Saturday, December 22, 2012

Maths and Geography

I see you through the window,
Absent in a meeting.

A short span
From my finger-tip
To the contours of your face.
Beloved geography:

I always did like maps,
But not those tedious tallies
Of economic growth,
Some soulless reckoning.

How can so many so muches
Add up to nothing in the end?
That’s our kind of maths.

Driving home, the sky is sadly
And I am not so shining.

© 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Great year ending...

Happy Yule and 2013 to all my readers, with thanks for all the cards and messages received.

Never mind the end of the world, there will certainly soon be an end to 2012. A great year for me, full of interesting work, important new people and improving health. My main book Legends of Brittany has been very well-received and had excellent sales - the two don't always go together - and the West Coast Brittany Focus guide I did for Footprint in Janaury has also done well.
I've had so many commissions and projects with others that there's been little time for my own stuff, so the new landscape writing remains undeveloped thus far, although I've done a lot of reading and research, and not a lot of progress has been made on the fiction front. Still, once my two 2013 books are out in April/May maybe there'll be a chance to focus on those things. Maybe not.
In fact, all I really want for 2013 is a home of my own.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Sea walking

First time I've ever seen this - sea-walking at St-Pol de Léon this morning. Now I want to try it ...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Brest again

Gave a tour of Brest to a small group this week and was once again struck by how much improved the city feels with the new tram and modern artwork brightening up the place. It looks clean and less mean, ready to put itself on display with a degree of pride rather than the old take-it-or-leave it vibe.
Brest developed relatively late. A fortified site on the mouth of the Penfeld river defended by Celts and Romans, it became the chateau stronghold of the lords of Léon until they fell on hard times and let the duchy of Brittany get their hands on it. During the 14th century Wars of Succession (part of the Hundred Years' War), the English - over here in numbers to support Jean de Montfort's claim to the duchy, as Edward III was eager to get into France by this back door - managed to grab and hold onto the castle for nearly fifty years. Even that archetypal medieval warrior du Guesclin baulked at a full siege to oust them and supplies finally came in via the magnificent Rade to secure their position.
But it was not until the 17th century, when Brittany was firmly part of France, that a larger centre grew up here, thanks to the decision of Richlieu in 1631 to make Brest the main base of the French navy on the Atlantic coast. The creation of the Arsenal, a vast worksite of ship-building, rope-making, barrel-turning, hinge-forging enterprise led to an upturn in the city's fortunes, as everything that was needed to construct, equip and supply the ships was made on the spot. Add to that all the sailors, officers and administrators and the simmering pot of nautical life illustrated in many painting and engravings springs to life.
Not surprisingly, Brest flourished in times of war when these activities were in high demand and there was work for many thousands of hands. England was happy to keep it all going in serial exchanges during the 18th and 19th centuries, but when there was peace, hardship soon followed for the Brestois labour force.
It was all the other way about in WWII, when German occupation and in particular the submarine base, a crucial factor in the Battle of the Atlantic, made Brest an essential target for allied bombing. Much of the city lay in ruins when it was all over and a brand new structre had to be thrown up in a hurry to house more than a million displaced people.
The grid-plan lay-out between the hideous concrete Place de la Liberté and the Chateau along the axis of the rue du Siam contrasts with much older pockets to be found across the bridge in Recouvrance. The Maison de la Fontaine retains its Renaissance doorway, and the rue St-Malo has preserved a row of houses dating back perhaps to the 17th century. But the large space for rebuilding and rethinking a city (a bit like Rennes after the great fire of 1720) has led to some interesting modern structures, none more so than the Eglise St-Louis, rebuilt on a vast scale in the 1950s. The interior is stunning, with a bleak wall of lamentation in direct contrast with slashes of light outlining the coloured chess-piece figures of Breton saints and biblical luminaries. The windows recalling the life of St-Louis himself - pictured - are pretty damn fine.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A cross-Channel connection

