A few Q and As

What’s The Hidden about?

 

It is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation in World War Two. An unexpected visitor forces Dora, a German Jewish refugee trapped by the occupation, and Joe, a young Irish priest, to confront a time they thought buried in the past, and as the story unravels we see how their lives entwined and mirrored each other. For Dora hid her Jewish identity while Joe hid a terrible secret. It’s a story about survival, and shame, about truth and betrayal, about passion and guilt. It’s a story about love and hope.

 

Why did you write it? What were the inspirations behind it?

 

One of the untold stories of the Second World War are of women trafficked into prostitution in occupied Europe – and the Channel Islands. There were five Nazi brothels in the Channel Islands, two in Jersey alone. Who were these women? How did they survive? What happened to them after the war? There’s very little known about them because sexual violence was not considered a war crime in 1945 so evidence was not collected. What we know was allusions connected incidentally to other war crimes. I wanted to bring that story to life.

 

Other crimes against humanity were committed, in the 25 or so labour camps on the Channel Islands and especially in the only SS run concentration camp, Lager Sylt, on Alderney but no one was prosecuted at the time, for reasons we can only guess at.

 

We’ve forgotten these stories because the tale we tell ourselves of the Second World War is one of English exceptionalism, of little Britain standing up to the goliath of occupied Europe and hides what we have shared with Europe, what we have in common.

 

I wanted to explore all of these.

 

Did you do much research?

I read everything possible on the occupation, and I went to the National Archives to read the original papers relating to it, in the hope of finding something on the women in the brothels and the war crimes committed.

 

As sexual violence was not a war crime, nothing was collected specifically on that. But I did find, in the interviews with the German SS prisoners after the war, an oblique reference to them, from the German Commandant of Alderney, Obersleutnant Schwalm, who remarked that when he took command in 1943 there were about 100 women whom he ordered to be quartered together and on whom he imposed strict visiting hours, and another reference from the garrison commander, Wilhelm Gerhardt, who commented that he’d tried to recruit volunteers in Paris to clean and cook, but the only women who applied were ‘streetwalkers, good time girls and criminal elements.’ Their use as coerced prostitutes is in no doubt: they were subjected to punishments, imprisonment, forced medical examinations, were ‘ruthlessly’ dismissed if infectious and were unpaid.

 

On the war crimes, the evidence collected by the Director of Public Prosecutions had been sent to Moscow, and no copy kept in the National Archives, but I did find the ‘Wanted Report’ on Maximilian List, the commandant of Lager Sylt until 1944, for crimes committed under his command.

 

Why did you move from writing history to fiction?

 

Historians tell stories, I’ve always loved writing, and I wanted a break from academic history into another form of storytelling.

 

Was the transition hard?

 

I was, and am, on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But historians make an argument from the evidence. Novelists create a world from possibilities. A novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is, can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.

 

What are you working on now?

 

A contemporary thriller, set in London. Watch this space.

More musings … (perhaps for a novel…)

Around the corner from my parent’s house was a small cottage. Built in the early nineteenth century, of Surrey flint, it stood at right angles to the street. It was the survivor of a rural past, when this meandering road of semi-detached houses had once been a country lane and this cottage was home to a labourer and his family.

The windows and doors needed painting. I would guess that it had no bathroom, and made do with an outside privy. There were still many houses in the 1950s which had no indoor sanitation – which made these semis of the suburbs so attractive with their tiled lavatories and bathrooms directly over the kitchen, drains and plumbing shared and minimised, an economy of design.

It was lived in by a person of ambiguous gender.  She had facial warts and facial hair and was not so much large as lumpy. She wore man’s shoes and trousers and a woman’s coat, a baggy plaid Utility number if I remember correctly. I have no doubt in earlier times that a creature such as she would have been branded as a witch. In more recent times, perhaps she may have had to make a living in a fair ground as the bearded lady. Roll up, roll up.

In this neighbourhood of local government clerks, policemen and secondary modern teachers, she stood out. It was too socially insecure to welcome strangeness. How long she had lived there, no one knew. What she had done for a living was obscure. As far as I am aware, no one ever spoke to her. Perhaps she had lived in that cottage all her life, as had her parents and grandparents before her, had watched as the fields and hedgerows were chewed and swallowed by development. That’s progress, isn’t it?

Perhaps she was a newcomer, like her neighbours around her. Where had she come from? Had she been driven out of a small community, and settled for the anonymity of the city? Where was her hinterland, her back-story? Was she even British?

