Keeping Occupied

This week should have seen the publication of my latest book, ‘Occupation to Liberation’. It would have been launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival, now sadly cancelled, and the launch was one of the 75 events to celebrate 75 years of freedom organised by Visit Guernsey. Although the UK is celebrating VE day this week on May 8th, Guernsey celebrates Liberation Day every year on May 9th as it continues to have special meaning in the islands. The end of the Second World War meant the end of five years of German occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only parts of Britain captured by Axis forces in the war, a novel fact that continues to fascinate. The Occupation was only a tiny part of the vast global struggle, yet has spawned a huge literary output of diaries, reminiscences, histories and fiction plus TV series and movies. I’m not an ‘Occupation expert’ but wanted to write an accessible book for the general reader which showcased the collections of Guernsey Museum.

One of the lines I wrote was that the big enemy was boredom, and another feature of the Occupation was an obsession with food. Sitting in virus lockdown I have begun to empathise with both attitudes. Normal civilian life was heavily constrained by curfews, restrictions on travel and closure of beaches and areas where the Germans had laid mines or built defences. Many businesses collapsed and people found what work they could for what money they could earn. Islanders were cut off from the rest of the world for five years, with only an occasional Red Cross message permitted to friends and relations off the island. News other than Nazi propaganda came from the BBC, which from 1942 could only be heard on hidden radio sets in defiance of regulations. There were no new books, the cinema soon ran out of English language films but there a great boom in amateur dramatics, arts and crafts as a way of keeping busy.

Almost everything was in short supply, so people had to ‘make do and mend’. Children played with home-made toys and wore hand-me-down clothes, often bartered for other essential items. Food ran short, and the variety of what was available challenged the ingenuity of the women who did the cooking.

Even the German soldiers experienced these twin privations of boredom and hunger. No battles were fought, and indeed as the war dragged on and hope of victory dwindled they dubbed themselves ‘The Canada Division’ knowing they would end up in Prisoner of War camps. Once D-Day began the liberation of France they too were cut off from home, knowing their families were enduring Allied bombing and fearing the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Bored soldiers turned in some cases to drink, the most depressed even committed suicide, but others applied their creativity to art. Paintings, photographs and carvings by soldiers now feature in the island’s Occupation museums and decorate some of the surviving bunkers. Soldiers too suffered increasing hardship as food supplies were cut off once the Allies controlled the French shores.

1945 was the year of hope. During the winter, the Red Cross ship SS Vega saved the civilians from starvation by delivering food parcels, which allowed the troops to eke out what other supplies remained. For all the puffed-up Nazi nonsense about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ the German garrison did no such thing. The war ended on May 8th to the relief of the civilians and, as far as we can tell, many of the ordinary soldiers. Posturing by the Nazi commander delayed matters, but on May 9th British troops stepped ashore and Guernsey was free once more.

Although the majority of the British population is today locked down in a peculiar curfew, we are not under foreign occupation. We are free to listen to the BBC whenever we like and follow the progress of our own peculiar ‘war’. There is fear on the streets and we have the constant drip of grim news and that daily toll of lives lost, but for all the wartime analogies we are not being bombed or shot at. We do not fear the knock on the door, and if we are stopped in the street by a police officer asking our business we know they only have our best interests at heart. We are fortunate to have plenty to eat – too much in my case – even though standing in line outside the supermarket recalls photographs of the wartime ration queues.

The VE Day bank holiday and Guernsey’s 75th Liberation Day will be curious affairs, with virtual celebrations and ‘street parties’ held in discrete units from garden to garden, but nostalgia will be rife. My generation is fortunate never to have fought a world war. In our current crisis I’m not being called on to charge up a beach under fire or pilot a plane through angry skies, but simply stay at home and watch streamed movies. Rather like in 1945 though, those of us who are hunkered down are relying on professionals to win the fight in the front line and are crossing fingers that our leaders are doing the right things. Perhaps this will be our finest hour?

Occupation to Liberation: Guernsey, Sark and Alderney 1940-1945 will be published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries later this year. All images in this article are taken from the book and are courtesy Guernsey Museums & Galleries.