I had the good fortune today to be given a personal tour of the Musée Maritime in Carantec by Jean-Pierre Daffniet, President of the museum association.  On one side of the road there's a well-presented room devoted to resistance evacuations from Carantec to England during WWII, plus a highly symbolic artefact - the actual boat, Le Requin (The Shark), in which local boat-builder Ernest Sibiril got a small group away on October 31st, 1943. Among these was George Wood, an English pilot who miraculously escaped after his plane exploded over Ploujean and was hidden for months by the resistance before being taken across to Plymouth. J-P Daffniet spoke movingly of his recent encounters with George Wood, who visited Carantec and Morlaix in 2010 at the age of 90.
Across the road the main building has two large rooms of maritime memorabilia such as objects recovered from the Malouin corsaire ship L'Alcide, which went down nearby in 1747, numerous models of boats and some curiosities like scrimshaws and, weirdest of all, a tiny model of an allied plane made by the Germans to educate anti-aircraft gunners about what to look for overhead.
What I particularly liked about this museum was that all temptation to chuck in anything vaguely related to the themes has been resisted: what is here is a telling local record of important experiences. Many of the families involved in war-time activities are still here, many buildings where allied airmen and Free French fighters were hidden under the very noses of large German contingents remain. The emphasis is on individuals, who spring to life under M.Daffniet's articulate rendering of quiet heroism and fortitude in a time of profound uncertainty and danger. His narrative brings home the extraordinary responsibility and risk borne by almost the entire community of Carantec to shield and succour those who needed to be saved.
It is a proud, though sobering memory that belongs collectively to its community, however much it also represents a piece of the jigsaw of events repeated all along the north coast. The museum association is not just preserving the past but transfering local heritage - a precious possession - from one generation to the next so that no-one will forget what has shaped post-war society in Carantec.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happy day

Glorious walking today from Beg an Fry to Toul an Hery. I am nearly at the end of my very long journey for the Saints' Shore Way, having cunningly done the last section first during the summer months.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Montecassino - landscape and emotional connection

Watching the BBC Alba documentary about Montecassino last night was an emotional experience.
In 1972 I walked the site of the siege with my father who fought there in WWII, spending a month in a freezing, mud-bound hole in the ground under heavy fire. The Scotsman interviewed on the programme had exactly the look in his eyes, the sudden tremble in his voice when he recalled going back to visit the war graves as I witnessed in my father's deeply moving reaction to returning to the landscape where he spent the formative period of his life. He fought elsewhere during the long years of war and wrote a memoir of his time as a soldier entitled A Good War, a characteristically ironical title with massive subtext.
But the intense physical, emotional and mental ordeal of Montecassino stayed with him. From it grew, almost as a reactive healing instinct, an equally intense love for the land of Italy. The happiest times of his life were spent walking and hitch-hiking about that simple, passionate country in later years.
It is true that suffering can create strong bonds with landscape that has shared it. In a Somerset village I became great friends with an elderly man who had also fought in Sicily and then Italy. He took up painting in middle age, and his scenes of the Italian coutnryside - in better weather than the incessant rain that beleaguered the Montecasino action - reproduced exactly that particular bond of affection for a landscape that only adversity can breed.
He gave me one of these images that still brings tears to my eyes for all it says to me of a beloved father, who found life hard in many ways and whose powers of emotional expression were crushed in a conflict that both bound him to mankind in general and separated him from individuals for a long life-time.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The start of strange

My walking is just reaching the beginning of the singular granite rock formations (here the Pierre double) that culminate in the monster rocks of the Pink Granite coast. I prefer it here, simpler and more effective. 
Now taking a few days rest to try to alleviate the severe back pain that's hampering my journey.

Monday, November 05, 2012

November walking

The Saints' Shore Way project is now full steam ahead and I must finish walking the 125km route asap. Although none of this coast path is new to me, it often appears so as I am walking from west to east, contrary to my usual (and preferred) practice. The changes of weather from one minute to the next make November a dramatic time for views and sensations, with storms tracing their path across moody seas to dissolve in rain or rainbows against dark landfall lit to brilliance by dashing sunshine seconds later. Sometimes the air is so still it feels as if the globe has stopped turning; then simply round a headland and I must pocket the tape-recorder or GPS or camera to have a free hand to hold my hat on. It all contributes to a good night's sleep after any day spent on the SSW.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Best of Brest

