Neolithic Martigues

The Nerthe range of hills stretches west fom Marseille. and shows evidence of human occupation way back into mesolithic days.  Here, at ‘Font-aux-pigeons’, a large  overhanging cliff providing shelter and protection, 300 mesolithic dwellers were encamped around 6,000-5,000 B.C.  They were hunter-gatherers with highly developed toolkits including large stone choppers for animal butchering and skinning to small micro-liths (plus bone) of awls and burins for the making of clothes.

The range of hills comes to an end above Martigues as they look down the Etang-de-Berre.  This small site at Mourre-du-Bouef was once inhabited around 4-5 millenium B.C.   By mesolithic hunter-gatherers or neolithic farmers?  Probably a blend of both.  Revolutionary anatolian agricultural techniques (re-sowing part of what you reap) had not yet swept this way.  But they soon would – to change the world.  They would arrive either by incoming migrants, or by cultural dispersal and infusion.  Therein lies a particular archeological debate.  Anyway, here, above Martigues, selective harvesting, plus the rearing of sheep and goats, was probably already engaged in.

Hill tops were safe places to set up camp.  Attackers could be seen from afar.  They were also good places to survey animal movements, either searching for prey or water, or following migration trails.  This was still a good while before the coming of the Celts and before the first site at Martigues was built on the banks of the Etang-de-Berre at ‘Tholon’.  At this time, coming down to the shores of the etang, for fish and shell-fish, was a risky business.  Wild animals and unfriendly neighbours were also in the area and could possibly attack.  Of course, the etang was slightly smaller in those days.  Waters were still rising after the last ice-age, which had trapped huge water resources in the northern ice caps.  Their retreat was a process that lasted several thousand years.   But by the neolithic period, beginning around the 4th millenium B.C.,  levels were not so different than they are today.


Several other neolithic sites in the area concurrently existed e.g.  the sites at Collet-Redon and Ponteau nestling on the plains.  They are each separated by several kilometres, which perhaps explains the separation needed to share out the natural resources between the communities.  Today, evidence of their existences can be found as a jumble of stones, the remains of foundation walls, semi-hidden amongst gorse and within a woody grove.  A lot of imagination, and archeological analysis, is required to picture the lives and hardships of the people who first gathered those stones and from them, created their lodgings.

The Celts arrived early first millenium and set up their own neolithic bases, rearing sheep and planting seed.  Protection continued to be an important consideration.  In choosing this rocky peninsular at Tamaris, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the ‘Avatiques‘ who lived here chose well:


In fact, this is my favourite site.  The peninsular juts out into the Mediterranean – literally translated as:  ‘Middle of the earth’.  This may be a sea, and not an ocean, but it is still very large.  However, with a little imagination one can face east towards Italy and beyond, or west towards Spain, or south across the wide expanse towards north Africa and imagine the flimsy sailing boats of antiquity struggling against the waves and currents.  Sometimes they were shipwrecked, leaving their hulls and cargo deep beneath the waters.   Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians, Carthaginians… sailing the seas for trade and exploration.


A hillside in today’s town of St. Pierre-les-Martigues was another good site for a settlement, being shaded amoungst trees, and built on rocky slopes.  Ramparts fortified the site, dated around the 6th century B.C. , making it an ‘oppidum‘ .   Like Tamaris, this site was also inhabited by the Avatiques.  Presumably, then, the threat came from pre-Celtic neolithic dwellers of the region – or possibly the Greeks.  My knowledge here is a little shakey!


The Greeks arrived mid 7th century BC and found a charming spot the other side of Martigues at St. Blaise.   This site stands on a hill top plateau, amoungst pine trees and is situated between two peaceful etangs. This idyllic site too had previously been occupied by Celts, but the Greeks ‘kind of took it over’ and it grew and grew, finally becoming a town encompassing 40 hectares.  Stone to build the site was chiselled out from the rock along the coast and transported inland.  Similarly was stone acquired to built the site of Marseille, 40 kms to the west.  The ancient chisel marks are still evident on close inspection.


A group of inhabitants moved out towards the shores of the Etang-du-Berre.  This is the site of Tholon, now under renovation.  It was the first site settled in Martigues.  Then ‘L’ile’ (the ‘island’) too became inhabited and grew in size and importance.  From here, the history of the town of Martigues truly begins.


Then the Romans arrived, stretching out across the south of France, creating a new Roman province (Provence), before stretching north and finally subdueing the Gauls.  In Martigues they dug out the swampy land between the Etang and the Mediterranean, making the first navigable canal.  Further north at Glanum they took over an impressive Celtic site over looked by the ‘Les Alpilles’ range of hills.  The site had been here since the 7th century B.C. when it was constructed around a water well where the Celtic god ‘Glan’ was said to live, along with his benevolant companions – ‘the Glanic mothers‘.  For a while, under the Greeks, it became Hellenistic.  It then became Roman under Emperor Augustus.


Festival fun in Provence.

It may not be possible to count all the festivals, carnivals, craft fairs, street parties, outdoor music events, firework shows, marching parades and processions, historical re-enactments, and corridas, in all the town, villages and communes of Provence … there are just so many.  So, whilst India is normally credited with being the country having the most festivals, in terms of density per square mile, Provence must be a good contender for that title.

I was informed of this, though in not quite so many words, by my friend Hubert Tabutiaux.  Hubert has photographed numerous Provence festivals and he exhibits them on his internet blog.  This is a perfect visual guide to the region and to the many events taking place there throughout the year.  Anyone planning a trip to Provence should consult his site in advance.

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Summer is the time for most festivals, but the partying season really begins back in February, the month containing that religious period of abstinence known as lent.  Traditionally, only vegetarian meals are eaten during this time. Meat (‘carō’ in Latin; ‘carne’ Italian, as in ‘carnivore’ and ‘carnal’) is tabooed. Etymologically,carnival’ thus signifies the occasion when meat is taken off the meal time menu.

In our gregorian calendar, lent begins on ‘Ash Wednesday’. The day before is ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (‘pancake day’ in England), whose date varies from 3 February to 9 March depending on lunar movements.   Shrove Tuesday takes its name from the old English term ‘to shrive’, meaning ‘to confess sins and receive absolution’. Lent, this period of fasting and reflection, then lasts for forty days until Easter.

But astronomy and religious origins apart, it is difficult to think of ‘Shrove Tuesday’ without reference to the great ‘Mardi Gras(‘Fat Tuesday’) celebrations in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro – festivals and feasts taking place before the (‘lent’) fast.

In Martigues, my current home town in France, carnival day kicks off the summer season towards the end of March, not a month earlier as it perhaps should.  Ok.  So, dating precision has been thrown to the wind here to assure us of a few extra degrees of warm sunshine.  But then, further north still, London’s Notting Hill carnival (Europe’s largest) is put off even longer to take place on August Bank Holiday (Aug. 26th and 27th – in 2012). And why not?  Wet and windy carnivals are no fun.

And so, at the end of march, the Martigues’ streets become alive with cacophonic noise and disorderly ceremony as crazily-costumed carnival performers shuffle through a tunnel of neck-straining, photo-snapping observers.  Along the plantain-shaded avenue of ‘Jonquieres’; over the canal’s swing-bridge onto ‘L’ile’ (the island); across the following blue bridge and into the third town section of ‘Ferrieres’, then onto the town hall – with ‘oom-pa pah’s’ and big bass drums thumping out competing, often contradictory, beats; and with phalanxes of tambourine thwackers, handbell rattlers, castanet clackers, maracas shakers, congo and bongos drummers, shaking it to the left, shaking it to the right, samba style, as they dance slowly on through the watching crowds in their fancy dress innovations.

One can not attend such events without being stupefied by the colour and design of the costumes.  Nor, if one takes time to reflect, can one help but be astounded by the amount of work that goes into their creations.  For months, behind the scenes, cloth is being cut and sown, masks are being crafted and painted, headdresses of all shapes and sizes are being assembled, floats are being decorated, musicians are being instructed… etcetera and etcetera, by myriads of volunteers working late into the night to ensure success on the big day when it finally comes.

This enormous social effort involves hundreds of unpaid ‘man-hours’. There is no direct economic reward for peoples labour.  Rather, the reward is in the delight of all ‘pulling together’ to produce a spectacle for all to enjoy; spectators and performers.  When the events are historical re-enactments the attention to the minutest detail is exemplary.  Here, ‘authenticity’ is the key word and is striven for with materials, tools and techniques, for ‘processual history’ (another key term meaning actually ‘doing it’) is the means by which past cultures are better understood.  Hence not only costumes are reproduced, but also traditional crafts are displayed in being actively undertaken; food and drink is consumed which follow old times recipes; music and theatre is performed as our ancestors once did it, and, of course, the crowd-pulling battles are re-played with swords and shields, or spears and pikes, and smoke-bellowing canons to capture the thrill and the fright, of battles that have always occurred (sadly) since time began.

A further aspect to consider, if one takes the time to reflect, is that these occurrences (festivals, carnivals, fêtes etc) are non-hierarchical.  Sure, in role-playing scenes kings, serfs and servants may be chosen, but not to uphold some ‘real-time’ social hierarchy.  On the contrary, the underlying principle is one of social co-operation and reifying community spirit.


