Travel

Guernsey has many lit­er­ary con­nec­tions – but none more in­ter­est­ing than The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - By Nigel Richard­son

Ebenezer Le Page is a real Guernsey­man – hard­work­ing and stub­born, with a good Guernsey name, who sprin­kles his English with Nor­man French. He is also an in­ven­tion, the nar­ra­tor of a cult novel, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, pub­lished 35 years ago and some­what for­got­ten to­day. The story be­hind the novel is as slip­pery as the vraic (sea­weed) that washes up on the sandy beaches of Guernsey’s west coast (which is­lan­ders once har­vested and forked on their fields). Now, fi­nally, a book has come out

that disen­tan­gles the sea­weed and of­fers a new per­spec­tive on the Chan­nel Is­land char­ac­terised by Will Self as ‘the think­ing man’s Jer­sey’.

Ge­nius Friend: G B Edwards and The

Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a biog­ra­phy by Ed­ward Chaney of Ebenezer’s cre­ator, Ger­ald Basil Edwards. Edwards was also a Guernsey­man – he was born in Vale, in the north, in 1899 – but his re­la­tion­ship to this sea-girt wedge of gran­ite dan­gling off Brit­tany was the op­po­site of Ebenezer’s. Whereas Ebenezer left the is­land but once – to go to Jer­sey for the an­nual in­ter-is­land foot­ball cup – Edwards lived al­most all his adult life in ex­ile from it, in dif­fer­ent parts of Eng­land, hav­ing been de­nied the fam­ily home un­der Guernsey’s per­verse Nor­man in­her­i­tance laws.

It was a peri­patetic ex­is­tence in which early lit­er­ary prom­ise seemed to have fiz­zled out. Un­will­ing or un­able to re­turn to Guernsey, in 1967 Edwards set­tled in Wey­mouth – just about the near­est main­land town, as the boat sails – and in 1972, when he was 73, met Ed­ward Chaney, an art stu­dent stay­ing with

his aunt for the sum­mer. By this stage Edwards was liv­ing in a bed­sit and work­ing on the novel that be­came The

Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Two years later, ‘with a proud flour­ish’, Edwards handed Chaney the type­script. He also signed over the rights, giv­ing Chaney the task of find­ing a pub­lisher (in a metafic­tional echo, Ebenezer also signs over his ‘book’ to a stu­dent he be­friends).

It took Chaney – who is now the Pro­fes­sor of Fine and Dec­o­ra­tive Arts at Southamp­ton Solent Univer­sity – seven years to find a pub­lisher. When Hamish Hamil­ton pub­lished the novel in March 1981 Edwards had been dead for more than four years, with few, bar Chaney, to note or mourn his pass­ing. Then, some­where in lit­er­ary Val­halla, a failed hack be­came a mi­nor ge­nius. John Fowles was so taken with the novel that he agreed to write an in­tro­duc­tion (which be­gins: ‘There may have been stranger re­cent lit­er­ary events than the book you are about to read, but I rather doubt it…’); Wil­liam Gold­ing chose it as his Book of the Year; and the New York

Times hailed it as ‘one of the best nov­els of our time’.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page takes the form of a mem­oir (fea­tur­ing real peo­ple as well as a vivid fic­tional cast) in which the old man looks back on his life on Guernsey through most of the 20th cen­tury. Re­view­ing the novel in the Daily

Tele­graph Nina Baw­den likened Ebenezer’s voice, ‘both wily and in­no­cent’, to that of the An­cient Mariner. The reader may also de­tect traces of Alf Gar­nett, Vic­tor Mel­drew and even Holden Caulfield in his hi­lar­i­ously dys­pep­tic world view. Here is Ebenezer on the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Guernsey: ‘I didn’t like hav­ing the crea­tures here, but that wasn’t so much be­cause they was Ger­mans, as be­cause they was the bosses. I don’t take to bosses, as a rule, be they Ger­man, or English. Or Guernsey.’

For Gill Gi­rard, a lo­cal tour guide with a long is­land lin­eage, the voice and book ring true. She even has a child­hood mem­ory of one of the char­ac­ters in it, a her­mit called Steve Pic­quet who lived in an old Ger­man bunker he called ‘On­me­own’ (say it slowly) at Plein­mont. Ebenezer, she says, em­bod­ies ‘the typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of a Guernsey­man – hard­work­ing and stub­born’, and so ac­cu­rate are the novel’s topo­graph­i­cal ref­er­ences (re­mark­able given Edwards spent more than fifty of his 77 years away from Guernsey), that she has been able to put to­gether an Ebenezer tour that takes in­ter­ested vis­i­tors like me from the lovely sweep of Roc­quaine Bay in the far south-west, the home of Ebenezer’s great love, Liza Quéripel, to the Chouet penin­sula in the north-west where Ebenezer ekes a liv­ing from grow­ing toma­toes and fish­ing, with ‘only the sea and the rocks to look at’.

In be­tween you pass Lihou is­land, where Ebenezer and his friend Jim get trapped by the in­com­ing tide (the tidal range on Guernsey is huge), Vale Parish Church (‘I have lived all my days to the sound of bells of the Vale Church, com­ing to me on the wind over the wa­ter,’ Ebenezer re­flects), ne­olithic mon­u­ments and any num­ber of old gran­ite cot­tages that could have been the mod­els for Wal­la­ballo and Timbuctoo, the houses in which Ebenezer’s feud­ing aunts, ‘La’ Hetty and ‘La’ Prissy, live side by side.

Edwards would have been amused – at least on Ebenezer’s be­half – at the thought of lit­er­ary pil­grims turn­ing the old grump’s stomp­ing ground into a tourist itin­er­ary. For Ebenezer – and, by ex­ten­sion, Edwards him­self – loathed the post-war de­vel­op­ment of tourism on the is­land. ‘Guernsey is a fac­tory for the man­u­fac­ture of tourists now,’ he says. ‘When I go to Town [St Peter Port] nowa­days and see all the vis­i­tors about, it is as much like a bad dream as when the Ger­mans was here.’

Few tourists, it has to be said, have heard of Ebenezer and his strange tale. He is well down the is­land’s writerly peck­ing or­der, be­hind Vic­tor Hugo (whose as­ton­ish­ing house, Hauteville, you can visit in St Peter Port) and a novel about the Nazi Oc­cu­pa­tion called The Guernsey Lit­er­ary and Potato Peel So­ci­ety that Ebenezer would have lit his fire with. But if you want to taste the real tang of the is­land, read Edwards’s novel and go to the wild places where it’s set.

Ebenezer of course is re­li­ably his cre­ator’s mouth­piece – for Edwards’s views on the speed of change that turned Guernsey into an ‘is­land of ghosts and strangers’, read the old man’s cur­mud­geonly pro­nounce­ments. But on one oc­ca­sion Edwards puts his feel­ings into a softer mouth, that of Liza Quéripel, who grabs Ebenezer with a sud­den pas­sion: ‘She had a grip of steel. She said, “I swear ev­ery day and ev­ery hour I am away from Guernsey, my heart is bleed­ing se­cretly to be back.” ’

‘If you want to taste the real tang of the is­land, read Edwards’s novel’

Fort Grey, in Roc­quaine Bay, one of three Martello tow­ers on Guernsey. It was built in 1804 dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars

Hauteville House in St Peter Port, once the home of Vic­tor Hugo

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