The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2 page)

Dear Sidney,

Yes, lovely—can it be somewhere on the river? I want oysters and champagne and roast beef, if obtainable; if not, a chicken will do. I am very happy that
Izzy
's sales are good. Are they good enough for me not to have to pack a suitcase and leave London?

As you and S&S have turned me into a moderately successful author, dinner must be my treat.

Love,

Juliet

P.S. I did not throw ‘The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation' at the audience. I threw it at the elocution mistress. I meant to cast it at her feet, but I missed.

From Juliet to Sophie Strachan
Mrs Alexander Strachan
Feochan Farm
by Oban Argyll

12th January 1946

Dear Sophie,

Of course I'd adore to see you, but I am a soulless, will-less automaton. I have been ordered by Sidney to Bath, Colchester, Leeds, and several other places I can't remember at the moment, and I can't just slope off to Scotland instead. Sidney's brow would lower—his eyes would narrow—he would stalk. You know how nerve-racking it is when Sidney stalks.

I wish I could sneak away to your farm and be coddled. You'd let me put my feet on the sofa, wouldn't you? And then you'd tuck me up in blankets and bring me tea? Would Alexander mind a permanent presence on his sofa? You've told me he is a patient man, but perhaps he would find it annoying.

Why am I so melancholy? I should be delighted at the prospect of reading
Izzy
to an entranced audience. You know how I love talking about books, and you know how I adore receiving compliments. I should be thrilled. But the truth is that I'm gloomy—gloomier than I ever felt during the war. Everything is so
broken
, Sophie: the roads, the buildings, the people. Especially the people.

It's probably the after-effect of a horrid dinner party I went to last night. The food was ghastly, but that was to be expected. It was the guests who unnerved me—they were the most demoralising collection of individuals I've ever encountered. The talk was of bombs and starvation. Do you remember Sarah Morecroft? She was there, all bones and gooseflesh and bloody lipstick. She used to be pretty, didn't she? Wasn't she mad about that riding chap who went up to Cambridge? He was nowhere to be seen; she's married to a doctor with grey skin who clicks his tongue before he speaks. And he was positively romantic compared to the man sitting next to me, who just happened to be single, presumably the last unmarried man on earth—God, how miserably mean-spirited I sound! I swear, Sophie, I think there's something wrong with me. Every man I meet is intolerable. Perhaps I should set my sights lower—not as low as the grey doctor who clicks, but a bit lower. I can't even blame it on the war—I was never very good at men, was I?

Do you suppose the St Swithin's furnace-man was my one true love? Since I never spoke to him, it seems unlikely, but at least it was a passion unscathed by disappointment. And he had such beautiful black hair. After that, you remember, came the Year of Poets. Sidney scoffs about those poets, though I don't see why, since he introduced me to them. Then poor Adrian. Oh, there's no need to recite the dread rolls to you, but, Sophie—what
is
the matter with me? Am I too choosy? I don't want to be married just for the sake of being married. I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or worse, someone I can't be silent with.

What a dreadful, complaining letter. You see? I've succeeded in making you feel relieved that I won't be visiting Scotland. But then again, I may—my fate rests with Sidney.

Kiss Dominic for me and tell him I saw a rat the size of a terrier the other day.

Love to Alexander and even more to you,

Juliet

From Dawsey Adams, Guernsey, Channel Islands, to Juliet
Miss Juliet Ashton
81 Oakley Street
Chelsea
London SW3

12th January 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St Martin's Parish, Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you—
The Selected Essays of Elia
, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address were written inside the front cover.

I will speak plain—I love Charles Lamb. My own book says
Selected
, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from? These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren't any bookshops left in Guernsey.

I want to ask a kindness of you. Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb's writings by post. I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me? For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr Lamb.

I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writings have made me his friend.

Hoping not to trouble you,

Dawsey Adams

P.S. My friend Mrs Maugery bought a pamphlet that once belonged to you, too. It is called
Was There a Burning Bush? A Defence of Moses and the Ten Commandments
. She liked your margin note, ‘Word of God or crowd control???' Did you ever decide which?

From Juliet to Dawsey
Mr Dawsey Adams
Les Vaux Lavens
La Bouvée
St Martin's, Guernsey

15th January 1946

Dear Mr Adams,

I no longer live in Oakley Street, but I'm so glad that your letter found me and that my book found you. It was a sad wrench to part with the
Selected Essays of Elia
. I had two copies and a dire need of shelf-room, but I felt like a traitor selling it. You have soothed my conscience.

I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is
some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.

Because there is nothing I would rather do than rummage through bookshops, I went at once to Hastings & Sons upon receiving your letter. I have gone to them for years, always finding the one book I wanted—and then three more I hadn't known I wanted. I told Mr Hastings you would like a good, clean copy (and
not
a rare edition) of
More Essays of Elia
. He will send it to you by separate post (invoice enclosed) and was delighted to know you are also a lover of Charles Lamb. He said the best biography of Lamb was by E.V. Lucas, and he would hunt out a copy for you, though it may take a little while.

