Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Book I Read In June

'Vellum' by Hal Duncan
Back in March I criticised the fragmented often incoherent nature of 'Hawksmoor' by Peter Ackroyd. All that I said about that book applies to 'Vellum' in even greater amount. There are basically three characters but it is difficult to pin down even what their names are. They appear in scraps of text set in a range of historical and fantastical settings. They are mixed up with characters and stories from ancient mythology. There are some interesting ideas such as the 'vellum' being a kind of book which structures the multiverse and using it, people can travel into various times and realities. The book also includes a half-hearted reference to a battle between various angels and between them and demons which seems to have been borrowed from the US television series, 'Supernatural', though it might be in reverse as the episodes covering those themes were broadcast after this book was published in 2006. There is no resolution to the story for any of the characters. Instead there are numerous incomplete stories thrown together in apparent random order.

I have seen an online review which likens the book to the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock: 'The Final Programme' (1968), 'A Cure for Cancer' (1971), 'The English Assassin' (1972) and 'The Condition of Muzak' (1977). This is not entirely accurate as 'The Final Programme' has a coherent narrative. In contrast, 'A Cure for Cancer' is described as 'essentially a collage of absurdist vignettes' and this description would fit 'Vellum' well. It seems Duncan is aware of the Jerry Cornelius books, the character is referred to by name at one point and elsewhere one of Duncan's characters wields a needle gun, the favoured weapon of Cornelius. The thing is that Moorcock was writing at the height of the era of the drugs- and hippy-influenced culture when authors were experimenting with different forms of writing. Duncan is writing thirty years beyond that period when it is clear that for most part that approach to writing has been set aside. Certainly the acclaim on the book sleeve about Duncan's work being radical or innovative is misplaced, in many ways it is revival of an old style around when he was a child (he was born in 1971). One saving grace of the Jerry Cornelius books is that they were short, around a quarter of the length of 'Vellum' at 500 pages in the edition I read.

Duncan has some great idea and the opening scene of a protagonist stealing the 'Vellum' could have let into a fascinating book. However, it appears that Duncan lacks many of the skills needed to write an actual novel and instead has sold what was effectively the scrapbook that all authors have of ideas, characters and fragments of which some grow into true books, others do not. He has been incredibly lucky to get his scrapbook published. If he could have written a book as good as 'The Final Programme', he would have been deserving of acclaim. However, it seems he has a long way to go before he becomes a novelist despite the fact someone has given him a publishing deal.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Returning To Sables D'Or

Six years ago, I produced a posting about my childhood memories of holidaying at Sables D'Or Les Pins in Brittany in northern France: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/memories-of-sables-dor.html  Conscious that I do not have a great deal of holidays left and seeking something that would not end in the kind of disaster my holidays usually do, e.g.:


I decided to go back to Hotel De Diane in Sables D'Or and sit there for a week.

The holiday was largely a success.  I aimed to go with Condor Ferries which use catamaran ferries that should shave three hours off the travel time across the English Channel.  However, being relatively small vessels they are affected by the weather much more than traditional ferries.  On both the outward and return crossings the sailings were cancelled.  In the end I had to return by Brittany Ferries, taking nine hours in total, but a very reliable service.  As it was, the Condor Ferries service saved no time.  In the last couple of years they have ended their sailings from Weymouth and from 2014 ended direct sailings from Britain to France.  Instead you are taken to the Channel Islands where you have to wait at least 2 hours, sometimes overnight, until a shuttle ferry from France arrives to take you the final stage.  Thus, the time saving is lost and often you will have to pay for accommodation on Jersey or Guernsey.  This rigmarole is repeated on the return journey.

Anyway, the ferry difficulties shifted my holiday by a day and meant me paying for another night in the hotel in France.  I also was very sick on the outward crossing.  It has become apparent that in contrast to my youth I now cannot sail on board a ferry even in calm seas without becoming ill.  I put it down to the inner ear infection I caught in Berlin some nine years ago.  It has affected the woman I was travelling with then in a different way but she has still had to abandon motorcycling.

In many ways the resort is similar to that portrayed above.  It was opened in 1924 and despite modern technology retains old world charm.  The houses shown in the picture are still there and it seems many French have holiday homes in the area as do some British.  Rambling, horse riding and golf, despite being things I did not engage with, remain important in the area.  The casino is still there, but did not seem open while I was in town.  Sitting between St Brieuc to the West and St Malo to the East, the hinterland is traditional rural France with quiet roads and pleasant villages with locations for horse riding and fishing.  The coast is a mixture of rocky headlands and large beaches from which the tide goes out a long way.  In June most of the visitors were the elderly there for the walking.  There were quite a few Germans in camper vans too.  I am sure it gets much busier once the school holidays start.