In Brest this week for a commissioned piece on all the city has to offer. I have to say the place is looking much more appealing these days: the smart new tramline has been adorned with striking works of modern art and an increase in verdure up in the Place de la Liberté has considerably softened the ugly lines of that concrete jungle around the town hall, so off-putting to visitors in the past. It's also a lot less scruffy, and the calming effect of keeping traffic - apart from the sexy new tram-cars - out of much of the Rue de Siam should be a good thing. But the centre does seem almost deserted - surely everyone can't be in IKEA?
There are also lots of interesting initiatives to develop understanding of Brest's tragic past, with a shelter used during the terrible allied bombing in WWII now opening to the public, and the Rue St-Malo, a rare survivor of that ghastly onslaught, being given a place of honour on the tourist trail. It's true that there's abiding interest in the war from my generation, whose parents fought and suffered, but also a more detached curiosity  on the part of younger visitors of many nationalities. No war they ever experience will be fought in quite that way.
Together with the sensational location of the city on the Rade de Brest, a glorious maritime history outlined in the excellent chateau museum, the development of new marinas and a general air of sleek modernity, Brest is looking good as a competitor for that lucrative European city break market.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shades of grey...

Today I was working around Douarnenez and Audierne before moving south to the coast of the Baie d'Audierne, checking routes for InnTravel. Wonderful autumnal weather in Pays Bigouden.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Alan Stivell

Last night I went to Alan Stivell's concert at the Glenmor in Carhaix with English friends, one of whom has been following this remarkable musician since the 1970s when she had close contact with Brittany through a pen-pal connection. It was an impressive performance, but almost more impressive than that wondrous talent was the warm emotional devotion of the audience - several thousand people from babies to elderly grand-parents - to a man who has symbolised the revival and evangelisation of Breton culture over the last forty years, by virtue of the transfer of traditional music to the electronic age. He also stands as a quasi-political figure for the devolution of Brittany and French acknowledgement of the Breton entity, including a long overdue recognition of the language.
What I particularly liked was the fact that all his band were young musicians, clearly being nurtured and offered the opportunity to develop as individuals through working with someone of such international stature and vast musical experience. The violinist was sensational - no programmes and no detail on websites, so I can't give his name (and couldn't hear it announced in the thunderous noise of the auditorium).
It was an emotive evening, powerful enough to ensure an almost sleepless night. Wow.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The spice of life ...

This week has been a typical reflection of my current varied and pretty intense workload. I had a very short time to produce an essay and exercise for a new volume of the Now Write series (Penguin/Tarcher) on the theme of fantasy (legend/landscape from my point of view). These books have had great success in the US as manuals for budding writers wanting to develop their work by learning from the experience and practical advice of established authors. I hope someone somewhere will benefit from my offering when the book is out.
Next I spent a day at my desk on the Saints Shore Way project, researching and writing background features. Research always leads in unexpected directions - at one point I was emailing to India to consult an expert on a famous British lawyer whose wife revamped a manoir in northern Brittany in 1903. Small details, but I like to chase everything up. This work was followed by a day 'in the field' for the same purpose. Unfortunately it proved a very wet and fairly unrewarding time, although I had a good lunch with a friend in Carantec at the Abri du Pecheur, a very reliable restaurant on the sea front by the causeway to Ile Callot.
Another day was spent in Lannion, for a Brittany Walks outing, with a brief visit to the historic town centre (photo), then a country walk nearby in the Léguer valley, including an abortive diversion to seek out a ruined castle, now well-barricaded as private property.
Other than that, I began to plan the updates on Finistere cycle holidays for InnTravel, a UK company I've worked with twice before, and to prepare the new History of Brittany course that begins in Huelgoat on October 15th. Just when I thought I had October quite well under control, yesterday I received new commissions to write city profiles for Nantes and Brest for the end of the month... Not to mention that the new term started this week at ORPAM in Morlaix, where I teach three classes of retired French people.
Luckily, I love my work and it's all good.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

In the magic forest ...

I have just returned from a fun few days in the magic forest of Brocéliande, showing the sites of Arthurian legend to an American, Michele Newman, who is writing a book featuring Merlin and Lancelot. We had an especially atmospheric walk in the Valley of No Return and were treated to a rare view of Vivanne's castle underneath the lake at the Chateau de Comper.

