What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-divertingBarking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming. All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.
Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland. There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.
Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of Barking Mad!
As a horror and weird fiction newbie, I’m delighted to have my first story The Inheritor in Supernatural Tales, edited tirelessly by David Longhorn. My tale is set in Guernsey, and draws on my childhood experiences of living in my Grandparent’s haunted 16th century granite cottage.
The story concerns the return of an exile, a burial and a the return to a haunted house (see above). You’ll be pleased to learn it all ends horrifically. I preface The Inheritor with a quote by Victor Hugo, who lived on the island.
‘Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die… These weird looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have a strong faith in the active agency of Satan.’
Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea
The table of contents has some heavy hitting horror and weird fiction writers. Chuffed to be among them.
That the Sea Shall Be Calm by David Surface
Pertrichor by Sam Dawson
Old Habits by Stephen Cashmore
The Sea Man by James Machin
Sorrow is the Mother of the World by Jeremy Schiliewe
The 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.
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.
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
from grazed flesh.
raven scoop askew,
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.
Richard Fleming’s new collection is a tour de force, harvesting poems which include some of his strongest work to date. The best of Richard Fleming’s work is possessed by soul; that unmistakable sense that the poem you are reading is inhabited by something other than mere words.
Stone Witness collects 40 poems , and it feels like a major collection. The two longest poems are the title poem, and The Murchen Quartet, quite magical in its hare imagery.
Midnight; a sickle moon, black trees in silhouette,
tall, jagged tops,
scribbled on the night sky.
(The Murchen Quartet)
Into this charged landscape, a stranger arrives.
Kneeling, he opens a satchel,
secured by leather-made leash
and gently releases,
as though giving birth,
two leverets, supple and sinewy-soft
(The Murchen Quartet)
One of the many skills Richard Fleming has at his disposal is to conjure the natural world. But this moment of a man mysteriously giving birth in a meadow is starkly contrasted to other poems in this collection that brood unflinchingly on ageing and death. There is a woman in Quarry drowned in time and drawn down by death’s dark current.
she descends through grey seams
hewn by generations
of quarrymen long dead
while in Next Please, the horror of ageing is coldly explored.
staring, fearful, at the ceiling
or some mirage, in the corner,
no one else sees. The disorder
of their lives is like a puzzle:
pieces fail to fit together,
sky or trees or roof is missing.
Richard Fleming was born in Northern Ireland, and in poems such as Titanic (built in Belfast) and His Mother Dances, and Picnic, he strives to recall childhood details to give us glimpses of his early life.
The first image
is always a tartan rug,
then, swiftly, other items follow:
Dad’s parked Austin, monochrome,
Mum’s picnic basket, acres of beach,
Atlantic breakers rolling in
and, there, behind my milk-white shape,
huge sand-dunes rising.
Richard Fleming’s experience of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, worked a strange magic on the poet. Instead of publishing poems about that conflict, his reaction was to celebrate life, in sometimes joyous poems that extol his adopted island home of Guernsey. Much of his writing on the island was collected in A Guernsey Double (2010)(aided by the Guernsey Arts Commission) as a two-person project with the current writer to pool our poetry about Guernsey and create a poetic landmark in the writing of the island.
To my mind this project culminated in October 2016, when Richard was commissioned to write a poem about the island, which stands as the eponymous centrepiece of this collection, Stone Witness. The broadcast of this poem was a magical moment, which celebrated the mysterious La Gran’mère du Chimquière, the 5-3,000 year old menhir standing outside St Martin’s Parish Church in Guernsey. This poem is destined to become a paean to the island itself.
old, old stone, I groan with age.
Gran’mère, Earth Mother,
I stand sentry beyond the churchyard gate,
and watch, with sightless eyes,
the snail of human traffic creep along.
I am old and granite-cold: your islands anchor stone.
Your father’s fathers came to me to pray, to lay or lift some minor curse: an endless chain of island men, one generation to another, linked.
There are moments of humour in this collection, such as his tribute to Philip Larkin, or in the miniature Eden: The Short Version, which can be fully quoted.
God gave Man
It all went
(Eden: The Short Version
This is a rich collection, and I cannot do justice to its versatility and scope here. There are apocalyptic visions, such as the extraordinary Last Moments, sketches of lost friends and family, and more political work such as Flotsam where we see a refugee washed ashore.