Those stunning Hawaiian cloaks (‘ahu’ulas) of half-a-million bird feathers, once made for royalty; those immense Egyptian pyramids and European medieval cathedrals; that China Wall, those Roman roads and aqueducts (the list is endless)…all served the establishment of hierarchical religio-political structures of power.  Not carnivals and festivals, though.  These are events of ‘the people’, for ‘the people’.

In fact, historically, both State and Church have held ambivalent sentiments regarding secular carnivals and festivals.  The State perhaps has worried about the policing of such affairs and for whose benefit they are being held – if not the state’s (see here).  Meanwhile, the church has often been suspicious of any ceremonial or ritual activity not under its control; ask any late Roman/middle-ages pagan (eg. see here , or here).  Famously, in Venice, to overcome feelings of oppression imposed by the Catholic Church, the wearing of masks began in order to guard anonymity and allow gambling, homosexuality and prostitution to take place without fear of condemnation. Here, in Martigues, with its strong Italian links (many Italians moved here as the town industrialized), and against its backdrop of Italian architectural styles, a Venetian carnival takes place once a year.  With beautiful costumes and masks the wearers (190 in 2012!) parade around town slowly, ostentatiously, flirtatiously; with eyes blackened behind the masks and keeping mute to hide their ages, nationalities and genders.  The people inside the costumes and behind the masks do not exist.  Only their exterior, flamboyant, exhibitionistic selves are seen, in public, swanking around town like proud peacocks.

On a economic/political note, Martigues has a communist town council.  That’s not uncommon down here. Taxation in France, like anywhere I guess, is a complex and sometimes contentious issue. Some money goes north to central government for redistribution and some is retained by the local council.  Actually, quite a lot is retained by the local council – especially the money obtained from taxing local industry and the ports; which adds up to a tidy sum.  But, in keeping with communist ideals, the inhabitants of Martigues do receive benefits from this revenue.  Free local bus and library service, for example, plus a wealth of summertime events such as mentioned in this blog.

Two major firework shows, within a week of each other, light up the skies in July – not to mention the smaller ones taking place on local beaches.

France’s ‘fête de la musique’ is now internationally renowned as an event taking place throughout the country, but throngs do flock to Martigues for the event where they can enjoy fairground rides, bars and restaurants, and the town itself.


Then, in mid-summer, the town invites traditional folk musicians from around the world to perform at its annual ‘Festival de Martigues’.  Just to give an example, the festival in 2012 included musicians from Cuba, Papua New Guinea, the Philipines, Ireland, Russia and a forty-strong male voice choir from Wales!   Some events are for ticket holders and held in a temporary stadium built along a canal, other events are held on the streets and are free.

But Martigues is only one example of the many.  Perhaps, due to its finances, it holds more festivals than others, but not a weekend goes by (in summer) where somewhere, something exciting is going on.

Last weekend, my friend Hubert invited me to a festival in ‘Pernes-les-fontains. It was superb!  The whole town, from young-to-old, took to the streets in old-style period costume of one hundred years ago: Stone masons, blacksmiths, farriers, policemen, serving maids, washer-women, wheat-threshers, cyclists (on ancient racing bikes, penny-farthing and motorbikes), drapers, post-office workers, mid-wives, shop keepers, babies in prams, boys chasing girls, grandfathers looking hot and bothered… Everybody, it seemed, from the town, was involved in some way, however small, however central.  Social co-operation and the display of the community spirit at its utmost.  Despite the humungous crowds, I was over-whelmingly impressed.

There are still many more Provence festivals for me to see and experience, and perhaps Hubert will lead me to some of these. I know there’s several lavender festivals, wine festivals, and the summertime transhumance festivals (celebrating an old custom of the leading of sheep from valley floors to mountainsides) that I would still like to see.  Plus, I still haven’t seen the gypsy festival at St.Maries-de-la-Mer… or the one in Arles to crown the new Arlesienne queen… or the truffle festival in Uzès.   There’s just so many…!

Alternatively, like anyone reading this and interested in Provence, I can visit Hubert’s site and find a good festival to visit that way.  Here it is again, in case you forgot:

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Thanks, Hubert.


Why Travel?

 So – there’s this guy, a member of the Travelers Century Club and a friend of the family, who has travelled extensively around the world visiting more than 270 countries. I recently asked him whether he could summarize ‘in a nutshell’ what he thinks ‘makes people tick’.  Admittedly, that was asking a bit much,  for how can a simple one-liner sum up the entire human race?  Yet I felt that his insight, after so much travel, might shine particular light on ‘the human condition’.   A week later I received a reply, saying:  ‘The need to survive’.

I reflected upon this reply, seeing how it fitted in with my past anthropology studies – in particular Bronislaw Malinowski who believed that culture, by definition, itself was a survival mechanism designed to fulfil ‘Man’s’ biological needs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what my family friend meant, but he seemed somewhere in the same zone.  Anyway, I  then fell upon various internet sites discussing travelling per se. Why travel? That was a question occassionally raised. It took me back to my family friend who once stated in a newspaper article:

‘I guess a little part of me says: I’ve been there, done that, sent the postcard, smelled the coffee, worn the T-shirt. That’s how I am.‘ (Financial Times. 2010)

I can go along with that, along with getting the photo.  But now, with a little digging and browsing, I see that this question has been examined not only by bloggers, but by anthropology academics too.  The following is thus an attempted resumé of some ideas floating around this question:


Worldwide, a billion tourists are predicted for 2012, generating nearly 1 trillion dollars .

Travel is big business and it’s growing.



A trillion dollars!  That’s an awful lot of bucks!  I could buy a million super yachts for that – or a billion Skodas.

A billion tourists! That’s a huge amount of people needing an awful lot of ships, planes, coaches and trains to move them around – as well as an unimaginable quantity of pillows in an enormous number of hotels to put them all up.   But do they constitutes a cultural unity in any way?  Can they be defined as a single group holding certain values and behaviours in common?  Despite different motivations, is the urge to travel a universal human trait, something deeply embedded within our Homo sapiens psyche?  These are just some starting point questions; let’s see where this leads:


Firstly, traveller or tourist? What’s the difference?  ‘Travellers’ – as cultural inter-actionists vs ‘tourists’ – as passive cultural consumers?  Do you agree with that?  Or maybe that’s too simplified, ignoring intermediate categories?  Ok.  So, how about stating that voluntary aid workers, eco-tourists,  overseas holiday camp leaders, student exchange visitors, and global trotting language teachers etc. veer towards the more active end of the travel spectrum, whilst seekers of  ‘sun, sea and sex’ clog up the other end – as they do in the Spanish resorts; now little more than giant nightclubs encouraging the young to get drunk, high, laid, and vomit (see here).  And between these two extremes are the independant explorers travelling just for ‘the hell of it’ and the ‘culture vultures’ soaking up the grand architectural works; historical monuments; art, sculptures, music, and theatrical performances, on show around the world.   How does that sound?  Yes, I agree – categories blurr and overlap.


Moving on:  Chris Guillebeau, on his site (see here), is quite clear in stating his ‘whys’ we travel:

Because when you leave behind the familiar, you’re changed by the foreign.

– Because comfort zones become constricting zones over time.

– Because the world was meant to be experienced, not imagined.

– Because you’ll meet people who are different than you.

And his article has elicited numerous supportive responses.  I cite a few:

“It’s that desire to expand, expand, expand and not grow complacent.”

– “Travel inspires me through art, architecture and landscape.”

– “Going to a café next door can be a travelling experience.”

 – “Getting lost can help you find yourself.”

I agree, feeling that there is no single answer to why people travel.  But I’ll add a few more responses of my own –  all of which may be encountered at different times in our lives.  Presumably reasons why we travel change as we age.  Young people setting off on long ‘gap-year’ trips with rucksacks and shoe-string guide books, differ from the older, retired voyagers who prefer something more sedate:

1. Simple curiosity: The grass is greener, fresher, and different – elsewhere.

2. Flying the nest: Experiencing independence.  Was certainly true for me at 19 years old.

3. Adventure: Experiencing life to the full. Travel’s a buzz!  Exploration a thrill!

4. Becoming ‘exotic’ by entering the ‘exotic other’: Even David Beckham had his ‘sarang’ wearing moment.

5. Understanding ‘self’ by being in different settings: Existential awareness building and testing.

6. Genuine interest in other cultures: Fascinating – the food, music, architecture, countryside, people etc.  

7. Competitiveness: Traveling one-upmanship in ticking off destinations visited. Maybe, for some?

8. In our blood: An inherent survival mechanism we’ve never lost.

9. Getting away from it all: Blissful breaks from work, beat the winter blues, visit a friend overseas.

10. Business: The professional travellers, sports people, musicians etc.


Having drawn up this list I now find two underlying elements.  The experiential and the cultural – which seems pretty evident since we’re discussing travel.  But I’m stressing the personal and individual experience, even if we travel as part of a group.  For Spanish resort young clubbers (12,000 Brits per year in Magaluf alone) it’s reportedly (see here, again)  an unrestrained, individual rite of passage into adulthood.  For the more sedate coach loads touring the sites, cities, and stunning views, it’s the ‘spiritual pilgrimmage’ element.  Then again, let’s not forget the package tourists managing to fit in an organized cultural fix at least once within their yearly routines, mainly to towns with a beach and a few ‘local dish’ restaurants – and the more distant voyagers getting their kicks from completely disappearing off the screen of westernized life.  The travel/tourism experience is personal and individual for them too (by changing their time/space identities), in different doses.