Last weekend I was working with Angela Locke's creative writing group (including Michele) at Huelgoat, presenting the landscape and legends of Brittany as a backdrop to their exercises. We also had a grand tour of the Monts d'Arrée, completely invisible under the mist at the time - a good challenge for their creative imaginations. It was a great pleasure and experience to share ideas such interesting and talented people. Angela herself would be an inspiration to anyone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

St-Malo - any port in a strike

Returned today from a trip to London to see my nearest and dearest, by good fortune taking the last boat from Portsmouth before the Brittany Ferries strike. So I began and ended my journey in St-Malo, taking an overnight there on the way out in the San Pedro hotel, where I was warmly welcomed by the owner Mireille Morice. We first met when I stayed and reviewed her establishment for the Footprint guide some years ago and it has remained one of my absolute favourite places in Brittany. Also discovered a new restaurant/café, Couleur Safran (4 Grand rue), which is tiny but serves food - such as savoury pies - packed with flavour, and will certainly go on my recommended list. The banana, pear and chocolate crumble was obscenely delicious.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Voyager returns

I've just finished my stint on Brittany Ferries for 2012, with two talks yesterday on Walking in Finistere on the Armorique during an out-and-back between Roscoff and Plymouth. It's a very long day, but the double crossing is always pleasurable and I'm kindly given a large cabin with TV and hot drinks, so plenty of comfort. It's been great to work with the friendly professionals of Brittany Ferries and Joel the technician deserves an award for his unfailing patience as he is summoned time and again to help me with 'cabling issues.'
Giving the talks has been fun. What has been most enjoyable is to meet so many nice, interested and interesting people in the audiences, and talking to them afterwards about their experiences of Brittany and its tourist offerings has been helpful for my own work. Earlier this week I was delighted to find Michael Dodds, head honcho of Brittany Tourism in Rennes, listening to my talk on The Great Outdoors, and we had a good exchange in the bar after about, guess what, tourism in Brittany.
The Saints Shore Way has provoked a lot of enthusiasm among passengers (many of whom are from Cornwall) which encourages me to think the project will prove a real attraction for 2013.
Overall this assignment has been a great success (feedback forms very appreciative) and I'm actually proud of being able to do what I do best - promoting Finistere and Brittany in general - in a new and important arena. Brittany Ferries passengers are the dragon's teeth of Brittany tourism. They all have extended families and friends, they are group members and have work colleagues - every positive Brittany feeling and comment on their part can potentially lead to many decisions by other people to take their holidays here and come over to see for themselves all that Brittany has to offer.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

An oddity

The tiny oratory of St Gelvest in the commune of Plougasnou is something of an oddity. It is only accessible on foot (and before that a track your car will not appreciate), sitting in a deeply silent isolated spot by a source. It is said that a farmer found a statue near the spring, built the oratory on his land and established a pardon for the saint. But because he kept the money donated at such times rather than offering it to the church, the oratory was never consecrated and no priest - to this day - takes part in the pardon.
This celebration takes place on the third Sunday in May, because St Gelvest, the Cornouaille version of St Servais, is a 'saint de glace' to be invoked against late frosts damaging the crops. In this case it is the flax crop, once so important in the economy of the Trégor (and Léon), so St Gelvest is also a 'saint de lin', and the only one as far as I'm aware. At the time of the lucrative cloth trade with England, flax seeds were imported into Brittany from the Baltic via Roscoff, as local crops did not produce sufficiently strong seed to ensure a healthy yield.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Roscoff - a spa better thing ...

Took two friends to the spa at Roscoff today to enjoy the two sea-water pools with full-length windows giving views over the sea that laps at the foot of the building. The swimming pool is very warm and the smaller one with jets and jacuzzi corners (with underwater seats) a bit cooler. There is also a Turkish bath (too hot for me) and a sun terrace, all included in a price of €13. Seemed a bargain, as there were few people so a real chance to swim lengths or just float about undisturbed. I sat for half an hour in the whirling water section watching the tide come in and the Ile de Batz just a few hundred metres away. It was incredibly relaxing, but also with the uniquely tonic effect of sea-water. Pity I had to drive all the way back after - a sleep would have been the perfect ending.
Such a pity that Roscoff doesn't get all the tourist trade it deserves. The ferry port is on the eastern side of the town, so there's no need to make a detour before heading south. But the town is architecturally exceptional, as well as having many historical links with Britain, from corsaires and smugglers to Mary Queen of Scots and Dorothy Silburne (d.1820), an English society lady and tireless worker for the poor who lived in Roscoff for the last few years of her life.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Saints Shore Way - cliffs of Trédrez

