Saturday, February 08, 2020

Bretons: Theophile-Malo Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne

Starting this series of articles on interesting and not so well-known figures in Breton history with a soldier and scholar, who has left at least one important legacy in assigning the names dolmen and menhir to megalithic structures. Along with his friend Jacques Le Brigant, he was one of the first to be called a  'celtomane', reflecting passionate zeal for all things Celtic, a phenomenon which grew from the late 18th century until a peak a hundred years later. Amateur archaeologists and researchers of this persuasion were especially concerned with the excavation of neolithic monuments, which were thought - by almost all - to be the products of the Celts and Druidic religion.
His life (1743-1800) is celebrated in Carhaix, his birth-place (unless it was nearby St Hernin), with a statue in his eponymous square. The tribute portrays scenes from his astonishing military career, where he was highly respected by his men and regarded as having a charmed life. But he was also an accomplished scholar, and rarely seen even on campaign without a book.
Théophile-Malo Corret grew up in the Chateau de Kergoat and was educated at the college of Quimper before joining the Mousquetaires du Roi. Later serving the Régiment d'Angoumois, he went on to fight in Spain against the English. In 1777 he added De la Tour d'Auvergne to his name after discovering a link with this famous noble family. He was unusual in refusing promotions and honours, such as the rank of colonel, and only accepting to be a captain in the grenadiers in 1792, when he fought in the Republican army after the French revolution.
His only surviving major work is the Origines Gauloises, published in 1792, which sets the Celts and the Breton language at the beginning of European civilisation. He formalised the use of menhir (or long stone in Breton) for a standing-stone (although peulven or upright stone is equally known in Brittany) and dolmen or stone table for a tomb. This refers to the basic structure of two uprights and a capstone of the simplest form, resembling a table in outline.
Musée de la Révolution française

After seeing service in the Savoy region and the Pyrenées, he intended spending his retirement in Carhaix but was captured by the English navy off Brest in 1794 and forced to spend several years in a pontoon prison ship on the south coast of England. During this period of captivity and subsequent residence in Paris, he worked on the ambitious project of producing a dictionary comparing 42 languages. This was never completed.
In 1797, after failing to use his influence to save Le Brigant's only son from military call-up, La Tour d'Auvergne  decided to volunteer in his place, and at the age of 54 was back in arms. In April 1800 Napoleon gave him the title Premier Grenadier de la République for acts of great bravery, but he was to die only two months later on the battlefield at Oberhausen in Bavaria. He is buried in the Pantheon.



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ile de Houat

Port St Gildas and the ferry
Finally made it to this little island today on my fourth attempt, after three boats cancelled because of bad weather. I was beginning to think it would never happen - at least in time to finish my book for deadline. This was the first landing place of St Gildas in the 6th century and later his retirement home after an illustrious foundation of the abbey which exists in more recent form at what is now St-Gildas-du-Rhuys on the mainland opposite. I needed this trip to complete my writing on the saint's wayfaring in my new book, a chapter also covering another island off the north coast of Brittany.
Today was beautifully clear and sunny, but the wind was cruel and made what should have been a great day's walking into a bit of an ordeal.
St Gildas on his death-bed
Direct reference to St Gildas is in the name of the port itself, a sacred spring on one of the many wonderful beaches and the church. This contains a large 19th century painting of the death of the saint, showing the devotions of his monks. There are also two statues of the saint, a ceremonial banner and the words of his canticles. I am a week too early for his special day. The fontaine has no statue and looks sadly neglected, with a dribble of water from the cliff finding its way out through supporting platform. It is also completely unsigned and not particularly easy to find without effort.
Sacred spring of St Gildas
That said, the tiny bourg is attractive, despite everything being firmly shut on this January day and no-one about. I was the only outsider on the boat over from Quiberon, the other fifteen or so being welcomed by family on arrival or carrying large cool boxes for some kind of shell-fish activity. On the return journey huge whole fish were stacked in iced crates on the passenger deck.
The scenery of the island is magnificent, with a coastal path of 17 km in entirety and no constructions outside the one village - with the exception of three forts from the 19th century, one at each end and one on the highest point of the island.
Mairie
Fort, now offering accommodation
I shall explore some of the interesting history of the island in my book and definitely return for more of the wild beauty of the landscape on another trip outside the winter months. It is only a 40 minute run on the ferry from Quiberon - weather permitting.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Walking the wild coast

