My first book, Les pêcheurs d’Houat, adapted from my anthropology Ph.D. thesis, had been out of print for many many years. Éditions du croquant have been kind enough to offer a reprint. Monique Woodward has translated here my foreword for the 2012 edition.
I have lived on the Isle of Houat from February 1973 to May 1974. I have returned several times in the following years, the last time in 1978. The time after that was in 2010. Water had flowed under the bridges. A lot of seawater had flowed with the rhythm of the tides between Valuec and Le Grand Coin.
I thought often of Houat. I said to myself: “When I next see Jean-Michel, I must tell him this” or “Hey, I must ask Raphael!” In August 2011, when Brigitte Chevet was making a short film for FR3 about an anthropologist, who returns to the Isle of Houat forty years later, I spent a lot of time in the small cemetery about which Jean-Michel had said in these exact words: “We can squeeze up a bit for you, if necessary”. I said to him and to Raphael what I wanted to say to them. Yes, I know, it does not serve any purpose to talk to the Dead.
There are also the Living. I could place at last, thirty-eight years later, a kiss on the cheek of a young girl with whom I was very much in love. She was beautiful as can be, but she was only fifteen years old. When we next saw each other, I confided in Jo my secret love in the 70’s. Jo could not help but give the confidence way: “You guessed then?” he asked the lady. “Well, yes” she replied: “He sent me some postcards, which were photos of me”. Damn, I who imagine myself having been very discreet by holding back.
Houat has changed a lot. I would not upset anyone by saying that the isle in 1973 was not very wealthy. No neat gardens like now in front of the period houses: instead, you will find a yard, a work area where they repaired the nets, where above all they made the pots – the traps – for crabs, lobsters, prawns using laths of pine, hazel stems and cotton net. The prawn pots, once made, were dipped in boiling tar, and the whole isle was then scented by it. Nowadays, all that is made in plastic.
More than half of the houses now in Houat belong to tourists. In my day, with one exception, tourists’ houses were not in the village: they had them built overlooking the main beach, or in the hollows of the well-sheltered coves. Today the tourists live in the village. They are pleasant without question, but that means there are practically empty dwellings all year round, fetching “tourist prices” when they are up for sale. So much better for the people of Houat who can sell theirs at that price. Pity the young couples who cannot afford a “house in a picturesque fishing village only 15 km from Auberon”. A home, one of these things we would have to extract from the claws of speculation.
In 1973, the Isle of Houat was a fishery. Jo from the Hotel and I, the two of us cooked 22 tons of prawns that winter. We took to sea at 1h in the morning, came back about 14h and, when the tourists passed us in the streets of the village at the end of the afternoon, they said to themselves: “They don’t work much those chaps!” One day, at Vas Pell, with a force 9 gale or something like it, between two white-horses which covered the bridge from one side to the other each time, and which tossed us between the reefs on our nut shell, Jean-Michel managed to shout to me: “A tourist who I took in the month of August said to me: “Ah! What a fine job you do!” The sea, outside the month of August, is a hell of a cow. Very few fishing accidents are not fatal, as in the mines, as in the army.
Fishing has changed as well: species on which we counted have gone north due to the sea getting warmer. The price of the catch has become “objective” meaning: “Only the point of view of the buyer matters”. “To defend one’s fishing” is no longer possible, as we used to. One does not stop progress. One does not stop the return in force of the law of the jungle, one has to say.
A red flare goes up and lights up in the sky in the distance. A boat in trouble! Who’s coming? “Me, me!” says a young man from the town. I will always remember those three or four faces of true seamen, who turned towards me, those stares fixing me, weighing me up, evaluating me, leaning their heads a little, one eye closed. And after that, which seemed to me a very long silence: “Go on! That’s good. Let’s go!” Thank you people of Houat, you have given me the most beautiful present one can give: you have help to develop this 25 year-old young man, whom you fondly called: “Philosopher”.