Anyone for Pie?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is far and away the most successful novel set in Guernsey. Although there are easily two dozen works of fiction using the German Occupation of the islands as their background, this is the stand-out commercial hit. Curiously it was written by an American who had only made a single unplanned visit to Guernsey.

The book is the only novel by American author Mary Ann Shaffer. She made a brief stop in Guernsey in 1976 and became fog-bound at the airport; a familiar hazard to island residents. Browsing the bookshop, she learned about the German Occupation of 1940 to 1945. It was two decades before she finally began her Guernsey novel, and it was accepted for publication in 2006. Her health deteriorated, so the final editing was carried out by her niece Annie Barrows who was already a published children’s author. Mary Ann Shaffer died in 2008 before the book was published.

It is an ‘epistolary novel’, in that the story is told entirely through letters between the characters. In post-war 1946, English journalist Juliet Ashton strikes up a correspondence with islander Dawsey Adams one and becomes intrigued by the quaintly titled Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She travels to Guernsey to meet members of the society, and a story of love, tragedy and hope emerges against the background of an island people surviving almost five years of enemy occupation emerges. For the uninitiated, potato peel was used as ersatz pie crust when food began to run short. I have never tried it, but it was apparently rather nasty.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was an immediate hit, especially in the USA. It spent 11 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and reached the number 1 position on 2nd August 2009.

Reviews were favorable; The Times said “Every now and again, a book comes along that is simple yet effective, readable yet memorable. This is one such delight … It is a uniquely humane vision of inhumanity; one to lift even the most cynical of spirits”

To date it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide in over 30 territories and has proved particularly popular with book clubs. It was planned for me to interview Annie Barrows at the Guernsey Literary Festival, but scheduling clashes mean that it’s not to be.

A film adaption has been on the cards for a few years, with different directors and stars mooted. It finally takes form this spring, directed by Mike Newell, starring Lily James as English author Juliet Ashton and Michiel Huisman as islander Dawsey Adams. The film will be in cinemas from April 20th 2018, with a special Premiere taking place in Guernsey in addition to the World Premiere in London. It remains to be seen whether filmgoers also have the taste for pie.

 

 

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The Friendly Festival

It was my pleasure to attend the fourth Alderney Literary Festival this weekend, which incoming Chair Anthony Riches declared to be the ‘Friendly Festival’. It is small but perfectly formed, concentrating on historical fiction, non-fiction and biography. The audience is limited to 50 or so for each talk, so there was barely an empty seat throughout the weekend. People came and went, picking the talks that suited them and there was a programme of fringe events taking place about the island.

The intimacy of the venue at the Island Hall also meant that the dozen authors and the public mixed freely. There was no ‘Green Room’ for writers to be whisked away to by their agents or publicists. Refreshingly the talks were not simply a plugathon for the author’s new book, but plunged deep into discussions of historical fact and fiction, and indeed the point at which these transition into myth.

I wasn’t speaking this weekend, being principally a paying punter. I did however have the fun of introducing Professor Gary Sheffield’s talk on the end of the First World War, and brought away a copy of his book on Douglas Haig, from the Somme to Victory. The outcome of the Great War did much to shape the modern world, as did the outcome of the Second; the way we have built myths around that conflict were presented by Keith Lowe.

With Tony RichesIn what could have been the graveyard slot on Saturday evening, I also introduced Anthony Riches, energetic author of a dozen Roman epics which he writes at a dizzying rate. His talk on the evidence for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ancient world was thought-provoking and questions could have gone on all evening. Also taking no prisoners was outgoing Chair Simon Scarrow and his look at the so-called ‘End of History’, and where the deluge of data now available on the internet left the modern historian. Our own Liz Walton gave a talk on the Great War in the Channel Islands – I edited her book and was pleased to see it selling well on the bookstall.

