Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mr Patch

My primary school reports
I've often been asked about why I write but never about the origins of the impulse, about what made me a writer from a very early age. The most obvious influence was my father, a teacher of English and Latin with an equal interest in history, a phenomenal reader and throughout his adult life a maker of notes and diaries. After retirement he devoted a lot of time to writing, including an account of his experiences during WWII which he called with habitual irony 'A good war'. I read very widely from his suggestions from the age of 4, having an excellent library of books to draw on.

The first book I wrote was at the age of 8/9. It was about, of all things, the Greek islands. I still have it. Of course I'd never been there or anywhere outside of Gloucestershire and Wales. The Homeric tales and Greek mythology had generated the interest, and islands were an excitingly stimulating whilst unknown phenomenon. My method was organised and surprisingly good: books collected from home and the local library, extensive notes made, a process of selection and then a text in my own words. Not that far from what I do now, except today I have the luxury of airing original thought as well as words. But I did pretty well then without the element of personal experience or widely acquired knowledge.

But here I want to honour someone who had an enormous influence on my writing career. When I was 10 years old, he arrived as a student teacher at the primary school I attended in Stonehouse. His name was Mr Patch. Not only did he teach my class daily English lessons, but we also had extra individual lessons together as my mother had quarreled violently (her speciality) with the RE teacher and withdrawn me from all religious teaching. As I had consistently avowed my desire to be a writer, it was deemed fitting that I concentrated on this in these spare lessons. What lovely and sensible people there were in that school!

Mr Patch set me a series of imaginative and demanding exercises, to write in different styles, to develop character studies, to describe places, to produce dialogue and most of all to stimulate my already maturing imagination. I remember now a newspaper article about an imaginary accident and the physical description of a Red Indian chief and desert setting. I realise now that he must have been an avid writer himself. He praised, corrected, encouraged and challenged me throughout. He gave me scope with discipline. He made me feel like a writer, with a serious purpose and a process of development to follow. He wanted me to be my best self in a context that has mattered to me more than other as my life has progressed.

What gifts for a solitary, serious, hyper-sensitive and hyper-imaginative 10 year old child! Recently finding my primary school reports stimulated this memory of a man who had an enormous influence on my writing, although I have never forgotten him. I'd thank Mr Patch from the bottom of my heart, if he wouldn't gently respond with a word or two about cliché.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

St Efflam

He's a strange one, this Irish saint of royal blood, who ran away on his wedding night to avoid intimacy with his new wife Enora and pursue his devotion to God across the sea. He landed at Lieu de Grève in the bay of Plestin-les-Grèves where his chapel and sacred spring stand near to the shore. Stories later associated with him illustrate the exceptional powers and single-minded courage that form almost a badge of office for many Breton saints.
The substantial fontaine, dating from the late 16th century, is a prophetic one. The rituals vary but pieces of bread are of the essence, If you have been robbed and have your suspicions about the culprit, take three pieces of bread, name each one and throw them into the water. The one that sinks will be the guilty person. This tradition has muddled itself with another concerning engaged couples, who are also to throw in three pieces of bread. If two come together without the 'saint' (or third bit) intervening, they will be happy. Obvious you might think, but rumour has it that the bread used should be stolen... In fact, the same ritual with the magic number three is used to answer any question there - will I marry, will my husband survive a sea voyage, will my child live - but in this case the answer is yes if two of the pieces float towards the third saintly morsel. Ah, the finesse of ritual.
St Efflam has another curious legend to his name. He came across King Arthur engaged in combat with a dragon on the towering rocky pinnacle of Grand Rocher overlooking the bay. When the hero failed to make headway and both combatants retired for a half-time break, St Efflam stepped in and called the beast out of his lair. The sight of the raised cross was enough to daze the poor dragon, who meekly submitted to a command to throw himself off the precipice. The moral is clear: faith is stronger than brawn (and dragons should always look away quickly when faced by saints).
Enora, the deserted wife, showed admirable spirit in following the virginal Efflam and landed a little way off near Le Yaudet where she was picked up in a fisherman's net. She was soon running from the local tyrant, who chased her lustfully back towards Efflam's haunt of Lieu de Grève. There a miraculous paralysis overcame the pursuer: he swiftly repented and was released from his plight by Efflam himelf. Enora established her own oratory near that of her husband and remained close but chastely separated from him until her death.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Hello 2019

Temple complex Fanum Martis
Good start to the New Year, with lots of calm weather for tentative walking and lots of new writing getting itself down on the page. I've been working on the Roman chapter of Wayfaring in Little Britain with a trip to Corseul this week, considering the notion of procession in the short journey from the town to the hill-top site of the Temple of Mars. I'm also thinking of reviving my idea for a short Walking Meditation book if I can find the right artist for a collaboration.
Some solid work on the parish close exhibition has been achieved in the first days of January and I can now see the whole thing 'in the round' and connnections between the different pieces are clearer. There have also been new poems, so something in my head is still working - an encouraging and surprising discovery.
Temple remains

