This month, having managed to borrow a little more time to complete the residency project, what do I do but grab a flight across The Channel for a few weeks’ truancy in Brittany? Not quite a second home – or should that be third? – perhaps, but familiar ground. Several pre-breakfast swims already, though we haven’t made it right across the lake yet, and hours of such hot sun that I’ve found myself creeping into the shade like an overheated Labrador. A slightly odd coming together of disparate strands this time: lots of TV Wimbledon in what I’ve grown used to as a non-sporting environment, and of course yesterday evening we cheer Argentina all the way to defeat.
Earlier in the World Cup story, one of our first outings is to Pontivy to attend a round table exploration with some of the artists in the annual art-in-the-chapels programme: a stiff two hours’ concentration on the debate, all in French of course, and almost understanding a little less than half. Then coffee in our favourite bar, mysteriously buzzing until we discover that the kick-off in the France-Germany quarter final is only minutes away. Difficult not to resort to national stereotypes: an eminently civilised football crowd and an unashamedly intellectual discussion both strikingly different from what we believe would be the English equivalent. My spirits sink further with the weather: when we leave the bar, clear skies and fierce sun have given way to the burnt smell of summer rain. And, with a complete lack of generosity, the news that Eimear McBride has won yet another literary prize makes me poor company I fear on the drive home – hard to imagine that I will ever be credited with changing the face of fiction.
The following day we drive along the lake through a Welsh hill fret to Gouarec where Marilyn le Moign has opened her garden in aid of the Bon Repos Abbey restoration fund. The garden of her house, a modest Breton mansion in the rue au lin, is a good mix of formal lines in lawn and clipped box and yew and more informal combinations in the mixed beds, a pleasure even in the dismal rain that digs in for the afternoon. The path in is lightened by a high flier which behaves like a climbing hydrangea but appears to be a tiny-flowered rose – ‘rambling rector, I think’ I hear from a passing visitor. As the garden opens to our view, ahead is a long bed, predominantly pinks – wonderfully fizzy and frivolous astilbe, roses and geranium and the ubiquitous hydrangea – offset with fiery berberis and day lilies. The path winds round alongside the river, beside fern and gunnera and bamboo and large-leaved hosta. We discover the charming Lysimachia clethroides, gooseneck loosestrife, its slender white flower spikes curved in parallel, small pennants blown back in a breeze. We dawdle by a narrow shallow stretch of water with a geometric slate base, squeeze into the tiny Japanese garden and admire the way the huge trees beyond the boundary provide the perfect backdrop to the garden itself. Then we take refuge under the canopy for tea and cake, watching the rain: very English.
The first ten days here are dogged by Britishness, both in the weather – enough rain that even those perfect early mornings and the odd burst of searing sun don’t quite obliterate the memory – and in the company at a grand dinner at the house of compatriots in Keriven, a couple of villages along the lake. There are childhood echoes, too: Di and I are busy with our ‘Mapping Memory’ Project which has Di back in Harrow and me up the road in 1950s Wembley. I write fast, in a hurry to escape those early suburban days. Meanwhile Nick stalks the garden with his air rifle, a Mr McGregor in a range of sunhats, on the trail of the rabbits who are eating their way through all his plantings. The garden anchors us sweetly in the here and now: startling cobalt in a spreading buddleia and the beautiful hydrangea macrophylla normalis, bursts of fire in nasturtium and marigold and the fat hips of the rugosa rose at this end of the drive, the vibrant colours of anemone and cornflower and rose campion Lychnis coronaria, also known rather charmingly as Bridget-in-her-bravery. The thick woolly leaves were once used as lamp wicks, contributing to the genus name, from the Greek lychnos, meaning lamp. The epithet coronaria probably means crown, although some regard it as a corruption of champagne, the French for country. And the pretty rose Souvenir de la Malmaison has scrambled up the front of the house almost to my bedroom window.
When we’re not busy lazing around here, we head off to view some of the art interventions in the chapels which pepper the local landscape. Clear favourite so far is Matthieu Pilaud’s extraordinary ‘H.A.M. et Laika’, two massive pine structures, each with a cold metal heart suspended within the skeleton, representing the Cold War between Russia and the USA. The larger of the two in the transept is open enough to climb into and inspect the stainless steel panels of the heart or look up through the bones of the frame to the painted ceiling of the chapel itself. This chapel is dedicated to St Noyale whose story is depicted in the ceiling panels. Arriving in Brittany from England in search of a life serving God, she was beheaded by a local chief when she refused to marry him and carried her severed head to her final resting place. Another star in the firmament of Catholic legend is the virgin martyr St Appoline, whose torture included having all her teeth pulled out. She is often shown, as in the Chapelle Saints Drédeno, between two men, one wielding a gigantic pair of pliers.
Some mornings we cycle into Mur for a coffee or a glass of wine in Bar Le Rockwell, our persistence paying off in greetings from the regulars, or wander round the Friday evening market when the whole area it seems spills into the town to chat and eat and drink, watching those brave enough to try abseiling down the church tower or sitting on the steps to listen to the band. We meet Joseph, the eighty-year-old previous owner of the house, another chap called Leonard who, after the traditional greeting, apologises for his stubbly chin. All the talk is of the new mayor, another neighbour of ours apparently. It’s a struggle to make sense of the accent, even though conversations are often at near-shouting pitch, but it’s all exuberantly good-humoured. Later, in the creperie for supper, ours are the only English voices.
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden