Month: January 2017

Joe Stirling is guest of honour at Holocaust Memorial Service in Norwich Cathedral January 27th 2017

This morning I attended the annual Civic Holocaust Memorial Service, this year for the first time held in the majestic Norwich Cathedral.  Joe Stirling was the guest of honour and the Sheriff of Norwich, Richard Marks, made the opening welcome address.  I was taken by surprise when at the end of his speech he mentioned my book.  He kindly gave me permission to share his words with you.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the theme of this 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day is “How Can Life Go On?”

When we contemplate the millions of victims of the Nazi genocide in Europe in WWII, six million Jews, and millions more including Polish and Russian dissidents, the Roma and Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, disabled people, gay people, freemasons and trades unionist, we might think that humankind would have learnt some lessons. But the history of the 20th and 21st Centuries suggests otherwise

And we indeed ask ourselves the question, after such loss, after such suffering, “How Can Life Go On?”But if human beings have an almost limitless capacity for destruction, they have an equally remarkable capacity for starting all over again. At least one member of our congregation today vividly demonstrates this – Joe Stirling has contributed to public life, primarily Norfolk public life for more than sixty years.

But his early life was spent in Germany and at first it was idyllic. But after Hitler came to power, Joe witnessed that country’s descent into barbarism and sadistic brutality was meted out to his friends and family. At the age of 14, Joe decided to walk to England but was returned to his village. He eventually left on the last kinder transport out of Germany, and never saw his beloved family again. He arrived in Britain in 1939, enlisted in the British Army in 1944 and he became High Sheriff of Norwich – this fine city – in 1975. If you want to know more about the fascinating intervening years, you will have to read his extraordinary biography!

Joe demonstrates that, even after personal tragedy, people can live happy and fulfilling lives and become huge contributors to the public good. He proves to us that, given great courage and the kindness of strangers, good will triumph over evil and that indeed life can go on.”

Alex Bennett, from the Norwich Hebrew Congregation chanted the Memorial Prayer and the Mourners’ Kaddish; always so wonderful to hear the unusual Hebrew sounds resonating in a spiritual space.  The Vicar of St Peter Mancroft, Revd Robert Avery read the moving piece by Pastor Martin Niemoller, now traditional at this service.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Throughout the service my thoughts returned again and again to Alfred and Ida Stern, Joe’s parents who were murdered by the Nazis in the Sobibor Death Camp in 1942.  May they rest in peace.

Photos show Alfred and Ida Stern in 1937, Norwich Cathedral, Sheriff Richard Marks, Joe Stirling and Alex Bennett.


Joe and Phyllida visit Paston Sixth Form College

Yesterday, 25th January 2017, Joe Stirling and I visited Paston Sixth Form College in North Walsham in Norfolk.  Notable alumni include Baroness Shepherd, Stephen Fry and Horatio Nelson!   We were there at the invitation of Naomi Hardman, teacher of English.  Some students had been studying the play ‘Kindertransport’ by Diane Samuels and here was a unique opportunity to meet and hear a real ‘kinder’. The timing was to commemorate  Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January.  It was a long drive through misty winter drizzle but it was so worth it.  About sixty students and staff members packed the classroom to hear Joe talk, eloquently as ever, about his early life in Nazi Germany.  I controlled my powerpoint slides before taking my turn to address the audience with, hopefully, inspiring tales of studying Biography at UEA, meeting Joe and ultimately turning his remarkable life story into my debut biography – my first book with my name on the spine!  Dreams can come true!  Everyone was welcoming and delightful and we even received a Paston College Teddy Bear each as a gift!  (and chocolate).  We sold 12 signed copies and were treated to a buffet lunch by Principal Kevin Grieve in the Nelson Room of the historic and beautiful main college building. Here we met with eight students, two of whom had grandmothers who had travelled to England on a Kindertransport.  The conversation was lively and informative.  Joe and I both enjoyed ourselves very much.  These lovely photos are courtesy of Jodie Rice.



American edition of Escaping Hitler arrives in Norwich!