Great fun, great conversations, great food washed down with a fair amount of wine. Local volunteers put a lot of work into this festival, which was supported by the Guernsey Arts Commission amongst others. With luck, and with the help of much-needed support from sponsors, Alderney Litfest will be back at the end of March 2019.

Follow the link for more on Alderney Literary Trust

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I’m Reading…Ashes of Berlin

Luke McCallin’s third novel featuring war-weary German detective Gregor Reinhardt is a corker. Whilst the first two novels in the series saw Reinhardt finding justice amongst the horrors of the Nazi-occupied Balkans, the third find him in postwar Berlin. The city itself is a major character of the book, as indicated by the title. Shattered buildings and rubble-choked bombsites are ever-present. Feral children run among the ruins, widows survive however they can and former Luftwaffe pilots find that for them, the war is not quite over. Berlin’s police force is a thrown-together collection of old school ‘crows’ like Reinhardt, cocky newcomers, and placemen of the Russian, British and American occupiers whose motivations can never be certain. As Reinhardt hunts a vicious killer through the physical and emotional wreckage left by the war, he has few allies, and even fewer he can trust.

The historical detail always feels right, which in turn creates that essential ‘period feel’. This is not just another detective story that could be transplanted to the streets of New York. As with McCallin’s previous books, the author takes no prisoners and does not spoon-feed the reader. We must keep up with the shadowy characters of five nationalities who weave in and out of the story and quickly adapt to the military and political jargon of the era. His hero is not a superman, just an honest policeman looking for the truth whilst others would rather look the other way.

The Ashes of Berlin is published by No Exit Press.

And Now in German…

The Story of Guernsey is published in German this week. It is an introductory history of Guernsey profusely illustrated with images from Guernsey Museums’ collection, aimed at the general reader, visitors to the island and older children. The English and French editions of this book have already made it the Museum’s best-selling non-fiction work.

I’m pleased to see this out in German and have to thank my friend Tamara Scharf for translating it,  Elke Spangenberg for proofing the text and Christine Zürcher for the final proof-read. My schoolboy German wasn’t up to more than browsing through to check that the final copy looked okay. As usual Paul le Tissier laid out the book; always a complication when a paragraph in another language is not the same length as in English. The book is now on sale from outlets in Guernsey and via Guernsey Museum’s online Amazon shop.

Catch Flint While You Can

The current Endeavour Press editions of the five Jeffrey Flint books will only be available on Amazon until 8th March. The e-books and paperbacks will be taken offline thereafter pending further discussions. This follows the liquidation of Endeavour Press which has been covered elsewhere in the publishing media.

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Are we the good guys?

This month I visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, formerly the ‘War Crimes Museum’ (and technically in Ho Chi Mihn City nowadays). The ‘war crimes’ of the USA, French and the South Vietnam regime are graphically illustrated with photographs and relics of torture, imprisonment, indiscriminate bombing, careless killings and trophy-collecting. It of course completely ignores the murders and atrocities committed by the NVA and VietCong. A superb retrospective of photographs by journalists killed in the conflict particularly shows the agony of the US war effort, whilst again the North Vietnamese photography was of cheerful NVA soldiers, sturdy peasants and so forth. Hardly balanced, and casting the USA particularly as the baddies. The Museum of the Revolution in Havanna does much the same, although with hilarious lack of credibility in places.

In my reading around the Vietnam War, one US politician looking at the corrupt and oppressive South Vietnamese regime wondered if the US was actually fighting on the right side. The reality of Cold War proxy wars was generally that the US would back unpleasant right-wing regimes with dismal human rights records, whilst the Russians, Chinese and Cubans would back insurgencies by ‘popular’ leftist groups equally comfortable with violence and murder. To the peasants and teenage soldiers forced to fight or flee it would be hard to tell who the good guys really were.

