Prickly Salutes And Bounder Pots

15th April 2021.

Hospital “Ratatouille’

The missus and I have high-fived for having completed two years on this sea rock. The past thirteen months without escape. Easter has slipped past. A grand year for sloe gin lies ahead. The blackthorn blossom’s magnificent. Delicate. White as… hmm… the unseasonal flurries of snow. The rarest of Guernsey happenings in mid winter. Let alone right bang at the start of the cricket season as the woodland bluebells open along La Folie des Doux (The Madness of the Sweet). While at Moulin Huet, which so inspired Renoir, bathers are inspirited by him.

Guernsey sloe
Moulin Huet
Renoir’s inspiriting bathers

The Princess Elizabeth hospital’s ‘Ratatouille’, still just about quicksilver, continues its squeeze. Under the drain cover outside the Emergency Department. The large and happy, charmed brown rat has spent these past nights stealing cheese from the adjacent kitchens and ducking the wheels of blue lighted ambulances.

While, along the swanky Queen’s Road, and wearing her ‘on duty’ green scrubs and an ‘off duty’ single woollen mitten, the missus has rescued the rat’s antithesis, a fat, eejit hedgehog gone from pottering pink-nosed-air-sniffer to bring-it-on ball. As the headlights bore down. Of the number 61 bus. Fast headed for St Peter Port’s harbour terminus. My role? Futilely flashing Poopsie the Smart’s weak beams. Noticing too late the pair of rugged leather gloves nestled in the door pocket.

Gentle nudges up the bum by the missus met with resistance. Instead, the scoop up, the much ‘ouch’ and ‘ow’ and the brief trespass. The pricky-back, dropped from shin height safe under a camellia in the paradisiacal garden of the Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey, Sir Ian Corder KBE, must have guessed itself in Heaven. I salute it.

Prickly bum nudge

It’s in this bonkers world that I continue my bettering. From Colin the Cockle. A Guernsey ‘Guern’ and ‘help-self’ connoisseur. Who picks his favourite snack out the beach where he ‘moors’ his boat. And he’s full of useless information. Like: “Soak ‘em in flour and seawater for an hour. That way they spit out their sandy goop. Makes ‘em less crunchy with bread and butter. Lovely cockles are.” I take his word for it.

Colin the Cockle

Last Friday arvo Colin was where I’d imagined. Messing with crustaceans

From distance his buddy, young Davy, chucked lady crabs at a bucket target, failing to take into account the aileron effect of flustered claw waggles. 

“G’day, mate!” I called. 

“Where you from?” asked Colin as I haltingly, rock-wobbled alongside. The question had obviously been brewing.

“Originally? Pompey… Portsmouth. I’m a Hampshire hog. Somerset adopted me. Australia then fostered and kinda cultured.” It sounded like an apology, so I added that the missus and I had exchanged the excitement of echidnas for the delight of Guernsey hedgehogs.

Colin furrowed his brow. My explanation of bus and mitten didn’t unfurrow it. “I’ve been to Australia,” he said thoughtfully. “Went for a month. Met a couple from Jersey. Small world. I was in that hot place near Perth that has all the boats. What’s it called?”

“Fremantle?” I hazarded. “Did you feel the refreshing ‘Doctor’ wind?”

“Yeah, hmm, maybe.”

“Braved my mandibles on charcoaled kangaroo chunk skewers there,” I remembered. “Something once tasted, never repeated. Like your cockles.” 

Colin’s mind-cogs clunked a notch. A grin spread. He pointed east across the sea-watery Little Russel. “Roos got eaten on Herm. The wallaby sort. The Mermaid has some info.” I lay a tentative mental bet he meant the island’s foodie pub.

Herm across the Little Russel

And I wasn’t about to get snobby over marsupial subtleties of difference. Not when in a state of wonderment. “Really? Wallabies on Herm? Actually bouncing like Kanga?”

“Nah. Not now. Used to be lots. I know a lady. Carly she’s called. Her great grandad Thomas worked as chief wallaby looker-afterer. Can’t blame him, though, for what happened. That was the fault of the German prince’s butler and chef.”

“Do tell,” I beseeched, just as Young Davy kicked the bucket. A goodly way closer to his crabs. 

Flying crab

Behind us a church bell tolled. Funereal.

“Hope that isn’t for a Davy’s lady or the missus’ hedgehog culled by the guv’nor’s mower. Forget Ratatouille aspiring,” I joshed.

“Wha’?”

“Nothing, nothing. Bad taste. What were you saying about a prince and wallabies?”

“Dunno much else. You’ll have to look it up.”

That evening I did. Herm’s wallabies were a bunch of red-necks. Bennett’s (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus). Hardy souls. Shipped from the vast warm land of gum trees to a Channel Island speck. An Elysium likened to a cross between the mediterranean and the Yorkshire moors. And much loved by eccentric Prince Gebhard Blücher von Wahlsatt a surprisingly sensitive, direct descendent of the Prussian von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt, ‘Marshal Forwards’ famed Waterloo blood-bather, Wellington’s ally. 

Oddly, Gebhard was Herm’s sub-tenant. At the start of the First World War he’d already lived on the island for twenty-five years. Many of them in the company of his exotic free-rangers. And why not? By all accounts they seemed happy enough getting a mention in light dispatches and in the Scientific American

Mentioned in dispatches
Old wallaby country

Unfortunately for Gebhard, the fickle Westminster parliament took umbrage at having ‘a Hun’ of gung-ho ancestry on Herm . In 1915 he was forced to pack his tweeds. Until doomsday. The moment his back was turned grim dispatches followed. His butler and chef – particular bounders – got blotto. And went cold-hearted, red-neck hunting.

Guns blasted from the 11th century Saint Tugual’s monastic chapel to Shell Beach. Wallaby was on the menu. Be it stew pot or grilled. ‘Guerns’ fretted over the provenance of pies. All of which perhaps had a lot to do with the prince’s heart giving out a year later. 

Saturday noon, however, again bought the boom of guns. Big ones. The cannons of Castle Cornet. Forty-one rounds whumped. For 40 minutes. One round for every minute of them. The castle is one of only a half dozen saluting batteries around the UK. The salutes vibrating my cheese board were for a prince. A more cherished one than Gebhard. Flags flew at half mast. In itself half a mast more than Colin’s boat can boast. Heavy-headed tulips drooped. The previous day’s bell toll explained.

Gun salute
Half mast

After a grand innings of 99, prickly, game-bagger Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh had passed. It’s chiselled in granite the royal sea dog was a Guernsey visitor. And, so it was said in the ‘Drunken Duck’, a memorial stone plonked. Marking where the Duke and the Queen took a summer stroll out west in Les Buttes, around St Pierre du Bois parish church. That was in the late 1970s when John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John topped the charts with ‘You’re The One That I Want’. 

The one I wanted was that stone.  

Royal visit

The sweet lady doing the nave flowers knew nothing of it. She did know, however, where there was a dead pigeon. Not a quitter, I roamed the churchyard for a fruitless twenty minutes. The mystery deepened. “C’mon Guerns, where’ve you put it!” I muttered. 

Having confirmed he was local, I asked a sarky gent with two collies. He thought I was blathering nonsense. Until I shouted ‘Yay!’ to set his dogs barking. The ruddy lump was hidden in plain sight. Parked as close to Poopsie’s front bumper as the hedgehog had been.

And so to the future. Fresh in the knowledge Somerset’s cricketers, having grumbled at the umpire’s upward pointing finger in the new season’s opener at Lord’s, had prevailed victorious against the odds, next week this Hampshire hog shall spring aboard the Herm ferry and go say hello to the Mermaid.

Safe to say, swigging a tot in memoriam won’t be for the hospital rat.

Illustration & text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Thumping Sea Snails

22nd March 2021.

Guernsey ormering

Whoop and howl! It’s a Guernsey Monday. Though not any old one. ‘Cos I’ve been allowed to the dentist for a clean and polish. And islanders can put away their face masks. It has been decreed so. Fortunate us. The Island’s long lockdown’s over. Covid’s banished from this densely packed sea rock! … Maybe. Very, very maybe.

Celebrants launched a donkey balloon to the heavens. The Island’s symbol of unflappability wind-carried out across the sea to who knows where, I warily turn my attention to frivolity: the local hunting season for the Guernsey ‘delicacy’.

Celebratory donkey balloon

Oh, the glorious lure of the seaweedy world of furbelows and bladder wrack, of eelgrass and goose barnacles, and of colourful anemones and bovver-minded lady crabs. And of that something else: the ormer (Haliotis tuberculata). Basically, an abalone. Edible. Rare. A sea snail. An oozy-squoozy, greenish-black mantled, chewy mollusc. A gastropod – ‘stomach on a foot’, if you will – within an ear-shaped shell. Should you really want one it has be thumping big. Eight centimetres across, minimum. And, to Colin the Cockle, measuring the important gaps in lockdown’s Co-op queue was nowt as vital as the ormer challenge.

Seaweedy world
Colourful anemone
Lonely Ormer

Mention ormering and Colin’s anticipation’s magnificent to behold. “It’s lovely sport,” he explained. “There can be nothing, nothing, then ‘bam’, a ‘honey-hole’!”

“Steady on!” I’d said. 

Yep, at Belle Grève Bay, St Peter Port its backdrop, pottering turnstones aren’t merely the beautifully camouflaged, orange-legged, little wading birds.

Spot the turnstones

Pink-legged Colin is also a ‘turnstone’. He’s uber-keen about it. And at crevice-grubbing. Stubble-jowled, fag-puffing and wearing overall fishing waders and heavy duty, blue rubber gloves, he takes downtime from his airport maintenance work. Green wellies stomped into, he’ll arm himself with his sneaky hook, a thin length of rusty bent metal.

“Out on the rocks an ormer’s not like a mussel, gob open like a nestling.” Colin was all seriousness. “Yer gotta catch an ormer off guard. Sees yer and it sticks to its rock so hard no amount of muscle’ll shift it.”

Ormer absorbed in Belle Grève Bay

Ormer-prising (prizing?) necessitates improvisation: a broken fish spear, an heirloom cutlass or some rope contraption will do the job. I plan to plump for the long, blue plastic shoehorn, a dollar gift from my Melbourne chum Son-of-Calcutta. Anything goes to get at the darling squinch-snugglers hid where bare hands can’t scrabble. The goal? To get a stack of the blighters. And perhaps a crab. Or two. Or a jammy lobster.

Improvised priser
Young chancre crab
Blue plastic shoehorn
Ormer and crab stack

Ormer hunting does, however, have its limitations. I mean, I can’t go ormering this minute.

It’s only permissible the day of each new or full moon plus the two immediately following days of either. But wholly between January’s hello and April’s goodbye. March therefore is blessed with seven full days of legal ormering. And today’s well between day four and five. Apparently. Gobbledegook unless you know your moons.

