Sunday, March 29, 2020

Two weeks in lockdown

Day 9
Here in rural Brittany people are calm and daily life is orderly, with no shortages or panic buying, and most people observing a distance from others. The lake path and waterside parks have been forbidden to all of us trying to exercise and walk our dogs. There has been no edict issued about the forest, and as I live on the edge, I have made short excursions out and back, keeping to the regulations of remaining within one kilometre of home. A few days ago I was stopped by the police a few metres from my house and asked to produce the form of attestation. I only had the old one and with the wrong date, but was let off with a warning to print out a new form every day. Honestly and surprisingly, I don't enjoy the dog-walk, feeling it a daily pressure and stress without solidly clear guidance of where one can go.
Mentally I am starting to struggle a little. Unable to concentrate well and lacking any urgent current project, it is hard to structure the day and I fritter away time, unsettled and frustrated with myself. So far I have baked a lot and watched the 1967 version of the Forsyte Saga. I do some basic stretching exercises and a short Tai Chi routine every day but my body feels torpid and full of aching joints. My arthritic hand is much worse and gives constant pain, making writing difficult, even if I could muster the concentration. The easy flow of creativity has completely departed from my life under these conditions.
Day 13
I have made a cogent effort to use my time better, at least to complete a few basic tasks every day and then not worry if nothing else is achieved. I've expanded Tai Chi and bodywork meditations to an hour and devoted the same amount of time to my new novel, so it grows at least by a few paragraphs a day. My spiritual practice remains strong since my retreat last month, which was in fact good training for the current situation. This moderate level of activity is enough for me, but the steady routine has actually made me much less anxious and more able to get things done generally. I need medication soon and am hesitating between asking someone younger and fitter than me to get it or go myself. I have not set foot in the town or any shop since this started and feel reluctant to cross that line and take the risk. My immunity is low and keeping away from people seems an imperative. On the other hand, I obviously don't want anyone else to suffer on my account. On dog walks I rarely see another person and no-one at close quarters. The healing hush of the forest is powerful at a time like this, when atmosphere is heightened by our fears and sensitivity to the unusual flow of energy that prevails in this strange suspended framework of changed life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Bretons: Vefa de Saint-Pierre

This extraordinary woman was born in 1872 in the Goëlo region of Brittany, although she is most closely associated with Spezet and the Montagnes Noires in Finistère for her later activities.
As a child she wanted to dress like a boy and harboured ambitions of running away to sea. Hunting was a real passion from an early age and throughout her life, guns were never far away.
At 18 she joined a nunnery, perhaps a surprising choice for one of such decidedly strong and individual character, but it did mean she got to go on her first significant journey, a mission to the Equator in 1899. This fuelled the thirst for long-distance travel which was to be another theme of her life, with a visit to America and Canada in 1906. By this time she had left the religious order definitively without taking orders or being thought suitable to take them by her superiors. She met President Roosevelt and spent a lot of time delightedly hunting caribou.
Back in Brittany in 1908 she bought the Manoir de Menez Kamm near Spézet which was to be her beloved home for many years. It was situated in prime hunting territory and she was soon well-known for fearless pursuit of the local wild boar. She learnt Breton and became an ardent (and militant) advocate of Breton history and culture, hoping for the kind of revolution in Brittany that Ireland had seen. She gave money and moral support to many Breton nationalist projects and local organisations, and was closely involved with Gorsedd bardic community. In 1930 she was given the bardic name Brug ar Menez Du (Heather of the Black Mountain).
She had a very lively intelligence, bent on constant learning throughout her life, whether languages, geography, natural sciences or theology, remaining a devout and committed Catholic. She also wrote poetry, although always very modest about her talents. A round-the-world trip in the 1920s gave her the chance to write about her travels and encounters for magazines and papers, as she visited Australia for an international Christian conference.
After the war, her beloved home was used as a centre of Breton culture, as she provided free bed and board for many writers and musicians. As old age loomed, she herself was increasingly based in Saint-Brieuc, until her death there in 1967. Claire Arlaux's engrossing biography tells the whole story of an exceptional and remarkable figure in 20th century Breton history, giving a new perspective on pre-war nationalism and subsequent cultural development.


Saturday, February 29, 2020

On the other side of silence

I have just finished a five-day silent 'retreat', staying at home and only walking where I knew I'd see no-one. Neighbours were primed to ignore me if necessary, but in fact I saw no-one for the duration. My purpose was to explore the thing itself, to think through a few issues, to renew my spiritual practice with meditation and study, and to relax deeply. The only concern was my very loving dog who is used to constant verbal communication with me and who is highly vocal himself. On a few occasions when he seemed really perturbed or frustrated by the silence, I whispered in his ear. Otherwise he soon responded swiftly to a single hand-clap or whistle. In the house I maintained silence - no radio, TV, internet or music. There was plenty of weather to listen to as it turned out, and I walked through storms on the moors and in the forests, finishing yesterday with a meditation in the pouring rain at my favourite personal outdoor space, on the rocks beside a turbulent river.
On the first day, my energies and thoughts were a bit scattered as I broke customary patterns of computer use, using the time to make notes on the first question on my list for consideration, about one aspect of my life that needs decisions. I also revisited my personal values list and thought carefully about their relevance to the choices I must make. On my two walks I kept very much in the moment - no emails to think about or anticipate - and struck up acquaintance with two trees of powerful character that I have passed a hundred times before without looking or listening attentively. This was something precious in the way of connection that repeated as the week went on.
I also read a lot - Greek myths, a book on extending paganism beyond the superficial - meditated and used various methods of divination on the question of the day. I was very tired at the end of this first day, but had concentrated throughout almost effortlessly, as all distraction was off the table.
Too much happened to detail each day of the 'retreat' and some of it was far too intimate and extraordinary to write on a public blog, but moments of spiritual intensity and meaningful communication were not lacking. I read a powerful book about ritual and an academic history of paganism. I wrote the preface of my new novel and conceived an ambitious new writing project that would change the whole focus of my work if it turns out well. I made a couple of decisions that have been difficult to resolve in recent months and felt all my thinking clear and sharp from the second day. Some personal issues simply resolved themselves in the course of the week without special attention.
There was no problem whatsoever with the silence, no desire to break it or to communicate with any of my human connections. I slept long hours and by the last day my body was just about catching up with everything and relaxing in the space and silence that filled the house in a resounding way. I recommend the practice to anyone seeking clarity or peaceful development and would love to hear the experiences of others.

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.