Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

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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?

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.

 

 

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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