To which Colin can give a thumbs up. 

And he swears by the nifty gauge in his pocket that measures the ‘Magic Eight’. Exactitude prevents hassle. Sloppiness can mean a summons. Sea Fisheries jacks-in-office prowl, socially distanced and masked in pandemic times, binoculars to hand. Ever suspicious. Random checks, commonplace.

Hell bells, Olly and Dick ended up in the Magistrate’s, a bunch of their ormers a naughty two millimetres short at best. Fined 400 quid each, both quickly forked out on digital callipers. Better that than rely on the tape measure from Dick’s mum’s needlework box. The undersized ormers got returned to the sea.

Undersized ormer

Exuding confidence in each search for his and his old man’s tea, Colin will head not just for Belle Grève Bay but any other of Guernsey’s rocky beaches. And wherever he goes he’s rarely alone.

Where to put the live successes? The once coveted ‘behotte’ is a rare sight. Harkening back to a foraging compulsion, centuries old, the small wicker basket for ormer stashing is narrow mouthed, flattened on one side, and designed to hang from belt or from shoulder. The preference nowadays is for simple buckets. Or repurposed plastic shopping bags. Whereas Colin employs a genius, floatable depository: a black rubber ring, a canvas bottom tied beneath its middle.

Olden times ormering

‘Succulent’ is what the posh Duke of Richmond Hotel boasts the ormer to be. Others describe it as ‘urgh’.

As do I, giving it thought.

Foodie-minded, perhaps I’m a bit picky to still draw the line. A sixty-something Somerset farmer, for example, has started flogging horse milk from his dozen or so Trait du Nord mares. At well over a fiver a pop for a tiny bottle. To me, such an epicurean delight has limited appeal. So, yeah, we’re talking acquired taste.

But with gastronomic cachet enough for the telly cameras? Absolutely! A truly wholesome, exotic subject matter. A Channel Islands thing and one never found on the shores of the UK. A subject matter trimmed and scrubbed. Then battered. No, no, not in the egg, flour, milk mix. Battered as in bludgeon. By blunt instrument. ‘Tenderised’ being the technical term. For a half hour or more. Between towels. And afterwards boiled. For hours more. To be pickled in vinegar and bay leaves. ‘Faff’ is too light a word. And for what? A salt and vinegar flavour mollusc.

Ormering for telly c.1951

Rest assured there are alternatives. To pickling. The most esteemed of which had its first bubble during the pomp of Christopher Wren. The versatile architect fellow. Builder of… the Old Bell Tavern. To provide accommodation and jellied eels. For his lucky masons employed restoring St Bride’s church after the Great Fire. 

The year Christopher was knighted and London recorded its first wine auction, Guernsey celebrated the creation of its signature dish: the ormer casserole. A fusion of bashed gastropod, butter, pork, and a bit of veg. ’Casserole’, possibly, sounding more upmarket than ‘stew’. Even in 1673. Especially when the ubiquitous bay leaf was added. But slow oven cooking for THREE or FOUR hours? Definitely a stew. Which ever, Guerns aplenty swear by the gravy.

For Colin, best is simply a frying pan and lemon juice. Put ormers in the fridge for three days, he insists. They relax then and simply slip out of their shells. More fool them. “Trim, trim and chuck the gubbins,” he says. “What’s left is the hard round muscle lump. That’s the bit yer whack and cook.” For emphasis he touched his forefinger tip to his thumb making a neat ‘O’ for Ormer sign. Colin’s whacker? A small, steak mallet. “An ormer’s a leathery little bastard till it’s proper broke-up and soft.” He was totally matter-of-fact. I nobly offered lending him my cricket bat, given the start of the ‘summer game’. dovetails nicely with the ormer season’s end. Gracefully, Colin declined. “Can’t be pulping the buggers to mulch, can we?”

Is the effort of ormering worth it? Colin most definitely thinks so. “We ‘Guerns’ love our ormers”, he enthuses. “They’ve got a flavour all of their own. Can’t describe it.”

Finders, keepers

Guernsey born author G.B. Edwards, for whom the flat iron was his family’s weapon of choice, tried and failed dismally shedding light.

In the early 1970s he wrote:

“I can’t say what ormers taste like. They are not like fish, flesh, or fowl. They are like no other food on earth. I have heard of the nectar of the gods. Or is it ambrosia they feed on? That must be ormers.” (The Book of Ebenezer Le Page)

I interpret this as tasting heavenly. And I found Aussie chefs appear to have followed his line of thought and, I suppose, the Duke of Richmond’s. The ormer’s Antipodean cousin garners words like ‘degustation’ and ‘fine dining’ amidst a Melbourne ambience of blondwood tables and spindly brass touches. Dollar-dollar buys you fresh abalone with wild mushroom pasta at the Rockpool Bar and Grill. Or abalone, rice and emu ham broth at Lûmé. Regrettably my eyes had wandered elsewhere on the menus. No amount of effort can make a flattened sea-snail sound alluring whatever side of the world I flounder. I ignore the report of Son-of-Calcutta’s taste buds. They reckon abalone’s comparable to mushroomy, umami squid.

Abalone, rice and emu ham broth

Only last week, March’s ormer day four, the mother-of-pearl iridescence of keepsake Aussie abalone shells on the bathroom windowsill turned pink. As did the calm, misted sea. Rising, the sun shinned the steeple of Notre Dame du Rosaire. Such gorgeousness for an ormering tide. I’d breathed a mutter.

Keepsakes

“What’ya mean, ‘Must be the aw, m’god’? queried the missus, flappy-eared and distracted from her Kindle.

“As I said, my love,” I answered. “It’s a beautiful day for ormering… if that’s what floats your boat.”

“Not that old chestnut,” sighed the missus.

“Hmm-hmm. And to quote G.B. Edwards, ‘I can’t say what ormers taste like’.

I returned to under duvet. As I mentioned, to find alternative use for the shoehorn was nowt but a plan. One for a braver future.

In which Sea Fisheries calliper-wagglers can shed their masks. And Colin will continue rock turning and gathering. At that I can now smile brightly while wondering where that donkey’s got to.

Illustrations & text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Fortified Kippers And Saddlebags

27th February 2021.

Fortified kipper

The missus says ‘crocuses’. I say ‘croci’ – which doubles as my collective noun for Oz bought pairs of, now shabby, foam clog Crocs. Either way, the avant-couriers of spring are out. In all their tremulous glory. Purple delights joining the primroses.

Beyond hope, hoodie up, Sooty Sid simply thwacks. And thwacks. Axing and hatcheting green wood into logs. To feed his cough-smoke hearth. Oblivious to the ice caps melting to penguin boogie boards.

Guernsey’s winter, a harsh and miserable pig of one, can sod off.

Yet in doing so, squidged-in and isolated from the world on this enigmatic sea rock, visible contrariety escalates. While a score or more bare-faced, wetsuited surfers use their two-hours-a-day exercise allowance riding the Vazon waves, an exemplary tractor driver wears a surgical mask dutifully, towing tatties along the Talbot Valley.

Talbot Valley

My mask’s stuffed in pocket. Like a bolshie schoolboy’s tie. Wearable only under scrutiny. And goodness, I feel it when I am. The scrutiny, I mean.

As does Gar, most probably, as the bright sunshine warms.

Skittishness is exhibited by many a masked footpath walker. Those that show the whites of their eyes, ready to jump into the jonquils to avoid crabbing past the approaching unmasked. And jump away they do. From the joggers. And the mythic chap wheeling his iconic bicycle.

A gentle man with a home to go to but a better lover of the fresh air, Gar’s nights, it’s said, are ever shared in the company of Insectivore, Rodentia and Lagomorpha – shrew and bat, mouse, rat and rabbit. By day, and always spruce if not weather-bedraggled, he just pushes his old black bike. Trusty. Straight handlebars. Frame weighty with perfectly packed saddlebags. Wheeled to all corners. Les Grandes Rocques to Jerbourg, the guns of Les Pezeries in the south east to the north west’s Le Déhus, a dolmen whose two thousand year old capstone carved archer is its inner secret. An island fixture for yonks himself, a communal sliver is happy to look out for Gar when push comes to shove. 

Les Grandes Rocques
Gar
Les Pezeries
Face of Le Déhus

But, for some, fate chucks circumstance rather than a choice. Especially in these exceptional times. Aimless as a beached boat, feeling a profound sense of stuckness, I find myself too regularly staring out across the ‘sleeve of tears’, as some king of France once called the English Channel.

“This will come to an end,” said the positive-minded missus.

“As sure a thing as a brumby playing the whale,” I replied, coining the Aussie phrase. Fully aware no horse can vomit, I was being ironic. And quickly changed the subject to fortified kippers – those that kip in German bunkers.

As opposed to plated kippers.

S’pose I can be unnecessarily ambiguous. Yestermorn’s sterling nutrition-packed breakfast: Craster smoked, Northumberland herring that had had freedom to travel and got reminisced with fishy burps brought an angst all of of own. Oh, the lingering miasma.

Plated kipper

There’d been bit of a niff too within the brutish bowels of Jerbourg Point’s German bunker turned birdwatching hide.

Not the mouse. Although bloody-dead it was a fresh kill. Likely, a local kestrel’s snackaletto. The cause of the abandonment? Pretty obvious. My guess? The startle of a yawn or snore. From a very rough sleeper. A twitcher in a non-avian sense. History was repeating itself: the crumpled blankets, fag ends, empty booze tinnies… and genitalia themed graffiti.

Jerbourg Point bunker

Thumbs up to the coppers, mind. Homelessness being a social-health affair, they’re sympathetic towards the shrugged away. Helping hands rather than punishing, their policy; aware a hostel bed isn’t for everyone. And those exceptions are rising. Lockdown, locked out, casualties. Indeed, the flicker of night lights has been spied among the lichened tombstones of Foulon cemetery’s eternal dozers. Although that particular rumour’s unsubstantiated. Not a crocus among the delicate multitudes appeared crushed last I looked.

Foulon cemetery
Delicate multitudes

Mr Corny, a dapper, puissant, migratory Guernseyman will still be grinding his teeth. I just know it. What with him and his natural order of things. A finger wagged at the pell-mell bombers, a band of coast path banned cyclists, and a phone call made, just one witnessed example of him laying down the law.

Our paths first crossed last summer. I’d talked of Melbourne. He of Florida. An exchange of wanderlust tales that moved seamlessly on to the Bailiwick’s humungous, in-your-face wartime relics. I spoke of the Organising Todt – the taskmaster builders who wore cement bag shoes and cement bag capes – who marshalled the Russian, Dutch and Spanish forced labourers that poured concrete for the Island’s innumerable ruddy strongholds, 24/7. Unforeseen that so much effort and sacrifice would provide nowt but solid roofed sanctuary choice for today’s dossing needy. Redoubtable bird hides aside.

