Archive | February, 2017

Where Armorica Ends

24 Feb

Finisterre. In some ways, the name tells you all you need to know. Land’s End, the Celtic Fringe, where Europe ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins…

20170215-0041

Travel around the small towns and villages of rural Armorica and you’ll find a society at the edge of the world. The young people, those with professional ambitions, the holidaymakers – they’ve all left. One by one, the amenities are disappearing too. It’s obvious that some of the former café-bars there have closed. The buildings are falling into disrepair. The drapes drawn across the windows of others inform you that they’ve served for the last time. Long ago, Christopher Hutt wrote an insightful and prophetic book about public house closures in England called The Death of the English Pub. I don’t know if a similar work has been written about this phenomenon in northern France, but the pattern is being replicated here, some thirty years later. 

20170213-0013

And those same processes are taking place across Europe. The internet, retail parks, supermarkets, the privatisation of social life, the agglomeration of industry and jobs into the European core… the causes are multi-fold. Smaller communities Europe-wide have had the heart torn out of them. The spaces where village life would have taken place – the chapel, the bar, the games pitch – are public no longer. 

20170215-0050

Sail west from Armorica, then, and you reach America. The pun isn’t mine. It belongs to the master of wordplay and encryption, James Joyce. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” he wrote in the second sentence of Finnegans Wake, that great and impenetrable meditative word-game, “had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor…” As an Irishman, Joyce knew well the “scraggy isthmus” of Europe’s Celtic Fringe. He chose to live in Paris – arguably, as a great artist, it was essential that he worked out of one of the continent’s great cities – but he never stopped writing about Ireland. Those remote and rugged places lay claim to you and won’t let go. 

I’ve seen it happening from my own provincial patch of the writing universe. The Writing Den lies some fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. When I first started spending time out there, it had four bars. The Bar des Sports with its boules pitch is long gone, as is the crêperie and bar with its cast of reprobates. Last year, after several changes of ownership, the bar-restaurant that served as the local truck stop closed its doors.  Now only the Bar Tabac remains open. The post office, grocery, butcher’s, newsagent, hairdresser’s, children’s clothes shop and stores selling electrical appliances and gardening supplies have gone too. The depopulation adds to the quiet and charm. The ruins are charismatic. They increase the region’s hold over me. But I worry where this decline will lead, when it will end. It may not be the end of the world but it sometimes feels as though you arrived there. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Advertisements

The Roof Above Us

18 Feb

Well, I’ve just returned from the Writing Den, where I pushed on with my work-in-progress. I exchanged the shelter of one roof for another, a”change of scenery”, to employ the truism, needed all the more in the depths of the English winter. 

20170215-0015

20170215-0008

It was a good ten degrees warmer than back in England, ideal weather for exploring. Brittany is a spiritual place. You feel it in the landscape around you, in the lakes and forests, the granite hills and fast-flowing streams. You sense the countless generations that have walked there before you, from pre-Christian times onward. And when you lift your eyes skyward there are those magical cloudscapes too. 

20170215-0030

20170215-0035

20170216-0012

A friend and I walked out into the countryside from the hamlet. He was telling me about the distinctly non-Christian principles by which he has conducted his spiritual life. We came across a ruined chapel on the edge of the wood. The real sky was breaking through the holes in the painted one on its ceiling. Organised religion in the West is in retreat, in terminal decline, perhaps. If we’re not careful, we’ll lose those ancient buildings along with it. And we’ll lose something more if our lives focus solely on the material and nothing more besides.  

20170216-0008

You used to see elegant ruins in rural East Anglia. Not now. A derelict garden shed will be re-categorised as a “development opportunity” and priced at £100,000. But that chapel was a reminder for me. Above all else, the roof of a building must be maintained. On a practical level, I shall need to pay to have the roof of the Writing Den fully repaired over the coming year. Otherwise it’ll end up looking like the buildings in the photographs below. For me, spirituality extends to contemplating the birds in the birch trees in the garden (or the sparrows in the quince bush, since I’m back in England). I must remember to look upwards from time to time and reflect. If we neglect the interior life we leave ourselves exposed to the elements, metaphysically speaking.  

