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 .....