We kick off our series of blogs about our alumni’s memories of their graduation day, and the events that led to it, with a story from Phyllida Scrivens, who graduated in 2015. “I worked at as secretary to Heads of Literature, American Studies and Film…
It was with great sadness today that I learnt the news of the death of Roy Blower, Lord Mayor of Norwich in 2007, “Superfan” and fundraiser for Norwich City Football Club, and one of Joe Stirling’s closest friends. Roy suffered from progressive Parkinson’s Disease for many years, and died peacefully this week with his wife Beryl and family members by his side. Roy gave me tremendous support when I was researching Joe’s political life for Escaping Hitler, sharing stories of his youth when ‘Mr Stirling’ helped him join the Young Labour Group when Roy was just sixteen. Roy remained a loyal fan of Joe for the rest of his life. Below you will find an excerpt from the book. Roy was a fun man, always ready with a smile and a joke. Everybody loved Roy and the City of Norwich will miss him.
‘By 1960 Joe’s political career was escalating. A firm supporter of democracy, he chaired a number of sub-committees at City Council, at the same time holding positions within the Norwich Labour Party. These included Chair of the Finance Committee, Political Education Officer and Youth Officer. It was through this latter post in 1958 that Joe first met Roy Blower, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy from Lakenham Secondary School. Roy was an energetic member of the Young Socialists, but not yet old enough to become a card-carrying member of the national Party. He approached Mr Stirling to ask whether the Party might permit him to join early, his sixteenth birthday seeming such a long way off.
Although this breach of the rules was clearly out of the question, Joe admired the boy’s enthusiasm, putting him to work delivering bundles of campaign leaflets as well as offering additional responsibilities during social evenings held at the Herbert Fraser Hall twice a week. Curious, Roy asked others about Mr Stirling’s long involvement with the Labour Movement. He was struck by the man’s genuine interest in him and the respect he commanded from all who met him. On 6 April 1959 Roy was finally sixteen. His membership card was already prepared. It was the start of a lifelong association with local politics; Chairman of the Young Socialists by twenty, two years later sitting on the
Regional Executive. This was just the start. The coming years would see Roy fulfilling many of his early political ambitions.’
I am delighted to announce that Joe Stirling’s friend Dr Marian Prinsley became the new Sheriff of Norwich last Tuesday at a traditional ceremony in City Hall. I was thrilled to be invited by Cllr Judith Lubbock, my chapter 15 in The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich, to attend the 2019 Mayor-Making ceremony at Norwich City Hall last Tuesday.
I met up with several of the former Lady Lord Mayors who feature in my second book and was delighted to discover an overlap with my first biography, Escaping Hitler, as Dr Marian Prinsley from the Jewish community in Norwich was made Sheriff. Marian is a good friend of Joe Stirling, the subject of this book, and I have met her on several occasions. Marian made an excellent speech which uncovered some close parallels with Joe’s experiences. Both were from Jewish families; Joe’s ancestors from Germany, and Marian’s from Russia. Both came to England escaping possible persecution when they were 14 years old, both marrying and settling in Norwich. The following day I visited Joe and told him all about the Mayor-making and he was delighted to hear that his friend Marian was now wearing his gown and hat, as worn by him in 1975-6. I wish both Vaughan and Marian an excellent year of civic service.
The new Lord Mayor of Norwich, Vaughan Thomas, with his wife, Lady Mayoress, Vivien Thomas, and the new Sheriff of Norwich, Dr Marian Prinsley, with her husband, Peter Prinsley, on the City Hall steps. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY (EDP)
Quite simply, thinking of Joe Stirling’s parents Alfred and Ida Stern who perished at Sobibor Death Camp in the summer of 1942. R.I.P.
Last Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, I was excited to launch my brand new talk. I spoke to the members of the popular Out & About Club, a social Club for the over 50s, held at the Congregational Church on Chaplefield, Norwich. Joe and I have many friends there as we have spoken about his life on two occasions, and last year I delivered my Lady Lord Mayor’s presentation.
This new talk is called ‘When the Past Collides with the Present: remarkable true stories of coincidence, luck and fate while researching biography in the modern age.’
I include those ‘behind the scenes’ stories discovered while researching for Escaping Hitler, The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich and other biographical work. I show original photographs (some shown here), all illustrating personal moments of “Can this really be happening?”, “Where did you find that?” and “Are you sure that is true?” As a biographer, I find that once you put yourself and your discoveries ‘out there’, people come back to you, generously offering finer details, corrections, fragments of stories to add to your research, people you thought you would never reach. The unexpected connections, many because of our wonderful research tool, the internet.
The talk seemed to go down well. I look forward to sharing it further with other Norfolk groups, such as the Women’s Institute, History Groups etc., starting with the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth on 1st March.
Maybe join me there?
Tonight, 9-10th November 2018 is the 80th anniversary of the so called ‘Night of Broken Glass’, when Hitler’s Nazi Party instructed the brownshirts to burn the synagogues, break the windows of all businesses and many homes, loot the contents and most devastating of all, arrest all Jewish men and boys over sixteen years old, incarcerating them in political concentration camps. Alfred was sent to Dachau, a notorious camp in the cold Bavarian Alps. All Jewish children were immediately expelled from their schools and life would never be the same again. Joe Stirling has vivid memories of that terrifying night. I want to share with you some illustrative photos along with the stylised prologue from Joe’s biography Escaping Hitler (Pen and Sword Books 2016), based entirely on Joe’s recollections, told to me when I first interviewed him in December 2011.
No. 10 Hintergasse, Nickenich (taken in 2013) The Stern family lived in the upper flat of this house
Ida and Alfred Stern taken in about 1936
The Hintergasse Nickenich in early 1930s
Ida and Alfred Stern on their wedding day in 1923
It happens so quickly. Loud hammering on the door at around four in the morning. Günter instantly awake. His father’s heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. The boy creeping from his body-warm bed, joining Mother at the top of the staircase. More banging. Raised angry voices. The door swinging open, rusty hinges straining under the force. Three or four men bursting over the threshold. Uninvited. Invading their home. Strangers, from Andernach or even Koblenz, clutching cudgels and brandishing revolvers.
‘Alfred Stern? Get dressed. You’re arrested.’
‘Arrested? What have I done?’
Günter flinches as his father takes a violent blow across the face. Two menclimb the stairs, pushing past woman and child. Roughnecks turning out drawers and cupboards, throwing contents to the floor, trampling over china and glass. Ida and Günter stunned, silent, shaking. Her husband pushed through the door and onto the cobbles of the Hintergasse. Ida’s throat opens and she screams out:
‘Where are you taking him?’
No reply. Just the muffled sound of Alfred’s anguished objections to being treated as a criminal. He fought bravely for his country. He was wounded four times. He was awarded the Iron Cross. Soon his cries and the marching feet are no longer audible and the night is still once more.
(Extract from the opening of Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future by Phyllida Scrivens.)
Today, 18th October 2018, Joe Stirling (born Günter Stern), the subject of my biography Escaping Hitler, is 94 years old. I called in to his home in the Unthank Road Norwich this morning to give him his card and found to my delight that he had visitors – his nephew Paul Skitmore and his wife Sarah. (Paul features in the book as a child) Joe, although tired, was on top form. Tonight, instead of accompanying me to speak about his life to the good ladies of Thorpe End W.I. in Norwich, he will be dining out in the city with members of his close family. I wish him a happy birthday evening.
Joe and me with his birthday cards!