During the lock-downs of the past year I’ve enjoyed many listening binges of various artists on Spotify, including the varied career of Iggy Pop, the enigmatic and ever-changing Beck, as well as the lesser known (but excellent) singer-songwriter Will Varley. I first saw Varley play at a Frank Turner event at Falmouth a couple of years back, and since that point I’ve been impressed with his continual stream of album releases.
So, why am I discussing a musician on this, a so-called supposed history blog? Well, allow me to cut to the chase. On Varley’s recent album, Live at Shepherds Bush Empire, he introduces his song ‘The Postman’ by talking about the initial motivation for its composition. The postman in question is Ferdinand Cheval, who lived from 1836-1924, whilst spending 30 years building Le Palais ideal (the Ideal Palace). As Cheval’s profession suggests, he did not have the means to build a large palace, but rather his own construction was created by collecting small rocks and stones whilst on his post-round. Cheval himself describes the beginning of the construction:
‘I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it.’
‘It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight… It’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for mean to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, and kind of caricature.’
All of which confirmed a resolve within him:
‘I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.’
Cheval spent three decades picking up stones and using them to build his palace, apparently becoming so consumed by the project that he worked at night with the use of an oil-lamp. All of this effort was recognised shortly before his death, and throughout the 20th Century the palace was hailed by lofty artists such as Picasso. Today it is deemed a cultural landmark and Cheval’s legacy is cemented.
So, all of this brings us back to Will Varley’s song. I continually am amazed at how historical connections are found through other areas of culture, such as music. This one song revealed a previously unknown piece of the past, for which I’m thankful. And for those of you who have yet to listen to Willy Varley’s albums: you are in for a treat.