The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (6 page)

She was free to occupy her nights however she chose. Doubtless it included the writing of more light journalism, for the
Spectator
engaged her to write a weekly column on
the state of the nation in wartime—under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff.

I read one of her columns and cancelled my subscription. She attacked the good taste of our dear (though dead) Queen Victoria. Doubtless you know of the huge memorial Victoria had built for her beloved consort, Prince Albert. It is the jewel in the crown of Kensington Gardens—a monument to the Queen's refined taste as well as to the Departed. Juliet applauded the Ministry of Food for having ordered peas to be planted in the grounds surrounding that memorial—commenting that no better scarecrow than Prince Albert existed in all England.

While I question her taste, her judgement, her misplaced priorities, and her inappropriate sense of humour, she does indeed have one fine quality—she is honest. If she says she will honour the good name of your literary society, she will do so. I can say no more.

Sincerely yours,

Bella Taunton

From the Reverend Simon Simpless to Amelia
13th February 1946

Dear Mrs Maugery,

Yes, you may trust Juliet. I am unequivocal on this point. Her parents were my good friends as well as my parishioners at St Hilda's. Indeed, I was a guest at their home on the night she was born.

Juliet was a stubborn but nevertheless a sweet, considerate, joyous child—with an unusual bent for integrity in one so young.

I will tell you of one incident when she was ten years old. Juliet, while singing the fourth verse of ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow', slammed her hymnal shut and refused to sing another note. She told our choir master that the words cast a slur on God's character. We should not be singing it. He (the choir master, not God) didn't know what to do, so he escorted Juliet to my study for me to reason with her.

I did not fare very well. Juliet said, ‘Well, he shouldn't have written, “His eye is on the sparrow”—what good was that? Did He stop the bird dying? Did He just say, “Oops”? It makes God sound like He's off bird-watching when real people need Him.'

I felt compelled to agree with Juliet on this matter—why had I never thought about it before? The choir has not sung ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow' since then.

Juliet's parents died when she was twelve and she was sent to live with her great-uncle, Dr Roderick Ashton, in London. Though not an unkind man, he was so mired in his Greco-Roman studies he had no time to take any notice of the girl. He had no imagination, either—fatal for someone bringing up a child.

She ran away twice, the first time making it only as far as King's Cross Station. The police found her waiting, with a packed canvas bag and her father's fishing rod, to catch the train to Bury St Edmunds. She was returned to Dr Ashton—and she ran away again. This time, Dr Ashton telephoned me to ask for my help in finding her.

I knew exactly where to go—to her parents' former farm. I found her opposite the farm's entrance, sitting on a little wooded knoll, impervious to the rain—just sitting there, soaked—looking at her old (now sold) home.

I sent a telegram to her uncle and went back with her on the train to London the following day. I had intended to return to my parish on the next train, but when I discovered her fool of an uncle had sent his cook to fetch her, I insisted on accompanying them. I invaded his study and we had a vigorous talk. He agreed that a boarding school might be best for Juliet—her parents had left ample funds for such an eventuality.

Fortunately, I knew of a very good school—St Swithin's. Academically fine, and with a headmistress not carved from granite. I am happy to tell you Juliet thrived there—she found her lessons stimulating, but I believe the true reason for Juliet's regained spirits was her friendship with Sophie Stark—and the Stark family. She often went to Sophie's home at half-term, and Juliet and Sophie came twice to stay with me and my sister at the Rectory. What jolly times we shared: picnics, bicycle rides, fishing. Sophie's brother, Sidney Stark, joined us once—though ten years older than the girls, and despite an inclination to boss them around, he was a welcome fifth to our happy party.

It was rewarding to watch Juliet grow up—as it is now to know her fully grown. I am very glad that she asked me to write to you of her character.

I have included our small history together so that you will realise I know whereof I speak. If Juliet says she will, she will. If she says she won't, she won't.

Very truly yours,

Simon Simpless

From Susan Scott to Juliet
17th February 1946

Dear Juliet,

Was that possibly
you
I glimpsed in this week's
Tatler
, doing the rumba with Mark Reynolds? You looked gorgeous—almost as gorgeous as he did—but might I suggest that you move to an air-raid shelter before Sidney sees a copy?

You can buy my silence with torrid details, you know.

Yours,

Susan

From Juliet to Susan Scott
18th February 1946

Dear Susan,

I deny everything.

Love,

Juliet

From Amelia to Juliet
18th February 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Thank you for taking my caveat so seriously. At the Society meeting last night, I told the members about your article for
The Times
and suggested that those who wished to do so should correspond with you about the books they have read and the joy they have found in reading.

The response was so vociferous that Isola Pribby, our Sergeant-at-Arms, was forced to bang her hammer for order (I admit that Isola needs little encouragement to bang her hammer). I think you will receive a good many letters from us, and I hope they will be of some help to your article.

Dawsey has told you that the Society was invented as a ruse to stop the Germans arresting my guests: Dawsey, Isola, Eben Ramsey, John Booker, Will Thisbee, and our dear Elizabeth McKenna, who manufactured the story on the spot, bless her quick wits and silver tongue.

I, of course, knew nothing of their predicament at the time. As soon as they left, I made haste down to my cellar to bury the evidence of our meal. The first I heard about our literary society was the next morning at seven, when Elizabeth appeared in my kitchen and asked, ‘How many books have you got?'

I had quite a few, but Elizabeth looked at my shelves and shook her head. ‘We need more. There's too much gardening here.' She was right, of course—I do like a good garden book. ‘I'll tell you what we'll do,' she said. ‘After I've finished at the Commandant's Office, we'll go to Fox's Bookshop and buy them out. If we're going to be the Guernsey Literary Society, we have to look literary.'

