St Malo was from Wales, and supposedly a disciple of the Irish saint Brendan. But he ended up in Brittany, where a whole town is named after him. (So too are the Falkland Islands, las islas Malvinas.) During troubled times in the 1590’s, the town of St Malo declared itself independent of Brittany, though as the arms over the gate (above) show, it did return to the fold, four years later. The saying goes that a malouin is a man of St Malo first, a Breton, maybe, and a Frenchman if there’s anything left.
At the end of August 1944, there was little left of St Malo within the old walled town. The man in charge had planned another Stalingrad, insisting, “I am a German soldier and a German soldier does not surrender.” Eventually he did, after two weeks’ pounding that pulverised the mediæval cathedral and the elegant sea-captains’ houses that nestled within the ramparts.
The rebuilding deserves to win every award going. Guide books tell us that we have to look closely to spot what is new. Not quite so. There is restoration, there is reconstruction and there is replacement. The finesse goes down as the hierarchy proceeds. But the concern for honesty is matched by a concern for context and even the replacements respect the rules on height and massing and are finished in traditional materials. The cathedral spire is the one structure allowed to pierce the skyline. To wander the still-narrow lanes crammed with slate-roofed granite buildings is to forget, and certainly to forgive, their sleek post-war lines. Would that Exeter or Plymouth had shared the vision.
St Vincent’s Cathedral (left) is the high point of the rebuilding, a dark Gothic cavern lit by way of astonishing glass in reds and yellows and blues, set in patterns that seem to flicker like flames. In side chapels are the plain tombs of two famous malouins – Jacques Cartier, the explorer of Canada, and René Duguay-Trouin, the greatest of Louis XIV’s admirals. Nameless black slabs (below) set in the floor mark the graves of the unknown. Small incised crosses in the top left corner identify those known, presumably by their grave goods, to have been clerics. French conservation practice has a remarkably elegant ability to convey the absence of things – of information, of certainty, of what once was. Perhaps it began at the Restoration in 1814 when the Bourbons tried to piece together again the royal necropolis at St Denis, without trying to deny the comprehensive nature of the vandalism that had befallen it. (The very word ‘vandalism’ was first used in 1793.) Actions can often be reversed; history cannot. To undo without losing sight of what was done is a supremely subtle art.
In one bookshop I was able to find some histories of St Malo with photographs showing the devastation of war. In Britain, such books would be shelved beneath the title ‘Local Interest’. Here the shelves were labelled ‘Regionalism’, even though books on St Malo dominated the selection. There could hardly be a better example of the value to be placed on the region as the perceived protector of the particular. In Wessex, the term has been abused to mean an arm of central government, created to dismantle the particular. We should fight for it not only because it is ours by right but because it is a language we share with so many in our position throughout the continent of Europe.