Beneath the Sands of Time

Some of you will have seen shots of my time spent on the island of Alderney during July. It was probably the tenth time I’d been there to lead an excavation at the Nunnery, but time shifts and this year brought new experiences and new surprises.

Yes, that’s the view from my room!

The Nunnery itself has been reconfigured as a Field Centre, operating under the eagle eye of the Bird Observatory Warden (okay, that was a bad pun). We hope that bird-watchers and ringers will stay there in migration season, and heritage/natural history buffs in the high summer. I was the first resident of the almost-finished hostel, all on my own for the first night, up in the attic watching the sun rise over France when the oystercatchers and seagulls awoke me at 5am. It was of course mid-heatwave so there was no question of closing the windows. For a week I had no radio, no TV, no internet and not even a live phone signal; which was blissful when it wasn’t infuriatingly inconvenient.

Isabel and Dave mark the width of the original gate

Week one, I was progressively joined by more colleagues  and we started Trench 16 just inside the Nunnery gates. The sun reflected back off the Roman and Revolutionary-era stonework as we battled a giant fuscia then dug downwards to uncover the mystery of the Roman gate. There was a hint that it had been narrower than the modern one, and so it proved – by 800mm or so. It had no fancy quoins like the 18th century gate though – just an ordinary corner.

Mystery building from above

In the back of the trench was another section of the mystery building we’d seen in 2016, lurking just beneath the surface but cut through by the 1793 ‘coal store’ foundations. Loads of what looked like 18th century pantiles had to be shifted to have a look at the foot of the Roman wall – whether they came off the mystery building when it was destroyed I don’t know. Down in the same hole though were glazed ridge tiles peculiar to French churches. Maybe there was a ‘Nunnery’ at the Nunnery once, after all.

 

 

Tanya records the stone pavement

After I left for a break, things shifted gear. My colleague Phil de Jersey opened up two trenches in the field opposite, hoping to find more of the Iron Age burial ground we spotted last year. I was going to lead a group of school students to investigate a set of walls we’d also seen to check if they were Roman. As luck had it, Phil and Tanya found the Roman buildings first. Buried under a metre of windblown sand the walls still stood chest- high and in one trench was an impressive stone pavement.

 

 

The cross-walls emerge in Trench C; the Nunnery in the background

For Trench C, I chose a location indicated by a local dowser as being a likely junction of walling and my students quickly found it – again not far under the surface. Four walls met awkwardly, including one where a huge 85cm square slab made up the first course. As ever we were operating on a shoestring but help came from many quarters when we needed it, from landowners allowing the dig in the first place to that welcome excavator to fill the holes in at the end.

Some historic maps marked that area as ‘The Old Town’, although nothing remains above ground today. Since Victorian times there had been reports of odd Roman finds out on Longis common – a coin here, a skull there, ‘huge walls’ in imprecise locations. Now we had proof that all these disparate finds were linked. Some 100 metres separated Phil’s trench from mine – and once the other evidence is added in we have a picture of an entire Roman settlement buried under the sand-dunes of Longis. Several people used the phrase ‘Pompeii of the Channel Islands’ and I was the one who ended up being quoted using it. Apt in that we could have well-preserved Roman houses, streets and courtyards just beneath our feet; less apropropriate as the Roman town was probably long-abandoned before it was buried beneath a massive ‘sand blow’.

Alderney now has a unique and extensive site bigger than anything we have seen in the Channel Islands or adjacent French coasts. The benign sand preserves  bone, pottery and the metal objects we need to date and interpret the site.  The Common is not threatened by a new motorway or multistory car-park so is a perfect research site. And the views are great – eat your heart out Time Team!

It was my first dig where the sun shone every day for 3 weeks  and the rain held off until 30 mins after we closed the site that final Friday. We swam most days in the wide bay at Longis, Alderney’s natural harbour; probably the reason the Roman fort and settlement were put there in the first place. The sun went down glowing on 4th century stonework, black rabbits emerged from their burrows on the Common and we rinsed off the sands of time before picking one of Alderney’s pubs or bistros for dinner. A site tour and great media coverage sent a buzz through the island, capped by a final lecture. So we ended on a massive high, exhilarated by what our small team had found.

To find out more about the Nunnery and Longis Common digs, follow the facebook page ‘Alderney Nunnery’. We’ll be working on the finds and reviewing the evidence during the winter, and with luck will return again next year.

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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?

A Festival of Crime

I’m just back from Crimefest, Bristol. It was my third Crimefest and the first time I’ve done the full Thursday to Sunday programme. Okay, maybe not honestly ‘full’ as I did abscond for a few sessions – hunting for gluten free snacks, in the main.

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Crime through the Millennia with Antonia Hodgson, Ruth Downie, Anthony Taylor, David Penney and Sharan Newman

Dozens of writers were speaking, and dozens more were among the 500+ attendees. It was the usual format, mainly panels of 3 or 4 writers plus a moderator, plus a few communal sessions such as the duet of Peter James and Martina Cole brought together by Peter Gutteridge. I avoid playing the fanboy at such events, merely smiling and saying hello when passing Lee Child in the hallway.

