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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.

Categories
Guernsey

Liberation Day

Guernsey was liberated on 9th May 1945, and this year one of my poems Root and Branch was beautifully read as part of a Liberation Day sermon by Dr Jonathan Frost, Bishop of Southampton. The service was featured on BBC Guernsey and you can listen here. The service starts at around 1:31 and my poem Root and Branch read at 1.52. Obviously actually being part of the sermon made me feel incredibly proud, not to mention slightly amazed as I knew nothing about it beforehand.

The liberation fleet arrives

The poem is my attempt to put myself in the position of a mother whose children have been evacuated to England. This agonising decision was faced by many in the islands.

My Grandfather David Marquis was on the island throughout the occupation, but his mother decided to evacuate many of his brothers and sisters. This necessity sundered island families and created all kinds of mixed feelings. After the war, for example, many evacuee children returned to the island as strangers to Guernsey and to their natural families.

For me, being in a place that was occupied made living on Guernsey rather different to being in England. Having started school in St Martins there seemed nothing strange about having a German bunker in the playground for example, or that my Grandfather should have a smattering of German, and a dagger looted from the Nazis.

Even today the coast still bristles with various Nazi fortifications. Hitler’s idea was to turn the northern coast of Europe into  a ‘ring of steel’, and as Guernsey is located in a place of such strategic significance its defences were formidable. This explains why liberating the islands happened after the collapse of the Nazi war effort. Taking back the islands by force would have resulted in all kinds of bloodshed.

The Star, May 2 1944

By 1944 the food situation was alarming on the island. I have a copy of The Star dated Tuesday May 2 1944, ostensibly a Guernsey newspaper but filled with vile Nazi propaganda.

It does contain an illuminating local news item about the auctioning of a large egg for charity, which concludes ‘all sympathisers with the objects of the fund are asked to do their best to earn what will be a really sumptuous meal for the lucky recipient’.

They are calling a large egg a sumptuous meal.

After the D-day invasions of June 1944 the allied forces pushed slowly into France, which meant the German supply lines to the islands were strained and eventually cut off completely.

The islanders of course had already been hungry a good deal of the time, but now that even the Germans supplies were sundered, it was to be a long hard year of near starvation for many before liberation eventually arrived.

Here is the text of my poem. Other of my poems about the island are available in A Guernsey Double, written with my friend Richard Fleming, and featured in the side bar of this blog.

Root and branch

There’s marching in the Guernsey lane,
my table’s bare, the pattern’s clear:
they will starve us after curfew
they will break us at the table.

I scrape aside the hedgerow scraps
to float along the willow road
to distant bomb-pocked England
near a city I’ve never seen

where my children stay with strangers
and, forgetting all their patois,
they turn in skies of fractured glaze
and trill their songs with English tongues.

Each night the doves return as crows
and I’m harrowed root and branch
as they bayonet their places
and their mother stands accused

for I tore them from their garden
and I knotted them with labels
like a cherry shedding blossom
I dropped them from my stupid limbs.

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.

Howler

If I have learned anything from Defenders of Guernsey it is not to rush out a publication. Just before I went to bed last night I noticed a complete howler in the printed text. It is a scene where Archibald is explaining to Skelton about the geography of the channel islands. Now I could draw you the geography of the channel islands blindfolded. A brain glitch made me type west instead of east, so I had Herm and Sark to the west of Guernsey and Jersey to the south-west. Where of course Herm and Sark are to the east, and Jersey to the south-east.

A completely inexplicable mistake. Given that one of the whole reasons for the book was to make it authentic this makes me feel a complete chump. Luckily as the first print run is almost gone, I think I will reprint with corrections.

Hugely embarrassing though.

Island Ink interview

Guerney’s Island Ink magazine edited by Gabi Nodes is a source of great encouragment for new writers on the island. Here is a short interview they did with me in the December edition.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you started writing?

I live in Brighton, but still think of Guernsey as home. My late grandfather David Marquis was a Guernseyman and the true father figure in my life. Homesickness started me writing when I was 14 and living in London. I finally noticed the family’s mould green typewriter, and transformed my scrappy mawkish poetry about a misunderstood teenager brooding on the cliffs into neat lines. There must have been a spell cast on that typewriter as I have been a writer ever since.