20170213-0031

20170213-0006

Clearly, that roof has been troubling me at some subliminal level. It seems that I’ve been writing about it in my work-in-progress.

It all begins with the roof.  Take a four-storey suburban villa, for example.  No one lives there any more.  Once the tiles slip and start to let in water, its structural integrity comes under threat.  Unless the holes are quickly patched, the damage soon spreads.  Filthy streaks line the walls.  Wallpaper begins to peel.  Pools of standing water gather on the floors and damp stains the ceilings below.  Section by section, the plaster blows and comes crashing down.  One after another, the windows are smashed and let the rain in.  It’s surprising how quickly the floorboards and ceiling joists become saturated then turn paper-like before collapsing under their own weight, taking any remaining items of furniture with them.  The house is already beyond repair.  The garden around it has become a dark and forbidding place.  Ivy claws its way toward the gutters.  Buddleia blossoms between the bricks, the memory of Himalayan crags clinging on inside its roots.  Roof timbers rot and fall inward.  Staircases fold in on themselves like broken accordions.  Denuded of its roof and floors, the house becomes an empty box.  Its former personality is no longer recognisable.  The basement and bathrooms, the scullery and servants’ rooms, the nursery and drawing room, they exist only in memory.  Even the ghosts have moved out.  The walls themselves are in danger of collapse.  The chimneys have already fallen.  With the front door broken off its hinges and its rotten windows hanging open, the house presents the world with a hollow, senile stare. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Where America Begins

4 Feb

At the eastern end of England, that’s where America begins…

I was strolling idly through the streets of the old town on my day off, charting the large number of former inns. It’s an ancient port and the crews would have spent much of their time drinking in its hostelries when they came ashore (and womanising and fighting too, no doubt). So quiet are its streets these days, your imagination has to work hard to envisage it. 

20170202-0042

The house where things started

As I meandered, I noticed for the first time a plaque attached to the jettying above the doorway of a medieval house. Looking at the weather-boarding on the neighbouring buildings I might almost have been in New England. In fact, it’s a construction method once common in this part of England. A few structures of the kind still survive in my dreary hometown, fifty miles away from here.  

20170202-0045

Home of Christopher Jones, the real Captain America

So let’s examine that plaque…

20170202-0046

It informs us that it’s the house in which Christopher Jones lived. His ship was almost certainly built in the dry docks here then sailed to continental Europe numerous times over the following decade. And then, in 1620, Captain Jones and his ship were chartered to take a hundred Christian dissenters across the ocean to settle in the land that would become New England. Maybe Jones assembled his crew of thirty or so in the bars of those long-closed inns, at The Drum and Monkey and The Three Cups, The Mariner’s and The Swan. It would have been an adventurous party, for sure, willing to spend endless weeks at sea, sailing to an unknown land. And it’s where modern America begins. 

These are the American centuries, the dawning of a brave New World. Count Basie and Martin Luther King, KFC and the KKK, John D Rockefeller and Joseph Heller, Wells Fargo and Orson Welles, clap-boarding and water-boarding, Elvis Presley and Levi’s jeans, RCA and the CIA, Apple Inc and agent orange, Old Sparky and Sparklehorse, the White House and white supremacists, Donald Duck and Donald Trump, the D-Day landings and moon landings… Everything that America has become begins here. Your macrocosm is my microcosm. There’s a glistering world held inside a faded and forgotten port, a mighty tree within the seed of a New England maple…

20170202-0018

A letter to America?

And that is where my footsteps led me, as I wandered the back streets of an inconsequential eastern town, from a timber-framed ship master’s house to the shores of the most powerful nation that ever existed. America begins at the world’s end. As the slave or the Sioux could tell us, such power can be a force for great good in the world or can perpetrate enormous evil. 

All text and images © PSR 2017