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Letter from John Cawte Beaglehole to his Mother, 18 July 1928

page 1
P.S. Elsie sends you her love; she
thinks you might be interested to
learn that she has cuthad her hair cut.

My dear Mummy,

If you send Daddy for the atlas
& turn up the map of France & study the top part
of it attentively you may find that Caen is in Nor-
, & that as I am at Caen, I am now in Nor-
also. I therefore take a couple of hours off from
broadening my mind to deliver a short bulletin of
the latest news, lest haply I forget. — I think it was
from Dinan that I wrote last. Now at Dinan the
principal adventure seems to have been when the cork
came out of a bottle of cider we had carried all the
way from St Malo, with the most astounding ex-
, & deluged the room with a fountain more
astonishing than a wilderness of Fontainebleaux. But
there must have been more to it than that. Oh yes,
after I had written my letter to you we sallied
forth & found the picturesque part of the town, & very
picturesque it was — principally a very steep street run-
right down to the river & full of old 15th & 16th
century houses, still inhabited, & generally thrown open to
the gaze of the world in the genial French way, with
the family dining inside. There were other old streets
also, of varying degrees of picturesqueness, & when I send
page 2 out my postcard collection you will be able to see them
all. A very good omelette we had for lunch, too, if
I remember aright. Curious, but we had an omelette
at every meal for the first two or three days, stunner ones
too, & now we don’t seem to have had one for an eternity.
It may be that they are a speciality of Brittany, & that
Normandy goes in for other things. Anyhow, as we go
along meals are getting a bit cheaper. I much sus-
we were being stung a bit in some of those places,
but you can never tell, having nothing really to go
on; 10 or 12 francs was the least we could get a
meal for — 1/8 or 2/-. Still, compared to what
you would get in England for the same money it was
dirt cheap. In Caen you can get a meal for 8
or 8.50. In Paris I hope it will be a bit cheaper still.
Prices have risen a bit in the last year, with the
stabilising of the franc & so on. Still it is cheap enough.
I generally get a room for 12 francs (franc = about 2d),
& the girls one ditto — so that a night’s lodging costs me
only 2/- & them 1/- each; which is not so bad. Of course
we haven’t struck a bath yet, & running water only
once; but then we are out to do things on the cheap.
There are pubs where you can get every luxury, if
you pay through the neck for it. If I were God,
though, I should certainly turn out the French with a
few more ideas on elementary sanitation. They are
page 3 worse even than the English. However they can certainly
make beds & omelettes, which are two very great endowments.
They cannot make cider. The French cider is the vilest
stuff I ever struck in my life; you generally get it at
meals instead of water, & the Frenchmen lap it up like
whisky. This seems to me to betoken a very vulgar palate.
On the other hand you can get wine so cheap as to
make this quite a small matter — especially if you buy
it at the grocers. Every second night we buy in a store
of provisions & go for a picnic — well you get a bottle
holding about a quart of quite good vin blanc for 7d.
What more do you want? I’ll bet that if you could
do this in N.Z. & cut out the pubs you would hear
the last of prohibition in a week. If you want to be
really extravagant you can spend twice or three times
as much & really enjoy yourself properly. Fair dinkum,
if I lived in France or lived elsewhere as a millionaire
I would start a cellar. But you go back to England &
have to fork out 6d for a minute glass of stuff you would
hardly notice in the bottom of the bottle here. It is very
dispiriting. So there you have to confine yourself to
water, tea, coffee, or cocoa, all of which are very dan-
drugs, the drinking of which is attended with grave
risks to health. — Another thing on which I could
rhapsodise at considerable length is cheese. All sorts of
cheese, all cheap. I think you might do a service to your
page 4 country by starting a campaign in the Post to import a few
experts from France or Switzerland, to teach the farmers
a bit about cheese — as distinct from turning out
cheese. — no reason why they shouldn’t make something
else decent beside butter & lamb. Fair dinkum, when
I think what N.Z. is & what it might be, even in such a
matter as the production of cheese, I blush for the divine
process. We lag behind the lesser nations. I think
that is all I have to say at present on the subject of
food; on the whole you don’t get enough vegetables or
fruit; but the salads are generally excellent.

