Keeping Guernsey Legends vibrantly alive

Guernsey Legends by Jane Mosse & Frances Lemmon, Blue Ormer Publishing


Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 14.53.39The stories in the gorgeously-produced Guernsey Legends by Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon are not remote reconstructions from some antique past. One story, about an enormous spectre of a nanny goat, played a real part in my own island childhood. Le Coin de la Biche was a stone’s throw away from my family home on La Rue des Grons. My grandfather always accelerated past this corner at night. Although we used to laugh nervously about La Biche as we sped past, by night a fiery-eyed giant nanny goat leaping out of the hedges certainly seemed possible.

The book’s introduction also mentions Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon’s debt to the peerless Marie De Garis, the author of Folklore of Guernsey (1975).  But the text of Guernsey Legends, contains stories collected by Sir Edgar McCullough and Edith Carey, which were first published in 1903. These stories are then responded to in poetry, by Jane Mosse, and visually, by Frances Lemmon.

It is a huge relief to see we are in such safe hands. Writer Jane Mosse is well known on Guernsey not just as a fine poet, but for championing Guernsey literature, and the memory of G.B. Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, the best book written about the island. In this collection Jane Mosse’s poems are typically playful, engaging and full of a folkloric darkness. The effect is often that we are reading rediscovered poems, and Jane Mosse’s conscious use of  anachronisms is particularly effective and sympathetic in rooting themselves into the soil of the original stories.

The Cuckoo is one of these examples, where the poem is almost like reading an old Guernsey spell.

The Cuckoo

When you hear the cuckoo call
Sew you then your wedding shawl.

Count the months before you wed
Head thee to thy marriage bed.

Wedding ring already worn?
Count the years to your first-born.

When you’re agèd list her cry,
Count the years before you die.

This poem about finding a witch caught up in thorns works its magic in the same way.

The Witch in the Hedge

at the silken skirt.
Fine tatters
fluttered in the furze,
as the juice of the sloes
leached into her bodice
staining the fragile lace of her shawl.

When old Nicolette
espied the gentlewoman
ensnared by blackthorn,
bleeding midst the brambles
her gentle hands reached
to pluck
barbed spines
from grazed flesh.

Pride wounded,
raven scoop askew,
the hag
out her warning.

‘Hold though thy tongue
speak to no one
lest a single word
of this tale be heard.’

Frances Lemmon is the pre-eminent painter on Guernsey, who unfailingly manages to get to the symbolic heart of the island, with striking compositions that somehow mythologise features of the island. Her style is deceptively simple, employing planes of vibrant colour, and simplified depictions of people and animals. The book is worth its price alone for having collected Lemmon’s stunning and mysterious pictures.

Guernsey Legends is divided into five sections: animals, fairies, magic, rocks and stones, and festivals, and the subject matter is incredibly rich. We learn about an invasion of murderous fairies from the west, drunken (and untrustworthy) Jerseymen who tried to steal Guernsey by hitching a rope to it to, to shape-changing witches and shape-changing rocks and all manner of other matters.

This is a beautiful book. The original stories wonderfully enhanced by Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon who have gone about teasing out new approaches to the legends with consummate skill. In their hands Guernsey Legends are vibrantly alive, and bring authentic Guernsey folklore to a new generation of readers. This is another timely and excellent publication from Blue Ormer.

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Between beauty and terror

Thus the blue hour comes by Tess Jolly, Indigo Dreams Publishing 

I love Tess Jolly’s poems, and I posted my look at her first collection Touchpapers here. Her latest, Thus the blue hour comes  from Indigo Pamphlets confirmed the promise of her first pamphlet with what is, in my view, a beautifully coherent and even stronger collection.

I saw the collection before it went to print, and was asked for a quote for the back cover. I still stand by what I said then, which was:  The mysterious, almost unnerving, quality of Tess Jolly’s poetry carries a cold fire into recesses of the imagination — and when we dare look with her, we glimpse treasures gleaming in the dark. For, as I noted with her first collection, Tess Jolly’s poetry contains magic. In her poems you will find yourself stumbling into wonder. Frequently too, you’ll encounter a mood of genuine gothic creepiness, where objects are supercharged with a magnetic significance.


In this collection, Tess Jolly employs some traditional symbols, but in a way that makes your hair stained on end. The moon, a symbol freighted with associations and often traditionally associated with the feminine, fertility, and the subconscious mind, is here compared to bone.

                        Moon is no longer moon.
It is a spinal cord of light pulsing dark water

in which the counting sheep have drowned.

(The Night Light)

Bone-shadow, skelton moon,
echo of the beat breaking through me

she settles into the eiderdown –
a bird on its nest – opens
the ragged canopy of its wings.