My first poetry publications were at 22, so clearly I was a genius. As a genius it took me ten years doing casual labour in warehouses and factories, writing and performing by night before it occurred to me that I was stone broke and was spending far more time worrying about money than writing.

So what did you do?

I became a copywriter. I have written everything from TV adverts for dog and cat charities, to health advice for men on Viagra. Making a living from writing taught me not to be precious about waiting for the perfect moment. To be a writer you have to write, and if you show up regularly at your desk ideas will eventually show up too.

What have you had published?

It slowly adds up: over 100 poetry publications, plus short stories, journalism, essays, reviews and blogs. A Guernsey Double, my collection with my friend Richard Fleming, is strongly about a shared love of the island. For me it was like coming full circle and I am incredibly proud of that little book, and the work Richard and I did in it.

I write plays. The Testament of the Man who could see through walls, first staged at the Water Rats Theatre in Kings Cross, was about a religious fanatic. Wrong is about a young couple who discover a corpse under their kitchen table, and it may be staged again soon in Brighton using young actors.* I played the corpse in its first performance. I’m not sure, but I have a feeling I was brilliant.

Lately I have been taking my children’s novel Skelton Yawngrave in the Second Kind of Darkness into two Brighton schools and discussing it with nine and ten year olds. The first morning was possibly the most terrifying time I’ve had with my clothes on, but it got easier. Based on their (alarmingly frank) feedback and book reviews I am doing a final fine-tuning. The children absolutely loved it – but trying to get a publisher in these risk-averse times is hard, but to me making children laugh seems the noblest ambition.

What are you working on right now?

A collaboration with classical composer Matthew Pollard. Our first piece This concert will fall in love with you ran for three nights during the Brighton festival. Now we are working on a mini opera. Matt has opened my ears to startling music like Schoenberg and Bartok, and I’ve loved working with frowny-faced classical musicians.

Anything else readers would be interested to know?

Writing about Guernsey goes back at least as far as The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, written 1121-51. I want to publish an anthology of writing about Guernsey from Geoffrey (if not before) to the present day. As readers of Island Ink we are part of an amazing tradition, one which I am hoping to honour. You’ll find more info at http://www.anthologyofguernsey.com.

* Since this went to print the staging of Wrong has been firmed up, and will almost certainly be staged at the Marlborough pub theatre in Brighton on 1st and 3rd of March. More details on this site later.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Listening to a podcast of the BBC Radio 4 programme In our time, hosted by the excellent Melvyn Bragg about Foxe’s book of Martyrs first published 1563. This is a book I’d only vaguely heard about. It contains illustrations of Christian martyrs in the act of being executed. My ears pricked up when one of the contributors started talking about Perotine Massey, a Guernsey woman burned, who gave birth during the awful procedure. The baby was tossed back into the flames too.

Just found these pictures of Guernsey burnings from the Book of Martyrs. Perotine is the top one. “A lamentable spectacle of three women, with a sely(?) infant brasting out of the Mothers Wombe, being first taken out of the fire, and cast in agayne, and so all burned together in the Isle of Garnesey. 1556 July 18.”

Much more can be found on this matter here on this Guernsey Museums page.


Guernsey: year zero

I was sent recently by Tony Gallienne an essay called Guernseyness: In search of a Guernsey Identity (written as A C Gallienne). It is a remarkably thoughtful and sometimes lyrical piece which struggles with the idea of Guernsey identity, and the loss of Guernésiais as the dominant language.

I quote here from the essay, which was a first prize winner in the Guernsey Eisteddfod.

The granite bedrock of communal identity, to use the metaphor again, is language. By this measure I was disinherited from my Guernseyness the day that I was born. And not only me but my generation. Born in the nineteen fifties to Guernsey-French speaking parents we were brought up not to speak our parents’ own language. I heard it all about me – my parents spoke to each other in it – but it was out of reach. I could understand but could not speak. I had been made culturally autistic. I had been made dumb to the language that communicated the life about me. A language which could trace its roots back through the recent trauma of German occupation when, indiscriminate of source, it had incorporated the word kaput (Ch’est tche kaput), back through the centuries to Rollo, the Norman pirate who was given the Duchy of Normandy in 912 A.D., who dropped his Scandinavian tongue (what transmutation of identity was this – perhaps the same as ceasing Guernsey-French in favour of English) and adopted the langue d’Oil tongue of the native population of northern France (A few Nordic words were retained though and remain as part of the now fading language – words like mielles (sand dunes), dehus (dolmens), vraic (seaweed). In the case of vraic it may have just managed to jump into the Guernsey-English idiom and so may survive a bit longer). And further back to roots in the soup of Latin and Celtic and Frankish vernacular.

