Q&A with Author of ‘Occupation Reconciliation’, Juanita Shield-Laignel… by Caroline Spencer

What is your connection to Michael? 
He was my brother-in-law. Yes, I know. People do raise an eyebrow when I say that and I even had one lady say ‘surely you mean father-in-law’ but no… brother-in-law he was for sure despite the generation gap. Michael’s lovely wife Josephine is my husband’s sister. She was 21 when her little brother Alistair was born – so you see – it is possible. When I met Michael, I was 35 and he was already in his late seventies.

Michael authored and co-authored some books about the Occupation in his lifetime. Why did you write your book?
You are right, Michael was a prolific writer himself, producing and contributing to many of the Channel Islands Occupation Society’s printed material and writing several books and pamphlets, including what I’ve heard referred to as his Opus Dei in the form of ‘Jersey Occupied’, a doorstop of a book full of details and the whys and wherefores of the Occupation. It took Michael seven years to write and he left no stone unturned, as was his want.

My book was always going to be about Michael’s own life story. So Jersey Occupied and other literature he had penned focused on specific time periods – 1940-45 or the specifics of the resultant twinning of St Helier with the once imprisoning town of Bad Wurzach. However, from the start, Michael was keen that his story be told from his birth in 1926 and span his 89 years of glorious life.

How did writing your book come about?
As family we would all sit around the Ginns’ kitchen table for lunch or afternoon tea and Michael would launch into one of his myriad stories. So interesting were they even my then six-year-old was engaged. On one occasion, Josephine, with her head in the oven checking roast potatoes, admonished him for talking too much and said he should be writing down all these stories for posterity. Already in his 80s, Michael stated that his eyesight was none too clever and his ‘damned hands won’t do as they are told any more’… so that was that. On returning home I found myself thinking that as someone who interviews people regularly for the Jerseylife Magazine, just maybe I could write his stories for him. On our next visit I put it to him and to my surprise and delight he agreed.

I began interviewing him in June 2014 and the book was published during 2017. Sadly it was not long after Michael had passed away but he had been involved throughout. We called it a real collaboration. He would talk, I would listen, I would record and then transcribe his words and then we would check back through the material together. Sadly he was taken from us before the book went to print and I feel sure he had many more stories to tell.

Briefly remind us of Michael’s wartime story.
Michael’s parents were originally from England so when Hitler’s orders came for non-Jersey-born although domiciled Islanders to be deported to southern Germany to an internment camp, Michael’s parents had no choice but to go and of course Michael at the age of 14 had to go with them.

Interned for three years, Michael came back to Jersey seemingly determined from the outset not to be bitter and twisted about his experience, as you would expect many may have been. Rather he sought reparation, conciliation, a healing if you will… mainly based on his experience of the townspeople of Bad Wurzach having been kind to them all but especially to the children. He talked of receiving sticky buns from the local baker for instance. And as his life unfolded it became important for him to seek and instigate a wider reconciliation – in fact, it became his life’s work, hence the title of the book.

As someone who knew and loved Michael, what was he like?
Haha! Immediately a smile has come to my face. Indomitable, he could be stern but was also big-hearted, a stickler for ‘correctness’, a loving husband, a seeker of truth… I could go on. I am moved to share at this point that I was somewhat nervous in offering to write Michael’s story. I had after all no experience of writing a book, unlike his effusive self and wasn’t sure he would think it a good idea. I know there to be far more capable literary geniuses in our Island who perhaps would have done the book more justice from that literary stance. However, Michael always seemed to have faith in me to write his story the way he wanted it told, to include the little things that were important to him… his whole story, not just the bits that have historical relevance – and I understood that. I was keen to tell his story with love and from the heart and the way he wanted.

What is your favourite story from the book?
Gosh, there are many but I think the one that sticks in my mind the most is rather about the way Michael told it, with a cheeky grin and a twinkle in his eye. Even in his later years he could still ‘twinkle’ and it was the first story he launched into with verve on our first day together recording. I don’t want to spoil it for the reader of the book but it involved being in a play whilst confined, when he was just 17, and having to perform a stage kiss with the heroine who was some years older, married and in his words ‘a bit of a blonde bombshell’… a young man’s dream!

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, do you think Islanders have a new appreciation of what our older generations went through in the war years? 
Good question. I think in some ways, yes. The restrictions on our movements are actually in some ways worse. At least during the Occupation you could hug a family member or friend if you saw them in the street, but conversely, we still have plenty of food. We haven’t yet had to resort to catching rats and making soup with them or making potato flour or, something Michael talked about, his father using blackberry leaves as tobacco. So from that sense we have no notion what it was like… I think the not knowing when it will end is a struggle for us that Michael and his compatriots will have faced. How long was he as a teenager to be holed up in a German Schloss, how long before he could go home, how long before the war was over? From that aspect I think perhaps we are getting a little taste of what it was like – how long will we be in lockdown, how long will we have to practise social distancing, how long before we can all go back to work and school, how long before Covid19 is over?
And any final comments? 
I loved putting together what I often refer to as Michael’s book (rather than my book), although it did have its challenges as one might imagine. Collecting all the old photographs was fascinating and how does one begin to choose when there are so many, but between us we managed. The images have come out beautifully in the book and tell his story almost as much as the text. Also because our time together was curtailed (Michael sadly passed away on 2nd February 2017) I invited those closest to him to contribute in a chapter towards the end of the book called ‘Memories of Michael’ where his wife, closest friends, stepson and other family members have written their own experiences of life with Michael… He did get to read some of these but not all and I am sure he would be very touched by the outpouring of care and love.