I was frantic all morning, worrying over what was happening at the Commandant's Office. What if they all ended up in the Guernsey prison? Or, worst of all, in a prison camp on the Continent? The Germans were erratic in dispensing their justice, so one never knew what sentence would be imposed. But nothing of the sort occurred.

Odd as it may sound, the Germans allowed—and even encouraged—artistic and cultural pursuits among the Channel Islanders. Their object was to prove to the British that the
German Occupation was a model one. How this message was to be conveyed to the outside world was never explained, as the telephone and telegraph cable between Guernsey and London had been cut the day the Germans landed in June 1940. Whatever their skewed reasoning, the Channel Islands were treated much more leniently than the rest of conquered Europe—at first.

At the Commandant's Office, my friends were ordered to pay a small fine and submit the name and membership list of their society. The Commandant announced that he, too, was a lover of literature—might he, with a few like-minded officers, sometimes attend meetings?

Elizabeth told them they would be most welcome. And then she, Eben, and I flew to Fox's, chose armloads of books for our newfound society, and rushed back to the Manor to put them on my shelves. Then we strolled from house to house—looking as carefree and casual as we could—in order to alert the others to come that evening and choose a book to read. It was agonising to walk slowly, stopping to chat here and there, when we wanted to rush! Timing was vital, because Elizabeth feared the Commandant would appear at the next meeting, barely two weeks away. (He did not. A few German officers did attend over the years but, thankfully, left in some confusion and did not return.)

And so it was that we began. I knew all our members, but I did not know them all well. Dawsey had been my neighbour for over thirty years, and yet I don't believe I had ever spoken to him about anything more than the weather and farming. Isola was a dear friend, and Eben, too, but Will Thisbee was only an acquaintance and John Booker was nearly a stranger, for he had only just arrived when the Germans came. It was Elizabeth we had in common. Without her urging, I would
never have thought to invite them to share my pig, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would never have drawn breath.

That evening when they came to my house to make their selections, those who had rarely read anything other than scripture, seed catalogues, and
The Pigman's Gazette
discovered a different kind of reading. It was here Dawsey found his Charles Lamb and Isola fell upon
Wuthering Heights
. For myself, I chose
The Pickwick Papers
, thinking it would lift my spirits—it did.

Then each went home and read. We began to meet—for the sake of the Commandant at first, and then for our own pleasure. None of us had any experience of literary societies, so we made our own rules: we took turns to speak about the books we'd read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times—we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside. We still meet every fortnight.

Will Thisbee was responsible for the inclusion of Potato Peel Pie in our society's name. Germans or not, he wasn't going to go to any meetings unless there were eats! So refreshments became part of our agenda. Since there was scant butter, less flour and no sugar to spare on Guernsey then, Will concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for the filling, boiled beetroot for sweetness, and potato peelings for the crust. Will's recipes are usually dubious, but this one became a favourite.

I would love to hear from you again and find out how your article progresses.

Yours most sincerely,

Amelia Maugery

From Isola Pribby to Juliet
19th February 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Oh my oh my. You have written a book about Anne Brontë, sister to Charlotte and Emily. Amelia Maugery says she will lend it to me, because she knows I have a fondness for the Brontë girls—poor lambs. To think all five of them had weak chests and died so young! What a sadness.

Their dad was a selfish thing, wasn't he? He paid his girls no attention at all—always sitting in his study, shouting for his shawl. He never got up to wait on hisself, did he? Just sat alone in his room while his daughters died like flies. And their brother Branwell—he wasn't much either. Always drinking and sicking up on the carpet. They were always having to clean up after him. Fine work for lady authoresses! It is my belief that with two such men in the household and no way to meet others, Emily had to make Heathcliff up out of thin air! And what a fine job she did. Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life.

Amelia told us you would like to know about our book society and what we talk about at our meetings. I gave a talk on the Brontë girls once when it was my turn to speak. I'm sorry I can't send you my notes on Charlotte and Emily—I used them to kindle a fire in my stove—there being no other
paper in the house. I'd already burnt up my tide tables, the Book of Revelation and the story about Job.

You will want to know why I admired those girls. I like stories of passionate encounters. I myself have never had one, but now I can picture one. I didn't like
Wuthering Heights
at first, but the minute that spectre Cathy scratched her bony fingers on the windowpane—I was grasped by the throat and not let go. With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff's pitiful cries upon the moors. I don't believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower's
Ill-Used by Candlelight
. Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.

I will tell you now about myself. I have a cottage and smallholding next to Mrs Maugery's manor house and farm. We are both situated by the sea. I tend my chickens and my goat, Ariel, and grow things. I have a parrot in my keeping too—her name is Zenobia and she does not like men.

I have a stall at the market every week, where I sell my jam, vegetables and elixirs I make to restore manly ardour. Kit McKenna—daughter to my dear friend Elizabeth McKenna—helps me make my potions. She is only four and has to stand on a stool to stir my pot, but she is able to whip up quite a froth.

I do not have a pleasing appearance. My nose is big and was broken when I fell off the hen-house roof. One eyeball skitters up to the top, and my hair is wild and will not stay tamped down. I am tall and built of big bones.

I could write to you again, if you want me to. I could tell you more about reading and how it perked up our spirits while the Germans were here. The only time reading didn't help was after Elizabeth was arrested by the Germans. They caught her hiding one of those poor slave workers from Poland, and they
sent her to prison on the Continent. There was no book that could lift my heart then, nor for a long time afterwards. It was all I could do not to slap every German I saw. For Kit's sake, I held myself in. She was only a little sprout then, and she needed us. Elizabeth hasn't come home yet. We are afraid for her, but mind you, I say it's early days yet and she might still come home. I pray so for I miss her sorely.

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