Denys Corbet

Richard Fleming and myself went to visit Joan Ozanne who is a mine of local information about local culture. She showed us an old book called Les Feuilles de la Foret/Les Fieilles d’la Fouarêt/ The Leaves of the Forest) by Denys Corbet, published in 1891. Richard and I had a quick thumb through, and there was some interesting content.

Wikipedia has some useful information on Denys Corbet giving his dates as 22 May 1826 – 21 April 1909). Corbet described himself as the Le Draïn Rimeux (The Last Poet). He is best known for his poems, especially the epic L’Touar de Guernesy, a picaresque tour of the parishes of Guernsey and Les Feuilles de la Foret (The Leaves of the Forest) among others. Contemporary Canadian artist Christian Corbet is a cousin of Denys Corbet. A forthcoming biography by Christian Corbet is currently being written.

Also this new site The Official Website of Denys Corbet appears to be being created.

Corbet wrote in Guernsey French, French and English – rather like Métivier, his older contemporary.

Here is the opening to an amusing poem called Beards.

Ho! all ye sons of froth and smoke,
Who daily to the eyes must soak
In reeking lather that might choke
Old Nick, thus smeared :
Come, hear me sing, ye smooth chinned folk
My theme’s the beard.

All ye who every morning mow
Crops that have no time to grow
Bid you but once the luxury know
Shown in my lyric,
You would your strops and razors throw
Where th’wise threw physic.

We children of the good old school,
Observing Nature’s every rule,
Wear a long beard to keep us cool
In summer season,
And warm in winter–where’s the fool
Can better reason?

Island Madness

Have just started to re-read Tim Binding’s Island Madness, and I will upload a section to the Anthology of Guernsey site shortly. Again, and at the risk of sounding like a one trick donkey, a vastly more rewarding book about Guernsey than the Potato Peel Pie effort.

Its first chapter has stayed with me very clearly from when I first read it ten years ago, shortly after its publication. The opening section where a German plane flies over the south coast is beautifully written. But also this bit, which repeats the word concrete, which I find reminiscent of Dickens use of the word fog in Bleak House. The use of ‘Him’ to denote Hitler is also intriguing, like some sort of unnameable Antichrist, or Sauron figure in Lord of the Rings.

All through that winter men had been pouring in, onto the island: engineers from Belgium, skilled construction workers from France, men laden with theodolites and drills who bored holes and tapped rocks and drew their indelible marks in the sand. There seemed no end to them. Down in St Peter Port the harbour was jammed with trawlers and tugs and great floating cranes, their necks bent double in search of their prey; metal rods, barbed wire, timber, and cement – always cement, the essential dust of His creation, cement in the flat-bottomed barges which wallowed their way from Cherbourg, cement stacked twelve feet high on St Julian’s Pier, cement hauled round the island on the narrow-gauge railway built from Cherbourg, to be mixed and poured and moulded into the fertile shapes of war. A military chastity belt of His design had been fitted around the island’s most tender regions, so that like a jealous lord He could prevent any violation of His fresh, plump property. But still He wanted more: more concrete, more guns, more men. In all of Western Europe there was nothing that glittered in His mind eye more brightly than the Channel Islands. Inselwahn, they called it. Island Madness.

Goats and ghosts

Last night added a story to the Anthology of Guernsey website about La Biche, by Freda Wolley which was broadcast in the eighties on BBC Radio Guernsey, about the legend of the giant ghostly goat.

La Biche happened to live very close to where I stayed as a child in La rue des Grons, St Martin. I remember being distinctly sped up by my Guernsey Grandfather walking past a particular corner of that road at night.

Let me state as a fact that Guernsey can feel very spooky at night. This is reflected in the folklore and supernatural tales that about in the island. And is certainly what Victor Hugo picks up on for his story the Toilers in the Sea.

