The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (8 page)

Late in 1944, it didn't matter what time the Germans set the curfew for. Most people went to bed around five o'clock anyway to keep warm. We were rationed to two candles a week and then only one. It was very tedious, lying in bed with no light to read by.

After D-Day, the Germans couldn't send any supply ships from France because of the Allied bombers. So they were finally as hungry as we were—and killing dogs and cats to give themselves something to eat. They would raid our gardens, rooting up potatoes—even eating the black rotten ones. Four soldiers died eating handfuls of hemlock, thinking it was parsley.

The German officers said that any soldier caught stealing food from our gardens would be shot. One poor soldier was caught stealing a potato. He was chased by his own people and climbed up a tree to hide. But they found him and shot him down out of the tree. Still, that did not stop them from stealing food. I am not pointing a finger at those practices, because some of us were doing the same. I think hunger makes you desperate when you wake to it every morning.

My grandson Eli was evacuated to England when he was seven. He is home now—twelve years old, and tall—but I will never forgive the Germans for making me miss his childhood.

I must go and milk my cow now, but I will write to you again if you like.

I wish you good health,

Eben Ramsey

From Miss Adelaide Addison to Juliet
1st March 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Forgive the presumption of a letter from a person unknown to you. But a clear duty is imposed upon me. I understand from Dawsey Adams that you are to write a long article for
The Times
on the value of reading and you intend to feature the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society therein.

I laugh.

Perhaps you will reconsider when you learn that their founder, Elizabeth McKenna, is not even an Islander. Despite her fine airs, she is merely a jumped-up servant from the London home of Sir Ambrose Ivers, RA (Royal Academy). Surely, you know of him. He is a portrait painter of some note, though I've never understood why. His portrait of the Countess of Lambeth as Boadicea, lashing her horses, was unforgivable. In any event, Elizabeth McKenna was the daughter of his housekeeper, if you please.

While Elizabeth's mother dusted, Sir Ambrose let the child potter around in his studio, and he kept her at school long after the normal leaving time for one of her station. Her mother died when Elizabeth was fourteen. Did Sir Ambrose send her to an institution to be properly trained for a suitable occupation? He did not. He kept her with him in his home in Chelsea. He proposed her for a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art.

Mind you, I do not say Sir Ambrose sired the girl—we know his proclivities too well to admit of that—but he doted upon her in a way that encouraged her besetting sin: lack of humility. The decay of standards is the cross of our times,
and nowhere is this regrettable decline more apparent than in Elizabeth McKenna.

Sir Ambrose owned a home in Guernsey—on the clifftops near La Bouvée. He, his housekeeper and the girl summered here when she was a child. Elizabeth was a wild thing—roaming unkempt about the island, even on Sundays. No household chores, no gloves, no shoes, no stockings. Going out on fishing boats with rude men. Spying on decent people through her telescope. A disgrace.

When it became clear that the war was going to start in earnest, Sir Ambrose sent Elizabeth to close up his house. Elizabeth bore the brunt of his haphazard ways in this case, for, in the midst of her putting up the shutters, the German army landed on her doorstep. However, the choice to remain here was hers, and, as is proven by certain subsequent events (which I will not demean myself to mention), she is not the selfless heroine that some people seem to think.

Furthermore, the so-called Literary Society is a scandal. There are those of true culture and breeding here in Guernsey, and they will take no part in this charade (even if invited). There are only two respectable people in the Society—Eben Ramsey and Amelia Maugery. The other members: a rag-and-bone man, a lapsed Alienist who drinks, a stuttering swine-herd, a footman posing as a lord, and Isola Pribby, a practising witch, who, by her own admission, distils and sells potions. They collected a few others of their ilk along the way, and one can only imagine their ‘literary evenings'.

You must not write about these people and their books—God knows what they saw fit to read!

Yours in Christian Consternation and Concern,

Adelaide Addison (Miss)

From Mark to Juliet
2nd March 1946

Dear Juliet,

I've just appropriated my music critic's opera tickets. Covent Garden at eight. Will you?

Yours,

Mark

From Juliet to Mark

Dear Mark,

Tonight?

Juliet

From Mark to Juliet

Yes!

M.

From Juliet to Mark

Wonderful! I feel sorry for your critic, though. Those tickets are scarce as hens' teeth.

Juliet

From Mark to Juliet

He'll make do with standing room. He can write about the uplifting effect of opera on the poor, etc., etc.

I'll pick you up at seven.

M.

From Juliet to Eben
Mr Eben Ramsey
Les Pommiers
Calais Lane
St Martin's, Guernsey

3rd March 1946

Dear Mr Ramsey,

It was so kind of you to write to me about your experiences during the Occupation. At the war's end, I, too, promised myself that I wouldn't talk about it any more. I had talked and lived war for six years, and I was longing to pay attention to something—anything—else. But that is like wishing I were someone else. The war is now the story of our lives, and there's no denying it.

I was glad to hear about your grandson Eli returning to you. Does he live with you or with his parents? Did you receive no news of him at all during the Occupation? Did all the Guernsey children return at once? What a celebration, if they did!

I don't mean to inundate you with questions, but I have a few more, if you're in an answering frame of mind. I know you were at the roast-pig dinner that led to the founding of
the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—but how did Mrs Maugery come to have the pig in the first place? How does one hide a pig?

Elizabeth McKenna was brave that night! She truly has grace under pressure, a quality that fills me with hopeless admiration. I know you and the other members of the Society must worry as the months pass without word, but you mustn't give up hope. Friends tell me that Europe is like a hive broken open, teeming with thousands upon thousands of displaced people, all trying to get home. A dear old friend of mine, who was shot down in Burma in 1943, reappeared in Australia last month—not in the best of shape, but alive and intending to remain so.