I've been working this week on the Saints Shore Way, a project in conjunction with the Pays de Morlaix. This picks up the idea of the Saints Way walking trail in Cornwall and follows a coastal route from Roscoff to Lannion, part of the shore where the Celtic monks and their followers landed. The themes of the guidebook will relate to the age of saints - particularly the early origins of Brittany and the Breton language, as well as economic connections with Great Britain and historical conflicts.
The GR34 coastal path in Brittany is based on what was originally a route for military defence and smuggler-watching, with many guard-houses and lookout towers remaining along the way. The cliffs of Trédrez where I walked yesterday offer a wilder stretch of heather-clad slopes above the sea in the bay of St-Michel-en-Grève, with views across to Grand Rocher and Locquirec. The path snakes along midway between the summits and the water before arrival in Locquemeau.
This area of the Trégor is one of the earliest districts of Brittany, based on the bishopric of Tréguier. Unfortunately carved up by the French at the Revolution, it now straddles the departments of Finistère and Cotes d'Armor. Both the coast and the interior are exceptionally worthy of exploration.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Chateau de Rosanbo

Took a friend here yesterday for a look at the gardens, with a superb charmile (hornbeam arcade) running around the margin and various 'rooms' of greenery and sculpture. Not a flower in sight for a pleasant change. With all my work about trees and forests lately, I was completely entranced by this deceptively simple concept of greenery (best seen against the grey sky), where shape and tone are everything. Some parts are geometrically designed, others natural with apparently random patterns of huge trees. I lay on a stone bench and just looked for a long time.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Lorient is not in any sense an old place. It began in 1666 as a new port on the confluence of the Scorff and Blavet, and a base for the Compagnie des Indes (French India Trading Company), the town taking its name from one of the first ships built there, the Soleil Orient, more commonly called L'Orient. This maritime history is graphically portrayed in a 17th scene now adorning one vast wall of the Chamber of Commerce's entrance hall. It shows Madame de Sevigny, society lady and prolific letter-writer, arriving at the port amidst ships, merchants and goods from all over the world. The facades of a few houses on the same quay today indicate the prosperous life-style of the ship-owners, but there is little else of Lorient's former glory since WWII bombardments aimed at destroying the German submarine base pretty much levelled the town. An unobtrusive stele marks the spot where the last surrender took place - not until May 1945.
Under the blistering August sun, the stylish modern white apartment blocks and pleasure harbours give an impression of renewed wealth and self-confidence. The stunning post-war church of St-Louis is a glowing advert for the versatility and downright beauty of 1950s concrete. I am here for the iconic Interceltique festival, mingling with my Welsh confreres, Cornish language promoters, Breton unificationists (who assure me Rennes will remain the capital under their plan, so as not to upset anyone - nice news for Nantes) and any number of bands and bagpipes. A terrific set from an Acadian trio is the highlight, Acadie in New Brunswick being this year's special invitees, as the Celtic world seems to be undergoing a remarkable period of globalisation. There is a strange history behind this connection, a tale of early 17th century French colonists, many from Brittany, many later repatriated, often unhappily, to Belle-Ile amongst other places. Today they are seeking to attract holiday-makers and entice higher-education students across the Atlantic. I doubt either group could do better than just staying here.

