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A Guernsey Double Guernsey Guernsey Literature

La Gran’mère, a Guernsey goddess

granmere%202I am an idolater. This is not something many of us can say in this godless age.

My Goddess is somewhere between three and five thousand years old. She was hewn from a large lump of granite until, around the time of the Romans, she was carved again, adding the garments and, possibly, the face she wears now.

She is known as La Gràn’Mère du Chim’tière, in the Guernsey French of Marie De Garis — whose Folklore of Guernsey (1975) is a peerless source of information about the island’s traditions— or La Gran’mère du Chimquière; the Grandmother of the Cemetery. And she stands just outside the consecrated ground of St Martin’s Parish church, next to the gate that opens into the churchyard. Those who walk into the charming parish church pass something that has existed twice as long as Christianity itself.

She is a bone fide graven image. You can tell this because, in 1860, a zealous churchwarden called Tourel grew furious at the reverence being paid to her by parishioners and ordered the La Gran’mère to be destroyed. This desecration was successfully achieved, and she was broken in half. Such was the outcry among local inhabitants, however, that she was mended with cement and relocated to her current position. To this day offerings of flowers and coins are left on her head.

The Guide to the Parish Church of St. Martin says “the Church stands on the site of a Neolithic tomb-shrine below which two springs emerge. One, La Fontaine de la Bellouse was said to have healing powers.” It is still a pleasant spot, despite the white van that seems to be perpetually parked in front of La Gran’mère every time I visit.

In fact I have been checking in with this Goddess for more than fifty years. I have a compulsion to visit her as one of the first things I do every time I return to the island. And although I don’t quite stand in the lane talking aloud to her, there is some daft part of me that thinks an update on my life is somehow downloaded into the impassive stone.

She is not an insubstantial being whose appearance is unknowable. This divine chunk of ancient history is not fenced off, and stands completely unprotected on the street. You can touch her; she has a tangible reality.

After my own grandmother’s funeral service in St Martin’s church, my grandfather, whose legs had become weak with the day’s events, paused to steady himself, leaning on La Gran’mère’s shoulder completely unselfconsciously.
Gran'mere 25Oct
My friend Richard Fleming and I collaborated on our book A Guernsey Double. We both wrote about about La Gran’mère, but from opposite perspectives. For Richard she is  something to be hurried past: “yet, as I pass with dogs that cringe/ and shy away from nameless harm,/ the day seems darker,/far less warm.” While for me she has become something to which, bizarrely enough, I turn for comfort “Anchor me, Gran’mère,/ my stone tongue/ is tapping my teeth;/ anchor me/in my night storm,/in my heart worn/exhaustion.”

Although I personally worship La Gran’mère I will leave the last words to Marie De Garis.

Looked at during the daytime la gràn’mère wears a very benign look, but photographs taken by flashlight at night reveal quite a different aspect. She then looks a fierce and malevolent object.

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A Guernsey Double Guernsey

An exile’s lament

I am an exile, but I am not alone.

Most people I know live far away from where they grew up. Though born in London, my mother moved to Guernsey to live with my grandparents when I was little. I started school on the island, and my brother was born in the old granite cottage where we lived with my grandparents. I am lucky. I return often to what I think of as my heartland. I can walk about in the parish of my childhood, and many things are the same. A wall on the Icart Road has an uncle’s initials in the plaster between the granite blocks, the hedge of the old family home still has my Grandmother’s fuchsia growing in it, and the old wishing well remains the same.

When I return to Guernsey, I am conscious that what I am exiled from is not the place, but the past. Each lane is full of muttering memories. One lane was always very dark at night – which is why we called it Screaming Lane. It was here my grandmother lay in wait in the inky hedgerow shadows wearing a gorilla mask, ready to spring out on an unfortunate guest to the party she was throwing. Or just down the road from where we lived, a corner called Le Coin d’la Biche was supposedly haunted by a terrifying goat, and was a place that my grandfather sped by when we walked past it at night. But my grandparents are long buried, and some feud after my Grandfather’s death put a rift in the remaining family.

Over recent years Guernsey managed to weather recessionary storms better than most places. But properties in St Martin’s parish, where I lived, have been bought up by rich folk working in finance not from the island. I sense a resentful division between locals, and others. When I arrive at the airport, I often am asked if it is my first time on the island, and I want to say no, I belong here.  But of course I don’t, and however many times I return to Guernsey I will never be a local.

I have written love letters to Guernsey since I was a teenager. In fact, being away from Guernsey was what started me writing. I tried to capture the safety of my long summer holidays, like the dozens of different insects in my Grandparent’s back garden I collected in jam jars when I was a kid. These sweating trapped insects are my poems. And the publication of A Guernsey Double with Richard Fleming about the island, received generous coverage on BBC Guernsey radio (but was snubbed by the local newspaper). My poems have also been set to music, including a current project with a local composer. Just sometimes, it is possible to feel that my love letters were not sent to a granite heart.

Last week I was on the island for a few days honeymoon with my wife Lorraine. We caught a bus into town. But in Guernsey, buses are suddenly controversial. A two-tier pricing system has been introduced, and boarding a bus in spring I was told the fare into town is £1 for locals, £2 for non-locals. I was charged £2 by a dour bus driver from Yorkshire (to add insult to injury) and I sat down feeling furious – confirmation that I did not really belong here. Last week, happily, a different driver charged us £1 each and asked us no questions.

Settling into our seats, I noticed one of my poems on a poster inside the bus. With having just married my lovely wife, I was in an emotional state, but this little surprise felt like a moment when something precious was requited.

The poem has a few local names for fish in it. Cabou is the local name for goby, longnose for garfish, rockfish for wrasse,  and ormer is the name of a local and highly prized shellfish.

HOOKED by Peter Kenny

I stuffed my hook in a ragworm’s jaws,
caught a glum cabou with a ground line,
hooked peacock rockfish, cats-meat pollack,
spinning with the twins off The White Rock.
With a sun-thawed, severed sandeel head,
I foul-hooked fighting green-boned longnose
on a short-traced float from the lighthouse.
From boats I dragged foil, feathers, bare hooks
past ravenous packs of mackerel.
I heard spider crabs skitter on deck,
saw lobsters lobbed out from lobster pots
went home to the kitchen scream of crabs.

Now I fish for something I can’t describe.
I wait for the ormer skies of sundown,
my fine line curving somewhere out of sight
its weightless trace baited with silence.