It’s Liberation Day in Guernsey, 70 years since those aboard HMS Bulldog accepted the surrender of the Nazi occupiers, and the island’s liberators we welcomed into St Peter Port by a crowd which included my half-starved grandfather. The legacy of bunkers and fortifications built into the island is still plain to see.
When I went to school I thought nothing of the fact that there was a German bunker in the playground till I moved to London. Or that the breathtaking walks along the island’s south coast, were punctuated by enormous gun emplacements, part of Hitler’s ‘ring of steel’.
A couple of years ago I was surprised to hear the Bishop of Southampton reading one of my poems Root and Branch in his Liberation Day sermon. Here is another poem of mine, written almost thirty years ago, about the island. I was in my twenties when I wrote it, but it is one I can still read without cringing — although the idea that the bunkers have blended in so much that they have lost their history is wrongheaded. But it is infused with a longing for home that still grips me. Luckily I return in a couple of weeks for a short visit.
The remembering cliffs
The cliffs are full of faces, great granite heads
petrified just as they lifted from sleep.
Stone heads of Martello towers, blank looks
from the concrete helmets of German gun emplacements
now so assimilated with the granite and the gorse
that they have lost their particular history.
These cliffs are full of faces, a cliff path
inevitably winds back into past summers
bringing to mind voices in the wind, my family
talking as they walked the remembering cliffs.
It is a haunted coastline and every time a corner’s turned
I meet my recollection of those who trod here.
I meet myself as a child who thought God had been born
floating face down in these waters,
His face big as a cliff’s face, His body a small island.
It was an untaught myth; my secret belief
and life must have teemed about Him like the wrasse
and the gulls and the mackerel crowding close to these cliffs.
The cliffs are full of faces that stare out to find Him
and I stare too — through the slits and cracks
of my fortified disbelief, of my adulthood,
into His comforting presence — into the sea.
Now the sea seems part of a once-swollen certainty
that has yearly drawn away like a lowering tide.
Below: there is a particular cliff head on the south coast just east of Icart Point that always makes me think of a head rising up from sleep. Hence the image in the poem.