Saturday, August 04, 2012


I'm working on the forest chapter of my new book, which looks at the symbolism and emotional experience of landscape as well as the history of Brittany through its terrain. The forest theme ties up with work I have in hand for other audiences later in the year so it seemed a good place to start. The beginning of a book is always tough for me, but the great chronological and geographical range here offers plenty of ways in. I often walk in the forest at Cranou or Huelgoat, lately with ideas positively dripping off the trees everywhere I look. This helps to convince me I'm doing the right thing.
The text will look at forest clearance, particularly during the Age of Saints and the later Cistercian initiative in the unusual quevaise system in western Brittany, as well as forest exploitation and production from sabots to timber for the navy at Brest. The forest as a place of concealment will include detail of salt smuggling on the eastern border of Brittany and resistance activity in WWII.
The Foret de Paimpont, more commonly known these days as the Brocéliande of Arthurian legend, takes us into the imaginative world of the forest and its association with enchantment and transformation. The striking symbol of the Golden Tree there is a recent memorial to the forest's power of regeneration after a series of terrible fires in modern times. The shape of the tree echoes the stag's horns in the Arthurian-themed church at Tréhorenteuc.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Yesterday's competition was in fact won by Tangi Josset and Yannick Martin, who performed first and were indeed terrific. The audience was very appreciative, except for a middle-aged man who had been standing near me and behaving oddly throughout, talking loudly to himself while the duo were playing. As the rest of us clapped enthusiastically, he spat on the floor and muttered almost in my ear 'They're not Bretons'. A pretty repulsive reminder of why Yannick Martin felt compelled to go to court last year with Breiz Atao, a small shower of right-wing Breton nationalists who lose no opportunity for racist slurs on their unsavoury website. Twins Yannick Martin and Tangi Josset were adopted by two different Breton families as children and today are amongst the most talented of all Breton musicians - and that's saying something. I hope to hear them again at Lorient in August in the great InterCeltic festival. With a bit of luck, M.Allot will be there too...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bombarde drooling

Went to the wonderful Festival de Cornouaille in Quimper and was not disappointed by the quality of musical offerings. Amongst bagad (Breton bands) and pairs competitions, I was very taken by the gorgeous Josick Allot (above), playing the bombarde with Erwan Le Hir on the biniou. I would defintely give him the gold medal in pretty much any contest. Except maybe the Olympic tennis.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Nantes of many faces

I've been in Nantes this week to write a profile for London City airport. It's three years since I last visited and I'd forgotten the extraordinary vibrance and energy of this dynamic place. The city has had to reinvent itself several times and has done so with panache. Much of the exceptional 18th century wealth still so visible today in the merchant's houses with their iron balconies and sculpted 'masks' came from the 'triangular trade' whereby ships left Nantes for Africa, took slaves on to the Caribbean and returned to France laden with sugar and spices. This difficult theme in the city's history is in no way played down. The chateau museum graphically depicts the material benefits and the unspeakable cruelty of the practice, and a new Memorial to the Abolition of the Slave Trade has been established beside the Loire, including a long subterranean tunnel full of facts and quotations about the struggles of the abolitionists all over the world. A bold strategy, making virtue out of necessity!
Despite having magnificent heritage in the restored Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany and the gleaming Gothic cathedral, greater emphasis is placed these days on more innovative offerings, and many strategies are in place to lure visitors from the medieval centre to one bank or another of the Loire. Le Lieu unique is an arts centre set up in the old factory where the famous LU brand churned out biscuits in their millions. The interior remains a rude mass of concrete and metal, carefully made over in a minimalist kind of way - the underground toilets are deliberately awash with graffiti - to satisfy some criteria of the current craze for industrial art. The lone remaining blue and red tower with its gyroscope is now open for a panoramic view over the city.
On the Ile de Nantes the vast former ship-building works is now a centre for machines of a very different kind, like a larger than life mechanical elephant that will take you for a ride. With the decline of the port, as the Loire silted up and St-Nazaire developed to the west, Nantes has niftily adapted its maritime legacy to meet the service demands of a new age of tourism.
As to the fact that Nantes was capital of Brittany for a thousand years until the Vichy government severed the tie during WWII and the city became head of the new region of Loire-Atlantique soon after the war - what better opportunity than to shift identity once again (and totally avoid the complex political issues of reintegration with the four provinces of new Brittany - over Rennes' dead body) and become Nantes of many faces - Breton in some undefined way, but mainly top city of the Loire, commercial centre of all the surroundings territories, focal point of north-western France.
It's all done very cleverly, like a conjurer's sleight of hand, with the visitor so taken by the razzledazzle of festivals, initiatives, colourful street life, building developments and fluvial activities that there's really no time for analysis, just pure fun and enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