Thank you for your letter.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

From Clovis Fossey to Juliet
4th March 1946

Dear Miss,

At first, I did not want to go to any book meetings. My farm is a lot of work, and I did not want to spend my time reading about people who never were, doing things they never did.

Then in 1942 I started to court the Widow Hubert. When we'd go for a walk, she'd march a few steps ahead of me on the path and never let me take her arm. She let Ralph Murchey take her arm, so I knew I was failing in my suit. Ralph, he's a bragger when he drinks, and he said to all in the tavern, ‘Women like poetry. A soft word in their ears and they melt—a
grease spot on the grass.' That's no way to talk about a lady, and I knew right then he didn't want the Widow Hubert for her own self, the way I did. He wanted only her grazing land for his cows. So I thought, If it's rhymes the Widow Hubert wants, I will find me some.

I went to see Mr Fox in his bookshop and asked for some love poetry. He didn't have many books left by that time—people bought them to burn, and when he finally caught on, he closed his shop for good—so he gave me some fellow named Catullus. He was a Roman. Do you know the kind of things he said in verse? I knew I couldn't say those words to a nice lady.

He did hanker after one woman, Lesbia, who spurned him after taking him into her bed. I don't wonder she did so—he did not like it when she petted her downy little sparrow. Jealous of a little bird, he was. He went home and took up his pen to write of his anguish at seeing her cuddle the little birdy to her bosom. He took it hard, and he never liked women after that and wrote mean poems about them.

He was a tight one too. Do you want to see a poem he wrote when a fallen woman charged him for her favours—poor lass. I will copy it out for you.

Is that battered strumpet in her senses, who asks me for a thousand sesterces?

That girl with the nasty nose?

Ye kinsmen to whom the care of the girl belongs,

Call together friends and physicians; the girl is insane.

She thinks she is pretty.

Those are love tokens? I told my friend Eben I never saw such spiteful stuff. He said to me I had just not read the right poets. He took me into his cottage and lent me a
little book of his own. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen. He was an officer in the First World War, and he knew what was what and called it by its right name. I was there, too, at Passchendaele, and I knew what he knew, but I could never put it into words for myself.

Well, after that, I thought there might be something to this poetry after all. I began to go to meetings, and I'm glad I did, else how would I have read the works of William Wordsworth—he would have stayed unknown to me. I learnt many of his poems by heart.

Anyway, I did win the hand of the Widow Hubert—my Nancy. I got her to go for a walk along the cliffs one evening, and I said, ‘Lookie there, Nancy. The gentleness of Heaven broods o'er the sea—Listen, the mighty Being is awake.' She let me kiss her. She is now my wife.

Yours truly,

Clovis Fossey

P.S. Mrs Maugery lent me a book last week. It's called
The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935
. They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he—and what does he know about verse?

I hunted all through that book for poems by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. There weren't any—not one. And do you know why not? Because this Mr Yeats said—he said, ‘I deliberately chose NOT to include any poems from World War I. I have a distaste for them. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.'

Passive Suffering? Passive Suffering! I could have hit him. What ailed the man? Lieutenant Owen, he wrote a line, ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.' What's passive about that, I'd like to know?
That's exactly how they do die. I saw it with my own eyes, and I say to hell with Mr Yeats.

From Eben to Juliet
10th March 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Thank you for your letter and your kind questions about my grandson, Eli. He is the child of my daughter, Jane. Jane and her newborn baby died in hospital on the day that the Germans bombed us, the 28th of June, 1940. Eli's father was killed in North Africa in 1942, so I have Eli in my keeping now.

Eli left Guernsey on the 20th of June along with the thousands of babies and schoolchildren who were evacuated to England. We knew the Germans were coming and Jane worried for his safety here. The doctor would not let Jane sail with the children, the baby's birth being so close.

We did not have any news of the children for six months. Then I got a postcard from the Red Cross, saying Eli was well, but not where he was situated—we never knew what towns our children were in, though we prayed not in a big city. An even longer time passed before I could send him a card in return, but I was of two minds about that. I dreaded telling him that his mother and the baby had died. I hated to think of my boy reading those cold words on the back of a postcard. But I had to do it. And then a second time, after I got word about his father.

Eli did not come back until the war was over—and they did send all the children home at once. That was a day! More wonderful even than when the British soldiers came to liberate
Guernsey. Eli, he was the first boy down the gangway—he'd grown long legs in five years—and I don't think I could have stopped hugging him, if Isola hadn't pushed me a bit so she could hug him herself.

I bless God that he was boarded with a farming family in Yorkshire. They were very good to him. Eli gave me a letter they had written to me—it was full of all the things I had missed. They told of his schooling, how he helped on the farm, how he tried to be steadfast when he got my postcards.

He fishes with me and helps me tend my cow and garden, but carving wood is what he likes best—Dawsey and I are teaching him how to do it. He fashioned a fine snake from a bit of broken fence last week, though it's my guess that the bit of broken fence was really a rafter from Dawsey's barn. Dawsey just smiled when I asked him about it, but spare wood is hard to find on the island now, as we had to cut down most of the trees—banisters and furniture, too—for firewood when there was no more coal or paraffin left. Eli and I are planting trees on my land now, but it is going to take a long time for them to grow—and we do all miss the leaves and shade.

I will tell you now about our roast pig. The Germans were fussy over farm animals. Pigs and cows were kept strict count of. Guernsey was to feed the German troops stationed here and in France. We ourselves could have what was left, if there was any.

How the Germans did fuss about book-keeping. They kept track of every gallon we milked, weighed the cream, recorded every sack of flour. They left the chickens alone for a while. But when feed and scraps became so scarce they ordered us to kill off the older chickens, so the good layers could have enough feed to keep on laying eggs.

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