The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

For the uninitiated, the Channel Islands are an archipelago in the English Channel, spitting distance from the French coast of Normandy. They include, among smaller fry, Jersey and Guernsey. Traditionally, the islands are thought of as the last vestiges of the Duchy of Normandy still in English hands – think William the Conqueror, 1066 and all that. These days, Jersey and Guernsey are wealthy tax havens taking full advantage of their legal status as Crown dependencies beyond the jurisdiction of the British tax authorities. It’s where the canny and the criminal stash their cash and where global companies avoid their dues.

Back in 1940, the economy was very different. Many islanders were dirt poor, scraping a meagre living from the land and the sea. When France fell to the Germans in June of that year, the fate of the islands was sealed. Geography made them indefensible and the Germans occupied them unopposed. The British Government evacuated who they could in a hurry and urged the rest to cooperate.

Germans marching through Guernsey – image from Getty

As was mostly the case throughout the occupied West, life under the Third Reich was not as deadly as in the occupied East – unless of course you happened to be Jewish/ gay/ socialist/ liberal/ Roma (delete according to badge), but it was still very harsh. And then there was the slave labour imported to construct the colossal fortifications built as part of the Atlantic Wall. Few of those poor souls survived. Conditions gradually worsened for everyone, ending in near starvation for both occupied and occupiers during the winter of 1944–45.

This is the backdrop to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a film based on a bestselling novel of the same name. I’m guessing the first half of the title refers to the German desire to maintain ordinary activities during extraordinary times and the second part is an ironic response to the subsistence rations suffered by the locals. The plot goes something like this…

Just after the war, an up-and-coming writer based in battle-torn London begins exchanging letters with members of the society. Feeling compelled to visit, she starts digging about for a story and a picture emerges of life during the occupation. She soon discovers that, while book reading was involved, the society was also a cunning ruse to avoid the night-time curfew and to consume illicit pork and home-brewed gin. Sounds like my kind of society. As she digs deeper, dark secrets begin to surface – needs must as they say – and there was a fine line between cooperation and collaboration. After all, not all Germans were Nazis.

The film also provides some love interest. Will the pretty young novelist shack up with her handsome Yank in his New York apartment with views across Central Park or get down and dirty with the hunky pig farmer with his rough hands, puppy-dog eyes and no electricity? I know who I’d choose.

The film won’t win any awards, but it’s a solid period piece with an interesting theme and not a bad way to spend a raining Sunday afternoon. And it won’t do Guernsey tourism any harm either, even though it was mostly shot in Cornwall and Devon.

 

An Irish National Treasure

The annual Norfolk and Norwich Festival is in full swing right now, an eclectic mix of the performing arts in venues right across the city. One of the more original festival venues is the Adnams Speigeltent in Chapelfield Gardens, a replica Edwardian erection with a handy on-site beer garden to quench the thirst. Last night, we enjoyed a night at the big top with Panti Bliss, the Irish drag queen who’s become a bit of a national treasure in Ireland since her famous exposition of homophobia last year. I wrote a post about Panti’s eloquent speech and remarked at the time that it would change minds. And it has. Panti was no less eloquent last night as she revealed funny, absurd and touching titbits from her extraordinary life. Her social commentary was razor-sharp and the copious consumption of gin did nothing to blunt the edge.

Naturally, Panti has been a dedicated supporter of marriage equality in the Irish Republic. In fact, there’s a national referendum on that very subject today. Let’s hope our friends over the water do the right thing. I’m optimistic. It will mean that across these wind-swept islands, only Northern Ireland* will be holding back the tide of social progress. And a yes vote in the Republic might just shame those dusty old Presbyterians into some positive action. But did Panti get back to Dublin in time to cast her vote?

 *In fact, there is no marriage equality in the Isle of Man and Channel Islands either. Except in matters of tax evasion, these off-shore tax havens always have be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era.