I must get back to my travels. We had a good
look round Dinan, & I bought a very charming tea-
in Breton pottery. I should have liked to have
got a lot of stuff of this sort, plates & cups & things — it
is very cheap, & I should have liked to send you
a lot of it. But there is no way to carry it, &
it would be too risky to send it out to N.Z. I think.
So all I bought was this tea-caddy & two [gap — reason: unclear] ash
trays. The only thing about the caddy is that I’m
afraid it won’t go with my Japanese tea-pot; but perhaps
one could keep them at opposite end of the room.
It really gives a man a pain to go away & leave
such wonderfully good & cheap things behind him;
mais que faire. I may be there again someday,
anyhow, with an extra trunk & a hireling to carry
page 5 things for me. Well, anyhow — I wanted to stay at Dinan
a day or so longer, & row & bathe on & in the river,
but I was argued down on various grounds, none of them
convincing, & we left for Mont St. Michel. But we
did not know that we had to change at Dol, & the French
railway coves are quite uncommunicative on subjects like
that; so after an hour’s pleasant ride — very charming the
Norman country side is — while we were leaning back
comfortably in the carriage waiting for the train to start
again we were hauled out by a cove & found we were
back at the Terminus at St Malo again. Most extraord-
. However we got out our bathing togs & went for a
bathe there, & marvellous beaches they have too. Unfortunately
the Norman Breton & Norman coast is now in the full flood of develop-
& is lousy with casinos & flash hotels & long
lines of rotten shacks all along the sandhills, a very
depressing sight. We got a very excellent meal f here
for [gap — reason: unclear]50 francs too, I remember, & hot & cold water in
our rooms. Next morning we tore over to the station
early with bags in one hand & the other clutching a
large piece of bread & butter, quite à la the trip
last year. Of course the train was late, as every train
we have been in in France so far has been late. They
have special notice boards up in the stations to be
filled in with chalk, saying why & how much the trains
are en retard; but it never seems to be worth while filling
page 6 them in. The train generally gets there in the end, bar
accidents. Anyhow this time we arrived at Mont St.
Michel in due course — a wonderful place, now organised
with the greatest energy & efficiency for fleecing the
tourist. It is an abbey built on a rock, as I suppose
you know, with one street consisting exclusively of restaur-
& souvenir sellers. They won’t put you up for the
night unless you have dinner with them, & so on & so forth.
Most of the place seems to belong to la venue Pouland, a
widder lady w with an apparent genius for cutting out com-
. So we had lunch there & went all over the
abbey & the fortifications & bought a few things — I got
a birthday present for Auntie & a bit of lunchlace for you —
& in the evening hopped back to a little place called
Pontorson, which is the jumping off place for Mont St. Michel.
This has a church with one or two nice things about it,
& we had charming people to stay with — had quite a lot
of conversation with the daughter of the house. It was in-
to see a little provincial French place too, of no
particular importance in any way — very dirty, very
cheerful, & not quite so noisy as the bigger places.
The town band was practising for the 14th July though,
which was more comic than annoying. But the
noise in a place like Caen is hideous & unceasing.
I’m dead certain the French are not in the
least insensitive to ugliness, or they’d stop the fright-
page 7 ful
shrieks & groans & clatter & smash & hooting that
goes on from dawn well into the dark. And then
they might go on to cut out a little bit of smoke &
dust, let alone the grosser forms of dirt. But this,
as I have remarked in another connection, is an

