Tuesday, 21 April 2009

LIBERTARIAN SUS: ‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’ and other gems

Susan Ryder has been thinking about Anzac Day.

susanryder I don’t like it when Anzac Day falls on a weekend because it never feels quite the same. Its falling on a Saturday amidst the usual busy schedule of kids’ sports events and household jobs, or a lazy Sunday seems to dilute its importance and solemnity.

I see Anzac Day as a real national holiday. Queen’s Birthday in early June has always meant a Monday off in the middle of the year – the last one before Labour Day nearly five months later – but for me it’s nothing more than that. In the past I always looked forward to Labour weekend because I have a birthday around that time, although these days I’d prefer to simply take the day off without the necessity of having to add another number to my personal tally of years. And as for the annual hooha regarding Waitangi Day, well, enough said. I can’t be bothered with it.

But Anzac Day means something. Back in the 70s when I was at school, we would have the annual class visit by one of the aging returned servicemen. We’d wear our poppies and he would say a few words, show us his medals and that was pretty much that.

I knew who Mr Hitler was because I watched Dad’s Army. But like the real Home Guard, I also knew that he wasn’t kidding. I also knew a bit about the First World War, too and it sounded a mighty unpleasant affair for all concerned – the events at Gallipoli for the Australians and New Zealanders and the European battlefields of Flanders, Ypres, Paschendaele and the Somme. This was all courtesy of my grandfather, a keen reader who encouraged me to do the same from an early age.

I started reading some of his books from about the age of 12. Carve Her Name with Pride was one of the first. It is the story of Violette Szabo, a British spy arrested by the Gestapo in France in 1944. After an extended period of solitary confinement and interrogation under torture, she was sent to Ravensbruk concentration camp where she was executed in February 1945, aged 23. Her bravery was such that she was posthumously awarded both the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. An excerpt from the citation at Buckingham Palace stated that she was “continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value.”

I remember reading the book with tears pouring down my face. At that point I truly understood the significance of the poppy Mum and Dad made us wear every April and I never thought twice about wearing one again.

The last decade has simultaneously seen both the passing of the last original diggers from 1915 and a well-publicised resurgence of interest in, and respect for, Anzac Day on both sides of the Tasman. Books and films about the conflicts of the 20th century, the two World Wars in particular, continue to emerge. Here are two recent offerings.

The finest film I saw last year was The Counterfeiters, the true story of the Nazi attempt to flood Britain and the United States with counterfeit currency to financially destroy both nations. ‘Operation Bernhard’ was conducted by talented prisoners within the segregated confines of a concentration camp and saw them receiving good food and treatment in dire contrast to the unseen unfortunates on the other side of the walls. The story exposed a series of conundrums including the morality of their actions in helping their enemy captors relative to the personal comforts received. Then there was the minute hope of survival should they succeed in their task as opposed to certain death if they did not, together with the temptation to slow their pace in the event that they would be expendable once successful, versus the risk of execution for deliberately delaying the Germans’ plans. An extraordinary piece of film-making about an extraordinary event in the last months of the war, The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language” category. It is a stark reminder of the antithesis of freedom.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is quite the most beautiful book I’ve come across for some time, albeit about the German Occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey for most of the Second World War’s duration. Written in epistolary form it opens a few months after the war, telling the fictitious story of a popular newspaper columnist in London who receives a letter from a stranger from Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb. She starts to exchange letters with the writer and his eccentric friends, all of whom were members of the oddly-named club born, according to one review, “as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew” one night.

Except for a British drama series entitled Enemy at the Door from 30 odd years ago of which I have vague memories, I knew nothing of the Channel Islands’ Occupation and the horrors and hardships the Islanders endured, cut off from the world for the entire duration.

The letters vary in length, some consisting of only a few sentences and others several pages. No matter the length, they are alternately moving, shocking and hilarious and guaranteed to surprise.

TGLAPPS was Mary Ann Shaffer’s only book. Although she knew it was being published, her health deteriorated and she died before seeing it in print. As a testament to the power of the human spirit in the face of tyranny, not to mention a darn good read, I cannot recommend it more highly.

Or, for something completely different this weekend you could always commemorate Anzac Day by seeing the newly-released British film The Boat that Rocked about a pirate radio station in the North Sea in 1966. Why? Because in spite of its levity, it wholeheartedly celebrates freedom. “Governments can’t stand the thought of people being free!” said one smart cookie.

I’m sure the point wouldn’t be lost on those who bravely fought and suffered for it.

* * Read Susan Ryder’s column every Tuesday here at NOT PC * *


  1. "Carve Her Name with Pride" (starring Virginia McKenna) has just been released on DVD.

  2. I remember watching 'Carve her name with pride". ANZAC Day is way overdone these days. The 'glorious dead' worship is far too near Rand's idea of death-worship, altruism, and sacrifice for my liking. The idea that one can only be a hero if one is dead. Like Christ for example.

    PC's Anzac post of 1 or 2 years ago is the only good and balanced essay I have read on the topic in recent years. If you repost it Peter I would like permission to republish on Google reader.

  3. Thanks for the rare praise, Ruth. Yes, of course you can republish it.

    Did you mean this piece?
    War: What is it good for?Or this one?
    The three horsemen of peace

  4. I don't think "that one can only be a hero if one is dead." Not at all.

    I'd intended to mention Nancy Wake who is, as far as I know, still alive and kicking, but I was running out of time and space.

    Don't count me in the '"glorious dead" worship', etc. The mass carnage of it all was and is incomprehensible.

    I think of Anzac Day as having the decency to quietly acknowledge those who lived through a time we thankfully haven't - for one day a year.

  5. Thanks Susan (and Jeff) - I was just about to ask where I can find Carve her name . . . did you find it at a local video store, or did you purchase it from somewhere?

    Also the books GLPPS sounds great - I will try and track that down also.


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