I only discovered Brest, a port in Brittany whose inhabitants like to call ‘top of the world’ through Ana-Cecile whose family has been based in the area for as long as anyone can remember. It was she who told me tales of Brittany, a Celtic outpost in Western France, looking out to the sea, across the Channel and the Atlantic. In recent times, I have stayed in several Breton spots but none longer than in Brest. This would surprise some people since Brest, hastily rebuilt in the Fifties after being largely destroyed in the Second World War, is a modern town of concrete lacking in the picturesque. Despite its lack of architectural beauty, it has its charm and not least in the kindness of its inhabitants including to a vagabond street musician such as myself. Others, of more conventional professions, have been drawn there as well, Veronique, a school-mistress, told me that she, her husband and two young children, fled there last year from Paris, a place they came to find too expensive, too stressful and too polluted.
Bretons sometimes called their region ‘Little Britain’. The name comes honestly since Brittany was settled in the early Middle Ages by Celtic Britons from Wales and Cornwall, escaping German tribes then overrunning Britain as the Roman Empire crumbled. Here in their new land, the arrivals found a landscape whose atmosphere of misty forests was not dissimilar to what they left. Brittany is rich in Celtic lore, her rich forests abounding with leprechauns, imps and devils. She has too her share of Arthurian legends and Merlin lies in the Broceliande forest.
St David, is celebrated on the first of March in Brittany just as it is in Wales. Brittany credits the saint with spreading Christianity in the region, his name is honoured in places like Saint-Divy, Saint-Yvi and Landivy. In the ninth century, Welsh monks brought their form of monasticism to Brittany.
Parts of Brittany, especially the more rural ones are more Breton in culture, others, including Brest with an important military and naval presence, are more dominated by French influences. One never hears Breton in Brest though the language is now taught in schools after having been suppressed for centuries. Brest’s position as a port, strategic to France since the seventeenth century, led to splendour and miseries in the twentieth century. Brest still remembers fondly the moment in 1917 when US troops landed there; the situation in the Second World War was fraught since the occupying Germans used Brest as a submarine base to attack Allied ships. This in turn led to massive Allied bombing, leaving Brest in ruins and many civilians dead.
To this day, St Louis in Brest celebrates a daily Mass in honour of those who died in the bombing, using a chalice made with jewels once belonging to those who died in the bombing.
For their part, the Germans set much of the city afire as they were retreating, burning the baroque church of St Louis in the process. Anti-British feeling because of the bombings was strong for years after the war ended.
Happily, it has disappeared. Here, Brexit was denounced by the chattering classes and applauded by those with a knowledge of history and geography and, according to a priest at St Louis, by many Catholics of a rather conservative turn of mind. Young people in Brest are often attracted by London which they find more lively than France.
One finds similar feelings in older people as well. A colleague of mine, Philippe, aged 56, a street singer, born and raised in Brest, sings Beatles songs in English and speaks often of his love of England and friends he knows there. Phillipe is often to be seen in Brest, a Rex Harrison hat on his head, his guitar and a cart with a bottle or two of beer, a teddy bear, once his daughter’s, to please young fans.
During the Slump of the Thirties, much of Brest’s population had to live in barracks. This built a sense of solidarity that survives and which is borne out in local politics. Brest’s city government has been socialist for several decades and the hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, did well in Brest in the 2017 presidential election’s first round, reflecting more France’s seemingly endless economic depression than Breton politics which by nature tends to be middle of the road.
Even Socialists in Brittany tend to be church-goers, something by no means true among Socialists in France as a whole. I haven’t seen signs for Marine Le Pen and the National Front in Brest or anywhere else in Brittany and their scores were virtually non-existent there.
Ana- Cecile, who thought little of any of the candidates, told me before the elections, that she dreaded the possibility of Le Pen getting to the second round, forcing many to vote for Le Pen’s opponent. The day after Emmanuel Macron’s victory was announced, the only comments I heard at the hotel in Brest where I have been staying were to do with his being 25 years younger than his wife. ‘We can be sure that whoever wins will let us down,’ someone at the hotel later remarked. Ana-Cecile told me that her uncle, active in politics in Brest, knew Richard Ferrand, Macron’s ‘right-hand man’, and found him obsessed with power and politics to the exclusion of all else.
Regis Kerebel, a filmmaker in his early thirties, told me he avoids politics. Regis has lived all his life in Brest. He is fortunate enough to own a studio of his own though not much money at present to go with it. Regis dresses in vintage clothes, often suits, wears a Chaplin-like hat and may be the only person in Brest other than me to wear cuff links. He loves silent films, his hero is Harold Lloyd, and he has made any number of silent shorts including of a number of me, performing songs of mine.
Brest has the rough side expected in ports, and at night one can have the feeling, for a lot of people out on the streets, their own religion is drink. Nevertheless, in Brest as elsewhere in Brittany, one is constantly being impressed by the kindness and openness prevailing in this city of seafarers and fisherfolk.