The ‘She’ of the poems takes on many forms, she observes the act of vomiting,

Her favourite view
is of the back
of my head
as seen from above.
Something about the way
my long hair
parts at the neck
movs her
and the sounds I make
when bowed like this –
acidy, guttural –
mothlight catching
the dark little hairs
on my nape
which shines
like cut glass.

(The back of my head as seen from above)

She is intimately aware of changes in the body.

She strokes the bloom of hair on my back.
Praises the absence of blood.

(Little Gannet)

This accumulation of physical details and gaunt, skeletal imagery, strongly suggest that we are dealing with the experience of anorexia. The word anorexia never appears in the collection, however, and the poems achieve a kind of universality in their depiction of a battle for survival and control over a subtle enemy. For there are temptations of this gaunt other:

She throws me diamonds, pearls,
glittering scraps.
Teaches me the art

of make-believe


The poem The Cliff Path, which I quote in full, is chillingly brilliant. The temptation to follow the path till the end is so evident.

The Cliff Path

She tells me it’s my turn.
I follow her down long corridors
past scapula, clavicle, pelvis, rib

woven into wreaths hanging
on every door, through the trees
onto the cliff path.

Shadows lengthen before us:
creatures disturbed in magic mirrors,
genies summoned from bottles.

I can see the house in the distance,
the ghosts lingering
like breath on its windows.

In my opinion Tess Jolly is one of the UK’s most exciting poets, writing in a way that is full of otherworldly beauty and terror. Her poems remind me of Rilke’s lines from the first of the Duino Elegies:

                                                   For Beauty’s nothing
but the beginning of Terror we’re still able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us.

(Tr. J.B.Leishman and Steven Spender)

In my view, Tess Jolly walks the tightrope strung between beauty and terror with absolute bravura.

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Poetry omnivore

For me, it’s all been about poetry so far this year. Sarah Barnsley, Robin Houghton and I have been putting together an anthology from Telltale, about which there will be more news shortly. Meanwhile I’ve been editing my own 24-poem, pamphlet-length collection, and have been lucky enough to receive excellent advice and a good deal of encouragement from Robin, Sarah and Charlotte Gann.

Back in January, Robin and I went to see the poet’s AGM; the T.S. Eliot award readings. I love how this reignites my love of poetry every year. Perhaps not a vintage crop this time, but I have since enjoyed the collections by the worthy winner Ocean Vuong, as well as Jacqueline Saphra, and James Sheard.

Omnivorously gobbling poetry, my reading has included Kate Tempest and Anna Akhmatova and, returning after many years, William Blake. I had forgotten how Songs of Innocence seem almost more sinister to me than the Songs of Experience. I must also recommend Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, essays by Jane Hirshfield. I can’t remember reading essays about poetry and agreeing so much. I came across Jane Hirshfield on the fabulous Brain Pickings site.

So off tomorrow to the launch of Robin’s Cinnamon Press prize winning collection, All the Relevant Gods and Stephen Bone’s excellent Plainsong pamphlet from Indigo Dreams. With Sarah Barnsley and Antony Mair reading, it will be a really good night.

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Two things the demons taught me


January and February? Gah! What are they for other than self-flagellation? With festivities just a liver-scarring memory,  the nights long, and the days hatefully grey… I usually use the first part of the year to brood like Milton’s Satan on the vast abyss of my shortcomings. But this year I did something different. I tidied up.

It started with a giant Kim Jong-un eraser. Looking into its plump orange face I decided that the Supreme Leader represented an opportunity to chuck out the half dozen age-hardened erasers I’d hoarded. This was just the beginning. Soon I began to see each item of clutter as a decision I’d not yet made, and a ruthless mood fell on me. I gave bags of clothes and shoes to charity, methodically I decluttered my office, weeded papers from files, organised my computer and took dozens of books to charity shops. I even employed a friend to come and lift up the floorboards and sort a joist problem out. For a few weeks there, there was nothing I couldn’t do. The result is the feeling of having a clean desk, but much magnified.  There are gaps in my seven bookcases for new books, and new ideas, and I can pretty much put my hand on anything I need. Win!

* * *

Last winter, on a train to work, I was tutting over the ‘brand values’ of a new product I had to do some advertising work on. Millions of pounds had been spent on the product, but the generically aspirational abstract nouns pretending to be values were laughable.

Shortly before this, Lorraine, my headteacher wife, had been refining her school’s values too. So it was inevitable that I ask myself this question: what do I stand for? And, then: what are the values of Brand Kenny?