It is no coincidence that court records June 1550 to July 1649 reproduced in These Haunted Islands by Chris Lake, show that 111 people were tried for witchcraft in Guernsey. As Maris De Garis says in Folklore of Guernsey:

“It is often stated by the sceptical, as an excuse for unbelief, that tales of supernatural manifestations are only hearsay happenings, several times removed from the listener. However, in Guernsey it does not need a lot of investigation to discover instances of of these occurrences at first hand, experienced by the very people who relate to them. Perhaps the close inter-relationship, inevitable within the confines of a small island, conduce to a tendency of psychic awareness uncommon in people living in a larger-land mass.”

George Métivier and the Crapauds

Into the Guille-Allès Library at St Peter Port a couple of days ago, to photocopy a few poems by George Métivier.

The Guernseyman George Métivier (1790-1881) was apparently known as the “Guernsey Burns”, and was the ‘national poet’ of the island. He also prepared the first Dictionnaire Franco-Normand, the first dictionary of Guernsey French. He wrote fluently in Guernesiaise, French and English. One of his poems which caught my eye was Aux Crapuads. For channel island folks, a poem addressed to the Crapauds can be inflammatory, as it is what Guernsey people call Jersey folk.

Aux Crapuads

Salut, nos chers cousins, honorables crapauds!
Lentement vous rampez ; en êtes-vous moins beaux?
Que d’amis indulgents, ce n’est pas qu’ils vous flattent,
Admirent vos grands yeux ! ils brillent, ils éclatent,
Et votre robe humide aux reflets enchanteurs
Plaìt à l’homme éclairé, séduit les amateurs.
Même dans vos crachats, âme sublime et pure,
L’heureux naturaliste admire la nature,
Et l’altière Jersey, mère qui vous nourrit,
Balance en main, vous pèse ; ah ! comme elle sourit !
D’allégresse les mains à St. Laurens on frotte,
Et l’île boit rogomme à l’honneur de CHARLOTTE.
Que de baudets chez nous ! que de jolis badauds !
Vive à CÆSAREA la danse des crapauds !

I gave the text to a good friend Ken Goodwin, who specialises in translation of old French texts, including lately works by Mably. I took his version and made a few tweaks for flow, and produced this first version.

To the Crapauds!

Greetings to our dear cousins, the honourable toads!
Slow you crawl, though are you any less beautiful?
Don’t indulgent friends always flatter you?
Admire your great eyes ! they sparkle,
And your sodden clothes have an enchanting shiny sheen,
To delight the enlightened man, and seduce lovers.
And even when you’re gobbing, soul sublime and pure,
The naturalist will admire you as wildlife,
And haughty Jersey, the mother feeds you,
Balance in hand, weighs you; Ah! How she smiles!
With lightness of touch, one strokes St. Laurence’s hands,
And the isle drinks itself silly in CHARLOTTE’s honour.
What donkeys there are here ! What lovely loafers !
Long live the dance of the toads in CÆSAREA !

The original text had the word bandets, which Ken didn’t recognise, and thought was a misprint for baudets which means asses or donkeys, which makes sense as this is what the Crapauds call Guernsey people. But I have to check if it is a Guernsey French word. Also I still have to find out about St.Laurence’s hands, and why Jersey folk would drink to Charlotte’s honour.

Creating an anthology for Guernsey

So to catch up on recent activity. I returned from a short trip to my former home of Guernsey recently where I presented to the Arts Commission, who were interested in the project.

So I am shortly about to kick the project off, and have bought AnthologyofGuernsey.com for a song.

While I was over, I spent a couple of hours in the Priaulx Library where I met Amanda Bennett, the Chief Librarian, who took time to show me an extensive collection of books, all of which have some tenuous connection to Guernsey.

She told me a few things right away I didn’t know, such as PG Wodehouse went to school here, and that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the composer had performed on the island. And that Edmund Keane the nineteenth century Shakespearean was pelted with vegetables in St Peter Port. Spent a happy couple of hours with my nose in dusty tomes. A venerable place, busy with people tracking down old stories from the Guernsey Press, and tracing their ancestors.

