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“History became Legend. Legend became Myth—”The Cat O’ Nine Tails : An Essay on Channel Island Culture and Lore

Growing up on the largest of the Channel Islands during the time of the last of the Bucket and Spade Brigade boom of the early 1990s, it was  still quite common for the traditional Jersey accent to still be heard, with its typical guttural (or rolling) /r/—much like that of the French accent—with an additional peculiarity that the sound /ai/ is often substituted by an /a:/ instead; however for those not familiar with the international phonetic alphabet, the ‘i’ sound in ‘fine’ would sound more like ‘farn’; ‘alright’ would sound more akin to ‘alraht’ (think of the letter a in the received pronunciation of father); however this is only typical if the ‘i’ is part of the first syllable of a word.

The name of one of the eastern parishes, St Martin, is pronounced much as an RP speaker might, although perhaps about a century ago this might be pronounced quite like the french way with a nasal ending.

A final distinctness of the accent is the addition of the sound /ei/ sound to the end of sentences, which doesn’t really function for anything but might be quite familar to readers as the same as the Canadian stereotype: succeeding sentences with an ‘ay’.

Perhaps in April of this year (2015), I was sitting in the Central Market in St Hélier having lunch, when an elderly chap walked past me whom I didn’t know personally, but I did recognise him by sight. ‘You alraght?’ he asks me (read: `How are you doing’) to which I replied “I’m fine thankyou, how are you?”—his brisk reply was ‘I’m farn’ (I’m okay), after which our business was terminated, playing much to my Jersey no-nonsense amusement.

A couple of years ago, a local songwriter known under the nom-de-plume of Hedley Le Maistre (Le Maistre being a very common Jersey surname; Hedley a much less common forename) gave a nod to the traditional Jersey accent in a series of music videos, such as Take That Grouville, a satirical short in which the singing protagonist (mouthed by islander Clive Pearce) waxes lyrical in a hugely exaggerated Jersey accent about the superiority of western parish St Ouën over one of its eastern counterparts, Grouville.

La Rue Jutize, Grouville Jersey
`Ce patois, c’est une vraie langue . . .’, Rue Jutize, Grouville, one of 12 parishes in Jersey.

This would be a disservice to the actual Jersey accent however, as of course external observers might consider this accent largely ridiculous if one only had this music video to go by, and so luckily we have a real-life example in the form of a spoken poem by Michael Vautier, with the quirky caveat that this poem is in fact in the island’s own language, Jèrriais, which shares many similarities with medieval Norman (it would indeed be considered a pejorative to call this ‘a dialect’ of French; indeed French author Victor Hugo illustrated this with a deliberate oxymoron ‘ce patois, c’est une vraie langue . . .’

Despite the difference in language, perhaps many of the features described above can be detected even with an untuned ear, with the additional importance of spoken nuance where written word will fail.

Tu M’Énerves, Man Vyi

The only Jèrriais phrase I knew when I was much younger—probably of primary school age—was the phrase man vyi as a term of endearment, much like the French analogue mon vieux to mean ‘my old . . ‘ as in ‘my old friend’. For illustrative purpose, a phrase used by my great-grandmother and heard by my own mother when she was a child was tu m’énerves, man vyi, to mean with more than a hint of irony, `you’re annoying me, my friend’. I’ve written this phrase rendée dans une manière  francaise, however this is not an unknowing mistake; I simply do not know how it would be written in Jèrriais, but hope to have captivated its cadence regardless. Man vyi as a phrase has survived amongst people with a Jersey accent, but this does not imply that these people can speak Jèrriais too—it’s not surprising also that both as a subset of the population are dwindling.

Elvina Launay Jersey, Channel Islands
As noted by Fredrich Engels in a letter to Marx in 1974: `Jersey has changed significantly since we were there . . . The French language is disappearing fast; even the children in the country speak to each other almost exclusively in English, and almost all the people under 30 speak English without any French accent..’ For most families (as of 2015), only great grandparents such as mine would have spoken Jèrriais with any frequency. Pictured: Elvina Duhamel née Launay c. 1915.