Forced labourers

Mr Corny had frowned. Then admitted becoming so angry with ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ epistolary novel, that he had thrown it across his kitchen. Never finished reading the “nauseating, romanticised rubbish”.

And no, he hadn’t bothered with the film adaption whose gurt ad posters continue to adorn the deserted airport. (And dare I mention the time-yellowed, Melbourne flyer blu-tacked to the kitchen cupboard?) Anyway, to have caught the movie, shot largely in north Devon – Clovelly a faux St Peter Port – would have irrefutably endangered Mr Corny’s popcorn.

Melbourne flyer

In another throw away I asked if he knew about the cliff edge rock I’d chanced upon – the one between the blankets’ bunker and kestrels’ nest – a swastika, ‘ESSEN’ and ‘1.8.40’ scratched upon it. An idling Nazi from North Rhine Westphalia had, I reckoned, considered the date worth immortalising. That particular Thursday, Hitler had issued Directive No. 17, declaring his intention to inflame air and sea warfare against the English. The Führer’s purpose: “the final conquest of England.” That went well. So a poignant artefact. No, Mr Corny had never noticed the rock. But what was that I said about blankets?

Swastika rock

Hmm. Me and my big fat gob. 

“I’ll have to have a word,” Mr Corny said, thoughtfully stroking his chin with the back of his thumb. The bunker was spick and span within the week.

Currently, Mr Corny’s out the loop, out-wintering. In the Canaries. He and his wife’s Guernsey return problematic. Who’d have guessed their selfless gifts to the Island remain all the rage: face masks. Cut and stitched from garish tropical print curtains – coconut palms and conch shells. “Doing our bit for the community,” he told me. I’m sure, for some, they carry a certain cachet between ear and ear. 

But they’re not Gar’s thing. For whom at least the weather’s becoming kind. Almost shirt-sleeve order as he pushes his steed past blooming nature. 

And still Sooty Sid thwacks.

Me? I really should de-kipperfy the kitchen before my latex free mundschutz from a fifty pack gets pulled from pocket out of unofficial necessity. Best avoid the missus’ scrutiny when some things can more easily come to an end. Like those ‘Croci’.

Illustrations & text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Measured By Cow

12th February 2021.

Guernsey lockdown

February. The kettle’s on the boil. Again. And the missus and I are holed up. With friends. Only one of which has the run of the place. Things are stickier than bug-goo on basil leaves. The sense of entrapment, palpable. 

Hopefully Mr Weather Man’s joshing that every key of plane and boat has been tossed by the powers-that-be in to Cobo Bay. Notices in Co-op apologise. For the scantily filled shelves. A whammy caused by ferries cancelled or delayed. The woes of this shut-off-from-the-world, small island, mount.

Cobo Bay

There’s an old Guernsey saying: j’sis bragi. The gist? Feeling tipsy. And betrayed by flushed cheeks. Which is different to them having the unfathomable rosiness of daft swimmers vouching the sea temp’s warmer than the air that hovers around sub zero. I mean, seriously. Fresh floral garland sleet-stung on her head, Gran’mère de Chimquière, a goddess two and a half millennia years young, is surely hypothermic in stone cold nakedness. While the missus’ winter wardrobe continues in floor flow from the slump chair. Still, Guernsey’s laggard daffodils persist in opening golden trumpets.

Daft swimmers
Gran’mère de Chimquière
Laggard daffodils

Away in India, England captain Joe Root has, inside cricket’s bubble, scored a double hundred in his hundredth Test. Here socially-distanced islanders took to the street, clapping and whooping for a centurion in age lost to blasted Covid: Captain Sir Tom Moore. The British ex-army hero who, when 99, raised charity millions for the NHS, walking garden laps aided by his redoubtable zimmer frame. Poignant stuff. There is no NHS on Guernsey. It does its own thing. Relying on a state and private funded healthcare melange.

Two weeks into our second lockdown the figure had zoomed to north of 350. That’s active pestilence cases from a horrifying starter of a hazarded upon 4. Donkeys (the moniker for Guernsey folk) are jumpy when, publicly, everybody’s a cod Dick Turpin. Posties wisely stand a goodly distance from fellow humankind before they deliver. As do the public-spirited, food parcel van chaps. A trifling conversation requires shouting due to mask-muffle, wind howl, and the metres across the street.

News is my properly worn, surgical quality mask has caused me an unforeseen lack of change. In Waitrose, early doors. When the updraft of my escaping breath fogged my specs. Hence mistaking olive ficelle for sourdough and being poorer by a quid. 

In mitigation, behind his perspex screen the youth on checkout also distracted from loaf ID. “They’ve cancelled my mental health assessment,” he whimpered, clearly not wanting to be sat where he was. “It’s been postponed until I don’t know when.” With visible effort he pulled himself together. “My Grandad says we beat the Germans and we’ll beat the virus too.” 

Guernsey beat the Germans? Whoopsie. Tact, I had to remind myself. For gawd sake, tact. Don’t be a gurt numpty. No need to further dishearten the lad, reminding him “we beat the Germans” doesn’t nestle well with wartime history – a gun-toting Nazi to every three Islanders fed on potato peelings. Some, craving a fuller tum, willing to snitch on neighbours. Those like families who listened to forbidden radios. Or the three Jewish lasses, Auguste, Marianne and Therese deported to be gassed in Auschwitz.

Memorial plaque, St Peter Port

Regrettably, matters have come full circle. To put it another way, the shallow end of the gene pool still leaks. But with lesser consequences. Back from mucking out his horse, Mr Weather Man’s gander’ was up. “Hate duplicitous smilers that rat behind yer back,” he growled.

“Called ‘em fizgigs in Oz,” I replied.

The curtain twitchers, also, can’t seem to help themselves. Worse, the wannabe Holmes’ video doings on their phones. Beefs are made known to the fuzz. A fine day has connotations. £83,000 worth dished out since the last full moon. Ten thousand smackers of which was in a single draconian wallop. A proper disincentive. For self-isolation breach. Puts being a quid down over some bread in to context.

GGC (Guernsey Gossip Central), Facebook in other words, is awash with withering snoopdom condemnation. Perhaps, Von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’ could do with a discrete airing. The vaunted slogan ‘Guernsey Together’? Pouf!

Surprise ficelle in trolley I returned to the pneumonia inducing outdoors. To gawp at the shuffle-snake queue. In which a scarf-wrapped lady sung “Moo-moo-moo” gently to herself as I rattled past. Super! She at least had got the Public Health Services message: ‘Moooooooove back a bit’. The comfort zone she’s created for herself both fore and aft was admirable.

However patronising it might be, conjuring up an image of a Guernsey cow muzzle-tip to tail being an easy-peasy 2-metres follows the science. Although the mental image of a bod wearing green wellies and a bowler hat pitching up with a tape measure at a local dairy farm to assess the size of Buttercup haunts me daily.

Guernsey cows

Mind you, Guernsey doesn’t have a monopoly on beastly distance gauging. Animals have been useful guides elsewhere. A pig, for example, in a Devon pub. A kangaroo in Melbourne. At best, though, both creatures only stretch to 1.5 metres each. Possibly helping to explain the source of tedious lockdowns. 

Of course, the missus and I keep our oars to ourselves and try not to stick them anywhere untoward. Hence us fully embracing the sanctuary of ‘the eyrie’: our up high, warm, double-glazed flat. Where the tulips in the vase are petal-brittle. Gran’mère de Chimquière should count herself lucky stuck out there in the stillness.

The loudest sound in St Peter Port today? A single power tool’s whazz-WHAZZ. Stood in his garden, Sooty Sid’s mum-in-law fixated. Sanding down a decrepit blue painted door. For hours. Inhaling sawdust clouds.

The missus, meantime, has ordered a home delivery of life essential tins. Armoured mackerel, for want of example. Fingers crossed on milk and eggs. And bread. Any. Forget sourdough or olive ficelle. If push comes to shove, in the cupboard there’s the unloved from Lockdown One: an industrial bag of wholemeal roll mix. Midsummer last, its best before. A small detail when we have pressing domestic problems.

‘Click…click-click…click’. Seen from the far end of the short hall passage, the living room’s standard lamp flashed on. Then off. Repetitively. Quite the one bulb disco. A bad analogy given the music playing was that of Hildegard von Bingen.

“Godfrey appears to be pleasuring himself,” observed the missus. “Best remove him off the light switch, my love, or next he’ll be ejaculating unmentionables.” 

“Could be he was messaging Sark. ‘Stay safe’ in Morse, perhaps.” Lifting the recalcitrant, disc-shaped robot vacuum off its new found plaything I straightened the flimsy bristle-brushes. “Scheisse, Godfrey appears also to have gobbled your face mask!”

High-pitched beeping from the kitchen interrupted the moment. “I’ll see to Prunella,” I sighed. End of cycle, the dishwasher’s so annoying.

“Bazalina needs more than just water!” the missus called after me. “You’ve fried her. You’ll be summonsed for manslaughter.”

“Sorry! Whiteflies! But hey, let’s shush it down. Some flappy-ears’ll demanding an official door-buzz.” Oh, the paranoia thinking the across street balcony cat could be a rat.

Balcony cat a rat?

Yep, I’d been a tad too vigorous with the ‘zapper’ racquet. Formerly the crackle-zopper of hardened Aussie cockroaches and mozzies. Lockdown stress really doesn’t help the cognitive process. The poor basil.

I brave opening a window a crack. Sooty Sid’s mum-in-law coughing on a fag, the door pale but mottled. ’Chack-a-chack’. A magpie. No. Two for joy! This sea rock could do with some.

Two for joy

In a few hours work will call. Which by nature requires full PPE. PVC and polythene aprons the playthings of the elements. To be blown inside out and every which way. Causing gulls to cry. And passers-by to gawp or run. More so should they spy Phillipa Hottie tied about my neck. Almost a metre in length but thin, the YuYu hot water bottle’s newfangled bliss in these tough times.

And little light is shed when they’ll end. Although Guernsey’s Director of Public Health has deemed the Tooth Fairy an essential worker, the jury’s remains out on the status of the Easter Bunny.

So… hmm, I admit j’sis bragi. Between mugs of Earl Grey and Phillipa fill ups. For Captain Tom, may only the best of Guernsey daffs trumpet the ‘Last Post’ as life poddles on measured by cow.

Illustrations & text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Cat Ice And Blancmange Powder Witch

23rd January 2021.

January. And at noon today, after seven normalish months, Guernsey entered its second lockdown. Such is the whim of the pernicious germ. The black cat skulks. Forget about the stoat. Islander’s ensured that little beastie’s extant, although there are mutterings about the feral ferret. The mouse, the rat too. And the cahouette. Cahouette? Guernésiais for jackdaw; as in corvid as opposed to Covid. The rook, once the cahouette of choice, was sent packing back in 1903. Around the time Brown and Polson produced a one penny cookbook of cornflour recipes that included blancmange. The relevance of all this? I’ve noticed three homes named ‘Pendle’ upon this superstitious sea rock. But not only that.