Then to the Guernsey Museum, which is a matter of a few yards away. Here I met Guernsey’s switched on Museums Director Jason Monaghan. Interesting chat with him. He also gave me a signed copy of a self-published book written under his nom de plume Jason Foss called Islands that never were. After a brief look at The Three Garnsey Women Martyred by the Papists {Anno 1556}. Jason has let me know subsequently of a Dr Who novelisation set in Guernsey too.

There is rich ground to be covered. Already receiving a good deal of help and advice from the excellent Catriona Stares of the Commission, and Richard Fleming and Jane Mosse, notable poets resident on the island.

Literature in Guernsey – an untold story

I have been working towards creating an Anthology of literature about Guernsey, as I believe the island’s best kept secret is its literary tradition.

I think there are three sources of this literature. The first that written by Guernsey people about their own island (such as G.B. Edwards The Book of Ebenezer Le Page). The second would be derived from those who have discovered Guernsey (such as Victor Hugo) and the third would be literature of the Guernsey diaspora – the work of exiles.

Literature about the island has never been collected with imagination and authority. Thankfully there have been heartening artistic initiatives on the island in the last year or so, which have begun to offer more stimulus to Guernsey’s cultural life.

The current wider economic uncertainty means that Guernsey’s tourism industry may become even more important. I’ve proposed to Guernsey Arts that an imaginative and professional anthology of Guernsey literature could be a real asset to the island, and have long term benefits for Guernsey as a whole.

Here’s why:

  • Guernsey already captures the imaginations of people around the world. For I have been using Twitter in the last few weeks to search for mentions of Guernsey on the Internet. More than half of what is being said about Guernsey, in this planet-wide snapshot, was about the recent novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Literature is a window on the world for the island.
  • Literature about Guernsey is a great untapped natural resource. To visit a place, you first have to visit it in your imagination. If successful, an anthology of Guernsey literature could stimulate tourism and support the local economy. As this anthology aims to include material from people of the Guernsey diaspora, which makes it a book stuffed with reasons to visit or revisit the island.
  • Literature about Guernsey is an uncharted region. This anthology should contribute both arts and education in Guernsey. Having an idea of what got us to this point culturally will help the Island move forward with a clearer sense of its own identity.
  • There’s never been a better time to express Guernsey’s vitality and culture. At a time of globalisation, it is vital to retain Guernsey’s unique selling points. Until now its literature is a tool which has not been employed.

Signs thus far have been positive. Watch this space.

Poems on the Buses, Guernsey

I lived in Guernsey as a child. It is my spiritual home which I still visit at least once a year.

Recently there has been a mini artistic revolution. Last year local writers have been encouraged to come out into the light, and have their work published in an initiative called Pens & Lens. This activity, much of which has been driven by Catriona Stares and local poets like Richard Fleming has lately resulted in poems on the buses.

It is so heartening to see this for all kinds of reasons. I published an inflammatory article about arts on the island about fifteen years ago (text here) challenging local people to be more proud about their culture. This was an item I deliberately designed to be galling.

These latest initiatives are nothing to do with me, of course, but I am really pleased to see them.

They have used several of my poems over the year. The one below is on the bus, and was written when I was 22. It is nice that a love letter I wrote to the island a long time ago has had this brief afterlife.

Below a poem on a bus. Click to enlarge.

Pens & Lens, Guernsey

Pens & Lens is great. I flew over to read at the opening, and it was the first event in Guernsey that I have been to with such a literary buzz. The newly formed Guernsey Arts Commission are behind it, and with any luck it can only spark something of a literary burgeoning in the island. Lots of really good work there, in a great location in St Peter Port.

I’m personally very pleased too. Not only did I get to read my poems, but they are using my work as part of the exhibit. I feel like I have been writing literary love letters to the island for many years, and dear old Sarnia has finally winked back.