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Guernsey Guernsey Literature Poetry

Versatile, unflinching and soulful. Richard Fleming’s tour de force

Richard Fleming
Richard Fleming launches Stone Witness

Stone Witness by Richard Fleming, published by Blue Ormer Publishing

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,
an electrocardiogram
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.

                            Drowned daughter
she descends through grey seams
hewn by generations
of quarrymen long dead

(Quarry)

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.

(Next Please)

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.

(Picnic)

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.

Stone,
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.

(Stone Witness)

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
Paradise.
It all went
pear-shaped.

(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
barely breathing,
a human starfish,
one black asterisk
referencing nothing.

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.

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Charity Guernsey Marketing Poetry Travel

Ready for Chad and missing writing poetry

Chad

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.

Poetry

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.

Me, Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber, Sarah Barnsley
Me, Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber, Sarah Barnsley

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.

In fact Sarah Barnsley’s new pamphlet is just out from TelltaleThe Fire Station contains some truly exceptional poems.When I get back from Chad I will write more about them.

cover-image-FireStation

Categories
A Guernsey Double a writer's life Guernsey Literature

Genius Friend

GeniusFriendCover1

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.

Click through here to read what Richard has written about it the publication of Genius Friend on his blog here.

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.

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.

A glowing endorsement

A Guernsey Double is about to be published. This is a project I have dreamed about doing since I started writing over thirty years ago. And at long, long last it is happening, and endorsed by the Guernsey Arts Commission to boot.

Amusingly given the length of time I have been thinking about the project, it turns out I did not have quite enough material. So the last few months have been spent in a frenzy of writing new poems. And while I am delighted with the results, I find I am nervously tinkering in the last few days with the new ones, and still noticing infelicities, which is worrying.

The book is a two person collection of poetry about the island of Guernsey by Richard Fleming and myself. Professor Edward Chaney has been kind enough to write the introduction: “Not since the extraordinarily poetic Book of Ebenezer Le Page has a single volume made the soul of the island so unremittingly its focus”, he says at one point. This is clearly rather good.

I have briefed Betsy Alvarez who is providing some excellent cover ideas for us. I am having to pinch myself.

Note to self: do not have the launch event the same day as an England World Cup match.

Re-reading Ebenezer

Have begun re-reading The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards. This remains the best book ever written about Guernsey.

The book was published posthumously. Edwards’ literary executor, Edward Chaney succeeded where Edwards had failed in finding a publisher. If, when Edwards sent it out, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page was given more than a second glance, it would have seemed hard to categorise: and publishers love their categories. The plot of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page meanders with the haphazardness of real life. An apparent lack of artifice which we can now see enhances the vivid reality of the characters.

It is also interesting to me that Edwards was in self imposed exile from the island for most of his life. He lived in London for many years and, after his retirement, lived in Weymouth instead of returning to Guernsey. There was some sort of family feud, and he had been disinherited. Weymouth was the port where the old mailboats Sarnia and Cesarea used to leave for the islands. So he was almost in touch.