Seventy-two hours ago, as a languid-flapping heron cast a gimlet-eye through the third-storey window at the remnants of the missus and my cod and prawn pie, I announced an anniversary. For the missus’ ears only. “It’s witch day,” I said, wincing at the annoying inflection. Fault of living in Oz too long. Every statement end sounding like a blinking question.

“Whether you’re on island time, or call bog roll ‘bum napkin’, love, it’s Wednesday. The 20th,” murmured the missus curled up on the sofa absorbed in Facebook.

At cross purposes, at least she and I were agreed on the date. 

“Seen this?” she said animated suddenly. “Pierre’s found something untoward sat in that new house of his. Well, new to him. That house dates from the 1700s. Says he’s got a sitting tenant. He’s a posted picture. Hayley thinks it’s a witch’s poppet. Have a look.”

“Nah!” I said. “Looks more like an eviscerated Paddington Bear.”

“Put your glasses on.”

I did.

“Sugar plum faeries! That is creepy! If I were Pierre I’d cancel the move. Either that or burn the thing. Although, I maybe saw similar but less decrepit in a Chisinau market. Could be a kitchen witch.” Those things have been around since before Henry the Eighth. Right across Europe. From Scandinavia to Moldova. Supposedly act like little sous chefs, stopping meat burning, pans from spewing and sauce disasters. Good witches, if you like.

But oh the joy of synchronicity! The topic of witches and the 20th of Jan. But in 1914. As the rest of the planet geared up for a bloody war, a bad Guernsey witch, having used a packet of Brown and Polson’s to strike fear and extort cash with menaces, got herself arrested and finished up before the Royal Court. 

How did I get to know about that? Well, let me time rewind again. To the Saturday before last. Which, in itself, had been a pretty magical.

“Woah!” After the age of sog had come my first Island under-sole, slip-slide on cat ice. I gingerly passed the gurt door behind which Matron Sue, the Island’s freshly arm-jabbed Covid front liner from 2020’s brief lockdown, celebrated hearty congrats for her New Year’s MBE.

Pure coincidence that the racy sun pulled up the seasonally long nightie and beamed. Upon a freezing wisp-mist. Making water-logged Saumarez Park a contrast of golden light, long shadows and quiet reflection. Until two approaching joggers padded past me and went arse over tit. One nursed an undoubtedly bruised coccyx. The other spittle-kissed a blooded palm. Both beside the earlier cyclist still inspecting her buckled wheel.

Saumarez Park

But what more could I have done? Holler “IT”S DEATHLY ICY AHEAD FOLKS!” to send mallards quacking alarm and cormorants choking on pond life? Wasn’t my considerate comment “Path’s a tad iffy.” enough? True, my mind wasn’t totally in the moment. My focus on WhatsApping family a few photos. Of Le Trépied dolmen. The evocative, grey stone Neolithic tomb on Catiôroc hill. 

Le Trépied dolmen

I’d been particularly chuffed catching the dolmen lumped behind a telegraph pole upon which a kestrel perched enjoying the sea view. Well, I knew it was a kestrel. My attached message: “Olde Guernsey yesterday arvo.”

Within a mo my phone gave a two-ping salvo. From my Wiltshire dwelling daughter and my Melbourne satisfied son. 

“I didn’t know you had your own Stonehenge,” she messaged. 

“Interesting.” wrote he, ”Do we get a historical overview on the stones too?”

Aha, a challenge! I reached for my figurative deerstalker. And sought out my two favourite authorities: the works of the Victorian Bailiwick bailiff Sir Edgar MacCulloch and the bar of the ‘Drunken Duck’. 

My glaring discovery? The dolmen was infamous. Because of Guernsey’s alternative culture: witchcraft. Witch trials being an unpleasant fixation before and during the seventeenth century. The stench of burnt flesh the result of hearsay, gullibility and vindictiveness.  

Spurred on by odds-defying Covid survivor Marianne Faithful, who put me in the mood with her evocative 2018 version of the ‘Witches Song’, I’ve unearthed a charmed Guernsey. For example, these days a cow offering less than the usual milk will mean ringing the vet. In the past a ‘witch’ got summoned.

Le Trépied a Guernsey Stonehenge? Hmm, kind of. Albeit hunkered beside an unnervingly sharp La Croix Margin coast road bend rather than a straight section of A303, yes, the dolmen is rather outstanding. And had purpose. As the heart and soul of Guernsey witchdom. Being the venue of Friday dance night. The Sabot-Diam (the witch hornpipe) being popular. The wretched roundelay too. 

Added to which was the chant “Har-héri! Qué-hou-hou! Marie Lihou!”, Marie being the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was brazen stuff. Understandably the impressionable were vexed. Witch finder Amias de Carteret drawing out pained confessions the result.

The shenanigans’ dual aims: honouring a particularly humungous black cat. Clear as crystal whom that was. And to pour scorn on wee Lihou island’s Notre Dame priory on t’other side of the vraic (seaweed) harvester’s low tide causeway where oyster catchers peep and egrets wade with curlew. 

Causeway to Lihou

Today the priory’s an evocative heap of shapeless ruin. Which is unsurprising. Sod witchcraft, during the occupation the Germans used the priory for target practice. Something that locals truly called the Devil’s work. For gulls it’s a place of choice.

Notre Dame priory

Given those Friday raves surely nabbing witches was a doddle? Simple as catching new Covid variants? Not so apparently. A witch could seemingly morph into a quick-vanishing scuttle-bundle – rat, mouse or stoat – when some bod shook a pillow-sack containing allegedly charmed mildewed seeds. But no fooling. Obvious to all and sundry, however, a witch’s favoured alternate self was as the ubiquitous chat noir or cahouette. 

Whether a suspect was a witch or simply NFG (Normal For Guernsey) posed a conundrum. And the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Certainly, Alechette Queripel was horrified to find them so having been accused of dabbling with feathers. 

Anyway, the year before a chap called John Crudington died in 1599 leaving ‘the witche in the kytchyn’ to his son Roger in his will, Alechette was burned. To death. For witchcraft. At Saint Sampson’s moated and mediaeval Château des Marais (locally known as Ivy Castle). So a bibbler has informed me. But as luck would have it, Alechette had a descendant. And genes are genes. 

Ivy Castle (Château des Marais)

Step forward Aimee Lake, a real live but naughty kitchen witch who grabbed local headlines for being somewhat unconventional and the subject of the Island’s last witch trial.

Helpfully, Sir Edgar recorded in the twilight of Queen Victoria’s reign: “(Witches) no longer fear the stake and faggot before their eyes and have only minor terrors of a Police Court to dread, (they) are not unwilling to brave the later danger if, by working on the credulity of the ignorant and superstitious, they can extort money or even command a certain amount of consideration as the possessors of supernatural powers.” 

In a nutshell Aimee was sought out by a farmer named Mrs Houtin. She had lost both her hubby and all her cows quite suddenly and believed she’d been bewitched. Agreeing to help, Aimee read tea leaves. They gave cast iron proof, Mrs H was under a spell. To counteract it Aimee dispensed ‘charms’ made of her secret ingredient. Nothing as sinister as essence of donkey hoof or crapaud toe or whisker of mulot. Instead, Brown and Polson’s cornflour did the trick. Magic powders she called them. To drive away evil spirits. Course there was a fee involved.

Burn some of the powers and deep-bury the rest at all four compass points, instructed Aimee. Mrs H did the tasks as bade but didn’t pay. Making Aimee cross. Her response was to tell Mrs H that she too had put a spell on her. So cough up the three quid owing, said Aimee, or die within the week. Terrified, Mrs H demanded police protection.

On 20th January 1914, Aimee was charged with ‘fortune telling and with practising the art of witchcraft’. The more serious crime of demanding money with menaces? Totally overlooked. 

Messaging family I included the following: “Question faced by the Guernsey Royal Court: could there really be magic in a few small bags of blancmange powder ‘full of little devils’ buried in someone’s garden? The court thought there could. Aimee Lake got 8 days in clink. Could have been a whole lot worse.” 

The Melbourne reply: “Love a bit of wacko history to start the day. How good!” “OMG that’s crazy!!!” the opinion from the county of Stonehenge.

“Pouf!” said the missus. “Josephine’s just posted Pierre’s whatsit’s just a boring old kids’ pixie doll. Nothing untoward… Oh, oh, oh, where’s the telly control. Joe Biden’s about to sworn in as President. Finally!” 

“Yay! Another wowza 20th of Jan happening,” I enthused having a scrabble. “Can almost feel new warmth in the world.” 

Right now, outside, down on the street, the black cat presses a passer-by for attention. Perhaps I should go ask if it knows a spell to fix that lass’s bike. Better still, one that magics away pestilence. Best first shake the piggy bank. Otherwise it’s over to you again Matron Sue.

Illustration and text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Brandy Butter Paws And Dumb Owl

30th December 2020.

Should a fat candle have been lit to burn through 2020 it’d now be guttering.

So I’ve taken stock. Of the so far unnecessary crammed into the impulse buy wardrobe. Hmm. Box of face masks. Box of rubber gloves. Cans of baked beans and chopped tomatoes. Packets of polenta and pasta. Sachets of Borș Magic and miso. Jars of sauerkraut and vine leaves… Vine leaves? Sell by dates all fine and dandy. Good until summer 2021, minimum. Better safe than sorry. Up till now the big cog in the Bailiwick that chose being antisocial to all and sundry Guernsey’s been a lucky wee island. Still, the number of times fingers got crossed and re-crossed led almost to collective tenosynovitis. Such has been the C-word effect.

As islanders raise the two-fingered V for vaccine sign, wind-shred waves from Guernsey to Sark raise whitecaps to Storm Bella. Who’s chucked about sodden branches in the raw. Blossom petal confetti has flown from the twig. Yet despite this yellow bright gorse is smelling of exotic coconut. The sea pink’s pink as pink four months ahead of itself. Our neighbour, Daisy Man, meantime, persists in mowing his garden’s obvious. To maybe pretend things are as they should be. Just for a day or two.

Exotic smelling gorse
Very early sea pink

Don’t be fooled. It’s gone bonkers here on this dark, mouse-scuttle, rocky microcosm. Actually, it’s not even that dark. Ignore the fact Jupiter and Saturn have aligned for the first time in eight centuries to achieve a damn fine impression of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Down almost every country lane garden installations blaze coloured light. It’s blinking dazzlius. Strings of brights bulb weigh heavy on throttled trees, electric reindeer shine silver and white, and giant orange bows illuminate privet. Bella’s made the Island positively tinkle.

Blinking dazzlius

She failed, though, to shift the eyesore. So I’ll confess to public spirited trespass. Better still, civic duty. If I’m called before the beak. Sorry gov, I’ll plead, but filthy trash can’t add to an already blighted future.