My parents stayed at the resort in 1965, 1966 and 1972; family friends also stayed there in that era.  I am not sure now if the Hotel De Diane was the hotel they visited, because it is run by the Rolland family, who have held it for four generations and that is not the name of the proprietors that my parents knew.  I think in fact they stayed at the much larger hotel less than a metre away next door.  It, however, has now closed down.  The Hotel De Diane, named after a valley rising from the town, is compact and has an award-winning restaurant which has good food though a small menu.  Everywhere seems to have been affected by nouvelle cuisine and it is very difficult to get anything traditional.  I suppose this is a result of catering schools and inspectors in France.

The hotel is modern inside and nicely appointed; the staff are very friendly - many seem to be from the Rolland family.  There is a waitress from northern England in the restaurant who shows off how people can have different characters when speaking different languages.  She squawks at British guests in English and speaks softly to the French guests in French.  A good place if you want somewhere quiet to stay.

Hotel De Diane, Sables D'Or-Les Pins, eastern Brittany, France

At this time of the year the beach which is immense at low tide, as can be seen below, is largely deserted.  There is an onshore breeze and some people sail or windsurf.

The Beach at Sables D'Or at Low Tide

The tiny chapel, seen in the picture at the top can still only be reached at low tide.  It is a real mission to reach it across the rocky causeway.

Chapel on the Islet of St Michael at Sables D'Or

The small town of Sables D'Or-Les Pins has a few restaurants of different standards, a couple of pizzerias and creperies.  Erquy down the road remains a functional town still with a fishing fleet.  Like many towns in the region it has a very large, very clean beach.  In fact how clean the beaches was stunning to me though I am familiar with award-winning ones on the South coast of England.

There are some sights to see.  I returned to Fort La Latte which I mentioned in my previous posting.  The battering ram from the movie 'The Vikings' is now properly displayed.

Fort La Latte

Prop Battering Ram used in the Movie, 'The Vikings' (1958)

I enjoyed visiting the historic town of Dinan and for some reason found Lamballe a town which houses France's national stud, very pleasant too.  St Malo old town is a tourist attraction but did not seem overwhelmed by it.  This maybe because I was early in the season.



St Malo

Even St Malo which has a commercial port has a long, attractive beach, it seems compulsory for towns in the region.  Being an adult rather than a child, I had freedom to go where I chose.  Unlike many members of my family,   My car did great service getting me around the countryside.  Drivers in rural France seem more patient than their equivalent in the British countryside who always seem offended that you are simply there.  My sat nav despite containing maps of France pleaded that it lacked the memory to cope, so I ended up map reading which did me well.  I only had difficulty entering and leaving St Brieuc where the drivers were impatient at me looping the roundabouts and where, anyway, the roads were disrupted by road works and diversions.

I found some other interesting places, St Jacut de la Mer is a town with very little bar a modern looking abbey.  However, being a narrow peninsula it is lovely and quiet and I can recommend the 'Awawa' restaurant run by a young couple.  The food there is delicious.  I did not have a bad meal anywhere I ate but this one really stood out.  Jugon-les-Lacs almost due South inland from there, is also very pleasant.  The lakes are artificial but you could not really tell.  As with a lot of the region, I saw loads of wild flowers everywhere and many more bird species than I even see North across the Channel in Dorset and Devon.  It must be a great area if you enjoy walking or cycling.  There was a cycle race open to teams and individuals of all levels while I was in Sables D'Or and a cycle rally in St Malo too.

One thing that struck me was how difficult it was to pick up radio stations that did not play old fashioned French music.  It was as if I was in an American's imagination of France.  I even ended up with a Breton folk channel at one time.  The rocky outcrops of the area seem to play havoc with reception.  I found no petrol station with any staff.  You generally have to pay by debit card and this can get complicated.

The main street of St Jacut de la Mer

Interior of 'Awawa' restaurant

Wild flowers in St Jacut de la Mer

Street in Jugon-les-Lacs

Jugon Lake seen from Surrounding Hills

As you can see from the shot of Jugon-les-Lacs there is a flaw in my camera, a chip in the glass right in the middle of the lens.  I had to replace it.  However, on the balance of what has happened on holidays, this one turned out to be better than the large majority.  I was able to both indulge in nostalgia for my youth and discover new places.  I also found a region, which certainly outside St Brieuc, is very quiet and relaxing to travel around and visit places.  It may be that going early in the Summer helped with this and it would be a different story in August.  No holiday in the area is going to be a staggering experience but it can be restful and that is what I really needed.  Last year's experience meaning I came back even more stressed then when at work, needed to be avoided and returning to Sables D'Or provided that.

On one hand, given this success I began thinking about possibly venturing further afield.  However, I fear now that one success has bred complacency.  Furthermore, there are few places I have been where things have not gone wrong, so I have little idea where I would go next.  I do, fortunately, appear to have broken a 7-year bad run of holidays.  Perhaps I need to go back to the pattern of the 1990s when I only had a holiday every 5 years so as to reduce the risk.  That would mean, however, I have only 1-2 holidays left.  I suppose I should be grateful this one went well.

P.P. 18/07/2015
I came across another postcard of the next beach East along from Sables D'Or and show it here with a picture I took this year to show how little has changed.

I was stood among the pines shown on the postcard, but zoomed in from there to focus on the beach, but you get the feel for it.