This underlying element, to spice it up, I’ll call ‘living on the edge’ – in referring to the risks we take in going outside our normal, known, safe environments.  Sure, we take precautions and may not stray too far off the well-trodden tourist tracks, but the enticement to explore just round the corner and view the unknown is, to varying degrees, at heart of the travel impulse. We can’t ignore the heart-flutters that accompany travel curiosity – remember how it killed the cat?

Yes, if there is one thing that unites the one billion tourists and travelers it’s this ‘living on the edge’ factor.  Who does not feel that tingle of excitement in going off to a foreign land?  The professional, perhaps, for whom flying is more akin to commuting.  But for the rest of us, the adrenaline flows as we approach an airport, mentally preparing to fly.  It does for me anyway.   Then, as the plane takes off and we enter the blue skies above to look down upon white, fluffy clouds below, the horizon is far, far distant.  Yet, we are heading towards that horizon, and beyond!

Actually, not being a well-seasoned flier, myself, taking a plane has not reached the level of the mundane like that of taking a bus or a train.  And I’d venture to suggest that’s  true for the global majority.  In fact, I suggest that the flying experience, for the majority, isn’t that far removed from a religious experience.  It’s certainly an efficient means of transferring us into an ‘anti-structure’ (‘liminoidal’) time and place beyond our ordinary working lives.  Ok. I’m employing an anthropological concept here (Turner.V. 1967) to define ritual transition zones and the experience (eg. rites of passage, for Turner) of passing through them. But traveling, in the sense that it changes our outlooks and appreciations of the world, too can be considered as a ritual passage.  Perhaps the word ‘pilgrimmage‘ does best join the two concepts (religion and travel), and though seeped in sacred sentiment, in a secular context, by observing the routes to the ski resorts and beaches blocked by traffic in winter and summer, I see that the term has particular poignancy.

Travel, as Turner discusses with ritual process, feels tinged with danger.  Rationality tells us flying is the safest way to travel, but the heart beats faster as we board the plane because it’s taking us away.  Religious experience too requires daunting steps into unknowns – perhaps a slight fear of facing supernatural forces or coming close to an Absolute deity.  The only difference is that religious experience requires not a scientific rationality, but irrational ‘leaps of faith’ – whilst employing enculturally infused ‘awe’ for their efficacity.  However, in both contexts, there are hostesses/priestesses and the pilots/religious leaders organizing the event and guiding us every step of the way as we leave our known, comfortable, safe existences to explore other domains.   And thankfully so, for we can feel our safety more assured with their guidance.  And when we reach the other end, having transited an experiential reality, we arrive at a different place than from where we started – either spiritually or geographically/culturally.   For religious observers, spiritual enlightenment is the first step of a long, lifetime journey.   For travellers the flight out is just the beginning of a cultural journey from which one  changed.  And I’d say the same for tourists, to lesser extents.

Yes, of course, these days package tour trips to sunny resorts usually involve staying in hotels surrounded by familiar voices and other homeland cultural artefacts – from the bars and restaurant food, to the TV on the wall.  And they are far less adventurous than Himalayan trekking.  But then, not everyone is ready to go the whole hog in absorbing a completely new and different cultural experience.  So, in this travel context, home comforts are retained.  And anyway, who doesn’t enjoy the special treatment awarded by hotel staff or airline crew waiting on us hand-and-foot.  Indeed, perhaps some people travel solely for that reason:  To be pampered. And why not?  After a year’s hard graft at work we deserve it – although the commercialization of travel (tourism) with troops of holiday-makers swarming around the markets and complaining about the heat, the flies, the food, and the locals – can be rather annoying; as Monty-Python once explained (see here: from 2:00).     Yes, just a touch of adventurism, from a safe ‘experiential’ distance, may be prefereable to jumping in, feet first, and completely submerging oneself in a very different, even bizarre, culture.  Each to their own.  We’re not all Blashford-Snells!

‘Living on the edge’:   Adventure, to whatever degree we chose to take it.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Dabbling with the unknown and potential dangers, whilst retaining varying degrees of comfort and security.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Exploring social marginal zones – safely, in large tour groups from where we can observe, or as solitary integrating outsiders; welcomed in, but still outsiders nonetheless.  Yes, as a travel experience, marginal status itself can be a buzz.  Accepted within a new social group as outsiders we become the exotic and hence treated differently, even reverentially, than those belonging to that group.  Of course, cultural faux-pas are then easy to make and dealing with that risk, and their consequences, is elemental to ‘living on the edge’.  But with experience we learn to avoid them, or blunder through them, like unsocialized children, through fun, tom-foolery, and social conviviality, thereby presenting no danger, ourselves, as invitees, to our hosts.

             (image borrowed from travel tale site – see here)

Of course, marginalization of ethnic minorities into new cultures presents a whole different experience and discussion.  As travellers, or tourists, our inclusion into new cultures is transient.  Ex-pats and refugees (economic or persecuted) go through periods of exclusion and integration.  That is a different lived reality, or a perceived different lived reality anyway.  And that’s a different story.

The polemic to this discussion, though, is that whilst we bask in the sun, check out the local markets, dine on exotic cuisines, and view the sights, simmering under the superficiality of fabricated life is the effect tourism has on local communities: That is to say, how the influx of tourists and capital may change the infrastructure and politics of communities.  It does, you know.

Or, to anthropologize the process:  How the influx of tourists looking for the authentic ‘other’ changes the meaning of ‘authenticity’ itself.   In other words, how tourism in today’s postmodern world involves observing ‘creations of authenticity’, wherein false representations of local affairs (events put on as side-shows for the tourists) transform local communities in such a way that these fabrications become the realities.  This process is referred to as the ‘coca-colonization‘ of native ways of life, which, interestingly, also induces bilingualism, as locals take up jobs in the home tourist industry (waiters, tour guides etc).  Furthermore, the influx of visitors, whilst not always appreciated by locals, is more appreciated by those ‘milking’ the trade, finding work within tourism, and gaining in income and social status.  Hence, socio-cultural change is effected, but not necessarily in a bad way.  (Rapport, N & Overring, J.  2007)

For the good?  Well, when coastal dwellers are banned from there own beaches, fishing communitied denied traditional access to coral reefs, pastoralists expelled from traditional grazing areas, agriculturalists ejected from their lands for hotel construction, water resources depleted by tourist demands, when inquisitive eyes become intrusive, when western ways (drug use, prostitution etc) are emulated to induce a ‘polluted’ moral degredation, when locals complain of ‘apartheid’ (themselves becoming second-class citizens)… then resentment can flourish and tourism seen as a curse not for the good. Worse still when locals see their traditional cultures commercialized and degraded.   For the good?  Well, when local economies are revitalized and flourish due to the tourist industry – yes, then for the good. It can be a positive element when controlled.  Obviously it’s a political question. (MacClancey, J. 2002).

Yes, today’s postmodern world is increasingly synthetic and tourism plays a large role in this – for better or worse.  Cultures blend and merge through a borrowing, adapting, and mixing of symbolic forms which are globally spread and enter into our own cultures as daily seen images and designs; especially in advertising.  Don’t you just love those multiple Shiva arms emblazoned on a silver pendant?  It will look cool to wear that at some multi-cultural festival.   Yes, global heterogeneity is revelled in for its creative potential; even if the symbolisms are then lost as the aesthetics components alone are swiped or subverted.  But what the hell?  Sod the deeper meanings and just get off on the designs – man!   Those aboriginal dream-time designs look great on t-shirts, just as the didgeridoo goes great with a thumping electric bass.  And don’t those Amazonian Indians with their nose piercings and perokeet headresses, when adorning environmental posters, subliminally help eco-warriors ‘save the rain-forest’ campaigns. So let’s not consider our carbon footprint left in the skies as we jet off to the jungle, or the life-changing events imposed on ‘native others’ by joining a ‘first contact’ tourist trip turning tribes into tourist attractions? (see here).  Such considerations would be frightfully boring and frightfully uncool.


Don’t get me wrong!  Personally I’m all for global exploration – when it involves a sharing of humanity and learning from our fellow ‘Man’, however distant (geographically and conceptually) he (or she) may be.   Yes, it’s enriching, mind-broadening and even mind-blowing.   Done ethically, it helps break down cultural barriers and those sterotypical concepts of ‘otherness’, so that ‘others’ become not so distinct and different from ‘us’.   The same, but different, shall we say?   Like a granny smiths and a golden delicious apple?  And I’m all for protecting the planet and its indigenous cultures by whatever means.   And when the tourism industry helps bring health, wealth and happiness to places where disease, poverty and distress exist, then surely tourism is a good thing – isn’t it?