Gloved, and armed with my Brasher stick, I’d braved the snaggle-briars, and clambered the nailed shut, ‘No Admittance’, meadow gate to grab last August’s storm gift: a large shard of black besmirched polystyrene embedded amongst the now profuse Pyrenees butterbur. How Daisy Man’s wife had gawped at me before a thin smile twitched as if it were a whisker!

Then again, the chuckle-bundle Portuguese lady who works the deli counter had caught my eye too. Spying the Guernsey butter and paw print shopping bag in my Waitrose basket, she seemed to have thought I might be interested in the uncertain future of her friend’s cat.

Her friend, she said, had moved at the beginning of the month, but ‘le tronquet de Noel’, the traditional Island Yule log, was proper aflame when the friend’s grey mog, on its first night out from its new home, hadn’t returned. Despite its paws having being buttered.

“Buttered paws?” I ventured.

“Yeah, sir. Don’t you know butter on paws helps removes smell of old home? Helps find way back to new home. My friend says that.”

“Better to use brandy butter,” I suggested. “Least it would’ve made the mice taste festive. Has your friend checked out Guernsey’s Cat Community Facebook page? It’s very practical.” 

“It gives advice about paw-buttering?”

“It’s more a a pussycat lost and found.” 

“Maybe I tell her. How many turkey slice you want… sir?”

I guess slinky paws and Yule logs are as much to do with olde custom as a somewhat pagan rite which, although sadly defunct, is worth a mention. 

Once upon a gurnard, Guernsey lads had scooped out turnips to use as lanterns, dressed up a freaky effigy called ‘Le vieux bout de l’an’ (the end of the year) – I’m assured it was an effigy and not some bod’s virgin uncle – and on New Year’s Eve a mock funeral procession traipsed through the Island’s streets. Its purpose? To bury the ‘end of the year’ on the beach.

End of year beach

Apparently the Bailiwick’s Royal Court, after much Church wheedling, put an end to the shenanigans. As it oddly did to the poor and hungry begging from house to house that same eve. The fine or whipping doled out for breach, I’m led to understand, has never been rescinded. Oh Guernsey does so keep its feudal niceties tight to its little chest! Like a hubby having the legal obligation to sign off his missus’ annual tax return. “Outrageous!” chums of mine exclaim elsewhere, which right now may as well be Brigadoon.

The Island’s owls, mind you, don’t give a hoot. That I’ve come to be sure of. I mean Guernsey has been ‘home’ for twenty-one months and not once have I heard, let alone seen, a blessed owl. The missus, meanwhile, has earwigged a couple.

“Quelle surprise,” I’d said after number two. “Easy when you’re a night bird yourself.” I might have added that unawareness of strigiformes in my orbit was due to me primarily being a dawn-rising worm-tugger. But my brain warned ‘Nooo! Too risqué. An unfair charge of crudity would await.” 

‘Course, my personal dearth of owls has, like the polystyrene, nettled. But it’s worse than that. Wishing for the presence of an owl has morphed into obsession. Call it homesickness. You see, around proper home in Wiveliscombe owls are ten a penny. To the point my son once yelling at a super-articulate tawny to “pissing shut up!” being run of the mill.

Fate, however, took a funny turn in Guernsey’s darkest depths on the night of Flat 1’s party. The ‘Dancing Queen’ karaoke missed by the missus and my call to work. She on home visits. Me, her chauffeur, pootling her from one to t’other in Poopsie the Smart.

First summons was to the arse end of Rue des Fauxquets. Which translates as ‘Road of Fakes’. 

Beyond it’s ivy threatened name plaque, des Fauxquets is a narrow, Castel parish, deep-cut lane through the Island’s middle offering mud and mush, tumbled rocks itching to grind off a car exhaust, and a half mile of skeletal tree arch. There’s also a tiny smattering of homesteads sans gaudy jollity. One being the address of Roquette Cider, whose guddle a novice might mistake for a prime Somerset offering. And it’s where, I like to imagine, woozy mice in residence within wrinkly, stoic-stalked scrumpy apples when I should be concentrating on the bloody road.

Des Fauxquets fortuitously survived without undue incident, we arrived, bar a single light, at our pitch black destination. Gawd it was quiet. Dutifully I waited and waited for the missus to do her doings. Eventually impulse overwhelmed. I slid down the car window and sucked in the chill air. “C’mon Universe, deliver me an owl!” I implored. “Please. Please. Please. And may its sound be the omen of a happy new year!” 

“Doh,” sighed my brain, “You’ve only gone and bunged your hopes on a mouse murdering bundle of feathers.”

Five minutes later and the missus and I were on our way back the way we came. Buttered tyres not required.

“OWL!” I exclaimed, ramming on the brakes. Wow, the power of pleading.

“Be cautious of rash conclusions, my love,” choked the missus, nimbly adjusting her seatbelt. “This is des Fauxquets.”

“Shush. LOOK!” 

Sure enough, sat on a bare branch, staring straight at Poopsie’s headlights, a splodge of taloned white. A barn owl. Then a turn, a glimpse of tail and away down through the skeletal trees it ghosted. Noiselessly. “Thank you, owl,” I said.

“Amazing,” breathed the missus.

And that’s pretty much where she and I are at as we soothe our souls with Bailey’s chocolate liqueur and mince pies. Should I see a grey cat, sure, I’ll give it a pat. That surprise dumb owl worries me though. What did it know that it wasn’t prepared to say? In another world the C-word’s upping its game and full on Brexitdom’s mere hours away.

But of 2020? Had there been le vieux bout de l’an they’d shortly be a heavy stamping down of burial sand. 

Enough of mithering, I’m returning to ‘Carpathia’ the recipe book the missus’ gave me for Christmas. Sarmale in foi de vita (vine leaves stuffed with sticky rice and sultanas) requires a studious eye. Although the missus licking her brandy buttered paws offers further distraction as she meanders her way back from fridge to sofa.

Illustrations & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

White Christmas Rabbits

13th December 2020.

White Christmas rabbits

On this island measured in perches rather than acres a fox is as unlikely to wander pass one’s vision as is a snow leopard. Before I revisit that statement that held true until yestereve, it needs emphasising that when it comes to the retelling of tall Christmas tales Guernsey’s biggest wild animal hops centre stage. Enter the leading rabbit.

Currently, atop the sooty chimney pots closest to the missus and my flat window, a pair of robins December bob-a-bob. Exhaust plumes emitted from the old codger’s Fiat Doblò continue to drift, making the seagulls cough. Aloof from the starling gang sandpipers paddle at Jaonneuse. Whilst a Brexit fretting fishing boat trusts to luck in the bay. Along the Cobo sea wall, colourful lollipop signs promote ‘Brave It’, the up-coming Boxing Day charity dip. Vying for attention: the States of Guernsey Agriculture, Countryside and Land Management Services. Their signage hints at the faecal: “WARNING. Keep clear of any water near the outfall. Always wash your hands before eating.”

Bobbing robins
Jaonneuse starling gang
Paddling sandpipers
Cobo ‘invitation’ lollipop

“How’s things on your island paradise?” was my Melbourne dwelling son’s up front question of our WhatsApp catch up.

Here was my chance. To impart the newsy snippets: St. Peter Port’s Christmas lights look pretty-pretty; at Les Fauconnaires organic farm, Jim and Liz’s Guernsey cows swish their tails in time to the beat of the milking parlour’s piped in gentle music; the eagerly awaited annual ice skating rink has opened at the Island’s garden centre whose cafe’s mismatched crockery comes with chips as standard; and Santa’s being driven around in a veteran car chauffeured by an out-sized elf.

St. Peter Port Christmas lights

Best of all there’s Joseph. A goodly name for this time of year. A dogged chap, he broke a fibula and sprained an ankle chasing after a burglar. Winning himself the Island’s Crimestoppers Achievement Award. And being likened to playing out a Guernsey version of ‘Hot Fuzz’.

“Every time I went over a wall,” Joseph recalled, “he (the burglar) waited for for me so he could hit me when I landed, so I had to let him get away a little bit… I’m not a fit guy, I’m a bit fat, but he was equally unfit and I kept reminding him that, although I was fat, I was fitter than him.”

I spurned the opportunity to relate any of these joys. Instead, I whinged. “Feeling anxious,” I answered in reply to my lad’s question. “About venturing out after dark. S’pose one can always bugger off on the boat to Sark. But at Christmas? Nah. Definitely not.”

“How so?”

“Superstitious Sarkies say their streams turn to blood at midnight, Christmas Eve. As does the watery well. Go look and you’ll snuff it within the year. Reckon, though, an opportunity for a notable festive black pudding got spurned. Here on Guernsey I simply run the risk of being led astray … or a quick death by barn door. So it’s kind of Susan Hill gothic meets J.K. Rowling cutie-fantastical.”

“Okay, Dad. Exactly what have you been reading?”

“A bit of Victor Hugo. Dipping into his ‘Toilers of the Sea’, I’ve learned off-pat ‘Legendary truth is invention whose truth is reality.’ Old Victor loved full on Gothic. Plain as day.” Best example? Hauteville House, his Guernsey home when in exile from France. What a vestibule! A proper oddity. A metalwork of bat-winged creatures and skulls, devils and lopped heads, shrouded figures and bare boobs. Quite a contrast to the clock that ticked as he wrote adorned with quaint rustic scenery crafted by Dobel of Yeovil. Amazing. I mean, Yeovil! And it’s still ticking, shooing off this dreadful year.

Victor Hugo in his Guernsey eyrie
St. Peter Port ‘sea toilers’
Hugo’s still ticking clock
Gothic vestibule, Hauteville House

“Anything other than Hugo?” My son’s tone wrestled with more than a hint of boredom.

“Yep, I’ve had a major plunge into Sir Edgar MacCulloch. Glorious stuff. Folksy Victorian. Delve and strange whatnots get exhumed.” True, the last damned thing browsed before lights out can over-influence. Right now my imagination scampers amok. Especially as the festive season’s got a grip.

“Wanna hear olde ways highlights?” I asked.

“Go on then.”

“Know how a Guernsey fisherman occupied his December down time waiting for the tide to turn or fog to lift?”

“Pff, tell me.”

“Fashioning pairs of stockings. Undoubtedly fishnets.” I laughed, adding, “On the other hand, a Guernsey farmer put down extra litter as a Christmas Eve treat for their cows.”

“How d’ya mean ‘litter’? Crushed coke cans? Greasy pizza boxes? Polystyrene? That stuff’s the pits. Ooh, your Mars bar wrappers? Actually, let me think… probably empty milk cartons.”