It was a momentous and exciting moment this morning as the postman arrived with my package all the way from @SkyhorsePublishing in New York.  It was my author’s copy of the American version of my biography Escaping Hitler.  Although the front cover design is exactly the same, they have used gloss paper instead of matt giving it a very different look.  On the reverse are four Reviews from magazines and academics – ecstatic to see that – just like a ‘proper book’!  I can already imagine people in Barnes and Noble all over the U.S.A. picking it up and reading the back!  Now I can almost truly believe that I have become an International Author!  Thanks so much to Joseph Craig, Editorial Director at Skyhorse for mailing the book to me.  img_0597img_0599img_0598

Homage to America Part 3: The Texan Oilmen invade Great Yarmouth 1970s.


Joe Stirling had hardly opened his second branch of Stirling Holidays, in the coastal East Anglian town of Great Yarmouth, when oil was discovered offshore.  The invasion of the Texan Oilmen began!  This extract from Escaping Hitler, recently published by Skyhorse Publications of New York for North American readers, gives you a flavour of the times and the significance of this in the business life of Joe.


In 1965 the first offshore oil and gas wells were drilled off the coast of East Anglia. American giant Conoco built their first fixed platform just 50 miles off Great Yarmouth and by 1967 gas was being piped ashore from the Leman field. The Duke of Edinburgh opened the Bacton Gas terminal in 1968. Senior company directors from Texas and the Gulf of Mexico virtually took over Great Yarmouth, bringing the mighty dollar and prosperity in their wake.

[…] Over the following year over 10,000 American families settled in the Great Yarmouth area. Although everyone struggled to understand each other’s accents, the incomers brought with them many benefits but especially business. The region was booming. With money to spend and time on their hands, they were keen to discover the tourist hotspots of London, Cornwall, the Lakes and especially Shakespeare Country. There were only two travel agents in Great Yarmouth, Seaforth’s and Stirling’s. But with more than enough work for both companies, days were busy. Evenings too, with Doreen and Judith often staying late to keep up with administration. Quick to learn, Judith was soon made manager of the air travel section, reserving First Class flights to Houston or enquiring directly with airlines on the most cost-effective method of flying a group of oilmen to India or Nigeria. The discovery of ‘black gold’ was becoming a priority around the globe and Stirling Holidays was more than happy to play its part. Judith was always willing to open lucrative accounts for both major and smaller drilling companies, her personal service and attention to detail and rewarding the company with 7 per cent commission on each airline ticket.

One favoured client was the Senior Director of McDermott Marine Construction Limited, an Offshore Field Development Company, established in 1923 in Texas, USA. One morning Judith received a telephone enquiry. Could Stirling’s arrange for some of the guys to fly from Norwich to Aberdeen for a golf tournament?

During the early 1970s Norwich Airport was still establishing itself as a commercial airport, dealing mainly in freight. Through a friend of a friend, Joe was able to contact the owner of East Anglian Airways, a tiny operation boasting just one Douglas DC-3 propeller-driven airliner, the plane that had played a significant part in popularising air travel in the United States. It sat twenty-six passengers, who were obliged to enter at the back of the plane and walk uphill, pulling themselves up the aisle using the backs of seats. Flights were invariably noisy and shaky but thankfully reliable. Stirling Holidays chartered a private flight for the American oilmen, the first company to do so out of Norwich Airport. Joe waved them off personally. At Aberdeen, the plane waited on the apron while the oilmen enjoyed their eighteen holes. Two days later on flying back into Norwich, they found Mr Stirling there to greet them. McDermott Marine would not forget Mr Stirling’s professionalism, ingenuity and good humour.

Everyone in Great Yarmouth hoped the oilmen and their deep pockets were there to stay.


© Phyllida Scrivens 2016

Escaping Hitler is now available from,  Barnes and Nobles bookstores or by following this link to the Skyhorse site.


