Saturday, December 20, 2014

Happy Yule and all that

Wintry lake at Huelgoat
Wishing all my readers a very happy Yule and other festivities, with thanks for the many supportive and cheering letters/emails about books or articles you have enjoyed, and a special welcome to new readers in America following my contribution to the latest Now Write! volume. It's been a strangely up and down sort of year with a long delay between finishing Brittany - a cultural history in January and having to wait until November for publication, circumstances conspiring against the project conceived with artist Jill Jamieson, being nearly blind for half the year, two house moves in the last few months, etc. Lots of good things too, with friends from the UK visiting Brittany, Cornish idylls, some fun talks to associations and plenty of development in my own landscape work, which may well see the light of print in 2015. Not settled there yet, but on another front, I have agreed to write a new type of guide to Finistere in the next year.
I'm looking forward to these challenges, and hope you all have a happy and fulfilling New Year.

Monday, December 08, 2014

London blues

Lovely purple seats on an almost empty TGV
A quick seasonal visit to my nearest and dearest in London has been both an eye-opening and painful experience. Took National Express coach up from Portsmouth ferry port to Hammersmith to get a bus the last couple of miles. Slight problem - apparently buses don't accept money any more. What sort of world is it when cash is not allowed on public transport? I walked the whole way with all my luggage, thus aggravating tendonitis in my right arm that's been getting worse daily for some months now.
Yesterday, strolling to the local shop with a friend, I fell off the pavement, managing to wrench and skin my right knee and give my left elbow an equally savage cut and jolt. Multiple plasters were applied at said shop, where staff seemed alarmingly unfazed by the appearance of a customer dripping blood. The whole thing was quite a shock, and I wished later I had agreed to brandy in the reviving coffee supplied afterwards, because a 26 hour journey from London to Finistere involving two car trips, two coaches, one ferry, two trains and a taxi is not something I ever want to do again in that degree of pain and discomfort.
It's nice to be home :-)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Brittany - a cultural history

What is the new book about?  It's a personal reflection (affectionate but not uncritical) on Brittany's history and cultural development structured around elemental themes. Each theme takes four varied examples ranging all over Brittany. To illustrate: the chapter entitled SEA looks at a) threats from the sea over many centuries, b) legends connected with the sea, c) the adventurers of St Malo and d) the cod-fishers of Paimpol, the latter elevated to a bizarre super-hero status through popular literature. FOREST covers the history of the Foret de Fougères, the (fragile) association of the Foret de Paimpont with Arthurian tales, clog-making and the oral tradition in the Foret de Coatloc'h and manufactured claims of Druid blood sacrifice in the Foret de Cranou. Other chapters are STONE, MARCHES, LAND, COAST, RIVER, TOWN, MOOR and ISLAND.
The book tries to bring out the realities of Brittany - extraordinary enough in themselves - behind the clichés of touristic hype, with contemporary life featuring alongside the assessment of past highs and lows. It also intends to create a vivid physical sense of the land, sea and coast, which figure as major characters in the narrative. In common with the other studies in this series Landscapes of the Imagination, there is also an emphasis on culture, particularly the strong oral legacy of the Breton language.

Available now: published by Signal Books (

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Holiday weekend

November 1st is a public holiday here in France, and also my dog's birthday. We always celebrate with a trip to the coast - this year down south to the area around Le Guilvinec, where we stayed in an impeccable dog-friendly B&B ( and did a lot of coastal and estuary walking over two days. Saturday was as hot and blue-skied as July, and Sunday a typically moody autumn grey, so the best of all worlds for watching the water and getting that uplifting liminal feeling.
Plage de Squividan

Pointe de Men Meur
To the small extent that the weekend was purposeful beyond that, I did check out half a dozen neolithic sites for a new writing project, and revisited the Romanesque church of Loctudy.
Menhir de Léhan

Thursday, October 30, 2014

WWII Shelter in Brest

I recently visited the Abri Sadi-Carnot, a tunnel running for more than half a kilometre from the arsenal at the port to the centre of Brest, the only city in France to construct massive capacity shelters during WWII. This one was built between 1941 and 1942 as a refuge against allied air raids for the Germans and civilian population alike. The lower end is accessed directly from the Boulevard de la Marine, but 154 internal steps were needed to reach the exit at the other extreme, the end assigned to the local population. Despite successfully saving many lives during bombing raids aimed at the submarine base, it suffered the historic irony in September 1944 of causing hundreds of deaths thanks to a horrendous accident  - one waiting to happen considering the German practice of stocking munitions and petrol in their lower end of the shelter. The resulting fireball and asphixiating gases sped through the tunnel, leaving mounds of corpses on the staircases to witness a stampede for safety.
During the Cold War, the Abri Sadi Carnot was adapted to a nuclear shelter, the radiation-proof doors still in situ today.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ile Tristan

Today was one of the occasions when very low tides enable a crossing on foot to Ile Tristan, just off Douarnenez. The two and a half hour window allows plenty of time to explore the island, although only certain parts are accessible to the public - the Maison de Maitre and another large house used as a temporary cinema for the day, orchards and the exteriors of a 1930s chapel and a 19th century fort. As is often the case in Brittany, culture has priority over history: short films (fiction and documentary) were showing, there was an exhibition of photographs and various miserable-looking musicians were performing in selected spots. There was no information about the island's chequered past, and no sign on the island itself of occupation in the 16th century by one of the most intriguing characters of Breton history.
My own personal research interest is the bloodthirsty career of Guy Eder de la Fontenelle, a young nobleman who held the island from 1595, and used the Wars of Religion to spread mayhem throughout western Brittany, from his native Cotes d'Armor to this western edge of Finistere, where his most notorious achievements were the destruction of Penmarc'h - burning the population in the church and taking control of 300 ships in the port -  and the sacking of Pont Croix. He was pardoned for his crimes or acknowledged for his acts of war, depending on your point of view, and actually officially made governor of Ile Tristan at the end of the war. Accusations of intrigue with the Spaniards made this a short tenure, however, and he was executed in Paris at the ripe old age of 29.
His persona has lived on in the oral tradition, but aside from a short profile published in the 1920s, little serious and un-romantic work appears to have been done on the historical evidence of the life of this extraordinary, excessive personality. Sociopath or product of his times, able to get away with more than most in this far flung corner of France? I've made some effort to go further with research, with little result as yet. On the island today I wanted to get an idea of the strategic positions and the defensibility, as all efforts to dislodge La Fontenelle during his reign of terror proved fruitless. Not sure I made a lot of progress, but it's certainly true to say that the less I can find out about him, the more interesting he becomes.