On Boxing Day I took my last trip for the new book, a walk down the wild coast of the Quiberon peninsula. Thin wintry sun alternated with grey skies, high winds lashed constantly, hard to stand against at times, and whipped the sea into a foaming, surging mass in the small bays. The cliffs are of modest height, which enhances a sense of engagement with the watery assault, as spume flies high over the rocks and little snowballs of foam splatter all around.
The pinchpoint of the promontory is only 22m wide, enough to carry the main road and a railway that joined Quiberon to Auray from the 1880s. Until the 11th century the Presqu'ile was a real island, but widespread deforestation led to the sanding up of a narrow spit or tombolo to join the mainland. The landmark Fort de Penthiévre was built in the mid 18th century after English raids on Quiberon, but it played a better known role in the disaster of 1795, when briefly held by royalist emigrées who had landed near Carnac but then been forced back onto the peninsula by the Republican army.
From the little fishing village of Portivy, I cross the Plage du Fozo and then fight the wind up onto Beg en Aod, an Iron Age eperon barré possibly attacked by Caesar before his naval victory over the Vénètes in 56BC. The next headland, Pointe de Percho is dominated by the ruins of a corps de garde. This coast is all about attack and defence, in both natural and human history. Contrasts are everywhere: the famous arch of Port Blanc, eroded by wind and water, stands near a pair of neolithic graves dramatically poised by the hand of man on the cliff-edge.
Further down the coast a stele commemorates the sad fate of two members of the rescue squad who tried to save a reckless photographer who had been swept into the sea. Michel Ponin and André Robet lost their lives, whilst the object of their sacrifice survived. This afternoon I see quite a few idiots posing for selfies on the very edge of the cliffs above turbulent waters. They probably go home exhilarated, whilst I stagger on down towards Quiberon through a succession of fine megaliths, weary and bleary eyed under the unhelpful slaps of that relentless wind...
But I've done it. What I set out to achieve in 2019 is accomplished. I've completed a demanding schedule of research trips. Held tight to desk work when my health prevented travel. Finished the first draft of the manuscript before the end of December 31st. All is well. Happy New Year everyone.




Sunday, December 29, 2019

Manoir des Indes

Manoir des Indes
The spirit of adventure and exploration is strong in Breton history, where the sea is an almost maternal element for so many. From Chateaubriand's North American adventures to the discovery of islands in the south Indian Ocean by Kerguelen, the global imprint of Breton individuality on the map of Imperial France is still a source of celebration in contemporary Brittany.
I spent a night to celebrate my birthday this Christmas at the 4* Manoir des Indes, set in a large park, beside Quimper's western ring-road. This manor house was built by René Madec, a son of Quimper from lowly origins, who joined the navy at the age of 11 and later arrived in India on a boat of the Compagnie des Indes. He fought the English under the command of Dupleix (who is also honoured in Quimper, giving his name to one of the quays). Through mercenary activity in the many wars in India, Madec rose to the status of nabob and a fabulous fortune in his own right. He was at the siege of Pondichery in 1778 with 6000 men.
Returning to Brittany the following year, Madec was ennobled by Louis XV. The town house where he settled in Quimper is marked today by a plaque from the local pottery showing him in full Indian dress, and he was a familiar sight on horseback along the banks of the Odet. He also bought up land on the outskirts of the town in Pluguffan and Penhars, building the lavish house now converted into a hotel on the site of a former manoir, whose chapel can still be seen.
rue René Madec, Quimper
At the hotel the theme of oriental luxury is pursued in furniture and decor, with the rooms given names evocative of maritime adventure. Mine (Kerguelen) had an enormous low wooden bed, a rugged A-frame and the sliding bathroom door echoed the screen partitions of warmer climes. The bedrooms are accessed off an open landing surrounding the glass-roofed atrium where breakfast - of exceptional quality - is served. In the basement a spa has been created, with treatment rooms, a sauna and, of most interest to me, the beautiful pool/jacuzzi, under the old stone arches of the original cellars.
Cellar pool
The story of René Madec's rise to greatness is told in a booklet in each room. On his final return to Quimper, he did not live long to enjoy all his acquired wealth with his young wife, dying in 1784 after injuries sustained by a fall from his horse. I cannot fault the hotel (except that I personally prefer a Relais du Silence to dispense with piped music), but the addition here of historical pedigree and local colour made it an exceptional stay; one I intend to repeat.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Solstice

