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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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.

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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