All at sea

Spent a fabulous day at Les Tonnerres, the international maritime festival held in Brest every four years. It was an extraordinary pageant of ships from all over the world, and a vast tent city of stalls and exhibitions running for several kilometres around the commercial port and on both banks of the Penfeld river below the chateau.
A trip out on the Rade in the morning to be in amongst the parade of schooners, sloops and cutters of every variation imaginable was a sensational experience, despite my ignorance of matters maritime. Offerings on land were pretty good too with all kinds of music, food and crafts from Brittany and the invited nations - Norway, Russia, Mexico, Morocco and Indonesia - as well as boat-building, historical reconstructions and guided tours of many ships in dock.
Get along now or don't miss this in 2016!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Significant others

Today I had the pleasure of meeting poet Angela Locke for the first time. We have corresponded about a collaboration for her creative writing course to be held here in Finistere in September but never actually spoken. It was a significant meeting, one of those special occasions when making a connection has immediate and surprising consequences. We didn't have time to do much more than than exchange compliments about our books (I have recently read her stimulating collection Whale Language: Songs of Iona) and talk of arrangments for me to give a talk and a walk (yes, I can even do both at once in an emergency) for her group when the time comes. But there was a strong current of sympathy, humour and incipient affection running across the table even on such brief acquaintance, and I left for another appointment looking forward very much to seeing how she works and contributing to the process myself.
I was driving along happily afterwards thinking of all I had to do at the weekend with another couple of ferry talks to give and Wimbledon finals to watch when - suddenly the whole beautiful entirety of the book I have been wanting to write for the last two years and never quite glimpsed full-on, crash-landed in my head. The afternoon has passed in a whirl of ostensibly functioning on a normal plane whilst idea after idea flowed out and everything I've been thinking about for so long now without form or substance presented itself in a coherent, natural sequence.
This happened to me once before. After spending an afternoon walking and chatting with sociologist Anne Guillou about things completely unrelated to any creative work, the whole story of the Five of Cups leaped out of my brain, fully armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. But that book was hell to write, so let's hope the similarity ends with the initial inspiration.
It's been a great day. Thanks, Angela.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Brest moves forward

I've been in Brest on and off lately. It's a time of change, which has involved considerable upheaval for drivers over the last few years. A new tramway with 27 stations has been installed to connect workers' residential areas to the east and west with the centre. The route will also cut down a bit of walking for tourists visiting both sides of the Penfeld river.
There's been a certain amount of urgency to finish the elaborate project before the International Maritime festival this summer. This huge event brings thousands of boats and tens of thousands of visitors to the city. I'm doing a piece for the Independent, so will have a chance to see first-hand how the system copes under the strain. When I contacted the tramway press officer a few months ago to ask about journey costs for a guidebook update, he couldn't tell me. Strange, as I discovered the ticket prices had already been published on the internet. Hope someone has told him by now.
Part of the system is operational. Only this week one of the smart new trams hit a car and was derailed, fortunately without injuries to anyone. In the west near the British mecca that is IKEA the new tracks are already surrounded by a lavish display of weeds, as if no-one thought to put a membrane down or, more likely, lay in a stockpile of Roundup.
But I have to say that there was noticeably less traffic around in the central areas when I was there last week. Could it all actually be a good thing? Let's hope so. After all, as old photos in the endearing Tour Tanguy (left in the picture) town history museum show, they only took the old tram line out in the 1970s.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

All aboard the Parish Closes

I'm starting my series of talks about Finistere on Brittany Ferries with the Parish Closes. This phenomenon of mainly the 16th and 17th centuries plays out the arrival of Renaissance architecture against the background of Flamboyant Gothic so popular in Brittany. But this is much more than an architectural topic, one that needs to be set in a religious, social and commercial context to be truly accessible to visitors, especially those who have no connection with Catholicism to draw on. I have often watched and listened to British visitors to Guimiliau or Pleyben puzzling over what it all means and going away not much the wiser because of the paucity of explanations.
And nowhere is attention drawn to the fun details - the rector used as a model for the devil, a Green Man holding legs of cattle in his mouth rather than foliage and sensuous sirens ... It's also hard to convey a sense of the colour, noise and bustle of these places in their heyday from the dour greyness under current Breton skies. Legend says that Shakespeare's father attended the markets at La Martyre, which has perhaps the earliest close of all from the 15th century. It was certainly the linen trade with England, Spain and Holland that funded these lavish ensembles, in much the same way as the wool churches of the Cotswolds or East Anglia in England.I hope that I can shed some useful light. Just by knowing the basics of each element of the ensemble and the usual sculptural subjects, the visitor has an easy pattern to use as the basis of comparison between sites - something I know from experience that people enjoy. Instead of describing the contents of a particular house, isn't it better to tell people roughly what to expect in any house and then give them the key to go and explore for themselves?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cruising in the rain

