The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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The theme of this film, set in Guernsey and London in 1946, wasn’t actually so much the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands as the fact that books bring people. So, if you happen to be reading this, and you’re doing so because you know me through book-related matters, we are living proof of that 🙂 . If you happen to be reading this for any other reason, hello – it’s always nice to know that someone actually reads my wafflings! I’m not sure how many people have found romance through books – please let me know if you have! – but a lot of us will have found friends that way.  In this age of the computer, the laptop, the tablet and the Smart Phone, book clubs and fora have become very popular.

And The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, in the film (and the book on which it’s based), was a book club … formed because its members needed to give the Nazi occupiers of Guernsey a valid-sounding excuse for why they were meeting. No, they weren’t meeting to organise clandestine resistance activities – it wasn’t that sort of book – but to eat a pork roast made from an illicitly kept pig, which was where the pie came in. I have read the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, but must admit that I don’t remember being particularly impressed by it; but I did really enjoy the film.  The book involved a lot of letters, but films can’t really work with letters, so don’t expect it to be too similar to the book.

It was set in 1946, as I said, so it wasn’t directly about the occupation of the Channel Islands, but several of the scenes were flashbacks to the years of the Occupation.  Is it just my perception, or was the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands something that never used to be spoken about in the UK itself?  Back in the day, the only reason I was aware of it was because it was mentioned in the Chalet School books.   It just wasn’t spoken about.  And that’s even though many of the children who were evacuated – 50% of the civilian population of the Channel Islands, including 80% of the children, were evacuated to the mainland – came to towns near here – Stockport in particular, and also Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

Was it because there was a sense of shame that the UK was unable to stop the Nazis from occupying some of the soil of the British Isles, Crown dependencies, from using slave labour there, and from deporting some of the islanders to concentration camps?   Did people not want to admit that that had happened?  Or am I just being over-dramatic?  I just don’t remember it being mentioned.  Then that changed.  There was a drama series in 2004, called Island at War, with Joanne Froggatt as a Channel Islander who became involved with a German soldier.  And there’ve been other films and books since, notably Another Mother’s Son, and documentaries showing the fortifications built by the occupiers.  Maybe it’s just part of the general upsurge in interest in the Second World War since … I think maybe since 1945, when there was so much attention on the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day.

Anyway.  It didn’t actually start in Guernsey: it began in London, with young author Juliet Ashton.  It seemed very glamorous for 1946 – all posh clubs for dinner and dancing, smart frocks, nice hairdos, bright red lipstick, etc – but presumably the point was to draw a contrast between the life that Juliet, although she’d suffered the tragedy of losing both her parents in the war, was living, with her rich American boyfriend, and the lives of the people on Guernsey and indeed most of the other people in Blitz-ravaged London.   Then she received a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a man in Guernsey who’d bought an old book she’d sold, which had her name and address in it, and was writing to ask her if she could give him the address of a bookshop in London – there being no bookshops left in Guernsey – as he wanted to buy a particular book.  They began corresponding, and she decided to go to Guernsey to attend a meeting of the society.

OK, this was rather far-fetched 🙂 .  But, hey, it was a story.  Do people still write their names and addresses in books, by the way?  People in books are always coming across old books in libraries, with someone’s name in them.  We used to write our names and addresses – “Manchester, Lancashire, England, the United Kingdom, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe” – in books when we were kids, but do adults still do that?  Anyway.  Juliet’s boyfriend proposed, and she said yes, but she felt that something was missing from her life and her work … you could see where this was heading.

In Guernsey, she met the members of The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. Not all the characters from the book were in the film, but I suppose they had to cut something to get it into two hours. There were some gorgeous shots of beautiful scenery, but I have to say that it didn’t seem all that Guernesias otherwise.  In fact, I’m not sure that even the scenery was Guernesias: I think a lot of it was filmed in Devon.  The odd word of Guernsey patois was thrown in, but the characters spoke in a range of British mainland accents (with a hint of Dutch, in the case of the actor playing Dawsey).  Oh well.

She heard some of their tales about the Occupation, but there was a Big Mystery, involving Elizabeth McKenna, the young woman who’d founded the society and also the mother of a young child being looked after by Dawsey. So was Dawsey, who of course was young and handsome, Elizabeth’s partner and the father of the child? No. Phew!

At this point, it felt as if there should be some very dark secret, presumably that one of the characters had been involved in collaboration, and that that was why they were all so reluctant to talk about what had happened.  But it wasn’t really that.  The film, and the book, have been criticised in some reviews for being too cosy and fluffy … but they haven’t claimed to be hard-hitting war films, to be fair.  Elizabeth had had a relationship with a German soldier – but he was a really nice German soldier, and proof that not all Germans were Nazis, etc etc, so that was all OK.  Except that it wasn’t, because he’d been caught sneaking off to meet her, and had been shipped off elsewhere, whereupon his ship had been torpedoed and he’d been killed.  And – and this was the nearest we got to the horrors of the war – Elizabeth had tried to help an escaped slave labourer, a neighbour had informed on her, and she’d been sent to Ravensbruck.  There’d been no word of her since, and her friends were raising her child.  One of the characters, Amelia, who’d lost her husband in the First World War and her daughter and unborn grandchild in the German bombing, was terrified that the child’s paternal relatives would take her away.

Juliet got involved in it all, and decided to stay on – and her American fiancé was able to find out that Elizabeth had been killed at Ravensbruck.  So, yes, the horrors of the Occupation were there … but only in the background, though.  The awfulness of Elizabeth’s death and of the use of slave labour, the sufferings of the civilian population during the occupation, and the experience of the children who were separated from their families for over five years, all seemed very much secondary to whether or not Juliet was going to dump her fiance – and get together with Dawsey.

Which, inevitably, she did.  I always feel rather sorry for the discarded partners in “finding yourself” books/films!  The “finding yourself” element is easier to put across in a book than in a film, but there were, to be fair, quite a lot of references to feeling that things were fated, and that you knew people as soon as you met them, etc.  It’s just not that easy to get that to work in a film.  The point was also made that the book club formed a bond between several lonely people at a very difficult period in their lives, and about the incredibly importance of both books and companionship … but, because the story wasn’t actually set during that period, that didn’t come across as well as it might have done, either.

So, Juliet felt far more inspired in her writing, moved to Guernsey, married Dawsey, settled into life amongst the Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society crowd, and felt that she’d found herself. That was what the book was about, and I’m not criticising that any more than I’d criticise Gone With the Wind for not giving us detailed battlefield scenes; but it’d be interesting to see the events of the war, as they affected the characters, as they took place, rather than just hearing about them later, so to speak.  Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died before the book was even completed, and I’m not aware that her niece Annie Barrows has any plans to write a book like that,

It’s a nice, cosy film, and, as I was feeling a bit stressed this morning, it was just what I needed.  If you’re looking to learn more about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, you may come away disappointed.  If you’re happy with a comfort film, and can get your head round the fact that a film involving one of the darkest periods of British history is intended as a comfort film, then go and see it – and you will really enjoy it.  Just don’t expect it to be something it isn’t.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

  1. mrsredboots

    There was the book “We couldn’t leave Dinah”, published in 1941 – I must have read it very young, as I always knew it was about the invasion of the Channel Islands. And about 30 years ago I read a book called something like “If Hitler had won” (I don’t think that was the exact title), which took up on what had happened in the Channel Islands and extrapolated it to what might have happened here.

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