She lies face down
a human starfish,
one black asterisk
Great credit is due to Steve Foote, the publisher of Blue Ormer Publishing, who has brought the island the book by Edward Chaney Genius Friend, about G.B. Edwards, author of The Book of Ebenzer Le Page. which I blogged about here.
As the pre-eminent poet on Guernsey, Richard Fleming’s wonderful collection is an important addition to the Blue Ormer list, and to the story of Guernsey poetry.
I feel very proud of my friend Richard Fleming this week. As the best poet on Guernsey, Richard was recently approached by the BBC to write a poem for the National Poetry Day. The poem, La Gran’mère du Chimquière read by Richard, should be – must be – listened to here. Drop in at the 41 minute mark or a smidge before.
In 2010 Richard and I released a collection of poems about Guernsey called A Guernsey Double, and in it there are a few attempts by Richard and I to nail the significance of the menhir La Gran’mère du Chimquière. However in this new poem Richard has succeeded in a way neither of us has managed before, and has created a poem of magnificent sweep and stature, that may just be the single best poem ever written about the island.
Not only is this a spellbinding, poem, but it is also a wonderful piece of radio too. A heartfelt reading by Richard capturing a charged silence and the obviously moved reaction of Guernsey’s much-loved presenter Jenny Kendall-Tobias, and fellow writer Jane Fleming, Richard’s lovely wife. Jenny is the most consistently supportive broadcaster for literature in the island, and it is fitting that she and Richard and Jane created this amazing moment of radio, one that the whole island should be proud of.
Here are two photos of Richard. One looking relaxed, and the other, a snap the pair of us with the La Gran’mère back in 2010, with Richard looking heroic and haunted by a future muse.
Marilyn Chapman‘s new storyOccupying Love is a popular novel set on Guernsey during the occupation. It blurs the barrier between romantic and historical fiction and begins with the bombing raid by the Luftwaffe on St Peter Port and becomes a pacy (and not saccharine) romance about a young woman called Lydia Le Page who, having returned to Guernsey just before the German invasion of the island in 1940, commences star-crossed relationships with two men against a backdrop of the Nazi occupation.
I can’t resist comparing Occupying Love with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer (completed by Annie Barrows) which was set in wartime London and in Guernsey. I felt decidedly curmudgeonly about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because it demonstrated little or no knowledge of the island of Guernsey, its people, ways of speaking and so on. Of course a popular novel doesn’t have to groan under the weight of its research to be enjoyable, but a convincing dash of local colour can only add interest to the work.
It greatly benefits this book that Marilyn Chapman was actually born in Guernsey and Occupying Love demonstrates her thorough knowledge of the island, and its years of occupation. Although she has done lots of research, it was enriched by having heard lots about the occupation from her own grandparents.
Probably more important to the reader, however, is that Occupying Love has pace and an involving plot as well as an intriguing backdrop. So read Occupying Love if you like romantic fiction with a gritty undercurrent, read it too as historical fiction or if you are interested in the Channel Islands. This is a labour of love, and it shows.
For someone who hates flying as much as I do, I seem to travel a lot. Countries as far apart as Mexico, Chad, and Japan have seen me emerge from the plane blinking in gratitude to the sky gods for my safe arrival, and ready to explore. But when I return to Guernsey I feel I am coming home. I turn inward to reboot and take a long hard look at myself and what I’ve been up to since my last visit.
Guernsey obsesses me. I want to back people into corners and tell them everything I know about it. Being exiled from the island hurt me into writing poetry when I was in my teens. I’ve written about it ever since, including in A Guernsey Double (2010) with Richard Fleming, and more published work since then.
Last week my wife and I took my mid-20s stepchildren and their partners there for the first time. But I soon realised what I chose to show them wasn’t just the island, it was a covert way of showing them myself. I began to wonder uncomfortably if I was actually seeing Guernsey at all, instead of something scripted by my imagination and my memory. Frankly it was all getting a bit ‘me-me-me’. It made me think how my writing about the island has been received with a suspicion – above and beyond the fact it was poetry – in some quarters. For example when A Guernsey Double was published, Richard and I were welcomed more than once onto BBC Guernsey, while Guernsey Press completely ignored its publication. I can completely understand this however. It’s a bit like how I was tempted to blah-blah about the island, and show people around ‘my’ island. I fully understand that local people must be heartily sick of folks imposing a narrative on their home.
