Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Experiencing history

I used to think that the attraction of the past was its contrast with the present world, the separation of time and custom lending an aura of excited speculation. This lure of the evident spiced by fantasy was in the castle's turret stair and the lie of standing stones. After years of writing guidebooks and escorting visits of historical interest, I see rather that for most the thrill is in connection. Provide a link, however tenuous, to the contemporary world or to the particular historical framework of the audience, and the appetite of the imagination cranks up mightily. Here in Brittany so much is lost for the British audience by tedious and tortuous exposition of French history which might as well be an account of warfaring factions in Lord of the Rings. A sea skirmish off the coast west of Brest doesn't do a lot to pull in the punters until mention of the magic words 'Mary Rose' - then watch the line of craning necks on the cliff-top - even though there is nothing to see but the skittish Atlantic - and hear the avid speculations about wind-speed and turning circles for 16th century craft.
Brittany is a special case in this respect: the connections between Britons and Bretons are all-pervasive. Hence my chosen structure for the Britons in Brittany book: conflict, commerce, culture. From Ben Nicholson's modernist renderings of the Carnac megaliths to the 17th century export of cloth from Locronan via Pouldavid (hence the English name Powell Davies for the fabric!) to the allied bombing of the Morlaix viaduct that managed to wipe out a school full of children. What tales there are to tell, and what a trail to follow around some of the most interesting places France has to offer.

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