Reading Sideways Press will soon publish a work by respected Australian military historian, Greg Lockhart. Below is an excerpt from the Prologue of Greg’s work: Weaving of Worlds: A Day on île d’Yeu.
One day in 2012, I visited Île d’Yeu off the west coast of France and wrote this book soon after. I put the manuscript aside for nine years. Then, counterintuitively in the time of Covid-19 lockdowns, it occurred to me that there might be interest in a story that was as much about travel as it was a personal memoir and in histories that radiated from the island.
Shortly before this manuscript was finished, another piece of Australia, another piece of travel writing about the island, the only one I know about apart from mine, came serendipitously to my attention. This is a playful three-page travel romance republished twice in The New Yorker on 28th June and 13th October 2021 after its original publication in that journal on 5th August 1939. By Ludwig Bemelmans, an American writer and illustrator of children’s stories, particularly the famous Madeline series, the article is called ‘The Isle of God’. Suddenly, across 82 years and on the other side the world, I felt the Bemelmans story floating mine.
The Ile d’Yeu is immediately beautiful and at once familiar, he wrote, as if drawing on a childhood dream.
Its round, small harbor is stuffed with boats; the fat tuna schooners lie in the centre, around them sleek sardine and lobster boats. The first house he came to from the dock at Port Joinville is a poem of a hotel, with tangerine velvet fauteuils, armchairs, and tout confort moderne, meaning hot and cold water and central heating. Outside, overlooking the harbor and under an awning behind some yew trees, are the apéritif tables and chairs.
The name of another hotel, Hotel Turbé, whose cooking he recommends, is close to the heart of my story. We will see that Turbé is a well-known family name on the island, and central to the knot of relations that make this story.
There is much else in the Bemelmans romance I did not see, as it was set in another time. Still, I believe it. The sardine is the banana of the Ile-d’Yeu, says Bemelemans. You slip and fall on sardines everywhere. They look out of the small market baskets that les vieux corbeaux – old crows, the local expression meaning old women dressed in black – carry home. Sardine tails stick out of fishermen’s pockets, they are dragged past you in barrels. Other, larger fish, the tuna predominantly, wander by hung over the shoulders of strong sailors, or tied to bicycles, or pushed along in carts.
Also from another time were the sailors, with every shade of color in their sensible pants and blouses a hundred times patched. And there was the three-hour walk from Port Joinville to the rock-rimmed Port de la Meule on the southern coast of the island, which brings one, in the Bemelmans story, to the Auberge des Homardiers, a tavern specialising in lobster dishes.
Though still handled playfully, the romance has something of a dark lining towards the end. Late in World War One, we are told, an American submarine had limped into La Meule on a crippled engine. Apparently, while waiting some weeks for spare parts to fix the engine, a member of the crew had a romance with one Madame Pompano, who owned the auberge. The crewman was Swanky Franky, who promised her the world – a little house in Englewood, New Jersey … electric irons, a vacuum cleaner, and even a voiture Buick. But when the submarine was repaired, Franky slipped out of the harbour and went silently to sea in the vessel. So it was, Bemelmans warned tourists, with a play on the lobster dish cooked in the American way, if on entering the Auberge des Homardiers you are asked whether you are American, you’d best say you are a Scot or Australian.
As it happens, my Australian narrative of Île d’Yeu will include other fateful wartime themes; one picking up on the presence of German submarines around the island in 1917, another relating to dramatic events around La Meule in 1942; yet another revolves around the exile of Marshal Pétain on the island from 1945. While the Bemelmans story floats mine, I think, mine carries his into another time – history.
And history is full of surprises. Bemelmans tells us he found a fisherman’s house for a three-months stay at the holiest address in this world, Number 3, Rue du Paradis, Saint-Sauveur, Île d’Yeu. He could not have known, however, that within one month of the original 5th August 1939 publication of his story, on 1 September the Germans would invade Poland. After that, my hunch is he did not stay long.
Still, I will share in 2012 and beyond his dream of ‘The Isle of God’. All those years ago, he had heard in the local store, Les Nouvelles Galleries Insulaires, something we’d all like to believe. Since d’Yeu is an ancient distortion of the French term Dieu, God, he was told, Île d’Yeu is really Île de Dieu, Isle of God.
The island’s historian, Maurice Esseul, reverses that story. Yeu is derived from the Old Norse term Oya, signifying from pre-Christian times land with a watery nimbus, the small isle, (and used as a suffix in the names of 145 Norwegian islands). After the 500s, when Christian missionaries reached Île d’Yeu, some monastic charts used the Latin term insula, meaning island, to name the island Insula Oya. This went on until the 1300s. From the 1400s to the mid-1800s, the name isle Dieu did appear on maps. But then, of course, the opposite of what Bemelmans heard was true: the term isle Dieu, Isle of God, was a phonetic distortion of Île d’Yeu – which became, in the second half of the 1800s, the definitive name of the island on all geographic and administrative documents.
Now, off the coast of the Vendée in the Bay of Biscay, those documents place Île d’Yeu in the region of France known as Pays de la Loire.