Monday, December 31, 2018

Goodbye 2018

This has been a sad and painful year on many levels: generally poor health, debilitating illness in recent months, deaths, the demise of relationships, practical problems, erratic work patterns. But somewhere out of all the torment have come good things like new friends and different ways of moving forward into a new year.
2018 has been my first year without a book being published for quite a while as Wayfaring in Little Britain proved too big a task physically in the last two years of serious illness. I agreed to write a more sedentary book on the Breton Saints and spent two months on this before stopping for a whole raft of complex reasons. Bottom line is that such a book would not serve my own essential interests nor honour the direction my writing has taken since 2015, and I feel strongly that I should no longer spend time writing or translating work outside those criteria.
Thankfully agreed that instead of an in-depth study, the saints will appear in short version later in 2019 in the very successful series of mini-guides like Huelgoat and the Monts d'Arrée, which have been my bread and butter over some years. Ironically this may also be more commercially satisying for the publisher. I cannot let go of the idea of WILB, so I resolve to try again with this tricky, demanding book and see if somehow I can find a scale and scope that is within my physical capacities. This is the book I want to write.
Otherwise I have come back to poetry in a concentrated fashion this year, and worked extensively on the parish closes through translation, talks and guided visits. A more creative approach will come in 2019 when I have an exhibition on this subject - Seeing is Believing - with a photographer friend at the new café/bookshop Sur la Route. I am working on those texts at the moment, contrasting individual experience with the collective identity enshrined in the closes.
So I am happy to move on into a New Year with new energy and ideas. I wish all my kind and valued readers and followers the very best for 2019 and thank them as ever for their continued support, without which these housebound months would have been much harder to bear. Good luck, my friends.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Place and positive solitude

Putting aside the brief lapse of that last post, I return to my main theme: the power of place and its role in positive solitude. It took a large part of my life to learn this, but a naturally solitary person has to replace the mechanisms by which the socially active reinforce their own sense of identity and well-being. For them, this comes mainly from feedback from others and the operation of family networks. Outside such structures an individual generates self-assessment and works through the evaluation of experience in different ways.
It is perfectly possible for an internal 'conversation' to satisfy both these processes; a constructive, friendly dialogue with myself establishes what I got or failed to get from a film, an art exhibition, a concert, for example. I don't need another or other perspectives - mine own are usually diverse - delivered in the moment, verbally by a companion. I absolutely prefer to look and think and reflect quietly. Sometimes if puzzled by my reactions or curious about some actual facet of the production, I might later go on online to reviews or personal opinions on review sites. Certainly the experience of culture is different with a companion: I have rarely felt it to be better, assuming I am not looking for a learning experience from someone with specific knowledge.

In what one might call the larger issues of existence, I have come to realise over many years of getting to know the landscape of Brittany, that place can also take the role of companion and provide the feedback and stimulus essential for quality of life for those who prefer to live in positive solitude. Being alone in nature can act as a veritable celebration of the solitary. It provides me with replenishment and fulfilment. Why?

Because outside in the forest, on the moor, beside the sea, under the night sky, I am connnected with a much older, wider network than any social group I have ever reluctantly joined. There is something deeply freeing about a relationship that is spiritually profound, but without demands, on-going, without the pressing urgency - whether something is urgent or not - that characterises much human communication.
 You get to know a place much as a person: the first encounter is tramelled by self-consciousness, but losing that through the familiarity of shared time and space, you go beyond the curtain, to a powerful sense of the minutiae of connection in every aspect of the natural world. It is also the framework in which I can best see myself as a functioning living thing, with a place, a context, a layered existence of my own. This is my feedback, my family, my network. It is strong and subtle, liberating and binding. It is always there, in this place or that, here or there, now or tomorrow.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Finding our natural place

Recent events have taken their toll on the equilibrium of many people on both sides of the Channel. My own is further threatened by separation from the natural world, as illness continues to prevent me from spending sufficient time in places that have always acted as harmonising forces. I am like the child on a first bike without stablisers, wobbling and fearful. My spirit is heavy, full of big emotions that rest crammed into small enclosed spaces. The coast is too far away, the moors too difficult, the constant rain no longer liberating, just sadly wet. Everything is narrower and I make a virtue of wasting time, idly rolling in the muck of news, the offensive slough of politics. Helpless in the face of endless greed and cowardice beyond comprehension.
I am no longer staunch or bright or quick myself. But I do love winter. Maybe that's the lesson, to remember why.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Thinking about ruin(s) came out of my last book on the Spirit of Place. This also emerged.

We played in that old ruin,
Mark, Sylvie, Dev and I,
Threading childhood dreams
Through something broken:                                        
Truncated walls, a single arch,
Lost purpose, masquerading as romance.

I led because I talked the best.
The others took direction,
Indifferent or desiring, 
Through laughter cracked by cruelty
Wrapped in nature’s greening stance.
We grew up and unfurled.
Mark dreamt, Dev dared,
I wound up in my words,
Flirting with truth and Sylvie
More fragile than her beauty.
Nothing was settled, we only
Played for time, revolving  
In that other ruined structure    
Called the world.

Our hopes were vague,
All focused on survival,
Far too hung up to grieve
The missed stop of arrival.

Fast forward on to now -
Mark lost, Dev dead
On London streets and Afghan sand,
Sylvie, adrift in drunken dactyls,
Twice deserted (only once by me).
I still have my stories, my dissolving dream.

Thread end, dead end, back
To that eternal present
Beneath the mouldering arch,
For failure not my own,
Where grey and green rewind:
I am still living in the left behind.
Nature at least does not discriminate
Between what is and some more pristine state.
The ruin carries on, the teller tells,
Each prospering their shadow-selves.

© Wendy Mewes