YOU find unexpected connections in surprising places. Above the beach at Puys, outside Dieppe in Normandy, there is a small inn called Auberge du Vieux Puits, meaning the “inn of the old well”. I was there for lunch last Sunday and it was the birthday of one among our small company. The room was full of faces that would look familiar in Wexford. Their Norman forefathers landed on the beach of Baginbun with Raymond le Gros, in the second and decisive landing of 1170.
The beach at Puys
is small and quiet. On a Sunday afternoon of Irish weather, few bathers walked over the stony shore to swim in the English Channel. Baginbun in contrast has a fine sandy beach that is softer underfoot for invaders. Here, and elsewhere along this coast, Canadian troops landed in 1942 but the landings at Dieppe were hard fought. The scene may be idyllic, but French people are now scanning the horizons of their country nervously.
Looking out over the water, the only boat coming ashore was the ferry from New Haven. Nearby, Dieppe was once a fashionable watering hole before the First World War. The great and the good of French and British society came in droves to grand hotels and a flourishing arts scene. Today provincialism has reclaimed it. Quiet, even in August and occasionally pock marked by in-fill of modern buildings to replace what was lost to allied bombs, it has something of Bray or Bognor Regis about it. It is a seaside town past its prime. However, its once-great wealth as a port is evident in stupendous churches and the houses of prosperous merchants.
A Sebastian Melmoth stayed in the inn where we lunched. Better known as Oscar Wilde, he thought the better of using his own name after his release from gaol. With few exceptions, fashionable friends avoided him. It was here and afterwards in Bernaval 10 minutes away, that he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. A great epistle of the renegade against bitterness, it is an astonishing reassertion of dignity in the face of calumny. Canadians were here then too. Among his few faithful friends was Robbie Ross, the son and grandson of prominent Canadian politicians, who was with him afterwards at his deathbed in Paris, and became his literary executor at a time when association with Wilde courted censure.
All this was happenstance, however. It wasn’t an Oscar Wilde tour, but a visit to French friends in Dieppe. An Irish birthday demanded an appropriate French response. Conversation was assisted by good wine. Brexit was a source of utter bewilderment among the two French at the table. One, a frequent visitor to Ireland, is well informed. The other remembered poignantly her visit to Connemara as a student in 1965. And yes, we could clarify that Ireland would not be leaving the EU too. There was a palpable good will towards Ireland, but in France, we are a small far-away place.
Unprompted, our soccer supporters were enthused about in a conversation in which there wasn’t an awful lot of enthusing. A nearby German blockhouse is a remembrance of the last time France was in jeopardy. The threat now is incomparably smaller. But, the Paris metro is patrolled by armed soldiers. Gare Saint Lazare, the second busiest train station in Paris and the gateway to Normandy, as well. Our French friends dismissed that as pointless show. I am inclined to agree, but in government, it is often important to be seen to do something, even if it is pointless.
There is real apprehension about the influence of the far right and far left in France and very little good said about either President Hollande or his putative rival former president Sarkozy. The nub of the issue seemed to be that on the one hand an Islamic minority of about 10%, with cultural differences that are too deep to assimilate, has created a population within France, perhaps permanently beyond the state. On the other, our hosts told us acts of provocation are increasingly frequent. On a crowded train I witnessed a shouting match between a Muslim family with a woman in an expansive head scarf, though not a face veil, apparently about a buggy blocking the aisle. Maybe it was only about the buggy. People standing on crowded trains can become edgy. It is not easy being an outsider in France now.
Perhaps Islamic terrorism is a globalised commodity that anyone anywhere can simply download off the internet. Like Amazon or Uber it is as much disruptive technology as ideology. Dieppe has been bypassed by air travel. The number of people who stay here is now matched by the number who arrive by car ferry and simply drive on through. France, however, is hidebound by regulation and labour laws that protect those in the system but effectively impose a permanent state of high unemployment, borne chiefly by those on the edge of society.
There is a cow’s milk cheese instantly recognisable by its heart shape as coming from the village of Neufachâtel-en-Bray nearby. Presumably it is produced by those Charolais cattle, in picture postcard fields, ubiquitous across upper Normandy. Its origins are claimed to date from 1035, and is part of a dense patrimony of food, language, and culture that make up France. But this part of France has been fought over again and again. The English across the Channel; the Hapsburgs in Flanders; and in living memory the Germans; all disturbed its apparent timeless tranquillity. More than 1,200 people died on local beaches including Puys — mainly Canadians — in a failed assault on August 19, 1942. At Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada was annihilated. Just 60 men out of 543 were extracted from the beach.
Surrounded by cliffs, and the only way up is a steep winding road. It was an appallingly planned and catastrophically failed precursor to D-Day. Curiously Lord Mountbatten was one of its main advocates.
They were brave men who went ashore from those boats “striving to reach the heights beyond” as recorded on a simple memorial. Wilde, on the other hand, famously refused to take the boat to France, when he could have cut and run. Instead he stood trial, was condemned and the great Ballad of Reading Gaol is an account of his purgatory. Within a lifetime Puys became hell on earth for those who landed.
On YouTube there is a video of the great Canadian premier Mackenzie King at Puys. He is greeted by the Archbishop of Rouen from whose cathedral, a lifetime later, Father Jaques Hamel would be buried. In silent, grainy footage flowers are laid at the war memorial that is still there. An excellent lunch is only a short walk away. A birthday cake was produced, soaking in calories and calvados. On days like last Sunday, the world is just table talk. It is the sort of place you could pass in an instant without noticing at all. There isn’t much to see.