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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.

Guide-to-Modern-Artists1

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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.

Strange Journey by Richard Fleming

Richard Fleming’s new collection Strange Journey rings true. It is the poetry of biography filtered through a charged and fiercely honest imagination. The viewpoint is often that of a person assessing their own life from a position of uneasy maturity. The skill with which this is done forces the reader into what can be an occasionally uncomfortable empathy.

Geographically, Richard Fleming’s journey hasn’t taken him too far. But the emotional gulf between the Belfast of  ‘The Troubles’ and Guernsey in the Channel Islands is immense. This move also saw him deliberately destroy the vast majority of his early work, a symbolic purge which enabled him to start afresh, with a fluent and concentrated purpose.

I should mention that Richard is a close friend, and our collaboration in  A Guernsey Double, contained twin collections of poetry about the island of Guernsey. Richard’s collection, The Man Who Landed, dealt with his discovery of a home in which he felt secure enough to start a fruitful poetic journey.

Although Strange Journey sometimes reflects the island he writes from, it is not constrained by it. Instead the collection is the work of a poet prospecting for the truth in his own life.  Suitcases, the first poem in the collection has him on his knees opening his dead father’s luggage.

…yet I am so afraid
that when I kneel beneath the skylight
to prise apart those sagging, alligator jaws,

the life that I find compressed within
will be too small
to match my memories of him.

As Strange Journey unpacks, major themes emerge. One is in his ambivalent identification with his grandfather and father, forefathers who are ‘hidden travellers’ preserved inside the poet’s memory. In The Hidden Traveller, we are shown the dead body of the poet’s grandfather:

Immaculate
in laundered shirt
and suit so rarely worn in life; in death, he looked
more like a character from a story than himself.

or in the poem Deaf he remembers his father’s post-war hearing aid.

I had to stand on tiptoe, speak into it slowly
my childish words, enunciated clearly,
humming through cable, climbing, bindweed thin,
to my father’s distant ear.

These are masterful poems which point to the rifts opened by death and time, which the poet can cross now only with his imagination. But can even the imagination be trusted? The collection resonates with an urgent awareness of time passing, “Days scurry by like mice” as he writes in Birthday Poem,

What can console us?

Courage, endurance
and a fierce desire, unblunted still,
to triumph at the craft of living

Triumphing at the craft of living does not come easily. Strange Journey contains bleak moments of depression as in the confrontation with the shaving mirror in The Scream.

A human’s function is to be
but being makes me want to scream:
I try to be, but do I have to think?

There are moments too, inspired by nature, and by the life-affirming elation of new love. In Twin he is surprised by joy:

No thought it might come to this:
the shifting of the nerve ends;
the creep of blood
below the skin
that sends me pacing
in the night
hungry for the rest
and for the rest
of what I am;

for you, my twin,
and anything the future sends.

or to a moment of near Blakean vision in Rapture:

Traffic becomes gridlocked; jet planes hang suspended
in charged air;
all the birds of the earth fall silent
as the expanding sky
grows brighter, brighter,
brighter yet.

In much of the work of this book, you feel connected to a raw, often beautifully expressed truth. And fear lurks there too. Of death, of aging, even of being forgotten. This truthfulness transcends fashions in poetry,  and the spirit that pervades it. Strange Journey is full of courage too, a bitter rearguard fought by the poet’s love of life against fear. In Garden Diary (2) this is simply expressed:

Death’s a comma, no full stop.
Rebuild. Begin again.

Strange Journey has been published in a limited edition. You can purchase your copy here.

Guernsey Literary Festival

The first Guernsey Literary Festival seemed to me to be a success. I think the benefits of this festival will be immense in the long term. If Guernsey is an island that, with its many other blessings, is seen as a place where writing and culture happen, this can only enrich the lives of its people and greatly encourage a new generation of visitors.

For my part seeing the faces of the children from Vauvert and Le Murier schools light up with delight when I began telling them an adventure set where they live, made the whole trip worthwhile. I donated books to these schools and to St Martin’s primary too.

It was excellent to secure the backing of Barclays Wealth. It was a win-win too. Good for the sponsors because from a PR perspective, they have an image problem they need to fix. Projects of this sort that reach benignly into the island should be exactly what they should be looking for.

For my own part any time when Richard and I manage a BBC radio appearance and three poetry readings to promote the A Guernsey Double is a success in itself. I was also able to launch Defenders of Guernsey in two sessions with schoolchildren, attend a poetry cafe reading with some fine poets, and meet people like Annie Barrows, Edward Chaney, Sebastian Peake, Caroline Carver and Tim Binding, do some protracted networking on the island, and know that the best part of 160 Skelton Yawngrave stories are now in the island’s schools.

Thanks to the Guernsey Literary Festival I returned home full of a revived interest in writing and performing, in Mervyn Peake, in the poetry of Caroline Carver, the singing of Olivia Chaney and with new friends made and old friendships strengthened.

