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.
This time last week I was in Guernsey. I loved every moment of it. As soon as I set foot in my home parish of St Martin’s I feel surrounded by magic, and weirdly rebooted. The lanes are sedimented with decades of my memories, which provides the illusion that this is somehow my place. And I feel a love for this tablecloth of land spread over the corner of a little island that can never be erased. It is a piggy bank of my identity into which I have stuffed coins all my life. Above is the view from Icart Point, ten minutes walk from where I once lived.
The word ‘nostalgia’ derives from the Greek nostos for homecoming and algos pain. It is bittersweet, as if the past is a country you might visit. Perhaps one reason why nostalgia is such a close cousin of misty-eyed patriotism.
To my Guernsey family, I was always English. Taxi drivers sometimes ask me on the way back from the airport if it is my first time on the island, and just last week my wife said a cheery hello, to an English couple outside La Barbarie, where I stay. I heard one of them say as they moved on, ‘I do like it when people love our island’. It made me grit my teeth. But I am an exile from the island, and from my past. We all are. We don’t belong anywhere, but we want to belong. That is the algos of nostalgia, and the cause of a lot of nationalistic nonsense in the world. But if I were to belong anywhere, it would be there.
* * * *
I’ve just had a poem accepted by E·ratio, due out in January, which ‘publishes poetry in the postmodern idioms with an emphasis on the intransitive’. I am attracted to the journal’s rigour, and keep returning to it to be delighted and sometimes enraged by the poems it features. I’ve long enjoyed poetry that confronts you with difficulty, ever since wrestling with late modernist J.H. Prynne. A long bout I owe to university friend Michael Stone-Richards who bought me a copy of Prynne’s The Oval Window back in 1986.
What was dubbed by ‘The Democratic Voice’ in poetry, (famously by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford in their introduction to the Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain since 1945), has appeared to overshadow the more esoteric reaches of late Modernism and Post-Modernism. As usual (and tiresomely) if there is a debate about this, I am in the middle. I wish more mainstream poetry had more ambition, while some postmodern poetry could stop desperately flashing its cleverness at you. Sometimes I feel like thundering at it, ‘yes I get that you’re clever, and that this poem is an artificial construct, now tell me something I don’t know’. In a world of ironic speech marks, a dash of authenticity doesn’t go amiss.
And talking of authenticity and the middle way, tomorrow I am going to the official launch of Charlotte Gann’s Noir. A book, a poet and a person I like a great deal.
* * * *
And finally, rehearsals are now well underway for my plays We Three Kings and A Glass of Nothing, presented in a double bill at the Marlborough Theatre on Thursday 8th December and Friday 9th December. Tickets are here. Below, snap from last night’s rehearsal.
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.
Final stage of prep seems now to be done. Passport renewed, visa obtained, jabs jabbed (although inconveniently I had a fever when I went for my yellow fever jab so I had to return a few days later) anti-malarial Malerone tablets bought, while my wife has armed me with lots of practical things like wet wipes, hand sanitisers and so on. Final thing to buy is a mosquito net, and I need to locate and deploy my inner hairy-chested man of action.
My inner h-c man of action especially required after a day of compulsory security training. Essentially the training gave you an idea of what to do in every conceivable worst case scenario, delivered by a man who has spent much of his life working in the most hostile environments, bless his white-rimmed eyes. Lots of advice from what to do if you are being robbed (simply give them everything) right up to the best position to take on the floor if someone throws a live grenade into the room. Rather melodramatically a dummy grenade was thrown into our room, prompting us to flatten ourselves on the floor, heads pointed away from the blast. Hardly soothing stuff.
Nevertheless, the script I wrote which we are filming seems to have been approved by everyone, and next week we see how reality matches our expectation. I am hoping we can edge beyond the normal tropes of DRTV and see if we can get something exceptional. Fundraising DRTV advertisements have some rigid but proven conventions so it is definitely about striking a balance between abiding by conventions and managing to surprise people.
I’ve not had much chance to engage with poetry over the last few weeks, due being very busy in my Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd mode. This is making me itch to write poems again.
