Today the news went public – an autobiographical piece I wrote recently for the Jarrold 250 Short Story Competition was awarded with a special commendation and it is now available to read at their website, along with the four winning stories, all inspired by everyone’s … Continue reading Story of Escaping Hitler book launch commended in Jarrold short story competition
Today, 18th October was Joe Stirling’s birthday. For eleven years I made sure to see him, taking a little gift, sharing a slice of cake. As you are aware, Joe was very special to me, not just as the subject of my first book, but as my friend and confidant. Joe died in February this year and I miss him. This photo is from his birthday in 2018, before his health deteriorated.
Happy Birthday Joe!
Last evening, 13th October 2020, I was delighted to share my presentation via Zoom with the good ladies of Youlgrave Women’s Institute. Having found myself on the recommended list of Zoom speakers for the Derbyshire Federation, I was approached just last week to see if I was available to speak at short notice. I was thrilled to accept, not only because it was an opportunity to extend the reach of Joe’s remarkable story, but particularly as Victor and I spent a wonderful week’s holiday, just two summers ago, staying in Tweedledee Cottage, in the centre of that delightful village, enjoying walks in the stunning countryside, eating at superb local pubs, visiting Bakewell, Dovedale, Heights of Abraham, Chatsworth and the Plague Village Eyam, to name but a few. We vowed to return sometime to Youlgrave, but never in a million years did I think it would be via an online conference platform in the middle of a global pandemic! Thanks again to last evening’s audience – I really enjoyed the experience. Here are some photos of the village from our time there.
Look what popped up on my facebook feed this morning – I immediately knew what it was as Joe Stirling described to me his trip on this amazing Flying Railway in the Rhineland town of Wuppertal when he was a little lad. Here is the extract from the book. It is referring to the summers of the early 1930s, before Hitler’s Nazi government took away all freedoms from the Jewish community. This piece of film is from 1902, about 30 years before young Günter rode the railway.
“On Sundays Uncle Alex drove his wife and nephew the twenty miles to the thriving town of Wuppertal, known for cotton weaving, dye making and calico printing. Günter tingled with excitement when riding the Schwebebhan, the oldest elevated electric railway in the world, its hanging cars speeding above the River Wupper. It was here that he first visited a Zoological garden, enthralled by the lions, elephants and camels. In less favourable weather, the impressionable boy spent much of his time stood behind the counter in his uncle’s shop, watching as staff advised the Düsseldorf hausfraus, shopping for buttons, blouses and bloomers. It was a lesson in customer service, to prove invaluable for his life yet to come.”
Today, 27th July 2020, is the 90th birthday of Baroness Crosby, known to all as Shirley Williams. I would like to honour this fact and send my good wishes to this wonderful lady, who was kind enough to write the foreword for Escaping Hitler back in 2015. There were a number of reasons why I approached Shirley for this task – firstly her mother, celebrated writer Vera Brittain, had been a close Oxford University friend of Freda Free from Birmingham (via Russia), who ‘fostered’ young Günter Stern (aka Joe Stirling) when the 14 year old arrived in Britain on a Kindertransport from Nazi Germany, on 19th July 1939. Secondly, and most significantly, in 1954 when Joe was working for the Labour Party in Norwich, he was drafted in to help a young woman, Shirley Catlin, in her ill-fated attempt to win her first by-election, standing for the Labour Party in Harwich. Decades later, as a Liberal Democrat, I was honoured to meet Shirley more than once at Conferences and was delighted to discover that she remembered the energetic activist from those Harwich days. She readily agreed to write my foreword.
And so we arrive at 8th April, 2015. Escaping Hitler is almost complete, a General Election is imminent and Shirley Williams is due to visit Norwich to give the Lib Dem troops some much needed encouragement. I ask if I can bring Joe Stirling to Chantry Hall to meet Shirley for the first time in over 60 years. It was all arranged and the reunion happened as I’d hoped. The press were there to cover the political story, but in the event became far more intrigued with these two mature people, friends from long ago, chattering together as if they had never been apart. It was one of my proudest moments and an occasion that Joe and I often returned to in our conversations for years afterwards, until sadly he passed away in February this year.
Thank you Shirley Williams for being a constant inspiration to so many. Many Happy Returns!
Delighted to announce that Joe Stirling’s obituary, as submitted by local writer Tom Carver, has today, 23rd May, 2020, been published in a UK national newspaper, The Guardian. Probably the first national to carry a photograph of my book cover; its been a long time coming! So pleased that Joe’s remarkable story has now reached an even greater audience. Joe would be thrilled to see his obituary, alongside other luminaries, inside a national newspaper…..