So no – I don’t wish to sound too cynical.  Who doesn’t enjoy jetting off to a foreign destination to get away from the daily grind, if only once a year – or less?  But consider the question of who benefits most from all this tourist trade that’s now generating, annually, a trillion dollars.  Consider whose standard of living is substantially improved?  African villagers?  Pacific island atoll dwellers? Burmese highlanders?  Bedouins?  Inuits?  City traders?  Hotel owneres? Directors of travels agencies – in the west?  Corrupt native officials?  Ah, now we’re getting the picture and can see where a touch of cynism may creep in.  Our innate urge to travel is making some people very rich as much of that trillion dollars finds its way back to western pockets.   I leave it at that, although maybe someone would like to respond?

Just a few personal reflections before I jump on a plane to my own summer holiday Xanadu. And as usual, personally speaking, the act of writing is my route to gaining a deeper understanding – even if no-one should read my words.


Macclancey, J (ed)   2002       Chicago      Exotic no more: Anthropology on the Front Lines

Rapport, N & Overring, J  2007   Routledge   Social & Cultural Anthropology:  The Key Concepts

Turner, V   1967      Cornwell     The Forest of Symbols:  Aspects of Ndembu Ritual


Gone fishing – in Martigues.

 To be perfectly honest, fishing is not really my cup of tea.  If I want to spend time peacefully sitting beside a river, lake or canal – then I  will – with a book and a tin of beer.  That’s my idea of idyllic bliss.   I guess I  just haven’t got the patience for fishing, and trying to ‘outsmart’ a fish does seem a bit dumb.

           More my style:            

But then, neither am I completely cynical about the sport, job, or ‘past-time activity’, depending on which label you care to apply, for I do understand it to be one of the oldest, and hence longest-lasting occupations of humankind.  So there must be something in it.  Perhaps ‘a love of fishing’ is something you’re born with, or born into?  Perhaps, it’s in some people’s blood, or genes?  And perhaps these are people whose ancestral roots were close to water at a time when fishing was a survival strategy rather than simply a weekend affair.

That’s three ‘perhapses’ – I could give more.  Evidently, I’m no expert on this subject despite having previously lived close to the River Thames in Oxford (England), and now living close to the Caronte Canal in Martigues (France).  Shame on me – you might say.

I can appreciate fish, though- whether captured by poets or artists:

Pike, three inches long, perfect Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin. They dance on the surface among the flies.  (Ted Hughes. Pike)

   – or by cooks: 

But spending hours beside an expanse of water, staring at the rod and float waiting interminably for a fish to bite and then to pounce and jerk it out of the water – is, to re-iterate, really not my thing.

However, to get to the point, it obviously is the thing for a large percentage of my recently adopted Martigues’ population.  In fact, I actually wonder whether more Martigues people go fishing than go to watch Martigues FC (possibly), go to church (surely?), or go to the saturday night disco (definitely, no disco in Martigues).  So, why the great fascination for fishing in Martigues? I’ve seen the 8 kms length of the Caronte Canal in Martigues crammed with hundreds of fishermen from dawn to dusk (yes, literally!)  – especially when the dorade season is at it’s height.


(Martigues is 30 kms west of Marseille at a juncture of the Caronte canal, which leads to the Mediterranean, and the Etang-de-Berre; a large sea-water lake).

Well, firstly, after 15 months of living in Martigues I now appreciate the many different forms that fishing takes.  There are the shell-fishers, ankle-deep in surf whilst balancing on coastal rocks to gather mussels; the canal-side fishermen with fishing toolkit boxes discussing baits and currents with fishing neighbours; the waist-deep fishermen standing firm against the flow casting into deeper mid-channel waters; the ‘bourdigues’ fishermen, stretching nets across the Caronte canal from side-to-side;


– the small-boat fishermen gliding out upon the Etang-du-Berre with the sunrise and using rods and/or nets; the professional mussel  collector on his open-top barge , dredging the Etang-du-Berre to return with loaded crates; the serious sea-fishermen heading out into the Mediterranean for the tuna weighing up to 600 kilos and worth a tidy fortune, and the professional deep sea fishermen on larger boats in search of the tuna shoals with the aid (so I’m told) of helicopters.

Such are the modern day fishermen.  Previously other local techniques were engaged in.  The most interesting of these is the ‘Seinche’, the last of which occured in the 1960sThe ‘Seinch’ (watch report here – in French) was a technique whereby a local would stand on a clifftop at ‘Le Carro’, observing the sea and waiting for a sign of an approaching tuna shoal.  The sign was a milky-white colouration of the water.  On viewing this, the watch-out would then blow a conch-shell and the local village men would run for their boats and head out for the shoal.  They would then encircle and trap the tuna in nets, catching them in their thousands!  The practice came to a halt as the shipping industry along this stretch of coast grew and forced the tuna shoals further out to sea.  Hence the use of helicopters today.

A ‘Seinche’:                                                               Trident fishing circa 1900:

Another central Martigues technique from the past involved using tridents from bridges.  At certain times of the year shoals of fish would swim up canal from the Mediterranane to the Etang-du-Berre.  Locals would then simply lean over the bridges and spear the fish as they passed beneath.

So, fishing in Martigues, and along the coast, is an intrinsic part of Martigues culture. Collecting shell-fish and learning how to fish goes back to the origins of our homo sapiens species.  Perhaps it was one reason for human migrations out of Africa 100,000 (give-or-take) years ago.  Meat, and the cooking of meat, led to cerebral growth, which aided further technological advances, and with environmental/population pressures global exploration began. One route taken followed the coast into Central Asia and then cut back into Europe.  With the ice-age making the north of Europe inhabitable, communities spread throughout the Mediterranan zone.  Initially these were hunter-gatherer communities following animal herds on annual migrations whilst exploiting food resources found along coasts and inland rivers.  Then sedentarism kicked-in, to be followed by the neolithic’s introduction of farming,  which became integrated into Western Mediterranean and Atlantic coast cultures around 5500 B.C.

Fishing and shell-fish gathering, thus, goes back a long way.  Millenia ago it was discovered that mussels thrown upon a fire would open up their shells to deliver the edible flesh within and then provide useful tools themselves, such as for scraping hides and collecting fat.  Sheep domestication too began early on as a sedentary mesolithic practice, and sheep were grazed throughout the French Mediterranean littoral during winter before being led up into the Provencal hills in summer: A practice known as ‘transhumance’ which continues today.  Communities existed between the hills and the coast, benefitting from both.

Mesolithic evidence of human occupation in the region of Martigues begins around 7,500 B.C at a site known asl’abri-de-Font-aux-Pigeons’.  It’s an overhanging cliff shelter over-looking the town of ‘Chateauneuf-les-Martigues’.   The site was first excavated in the 1950s by  M.Escalon de Fonton who termed the fine stone artifacts and shell-impressed pottery finds he discovered as being ‘Castelnovian’ in culture.  The site was continuously occupied into and during the neolithic period during which time several other local sites came into existance e.g. Collet-Redon and Ponteau-Gare.

In Martigues a settlement known as Maritima Avaticorum (a Roman naming), set up on the banks of the Etang-de-Berre around the 2nd Century B.C.   This was an overflow site from a larger site 10 kms west which is known today as St.Blaise built by the Greeks circa 6th century B.C.  Another site of similar antiquity and Greek provenance is at St. Pierre-les-Martigues, 10 kms south.  By this time, of course, subsistence strategies had become multiplex – farming, animal husbandry, fishing, hunting-and-gathering, with vinyards and olive groves dotting the landscape.  Pottery too had substantially developed, in addition to metallurgy with bronze and ironware products commonplace.

Nevertheless, and specific to Martigues, fishing was central to everyday life.  A swampy (‘marecage‘) connection between the Mediterrannean and the Etang-de-Berre had existed since the rising of sea levels at the end of the last ice age.  But once the Romans made it navigable for their ships between 104-102 B.C.  (by creating the ‘Caronte canal’), fishing really took off as a food resource.  And so has it remained.  In the 16th century, for example, thousands of ‘Martigaux’ (Martigues people) lived by and on the fruits of the sea.   There were 1,300 fishing boat captains plus boat builders and net-makers plus schools to teach the young the art and secrets of landing a good catch.


A fishing speciality of Martigues has long been the ‘bourdigues‘.  For centuries these were particularly efficient due to the numerous islets at the mouth of the canal/Etang-de-Berre juncture.  Systems of nets could be strung out on wooden frames across them to trap migrating fish.  This caused some conflict between bourdigues owners (for centuries the archbishops of Arles) and boat fishermen, for it restricted navigation.  But the issue was resolved through the establishment of a Martigues fishing union (‘prud’homie pecheurs’) which signalled the demise of the bourdigues.  Today, only one bourdigue exists.  It provides the town with a particular culinary speciality:  ‘Poutagne’.  A caviar prepared from mullet fish eggs.


