Written by Richard Guille.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) is a Studio Canal film directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), based on the award-winning 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It follows a young English writer, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who is contacted in 1946 by Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey pig farmer (Michiel Huisman). Learning of his membership of a unique book club formed during the German occupation of Guernsey, 1940-45, Ashton visits Guernsey to discover more. In the process, she learns about the occupation and the experiences of islanders during the war, notably the tragic story of one woman, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay). Whilst the film downplays the grittier parts of the book in favour of the story’s romantic dimension, a number of controversial and marginalised aspects of Guernsey’s occupation are portrayed. This article teases out the themes presented by the film and the implications of these for public occupation memory in Guernsey. It considers the films’ promotion in Guernsey, with this years’ Guernsey Heritage Festival (30 March to 10 May 2018) focusing solely on the occupation. This latest foray into presenting the public history of Guernsey’s occupation retains a focus on well-trodden ground at the expense of marginalised areas in occupation memory depicted in the film.
The Occupation of the Channel Islands lies on the margins of British war memory, representing a peripheral British experience of the war. Paul Sanders has noted that shortly after the end of the war the Islands locked into the ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ interpretation of the victorious British at war. Despite their experiences being closer to other occupied nations, ideals of heroism, stoicism and bravery, hallmarks of British cultural memory of the war, were emphasised to align with the ‘victorious British’. Discourse over the occupation became sanitised, focusing on fortifications and militaria rather than more controversial subjects. Heritage sites presented narratives framed around the experiences of occupier and occupied. The result, Gilly Carr argues, was the marginalisation of groups whose experiences contradicted this ‘victorious’ narrative, such as the Islands’ small Jewish population, deportees and the Organisation Todt slave labourers in the islands (who provided labour for the German civil and military engineering group). These instead were ‘victims’, running counter to the image of the British – and the Islands – as ‘victors’. Of these, the OT workers remain on the margins. The history of the occupation has also been controversial, notably during the 1990s when sensationalist accounts emphasised areas which challenged cherished ideals of British wartime behaviour. The angry response in Guernsey demonstrated the sensitivity of the occupation as a subject.
Therefore, it is positive that the film touches upon several of these areas, such as slave labourers, Islanders deported to concentration camps and women having sexual relationships with ‘enemy’ soldiers. Mckenna, Ashton discovers, entered into a loving relationship with a German officer and had his child. Later, she aided an escaped slave labourer but was denounced and caught, leading to deportation to Ravensbrück where she died. In this one character’s storyline, several taboos or marginalisations are portrayed, and the messy moral dilemmas of enemy occupation given due attention. Mckenna could be viewed as a collaborator, a resistor and a victim simultaneously, which reminds us that individuals cannot be satisfactorily grouped into binary categories such as ‘resisters’ or ‘collaborators’. Equally positive is the light shone by the film on the social divisions engendered by the occupation and on the deep psychological wounds inflicted. The film depicts the man who denounced McKenna to the Germans skulking alone, forever to be shunned for his wartime actions. Furthermore, the film shows us the attitude of some members of Guernsey’s society towards women such as McKenna, when Ashton’s landlady rants about women who ‘dropped their knickers’ for food, lipstick and stockings. Amelia Maugary’s (Penelope Wilton) hostile silence on the subject and her eventual emotional confession reinforce how traumatic the occupation was for the Islanders to endure. The depiction of the occupation tends towards a ‘warts and all’ portrayal which handles its controversial subject matter in a mature and sensitive manner.
It is heartening to see Guernsey get so wholly behind a film which deals with potentially controversial material. One need only search ‘#guernseymovie’ on Twitter to sense how proud Guernsey residents are to see their islands’ story portrayed, and there was universal approval of the film amongst occupation survivors whom I interviewed in Guernsey in April. However, as Carr noted in 2010, the island has yet to ‘openly discuss … victims of Nazism.’ The film has been seized upon by Guernsey’s tourism and heritage bodies to promote both the island and a wider awareness of the occupation years. The iNewspaper reported: ‘this year Guernsey is capitalising on the film to offer everything from occupation themed dinners, potato peel pie walking routes and new historical tours’. It is commendable that efforts towards a wider discussion have been made, yet marginalised aspects shown in the film are still not a prominent part of this discussion, which continues to take place on familiar ground. Over 300 events are being held during the festival, yet few deal with ‘marginalised’ areas. The official guide introduces the festival thus: ‘German fortifications will be opened up for the first time … exhibitions will capture the essence of occupied island life and you’ll get the chance to hear … Islanders’ stories of life under German rule.’ The focus on the experience of occupied and occupier and the marginalisation of victim groups is very much still at play in Guernsey. Many German bunkers have been opened up for the festival, allowing visitors to explore German positions and imagine the life of the men who manned them. Yet no events solely focus on the slave labourers. Whilst their experiences are undoubtedly touched upon by guides and information boards, they occupy a position on the margins of the events. Similarly, the fate of Guernsey’s small Jewish population who do not have an event dedicated solely to them in the programme.
The film portrays Guernsey’s occupation in a manner which emphasises the moral dilemmas, restrictions and deprivations which Islanders faced. It is sensitive and nuanced, leaving the viewer to ponder the difficulties Guernsey men, women and children faced in living their lives under the jackboot. It is also to be commended for dealing with the dissonant notion of the British and foreign ‘victim’ of occupation. It is a missed opportunity for Guernsey to have failed to seize upon these elements of the film in order to have a more nuanced conversation about the occupation years, instead of continuing cover familiar ground. It reveals the extent which the islands’ alignment with Britain’s war memory still influences public representations of the occupation and demonstrates that marginalised aspects remain in Guernsey’s ‘mainstream’ public memory.
Richard Guille is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, conducting oral history based research into the memory of the German Occupation of the British Channel Islands of Guernsey and Sark, 1940-45.
Image credit: @VisitGuernsey/Twitter.