Mike Newell’s latest film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society tells the story of a writer named Juliet Ashton, who is searching for a new literary challenge following the Second World War. She receives a letter from a fan of hers from the island of Guernsey, who tells her about the unique society, one that meets to embrace a love of books with plans of how to utilise the scarce rations of food that were available to habitants during the Nazi occupation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society not only captures the glorious ways that Guernsey’s islanders lifted their spirits during this traumatic time, but also the consistent hope and optimism that was always apparent. Through the wonders of literature, they could briefly forget the darkness, gloom and devastation of the war.
I met with one of No. 6’s dedicated volunteers, Bob, to find out more about this intriguing piece of history. In Bob’s case, Guernsey’s occupation by the Germans is a distinctive chapter within his family’s history. His mother (Violet) and father (Jack) lived in Guernsey during this time, along with Bob’s brother who was only 2 years old at the time of being evacuated. On the 19th of June 1940, it was announced that all children of school age (and younger children with a parent) were to be evacuated from the island with many islanders being sent to safety in England and families (including Bob’s) being separated. Violet and her son travelled in the hold of a cargo boat to Weymouth, and later Bradford, with his father Jack obligated to stay in Guernsey due to his essential occupation of delivering milk.
Bob shared with me numerous letters exchanged between his mother and father during their time apart. Jack wrote a letter to Violet every day before the Nazis cut communications. After that, the only form of contact was Red Cross letters which could only be a maximum of 25 words, and took 6 months for a reply to be received.
As seen in the film, Guernsey’s islanders lived in a state of major deprivation while the German army fortified the land. Curfews were imposed, properties were randomly invaded and searched, and food was particularly limited due to the severe lack of mainland supplies (and so was born the very true Potato Peel Pie!). There was also the constant threat of bomb raids, including a particular occasion that Bob’s father faced first-hand as he delivered milk to a cafe owner, and took along his colleague’s 3-year-old daughter:
“I was just going to open the door of the car when I heard the planes and I looked up and saw they were Germans; and then I saw the bombs start to drop. I dropped the can and grabbed the kid and rushed into the shop, as the first explosions went and I heard the machine guns start. Then we went down the cellar and stopped there. The kid was marvelous, she didn’t cry or anything... there was women fainting and crying... As soon as the all-clear sounded, I put her in the car and boy, did Frank’s old Austin go on the way back to St. Martins. My one idea was to get her back to her mother.”
On May the 9th 1945, Guernsey was liberated, and after five long years, Bob’s family were reunited on the 3rd of July, his mother’s birthday. Bob recalls a specific memory of his brother’s after the reconciliation:
‘My brother can remember arriving back in Guernsey with his mother; among other things he remembers asking who the men in grey uniforms were (the Germans were still there) and being told “don’t look at them!”. He was 8 years old and didn’t know who his father was.”
Whilst Newell’s film shows how Guernsey’s inhabitants used literature as a form of escape, Bob’s story also shows how the power of family and how the thought of reconciliation is a strong coping mechanism during the obviously treacherous circumstances of the War.
A piece of history clearly close to his heart, Bob will be presenting a display of this fascinating story at the No.6 with a selection of pictures and letters that he holds dear, and he will be more than happy to answer any questions. He is very much looking forward to seeing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, so join him at the No. 6 on the 2nd of June at 7pm.
Written by Matt Weaver.
With thanks to Bob Cann.