“Nah, nah, nah, Master Sarky, litter as in straw.” This caused further seconds of debate about definitions before I shed light that cows were believed to kneel in supplication at the stroke of midnight. And no, the same didn’t apply to Guernsey’s rats. Although I couldn’t swear to it. The only known witness, a dairyman having the temerity to spy on his cow at the appointed time, met a sudden end. His weighty barn door mysteriously brained him. Perhaps it was Gabriel what did it, wary donkey’s said.

I ploughed on.

Next, the ‘veille’ – a neighbourly get together and no restriction on numbers. Whose turn it was to entertain in their cottage home led to, as near as dammit, a Guernsey conga. The routine was always the same. Elderly matrons flopped down on the ‘lit de fouaille’ – a bed, its mattress stuffed with whiffy, yucky, seaweed, above which draped a canopy ‘festooned’ with dry flora. The old hubbies stuck to stools in the inglenook. Short straws had the whippersnappers and even middle-agers sat on the floor.

Victorian Guernsey cottages

Those long, long pre-Christmas evenings under the dim light of the ‘crasset’, a ceiling-suspended oil lamp pointed at the bottom rounded at the top, had results. Knitting and crochet, wood whittling and quilting got sold in St. Peter Port market square to provide the wherewithals for a merry blow-out. The indispensables? Mulled wine, highly spiced and sweetened, always drunk out of coffee cups, mild cheese and the peculiar Guernsey biscuit. Confusingly, the latter ain’t a biscuit at all, savoury rather that sweet it’s more like a butter laden, firm crusted, fluffy soft-centred, bread roll.

Market Place

The most convincing stories of ghoulies and ghosties initially told off-the top-the-head and influenced by commonalities whilst plying veille work gained traction. Aeons before cinema’s ‘Harvey’ and ‘Donnie Darko’ unworldly bunnies had entered the Guernsey psyche.

Sir Edgar noted: “During the eight days before Christmas (Les Avents de Noel) apparitions are most frequent. Some find their path beset by white rabbits that go hopping along just under their feet… and when they believed themselves to be close to their own doors have found themselves, they knew not how, in quite another part of the island.”

Apparently spectral mutts are also out there, “large black dogs, which no threats could scare away and on which no blows could take effect.”

I ventured saying that unease is as infectious as wretched Covid. My son yawned. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness I went on to share the missus’ and my previous day’s adventure.

Sod Yuletide swims, she and I were trepidatious enough driving to the Island’s dark west. Braving ‘faeu Bellengier” or Will o’ the wisp pretending to be one dense fog pocket after another in which unseen ducks quacked alarm. Our goal, the treat of an early evening meal at Sunset Cottage. Indian grub. Egon Ronay listed. Beside the sea at l’Eree. Where our young waiter’s foible was to add “please” to his each and every short remark: “Makhani? Please.” “Napkin? Please.” “Thank you, please.” “Cobra? Please.” Et cetera.

Hiding Les Hanois lighthouse’s distant blink were burgundy curtains, drawn and heavy, immediately behind the missus’ back. Her burgundy top the perfect match. Shell splinter fears, meanwhile, meant a cautious attack on her crab xec xec. Half closing my eyes I got the full Sir Edgar effect. It was as if I sat opposite a chumbling disembodied head.

Distant Les Hanois lighthouse
Crab xec xec

My eyes were wider than wide soon enough. Without the pre-warning sound of a stopping car in tottered a wee demoiselle wearing pointy black pixie boots. Fox fur hat on head, snow leopard spotted top and snow leopard spotted hot pants, and, glory be, fishnet stockings, Miss Raunchy’s free spirit look wasn’t the Island’s everyday for collecting a Balti takeaway.

“Where you off?” a forward customer chap asked. “Only Perelle,” she answered, exiting, gastro-bag in hand, into the night.

“Hope she makes it,” I said to the missus.

“Makes what?”

“Perelle. Don’t be surprised if she ends up in Torteval.

“That’s way in the opposite direction.”

“Exactly. She better beware the white rabbits.”

“In those stockings she’d best beware full stop. And don’t even think about running after her to ask if she’s a fisherman’s friend.”

“She’s well gone,” I quipped. “And so the legend begins: The sleepy fox that rides the ghostly giant spotted mog out the fairy kingdom and across Guernsey’s perches wild. Wherever they went the air would gain a smell of exotic spice. Christmas rabbits will be rendered passé.”

The missus was emphatic.“For him, no more Cobra, please,” her brief to the attentive waiter.

We drove the scenic route home. Poopsie the Smart car’s window down, a woof could be heard. Distant. As could the odd duck quack. Attempts to bring a mislead Miss Raunchy to her senses? Or maybe those blessed rabbits were better occupied leading burglars away from temptation, letting Joseph stabilise his wits. Anyway, at least Les Fauconnaires, hushed as an udder-sipping rat, seemed to be enjoying a silent night.

“Mate, white Christmas rabbits, hey? Can you believe it?” I concluded, my son now fully up to speed.

His sigh was lengthy. “Dad, I’m bloody worried you’ve gone gonzo.”

It wasn’t just a Miss Raunchy boot that had a point. The Island, I admit, has morphed me into a prize flibbertigibbet.

And Cobo’s ‘braving it’? Me? Not a ruddy chance. I’m leaving bobbing to the robins. Better to spend time messing the kitchen with bread flour and judging the oven, challenging myself to call a roll a biscuit. Before that I’m refilling my coffee cup. 



Illustrations & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Wakeful Tortoise In Rat Year

27th November 2020.

Wakeful tortoise in rat year

How has it come to this, me on a sea-rock obsessing over a wakeful tortoise and flower-tattooed rats?

Winter is yet to pitch up and seriously rap on autumn’s misty door. November’s waning hours are mere double digit. The Chinese ‘Year of the Rat’, however, skitters on and will only tail-off just short of next Valentine’s Day. Call out the elephant in the room, 2020 has been a PR disaster for Ratty.

Autumn’s mist

Islanders meanwhile continue to be chuffed that Guernsey life’s pretty much normal. So normal I’ve shaken the accountant’s hand over the missus and my ‘end of year’.

True, the Island’s surprise Covid-cluster baffled for a while given the Bailiwick’s border’s tight as a ling hooked line. Now after sweat and tears the rumour’s out the guilty ratbag’s been traced: a fly-in, quarantine spared doc from ‘Borisland’. On island for a measly day to attend a job interview. And whose résumé, no doubt, included a line about ‘wanting a challenge’. The afflicted now register three. Which is to say nought-point-nought-nought-seven per cent of the Island population. So despite some ruffled feathers Guernsey continues its good luck.

Seasoning themselves in last weekend’s mizzle the crowd cheered St Peter Port’s Christmas lights switch on. ITV live streamed the novel, socially sans distanced event. And not a face mask to hide a gawping mouth.

Guernsey gathers

This bonzer sea-rock has seriously wowed the world. Adopted ‘Donkeys’ – the name Guernsey people lovingly call themselves – from Murrooghtoohy to Minneapolis adjusted their digitals. As did the the missus and my dearest Muscovite friend. She WhatsApped from Melbourne: “Everyone is in warm coat – is it that cold already?”

My flippant reply ‘Most warm coats were on our rats” had the missus slap my wrist before I could tap ‘Send’. Instead, “Nope. It’s currently balmy, ‘cos it’s barmy” got the okay.

Island nature doesn’t know whether it’s Arthur or Martha.

Our Muscovite would smile to learn, within sight of Stream Mill Lane’s fat mill tower, the one with the horse weather vane, that’s suddenly looking festive, Rusky the Russian tortoise is wired. Wakeful. This close to his December deadline he’s flatly refusing to wind his neck in and hibernate. Then again, the sap rooted, too, lean toward the unnatural. Daffodil spears defy logic. Dandelions bloom amid fungi. Fringing the Les Petites Fontaines wild strawberry flowers peep through the fallen and brittling tree leaves. Right this minute Sooty Sid’s mowing his garden daisies. And a bumblebee hover-burrs outside the flat window. Seeking what? A betwixt-stone mortar snuggle-hole? With or without, the six-month lifer might yet, along with the mingling islanders, see it through to Ratty’s twelvemonth tail-off.

Fat and festive mill tower
Late November daffodil spears

Hmm-hmm, social distancing is a rare thing in this lucky Bailiwick. Be chuntered about otherwise. Like when, in this year-of-years, two words got themselves irritatingly painted both maw and arse of the Rue a l’Or.

Upon first mention of the name what I heard was ‘Roo alors’. Aussie conditioning imagining a kangaroo bouncing around St Peter Port. Now I know better. Rue a l’Or translates as ‘Gold Street’. Which is total pomposity. A status thing. An exaggeration for what’s dank, narrow, windy, down and up, and pitch black at night. For gawd’s sake it’s obviously a lane. Albeit with beautifully built high stone walls on both sides.

Midway along sprawls Guernsey’s noblest private house, Havilland Hall. In pre-pestilence times Prince Andrew was a regular guest. Or so the bibblers, tapping noses knowingly, swear in ‘The Drunken Duck’ – an honest public house at which the obliging public bus stops short feet outside the door.

An honest public house

Likewise for convenience I hold my hand up to having enjoyed the Rue a l’Or. Bypassing traffic snarl at times of stress and during after dark. However, connected words got spoken. Island politicos hurriedly shared notes. White paint was ordered. As were outsized stencils for tarmac. The result? ‘PROHIBITED STREET’. Me? I stick to calling it the ‘rat run’.

There’s a context to this.

In yesterday’s twilight, my hands on the steering wheel sticky from a melted Mars bar, Poopsie the Smart pootled up Le Vauquiedor steep following the stream of tail lights. Passing the Rue a l’Or spur I thought it unwise to nudge the missus and exclaim “Oh, looky-look! Rats doing the literal!”

Yet rodent eyes did scrutinise us. ‘Course they did. Brown rats are like that. Good old rattus norvegicus. Don’t be fooled by the name. They’re as Viking as scrumpy cider. The Latin’s the fault of pom ‘naturalist’ John Berkenhout. Him scratching a quill in the 1720s, confusing brown rats with Norwegian lemmings is, I suppose, forgivable.

Without wanting our Muscovite friend to scowl, I can avow, the Guernsey brownies, like Rusky, actually have Russian ancestry. Having sailed into St Peter Port aboard ships, the addicted migrators doubtlessly said “Zdravstvuyte!” (“hello!”). Which is understandably different to “Nǐ hǎo!”, the original brown rats nest having hailed from China. Which brings matters to being rather in vogue. And brings me to my light bulb moment of glorious Rue a l’Or inspiration.

I’ve hit upon what to give Romi my philatelist dad-in-law for Christmas. And it won’t be chocolate. That I keep for the Guernsey Post whoopsies.

‘BSBCB’ (‘Buy stamp, buy chocolate bar’) is a notion I’ve come share with other islanders. Honest householders who take the trouble to door-knock addressees whose mail delivery harassed posties have cocked-up truly deserve a Mars. I don’t fear the calories. The island’s puff-breath hills and zillion steps take care of them.

