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)