Such a focus on the Jersey accent and related linguistic peculiarities serve as a mental reminder for childhood memories; one of which is a fishing story of the Channel Island squid-like mollusc, the Cat O’ Nine Tails.

`The Deadly Onion-Fish’ 

Jersey has the fourth largest tidal range on Earth; old Jersey families hence have a very strong fishing habit, especially in the practice of laying fishing nets offshore. As a child of five or six, I remember going to lay out nets at either L’Étacq or La Corbière—the geology of either looks quite similar at low tide—with my father and an un vrai Jersiais,  George Girard (1929–2005), who informed me of the practice of laying the nets out by placing rocks a fathom apart to weight them down, with the real trick in discerning exactly where to lay the nets to avoid the nets tangling in seaweed, or to prevent taking fish not popular with the palate; a job which requires extensive knowledge of the weather, tidal flows and fish breeding habits.

Le Pulec Bay, L'Étacq Headland Jersey Channel Islands
View over Le Pulec bay below L’Étacq headland, an area traditionally associated with low-water fishing in Jersey. (c) Ryan S.  McMullen

One such memory, of course many years later,  involved observing some Portuguese fisherman not quite privy to local terminology who had decided to lay some nets off of Elizabeth Castle in an area known as the Dog’s Nest. Curses could be heard far and wide when they had to promptly deal with a net full of hundreds of dogfish—and dogfish only— which as many of us know are often sold at fish markets under the re-branded name of `rock salmon’ for public relations and marketing reasons.

Armed with a small prawn net, one navigates gingerly around the barnacle-laden rocks—razor sharp if they are far enough out from the shore that they are only revealed on the lowest tide of the year—when my five year old self came face to face with a floating onion in a shallow rock pool. Now of course, having quite a dead-pan sense of humour, my father reproached me for going near a particular nasty specimen of the mighty poisonous onion-fish and told me to keep it in my net to save anybody else having to come across it. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me even with nascent fishing experience as I had, since hitherto and recent to this point I had been taught about the thick poisonous spines of weever fish in the shallows of Havre des Pas after having caught one during one of my own fishing expeditions.

I kept guard over this onion-fish at arms length in my net, flip-flopping through either natural gullies or channels carved centuries ago by farmers  at seaweed  gathering time (known as vraicing; or the collecting of vraic) of which these channels were roughly a horse and cart wide. We came eventually to where M. Girard was laying out nets, and without even discussing this with my father out of my earshot, this old fisherman corroborated that this was indeed a deadly onion-fish and that I had done a good job of keeping it away from everybody else.

I spent the rest of the morning/afternoon finding the largest air bladders of the myriad kelp varieties to pop, lacing my hands with plenty of iodide in the process.

`They Died After the Big Freeze of ’63’

One of the stories this Jersiais ancien used to tell was of the cat o’ nine tails, an octopus-like mollusc which dwelt in the shallows and which people would delight in catching during the food shortages of the second world war. The marine stories were very specific, with the caveat that these species had all died-out after the Big Freeze of ’63. Another species included in these stories— also sharing the cat o’ nine tails’ poor fate at this time—was the conger eel, of which many were regularly washed up dead  in this winter on account of their eyes having frozen. Populations remained of these eels large enough however to continue to the present day, unlike the whip-like squid.

Plenty of other Jersey folk whom would have been children during the time of the war have spoken about the cat o’ nine tails, and I recently received a message from a man whose older brother

. . . used to catch the cat o’ nine tails during WWII; he would go down to the shallows where you could find them under rocks. [They] could easily be dispatched by turning the balloons of the bodies inside out . . . he used to bring them back to feed the cats . . . .

but claimed that he had never had seen them himself, and could not query his brother further since he had died a few years previously. The wealth of detailed stories about this mythical creature is quite astonishing, with certain families embellishing with their own information, but always with the addendum `they all died out in the Big Freeze of ’63’.

