Wednesday, 1 September 2010

From D-Day to Gaugin, by story: Sue Purkiss



The first day of September, and the holidays are over - but here's a picture to remind you. Sea, sand, rocks, the smell of salt and seaweed, the sound of the waves...

And breathe...

The photo is of a beach in Brittany, where we've just had a sort of sandwich holiday; Normandy at either end, and Brittany in the middle. We went to Normandy to visit some of the beaches used to land troops at D-Day. I knew the outline of the story of the landings, of course - but there are lots of museums and other ways of remembering what happened there, and after visiting some of them, now I know a lot more.

The last place we went to was Arromanches. First we went to the museum on the sea front. It has two good films, and it's packed full of memeorabilia - physical reminders of that time; uniforms, weapons, pieces of kit, photographs - even an engine from a fighter plane. There's also a very good model which shows you what the floating harbour at Arromanches looked like; you can look up from this and see the remaining concrete caissons in the sea through the window; look up to a video screen and you can see footage of soldiers and tanks driving across the metal causeway which took them from the ships to the beaches.

There was lots of good stuff, but somehow I felt a bit dissatisfied, a bit short-changed. After looking round, I knew, for instance, which countries took part in the landings. I knew what kind of uniform each of them wore. I knew that airmen were given a special kit for if they were shot down, which included among other things a silk map, a hotel token, some currency, and a letter in Russian proving that they were with the allied forces. I knew all sorts of things.

But I didn't have a sense from this particular museum of the stories of some of the individuals involved, whereas from others, I did. For instance, there's one at Pegasus Bridge, not far from Caen, which was one of the first places to be re-taken from the Germans. Each display case had exhibits similar to those at Arromanches, but here, the story is told through the experiences of a particular person. So there are letters, photographs: there is a little doll, which one pilot officer carried in his pocket as a mascot - it belonged to his son. You are told about this man's life, as well as his involvement in the battle for Pegasus Bridge; you're told about what happened to him afterwards, and how his belongings come to be here on display. You can guess how he felt, the kinds of things he was thinking. You're told a STORY.

There was another place we went - Bernieres. We went there because my husband's uncle had told us just before we came away that he had landed men there - he was in the navy. It's a lovely little town. The way they remember the story there is that at key points, they have large photos from 1945. So, for instance, you see a picture of Germans firing from the church spire - and then you look up and see the spire today. peaceful against a blue sky. You see a picture of children milling round a smiling Canadian soldier - and you look up and see people walking along the street, who may quite possibly be those children's children. It's powerful; it brings the past alive. Like books, that's what museums can do.

One last museum - nothing to do with the war. The weather in Brittany wasn't always as sparkling as it is in the picture, and one rather chilly day my son found out about a little museum just up the road from this beach, in Le Poldu. We called it the Gaugin House - I don't remember if that was its proper name. Gauguin was one of a group of painters who lived and worked for a while in Brittany. He stayed with a couple of others in an inn run by a woman called Marie Henry. She was young and beautiful, and she was a single mother - not really what you'd expect in rural France in the 1890s, perhaps.
The painters painted on the walls, the doors, even on the windows, much to the amusement of the locals. Their work was painted over, but rediscovered years later, and now you can wander round the house in the company of gentle ghosts, and discover the stories of the people who lived there at that time. One of the most remarkable stories concerns Marie Henry - but I'm saving that one. It's a beauty. (A bit of serendipity: when I came home and looked through my emails, I found one from the Tate saying that there's to be a major Gaugin exhibition starting at the end of September. Brilliant! Now I'll be able to find out how this bit of his career fits in with the rest.)
So, stories. They are how we enter the lives , the thoughts, the experiences of others. Stories are important: stories work.

http://www.suepurkiss,com/




9 comments:

Kate Collings said...

Ive always liked a holiday where you can learn a bit about the history, people and culture. As long as I can indulge in at least one day's relaxation and sunbathing then I'm good to go.

Thanks for sharing.
Take care
Kate Collings
xx

www.katecollings.blogspot.com

catdownunder said...

Oh. I am just a little envious!

Savita Kalhan said...

Lovely post. We've been to Brittany many times, but not that part, so now can't wait to visit The Gaugin House, and discover more stories along the way...

Mary said...

Hi ladies, I just stumbled across your blog - you've got a lot of great stuff posted.

I hope you'll check mine out - I have a lot of flash fiction on it that you might like. :)

Can't wait to see your next post!

Andrew Strong said...

I was at Pegasus Bridge a couple of weeks ago - I knew something of the D-Day landings, but no detail. One of the information boards there mentioned the piper, Bill Millin, who was the first to cross Pegasus Bridge and did so not only under fire, but whilst playing his bagpipes! Millin, coincidentally, died that weekend. An astonishing man, someone whose courage is beyond my understanding.

Penny Dolan said...

Some places and spaces "speak" and others just don't. Interesting post, Sue.

verilion said...

I was thinking of Pegasus beach when I started reading your post. It's definitely a place where you feel the story.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's the stories of the indiviuals that make it come real, isn't it? I remember reading about the piper, Andrew. I don't think I would have had the courage to get out of the aeroplane or off the boat, let alone anything else. Awe-inspiring.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Very interesting Sue. I actually did a day tour with the Battle Bus would you believe, of the American D-Day experience : my nephew who teaches History in college in L.A. took me along. It certainly brought the whole thing alive - in fact when we got to the beach itself the descriptions were almost too real for me. (Won't repeat them in print!) But some amazing stories.