A Guernsey Donkey and his Arbalest Crossbow

Desmond Bagley High Citadel © 1965, 2016 Steeger Properties/ Mike Mikos.

George Torode was a Guernseyman, he was a musician and radio host on BBC Guernsey, though was perhaps best known as a teller of humorous tales focussing on local Guernsey characters. As an author he wrote a series of ‘Donkey’ books, eight in total published between 1996 and 2009, recalling these local memories.

The people of Guernsey are known, and refer to themselves, as Donkeys (Les ânes) and the donkey is considered one of their national symbols alongside the Guernsey cow. The exact origin of this title is hard to pin down and there are several explanations commonly offered. One relates to the general stubbornness of the Guerns, another that if a Guernseyman had reached the age of 25, was still single and hadn’t been to London, his friends called him a donkey. Finally there is the theory that due to the steepness of the streets in St. Peter Port, donkeys were in more common use than in the other Channel Islands. [1]

The Donkey Rides Out © George Torode.

George’s 7th book The Donkey Rides Out (Cookson, 2005), contains an anecdote about Desmond Bagley, to whom George refers as a ‘temporary Donkey’. He relays a story from his friend Peter who once worked for the local building firm R.G. Falla and was employed to carry out building work at Câtel House when Bagley was in residence. Part of the job included turning one of the large rooms in the house into a writing study and library in which the author could work undisturbed. Peter had read a number of Bagley’s novels and during the renovation mentioned this to the author. Bagley seemed pleased and asked Peter if he had any constructive criticism.

‘Well,’ I said nervously, ‘some of it seems a bit far fetched.’

‘Give me an example.’ He was rubbing his hands enthusiastically.

‘In one of your stories, the only way your man could get out of the house he was trapped in was to kill the man outside, but he had no weapon. You had him make a crossbow out of odds and ends he found around the house, powerful enough to kill a man, it didn’t seem to me to be very likely.’

He said, ‘Come with me!’

We marched through the house and he began rummaging around in a small junk room. Suddenly he turned around clutching a home-made contraption, the most Heath-Robinson crossbow in creation made from bits and pieces one would find around the house. All I could do was laugh, he was right. Leading me back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee he said,

‘The stories might be fiction but I never put in anything unless I know it’s right – one of my books is set in one of the remotest parts of the planet and I left all the warmth and comfort of home, went out there and lived wild for three months to make sure it would be authentic.’ [2]

Bagley had moved into Câtel House in November 1976 and was of course no stranger to remote travel. His comment about leaving the warmth and comfort of home for one of the remotest parts of the planet, could refer a number of events: Visits to Norway and Iceland in 1946; his overland trek from Blackpool to Durban across the Sahara in 1947; his journey to New Zealand and Antarctica in 1969; or his trek across Iceland in 1969.

The arbalest crossbow features in Bagley’s novel High Citadel. One of his characters, Dr James Armstrong, a medieval historian, designs and produces the weapon out of bits and pieces, together with another character Dr Willis.

Desmond Bagley - High Citadel 1965 - Cover artist: Pino Dell'Orco © HarperCollins Publishers.

The crossbow was heavy in O’Hara’s hands. The bow itself was made from a car spring and the bowstring was a length of electric wire woven into a six-strand cord to give it strength. The cord which drew it back was also electric wire woven from three strands. The sear and trigger were carved from wood, and the trough where the bolt went was made from a piece of electric conduit piping.

It was a triumph of improvisation. [3]

Desmond Bagley at Hay Hill Totnes 28th June 1973 © Radio Times.

This wasn’t the first time that Bagley had produced a weapon in order to display it to a visitor. In June 1973, whilst Bagley was living at Hay Hill in Totnes, Devon, he was visited by William Raynor who interviewed him for the Radio Times. Following a lunch of fresh local salmon, fresh local strawberries and local Devon cream he demonstrated his crossbow to the interviewer in his garden.

The interview preceded the broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Story Time of an adaptation of his novel The Tightrope Men. Rayner noted that with his quiet Lancastrian accent and shy stammer, he seemed much too mild and boffinish ever to entertain the idea of inflicting any sort of injury on anyone.

‘Reviewers think there’s a lot of violence in my novels,’ he says drily. ‘But there’s a lot of it in the world, and my books only have the necessary minimum.’ He insists he’s not really interested in violence at all, even though he explains his collection of daggers, swords, crossbows and throwing knives by saying that wherever he travels he tries ‘to get the instrument the locals use for killing each other off.’ [4]

In 1967 Collins and Fontana joined forces in an advertising campaign for the launch of Bagley’s fourth novel Landslide and the issue of the Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel, together with a paperback re-issue of The Golden Keel sporting a new cover design. Bagley was their ‘latest ace in their high adventure pack’ and they produced ‘a sensational display stand’ in the form of a crossbow to hold both hard and paper backs with the tagline ‘Desmond Bagley Catapults You Into Danger’. The advert shown was published in the April 1967 edition of The Bookseller.

Desmond Bagley Landslide Collins/Fontana Promotion April 1964 © The Bookseller/HarperCollins Publishers.

The anecdote told in Torode’s book was a nice discovery on the shelves of the Guille-Allés Library in St. Peter Port, the book also includes a nice black and white full-page image of the author. It’s pleasing to know that Bagley was considered a Donkey, if only a temporary one, by such a well-respected local character and a comment on the rear of the book sums it up perfectly:

These people were Guernsey people, or Donkeys as we call ourselves, but these were very special Donkeys, the like of which we will not see again. This book hopes to ensure that they will not be easily forgotten.

Images © 1965, 2016 Steeger Properties/ Mike Mikos; © George Torode/Neil Cookson; © Radio Times; © Bookseller Media Ltd.; © HarperCollins Publishers.

1. Donkeys, Toads & Crows on The Guernsey Donkey (2011) [Online]. URL [Accessed 24th May 2018]

2. The Donkey Rides Out by George Torode (London: Cookson, 2005) pp. 168-171. ISBN: 0 9529501 62 Guille-Allés Library Ref: LL.940.TOR

3. High Citadel (London: Collins, 1965).

4. ‘Not just bang bang and pretty voices’ by William Raynor Radio Times (London – BBC Magazines, 1973), RT 2590, 28th June 1973, p. 10.