The Festival that Nearly Was

The Alderney Literary Festival 2020 was due to have taken place on the third weekend of March, but with just one week to go was cancelled due to the looming coronavirus crisis. I was already out there and brushing up for my panels when the news came that disappointed us all.

Rory Clements was one of the writers I was due to introduce, his talk being entitled Hitler’s Secret: Reimagined histories. I was keen to meet him as I’m working on a 1930s thriller in a similar arena to his Tom Wilde series. There are now four novels about the Cambridge Don, an American historian specialising in the Elizabethan spy network. It’s amusing to observe that Clements is getting double value from the research he did for his John Shakespear series set in Elizabethan England, of which a TV series is in development. I had pleasure to see him presented with the CWA Historical Dagger in London in 2018 for Nucleus and last year I was able to read a pre-publication proof of the fourth Tom Wilde thriller Hitler’s Secret which has now been published by Head of Zeus.

The Alderney festival mixes historical fiction with non-fiction, and the Sunday morning slot should have seen Roger Moorhouse talking about Poland’s September Campaign of 1939: the Forgotten campaign of WW2. Moorhouse has published a number of books on modern German history, including the intriguingly titled Killing Hitler about the various plots to kill the Fuhrer. Moorhouse’s most recent publication, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 was named among books of the year for 2019 by BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph, and shortlisted for the Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History 2020. So much has been written about WW2, but the Polish campaign is most often passed over in the introductory sections of histories keen to get onto the Fall of France, so it was a talk I regret having missed.

I know nothing about the history of the Philippines, so was amused to be invited to introduce Miguel Angel Lopez de Asuncion speaking about The last of the Philippines: myth & reality of the siege of Baler. Cue some very rapid reading-up on the internet! Miguel is a historian who has concentrated for 20 years on the ‘last of the Philippines’, the Spanish heroes of the siege of Baler in 1898. He was historical advisor on the 2016 film 1898; Los Ultimos des Filipinos which is the latest cinematic treatment of the story and now available on Netflix. The siege of Baler was a ‘last stand’ epic akin to the much more famous Alamo; fifty Spanish troops holding out in a church for 337 days whilst surrounded by Filipino rebels. I read just enough to effect my introduction, but not enough to spoil the ending, so I’m still intrigued by what we might have heard.

My fourth event was to have been a panel together with Miguel, Rory Clements, and Antonia Senior. Antonia is a journalist with a trio of standalone historical novels under her belt. The latest is The Tyrant’s Shadow (2017) published by Corvus and set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. We were to have discussed The Past is a Foreign Country; challenging historical perspectives. Historical interpretation is not static, and with changing cultural, social, and political influences, historians constantly revisit the past. A talk that might have been, and still might be one day. It is to be hoped that as the world transitions towards the ‘new normal’ the Alderney Literary Festival will return.

Daggers of Delight

It’s October, which means it must be time for the CWA Daggers Awards, the Oscars of the Crime writing world. On the left of the featured image is M W Craven, winner of the Golden Dagger for the best crime novel of the year for The Puppet Show. Mike reminded everyone in his acceptance speech that he was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger in 2013, an encouragement to rookie crime writers everywhere. Beside him is Kate Ellis, also known for thrillers with an archaeological dimension, who won the Dagger in the Library. Kate was seated directly behind me and we joined a ‘group hug’ before she hurried to take her award with delight.

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One of the great things I’ve noticed about crime writers is they are not competitive. Whether a ballroom full of them replete with wine, or a small residual knot of diehards in the bar, they are supportive of their partners-in-crime instead of bitching about their rivals. There is genuine pleasure for the winner of a coveted dagger and genuine sympathy for those shortlisted who did not ‘win’; I cannot conceive of them as ‘losers’ as even to be shortlisted is a rare honour for a writer.

5F8EC035-BB05-4A23-95C0-08EE8252C012_1_201_aThe Awards Dinner has moved up a gear in the past few years and have become a swish affair with stylish dressing, polished presentations and a sensation of being right where it matters. It was held at the Leonardo Royal Hotel, London, which has assumed a new name since last year so challenging the detection skills of attendees.  I was seated on the Debut Daggers table in the company of shortlisted writers of unpublished crime novels of whom most had traveled from the USA. As fate would have it, the award went to the one nominee who couldn’t make it, the Australian Shelley Burr.