Local fishing knowledge, however, is not like knowing the location of truffles and cêpes.  Fishing knowledge is an open secret.  It is not selfishly guarded.  In fact, local fishermen want to tell you which is the best bait, rod, reel, hook and line; the best time of day as well as the best place, (for which type of fish), and how to predict the currents and the tides which constantly change throughout the course of the year.  And yes, opinions differ.  That is part of the attraction.   Showing superior know-how that has often been passed on from father-to-son and gained through a life-time’s experience is a game of fishing one-upmanship.  Fishing savoir-faire  is then proved through this amicable and competitive spirit in catching the most, the biggest, and the best fish.  In Martigues this is the Dorade Royale.  And yes, they’ll even proudly tell you the best way to cook it.

Perhaps I should put down my books and take up a fishing rod?   That seems the way to become a true Martigeaux!

Multicultural issues: France and Britain

‘We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams’.  (Jimmy Carter)


Some time ago I caught the midnight metro from the centre of Lyons.  The carriage was almost empty and I took a seat diagonally opposite a young, north African man.   I noticed that he was smoking and talking aloud to himself.  But he seemed in a world of his own and no problem – except that he was obviously quite drunk and distressed.

‘Identity’, he kept repeating, in French, ‘what’s my identity?  I have no identity’.

The rest of his words were in arabic and I didn’t understand them, although they appeared to be angry, rambling words – words that he spat out vehemently, before again repeating his lines about identity.  I stared out the window into the blackness of the metro tunnel and watched a platform appear in golden, glowing light.  No-one entered my carriage at this stop and we moved off again into darkness.

I then made a fatal mistake and glanced over at the young man – just at the moment when he looked towards me.  Our eyes met.

‘Never make eye contact with a crazy drunk’, I should have remembered.

Well, I had and as a result the young man pulled himself out of his seat and lumbered towards me.

‘What’s your identity? he demanded, arm resting on the seat in front of mine, cigarette between his fingers. ‘Your identity, what’s your identity?’

My response was to plead ignorance and explain, in English, that I didn’t understand.

‘Ah!  A traveller,’ he acknowledged as a snake might acknowledge a mouse accidentally entering his hole whilst licking his lips.

He eyed my day-sack (containing car papers, passport etc) lying  on my lap, and in a flash snatched it, turned round and made off down the aisle.  I leapt up and lunged after him, grabbed my bag and gave him a hearty push.  He fell across some seats and looked up at me in astonishment.  Then he was up, on his feet, giving my shins a kick.

‘You want to steal my bag ?’ I growled menacingly, ‘just try!’

He thought about this threat as the next metro station appeared.  The train came to a halt, doors slid open, and the young man swiftly made his exit.

End of story.


Believe me, I don’t write this as a personal tale of heroism – a few pints of dutch courage had definitely helped.  But what was most annoying was that this young man was north African.  Annoying, because I’d previously chosen to defend French muslims from racist comments.  Like several other English colleagues in France, I’d disliked hearing anti-muslim sentiments expressed by non-muslim French. Discussions on the banning of muslim headresses in schools,  as ‘proselytizing symbols of religion’,  were similarly difficult to accept.  I mean, nuns got away with wearing their headresses – and as for ‘proselytizing’; no-one says a thing about the Jehovas Witnesses stopping you in the street.  Hence, these rules did seem particularly, and unfairly, targetted at muslims.  Furthermore, as an English teacher I’d spent hours conversing with the occassional muslim student about Islam, and I’d appreciated their religious devotion and love of God.   Hence, I was prone to offer pro-muslim points-of-view whenever I heard them being verbally attacked.

‘Oh well!  There’s always one’, I decided, ‘just my bad luck, tonight.’

A few weeks later a friend was attacked and knocked unconscious by another north African guy, on the street, in central Lyons.

I then began to find north Africans in France just a little more difficult to defend.

Believe me, this goes against my grain:  I’m trained in anthropology – a study which appreciates the diversity of human experience from a humanitarian point of view.


I’m white.

That’s just a fact – rather like saying I’ve got brown eyes, a gap between my front teeth, a slight paunch and an in-growing toenail.  Yes, wouldn’t racism be strange if it was based on height rather than skin colour.  But it all amounts to the same thing:  ‘Ugh! I can’t stand tall people, they’re taking all our jobs.  They should be sent back to the land of tall people.’

I’m actually about 5 ft 9 inches – which isn’t that tall for a Brit.  But I’ve become a French Mediterranean dweller where people are generally shorter so I can blend in without feeling ‘different’.  That is, until I open my mouth!   Then a few seconds pass where I see the listener’s brain twist inside-out as it tries to deal with my anglo-franco accent.  Vraiment!  Yes!  I can almost hear the cogs turning as my London/Chateauneuf-sur-le-mer dialect is decoded; a process which  evidently involves substantial mental effort.

 ‘My French pronunciation can’t be that bad!’  I complain to my French wife.

‘It is!’  She simply replies.

So, the process of linguistic elimination continues; first by clearing me of having north African origin.  My physical, facial features help and I’m soon narrowed down to being some type of German, British or American creature.  No wonder the actual content of my words pass over their heads and when I’ve finished speaking French people look at me with a glazed:


Thankfully, my wife can interpret, with an apologetic smile, before leading me away as some curio she picked up on a foreign trip.

Apparently, multiculturalism is loosing ground in France.  At least, President Sarkozy has recently declared it:  ‘a failure’ .  For centuries, by contrast, the influx of other nationalities was not a problem.  Like most other European countries, France has grown as a consolidation of numerous peoples:  Romans, Celts, Franks, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Polish, Portuguese, Armenians…  many of these arrived during the twentieth century and now make up 25% of the French population (see here).   This is all part of a ‘French Universalism’, a leading ethos in forming the French Republic; ideologically similar to the American experience – about which former President Jimmy Carter stated:

We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.  (see above)

But as our colonial crimes now come back to haunt us (the French in North Africa, the British almost everywhere), the influx of Maghrebians onto French soil has not gone down too well.  Integration is seen as a problem.  Many French people say that French and muslim cultures are too different – that Islam does not blend with Catholicism/French secularism, that arabic does not blend with french, that French/European identity does not blend with North African identity.  Indeed, far right politicians (e.g. Le Pen) build their parties on this issue:

The reason and the result is a viscious circle of growing distrust.  Indoctrinated youngsters learn from their elders and climb aboard the ‘anti-assimilation’/’I hate other cultures’ –  band-wagon.  Inexcusable behaviours result.  Jewish and muslim grave stones are desecrated –


  – whilst anger surges amoungst muslim youths and elders.  To translate some of the terms in the video below, we hear:

‘We need to kill the whites’.

‘Burn the French flag’.

‘God save us from the devil – that a Frenchman becomes a muslim convert’.

‘Let’s burn the church’.

In addition to seeing sexual and physical attacks in public, protectionism, church burglary, riots and car burning, and intense hate:

And so, Sarkozy’s declaration that multiculturalism is a failure may have some grounds.  Obviously, there are problems of social integration in France.

But does multiculturalism work in Britain – the ultimate global colonizer?  I would like to think so.  I would like to think that multiculturalism adds colour and diversity to British society.  Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I do like the concept of a ‘family of man’, living in harmony, sharing backgrounds and life-views.  Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?  Or even, in the words of one small boy, Pi Patel:

‘Why can’t I be a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim?‘   (Life of Pi.  Yann Martel)

Of course, Britain also has not been without it’s problems of racial intergration.  The late 1950s saw many attacks against in-coming Jamaicans.  Then the 1970s saw race riots targetted against in-coming Asian communities.   There was a major riot in London, 1985, centrered around a racial issue, in which one policeman (PC Blackelock) was decapitated.  More recently, in 2011, London exploded in several nights of violence resulting from the death of a muslim man by police.  However, these days British riots tend to be multicultural affairs and less racially motivated.   In the British context, the wheel has turned and social miscontent and aggression is now ‘collectively’ targetted against the authorities – as seen with 2010 student riots, 2011 London riots; admittedly, often exacerbated by anti-social youths committing violent acts just for ‘the fun of it’.


As a very young child in the early 1960s I shared my cot with a very young black boy of Jamaican origin.  I don’t know the exact reason why.  I guess his mother was unable to look after him at the time and my parents offered to help.  Possibly we fought in the cot over a toy or a milk bottle.  Possibly we kicked each other in the night.  But we got along just fine until his mother was able to have him back.  And maybe that’s why I’m now so open to the concept of multiculturalism.  In the late 1970s, many of my school mates in Leicester were Asian. It was just how it was. In Germany, in the early 1980s, I lived closely amoungst the German ‘gastarbëiter’ (foreign workers), sharing a room with two men from Bangaladash.  We got along just fine – once I got used to their incredibly hot curries!   Looking back on these experiences I can only say that they were ‘culturally enriching’ to the full.

These more optimistic sentiments of multiculturalism are expressed in this video clip below:


So, is this all a utopian dream?   Apparently, according to current Prime minister David Cameron, it is.

Certainly, this is not as harsh as Enoch Powell’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (1968), which attacked British immigration policies and warned:

‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood’ .