On holiday I read the classic ‘We Were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Moore and Galloway, concerning the first major bloodbath between US and NVA forces in 1965. Heart-wrenching stories of the NVA executing wounded Americans got no mention in the War Crimes museum, nor did their favored targeting of medics and medivac helicopters. I also watched the indifferent Brad Pitt movie ‘War Machine’ about Afghanistan, which drew its own parallels to the Vietnam War; the people we are fighting are the people we came here to defend.

It has been said that the mistake the West keeps making is to assume we are the good guys.

There are always two sides to a conflict, always two views, even if objective analysis shows one to be in the wrong. ‘Zulu’ is a cracking film of bravery against the odds, but did the Good Guys win? The Good Guys clearly won WW2, albeit with the British carpet-bombing German cities, the Americans nuking Japan and the Russians throwing mercy to the wind as they closed on Berlin. Afterwards, the colonies and liberated territories simply wanted us gone. We view Liberal Capitalist (Christian) Democracy as the gold standard, but a huge chunk of the rest of the world does not agree. Capitalism is widely viewed as a Bad Thing and destructive of the environment, democracy is despised as weak, liberalism as decadent. Newly created democracies easily succumb to corruption, infighting and sham elections, turning the reign of the last dictator into some kind of golden age. Some religious groups even argue that government comes from God, not man, so democracy is fundamentally wrong.

Because we believe we are right, we gain the moral justification to act in our interests with all the power at our disposal. This view has probably triggered more conflicts than any other in modern history.

When writing, one can flirt with the opposing viewpoints of each side to avoid being simplistic. MI6 or KGB operatives are simply doing their job for their country, and the moral ambiguity of the spy thriller means that the line between good and evil is blurred. War movies and westerns from the 1960s onwards moved away from the flag-waver to the ‘anti-war’ movie where the enemy is human too. We even see clumsy attempts in terrorist fiction to get into the hearts and minds of the suicide bombers and jihadi killers; but for the meantime, they are the baddies, period.

Back in the dangerous and unstable real world we yearn for the simplicity of a 007 supervillain to fight. Our film fiction grasps at hollow victories snatched from a mess of inconclusive or disastrous interventions. Watching say ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ’13 Hours’ where flag-waving AK-toting gunmen are shot down like Red Indians in a 1950s B movie, we can see articulation of that simplicity; an against-the-odds mission to save your buddies amid a geopolitical clusterfuck. However, looking at those heaps of bodies of fighters at the end of the movie, killed in their own countries by foreign interventionists, we have to ask; are we the good guys?

 

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Writing Space

Yes folks, I have a garret. My study is in the converted roof space  of our bungalow. When we first moved to Serenity we created a little room at the back, with dormer windows overlooking the garden and fields, and almost but not quite a view of the Atlantic. Sounds idyllic, but it was not the best place to write. For one thing, the evening sun came straight in, making it uncomfortably hot and too bright to see the computer screen. All that light would surely fade my books too.

So I moved across to the north side, where a chimney had been removed and a velux window popped into the roof to replace it. The sun never comes directly inside, but above me the sky is bright and I can push open the velux and listen to the birds. Mostly it is shady and quiet, with no distracting views and the perfect place to write.

One could tell it was my room the moment you stepped inside. The furniture is all black, originally self-assembly black ash from the late 80’s which I’ve carted around and re-assembled after every house move. It is held together now by inelegant large screws, wood glue and positive thinking. Two showcases for my collections were purpose-built to match.

Five book cases are squashed in here –  a stack of military history and ancient history dominates the room. My hardcore archaeology is in my museum office and my paperbacks are on the landing ‘library’ or over in the den. One shelf holds writer’s aids, dictionaries, a thesaurus and a bible. Below is a shelf of worrying titles concerning murder, forensics and various ways to kill people and then be found out afterwards. A steel filing cabinet holds paperwork, and a black set of drawers is so full of stuff they are reluctant to open any more. More spread into the corners of the room. I’mm sure you can imagine the random untidiness that creeps in.