But my current forensic focus is on the stamps. Guernsey’s 2020 ‘Year of the Rat’ commemorative lickables. A full half dozen. Each with gold detail. The elegant work of a Sydney based artist. Chrissy Lau – by birth a Yorkshire lass whose parents owned a Chineses takeaway – has designed loose change for the Royal Australian mint, amongst other things. Guernsey rats have sudden kudos.

Chrissy Lau

The denizens of Martello towers and back alleys, cliff paths and everywhere else can now display their gnarly feet and twitch their whiskers proudly. Heavens, let the lady from Environmental Health lose a shoe down a blinking brown rat tunnel! And the twenty-five brown rats shimmying past a Port Grat fixed camera in as little as one minute thirty? What the heck! Ignore they got the Island compared to both a New York sewer and a Philippines rubbish tip. Doesn’t matter.

The scrabbling, a-gnawing rat. Chinese culture believes, promotes wealth, abundance and prosperity, as well as fertility and reproduction. Fine and dandy but did the stamps’ commissioner consider Guernsey’s very limited space? Can’t have ‘donkeys’ breed like the proverbials. Anyway, Chrissy’s flower-tattooed muck about with firecrackers, coins and kumquats in their pride of place to the left of Her Maj’s golden crown.

Flower-tattooed rats

“Only on Guernsey!” islanders forever laugh. The rats braving gloomy Rue a l’Or surely chitter their agreement.

Needless to add I placed an order for Romi’s set of six. And still hum and ha whether the Muscovite might also welcome them. To remind her both of the missus and me and what’s headed for the history books.

My immediate concern are Rusky’s munchings. Agreed, a lengthy hibernation is nothing that a slug of birch vodka can’t help induce. But gut fermentation of daffodils and dandelions poses a problem. A ticking time bomb. Reason to recommend a post-prandial Dulcolax soon as shut-eye’s nigh.

First up, I’m off for a rummage. Somewhere behind the kitchen wok are the hot water bottles. It’s suddenly begun to feel colder. Best keep the missus warm. Christmas! I’d be a ratbag not to.

Illustrations & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Squirrel Dreams And Beach Bombs

13th November 2020.

Old watch house, Le Guet

November. New incomers are treated with suspicion more than ever. Others aren’t welcomed at all. Not even if isolated. Iffy white geese wander L’Ancresse common. And mounds of niffy manure await spread on L’Aumone stubble fields. Marooned on a small, almost Covid-safe island one might still wish for a change of scenery. Guernsey’s powers-that-be are happy to oblige. Somewhat drastically.

Iffy L’Ancresse geese
Niffy L’Aumone manure

“They’re going to cut down the trees at Le Guet,” announced the missus looking up from the ‘Guernsey Press’. “Next week.”

“Woah. I best photograph befores and afters. For posterity.” I answered, wiping my mouth of frothy coffee. Yay, a new lease of purpose. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. I’ll pop up for befores. What else is new?”

The missus referred to Facebook. The result had us raise eyebrows. Time hastened onward.

Le Guet (like in ‘baguette’) has a melancholic vibe. Been that way since the young fella’s suicide in autumn 2019. The ground, a pine needle duvet, is slopey. High. Raised by a gurt ‘rocque’ (rock). At the top and built of close-to-hand quarried stone squats the Napoleonic, single-storey, watch house. And on the cusp of having its view of sea and Cobo, marred for decades by Monterey pines, returned to former glory.

Le Guet view to sea and Cobo

Quite honestly, Guernsey doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Seriously it doesn’t. Nothing’s been said in the world news about the bearded man wearing a pink dress who pedals a child’s bicycle along the Rue des Varendes pavement. Nor indeed anything about the ‘Trump House’ eccentric along Les Petites Fontaines continuing to display a pink ‘Women For Trump’ flag that prompted a lady under a yellow umbrella to holler, “Pointless! No Guernsey girl will volunteer their boobs!”. Both pink shockers got denied a front page mention, I’m guessing, by US election news from Pennsylvania.

‘Trump House’

Largely ignored too, I bet, the BBC Radio 5 Live debate whether ‘Le God’, the long-retired Southampton and England football legend Matt Le Tissier, was from the Isle of Wight or Jersey. What?! I vented frustration within the sound-proofing of my head. “He’s a Guernseyman you nincompoops!” I mean, come on! Le God’s the wowza centrepiece of the Moores Hotel wall mural. Whose portrayal of Island worthies, including Dillon a deceased town cat, bang overlooks Le Pollet, a cobbled St Peter Port street.

Moores Hotel mural

With the kitchen clock gone back, dark times hit the skids. I so mourn that lost hour that makes daylight bungee-like. Yet there’s time enough for Guernsey hailstones to sting the rainbow gawpers.

As the bat said to the wet-market pangolin, “Don’t mess with nature”.

Advice the footballers of St Martin’s FC have taken to heart, letting the gurt gulls, whose island home this is, just get on with it at Blanche Pierre Lane. A footy pitch is a footy pitch you might think. But foolishly when the naked eye can’t see what wriggles and writhes under boot.

Where ‘Le God’ had donned the yellow shirt of Vale Recreation, St Martin’s local rival, and first exhibited his silken skills, gull-kind has discovered a paradisiacal midfield. A creepy-crawly Elysium. Causing voracious pecking, fossicking, and turf-tearing. It’s as if shire horses have partaken in ploughing. Football matches are, for now, postponed. The reason given, neither ‘waterlogged pitch’, nor ‘floodlight failure’, but ’other’. And what with gulls sharing ground with rat, rabbit and feral ferret, the Island surely doesn’t need the addition of further disruptive wildlife.

I only mention this because a silly sausage on the ‘Guernsey Have Your Say’ Facebook page has gone and fired up wrangling. About whether the Island should give a second chance to… the squirrel. Blooming bravo! Not.

In cosmo Australia where island space isn’t really an issue, marsupials are au fait with interloping rabbits, camels and foxes running amok. And, almost incomputable to Guernsey where every proud citizen’s known as a donkey, ‘Straya’ has five million free-roaming ones. Island space is relative.

The squirrel of topic is the red variety. Largely on the grounds that they are cuter than the grey. And live in happy abandon on Jersey and the Isle of Wight. So a kind of fluff-tailed numpty dream of keeping up with the Joneses.

Red squirrel (sciurus vulgaris)

Two truisms though defy Beatrix Potter’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ Squirrel Nutkin image. Red squirrels are cantankerous buggers. And they eat anything. Fungi and flowers. Bugs and eggs. Baby birds and mice. Amphibians. Oh, and bird table delicacies. So not good PR. The gulls certainly would have summat to cry over.

Worse still, imagine sciurus vulgaris sticking an inquisitive nose into a protruding bit of rusty metal in the ecstatic hope of having found a hidden cache of tinned peanuts. Actually, don’t. Because in Guernsey’s north east, past the Martello tower that flies the national flag and where crows caw, is the cliff where Fort Marchant overlooks Fontenelle Bay.

Martello tower

Here a grand view exists of Platte Fougere Light sat on Braye reef. Completed in 1910, the lighthouse cost ten grand to build. Was the first ever in concrete. And the first unattended. Control coming from ashore.

At a loose end last week, I thought the light worth a look.

When almost there, past my left lughole flashed a kestrel. Spooked. By what? My iPhone camera having snapped vanishing arse feathers I glanced behind me.

Ah.

The pair following were definitely on my heels. Blooming Nora! I stood aside. Politely and effing promptly. “Please go first. I invite you!” I offered.

The bearded and uniformed of the two hugged plastic shafted, steel-pointy stakes, cordoning-off tape and a ‘Danger Bomb Disposal’ sign. He encouraged his comrade, a scruffy brown mutt, to pad on ahead of him. “Nope-nope-nope, after you,” the mutt’s look pleading. They compromised. Walking side-by-side. The mutt likely with paw pads tightly crossed front and back. A report of maybe a mine, German. Or a depth charge, British. World War Two vintage. Tide revealed.

Bomb disposal comrades
Distant Platte Fougere light

Hellfire. What if a squirrel should scratch up another parachute mine? Like In Bluebell Wood. Similar to the coppers’ find in 2013? Can’t be allowed to happen. Really, really not.

Worryingly, red squirrels had indeed snuck in under the radar once before. A 1960s aberration. Petit Bot, the place. Today a nook of waterfall, sycamore, escaped nasturtiums and a sheltered cove. A ghetto of adorbs tried eking an existence and failed miserably. In fact they carked it. Tree shortage blamed for the inbreeding and starvation.

Petit Bot

To thrive a red squirrel ‘chucks’ and ‘wrruhs’ for a splendiferous tree canopy. Interwoven. Extensive. Guernsey’s more clumpy. And the arrival of Special Branch guarantees one clump less. The big one at Le Guet. Whose pine cones red squirrels would hold as menu toppers, delicacies to chomp the way people eat corn-on-the-cob.

Special Branch

Despite the Island’s Special Branch being nowt exciting, merely local tree surgeons, their chainsaws have properly put paid to subversive squirrel notions. Doing away with temptation. Damned decisively. Someone will, hopefully, nudge the silly sausage and gently break the bombshell.

Meanwhile, the Montereys. Their felling is ostensively because of age. They’re end of life. Supposedly. Dangerous potential topplers, authority insists. Named and shamed as Island gatecrashers. Better to plant indigenous. So hello to hazel and oak. Maybe.

A sepia photograph from the age of top hat and pony and trap shows a previous Le Guet. The huge rocque a stand out. Bracken and gorse from watch house front door down to foreshore where oyster catchers still peep.

Old Le Guet (rocque & watch house top right)
The ‘rocque’ today

Planted to grow quick, the Montereys hid from sensitive eyes brutish and foreboding watch house additions. German occupation during the Second World War had slave labour pimp the place with bunkers and heavy gun emplacements. A watch house, then, with teeth. Stark contrast to the concrete of Platte Fougere. Memories of reason, though, fade.

Watch house with teeth

But back to my befores.

Pre a brekky of poached egg, smoked cod and splotch of buttery steamed spinach, and out seeking a panorama, I puffed up Le Guet steep. Past the tragic spot. The sycamore dressed in faded ribbons, flowers long dead in cellophane placed at the roots. A photo in a clear plastic sleeve: a young man in a shirt and tie, hand written messages of sadness and loss.

Tragic spot

I arrived in mournful mood at the watch house courtyard. A pair of pigeons loitered. Three gulls and the ubiquitous large rat snacked. Sparsely.

“Mates! What you doin’? Far better picking at Blanche Pierre Lane. There there’s a full turf-wrapped buffet!” My words were met by an instantaneous flap of wings and a scurry. Sure as pine cones are pine cones, news reaching Le Guet travels slow.