In the meantime, will you accept this small gift from me? It is his
Selected Letters
. I think it will tell you more about him than any biography ever could. E.V. Lucas sounds too stately to include my favourite passage from Lamb: ‘Buz, buz, buz, bum, bum, bum, wheeze, wheeze, wheeze, fen, fen, fen, tinky, tinky, tinky, cr'annch! I shall certainly come to be condemned at last. I have been drinking too much for two days running. I find my moral sense in the last stage of a consumption and my religion getting faint.' You'll find that in the
Letters
(it's on page 244). They were the first Lamb I ever read, and I'm ashamed to say I only bought the book because I'd read elsewhere that a man named Lamb had visited his friend Leigh Hunt, in prison for libelling the Prince of Wales.

While there, Lamb helped Hunt paint the ceiling of his cell sky blue with white clouds. Next they painted a rose trellis on one wall. Then, I further discovered, Lamb offered money to help Hunt's family—though he himself was as poor as a man could be. Lamb also taught Hunt's youngest daughter to say the Lord's Prayer backwards. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book. It's geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

The red stain on the cover that looks like blood—is blood. I was careless with my paper knife. The enclosed postcard is a reproduction of a painting of Lamb by his friend William Hazlitt.

If you have time to correspond with me, could you answer several questions? Three, in fact. Why did a roast-pig dinner have to be kept a secret? How could a pig cause you to begin a literary society? And, most pressing of all, what is a potato peel pie—and why is it included in your society's name?

I am renting a flat in Chelsea, 23 Glebe Place, London SW3. My Oakley Street flat was bombed in 1945 and I still miss it. Oakley Street was wonderful—I could see the Thames out of three of my windows. I know that I am fortunate to have any place at all to live in London, but I much prefer whining to counting my blessings. I am glad you thought of me to do your
Elia
hunting.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

P.S. I never could make up my mind about Moses—it still bothers me.

From Juliet to Sidney
18th January 1946

Dear Sidney,

This isn't a letter: it's an apology. Please forgive my moaning about the teas and luncheons you set up for
Izzy
. Did I call
you a tyrant? I take it all back—I love Stephens & Stark for sending me out of London.

Bath is a glorious town: lovely crescents of white, upstanding houses instead of London's black, gloomy buildings or—worse still—piles of rubble that were once buildings. It is bliss to breathe in clean, fresh air with no coal smoke and no dust. The weather is cold, but it isn't London's dank chill. Even the people on the street look different—upstanding, like their houses, not grey and hunched like Londoners.

Susan said the guests at Abbot's book tea enjoyed themselves immensely—and I know I did. I was able to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth after the first two minutes and began to have quite a good time.

Susan and I are off tomorrow for bookshops in Colchester, Norwich, King's Lynn, Bradford, and Leeds.

Love and thanks,

Juliet

From Juliet to Sidney
21st January 1946

Dear Sidney,

Night-time train travel is wonderful again! No standing in the corridors for hours, no being shunted off for a troop train to pass, and above all, no black-out curtains. All the windows we passed were lighted, and I could snoop once more. I missed it so terribly during the war. I felt we had all turned into moles scuttling along in our separate tunnels. I don't consider myself a real peeper—they go in for bedrooms, but it's families in sitting rooms or kitchens that thrill me. I
can imagine their whole lives from a glimpse of bookshelves, or desks, or burning candles, or bright cushions.

There was a nasty, condescending man in Tillman's bookshop today. After my talk about
Izzy
, I asked if there were any questions. He leapt from his seat and pressed his nose to mine—how was it, he demanded, that I, a mere woman, dared to bastardise the name of Isaac Bickerstaff? ‘The true Isaac Bickerstaff, noted journalist, nay the sacred heart and soul of eighteenth-century literature; dead now and his name desecrated by you.'

Before I could muster a word, a woman in the back row jumped to her feet. ‘Oh, sit down! You can't desecrate a person who never was! He's not dead because he was never alive! Isaac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym for Joseph Addison's
Spectator
columns! Miss Ashton can take up any pretend name she wants to—so shut up!' What a valiant defender—he left the shop in a hurry.

Sidney, do you know a man called Markham V. Reynolds, Jr.? If you don't, will you look him up for me—
Who's Who
, Domesday Book, Scotland Yard? Or he may simply be in the telephone directory. He sent a beautiful bunch of mixed spring flowers to me at the hotel in Bath, a dozen white roses to my train, and heaps of red roses to Norwich—all with no message, only his card.

Come to that, how does he know where Susan and I are staying? What trains we are taking? All his flowers have been awaiting me on my arrival. I don't know whether to feel flattered or hunted.

Love,

Juliet

From Juliet to Sidney
23rd January 1946

Dear Sidney,

Susan's just given me the sales figures for
Izzy
—I can scarcely believe them. I honestly thought everyone would be so weary of the war that no one would want a remembrance of it—and certainly not in a book. Happily, and once again, you were right and I was wrong (it half-kills me to admit this).

Travelling, talking in front of a captive audience, signing books and meeting strangers
is
exhilarating. The women I've met have told me such wartime stories of their own, I almost wish I had my column back. Yesterday, I had a lovely, gossipy chat with a Norwich lady. She has four daughters, and only last week, the eldest was invited to a tea with the regiment. In her finest frock and spotless white gloves, the girl made her way to the school, stepped over the threshold, took one look at the sea of shining young faces before her—and fainted away! The poor child had never seen so many men in one place in her life. Think of it—a whole generation grown up without dances or teas or flirting.

I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers—booksellers really are a special breed. No one in their right mind would take up work in a bookshop for the wages, and no one in their right mind would want to own one—the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it—along with first goes at the new books.

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