A cursory search of the internet reveals no information regarding the cat o’ nine tails as a mollusc, and an appeal to the marine biology section of La Société Jersiaise for putative binomial names of described  molluscs of the Channel Islands yielded complete silence. I felt that this was unusual, especially due to the prominence afforded marine biology in the 19th century with the likes of Jerseyman Joseph Sinel regularly corresponding to Charles Darwin on marine biological matters.

Like the ease with which Monsieur Girard corroborated the treachery of the onion-fish with my father, and without prior conspiration, I started to wonder whether this story of the cat o’ nine tails had been entirely fabricated; the lesser generations entirely forgetting the punchline. Indeed, these tales always come with an element which is entirely believable: in terms of the onion-fish; the weever fish episode, in terms of the cat o’ nine tails; the corresponding death of conger eels at the same time.

We can only use this story as a tentative 20th century example of how legends are created, however I transcribe an article (the protagonist, my maternal great-great uncle François Duhamelpublished in the Jersey Evening Post on the 19th August 1922 in order to keep the hope alive, and concurrently the legend still running.

19/09/1922

`Giant Octopus Attacks Fisherman

Yesterday, Mr Frank Duhamel, a local fisherman, had a terrifying experience and one which almost rivals the incident at the Roche Douvres, related in Victor Hugo’s `Toilers of the Sea’.
Whilst in his boat near the Jailers, off the Corbière,  he was hauling in the trammel when two huge tentacles came out of the sea. One grasped hold of the mast of the boat, whilst the other caught Mr Duhamel’s leg. The suction was tremendous and a Miss Le Blancq, who was in the boat, was so frightened by the unexpected and fearful sight that she fainted. Mr Duhamel did not lose his presence of mind, and drawing his knife slashed at the tentacle until it released its hold. Mr Gerard, who was fishing in the vicinity, also came to his assistance and by beating the tentacle which was holding the mast with a paddle, the denizen of the deep gave up its grip.
Needless to say Mr Duhamel, who was suffering from shock, will not occur undergo another experience of this kind.

—Jersey Evening Post 

A discourse on local lore is of cultural importance; those stories with individual family embellishments of character lead to a more complete view of a people and its humour. A written record is important to prevent these stories from falling entirely into obscura, however too much writing and one begins to fill in the sketchy hobbit-sized holes, those holes for which Tolkien meant comfort.

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3 Comments

  1. James Mac James Mac

    A fascinating post – thank you. And one which leads me to reflect a little.

    I also live in Jersey (I’m a recent arrival: my wife has roots, as her grandmother was a Renouf), and during a lengthy period spent kicking my heels I got quite engaged with local history.

    Your cat o’nine tails story is not the only one where people have done the research and proved to a high degree of confidence that something never was. The other great example of this is the saga of perquage paths: tradition insists they were sanctuary paths from church to sea that a convicted criminal might follow to take ship for exile, rather than face the law. A member of the SJ history section comprehensively took this to pieces – but the sanctuary path story will not lie down and die.

    This is not an unusual phenomenon: it has become more globally visible lately. I cannot recall where I saw the study, but it reported that increasingly people will hold to their own fixed set of beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are mistaken (it is likely to have been a US study: I think it referred to both gun control and climate change). Part of that is driven in the modern age by the ability to dig up evidence of some sort that will support personal view (confirmation bias). But this wouldn’t explain why this would happen in Jersey. It would be an interesting topic to explore.

    • Thankyou for your comments regarding this article James.

      I’m quite familiar with the Perquage story, however even I did not know that it was not at all true! What makes the cat o’ nine tails story interesting is that it was created within living memory (the Perquage story I think is a little older at least!), and in my experience it is just incredible that the older generation kept this little joke amongst themselves for so long without passing down the fact that it just isn’t true; the Jersey dead-pan sense of humour which I’ve come to be very sensible to, and partake in myself, has really helped in propagating this story.

      There are some traditional Jersey folk with very old and peculiar mannerisms. I will be sad when the last of them go.

      Again, thanks for stopping by!

      Ryan McMullen

  2. James Mac James Mac

    Hi Ryan,

    Found it. The news story was here and the academic paper behind it is here.

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