HOW pleasing to return from the Scottish Literature Festival in Carhaix, Brittany, and find a letter in The National from Brian York (Nov 1) sending me good advice with a recommendation for the Librairie Cheminant, a wonderful bookshop in Vannes.

Alas, my time was packed with festival matters and related conviviality and I had no chance to head forth on the TGV, much as I would have enjoyed the relaxed chouchen and a grande creme with a large slice of amandine in a bistrot. What a civilised salutation, I thought, and what a nice prospect of returning some day with that objective in mind.

There’s always more to do, and something to look forward to, despite the world’s horrors and griefs, the shock of what’s visible whenever you lift your head and look around. You can’t cosy up into a snug warmth of satisfaction and leave it at that but you can at least remind yourself that civilised values do exist, can prevail, and should be kept in mind.

When so many members of the Conservative London government clearly ought to be locked up – and that would be just to start with – it’s as well to remind ourselves that there are such things as humane engagements – books, good food and wine, coffee, encouraging company.

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It’s a salutary thought as the other thing I came back with was a miserable dose of Covid, so I’m spluttering and croaking and coughing into my tissues, avoiding as much of everything as I can and pointing my breath away from other people while looking slantwise at keyboard and screen.

Brian’s other most welcome recommendation was of the composer Paul le Flem, author of “atmospheric symphonic poems, evocative of Brittany, along the lines of Hamish MacCunn”. That’s a reference I have been able to check and I’m very grateful for it. The music is lovely, late Romantic, with Debussy and Ravel and Bartok in the constellation. Paul le Flem lived a long, long life (1881-1984). He taught Erik Satie as a mature student, and, as Brian said, his music is saturated with a sense of his native Brittany – landscapes, coastal seascapes, leaves and trees and forests, crashing waves and freshening air.

Le Flem spoke Breton and remained strongly attached to Breton culture throughout his life. In 1902, he went to Russia to take up a teaching position, and he learned Russian. But he was soon back in Brittany and before the First World War, he composed his First Symphony, a Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and an opera.

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During the war, he was mobilised as a stretcher bearer and with his knowledge of Russian, he was assigned to the Russian Expeditionary Force in France and led their military band.

After the war, he devoted himself to music criticism and choral conducting and in 1937 he began composing once again. There were three further symphonies and another opera before he stopped composing in 1976, at the age of 95, due to blindness. He died on July 21, 1984 at the age of 103.

I’ve been listening to his music online. The “Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra” with Marie-Catherine Girod on piano and the Orchestre de Bretagne under Claude Schnitzler, is a delight, exhilarating and powerful and then dreamily enchanted, with plenty pizzicato piano and then at the climax, tons of appropriate brass. His setting for piano accompaniment of Verlaine’s poem, “Mandoline”, is strong and careful, intensely expressive, balanced and sustained.

Here’s my own version of the poem:

The gracious voices, sending serenades,

The handsome, lovely listeners,

Paying close attention,

Are comfortably sitting, idling,

Under the branches of trees,

As a mild breeze gently rises, and

Where are we now?

Where can we be?

Say Tircis, Aminta, Clitandre, Damis – always

Right there, just there! Just in that spot!

Where well-made sonnets will melt in the sunshine,

And words soothe themselves into your ears,

As the frost dissolves in the air.

Trailing their flowery dresses,

Trailing their flowery coats,

All everywhere and everything

Is elegance and light,

And all the shadows are blue.

And everything is floating,

And mingling, spiralling and intertwining tenderly In the opal colours of the moonlight,

And the mild breeze breathes its melodious music,

Harp strings tenderly shimmering,

Over the distant chimes

Of the loveliest mandoline.

By contrast, Le Flem’s Second Symphony is big, dramatic, gestural and unstoppable. All in all, he is a composer it’s a joy to meet and I’m looking forward to his dramatic works, the operas Le Rossignol de Saint-Malo (The Nightingale of Saint-Malo) and La Magicienne de la Mer (The Magician of the Sea).

For the Dead, a moving elegy for two of his children, who died young, and the seven Pièces enfantines, along with orchestral tone poems, En mer (At Sea) and La Voix du large (The Voice of the Open Sea), are all evidently going to keep Brittany in mind as I drown out my Covid with good music and malt whisky.

Scholars will be discerning about notions of the Celtic diaspora but across the arc of the north-western European seaboard – Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany – there are connections of ethos, the feel of the place, the terrain, something more than that good but over-used word “landscape” allows.

We did travel a little, with an excursion to Concarneau, the seaside town in the south. The sea was looking rough. One wild swimmer was in the harbour but not making much progress against the tide. Beyond the horizon was Spain.

But the main work of the trip was in Carhaix itself.

It seems the word means “crossroads” and its previous incarnation in Roman times was Vorgium but that, I was told, is not a Latin word but a phonetic rendition of the Gallic or Breton identification of the willow tree, as willows surround the town.

Whatever the nomenclature, we spent most of our time in the hot, clammy atmosphere of the great hall, with crowds milling everywhere, shifting from one book-laden table to another, in parallel rows, all along the lengths of the hall.