I particularly enjoyed being on the Telltale Stand for the Poetry Book Fair. More than anything I value the chance to get a snapshot of what is going on in poetry in the UK, and also to drift about chatting to some old friends and putting some names to faces. I bought books too. One simply because I liked its name: Infragreen by Kate Bingham, and another because it was connected with Guernsey: Timothy Adès translation of How to be a Grandfather, by Victor Hugo. I spoke with Timothy who had just returned from the Guernsey Literary Festival, and had bumped into Edward Chaney there. I also bought a Carcanet New Poetries IV anthology. I love these Carcanet anthologies. They invite a kind of personal statement of its poets, which is a potential minefield. Some are illuminating while others make me hoot with laughter at their portentous vacuity. All adds to the fun.
My favourite moment on the Telltale stand was when a woman looked at the four free poem postcards we were giving away. Silently she picked up one after another, read the first line or two through her magnifying glass, and replaced the card on its pile with a visible shudder. She came to Sarah Barnsley’s card last, and lo! She regally retained it before moving on. Praise indeed.
I have revised ‘Defenders of Guernsey’. This second edition, for an 8-to-adult age is now available on Kindle.
As a child my grandparents lived in a road in Guernsey called La rue des Grons. When I lived there as a child, and then stayed with my grandparents on every school holiday the few streetlights went off at 10.30. It was very dark and definitely spooky. Just down the road was a spot that my grandfather, David Marquis, used to zoom past at night. This place was known as Le coin de La Biche (the goat’s corner)and was rumoured to be haunted by the apparition of an enormous nanny goat.
Still the most authoritative book on Guernsey folklore, Folklore of Guernsey by Marie DeGaris devotes a few paragraphs to the giant red-eyed beast and its fearsome sightings, one of which scared a 16 year old girl to death. I was always happy about La Biche, as it’s not everyone lucky enough to have a star of folklore living a hundred yards or so down the road.
My friend Amanda Milne is developing a board game set on the island, and having read this story borrowed the idea of a terrifying goat. Amanda’s game is now in its a prototype form and being tested by games players. You can read more about the SchilMil game in development here.
In the granite cliffs of the south coast of Guernsey is a particularly beautiful spot called Icârt Point. I proposed to Lorraine my wife there two years ago, and I have known and loved the place all my life. I have written poems about it, with two even having been set to music. When it comes my time to join the majority I quite fancy having my ashes smuggled to Icârt and tossed to the wind.
The friendly owner of the cafe at Icârt once told me he had mercury poisoning. “Success,” he said another time, while sliding a ham sandwich at me across the counter, “is knitting your own Ferrari”. A koan I have puzzled over. Meanwhile the cafe garden had grown increasingly mazy and is full of roses and towering alien-looking echiums. Add into the scene the little tables and trays of cups and saucers, sandwiches and cakes, then it hard not to start looking about for a sleeping dormouse or a tardy white rabbit.
Where better then to meet my old friend Richard Fleming with whom I collaborated on a book called A Guernsey Double, which collected some of our poems about the island. I long stalked Richard through magazines and local island publications as he was clearly the best writer of poetry on the island (exemplified only a couple of months ago by his featuring heavily both on the island and open sections of the recent international Guernsey poetry competition). While I’m all about the South coast of Guernsey, Richard has often written about the West. Here is one of his poems I love from A Guernsey Double about the West of the island. (Also see Strange Journey.)
When the Fat Lady sings her song
of death, her red dress billows out.
Her stage is the horizon there
beyond the sea where white birds shout
like stage-hands in the cooling air
or, lazy, simply bob along.
Her audience, this perfect night:
beach strollers, men with barbecues,
joggers, dog-walkers, laughing girls,
wet-suited boys in bright canoes,
stare as her aria unfurls
its ruby notes in dying light.
Collectively we hold our breath
to watch the Lady, red as paint
sink down, her wondrous final scene
completed in a breathless faint.
The colour now, the tangerine
of saffron robes, perhaps of death.
Richard also has a highly enjoyable blog called Bard at Bay. Now I am getting back into the poetry world I realise that for better or worse that poets are my tribe. Back in 1984 Matt Groening (originator of The Simpsons) did a cartoon of “Your Guide to the Modern Creative Artistic Types”. His entry for poet suggests that the way to annoy them is to “Be Another Poet”. Not true of course, although this thought has come to me when I have met poets burdened by being a genius, the kind of burden that I as a mere poetic foot soldier could never understand. Fortunately such people are few and far between.
The poets who are my friends and who do not annoy me just by being another poet, such as Richard, are generous hearted people who happen to love reading and writing poetry. And as the eccentric cafe owner might say, long may Richard continue to knit his poetic Ferraris.