On this special 75th anniversary of VE Day, I would like to share the short passage from Escaping Hitler (Pen and Sword Books 2016), written directly from Joe’s memories of that time, spent in Bramley near Basingstoke, serving with the Ordnance Corps and where he met his wife to be Jean Skitmore. I remember sitting in Joe’s living room hearing his wartime stories, simply feeling grateful that a training injury meant he was unable to go to Europe and fight.
“On 1 May 1945 the BBC announced Hitler’s suicide. The finish-line was in sight. The following evening radio programmes were interrupted with the news that the German Army had surrendered in Italy. Two days later troops capitulated in Denmark. For two days no one knew what was happening. By Monday 7 May expectant crowds were gathering outside Buckingham Palace but still the news did not come. In fact, the British were waiting for Russian and American confirmation of the Nazi defeat. At 7 p.m. Winston Churchill broadcast on the BBC, declaring that the following day would be ‘Victory in Europe Day’. The Nation could allow itself a ‘brief period of rejoicing’, but should remember that Britain was still at war with Japan. After five years people were ready to party. The morning papers led with photographs of vast crowds, many dressed in red, white and blue, celebrating in London the previous evening. That morning the same crowds cheered and sang as King George, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret alongside Churchill, waved enthusiastically from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Bramley barracks held a celebration parade. The Commanding Officer made a speech, thanking everyone for his or her valuable contribution to the victory, even if they hadn’t been involved at the front line. That afternoon Joe joined a group of comrades on the train to nearby Basingstoke where they danced in the street and invaded the public houses, the overjoyed landlords honouring the servicemen with a free first drink. It took some time to walk the six miles back to base late that evening, the men having either missed the last bus or more likely having spent every last penny on best beer. Jean and her friends stayed on base holding their own celebration. Young ladies didn’t frequent pubs.”
Images show Jean (centre) celebrating with her colleagues at Bramley camp & Joe and Jean on their wedding day in 1946.
Written by Norwich writer Tom Carver, this moving tribute to our very own Joe appeared yesterday, 27th March 2020, on the Guardian Online ‘Other Lives’ feature. I am grateful to Tom and to the Guardian team who put this piece together, allowing even more people to appreciate the remarkable life of this amazing man.
Joe is much missed by family, friends and former colleagues but his story remains relevant, inspiring and poignant in these difficult times.
Keep safe and well everyone. We will beat this.
The piece continues so it is well worth clicking on the link.
Yesterday, 6th March 2020, Joe’s family hosted a wonderful afternoon of memories, tears and smiles, with well over a hundred people squeezing into the tranquil Woodland Hall at Green Acres Woodland Burial Park in Norwich. There was someone from every part of Joe Stirling’s long and remarkable life, family members of all generations, civic colleagues including the current Norwich Lord Mayor, Rabbis from the Norwich Synagogue, people from business, his former committees, Lions Club International, the travel industry and from the Nursing home where he ended his days. The humanist celebrant gave a wonderful summary of his life including a mention for Escaping Hitler, commenting on how much joy the experience of working on his life story had given to Joe in his final years.
The guests and well -wishers were invited back to the Sainsbury’s Centre at the University of East Anglia for a drink, a buffet and to share many memories of ‘knowing Joe Stirling’. The beautiful spray of yellow and white flowers, created by Elizabeth’s Florist of Unthank Road, that had graced the coffin, were brought into the hall where they took centre stage on the sumptuous buffet table. There were photos of Joe and his family on the walls and it was so good to become reacquainted with many people whom I had interviewed when researching Joe’s life. Joe was a special man and there are many who will miss his friendship.
Joe requested that instead of flowers, friends might like to contribute to one of his favourite international causes, UNICEF. If you would like to add your name please call Gordon Barber Funeral Home in Norwich on 01603 484308 and ask how you can help.
This is the saddest post I have written on this Escaping Hitler blog. Joe Stirling died peacefully on Sunday afternoon, 9th February, aged 95. He had been suffering from a chest infection for about 2 weeks and he was well cared for and loved at the end. I had known Joe since December 2011 and over our time researching and writing his book together, followed by our hundreds of public appearances to share his remarkable story, we grew close and I loved him dearly. I owe him so much. This very special man leaves a large devoted family covering all generations. They and so many others, both in Norfolk and well beyond, will miss him. I am posting just a few of my favourite photos to mark his passing. At peace now.