The books, mainly in Breton, some in French, newspapers, magazines, children’s books, poetry titles, crime fiction, singers with their CDs and the occasional person dressed in traditional Breton costume, or in kilt and plaid, or with long beribboned beard, tied up with bows, grim-looking characters, some impenetrably watchful men, occasionally buoyant, happily smiling women, sometimes laughing children.

The laughter of children will be our revenge on the killers and the oppressors. In the international context of horror, the legitimisation of killing, the arms manufacturers’ profits, the assurances of vile creatures in governments, humanity’s worst, there are these things, that keep us sane and human.

The great Breton traditional singer and musician Alan Stivell (below, right), whose revival of the Celtic harp and whose LPs and CDs have been massively popular at least since the 1970s, was the guest of honour.

The National:

His lyrics celebrate Scottish-Breton connections, as in “Hidden Through the Hills”:

Hidden through the hills of Scotland

Free and true, the women and men,

Trees and earth, dead leaves and blossoms

Here still alive is the home soul of freedom

It’s not needed to be outside

It’s not needed to be out of jail

It’s not needed the power of state

For dignity and decent human pride

Highland lochs and Lowland rivers

Even with no pipes, no tartans

These belong to Caledonians

Despite the everlasting hate in London

That one comes from Alan’s CD Terre Des Vivants (Earth for the Living, or, World of the Alive: KE3105). On another CD, AaMzer/ Seasons (WVF 479107), Alan has a setting of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript”, which enacts another sense of affinity between the Celtic nations, in the landscapes and shorelines themselves.

ITtbegins: “And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October, when the wind / And the light are working off each other / So that the ocean on one side is wild / With foam and glitter, and inland among stones / The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans …”

The ruffle-feathered birds are “white on white,” and their “headstrong-looking heads” are “Tucked or cresting or busy underwater”.

The imagery cannot be captured and parked but you can see it, even though …You are neither here nor there, A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Through the mornings, I was sitting in the company of two crime writers, Lin Anderson and Doug Johnstone, beside us the French scholar and translator of Scottish literature, Jean Berton, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, and with him, Emeritus Professor at the University of Lumiere Lyon, Keith Dixon, long-resident in France and director of the French publishing house Editions Métailié.

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In front of us were our books: Lin’s The Party House and Doug’s Breakers in its French translation, selling well, samples of books from Keith’s publishing house and Jean’s essay collections, and two copies of my own Scottish Literature: An Introduction and The MacDiarmid Memorandum, with the Kettillonia pamphlet editions of my translations of The Birlinn of Clanranald and Praise of Ben Dorain, to whom visitors were few and far between. Inevitably, one or two people picked up the 734-page Scottish Literature tome and raised an eyebrow, asking in italics, “An introduction?” “That’s all it is,” I said.

I took part in a round-table discussion and presented my talks, 2000 years of Scottish history and literature in 10 minutes, and an illustrated reading of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn” (the Bretons loved it: the language, the political punch of it, the ecological truths it delivers so powerfully).

When I got back to the tables, one copy of the big Scottish Literature book had been sold. Wow! That’s 50% of the stock gone, I thought, and felt justified.

As at every French conference or festival I’ve taken part in, the lunches and dinners were an essential part of the proceedings and a fair quantity of high-quality food and wine were happily consumed as the conversations continued and the meetings extended along with our waistlines.

Convivial talk was the rule: Scotland; literature; the arts; Brittany; the Celtic nations; politics; self-determination; language; imperial oppressions; what can be done to resist the impositions of the vile monsters who seek to rule over us. There was a lot of talking.

During the first afternoon, presenting a session on their own work and Scottish crime fiction generally, Lin and Doug were in fine form, holding forth with conviction, élan and light-hearted, quick-witted responses to questions, occasionally getting serious when they touched on questions of darker import – wealthy land or property owners buying up the Highlands of Scotland, or young people susceptible to gang violence and social pressure to conform to the rule of criminality.

These were reminders that crime fiction shouldn’t be described as “merely” genre fiction but is as much “literature” as anything, if it tackles such issues seriously and sensitises readers to the realities. Politicians rarely do that. Good writers do it all the time.

One evening, at dinner, one of the company suggested a song. Lin led us with a lovely rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and later, when I croakily delivered “The Twa Corbies” (Doug and Lin told us it was Val McDermid’s favourite), Alan Stivell looked up sharply from the other side of the table and we ended up singing it together.

Then Alan told us that it was, in fact, a Breton tune, and our host, Yann Pelliet had his phone out and played the tune to us and Alan sang us the Breton lyrics.

Such were the connections exemplified, demonstrated, celebrated, confirmed.

Back at the tables, among the visitors inspecting our wares was one engaging lady who talked to me about her great interest in Scottish literature, Scots and Gaelic languages, and all things connecting Scotland and Brittany. She ended the conversation by asking: “How do you say goodbye in Scotland? How do you say goodbye in Scots? Or in Gaelic?”

Shaking her hand, I said: “Hasta la vista!”

“Hasta la vista!” she smiled, nodding vigorously.

And we left it at that: “À bientôt!”