What wall space is left, plus almost every surface, is covered in souvenirs of travel and random collecting. Native masks, a replica ‘Sting’, Great War medals and a couple of my framed book covers hang around the desk. My mother bought me a bust of Napoleon which sits by my elbow, and my sister bought me a cardboard robot as a joke present but he’s been a sentinel by my computer for a decade. Maybe 1,000 hand painted model soldiers of all periods of history stand in mirror-backed cabinets that double their ranks. Each reminds me of a day – or at least the year- when I painted it.

A pair of whiteboards carry the latest plot twists – but more of them anon. A leather firewood basket holds an assortment of cables, chargers and connectors, each with a different dinosaur on the plug to distinguish them; brontosaurus is for the mobile and so forth. A brass coal scuttle serves as a rubbish bin and never quite overflows.

Three computers are in use, sometimes at the same time. ‘Little Dell’ sits under the big black desk and is for my writing. Alongside is ‘Big Dell’, an older but hefty machine that is used purely for movie editing. As it isn’t connected to the internet and only carries four useful programs it doesn’t get clogged by constant updates or slowed by firewalls, so happily chugs onward despite still using Windows XP. Then there’s this machine (surprise!), my laptop, that sits on the bookcase next to Napoleon. I have a dicky back these days and have got used to standing up to work. Standing typing can be messy but it is a good place to do first drafts, emails, blogs and ‘waste time on the internet’.

Of course there are sundry heaps, and I have a shelf double-stacked with crime books I’m yet to read, but everyone has those, eh? Enough of the guided tour, it’s back to writing.

 

 

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Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

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Writing on a Wall

Writing for museums is a skill in its own right. Tucked into a novel, you should become so immersed in the book you cease to be aware you are reading at all. In the same way, when you are in a museum, you should enjoy the objects on show and not be aware of the work that has gone into crafting those captions and text boards. The curator’s voice is a whisper not a yell.

Museum curators tend to be experts in their subject, and many write academic papers and books aimed at other experts, but exhibitions require a completely different approach. The curator may have a doctorate in archaeology, but the vast majority of people who view the exhibition will not. Visitors will include school groups, Dutch tourists, Dad keeping the kids busy on a wet Saturday, students working on projects and otherwise keen museum-goers whose enthusiasm is flagging a couple of hours into the visit.

The curator is not writing ‘a book on a wall’ – this mistake is often made by small museums run by enthusiasts. Few people have the time or patience to read more than a couple of hundred words whilst standing in a museum gallery, and want to get to the punchline as soon as possible.

 

Journalists working on popular tabloid newspapers face the same challenge; complex issues need to be explained to the ‘interested non-specialist’ using as few words as possible. However, it is important that in doing this the museum does not ‘dumb down’ or become simplistic.

Tabloid news is also often told backwards, with a give-away headline followed immediately by the crux of the story and then by the events leading up to it. Many people will only look at the photo, read the headline and the first few lines of copy and never actually get into the duller detail. I admit to reading most news stories like that.

Museums address this by using ‘three level text’. First comes the title on the text board, enough for people in a rush or those who don’t speak very good English to learn roughly what they are looking at. Next comes a paragraph of the key information for those who want a little more detail.  The third level offers additional paragraphs to satisfy the more curious, although in reality we are only talking another 2 to 300 words.

Research shows that the majority of museum text and captions are not read by the average visitor; people pick and choose which items they want to discover more about, and tend to have more appetite for reading soon after arrival than they do an hour or more later.

 

The curator’s challenge is to not discourage the reader by making text too complex, too long-winded or too technical. ‘Access’ is a museum buzz-word which includes enabling maximum appreciation of the exhibition by visitors of diverse ages, educational level, cultural background and emotional maturity. Jargon and artbabble are simply turn-offs; the aim is to explain, not show off how clever we are. Museums should be for everyone, not just ‘posh white people who have been to university’.

In Part 2 next week I’ll be looking at some do’s and don’ts for wall text.

Thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of text board images

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