Thankfully, his prediction never came to pass. Yet, with the arrival of millions of foreign nationals into British society the question of British identity has become increasingly discussed, debated and disputed.

Cameron’s speech is a recognition expression of ‘British identity and values’, which welcomes and integrates other values, whilst still retaining it’s own core values.  Where there is a clash of values, such as with regard to sexual discrimination or mistreatment, then there is a ‘British viewpoint’, as re-ified through legal and political institutions which have evolved over centuries and through the democratic process.  This ‘British viewpoint’, then, judges acceptability of ‘other’ values and practices within British social life.   Some values or practices may be declared unacceptable, despite our willingness to be multicultural and respect other customs.  Female circumcision is one example, forced marriages another.   ‘The truth of multiculturalism’, thusis that globalization is not a ‘free for all’.   There are cultures and customs to respect if we choose live within them.   This is what David Cameron wishes to re-affirm. 

The French wish to affirm a similar principle:  That there are certain codes of behaviour that unite French people.  That there is a French ‘way of life’ to which immigrants and ex-pats should subscribe in order to integrate.  That such integration involves accepting ethical standards which define a certain ‘French identity’.   And personally, I do accept French behavioural codes whilst living in France.  I drive on the right, regularly join the baker’s queue for my baguette, go to the restaurant more than the pub, take flowers for my hostess when invited to dinner, greet friends and neighbours with a kiss on both cheeks, and don’t indulge in the current British passion for binge-drinking and subsequent vomiting  – so it seems from news reports!  (Incidentally, neither do I do this in England).

On the other hand, I see no harm with halal fast-food outlets; the wearing of traditional costumes, and muslim mosques.  In Britain, through the process of de-colonialisation, peoples from around the globe have now come to settle.   It’s the ebb-and-flow counter re-action to British colonialism.  Now, after decades, that initial British public reaction has changed from a national protectionism to a national acceptance.  Consequently, Britain is a more varied and colourful land.  In fact, I miss this diversity in France.  I miss the curry sauce poured liberally over my chips; the samosa’s and Indian spicy mix from the deli.; the worldwide range of restaurants on the high street, the rastafarian blues’ clubs, and the Nottinghill Carnival.   I even miss the sound of Bollywood movies coming through an Indian  neighbour’s window.  But, for sure, I fully understand French mistrust of those muslims who not only wish to preserve their traditional customs, but also express distain for the (French) culture in which they live – sometimes very aggressively too, as described at the start and as seen in the video.

Perhaps France too should accept their colonial past in which they invaded north African lands.  Perhaps they should accept that importing Algerian workers who were cousins of Algerian rebels being fought in the Algerian war (1954-1962) would not make for a loyal muslim population (read here: approach 4).   Perhaps they should accept the influx of north Africans into France as a counter re-action to French colonialism.  Perhaps that could be a starting point of French/ north African reconciliation.  This takes time and courage; a ‘moving on’ from the past.  The benefits could be a positive multiculturalism of diversity and colour, whilst retaining a core sense of national identity.  

Has this been achieved in Britain?  David Cameron seems to question that it has.  For me, it depends on which article or newspaper I read.   Nevertheless, I aim to be optimistic and see the positive benefits of multiculturalism.  So – how  about this for a British/Indian/Afro-American multicultural blend, as seen on ‘Britain’s got Talent’?

This is multiculturalism at it’s best!   I hope the utopian dream has not been lost.


Writing this blog is simply a personal attempt to understand.

Rugby and Rodeo and Hunting.

Yet again the All Blacks show their superior rugby skills by blending brute force, or brutes’ force, with swift, dashing runs and daring tackles.  And, although their on-field charges; their power in the scrum, and their handling of the ball are truly dazzling, most memorable is the pre-match ‘haka‘ when the players call upon their ancient Maori gods to help them gain victory.

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!         ’Tis death! ‘tis death!  ’Tis life! ‘tis life!   

Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!         ‘Tis death! ‘tis death!  ’Tis life! ‘tis life!  

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru                 This is the hairy man

Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā    Who brought the sun & caused it to shine

Ā, upane! ka upane!                                  A step upward, another step upward

Ā, upane, ka upane,                                  A step upward, another step upward!

Whiti te ra!                                                 The Sun shines!


Which team does not invoke their gods before, or during, matches?   Just as Homeric heros relied upon the gods of Olympus to help them win battles, these days whole stadiums, with tens of thousands of raised voices, sing out to the gods in seeking supernatural assistance for their teams. The cultural form may be different, but the purpose is the same.  ‘How great thou art’, is a favourite song of supplication for Welsh rugby supporters who really know how to belt out a good hymn in the stands – as in the church on sundays.   Here’s another one:  Bread of heaven   – A Welsh haka, with all voices joined. 

But then, there’s the national anthem singing, with hearts and lungs raised to invoke the ‘National spirit’ – a re-ification, and sanctification of national and cultural identity.  This is the time for serious flag waving and earnest mascot displaying; offerings for the re-ified ‘national gods’.  In response, blessings are received as the national spirit infuses a team spirit into the players; including  such qualities as comraderie, courage, strength and skill. 

The match now begins and fifteen players furiously battle against fifteen players.  Many receive bloodied noses, even bruised and broken bones, to overcome and vanquish the opposing side.  Metaphorically, or perhaps not, together they are fighting the enemy.  In stretching the metaphor still further:  They are fighting a hunted beast- like a group of paleolithic hunters attacking a bison.  Herein lies the essence of rugby – if not of all team sports:  A group of men (or women!) working together armed with cunning and force; fighting for survival by throwing themselves into the melée; ready to be trampled upon, kicked and mauled.  Pushing bodies and souls beyond the limits they take on specific roles, and signal to each other with signs and shouts, amid the tumult of the struggle, to overcome and win the chase.  To me, rugby represents this raw, vibrant, battling nature of sport more than most.  It’s certainly not a delicate game!

Yes, in watching rugby, I see our pre-historic, archaic homo sapien ancestors stalking, hunting, and fighting woolly mammoths or bison in deadly duels of kill or be killed.  And looking at some particular rugby players, the pre-historic ressemblence is quite apparent!  See these two!

                                          Pre-historic ancestor or rugby player?

In fact, going back millions of years in time, such primordial hunting instincts were probably carried out by our primate ancestors.  Evidence of this is suggested by watching modern days chimpanzees chasing and catching their preys, whereby individual chimps take on specific roles and all closely operate together.  Watch here!

Returning to prehistoric homo sapiens hunters – quite possibly they also performed some type of ‘haka‘ to call upon their gods for protection and success.  Archaic homo sapiens, probably.  Neanderthal man, perhaps not.  They hadn’t intellectually advanced that far.  Nevertheless, it certainly was a dangerous activity and one in which injuries frequently led to loss of life.  Broken bones put one at a distinct disadvantage in the day-to-day struggles for survival, and if your tribes-folk cared not for your injuries, you were easy prey for the wolves.

The way to survive, of course, was to operate in a carefully managed team of hunting experts.  In such ‘teams’, all knew exactly their roles and all acted within a collective team ‘consciousness’ (‘spirit’) – being inherently aware of what their hunting-team mates were doing.  To achieve this took a higher degree of mental social skills and technical knowledge than earlier hominid ancestors, including Neanderthal man, had acquired.  In fact, without such advanced skills, Neanderthal man had an exceedingly tough time and hunting success came from pitting himself against the hunted beast with only the most basic of hunting weapons, and a very large reliance on good luck.  No wonder they died out!

In fact, recent fossil studies of neanderthal man have compared their ancient fossilized bones with those bones of modern day rodeo stars (see here).   It appears that broken bones incurred through pre-historic hunting, are very similar to bones broken by rodeo stars.  Hence parallels in the two activities have naturally been formed:  ‘Hunting involved dangerously close contact with large prey animals’.   This is true for both pre-historic hunting and rodeo.  Both are battles between man and beast, and both involve teams of men working closely, in harmony, together.   The only difference is that rodeo is a sport and the pre-historic hunting is a fight for survival – getting meat for the clan.   Archaic homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthal man and learnt more hunting tricks.  But life was still hard for them when out on a hunt, and injuries suffered could likewise prove fatal.

No, I’m not a fan of hunting or rodeo.  For me, they’re activities relating to humankind’s chthonic past and are anachronistic in today’s world.  Lovers of gore who attend bullfights, dog fights, cock fights etc. for an adrenaline buzz, are experiencing sentiments of the past.  Perhaps there are emotional remnants, such as the thrill of the hunt, the capture and the kill, remaining in our genetic make-up. But releasing such sentiments is more humane when channelled through organized and rule regulated sports.  Learning self-control is essential for any hunter or sportsman alike.  Hence, I wholly enjoy watching sports players freely engage in sporting combats against each other; be it tennis, badminton or football.  Thankfully, Caligua and the Roman arena, where slaves were trained to fight to the death and Christians were thrown to the lions for fun, have long disappeared – It’s just a shame that fighting with animals still exists.  As a caption with the image below says:

Each time the corrida goes ahead, humanity regresses.