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Chance to meet and mingle – here with A. A. Chaudhury, Paul Sinclair and Kirstie Long.

The event has been widely talked about, and blogged about, so follow this link to Shots Magazine for more https://wwwshotsmagcouk.blogspot.com/2019/10/2019-crime-writers-association-dagger.html?fbclid=IwAR2BtYshSkox2FeU7Yc9PLPgZJIK5tzcATVrKS-9JekV4fUBffmQXGD-sU8

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Breaking the fourth wall – Gary Stratmann on duty as the CWA’s official photographer for the event

Smoke Gets in Your Plot

Picture the scene. The detective walks into the bar and approaches the femme fatale. Very Bogart and Bacall. He offers her a cigarette, then lights it for her. Yaaawn…

I have read so many thrillers recently which would have been two chapters shorter if the lead characters didn’t smoke. Descriptions of people fiddling with cigarettes, lighters, matches etc are simply boring. People also scratch their noses, fart and go to the loo but we seldom read about it in fiction unless it’s a plot driver.

The same goes for films and TV shows, although these divide fairly neatly into ‘smoking’ or ‘non smoking’ sections. In the latter there is a cuteness reserved for cigars and pipes in the hands of old men, even in fare aimed at children.

It may depend on the writer or the perceived audience, but all media to some extent reflects the attitude of the times. In the modern western world the educated middle class largely do not smoke, so the habit is confined to villains, members of the lower classes and characters the writers think needs a quirk. On the tip side of this, a disproportionate number of writers of my acquaintance are still smoking in one form or another, so perhaps their view of normality differs from mine. There is a trope which links smoking to stress, crisis, fatigue, recklessness, sin, excess and rebellion which of course we meet far more of in fiction than real life.

It does get tedious to watch on-screen and it starts to feel like dramatic laziness, even in shows that are otherwise excellent like Peaky Blinders or Babylon Berlin. What is the character doing? Uh oh, smoking. Like 120 per day for some characters, then. By contrast, the TV adaption of The Little Drummer Girl made the selective use of cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia a period-appropriate part of the plot.

I had fun with this trope in the Jeffrey Flint novels, as despite being a product of the 80s University system Flint doesn’t smoke – he doesn’t see the point and objects to swallowing the lies of tobacco multinationals. Instead he and Tyrone kill time eating Mars Bars, drinking Coke from cans or spinning out a pint of real ale. It’s the villains that are the smokers. As you may guess I’ve never smoked, and part of the reason is that tobacco has killed several members of my family; I don’t want to boost the bastards’ profits by making it glamorous, cute, sexy or in any way ‘manly’. None of my close friends and hardly any of my wider social circle smoke, which makes me rather like a nun writing sex scenes.

I’m currently working on a 1930s plot, so that gives me a dilemma as (a) everyone is smoking in contemporary ’30s movies and (b) ‘period’ ’30s movies made in modern times fall into either the ‘smoking’ or ‘non-smoking’ camp. Films made in the ’30s were still in the thrall of movie star glamour and the cigarette was a fashion accessory – even in fashion magazines. ‘Retro’ films either ape this style to overdose on period feel, or go for a more sanitized version of the past that doesn’t ring true. Golden Age novels also take the same approach, not seeing the problems inherent in the habit that we do now beyond certain questions of etiquette.

So how do I avoid boring not just the readers but myself with endless smoking scenes? First, assume it is just happening (like scratching noses, farting etc). Second, have a non-smoking lead. This is perfectly plausible, as despite the view that ‘everyone smoked’ back then it was not true. Tobacco consumption in the UK in the ’30s was half that in the ’40s and a third of that in the ’60s, when it peaked. With unemployment at 20% big slices of the population were simply too poor, and it was still viewed in many circles as unseemly for women. With a statistic at the equivalent of 4 cigarettes consumed per day per adult, there is plenty of scope for 1930s characters who don’t smoke at all or do so with restraint. I was interested to discover that the male and female leads in both Martin Edwards’ recent Gallows Court and Rory Clements’ Corpus are non-smokers. Perhaps I’m not the only one with this view.