Well done Guernsey. And well done folks like Catriona Stares, Richard Fleming, Jane Mosse and the many others who dedicated enormous time and effort to the whole thing.

Guernsey Literary Festival

Here is a link to the festival website, showing an excellent range of events. A great effort from Catriona Stares and her team, to get this up and running for the first time on the island.

To see me here’s my timetable:

Thursday 12 May
3:00-3:30 at the Festival Hub, reading from a Guernsey Double with Richard Fleming.

Friday 13th May
9:30-10:20, and 10:30-11:20, Fesival Hub, Skelton Yawngrave children’s workshops.

3:15 at the White Horse Writers Group in Les Cotils, reading from a Guernsey Double with Richard Fleming.

Saturday 14th May
12:30-1.00 at the Festival Hub, reading from a Guernsey Double with Richard Fleming.

Success

Of course the trick to having a successful year is to decide what success looks like on your terms.

For me to be successful this year I have sought a happy medium between business and other creative projects. It’s simple: if I neglect one, I don’t eat, if I neglect the other my head explodes.

Happily I have eaten and my head is still intact. So here’s what a successful year looks like to one Brighton-based writer.

  • I have earned enough money through my work with agencies to finance my craving for time. This year agencies have tended to invite me to work on pitches or as cover for absent creative directors. A few months ago I was offered a creative directorship but turned it down. I was flattered but not tempted.
  • The publication of A Guernsey Double, written with Richard Fleming, was supported by the Guernsey Arts Commission. For a writer, the buzz of seeing your name on a book’s spine is hard to underestimate. And it has directly led to several radio appearances, and readings with Richard booked for next year’s Guernsey’s first Literary Festival. Also it compelled me to spend time in Guernsey, the place I love most in the world
  • My collaborations with the composer Matthew Pollard have given me the opportunity to work in a completely different field. Our first work together, called This concert will fall in love with you is due to be recorded next year after its premier in the Brighton Festival Fringe this May. More performances are also planned for next year. Our second work together a short piece called Found written for Brighton’s Rainbow Chorus, and given its premiere in the World Aids Day concert on December 1st. Matthew and I are now working on an Operatic piece around a doppelganger theme which will be performed next year. Learning these new skills is rejuvenating and fascinating. While working with classical musicians has been an extraordinary experience, and the prospect of becoming a recording artist at 51 is extremely cheering.
  • I have put in the hard yards on my children’s novel Skelton Yawngrave. I had the opportunity to workshop it in two Brighton schools, Downs Junior and Stanford Junior, has proved a fascinating experience, leading me to drastically revise the story. The experience of talking to children about literature and the process of creating characters has led directly to me also being booked to lead some children’s sessions at the Guernsey Literary Festival.
  • My short play Wrong will probably be given another short airing in Brighton this February. I am particularly looking forward to this as it involves working with young actors.

So there you have it. Although this may seem self congratulatory, there are plenty of things that can be done better, a theme I shall return to.

Back from the book Launch

Back from Guernsey now after a very successful book launch. Perhaps most enjoyably we managed to get on BBC Guernsey with Jenny Kendall-Tobias twice. She’s an excellent radio host and a lovely woman, and we did an entire two hour show with her. What we couldn’t have predicted was that she loved our work.

The book launch itself very successful too, and we were introduced by Jane Mosse who did a perfect job, and the event was hosted in The Greenhouse in St Peter Port – and we signed dozens of books right away. There is a buzz about seeing your book in a shop window, in this case The Guernsey Press shop, where we did a signing the next day.

Online, a the first edition of A Guernsey Double is currently available from anthologyofguernsey.com — and before too long it will be on Amazon too.

Below Richard and JKT in our first BBC interview, me in reception, a book display.


Launching a Guernsey Double

Flying to Guernsey tomorrow, and while there will be launching A Guernsey Double. Really looking forward to this a great deal.

Richard Fleming and I will be on BBC Radio Guernsey at 10:00am on the 1st July, interviewed I think by Jenny Kendall-Tobias. Then at 5:30pm we will do a launch reading at The Greenhouse, St Peter Port. 2nd July we will be in the Guernsey Press Shop in St Peter Port doing a book signing between 1-2pm. And then a beer may be called for.

Radio streamed live here at 10:00 on July 1st, which should feature an interview with Richard Fleming and me.

A surfeit of locusts

The publication of A Guernsey Double is imminent. I have been experiencing a weird kind of anti-natal anxiety. I know Richard went through the same thing a few days ago. Not at all what I expected to feel. It’s a kind of vulnerability I suppose.

I asked an old friend Mario Petrucci, who has had several books published, and he said by email: Those anxieties you speak of are natural. We spend so long in the wilderness we forget how food tastes. Enjoy it while it’s there!