Homage to America part 2: Lions Clubs International Annual Convention 1971

Here is the second blog dedicated to celebrating the launch of Escaping Hitler by Skyhorse Publishing in USA on 10th January 2017.  This quotation from the book refers specifically to the first Lions Clubs International Convention attended by Joe Stirling, when he was both a District Governor and the official tour guide for the British contingent.  He went on to lead 20 further consecutive trips.  Enjoy!




Joe spent the next few weeks planning every aspect, leaving nothing to chance. The Convention opened on 22 June with Joe and his colleagues obliged to arrive four days earlier in time for District Governors’ School. His planning was meticulous. This trip would involve far more than just a Lions Convention.


Flights into New York led to a couple of days riding yellow cabs, taking the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building and a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It was just like being in a movie. An internal flight to San Francisco, almost as far again as London to New York, took them the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and views over the Pacific Ocean. Finally it was time to discover the playground city of Las Vegas.

As the party descended the aircraft steps, they hit a wall of air measuring 107o Fahrenheit. The transfer bus, thankfully fitted with air-conditioning, drove down The Strip and Fremont Street, the British delegates and the ‘lady from Nor-wich’, gawping through the windows. Had they landed on a different planet? Cocktail lounges, topless clubs, ‘Coin Castle’ amusement arcade with its 20-foot cowboy figure in neon-yellow shirt and ten-gallon hat, stood alongside the outrageous hotel-casinos; ‘Silver Spur’, ‘Flamingo Hilton’, ‘Lady Luck’, ‘The Sands’ and ‘Bonanza’. There was great excitement amongst the ladies when passing the enormous billboards announcing Tom Jones playing Caesars Palace and Elvis himself appearing at the International Hotel. Lovingly polished Chryslers, Plymouths and Cadillacs cruised past the bus, ferrying long-legged showgirls to work. Strolling the streets were 15,000 Lions and their wives, recently arrived from all over the world.

While husbands attended District Governor classes, Jean, the other wives and the ‘the lady from Nor-wich’ experienced a breathtaking flight over the Grand Canyon in a light aircraft. What tales they brought back to the hotel! Every building with a roof was air-conditioned, kept at a manageable level of around 70o. Outdoor social activities were reserved for after sunset, when the temperature dropped to a ‘cool’ 82o. In keeping with tradition, the incoming DGs from every country led their contingent in the Grand Opening Parade through the city streets, national flags proudly held high. Setting off at 8 p.m., the parade was loud, brash, colourful and vibrant with decorated floats and flotillas of extravagant cars, accompanied by baton-twirling cheerleaders. By the time the final contingent crossed the ‘saluting base’, duly acknowledging the outgoing International President, the sky was black, city lights obscuring the cosmos above. Wives, officials, tourists and locals packed the streets, cheering, applauding and straining to catch as much as possible of this spectacular event, laughing aloud at ‘Lord’ Dawkins of Andover from the British contingent who strolled along the Strip in City of London attire of bowler hat, rolled umbrella and copy of The Times. Joe had never heard the Lions’ inspirational song, ‘Don’t You Hear Those Lions Roar!’ performed by quite so many people.

Inside the vast convention hall the opening speeches included news of the extended Lions Headquarters in Oakbrook Chicago, now complete and doubling its space. Earlier in the year Lions had seen the formation of Club number 25,000. The honour went to the small wine-growing town of Fredericksburg in Texas. It was a hectic few days with Joe keen to hear every key speaker, attend fringe meetings, join in debates, vote on decisions and meet with like-minded Lions, never losing sight of his responsibilities as a tour leader. The final day of the convention arrived. Jean took her seat for the Installation Ceremony, the highlight of the entire event. She was weary of the non-stop fashion shows, coach tours into the desert, wives’ tea parties and boozy sessions long into the night, having to keep that smile going all the while. But it was Joe’s special moment. She was ready. With International Officers for the coming year introduced and welcomed, it was the turn of the incoming District Governors. Hundreds of men, tall, short, balding, bespectacled, thin, not so thin, hailing from all continents, marched into the hall under the flag of their nation. The welcome from the audience was deafening, close to pandemonium in the hall as loyal Lions cheered their friends and colleagues. The International President, industrial engineer Robert J. Uplinger from Syracuse, New York, gave the instruction to pull the ribbons, previously pinned to the lapels of the shiny new DGs, revealing the special metal badge confirming their new rank. Not since her wedding day had Jean Stirling felt so proud of her husband.