Rattling back and forth to London I had plenty of opportunity to consider what my values should be. Since then I have asked several people what they thought their values were. It is well worth thinking about for yourself. Here are mine:

  1. Creativity – As this is how I make a living, a life without being creative would be unthinkable. But I have met people with Creative in their job title, who are far from creative. I may live my life doing creative work, but am I living my life creatively? Even though I work in advertising, and write poems, plays and so on, there is always room to apply the creative thinking to other areas of your life.
  2. Courage – Life may not always call for heroism,  but there are always opportunities for moments of micro-courage. Having experienced bouts of extreme anxiety, I know that just leaving the house can be an act of extraordinary courage for some. While I was thinking about these values I was planning to take a play to Edinburgh. There were a thousand reasons not to, of course, but deciding to be brave is exhilarating. Even such tiny moments of courage can be life affirming.
  3. Compassion – Wanting to write something to give others comfort drove me to write my children’s novel, currently languishing in slush piles. But I have worked with charities since my teens and done some gritty stuff, as a researcher talking to people with mesothelioma with Nancy Tait, to campaigning against Racism in Children’s literature, to making TV adverts for humanitarian or health organisations such as this experience in Chad.  Compassion is important because, as a writer, life can be very inward looking. Goaded by January and February demons, I realise that compassion can also extend to yourself too. For me, compassion also contains the notion of empathy, and without empathy it is impossible to write convincingly.

But can these abstract nouns, Creativity, Courage and Compassion really change anything practical?

I think the answer is that they can, if you want them to.

Every time I make a new to-do list (on a fresh A4 page of my yellow lined notebook in blue ink) I write Creativity, Courage and Compassion at the top of the page. Having listed the things that must be done, I ask myself what if any of these tasks has anything to do with my values. If not, I ask myself why I am doing them. I’m increasingly relying on my values as a way of prioritising what I do, and working out why I am doing it.

Try it. You might like it. So… What do you stand for?








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‘Oumuamua and identity


‘Oumuamua was a new word for me. It means scout or messenger in Hawaiian, and was given to the first object we’re certain to have come from beyond our own solar system.

Wikipedia says it is a reddish object around 230 by 35 meters. To me, vulgarian that I am, it looks like an interstellar poo. As I type, glancing at the ‘Oumaumua tracker, I see it is currently zooming away from Earth at 64.6 km/s per second. With the recent antics of humanity, who can blame it? But this weird object that has dropped in from nowhere has got me thinking.

The thought of 2018 is quite a challenging one. We are all people of our time. Whether we choose to bury our heads under the duvet whimpering till it’s over, or thunder into the streets in protest, we are all reacting in our different ways to what 2018 presents us with.

It brings to mind the Intentionality debate, an old argument in philosophy and literary criticism. It goes like this: how much should our knowledge of a writer’s intentions and historical context affect how we read their texts? Should we find out what the writer meant? Or, as the anti-intentionalists prefer, support the idea that a poem should stand on its own two feet without the backstory,  as if it emerged ex nihilo, from nothing, like ‘Oumuamua.

I’ve aways found this debate a bit tiresome. The answer, surely, is a bit of both. A poem should be able to be enjoyed as its own thing, independent of previous knowledge, as you would if you stumbled over it in a magazine from a poet new to you. It seems common sense to me, however, that learning something about the writer’s intentions can only enrich our enjoyment of the work, without necessarily dictating how we should read it.

When I was a student (in the days of vellum and quill pens) T.S. Eliot was held as an example of someone who wrote brilliantly while having a minimal presence in the work.  This idea was reflected in the title of Hugh Kenner’s early biography, ‘The Invisible Poet’.

While even today some art forms, such as street art, require the anonymity of its artists due to the borderline illegality of much of their work, in contemporary poetry the identity of the writer is often scrutinised. What has been written is judged through the lens of who has written it. This may be due to how established privileges have been challenged. It is no longer acceptable that people can be quietly rejected on grounds of their race, class, gender, sexuality and so on.

For the Intentionality debate, it seems case closed. The poet’s identity is very relevant in 2018. But I do have some qualms. Is there a danger that literature can turn into a beauty contest? A writer may be unnoticed because their identity is frankly a bit meh. What would bookish bank clerk T.S.Eliot’s instagram account look like?

To gain relevance some subtly emphasise their challenges. This might be ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical ability, age and so on. Everyone needs an angle, of course, but it has reminded me (and this does me little credit) of the phrase ‘the hierarchy of suffering’, with authenticity being awarded to those who have had more challenges. As consumers of art we often expect this too. We don’t much want to hear rappers or rock stars bragging about coming from wealthy, well adjusted middle class backgrounds for example.

What might swing the pendulum back towards the art and not the artist? Is it that the very notion of identity itself is being reassembled? We live in a time where it is possible (although gruelling) for people to adjust the body they happened to be born with, and choose a gender more appropriate to who they are. The famous case of Rachel Dolezal, who was born white but  controversially chose to identify as black may be a forerunner of how people might seek to override the hand they were played by birth. Sexuality is now often seen (correctly in my view) as a spectrum rather than a binary choice. While the internet and social media have enabled people to experiment and be selective and playful in how they present themselves.