Yes, these days we try to get our kicks in more humanitarian ways – without losing the excitement.   We’ve discovered the balance, and one such balance is rugby.

So – when I watch rugby, I see pre-historic man on the hunt.  It’s brutal and viscious, yet highly-skilled and highly-trained.  It’s a game of quick-thinking chess-like moves with spontaneous reflex reactions.  But it’s also a scrap of knees and elbows, fists and feet.  There’s flaying arms, grunts and groans, sweaty armpits, and pumping, piston-engine legs.  And there’s the blood-stained faces and bandaged heads.   But that’s rugby and that’s a pre-historic hunt.  Yes, it’s a little barbaric – but it’s also carefully controlled by a referee.  The result is a merging of nature and culture; the wild and the tamed; the raw and the cooked.

That’s rugby!

The Camargue: Invention of tradition


Many of the traditions which we think of as very ancient in

        their origins were not in fact sanctioned by long usage over

        the centuries but were invented comparatively recently’.    (E.J.Hobsbawm. 1983)


To briefly explore this ‘invention of tradition’, I start at the opposite end of the European continent:  Scotland.

How to rub a Scotsman up the wrong way:  Tell him that ‘supposedly’ ancient scottish literature and music was actually usurped from the Irish; that the kilt was invented by an 18th century Englishman (Thomas Rawlinson); that the tartan fabric was initially imported from Belgium (Flanders), and that designating specific tartan patterns to specific Scottish clans was a 19th century fabrication (E.J.Hobsbawm. op cit). 

Perhaps it’s better to keep quiet!

But the fact is that the 19th century rise of European nation-states involved the creation (fabrication or forgery) of numerous traditions.  National flags, emblems and anthems came into being, along with created national histories stretching back into the mists of time.  Longevity was an important component of rooting peoples, cultures, languages and traditions to nations’ soils.  It established moral claims of ownership and belonging; feeding patriotic hearts, and fixing national origins back into a ‘time immemorial’.  The fact that such tales were ‘myths’, was conveniently ignored; or left unchallenged.  Neverthless, as in the scottish example, the means served ends (e.g the establishment of a scottish heritage) and anyway, only historians split hairs.

So, moving south to the Camargue.  How did this myth creation process establish a Camargue identity?

First, let’s position the Camargue geographically:

The Camargue is an area  (360 sq.miles) of land in the south of France between the ‘Grand Rhône’ and the ‘Petit Rhône’.  To the north is the Camargue capital city of Arles, to the south is town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterrannean.  It’s a watery, swamy area dominated in the centre by the ‘Etang de Vaccarès’  – a lake.  Major industries are fishing, wine and salt production, rice cultivation, cattle – in particular bulls, for their meat, and tourism.  It is also reknowned for its flamingoes and horses:  A semi-wild breed that roams freely around the camargue wetlands.  They’re tamed and ridden by ‘guardians‘ (cowboys) to herd the bulls. (Read more)

Arles maintains the myth that the beauty of its Arlesienne women has been reknowned since antiquity.  This claim is more than a mild boasting for writers and poets have written glowing prose to capture this quality in words.  Then, every three years, a young Arlesienne woman is crowned ‘Queen of Arles’ during the festival of Arles at the beginning of July.  She dresses in traditional costume and become guardian of Provençal history, literature, architecture, arts, traditions and language.

 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer literally means ‘Saint Marys of the Sea.’  Apparently, according to local tradition, the three Marys of the New Testament (Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary, sister of Lazarus, and Mary Magdalen) arrived here by boat, after voyaging the Mediterrannean for several weeks following the death of Jesus.

Already local myths appear in this Camargue story.

Camargue is in the south of France and, like Britain, there is a north-south divide in France too:  A fact which was the underlying theme of a recent French cinema comedy – Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.  Its overwhelming success was achieved by exploring stereotypical images of northern and southern French culture.  More historically, and in linguistic terms, the northern half of France is referred to as Langue d’Oil and the southern half as Langue d’Oc.  Both belong to the ‘Gallo-Romance language group‘ (a sub-section of the 37 listed Romance, or Latin, languages: wiki/section 3).   Over the centuries and with various adaptations, political currents led to langue d’Oil becoming the dominant language in France.  Today it is simply known as French.

Langue d’Oc, on the other hand, has suffered a less fortuitous life.  Otherwise known as ‘Occitan‘, there are six distinct dialects:  Provençal, Auvergnat, Limousin, Languedocian, Gascon and Vivaro-alpine.  All of these dialects are listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. In terms of being a geographic entity, Occitan stretches from northern Spain, throughout the south of France, and into northern Italy.  Though not a legal or political entity, a mythical Occitania has been previously  been granted the status of nation.  Which brings us back to the question of myth fabrication and nation building.

So – let’s now position the Camargue historically:

The Camargue sits at the opposite end of the France from Paris – that centralizing hub whose Jacobin revolutionaries established the French republic in 1789 by adopting various symbols:  The ‘Phrygian cap’, taken from Roman antiquity where it was worn by freed Phrygian slaves and worn as a symbol of liberty. ‘  ‘La Marseillaise‘ – a new national anthem.  ‘Marianne‘ – a female embodiment of the new French Republic.  A ‘National day’ – The 14th of July, commerating ‘The Storming of the Bastille‘ and the collapse of absolute monarchy.  ‘The cock’ (bird) as the official legal symbol of France.  ‘A new calender’, measuring decimal time with a ten-day week.  ‘New festivals’ related to different events within the French Revolution.  Yes, more myths created.  Who, in fact, was Marianne?

The problem was that as revolutionary tendencies and ideologies became radicalized (militant action, riots, ‘Storming of the Bastille’ etc.), and republican ideals were set to replace those of the ‘ancien regime’,  it wasn’t long before regional identity presented a threat to Republican issues of unity and nationhood.  (A simple matter of speaking French. Tom Holberg).   This had major consequences for Occitan and the Camargue, as well as for other regional identities around the periphery of the country – especially as an initial tolerance led to repressive intolerance.

Why the intolerance?  Pope Pius VI refused to accept a democratization of the Catholic church, whereby the clergy (‘the first estate’) would be elected members of a general synod; King Louis XVI refused to budge from his position of absolutism, then fled to leave a power vacuum; the nobles (‘the second estate’) clung to their aristocratic advantages whilst under-mining the monarchy, and the ‘third estate’ (workers/‘sans-culottes’), having struggled for years against exceedingly high food prices, joined the lower-middle classes (‘the petty bourgoisie’) to take the cause to their hearts and clamour for change.

And so, all hell broke lose.   The clergy were ousted; the king guillotined; the nobility also targetted for execution; counter-revolutionaries and those with more conservative tendencies too sent to the blade, and 40,000 heads were lopped off left, right and centre.  This was:   ‘The Reign of Terror’.

Hence; in striving for a unified republic (one of the underlying goals of the revolution), intolerance led to the repression of regional culture.  Language, as is so often the case, was the first to be attacked.  Many laws were passed to make French the sole language of school instruction, whilst children who continued to speak a local patois (a derogatory term in itself) were stigmatized.  The demise of Occitan languages had begun.  Local festivals too were banned, through being declared ‘seditious gatherings’.  Of great local significance, the ‘running of the bulls’ festivals were outlawed.  The bull, (‘totemic symbol of the Camargue’) was as much a symbol of the Occitan south as the cock is of the republic north, and was a clear challenge to Paris. Banning bull running (‘courses‘) symbolized banning Occitan culture.  Even Provençal dances, farandoles, were forbidden – it was argued that they ‘endangered public tranquility’ (R.Zaretsky.  2004).  Any philosophical base referencing ‘The Rights of Man’ and those central concepts of ‘egalité, fraternité et liberté’ seem to have been cast asunder in this revolutionary zeal.  A ‘totalitarian Jacobinism’, one writer declared (Jean-Baptiste Bénet, in R.Zaretsky. 2004).

Occitan and the Camargue was not alone in experiencing cultural repression – Brittany suffered much the same.  Perhaps more so, for Brittany had retained its Catholicism and conservatism to become an anti-Revolutionary stronghold.  The ‘Chouans‘ (anti-Revolutionary peasants)  were never fully subdued  (Read more).  In parallel, the Scots too can remain indignant at having cultural identity repressed as the English constitutionally joined with Scotland ( ‘Act of the Union’ : 1706).  It’s a question of ‘internal colonialisation’, occurring as smaller states expand and absorb those at the peripheries.  In the English/Scottish case, much of scottish culture was also eradicated; including the gaelic language and the playing of bagpipes (temporarily). Peripheral cultural regions suffer as ‘nation-states’ sets down their roots, grow and demand greater national unity.

Yet, in Provence and the Camargue there was a counter-reaction.  Once the revolutionary fires ceased to burn,  a group of seven writers and poets set up to meet regularly and guard against the loss of their cultural identity.  This group (founded: 1854)  was known as the filibrige: Frédéric Mistral, Joseph Roumanille, Théodore Aubanel, Jean Brunet, Paul Giéra, Anselme Mathieu and Alphonse Tavan.   Primarily, the group was concerned with keeping the Provençal language alive and in maintaining ‘fraternal bonds’ between Occitan and Catalan. To achieve these goals the filibrige created  it own journal (‘Aioli‘), and had a  patriotic hymn written by Frédéric Mistral: La Copa Santa‘.   It also established numerous Provençal festivals.

