Saturday, December 5, 2009

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.

Monday, November 16, 2009

More glimpses of Mervyn Peak

Infuriating computer problems have kept me away from this site. But now I've resumed. In the interim I have been reading more of Mervyn Peake, particularly Boy in Darkness and other stories which was edited by Sebastian Peake. All the stories were new to me, and it is beautifully produced with more than 40 illustrations by Peak too.

There is one story in it called I Bought a Palm Tree, about a man called John who lives on Sark sending to Guernsey for a palm tree for his garden. Almost nothing happens in the story, though it is told in an amusing way. There is a charm about it however, which is entirely Peake.

"It all started one morning on the island of Sark. There was something in the air that day, a spicy, balmy something, almost tropical in itself though heaven knows I was thousands of miles away from the isles of the spices, humming-birds and turtles. But I breathed deeply and I longed. I longed. What for? I didn't know at first, but I knew it must be for something that was a part of my childhood. A symbol I suppose."

Also been looking at Peake's poetry, and skimming over it for material which is explicitly about Sark. I will add Snow in Sark to the Anthology site. But this little poem also caught my attention.

Sark; Evening

From the sunset I turn away
To the sweep of a steel bay.

The lonely waters are grander far
That the red and the gold are.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mervyn Peake in Sark

I have been looking at some of Mervyn Peake's work, and there is a great site here, run by his son Sebastian Peake. I emailed Sebastian to ask for permission to use one of the photos on The Anthology of Guernsey site. Sebastian says this picture is of his father "at work writing Gormenghast in the conservatory of our house on Sark, Le Chalet, in the late 1940s".

I was also interested to learn that Peake had lived near Warningcamp near Arundel. I have walked around the country round there several times, and looking over the river Arun towards the castle is a view which must have informed the creation of Gormenghast.

Image of Mervyn Peake in Sark by kind permission of the Mervyn Peake Estate. The other image is one I took a while ago inside Arundel Castle.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Goats and ghosts

Last night added a story to the 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."

Friday, October 16, 2009

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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Richard Fleming and Jane Mosse

Have just seen Richard and Jane for the second time in a short visit to the island (which co-incided with my birthday). We met for coffee in the afternoon as we seem to drink lots of wine when we meet up. In fact one of our first meetings, which with three poets (and my mother) in the room, was so liquid that Richard broke a couple of ribs lurching about in his bedroom afterwards.

Both Richard and Jane fit into the Discovered Islands section of the Anthology of Guernsey, and both have agreed to let me use some of their poetry on the site. Jane's career as a poet is burgeoning lately with an excellent international competition result, while Richard and I have been reading each other's work off and on for years.

They are both very supportive of the project. Jane is sending me some work soon, but in the meantime here is a lovely poem of Richard's.


The heart beats now a mourning drum
behind the coffin held aloft.
Head bowed, you step, back ramrod-straight,
blue light, through stained-glass, falling soft,
from the black car beyond the gate
into the congregation’s hum.

Grief carves a beauty in your face
or highlights what was there before,
unrecognised: you seem to shine,
to have become not less but more,
while others’ faces, at this shrine
to gracefulness, lack any grace.

The hedgerow birds, today, seem dumb
as one by one the black cars leave:
you by your crumpled father’s side,
comforting him, holding his sleeve,
so full of elegance, dry-eyed,
with redefined years still to come.

Copyright Richard Fleming 2008

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reneé Monamy and a message in bottle

If anything symbolises my interest of this project, it is finding Reneé Monamy's limited edition book Guernesey, mon île... Guernsey my island... which was a bilingual collection of some very nice poems indeed. I found them in the Guille-Allès Library in St Peter Port. The book was dedicated to the people of Guernsey. It was published in the 80s, but in the back there was an invitation to contact her.

Intrigued, I decided to send a postcard to this address, even though the chances of her still living there were remote. In my personal blog under anothersun I mentioned that I had sent her a card. Some time later, I received an email from Reneé, who had not got my card but instead had stumbled across her own name in my blog. Since then Reneé has also sent me two copies of her book, which was translated by Kenneth V. Bailey, and is very keen on being included.

I love this idea of reaching out to people who have contributed to the writing about Guernsey over the years. Many of us who had done so have felt until recently that we were dropping stones into a well, and never hearing a plink.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Choking on potato peel

Just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (and completed by Annie Barrows) and I am trying to work out why it makes me grind my teeth.

I can see why the book has done so well. As an epistolary novel, it is easy to read, and there is no sense of the heart-sinking and foreboding that some people get with long, dense chapters. Also making it partly about an occupation book group (which feels like an anachronism to me) was a great wheeze, in terms of raising its profile in today's book groups.

It's an undemanding read, skating unconvincingly over the surface of the occupation, romance, and even the horrors of Nazi labour camps.

But there is no sense of real Guernsey people or their turns of phrase or ways of speaking. The material is clearly the product of laborious if sometimes inaccurate research. Such as when, for example, people are surrounded by Luger sporting Germans soldiers. (What, they were all officers then?)

I did not care what happened to any of the two-dimensional characters. Surely the point of setting it somewhere - anywhere - is to give it a distinct flavour? But again, following what seems to be a long tradition going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, when the action moves to Guernsey, it appears as a blank backdrop.

What I do like about it, is that it is raising the profile of Guernsey, and getting people curious about the island. But if you want to read a novel set in Guernsey which is worth reading, read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards, which is incomparably better. While Tim Binding's book Island Madness is vastly better written book about the occupation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

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.

The story so far...

Went to Guernsey in June and had a meeting with the Guernsey Arts Commission, about creating an Anthology of Guernsey writing. Liked the Chairman Tony Gallienne right off the bat. The meeting was inconclusive, but they were encouraging.

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.