I couldn’t help note the irony that I was tripped into this realisation by an exhibition by London based photographer Jason Wilde, whose exhibition Guerns, was running at the museum in Candie Gardens. Jason’s photos captured candid images of local people in their own homes. There was some piercing work in the exhibition, as you can see from the lovely spotty piece above. I loved the absence of sentimentality, nostalgia and how it didn’t over-egg its subject matter. The exhibition has an admirable clarity and truth about it.
This exhibition jabbed a sensitive spot on the island. Guernsey is a small place that was once dependent on tourism and its tomato industry. Guernsey Toms were familiar to shoppers in the sixties and seventies. But when the UK joined what was then called the Common Market, Guernsey Toms were undercut by cheaper Dutch tomatoes. The industry rapidly sank, and for a while this was replaced with flower growing but that withered too. The island that once glittered with greenhouses as you flew into it, is less sparkly now.*
Since that time the financial industry has been Guernsey’s mainstay. To keep it going it has imported lots of well paid folks from the UK and beyond, which is in danger of creating a two-tier society. The gorgeous parish I grew up in, St Martin’s, nearby houses were full of my relatives, who were ordinary local people. But the houses have now been gentrified. Now you just have to look at the cars parked in the gravelled front gardens to see how things have changed.
As Jason Monaghan, Director of Guernsey Museums said talking about the Guerns exhibition, “The contemporary photographic archive that is being built throughout this series is invaluable and is something for both current and future generations to enjoy”. I whole heartedly agree, and would add that Jason Wilde has photographed local people at what may feel like a vulnerable and uncertain time in their history.
I have recently finished a long poem about the island, imagining it as a kind of Atlantis sunk in time. It is the culmination of a long sequence of introspective poems that goes back to my teens, but this last one feels like the end of a chapter.
I am already planning my next visit. But next time I am going to go different places, and will speak to different people. There are new stories I’d like to hear told, and Jason Wilde’s exhibition has forcibly reminded me of this.
So it’s a big well done from me to Guernsey Arts and Guernsey Museums. Brilliant stuff.
* I took the snap below last week, there are several ruins of the tomato industry still to be seen.
Edward Chaney’s long-awaited book on G.B. Edwards, Genius Friend is being published and launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival today. And I’m very sad that I’m not there to see it.
G.B. Edwards wrote The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, which is by a country mile the best book written about Guernsey. It is essentially Ebenezer’s long life story, and is the most authentic representation of life on the island from the late nineteenth century till the 1960s. It is a tour de force of storytelling.
There is a remarkable connection between author and subject here. G.B. Edwards was a friend of the author when Chaney was a young art student, and Edward was struggling to finish the novel. With Chaney’s encouragement the old writer completed the task, and left the manuscript to Chaney who, after a struggle, was able to find a publisher for it in 1981.
I was lucky enough to meet Edward Chaney through mutual friends Jane Mosse (now Fleming) and Richard Fleming in 2010. Jane has helped Chaney with research for the book. And Edward Chaney was also kind enough to write the introduction for A Guernsey Double, the book of poems by Richard Fleming and myself.
I can’t wait to read Edward’s book, whose lovely title was taken from this sad portrayal of G.B. Edward’s life in The Spectator in 1982. But more I personally love this book because it ends in the sixties, when I lived as a little child on the island, and reminds me of my Grandfather and other family members. It is a kind of pre-history to a part of my own life. Most of all I empathise with the pervading feeling of sadness present in the book, written by a man in self-imposed exile from the island he loves.
Having fallen down a flight of stairs two days ago, I have spent a good deal of time on my back applying icepacks to a torn thigh muscle. While trying to write in a horizontal position, I realise that I am feeling homesick for Guernsey.
I’ve been glancing at a translation of Victor Hugo poems by Harry Guest called (fittingly enough) The distance, The Shadows I bought in a second-hand book store recently. Victor Hugo (1802-85) was exiled on Guernsey between October 1855 and 1870. There is little or nothing explicitly about the island in the Harry Guest translation, but it has made me think about the novel The Toilers on the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la mer pub. 1866 and set in Guernsey). It is very gothic tale, features a titanic struggle with a giant octopus, stormy seas, and has the temerity to suggesting that Guernsey is a rather spooky place.