So, a clean-air breathing hero braves the ’30s. I am going to have some fun…

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Crimefest 2019

It was not quite déjà vu at this year’s Bristol Crimefest as the venue had moved to the Marriot Grand. The hotel was closer to the historic heart of the City, so was a welcome change, allowing a little exploration in each break and a different selection of local restaurants to sample, where I tasted my first Indian Shiraz. Gala dinners can be indifferent, but the Grand earns a gold star by providing a particularly yummy gluten free chocolate mousse cake for afters; a step up from the fruit salad often offered as my gf alternative.

Panels and talks took place in a set of rooms which required a little detection skill to locate and navigate between. We had our own Crimefest bar, but most serious drinking (I mean, earnest literary conversation) took place in the main bar. If you’ve never been to Crimefest, it operates as two and sometimes three parallel sessions from Thursday to Sunday, each lasting 50 mins with 20 minutes in between to locate the next session. The programme is online, and I won’t bore you by listing the 60+ crime writers who spoke.

One novelty was that we got to see a preview of the first 90-minute episode of the new series of Agatha Raisin, which was a jolly way to spend a Friday evening replete with wine and pizza. I sat on the table with some of the production crew at the Gala dinner and there was also a panel including ‘Agatha’ actress Ashley Jensen.

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Not 007: Claire Kendall, HB Lyle, JD Fennell, Sarah Armstrong, Mick Herron

Take-aways included a comment from Mick Herron, when asked how much research he had to do for the Slough House series of spy novels. He replied that he simply made it up; which worries him when real Security Service staff comment on how accurate his books are. We heard about the challenge of fiction in the Post-Truth world, full of anger and misinformation. Several speakers came out with fact-is-weirder than fiction. Danielle  Ramsey related the unnerving experience of ‘creating’ a British seaside gangster then being confronted by unsavory people who found her story too close to the truth. Jeffrey Seger also found his Mikonos-set gangster was uncomfortably close to a real one. Paul Hardy had to include an author’s note to explain that a horrible act he featured in his story was based on a real case.

Several panels tackled historical fiction, and the need to create period feel. William Sutton made the point that whereas a contemporary writer such as Dickens had no need to explain social or technical subtleties of his era, the historical writer needs to provide this for the modern reader. Familiar periods of history make things easy on both reader and author, although are more likely to attract the detail fanatic that is the bane of all successful writers. Some working in obscure periods such as Indrek Hargla’s medieval Estonia have the challenge, but also the freedom, to make much up. Guy Bolton whose characters work in highly familiar 1940s Hollywood with real moguls and actors, in contrast has to carry out very detailed research.

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Kate Ellis, Leigh Russell, Danielle Ramsey, Douglas Lindsey, William Shaw

The 1930s are seen as the change-over period where policing became more scientifically based but many things which are now illegal were permitted, if not approved of, in the past. Long-running series characters are challenged by changing times, which some authors build into the story arc and some simply ignore, allowing history to wash past unnoticed. Longer in the tooth authors rued the fact that their childhoods in the 50s and 60s were now ‘historical’ periods, but Peter Murphy commented that he still needed to research his 60s novels as relying simply on memory did not suffice. I asked the question as to how writers avoided falling into period clichés. Using the right language, avoiding familiar plot drivers and choosing characters that don’t immediately evoke period stereotypes was the best advice. David Penny suggested that as you can’t visit the historical period at least the location can be researched.

Charlie Gallagher, a serving policeman, opined that modern procedure is so boring that even a ‘police procedural’ aiming for realism needs to take liberties to remain interesting. The writer can get away with this if the set-up is plausible, and strict formalities are less important than plot and character. We considered whether a lead detective is allowed to be happy, how writers avoid creating one who is a cliché and whether series novels should include a cliffhanger to lead into the next book.

In my final panel, Caroline England explained how she likes to introduce love in her stories, then be rotten to her characters. Gunnar Staaleson said that the crime writer’s job was at first to build up believable characters. “Then kill them,” added Kate Rhodes.