I had booked another island trip today but all sailings were cancelled thanks to the persistent peevishness of the weather god, so as any abnormal person would under glowering skies, blustery winds and grey drizzle, I agreed to take the alternative offered - a cruise on the Odet between Benodet and Quimper.
What a reward I got for my folly! One of the best boat-trips ever, not only for the absorbing scenery but also a gem of a guide in Céline, who spoke beguilingly in French and English with that rare perfect judgement of when to stop talking and let the riverscape speak for itself. All she had to say was worth hearing, a real aid to interpretation of the journey. The Vedettes de l'Odet are lucky to have her, and the other members of the crew on that sailing. This is an experience I can whole-heartedly recommend. Chapeau, Céline!
The trip itself is surprising. Much is made of the many chateaux glimpsed along the route, but that was not the highlight for me. I already knew that the vast majority of the land along the river is privately owned and that no public right of way applies in the estuary as it would (in theory) on the coast. So sadly it is not walking territory.
What is more important is that the law prevents these proprietors from cutting down the lushly dense trees that fortify the banks with high green walls. To get a narrow view of the river for their privileged pleasure, they have to hang around during storms and give a helping hand here and there ... It has certainly preserved a compelling verdancy. I spent most of the trip alone on the top deck in the rain just looking at trees ...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Writers' websites - why?

What is the point of a writer's website? This is a question I've been pondering lately, having been asked directly by a reader and also from talking with other writers. The issue is pertinent as my own website ( has just had a major overhaul, having survived a recent cull in which I decided to deleted several websites and blogs in the interest of focusing my work.

The reader in question suggested very politely and with no obvious hint of irony that writers' websites should surely include examples of writing - which mine did not. I've ferreted around the web and seen that many other writers do not actually include even a single quotation from their work on their sites. It's true that titles alone often sell non-fiction books: if you're going on holiday to Finistere and like walking, my book Walking in Finistere is a likely purchase without much concern over style and ethos. But my serious and thoughtful reader is right and I've tried to rectify this lack.

What I have more problem with is the idea that readers have a right or a justified desire to know about a writer's background. Some writers' sites have lavish About Me sections, others are tantalisingly coy about their true persona. Whilst of course I find my past to be excessively interesting, I really don't see the need to give my educational, professional or personal history free of charge, as it were. Aren't I supposed to stick it in a book? Let the reader glean my all from Discovering the History of Brittany and Walking the Brittany Coast.

Fiction is another matter. I had a letter years ago from a reader about a character in Moon Garden. She felt sure that I had identified personally in the creation of this person - in fact, although like all characters this one was an amalgamation, I'd taken the essence of someone I thought particularly disagreeable...

Monday, June 11, 2012

An island in the rain

Spent some rather gloomy days on Belle-Ile last week and arrived home with a rucksack full of damp clothes and notebooks. The greatest interest for me was the Citadelle Vauban and the fort owned by Sarah Bernhardt and adapted to suit her very particular style of living. Our time on the 'cote sauvage' was limited by the weather, but I shall certainly go back and complete this most spectacular route when I can take the time to look and investigate properly. It is quite unlike the Atlantic islands of Brittany, having a lush vegetation and undulating interior. Pity the famously mild and sunny climate was itself on leave during our visit and what was, after all, my only prospect of a holiday this year.
Now I am really hard pressed with work again and don't expect much more time off this summer. I have two articles on the go, preparation of four talks, the Saints Shore Way project to walk and research and a most welcome contribution to Angela Locke's creative writing course in Huelgoat in September to shape in my head. The latter ties up neatly with my own work on landscape and the imagination, which is coming on well in odd unpressured moments. And all the sport coming up .....