From Pontorson, on the strength of a glowing des-
in our guide-book, we went to Coutances, but
did not think much of it — I mean the town itself.
It is on a hill & the surroundings are beautiful. Every-
about the Norman countryside indeed is beauti-
. The cathedral looks fine up on the top of the
hill dominating the town, & there is an avenue of limes
most of the way round it. We had a good look round;
then went down to the sea for a bathe & a sun-bath —
I am tying desperately to brown up a bit again —
missed the only train back & started to walk the
12 kilometres. After about 3 miles a cove in a little
two seater car stopped & asked us the way, so we cadged
a lift from him for the rest of the way, arriving
just in time to see the rockets going up, all blue &
yellow & red in stars & streaks, for the 14, &
the Hôtel de Ville illuminated in candles, all very
splendid & flash; also there was a performance by
the bugle-band & drums. Pity we weren’t in Paris for
these celebrations, but it couldn’t be helped. That was
page 8 Saturday. Next day we looked in at the Cathedral
& one or two other churches to listen to the services
but were bored & left in about 5 minutes — fearful
full organ in the cathedral, completely out of tune —
had an early lunch, & spent the rest of the day &
evening bathing in the river & sunbathing in adja-
paddocks. I really should like to see this coun-
in spring — it must be magnificent. In the
absence of coconut oil I had to cadge some olive
oil off our landlady to help in the browning process —
you would be surprised to hear how expert I am
becoming in cadging things in French. We left
early next morning, 10 to 7 train in fact (though it
was late) & landed at Bayeux about 9. Bayeux is
notable mainly for four things — cathedral, tapestry, fleas
& smells. All of these are of their kind very fine.
I shall send you postcards of the cathedral & the
tapestry; the other things would probably perish in
transit, so you’ll have to take them on trust. The
tapestry is really very interesting, & far better than
I thought it could be; it is really embroidery, & full
of life & colour, some of the [unclear: massing] of horses & men
really extraordinarily skilful. Bayeux has also
some interesting old houses, a very bad collection of pic-
, some good 18th century tapestries, & a lace-factory;
but the lace is very expensive. Day intensely hot.
page 9 Been good. The weather is holding out miraculously;
I see that in England several people have passed out
owing to the heat wave, & that some of those who have
gone into the water to escape it have been drowned.
So it seems an unfortunate country either way. Of
course the heat-wave doesn’t happen till I get out
of the country; when I get back it will be raining
again & the winter will have set in, I suppose.

In the evening of our Bayeux day we came
on to Caen. For noise & dirt this is the equal of
any French town I have been in, & beats anything
in any other country — until you have been in
France you have no conception what noise & dirt can
be. There go a collection of dogs barking uproariously
now, an engine has just shrieked, a tram clangs,
in a minute a motor lorry will hurtle up the hill
& then a sporting car with the throttle out, here comes
a train with appropriate piercing whine, & soon there
will be a street row; let alone the perpetual motor
horns, used with enthusiasm & persistency on every
possible occasion. We went down to the sea again
this afternoon, for a final bathe before turning
completely inland; it was by steam train, & a
filthier & slower mode of conveyance I have
never tried. A most extraordinary race.
There go the dogs again, & a loose cycle rattling
page 10 over cobbles. Caen has some fine churches, the
Abbaye aux Hommes & the Abbaye aux Femmes, [gap — reason: unclear]
founded by Wm the Conqueror & Matilda his wife,
to appease the papal wrath at their having married
within the forbidden degrees, as the guide-books repeat
ad nauseam, St Pierre, & Lord knows what else.
The abbeys are mostly fine plain Norman work,
the men’s very dignified, the women’s full of a delicate
& beautiful sobriety, which manages to make its
impression even over the efforts of the Micks to
ruin it. Really these Micks do not deserve to have
fine churches — they have a positive genius for vul-
which can be equalled by few non-conformist
sects, however half-witted. And the way these two abbeys
are built in! Compare the English cathedrals! — the
C of E may be only fit for the dust-bin, but at least
it has some dignity in it its dissolution. But the
Catholics go wallowing in the desecration of beauty to
the world’s end. — St. Pierre’s has some fine Renaissance
work, & there are some good secular buildings
scattered about the town. There is a good river
also, up which I rowed the party last night; we disem-
& had rolls & cream cheese & cakes & grapes &
wine under a haystack — a meal of the premiere classe
for about 9d each. Then rowed down again in
the sunset. A great country, apart from the disadvan-
retailed above. So much to date.

With much love to you both from