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.

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.

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

 

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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