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Things We Writers Learn

I’m writing a book set in the 1930s and passed the 30,000-word mark today with a loud hurrah and a celebratory glass of Diet Coke. My last novel was Glint of Light on Broken Glass which all in all took three years to research and write, with one of those years being absorbed by getting the detail of 1913-1919 correct. I was helped by it being set right outside my front door and by its sedate fable-like tone which allowed liberties with language, but I had to carefully avoid modern expressions and Americanisms.

So to the 1930s, and I’m reading as much as I can and catching films made in or about the period. One challenge of my new thriller is that my cast of characters are witty, fast-talking and at times violent. Without delving into cliché I need to get those snappy conversations right. I’m taking a leaf out of Lee Child’s book, in that I heard him at a conference saying that as soon as he hits a point where he needs a piece of research, he does it there and then. Usually I retrofit my research, glossing over the detail until I’m sure the plot demands it. I wasted enough gloriously evocative scenes in my early writing to learn this lesson.

My early drafts are largely conversations, to allow my characters to drive the story forward which I will then back-fill with time and place as the plot becomes clear. However for the 1930s this means stopping and checking when I stumble across a word or phrase that could be anachronistic. A thesaurus, various books of phrase and fable and online versions are hastily consulted. This week I learned that jolly hockey sticks did not come in until the 1950s, but not my cup of tea or right up your street might just be acceptable after 1930. To my surprise Beating up and snitch were much older than I thought, so fine to use.

I also learned how to pick a lock and open a locked suitcase this week. There are Youtube tutorials which will dissuade you of the value of locking anything ever again. I’ve done some work on Swiss banknotes,  obsolescent German firearms and London ‘roadhouse’ clubs. One of the drawbacks of using the web for research is that more and more the search terms come up with adverts. This was particularly the case when looking for hotels to base my skulduggery in. I was surprised to learn, for example, that you can still buy British Union of Fascists flags over the internet. I expected to be able to find a selection of fascist marching songs, but was intrigued to find many carried by Russian websites with explicit warnings that it was illegal to download them in Germany. Having also looked up pederast, Irish street slang and the history of the mafia I must have a very dodgy-looking search history!

Farewell Black Desk

So it’s farewell to my faithful black desk, too old and rickety and too darned heavy to be moved again. I bought it from a pre-IKEA furniture store on the outskirts of York in 1989 and since then it has taken up station in at least half a dozen different studies of mine. Flat-pack, self-assembly chipboard, its veneer is peeling and its structural integrity relies largely on screw blocks and willpower.

As for the drawer unit, the drawers have been reluctant for a decade; piled too high with more pens and paper than they can cope with, stained by ink and tippex and blobs of blu-tac. Together with the desk it is bound for Bulk Refuse Heaven.

This was the desk where I wrote Shadow in the Corn, half of Byron’s Shadow (long story!), Shadesmoor, Lady in the Lake, Blood & Sandals, Islands that Never Were and Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Four dormant novels were also tapped out on is face, together with A Gallo-Roman Shipwreck from Guernsey,  Roman Pottery From York, A Shypp Cast Away About Alderney and a couple of dozen academic papers and the same number of short stories.

A pine desk that did service as one of my children’s homework desks has been commandeered as the place where the next two books will be completed. Smaller, it should be more maneuverable up the steps of the next garret and maybe the one after that.

The Black Desk is dead – long live the Pine Desk!

An Eye for Nature

PLV 1Whilst working on a new thriller, and editing the one I ‘finished’ earlier, I have a new project to keep me out of mischief. I’m teaming up with artist Peter Le Vasseur to produce a book on his life and work. In particular the book will feature Peter’s later works with ecological and conservation themes.

PLV3Although Peter was born in Guernsey and returned here to live in the 70s, his formative years as an artist saw him enter the ‘sixties London art scene with clients including film stars, musicians and the aristocracy. The Beatles bought one of his earliest works, whilst he was experimenting with fantasy in what he calls his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ period. His early fantasies are still cropping up in London auctions, with his 1964 work Tattooed Sailor recently selling at Sotheby’s for many times its estimate.

