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a writer's life Book Launch Fiction Guernsey Literature Novels Reviews Richard Fleming

Barking Mad! By Jane Mosse

418CImAzKeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Barking Mad! by Jane Mosse published by Blue Ormer

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-diverting Barking 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!  

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A Guernsey Double Guernsey Guernsey Literature Poetry Richard Fleming

Richard Fleming’s magnificent poem for the BBC: La Gran’mère du Chimquière

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.

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A Guernsey Double a writer's life Guernsey Guernsey Literature Photography Richard Fleming

Home is where the hurt is

JasonWilde-Lower-ResFor 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.

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A Guernsey Double Guernsey Poetry Richard Fleming

How not to annoy a poet

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Peter Kenny and Richard Fleming

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.)

Grand Rocques

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.

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