Gilliat lived in Saint Sampson, where he was far from popular. For this there was a reason. In the first place, he lived in a ‘haunted house’. In the country parts of Jersey and Guernsey – sometimes in the towns—you find a house the entrance to which is quite blocked up. Holly-bushes choke the door, whilst ugly planks are nailed across the windows. The glass in the window-frames of the upper storeys has been broken, and the frames look gaunt and hideous. In the back yard, the grass has sprouted up between the stones, and the wall is broken down in many places. If there be a garden, it is overgrown with nettles, and thornbushes; whilst insects of strange appearances about in it. The chimneys are ready to fall, and in palces the roof has given way. The rooms through the shattered casements show a scene of ruin and desolation; the woodwork is worm eaten, and the stone decayed. The paper hangs fromt he wall in strips, one overlapping the other, and disclosing the various periods at which they have been affixed. Long cobwebs, choked with innumerable flies, show the undisturbed empire of generations of spiders. Fragments of broken crockery can be noticed on the shelves. It is not unreasonable to suppose such houses to be haunted; and it is believed that the Prince of Darkness pays them nocturnal visits.
Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die. The breath of superstition is the destruction of the dwelling; then it has a terrible aspect. These weird-looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have strong faith in the active agency of Satan.
While my personal experience of several spooky things on the island, means I will happily suspend my disbelief and enjoy such passages, this sort of thing is played down on the island. Typical is David Shayer in Victor Hugo in Guernsey (Guernsey Historical Monograph No 21. Published by the Toucan Press, Guernsey, C.I. 1987), objects from a Guernsey perspective:
Hugo’s depiction of the islanders generally has not been all that enthusiastically endorsed by their descendants. One wonders how close he came to ordinary life. Certainly he amassed a wealth of detail concerning island customs and sea matters by talking to knowledgeable individuals, but this was of the nature of research rather than of first-hand experience. Some of the Guernsey surnames are correct—Tostevin, Mauger, Brouard – but the islanders tend to appear as French Frenchmen rather than as Guernsey Frenchmen, and the unusual combination of French ancestry and English loyalty seems to have baffled him somewhat…. While it can be said with certainty that there was no small degree of superstition in Guernsey at the beginning of the 19th century, it is unfortunate that Hugo gives the impression in his opening chapters that the island was universally riddled with it to the exclusion of every other attitude.
It is the opening chapters that I most like, however, and make me feel most homesick. David Shayer was right in that Hugo’s characters are definitely Frenchmen in Guernsey jumpers.
If you happen to find yourself in Guernsey, Hauteville House, where Hugo lived, is a fascinating place to visit.
My friend, Kiwi board game inventor Amanda Milne’s new game is now at prototype stage and is being play tested. Its working title is The Devil’s Goat and is based on Guernsey. Turns out it was sparked off by a children’s short story I had written for the Guernsey Literary Festival. As this story was published as a very limited one-off, I have been contemplating reissuing it as an ebook but if Mandy’s game takes off I might have to pull my finger out.
Inspired by a short story called the ‘Defenders of Guernsey‘ written by my friend Peter Kenny, I have been researching The Channel Islands and specifically Guernsey’s rich history of witchcraft and evil goings on…
Witchcraft is said to abound in the island. Both black and white witches are said to practice in Guernsey. The black witches were said to practice ritual witchcraft. They held assemblies and covens to summon demons and devils. The black witches were said to be led by an unknown person, who often disguised himself as an animal. Although the leader changed, it was always known as the Devil. Reports say they usually disguised themselves as cats and goats.
A couple of iterations on from the first rough sketch and I have a working prototype that is about to start formal testing. The working name is The Devil’s Goat.
In the game, players take on one character who lives on the island. Each character has their own secret agenda. Rumours abound, goat sightings and attacks occur; journalists pay money for stories true or otherwise. Each player is trying to achieve their own goal before the Devil’s Goat runs amok and tries to kill them. At that point in the game it becomes a team effort to stay alive: the characters versus the Goat!