Monday 10 June 2024

Gold Hill


Springtime for Hitler

I have a D-Day story which is both personal and political. I was born in March 1945 which means I was conceived in June 1944. My father was a military doctor who was on a hospital ship some days after the first landings. As a neurologist, he treated psychologically-damaged troops and worked in field hospitals, moving east with the advance into, and across, Germany. He was one of the first Allied medics into Bergen-Belsen. I remember him telling me how British troops handed out high-calorie rations to the starving prisoners and that thousands had died after their liberation because they were unused to food.

When I was 5 years old, I discovered photos in the bottom drawer of his desk that he’d taken while at the concentration camp. There were wheelbarrows full of corpses with limbs trailing on the ground. Faces with protruding eyes. The pyjamaed living carrying the naked dead. Bodies lying on top of each other in mass graves. I would stare at them in horror. I think it was these photos that made me a lifelong anti-fascist.

When I was sorting out my father’s desk when he was moved to his care home, they weren’t there. I would like to have asked him what had happened to them, but I’m left to guess his motives. Perhaps he felt guilty that he could have intervened to stop the disastrous food handout by the well-meaning British troops. Perhaps he just felt guilty to be in such a place at such a time. That was something I felt when I, too, was a helpless witness to war deaths I could do nothing about.

When he was in Belsen, he became a close friend of a fellow neurologist, Karl Henrik Køster, who’d fled from Copenhagen by boat to Sweden. He had helped over 2000 Jews escape by organising ‘funerals’ with hearses, black clothes and flowers. Escapees were hidden inside coffins and posed as funeral attendants. One day when leaving his apartment, he passed some members of the Gestapo on the stairs. One of them asked, “Where is Dr Køster?”

“He lives on the top floor,” he answered, rushing out of the building and passing the corpse of a medical student shot by the Gestapo as they entered the building. He then made his way to the UK and joined the British army. His wife, Doris, was not so lucky. The Gestapo imprisoned her. She survived, but their marriage didn’t.

Karl committed suicide in the 1980s and didn’t live to see the 1998 Hollywood film made about his life, Miracle at Midnight. Directed by Ken Cameron, it starred Sam Waterson as Karl and Mia Farrow as Doris. I recently came across his words explaining why he’d joined the Resistance. ‘It was the natural thing to do. I would have helped any group of Danes being persecuted. The Germans picking on the Jews made as much sense to me as picking on redheads.’

Before my father left for Normandy, he’d been based at a military hospital in Shaftesbury which was at the foot of Gold Hill. I was born in Bell Street which is at the top of Gold Hill.

My mother used to tell me that I was a ‘mistake’, but when she’d say it, she’d give me a big kiss. I’d like to imagine that my father returned home from the hospital the night before he embarked for France, and their conversation might have gone something like this.

My father would have cleared his throat, put down his pipe and said, “Betty, dear. I’m leaving for Normandy tomorrow. Shall we?”

My mother would have poured herself a glass a sherry. She already had two young daughters. “Only if you have a condom.”

My father didn’t.
“Then you must go back to the hospital and get one. Two children are enough.”
“I might be dead in a few days, and I’m not going down and then up that damn hill 

Nine months later I arrived.

At the recent D-Day celebrations, the French insisted the 400 British parchutists reinacting that fateful day produce their passports.

The Russians who, 80 years before, had organised a D-Day diversionary attack on German forces on the Eastern front, resulting in half a million Russian deaths, were not invited to attend.

However, Ukraine’s leaders were invited whose predecessors had collaborated with the Nazis. One of their current army brigades––the Azov––proudly wear Nazi insignia.

Our Prime Minister spent about as long there as the first D-Day troops who never made it on to the beach.

King Charles was photographed wearing more medals than the centenarian veteran he shook hands with. The only beaches he has been on would be with a G&T in hand and not a Lee-Enfield.

In this short piece I’m not going to mention the genocide taking place right now with the UK’s backing.

In memory of my first spring, and with a nod in the direction of Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler”, here’s the steep hill I owe my life to.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Private Passions


I am presently in Spain helping Anne Aylor with her 14th Novel Writing course 

As always it is a wonderful experience to be able to act as her ‘administrator’. This involves me with very a little work, lots of great food thanks to chef Lee Pennington and the chance to meet and talk with lovely people and great writers. 

This year one of the participants is Dorothy Byrne who was a recent guest of the BBC on Michael Berkeley 'Private Passions’. I’d like to give the show a plug, not only because it is very interesting and includes her excellent music choices, but also because I owe Dorothy a debt of gratitude. Thanks to her I was able to expose the wrongdoings in the charity I co-founded over 20 years ago and, more recently, she and Gráinne Palmer helped me through illness and operations. And you are right Dorothy about the composer Amy Beach. She ran into her freedom with spirit and joy. I love the title she gave this composition.