Guernsey-French was a mature language drenched in the lives that had been lived on the island over centuries, vowel sounds and consonant combinations with no exact parallel in French or English, phrases and sayings which used the local events of life to communicate some essence or other of thought – surely this must be an aspect of Guernseyness; the internal use of reference points – Guernsey culture taking its own experiences to use as expressions of its nature. I found these two entries in the Dictionnaire Anglais-Guernesiais: for the word “lengthy” – “en avant ni but ni fin ‘coum les pereieres de Jacques Ozaunne” (to have no ending like James Ozanne’s prayers) – Mr Ozanne was a Wesleyian preacher; and for the word “paunch”: “aen ventre de Doyen” (Dean’s paunch) – a well known country ecclesiastic of the late 19th Century was noted for the huge size of his belly which gave rise to the
expression.

And yet for all its vigour and history Guernsey-French has been given up without a struggle; pushed away, consciously severed, broken by the twentieth century. Guernésiais was vibrant but unprotected, a peasant language of unwritten rhythms and syntax which has had no shield against the long deep night of evacuation and occupation (what tests of expression to maintain the native tongue), and then the long attrition of the homogenising onslaught of the last fifty years. When I was born my parents, early in their adult lives, already knew that their own language was fading and that their children’s Guernseyness was going to be different to their own.

Their decision not to teach me the patois would sever a link with unknown ancestors. I was to become the ancestor of a new inheritance, of a new Guernseyness. My birth year was Year Zero.

Victor Hugo arrives at Guernsey

The Expulsion of Victor Hugo, by Jean Le Pelley, which originally appeared in the Transactions of La Society Guernesaise for 1970. Contains this glimpse into Victor Hugo’s arrival on Guernsey during a storm. I love this portrayal of the great man’s trunk with all his writings being in such jeopardy. In this description Le Pelly quotes Victor Hugo’s son, François-Victor Hugo (known as Tòto) who wrote an account called Normandie Inconnue.

We looked back to where Jersey must be. Indeed we could just see under the cloud the line of the coast floating on the waters. It slid away and disappeared. We saw another line glowing in the darkness ahead… It was Guernsey! … against the raging sea our steamer forged ahead, and an hour or so later slowed up, and then halted, in front of a faery like town, picturesquely staged up steep hill slopes… With its old Norman Roofs, with the proud Gallic cock on its church spire, Saint Pierre Port has indeed an air of home for us French refugees, which is indeed irresistible. The very name is a Welcome; remember that Saint Peter keeps the doors of Paradise!

Now all my father’s precious manuscripts were in one huge trunk which he could not bear to let out of his sight. In the kind of weather we were suffering it was a terrible decision, that of entrusting all these unpublished masterpieces to a little cockle shell of a boat… Father had to decide to gamble twenty years of work and hand it over to the caprice of the waves. He took that chance.

And we climbed down to the boat that waited at the foot of the gangway, swinging ten foot up to us and ten foot away from us with each wave. Two burly matlows slung the trunk carelessly down, and perched it on the bows of the boat, with no more concern that they would have done with a bale of cotton or a basket of cod.

It was dreadful–for some minutes the trunk wobbled on the breakers… I could see the Contemplations disappearing under ten foot of water. But luckily there is a Providence which watches over Poets. Though the storm raged fiercely, more fiercely than ever, we landed safely on the quay.

Sam Thompson

Sam is one of those writers who has fallen under the spell of Guernsey, and has sent me some of his work. I am really delighted that lately more and more writers with a Guernsey connection are becoming interested in the Anthology.

Here is an extract from Ste Marguerite de la Forêt (2006) is the penultimate poem in a sequence of 15 free verse sonnets entitled Church Poems depicting the churches which have featured prominently in his life.

From Guernsey’s rugged south coast cliffs
the Forest parish
Climbs through lanes where sunlight
catches a stream or douit
And crosses the fields of the high plateau.
Here a tower and spire
Rise beside the jumbled houses of Le Bourg:
its walls a jigsaw
Of granite slabs, its cornerstones
once part of a dolmen,
With grass and graves on all sides the church stands
alone in its own walled garden.