The filibrige writers were accepted by Parisian literary circles, with Mistral being claimed a new, French ‘Virgil’.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.  Republican Emile Zola called Mistral’s writing (i.e. ‘Calendal‘: 1867)  as ‘separatist‘ and indeed, his work was embraced by federalists.  Yet, Mistral always insisted he was ‘apolitical’,  avoiding any comment on the 1890s Dreyfus affair in the Aioli journal, of which he was editor.

 ‘The Filibrige was born outside of city life and outside it must remain‘.        (Quoted in F.Zeretsky. op cit)

However, one major event challenged the apolitical stance of the filibrige:  The wine-growers’ protests of 1907.

In the mid-19th century Languedocian region, textiles and mining industries declined, whilst vinyards bloomed.  Then a parasite (phylloxera) decimated the vinyards, which pushed up the cost price.  So, when the parasite was finally beaten (1870), viticulturalists sproated all over and reaped handsome rewards – especially as artificially fermented products (increasing output), with sugar imported from the north, were also classified as ‘wine’.   35% of France’s wine production was then from this region.

Following this boom canme the bust.  Sales and prices plummetted.  Wine-growers blamed competition from Spanish and Algerian wines and northern sugar beet manufacturers. Consequently, they sought a reversal of the law allowing artifially fermented products. Plus, they sought tax-relief.  The government, under President George Clemenceau, was slow to respond, and wine-growers took to the streets in protest.  Their leader, Ernest Ferroul (mayor of Narbonne) called for a general strike and Clemenceau sent in the army to arrest the strike leaders.  Violent confrontations followed leaving several dead.   This had now become a protest of the southern Occitan against the republican north.  It was a protest in which the symbolism of the wine and the bull played a prominent part:

     ‘If we can’t sell our wine, we will use our tridents’.

This became a popular slogan.  Tridents are tools used by bull herding ‘guardians’.

Furthermore, Ferroul, who had earlier in his life visited the tomb in Toulouse of Simon de Montfort (leader of the 13th century Albigensian crusade)  to spit on it, now re-invoked this historical period in which northerners had attacked and repressed southeners (some claimed it a genocidal repression) – thereby adding a historical base to this north/ south conflict.  In Ferroul’s eyes, this recent conflict was another northern conspiracy targetted against the south.  (R.Zaretsky.  op cit):  Past history mythologizing the present.

Frédéric Mistral and ‘The filibrige’, however, remained apolitical.  His cause was more in supporting an aesthitic appreciation of Provence.  Yet,  some felt his evasive pronouncements concerning the affair to be a betrayal.   Admittedly, he was now an elderly man.  Nevertheless, respect for the filibrige temporarily waned.

Enter stage right – the star of the show:  ‘Folco de Baroncelli’.

Born 1st November 1869, of Italian (father) and French aristocratic (mother) origins, Baroncelli learnt Homer, Virgil and smattering of the Provençal language from his grandmother.  After making contact with a felibrige founding member (Joseph Roumanille) he then set out to ‘Provençalize“. He first met Fréderic Mistral in Avignon in 1886 and they became friends.  He also became a breeder, of Camargue horses and bulls, seeking to create a pure bred ‘Camarguais bull’; much as Mistral had sought to create a purified Provençal language.  Questions of race and identity were particularly pertinent around the turn of the century.  Baroncelli believed that an ancient mithraic temple once existed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in which bulls were sacrificed-  hence leading the bull’s ancestry in the Camargue back into ‘time immemorial’.  This theory (myth) was later debunked.   Yet, he moved to the town in 1896, stating;

‘I knew that the guardians and peoples of Saintes-Maries- de- la -Mer were the last guardians of our language…It seem to me that the local passion for bulls was the best means to raise up our people and revive their national consciousness.’          (Quoted in R.Zaretsky.  op cit)

Unlike Mistral, Baroncelli was not apolitical in his support of Occitan, Provence and the Camargue. Indeed, he  was far more vociferous in his support of the wine-growers revolt of 1907 than Mistral had ever been, writing a poem entitled ‘Auzor’ (arise), which was quite simply a violent call to arms and criticizing Mistral for his political inactivity.

‘Poor people of the Midi, whose six hundred years of emasculation and slavery has marked you so deeply…’. 

‘Northeners…we shall gut your entrails the day all hell breaks loose.’    (Quoted in R.Zaretsky.  op cit)

Perhaps this is understandable, for he had married the daughter of a local wine-grower from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Enter stage left – Colonel William Frederic Cody.    a.k.a ‘Buffulo Bill.

Buffulo Bill came to France  twice (1889 and 1905).  These were enormous undertakings needing 16 boats to ship his team of 800 men, (cowboys and indians),  500 horses, and hundreds of tents across the Atlantic Ocean.  Spectators from Lyon, Paris and Marseille (1889) and 120 different French towns (1905) came to see ‘wild west shows’ featuring an enactment of General Custer’s last stand against Indians at the ‘Battle of the Little Big Horn’.   Although this battle was a defeat for the U.S. Seventh Cavalry and General Custer was killed, in essence the ‘wild west show’ displayed the story of western civilization’s annihalation of indigenous Indians. With Baroncelli subscribing to the view that the peoples of Occitan had suffered genocide at the hands of northern oppressors, the presence of Cody’s wild west show in France – ‘gave flesh to the historical narrative Baroncelli was weaving’.  (R.Zaretsky. op cit).  Blatant myth creation?

Baroncelli tried to establish contact with Cody – but unsuccessfully.  However, he did manage to establish contact and became friends with several Indians who had come to France with the show.  In particular- Jacob White Eyes.  Through this Indian, Baroncelli was able to gain clothing, moccasins, a  head-dress, and the spirit of the north American Indians fighting against oppression.  The parallel with the experience of Occitan dwellers fighting oppression from the north was, to Baroncelli, unavoidable.

Ancient myths of mithraic bulls;  historical precendents as in the 13th century Albigensian crusade; a history of oppression and suffering, of loss of culture and fights to keep it alive;  writers and poets penning creative lines to retain and restore what otherwise would be lost;  symbols of bulls and wine used to represent the Occitan.  Then in 1909 Baroncelli created the Nacioun Gardiano (‘the Nation gardiane’):  An organizatin to to defend and maintain the Camargue.

Evidently, much tradition invention is involved in this story.  Mistral’s provençal words were not strictly mother-tongue provençal; more a second-hand creation.  Nevertheless, his words, and those of the other writers and poets of the filibrige, were used for creative, aesthetic effect used to keep provençal traditions alive.  Baroncelli, by contrast, in taking the Occitan story to heart and ignoring Mistral’s apolitical stance, invented freely, to the point where he brought the ‘wild west’ American story to the shores of the Mediterranean.   Visit Sainte-Mairies-de-la-Mer today and the influence is unavoidable.  It’s in the architecture.  It’s in the restaurant meals (specializing in bull steak). It’s in the tourist trinkets in the tourist shops back in town.  It’s in the mini-ranches approaching the town offering horseback tours across the fields (praries). Remember the television series:  ‘The High Chaparral?  That could be ‘Saintes-Mairies-de-le-Mer’.

Yet, there is more!  Apparently, accompanying the three Marys that had sailed over from Palestine following Jesus’s death (see above), was an Egyptian servant – a gypsy girl called Sara.  For this reason the town is central also to Gypsy traditions and is a pilgrimmage site for gypsies who converge here from across Europe every May 24-25th.   (see more here!) .    Myths, here in the Camargue, are abundant and widespread.  In fact, this particular myth was further mythologized in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’.

There are also created symbols.  In 1924, Folco de Baroncelli commissioned Hermann-Paul to design an emblem of the Camargue:  The Camargue Cross.  In fact, the cross contains three separate emblems:  An anchor, a heart and cross of three tridents.  The tridents represent the cowboy guardians and Christian virtue of  faith.    The anchor represents the fishermen of the region and hope – in fact, the anchor cross  is also an early Christian symbol .  The heart represents charity.

The Camargue cross was designed specifically for the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  Thousands of smaller versions can now be bought in every tourist shop in the town for a few euros.   The ‘running of the bulls’ (‘courses‘) occur there too.  Attending such an event this earlier this year (2011) I naively expected a Pamplona style affair.  In fact, I actually found it difficult to see the bulls – so tightly were they held within an encircling of ‘guardians’ on their horses.  I didn’t appreciate at the time the political issues involved with these ‘courses’ and how a status quo had been arrived at – although it still is a contentious issue.  Accidents, including deaths, do occur from time-to-time.   But the events remain, largely in opposition to northern (Parisian) policy makers.

It’s an Occitan snub to the north – but a mediated snub.  And the debate is not over yet.


E.J. Hobsbawm.  The Invention of Tradition.  1983.  Cambridge University Press.

Robert Zaretsky.  Cock and Bull stories.   2004.  University of Nebraska Press.