(Escaping Hitler by Phyllida Scrivens 2016)

U.S.A. ‘Escaping Hitler’ Booksales now Launched!



Phyllida and Joe in Norwich England talking to Skyhorse Publishing in New York

On Tuesday 10th January Skyhorse Publications of New York published and launched my book Escaping Hitler on to the U.S. market.  Here in the U.K. I held a party at my home with 18 friends and colleagues, offering them an American themed buffet of mini burgers, spicy chicken legs, coleslaw, prawns (shrimp in the U.S) and home baked cup cakes!  Joe Stirling, the 92 year old former Kindertransport refugee and subject of my book along with his grandson Charlie were our guests of honour.  At exactly 8pm UK time, 3pm Eastern Standard Time, my computer rang and we began our FaceTime interview with the lovely Leslie Davis,  Digital Marketing Coordinator and Assistant Publicist at Skyhorse.

She began by asking Joe Stirling how he felt when I suggested I might write his biography, way back in 2011.  He modestly replied that he was very surprised as he had never considered anyone might be interested in his life story.  He added that his family and friends had been intrigued by the prospect of having the family story written up for posterity.  Leslie asked Joe about his message when giving talks to the public and to schoolchildren.  He answered that it was about taking care not to take our political leaders for granted and to beware the possibility of dictatorships taking over slowly, without warning.

Leslie then turned to me and asked when I had first met Joe.  I told her that he was speaking about his early life at a University event and having heard the early part of his life story, I was captivated, knowing that this man’s life could become my debut biography. I told her about my research trip to Germany, the wonderful people I had met and the places I visited.  I told her about the many references to the USA in the book, a country that Joe has explored extensively over his lifetime, including buying an apartment on Florida Keys and his Lions International trips with the UK delegates from 1971 for 21 years.

Although the link was difficult and we had to repeat many questions and answers, it was an exciting experience.  The edited video clips will soon be available on YouTube and I will post up the link once they are ready.  So to celebrate this momentous occasion I am going to dedicate the next few blogs to America by reproducing some extracts from Escaping Hitler that feature a particular time there.  Starting with Joe taking a trip of British Lions to the recently opened Disneyland in Florida in 1972.

‘I read that Walt Disney had recently opened a new attraction called Walt Disney World in a small town in the middle of Southern Florida called Orlando. I had never heard of it. I thought that might be interesting for some.’ (Joe Stirling in interview 2013)

Joe read in the Travel Gazette that in 1965 Walt Disney had announced his visionary ‘Florida Project’. Tragically the entertainment tycoon did not live to see his project develop, dying from lung cancer in 1966. However, his company had already bought up thousands of acres of cheap swampland in Orange County. The outcome was a theme park five times the size of that in California, complete with linked resort hotels, opening to the public in October 1971. Joe knew that this could make an appealing addition to his ‘side trips’ and set about investigating the travel logistics. Within a month of Joe’s advert appearing, every available place was taken, his party once again larger than the previous year. As he checked his British contingent into their convention hotel, Joe felt the pressure of being the tour leader, rather more than before. As his numbers increased so did the responsibilities. It was becoming difficult to remain ‘one of the boys’[…]

The Convention over, the British contingent divided into two groups, some looking forward to simply relaxing on Miami beach for a few days, others heading for Walt Disney World and New Orleans, accompanied by Joe and Jean. A short hop on a noisy DC-4 propeller plane took the party to Orlando. They felt a little strange to be a group of just adults as they explored the Magic Kingdom, Adventureland, Bear Country and Fantasyland. Everyone agreed it had been a bewitching experience. (Escaping Hitler 2016)