etc. In The Angelus Trilogy, to avoid confusion, the watcher says, Il a sonne l’heure!..the hour sounds instead of announcing each hour.)
The long night ended with Renato and me on the roof of the belfry, looking out over the most incredible view above the lake. The stars reflected in the smooth water like precious bits of light. We didn't speak for a very long time. Finally Renato said…
‘What are you thinking about, Jon?’
My mind was running so fast I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts. I mean, after a life in the trenches, on the front lines of the battle between good and evil, I was now standing atop a 900 year old cathedral in one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on earth. A place surrounded by violence, cruelty, war, suffering…as if Lausanne was all that’s left of paradise. And I was standing with a guy who lives in a bell tower and holds a lantern against the darkness and calls the hour…in the 21st century century…and he’s the last of his kind on earth…and, and…
‘I think, Renato, there’s a great story here. I just don’t know what it is.’
Renato nodded and laid his hand on mine. He squeezed my hand as if giving me strength, and he said…‘Then is your duty to write it.’
And so I did.