Watch house courtyard
The Monterey pines

Who dropped the bag of crisps remains an open verdict. The cap wearing ancient geezer with the Jack Russell? The grim bloke with two St Bernards? Or the early riser nun? I could only hazard a guess. As great a mystery, then, as the apologia for ending it all.

This morning, the pine tree clicked mid fall and my thumbs up signalled, I had my afters.

Afters

It’s notable, the missus says, that today’s Friday the 13th. In 2020. Jeez! And, oddly, International Kindness Day. Interpretation as free as Waitrose’ gratis bunch of blooms. Tosh to any change of scenery. The missus and I are squirrelled away, sofa bound. Under our duvet of safety. The prickles of our newly decorative eryngiums out of stabbing distance.

Nothing though stopped me have a peek at any local news update… Strewth! Oh, golly gosh! The harbourmaster, Cap’n Barker, is on his high horse, insisting on calm. World War Two ordnance had been found. Last Wednesday. Right here in bloody St Peter Port. An anti-submarine depth charge, he guesses. On his watch, the biggest he’s ever come across. A metre long. Half that in circumference. On the sea bed. Very close to the QEII marina.

St Peter Port marinas

Could have been loosed from a plane or been lobbed from a boat. And is currently cuddled by ‘marine growth’. Might be mistaken for a rock, the Cap’n said. Or, from a squirrel’s perspective, a barrel of nom noms, mused I. The ‘Red Squirrel Survival Trust’, adamant the focus of its existence swims, puts an end to sentimental hypotheticals once and for all.

On this, a human rock-dweller has his fingers and toes triple crossed.

Illustration & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.

Bubbles And Ballots

8th October 2020.

Bubbles and Ballots

Here we are. In October. The air, tingle-chill. Lichen and sloe, cliff top standouts. Microcosm loveliness. The word ‘bubble’ retains its literal meaning. As the ‘Rule of Six’ does to a half dozen eggs.

Lichen and sloes

What absorbs the islander majority? Look no further than a quote from the poignant novel of Guernsey life G.B. Edwards wrote in the 1970s, ‘The Book of Ebenezer Le Page’.

“I don’t think anybody talk about anything else on this island now: except the weather and how much so-and-so is making, or what the States is or isn’t doing that is wrong.”

Fifty years on, nowt’s changed. Apart, that is, from a few noggin scratchers.

“There are some very strange people in the world,” mused the missus, Facebook absorbed.

“A plethora of ‘em,” I agreed.

And Time gallops.

Apple Day is faded news: the wallow hog roast devoured to the last crunch of crackling. And Sir Richard, the Bailiwick’s former Bailiff, beaten fair and square in the apple pie eating contest by the sprog with the speedy nibble technique. Yet reason remains to be found for many a box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes discovered in the middle of the road near the island’s diary.

Moreover, Philosophy Carl’s quip that “Guernsey will be locked in a bubble of black and white while the rest of the world moves on to colour” has been received down the ‘Drunken Duck’ with puzzlement. Especially since the merry hurrahs for the Island’s lauded virologist, “incredibly honoured and humbled” by her MBE. The gift of the Queen for unfettering the Bailiwick from Covid-pestilence. Me? I’m still trying to quietly winkle out the sense of hyperbole when it’s nigh on impossible to remain anonymous.

Although it’s a mystery of a serial nature who was aboard the $54 million private jet that landed, it was definitely Sooty Sid who’s lit his family’s smoker for first time since May. The chimney’s belches buggering my wonderment at an aubergine coloured sky before Storm Alex, named such by the French met office, turned St Peter Port’s mazy streets subaqueous.

Subaqueous

Only for the bug – an inquisitive ladybird – peering in through the study’s double-glazed window pane to waggle an antenna in shock. Not at a cloud burst but by having got sugared and soapy sopped by the pop from what a moment before had been a huge floating orb of rainbow light. The bubble plus a legion of others wand-served into fickle, wind-gust heaven. By Sooty Sid’s ‘Granny Day Care’ mum thrilling at her downtime before school’s out. Flying leaves the self-invited bubble buddies. Leading me to big-up dry old politics.

The last ballots counted, today’s the shakedown from yesterday’s election. The first ever that’d been Island wide rather than parish narrow in appointing new States Deputies. Which meant any Botherkins this or Wheedlekins that stood in, say, Forest could earn a ballot pencil cross in the Vale. Or so to speak.

Ballot counting (Guernsey Press)

Yep, any elector was permitted to vote for as many or as few of the hundred and nineteen eclectic egos as they blooming chose. So long as it was no more than thirty-eight, the full whack of contestable seats. Smiley-cum-smug hims and hers vied for voter sympathy. Placards popped up behind walls. A strategic green banner distracted at traffic lights. While a discrete ‘Please Vote’ poster for the spanking new ‘Alliance Party Guernsey’ only became visible when a garden tree dropped its chestnuts.

Distracting banner
Fallen chestnuts

Someone, mind you, maybe could have sidled past gatekeeper gnomes and knocked on the portal of ‘Trump House’. To explain the election was simply for Guernsey. No more than that. Honestly, honestly. Despite the trouble the occupier of the tatty end-of-terrace has been to.

Goodness me, each passing day exhibited further addition to the festooning. Sprayed on Team Trump slogans. Bunting. The ‘Making America Great Again’ banner-flag the size of a codswallop trawler draped from the cast-iron paling has the company of a blood-red Trump 2020 battle flag. Topping the paling, mini USA flags all in a row. In a window ‘The Donald’ is illustrated a-horse, mimicking Jacques-Louis David’s painting of a Marengo mounted Napoleon. This on the island where the plethora of Martello towers – on which paragliders sweeping too low try not to stub toes – got built to blinking repel the wee Jupiter Scapin.

‘Trump House’
Martello Towers and paragliders

The ‘Trump House’ answers, in a small way, the question: where in gawd’s name 35.2 million bucks the profligate Republican National Committee spent on merchandise go?

Guernsey natives have come forth admitting confusion. And deflation.

Needless to say, manifestos promised the earth. Well, to at least address cannabis, kind of tinker with the airport runway, and question whether new-build homes should squeeze out the hanging-in there wild flowers, doe-eyed cows and Maris Pipers. Not forgetting the Island’s rum sugar cane.

Guernsey airport

The carousing Spaniards, meanwhile, in the villa across the road have a new sock drying disc-rack hanging inside the French windows. Not a dream catcher as I’d thought before putting on my specs, having Heffalumped into the Guernsey trap of wanting to know the ins and outs of the cat’s bum.

But hey, this chap, like any mog, has to eat. Likewise his missus. And I admit setting a mental alarm to catch the mid-morning window that helps avoids the Waitrose snooty crowd but alas not the judgement of aproned staff.

“Can I have that celeriac free?” I solicited. The last-on-store found unloved. Wizened. Hacked about by an ASBO deserving harvester, but, at a pinch, passable for steaming. And essential. Along with carrots, spuds and chicken breast. When cooled and chopped small, and mixed in with mayo, petit pois and diced gherkins, not forgetting salt and pepper, makes an addictive Moldovan salad.

However, I talked to the hand.

On till the diminutive and disconcertingly forward, ever nostalgic, Denise. My pat of buttercup hue, Guernsey butter wrapped in distinctive gold and black foil brought the comment: “Used to be orange, had foot and half of cream on top.”

“Sound’s like some rabid President,” I quipped. A needless bon mot that Denise to her credit ignored. Down the conveyor belt the butter cruised. All £1.85 of it. Sheesh, don’t me get started on the price of butter when a cricketer’s arm can likely chuck pats from diary to far flung island shop, yet can be bought for 79p in Banbury. Jin, bless her heart, has been quick to Facebook post, “I have payed £1.85 at to coop it make me mad that us locals hav to pay more then the uk and it’s from hear (sic)”.

Denise’s attention turned to the biodegradable bag holding red perfection: two Jack Hawkins beefsteaks – large, old school tomatoes – that the missus had capital-lettered on my shopping list. “These are very expensive,” Denise scowled. “What you want are local ‘slicing toms’. They’re much cheaper.” And in truth, I knew, in an altogether lower league. Like Exeter City FC to Southampton.

Long gone, sadly, is the Guernsey Tom’s halcyon age when boatbuilders turned wood-framed greenhouse chippies. A time when seven per cent of the Island was under vinery-clever concave roof glass. Ponder on the fact 1969 staggeringly saw the Island export over nine and a half million trays. Of tomatoes. Each tray’s content sitting on tissue paper whose colour denoted quality.

Guernsey glasshouse chippies
Tomato vinery glasshouses in halcyon age
… skeletal collapse
Defunct tractors
Sparse times

Scant evidence of the industry remains. Except for lonely brick chimneys in the landscape. Legacies of coal-fired hothouse heating and the annual pest-killing soil-steam. The major cause of the industry’s demise? The picnic downer. Those hard tomatoes. The tasteless, uniformly grown, orange balls of Dutch water. Plus, of course, scrummy competition from the Isle of Wight.

Chimneys in landscape

“Woe betide me if I don’t take these beauties home to the missus.” I answered, knowing anything inferior and less mortgageable would seen as half-arsed, no matter the providence, by my sweetness and light.

Denise was shocked. “You should know better. Where’s your island loyalty?” My ‘museau’, she said, had the look of a Guernseyman. Holy Mother of God! A new one for the list. At various times my face has had me mistaken for Irish, Irish-Indian, German, Syrian and Moldovan.

I blurted out more info than I was happy with, namely me being born a Hampshire Hog.

And Hampshire’s detached part is The Isle of Wight. And fact is Hawkins are mainly grown there. If anyone was exhibiting island loyalty is was me. But noticing the beginnings of a queue I held my tongue. Instead I asked Denise whether we could actually discuss the celeriac.

Wizened celeriac

“It’s got character,” she smirked, holding the up the root of discussion as if it were a Portland vase. “A gourd’s got character too.”

A bit left field but I acknowledged the truth of it.

“My mum used to paint watercolours of them. Gourds,” she continued, ignoring the coughed arrival of a perfumed, run-along-a-ding-ding, laden trolley shover. “Mum stopped when Dad’s oils of boats and cliffs got exhibited in the Royal Academy. You know how it is living in a shadow?”

I said I could imagine. Adding I was bit of an artist myself and had illustrated some books.

“That’s good enough,” said Denise. As indeed, in her eyes, was the naff specimen of celeriac. I wouldn’t though put it to a vote.

Soon it’ll surely be made clear if the new Deputy-elects confound the words of G.B. Edwards. Whether the opinions of Philosophy Carl’ll be made blinking obvious to bibblers in the Drunken Duck I’m not holding my breath.

Right now? I’m about to slam shut the window. To hold at bay the acrid whiff of chimney smoke that swirls in this metaphorical bubble. After the missus and I gollop supper’s bonzer salad I’m sure there’s leftover apple pie.



Illustration & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.