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Its All in the Mind …with B.A. Paris, Louise Candlish, Kate Rhodes, Elodie Harper and Dirk Kurbjuweit

Highlights are hard to pick but Kate Rhodes was the stand-out moderator in the session ‘Psychology, Obsession and Paranoia’, deftly pulling together the strands of twisted discussion launched by the (mainly) female panel to the (mainly) female audience. The W for Women panel discussed how well men could ‘write’ women, and women ‘write’ men. The financial crime panel pre-empted my own question on how to deal with financial crimes that are both complex and dull at the same time (skip the detail). Between panels Luke McCallin and I got thoroughly stuck into discussing thrillers set in the world wars, something I’ve toyed with but never delivered.

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with Christine Poulson and Kate Ellis

The social side was never far away. At dinner I was seated with ‘Queen of Gangland Crime’ Kimberley Chambers and some of her Harper Collins team. I also enjoyed a good catch-up with fellow archaeology-mystery writer Kate Ellis. To cap it all was a very silly game of ‘Sorry I haven’t a Cluedo’. Instead of a buzzer, panel members fired cap guns. You had to be there to appreciate it.

#Crimefest

Desmond Bagley’s Blue Plaque

Thriller writer Desmond Bagley has been commemorated by a blue plaque by the gate of his former home at Castel House in Guernsey. Bagley died at an unfairly early age in 1983 in Guernsey, where he had made his home with his wife Joan.

 

He died just before I moved to the island, so I never met him but did grow to know Joan through the Sarnia Sword Club. Indeed my first (never published) ‘trainer’ novel was a Bagleyesque thriller, and Joan kindly talked the twenty-something me through some of the principles of thriller-writing including the advice to ‘make it up’ and not just ‘write what you know’. It is fitting that Joan is also commemorated on the plaque, as at times she combined the role of editor, critical friend and manager, and completed the final two novels for publication.

Desmond Bagley ( portrait by Graham Jackson)

Bagley was always one of the names I hoped one day to see commemorated once Guernsey’s Blue Plaque scheme had been launched, but I’m on the Panel and nominations have to come from the public; there also needs to be a sponsor in the wings and the owner of the house must approve. Fortunately all these things came together this year. Castel House has indeed been re-named Bagley Hall to mark the legacy.

 

 

 

The Plaque was unveiled by the Bailiff of Guernsey, Sir Richard Collas, on May 11th appropriately during the Literary Festival. Harper Collins have re-released the full list of sixteen Desmond Bagley thrillers during 2017, and were represented at the ceremony.

Sir Richard Collas, Bailiff of Guernsey with Philip Eastwood

Researcher Philip Eastwood has been compiling information on Bagley’s life and books, creating the blog www.thebagleybrief.com .  He has donated his research material to the Priaulx Library in Guernsey, which complements the archive that Joan donated to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre in Boston. Together with items on loan from Harper Collins these have been used to create a temporary display in St Peter Port’s Guille-Alles library which will run through May into June.

 

 

 

Guernsey Literary Festival 2018

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. On Thursday 10th May I’ll be introducing Duncan Barrett in the Festival Hub. Duncan is the author of a number of non-fiction books including GI Brides and Sugar Girls both based on first hand interviews. His latest project is Hitler’s British Isles, for which he spent three months in the Channel Islands interviewing survivors of the German Occupation 1940-1945 and their children.

 

 

It is a timely subject, considering that I’m typing this on Liberation Day; May 9th, the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Guernsey.

The book is not yet published, so I’ve not had chance to read or review it, so I’m looking forward to talking to Duncan and hearing about his project in front of an audience of Guernsey Literary enthusiasts.

Duncan Barret at United Agents

Later we will be hearing Philip Eastwood talk about the life and legacy of Desmond Bagley, ahead of an exhibition at the Priaulx Library of books, objects and annotated manuscripts. Philip has been collating an archive of Bagley material, which will be deposited at the Priaulx, complementing the archive already established at the Howard Gotleib Archival Research Centre in Boston.

I’ve been working with Philip over the past few months to set up a blue plaque to Bagley and his wife Joan at their former home in Castel Hill – but that’s a story for another day.

The Bagley Brief

 

The Twitter Campaign

So I’m trying something different, a Twitter Campaign. Mostly it is to test the water, see how effective it is. After all if the Russians can change the result of elections by mass tweeting, there must be some power in social media.

Although it was my sixth novel Glint of Light on Broken Glass was self-published, albeit at high spec by Matador and professionally edited. However it had little of the marketing push I’d expect from a mainstream publisher. It was planned as a slow-seller to local audiences and tourists, but there have been e-book and internet sales through Amazon so the interest is worth stoking.

Also of course we have the #GuernseyMovie released this month, and for a few weeks the G-word becomes more searchable. Other local writers, hotels, gin-makers and others are riding the publicity wave, contributing to a symbiotic promotion of their own products as well as the movie.

So I’m posting or re-posting a range of idiosyncratic images with snippets of text including lines from the book. I’ve taken the photographs myself, often at the appropriate location in Guernsey, then applied a little manipulation and cropping. Alongside this is a professional PR campaign running for a month, nudging people towards my partner website guernseynovel.com. Perhaps you’ve seen it? This is a true test-the-water exercise, as tweeting can be like whispering in a crowded room where everyone else is yelling.

Anyhow, Mr Putin, I’m sure you’d love Glint so if you could get your army of fembots to re-tweet this 20,000 times I’d be most happy.

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.

 

 

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

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.

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