Sunday, August 9, 2009

Choking on potato peel

Just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (and completed by Annie Barrows) and I am trying to work out why it makes me grind my teeth.

I can see why the book has done so well. As an epistolary novel, it is easy to read, and there is no sense of the heart-sinking and foreboding that some people get with long, dense chapters. Also making it partly about an occupation book group (which feels like an anachronism to me) was a great wheeze, in terms of raising its profile in today's book groups.

It's an undemanding read, skating unconvincingly over the surface of the occupation, romance, and even the horrors of Nazi labour camps.

But there is no sense of real Guernsey people or their turns of phrase or ways of speaking. The material is clearly the product of laborious if sometimes inaccurate research. Such as when, for example, people are surrounded by Luger sporting Germans soldiers. (What, they were all officers then?)

I did not care what happened to any of the two-dimensional characters. Surely the point of setting it somewhere - anywhere - is to give it a distinct flavour? But again, following what seems to be a long tradition going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, when the action moves to Guernsey, it appears as a blank backdrop.

What I do like about it, is that it is raising the profile of Guernsey, and getting people curious about the island. But if you want to read a novel set in Guernsey which is worth reading, read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards, which is incomparably better. While Tim Binding's book Island Madness is vastly better written book about the occupation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Literature in Guernsey - an untold story

I have been working towards creating an Anthology of literature about Guernsey, as I believe the island's best kept secret is its literary tradition.

I think there are three sources of this literature. The first that written by Guernsey people about their own island (such as G.B. Edwards The Book of Ebenezer Le Page). The second would be derived from those who have discovered Guernsey (such as Victor Hugo) and the third would be literature of the Guernsey diaspora - the work of exiles.

Literature about the island has never been collected with imagination and authority. Thankfully there have been heartening artistic initiatives on the island in the last year or so, which have begun to offer more stimulus to Guernsey’s cultural life.

The current wider economic uncertainty means that Guernsey’s tourism industry may become even more important. I've proposed to Guernsey Arts that an imaginative and professional anthology of Guernsey literature could be a real asset to the island, and have long term benefits for Guernsey as a whole.

Here’s why:

  • Guernsey already captures the imaginations of people around the world. For I have been using Twitter in the last few weeks to search for mentions of Guernsey on the Internet. More than half of what is being said about Guernsey, in this planet-wide snapshot, was about the recent novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Literature is a window on the world for the island.
  • Literature about Guernsey is a great untapped natural resource. To visit a place, you first have to visit it in your imagination. If successful, an anthology of Guernsey literature could stimulate tourism and support the local economy. As this anthology aims to include material from people of the Guernsey diaspora, which makes it a book stuffed with reasons to visit or revisit the island.
  • Literature about Guernsey is an uncharted region. This anthology should contribute both arts and education in Guernsey. Having an idea of what got us to this point culturally will help the Island move forward with a clearer sense of its own identity.
  • There’s never been a better time to express Guernsey’s vitality and culture. At a time of globalisation, it is vital to retain Guernsey’s unique selling points. Until now its literature is a tool which has not been employed.

Signs thus far have been positive. Watch this space.

The story so far...

Went to Guernsey in June and had a meeting with the Guernsey Arts Commission, about creating an Anthology of Guernsey writing. Liked the Chairman Tony Gallienne right off the bat. The meeting was inconclusive, but they were encouraging.

I spent a couple of hours in the Priaulx Library where I met Amanda Bennett, the Chief Librarian, who took time to show me an extensive collection of books, all of which have some tenuous connection to Guernsey.

She told me a few things right away I didn't know, such as PG Wodehouse went to school here, and that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the composer had performed on the island. And that Edmund Keane the nineteenth century Shakespearean was pelted with vegetables in St Peter Port. Spent a happy couple of hours with my nose in dusty tomes. A venerable place, busy with people tracking down old stories from the Guernsey Press, and tracing their ancestors.

Then to the Guernsey Museum, which is a matter of a few yards away. Here I met Guernsey's switched on Museums Director Jason Monaghan. Interesting chat with him. He also gave me a signed copy of a self-published book written under his nom de plume Jason Foss called Islands that never were. After a brief look at The Three Garnsey Women Martyred by the Papists {Anno 1556}. Jason has let me know subsequently of a Dr Who novelisation set in Guernsey too.There is rich ground to be covered.

Already receiving a good deal of help and advice from the excellent Catriona Stares of the Commission, and Richard Fleming and Jane Mosse, notable poets resident on the island.