Solstice greetings to all my readers and best wishes for 2020. I was at Mardoul very early this morning to find the Elez in greater flood than I've ever seen: all paths and bridges inaccessible. I left home under the moon and stars, saw the light come up over the dashing water, stood through a rainstorm and drove home with the sun. It was wonderful, a time of real reflection on the turning of the year and great hopes for all the new things coming in the next one. I have achieved all I set out to do in the good but tough passage of 2019: now is the time for change, a call I feel strongly in mind, body and heart. Looking forward to it and sending positive thoughts and thanks to everyone.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Wayfaring update

Really pushing myself to finish the draft of Wayfaring in Little Britain before the end of the year. I have one more field trip around Christmas and then a scramble to write up the final chapter in some coherent fashion. Otherwise all that's left, which I'm working on now, is text about imaginary and symbolic journeys, so important in Breton culture, and the idea of the landscape imbued with legend and metaphor should lead nicely into my actual journeys. It's a strange feeling to see this elusive book finally looking like a manuscript after three years of stop/start, illness and frustrations. I am grateful to all those who ask me rather nervously from time to time about progress. It's not quite as I envisaged at first, but the narrative shape that has developed organically seems a good one, true to experience and representative of all I have left to say on the history and landscape of Brittany. Next year, back to fiction!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Citizen

About to cross the bridge and enter the round doorway of the Prefecture
Eighteen months after becoming a French citizen, I finally got to have a ceremony to celebrate the event. Last year I was not invited even though some of these ritual affairs were held and reported in the press. The Prefecture at Quimper failed to answer any of my messages. When I went there to ask directly why I had been overlooked, I was basically told to go and queue up with the foreigners awaiting visas, cartes de sejour, etc., which I declined to do on the grounds I was already a citizen. It seeemed like a matter of principle at the time, in the face of rude dismissiveness from the 'Welcome' staff.
After mulling for a long time over whether this really mattered and deciding it did, finally I wrote to Président Macron - this is easy to do through the Elysée Palace website - and asked for his help. His office replied to me within a week and soon after, lo and behold, I received a letter from Quimper assuring me I would be on the list for the next ceremony. It is a pity that it takes the Président of the Republic to make an administrator in Quimper do their job correctly and politely.
So it happened this week, a grand official occasion, admirably presided over by Aurelien Adam, the new Directeur de Cabinet du Préfet, who was excellent in every way. I was quite moved by his words and the sense of significance he managed to convey. I even had a few personal words with him later on as we both left the building at the same time. There were many people there, more than 150 including those receiving the official decree of citizenship and their family and friends. I really enjoyed seeing some of the palatial rooms of the Prefecture, and singing the Marseillais with a large group of many nationalities of all ages, united by our Frenchness. The only time I heard a language other than French was when two British people saw fit to speak loudly in English just before the ceremony began. I edged as far away from them as I could get.
Monsieur le maire me soutient
I was delighted that the mayor of my commune, Benoit Michel, took the trouble to come all the way to Quimper to support me and share a celebratory drink afterwards. It really added something to the day. At last I have my decree and various texts of edifying Republican values to ponder. Despite having had an ID card and a French passport for a long time, the process now feels complete and I really do feel French. And I say both Vive La France and Vive La Bretagne.