Gael Elton Mayo Letter from Brittany BB Archive

Gael Elton Mayo Letter from Brittany bookblast diary

Gael Elton Mayo (1921-92) journalist, writer and artist, first wrote a column while living in Spain in the 1950s for The Spanish-American Courier. This piece came out in April 1954.

In the northwest of Spain, Brittany, the west of England and Ireland, you find people with the same surnames. They are all Celts. When Breton and Cornish sailors meet at sea they understand each other’s dialects.

One remembers the saying that Brittany was originally joined on to Cornwall, but how Galicia fits into this is more mysterious, even though if you look at the map it isn’t so far – relatively speaking – from the south coast of Brittany to the north-west coast of Spain.

Anyway, there is a definite similarity. In Galicia and in Brittany the same green fields with their stone walls descend into the dangerous sea. The Bretons are reserved like the Gallegos, they don’t tell you much about themselves: they often answer a question with a counter-question. (The Bretons and Gallegos seem more alike than their Cornish and Irish counterparts, who are full of madness and music and much less practical.)

Discover Galicia and Brittany

The people here are not French, there is a distinction: they are Breton. The towns have their Celtic names as well as their French ones. Vannes, in Celtic for instance, is called Gwened (originally a community of fishermen who formed a group to resist Ceasar.) The Bretons have red-veined faces  due to cider and cold winds, hard winters, continual fighting against the elements.

Brittany has produced writers like Chateaubriand, explorers like Jacques Cartier who discovered Canada. The city of St. Malo had a brave division in the American War of Independence . . . and in St. Malo there is a statue of one of its most successful pirates, Surcouf, who retired to live in comfort in a lovely eighteenth century house. St. Malo is now an empty shell, most of it having been blown up by the Germans in 1944.

Galicia and Brittany both have dangerous currents in the seas outside them. Here the sea is fascinating. There are immense tides that go out for miles, leaving some harbours quite dry, leaving whole new landscapes. The practical side of your life depends on the little tide-book telling you when the sea will be in or out of certain places. To walk on the sands of Mont St. Michel or in the grottoes of Belle Ile you need one of the local fishermen as guide . . . there are quicksands, racing tides that can cut you off before you realise. People are drowned all too frequently. Last summer friends of ours found a drowned man on the beach, the chef of a hotel was lost casually on his afternoon off when the currents carried him away.

There are Wagnerian sea mists even in summer, and buoys that ring in the fog with voices like lost spirits. The local press has a whole page about which ships are offshore, and where.

The fishermen have known much disaster – they look away with their blue sea-washed eyes and make little comment. But there are wooden saints for every sort of thing, usually to protect boats at sea but also for ailing vision, finding husbands, nervous maladies. One wooden monk stands in his rock shelter out on the beach and is covered by the waters at high tide . . . the waters and the pin-sticking of local superstition have nearly worn him away.

Mont St. Michel

The original name for Mont St. Michel was the island of Tomhelaine, or the sea tomb. In Celtic mythology souls were taken there after death by an invisible boat.

What strikes most when you return north after being away quite a long time is the cluttering up of the landscape, the way people spoil their own earth with villas in the worst taste, signs, advertisements. In Spain the lines of the land are still free. It will probably take us Anglo-Saxons to spoil them.

A propos of sea coast and spoiled land our thoughts turn to that other happier sea . . . tideless, warm, safer – the Mediterranean. But even the Costa Brava, alas, will eventually be spoiled too. Swarms of well-meaning tourists from the north (over 90% Anglo- Saxon) already make it impossible in July and August. We went into a different aspect of this in another column, but not in detail. The northern Spanish- Mediterranean coast is unique. So far it is only spoilt by the presence of foreigners and not yet by the abominations that they will probably build.

For a few more summers, you may still see it intact, without tea-rooms, ugly villas, neon horrors. You may still see this wild and most beautiful rugged coast the way it has always been, with fishing villages set into it like hidden jewels.


Palamos was a great sea port until it was burned by the Turks in 1543. It has been forgotten ever since by most Spaniards. It now has a modest trade of cork, fish and tourists.

tossa 1950s spain bookblastTossa is a walled village whose walls are worthy of Avila, equally impressive but less grim, as the blue Mediterranean lies beneath. These walls are twelfth century medieval built onto Roman remains. The Barbary pirates raided all along this coast, and the Turks used to steal the women. But Tossa itself was never captured after the early centuries. There remains a Roman villa; the people continue to make copies of old Celtic-Iberian pottery.

Lloret, the next port going south, has large eighteenth-century houses built by its people who returned, prosperous, from South America. There are many more such villages, all quite different in character.

If this coast interests you, go soon. Go this summer, or next. Only four years ago Rose Macaulay said, “There are few tourists, and a native air about Tossa.” Only last summer when we were there the tourists were thick as flies in the tiny streets in August . . . Unfortunately nothing can last.

Neither can we, unless we come back to Spain soon. The north is grey, cold and over-populated – Brittany is greyer and colder than Paris – and the southern expatriate palm trees sicken in northern  gardens.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.