The idea that you are born with an identity that must be adhered to is melting away.  Once you can choose who you want to be, who knows? Maybe our lives will, Oscar Wilde-style, become our artworks.

Or perhaps, with fewer rigid differences between us, our art will be about the art rather than who has produced it.

Here it comes. Tumbling from nowhere, and full of mystery.







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A pre-Christmas ramble

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A side-street not taken in Vienna.

My double life requires me to switch from working in advertising agencies, back to picking up the threads of my creative life and vice versa. My most recent agency stint was with a lovely crew at DDB Remedy in London, which culminated in six days in Austria. The work was a bit full on, however, so all I could do was imagine the foresty, golden Klimts in nearby Viennese galleries I knew I had no time to see. One night I broke away for half an hour and walked randomly from the hotel, looking wistfully at the side streets not taken, but happy that I had at least a few minutes to  breathe the cold night air of Vienna and feel for a moment that I was inside a film.

One thing about doing agency work for a couple of months is that it gave me plenty of commuting time to read.  I can devour a short novel in a day or two, and I usually take some poetry with me to dip in when feeling the need. I read novels by, among others,  Ali Smith, Elizabeth Stroud, Richard Ford, Lloyd Jones and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and  poetry by Fernando Pessoa, J.O. Morgan, Adélia Prado, John McCullough and Tess Jolly.

I’ve noticed several agency creatives over the last few years using Instagram and ‘late-adopter’ that I am, I now use it too, documenting lunchtime strolls around the canals of Little Venice near Paddington, London, and a couple of snaps in Vienna.

Now, feeling a bit exhausted, I’m taking stock of my own creative work. Apart from two poetry readings, and some quickly scribbled drafts of poem ideas, I have left everything untouched since October. And not having much on the horizon feels odd and dangling. I have no play in production, no new play written, my children’s novel is waiting for another agent to look at it, with one rejection so far that took over four months to receive.

But poetry, my first love, remains true and I’m always tinkering at some poem or another. I met with some fellow poets on Monday in Lewes, to talk about a forthcoming poetry anthology from Telltale and to drink some beer. This is therapy for me. Chatting with friends Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann and Stephen Bone, makes me feel the obsession that has dogged me since my teens is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the world. Writers can be as backbitey and competitive as anyone else, so when you find yourself among supportive colleagues the affirmation is priceless.

I am doing a course in making stained glass windows in the new year, something I’ve always had a hankering to try, despite not being very good with my hands. A poem I wrote in the 80s, The Window Maker was printed on some National Book Tokens. Apparently an impostor went into a northern bookshop raging because Book Tokens had stolen his poem, and he was in fact the real Peter Kenny and wasn’t happy about it. I often think about doppelgängers, because my life contains quite a few incidents like this. Having a twin brother is the worst nightmare I can imagine. But I digress… I love stained glass. I love the way light passes through it. I love the leading too, and how these thick lines allow something to be  assembled from fragments into a whole that plays with gorgeous light. What’s not to love? I already have designs in my head that are on the scale of Coventry Cathedral. I might have to reign in my expectations.


Me, before the Santa beard went on

So to end this pre-Christmas ramble, I would just like to wish you a very Merry Christmas. I love this time of year enormously. Even looking at a Christmas tree can bring a tear to my eye. Luckily I got to be Santa this year at my wife’s village school. To play a part in the unfurling of Christmas was great fun, and I am always amazed by the intelligence of children. I was plunged into ontological debates about the reality of Father Christmas with three or four nippers, (trying not to feel affronted, for did I not refute their argument just by being there in front of them?) I came out of that quite well I thought.

Cheers! Have a peaceful one.



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Weird to win


I won the small Happenstance poetry competition about dreams, with a short poem called Formication. I don’t win competitions: fact. So it felt weird to be contacted by Helena Nelson at Happenstance, who publishes my pal Charlotte Gann among others, to be told I’d won a small competition. It’s made me have all these wild thoughts. If I could win a small competition, maybe I could one day win a bigger one.

What was extremely valuable to me was the feedback I got from J.O. Morgan in his blog post. To know someone has given your work enough attention to unpack the poem is everything a writer can ask. And when it is a poet of J.O. Morgan’s stature (he was one of the poets in last year’s TSE shortlist) then this made me even more chuffed.

I have written about two dozen shorter poems in a new style this year (two dozen is loads for me) and Formication is one of them. This thumbs-up for a new approach couldn’t have come at a better time. So here’s my wee poem. Formication, by the way, is the name for the feeling that insects are crawling over your skin.


The Dictionary for Dreamers says insects
are worries, at least in dreams. Therefore
all those ant poisons, the Raid and Nippon
under the sink, are there to calm me.

I loathe their collective mind, the purposeful lines
that trickle from my ears onto my pillow.
I hate how once you get one, you get more,
lofting bitten dreams in their leaf-cutter jaws.

Peter Kenny

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