Tim Binding

Island Madness

All through that winter men had been pouring in, onto the island: engineers from Belgium, skilled construction workers from France, men laden with theodolites and drills who bored holes and tapped rocks and drew their indelible marks in the sand. There seemed no end to them. Down in St Peter Port the harbour was jammed with trawlers and tugs and great floating cranes, their necks bent double in search of their prey; metal rods, barbed wire, timber, and cement – always cement, the essential dust of His creation, cement in the flat-bottomed barges which wallowed their way from Cherbourg, cement stacked twelve feet high on St Julian’s Pier, cement hauled round the island on the narrow-gauge railway built from Cherbourg, to be mixed and poured and moulded into the fertile shapes of war. A military chastity belt of His design had been fitted around the island’s most tender regions, so that like a jealous lord He could prevent any violation of His fresh, plump property. But still He wanted more: more concrete, more guns, more men. In all of Western Europe there was nothing that glittered in His mind eye more brightly than the Channel Islands. Inselwahn, they called it. Island Madness.
Though the north of Guernsey is blessed with longer, sandier beaches, it is the tiny bays of the south, hidden by steep paths and high ferns, that form the island’s sparkling garland. Flying towards Jerbourg Point, Lentsch could see the coves in which he had bathed so often, Corbiere, La Jonnet, Petit Bot Bay, and then, as the plane banked north, came the long gabled roof of the Villa Pascal that looked down on the most delightful of them all, Saints Bay. As they passed over the house Lentsch noticed that the French windows had been thrown open while above, in continental fashion, that bedding hung out of the bedroom windows, even Albert’s. The house looked as still and as perfect as ever, but for the first time Lentsch saw it all in blocks of colour, the shining white of the stone, the patch greens of the lawn, the red-ochre cliffs spattered with a dark fuzz of olive and beneath it all the burning blue of the swollen sea. He imagined the brush strokes he would be unable to accomplish, the skill that had guided Cézanne’s hand. It was true that he had painted, what others had seized upon. He had always believed that it must be, despite the strident arguments which were now ranged against him and his kind. Now, unexpectedly, Lentsch had seen a glimmer of it for himself. From this plane, of all places! He said nothing to his companion, but raised the roll of canvas to his lips, as if in silent homage. These few acres had held him in their captive embrace for over two years, and every inch bore memories, the grass where they held their comic games of polo, with him and Sep as the horses and Molly’s straw hat as the prize; the jetty where first he had taught Isobel to dive; the rocky path down which they had all skipped encumbered in fancy dress; the ledge underneath the old tower where he would sit and paint. How fortunate it was that there should have been a war strong enough to carry him this far. On one rare occasion, when he had been invited to dinner at Isobel’s house, he had told them that when it was all over he would like to live here. She had looked at her father quickly, but neither had said anything. There was no need. They both knew what it meant. He was not the enemy. He was a soldier, that was all.

Tim Binding was born in Germany in 1947, and Island Madness was his third published novel. A fascinating and beautifully written book. Its first chapter has stayed with me very clearly from when I first read it shortly after its publication in 1998. The opening section where a German plane flies over the south coast is beautifully written. I find his repeated use of the word concrete in the excerpt above, reminiscent of Dickens use of the word fog in Bleak House. The use of 'Him' to denote Hitler is also intriguing, like some sort of unnameable Antichrist, or Sauron figure in Lord of the Rings.