 

Peter finally established his iconic style of highly detailed paintings of the natural world, generally packaged with a ‘message’, although for himself he claims not to be political. At times his work has a dark humour or carries ironic titles as it reflects the impact of the modern human world on both the environment and traditional societies.

This will be a high quality art book with the paintings as its main focus, so is going to need a significant amount of financial support to be produced. It would be particularly relevant to a large international organisation involved in environmental issues, or to a multinational with corporate social responsibility objectives which might like to sponsor a work it can give to its major clients.

I’m interested in ideas from you folks out there. Share with your contacts and see if we can find that sponsor. I can be contacted through this blog page.

For more of Peter’s work see www.peterlevasseur.com .

For those living in Guernsey, Peter currently has an exhibition of his works at the Coach House Gallery, and his large work The Tree of Life is on permanent display at Guernsey Museum where it was voted ‘The People’s Choice.’

 

From Book to Film

I’m one of those people who gnashes their teeth at historical travesties in movies, or novels for that matter, so I’ve held off seeing The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society until the initial excitement died down. The book raised some heckles in the island as the setting portrayed wasn’t ‘Guernsey’ enough. One handicap was the format of the book as an epistolary novel (told via letters), so struggling to establish a sense of place and missing idioms of local speech patterns as well as the Guernsey French which was still in common use during WW2. Less forgivable was the absence of ‘local’ names, easily researched, and I indeed gained the impression of a Scottish island rather than the one I knew well.

And that is the problem – I’m too close to the subject, as I am if the film features the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Wars and indeed most other historic epochs I know anything about. I feared something like the Strike! spoof of the Yorkshire miners’ strike, produced by the Comic Strip, in which ‘Al Pacino’ starred as Arthur Scargill, the accents were cheekily American and there was a Hollywood happy ending.

TGL&PPPS looked lovely on film, the acting was spot-on and the script lively (again considering the book has little by way of true dialogue). Period detail in the costumes and the interiors seemed faultless. Empire gave it three stars, which is pretty typical of their reaction to modest period films such as Their Finest, also by Studio Canal.

Juliet arrives in Guernsey (Studio Canal)

The reaction of Guernsey friends to the film has been positive, sometimes surprised that justice has been done. It was a shame that no footage was shot in the island, but the film was produced on a very modest budget and the vast majority of people who watch it will never have been here.

 

Likewise the rest of the world will not know know very much about the German Occupation of 1940-45 as the dozens of books written about it have largely been small-press, self-published or had very limited circulation outside the islands. So the story is ‘new’ to most of the world, and to all intents and purposes Dorset serves well as ‘stunt double’ for the island itself. It was quite fun spotting the parts of Bristol docks where I was just last week doubling for Weymouth harbour. Yes of course the Dorset coast has the wrong geology, the wrong beaches, the wrong kind of cottages and is much more expansive than little Guernsey truly is, but what the Director Mike Newell has created might be termed a ‘Guernsey of the Mind’. There were even a couple of touches of Guernsey French in the background but the local accent was largely forgotten. The poster, incidentally, does feature a shot of Guernsey’s south coast.

I watched The Inn of the Sixth Happiness last week, in which tall blonde Ingrid Bergman with barely disguised Swedish accent played diminutive brunette Londoner Gladys Aylward, and Wales stood in for China. Now I’ve not been to north China so have no idea how much it resembles Wales. Most films take huge liberties with historical truths – Aylward actually founded the ‘Inn of the Eight Happiness’ and claimed never to have been kissed, contra the movie’s love sub-plot.

Most movies are not actually filmed where they are set. Spartacus was filmed in California, and the ‘Spaghetti westerns’ in Italy. The Last Samurai was filmed in New Zealand, Full Metal Jacket‘s Vietnam scenes were shot in London, Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy is mostly  Ireland and Herefordshire and Eastern Europe is now the stand-in of choice for historic England in productions such as The Last Kingdom. Let’s not even talk about The Martian. So in the end, we shouldn’t be too precious. The book has sold 5 million copies, the film touched #2 in the box office charts and Guernsey’s tourism enquiries are spiking. Who’s to complain?

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