My elder brother met her once at the bus-stop. He was three or four years old, perhaps five. He was standing with my mother as the woman approached. He stared at her, then said, Hello, ugly face.

He was told off, apologies made. What was the woman thinking?  Did she see a spoilt brat of a boy with no manners? Did she smart and hurt? Could she share her feelings? She lived alone. Was her world heartless? She lived before there was a social awareness of gender issues and racial tolerance.

I do sometimes think about her. Her image is vivid in my memory, this he-she woman, as we children unkindly called her in that south London suburb in the 1950s.

Auntie Bernadette and the country in the city

 

harris-sr-bernadette-de-st-edouard-gand-1936

(My aunt, c.1934)

I have a photograph taken thirty two years ago of four nuns standing in a circle pointing their toes. In the centre is one of my daughters, then four years old. She had just started ballet and was giving the nuns the benefit of her learning. Good toes, naughty toes.

I’d traveled with her to the convent where my aunt – her great-aunt – a nun, was celebrating her golden jubilee. The invitations had extended to immediate family, and second generation only. But my daughter had cut her face badly the day before and needed spoiling. An exception was made for her.

My aunt, short and wide, her plump, plain face hidden behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses, had been a linen maid before she took her vows. She cleaned her plate with bread, and spoke with the lilts and brogues of everywhere she had lived in her fifty years as a nun: London and Ghent, Sheffield and Sunderland, Hanley and Bristol. Known as Viley to my mother, Sister Bernadette to my father, we called her Auntie Bernadette. She was a Little Sister of the Poor, devoted to the care of the indigent and elderly.

In the days before the welfare state, old age was to be feared. The elderly poor, often infirm, who had no one to provide for them had to fall back on the workhouse. Forbidding institutions, built to deter all but the truly destitute, they separated the healthy men and women and housed them in long, soulless dormitories. The old and sick were put in grim, segregated infirmaries. The Little Sisters of the Poor established their homes as a kinder alternative to the workhouses, in the heartlands of England’s industrial cities. Brick built and Victorian, they, too, separated men and women and housed the inmates in dormitories. But these were welcoming institutions with polished chequered floors, bright sitting rooms for the day, and grounds for exercise and enjoyment.

The nuns produced what they could, and begged for the rest. The convents were in the poorer parts of the city, within sight of the factories or kilns or steel works. The kitchen gardens supplied the home with fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry, pork and bacon. The nuns may have employed gardeners, but in my memory it was the old men who herded the screaming pigs towards the abattoir, they can smell death, they’re clever, pigs. It was they who dug the land and hoed the weeds, who fed the chickens and the farmyard dog, a smelly English sheepdog called Lassie. For a city girl, my country memories were formed in the industrial slums of England.

We visited every summer, staying in the guest quarters. In post-war Britain, with the scars of the Second World War still visible and where disposable income, at least for my parents, was non-existent, a free holiday was a welcome break. We children were fed five meals a day, and given presents, always books. Adventure stories for my brothers, an Enid Blyton story for me. I was an ungrateful recipient. A precocious reader, Enid Blyton’s plots, prose and vocabulary never passed muster. I would read it in two hours. And then I would wander.

The old women, for the most part, sat around the walls of the communal sitting room. Some knitted or crocheted but most were slumped silently in their chairs, dozing and drooling. The women who ventured outside were livelier and welcomed a young visitor to talk to, who thrilled to the tales of the father who bit off the puppy dogs’ tails, of the mother driven to despair by her starving children, of the wife cowed by violence and the husband belittled as a pauper. Grown up stories, from before the war. Shocking. They’d give me sweets, sometimes out of their mouths, hold my hand, tell me I was a good girl. Come away, my aunt would say, these are not suitable people to talk to.

The old men, on the other hand, sat at tables in their communal sitting room. With unshaven, unwashed faces smelling of stale tobacco, they played cards or draughts or dominoes, pulling me onto their laps and teaching me the rules so I could slap down the chips with the best of them. Their stories were of the Great War, heroic tales of valour, never their own, always their friend, before the tears fell and a vein riddled hand wiped them away.

England’s history came to me through the living memories of the frail and elderly whose lives, materially poorer than my own, veined with heartache and tragedy – the baby’s coffins witnessed on the way to school, the humiliation of the workhouse – nevertheless spoke of the human capacity for survival and joy. This was not something you read about in school, bore no relation to the mnemonics of kings and queens that we recited, the flags we waved on Empire Day. This was an altogether different rendition of the past, subversive and threatening. It was the narrative of the poor, the unsuitable.

It stirred my love of history and led me in later years to use a tape recorder as my tool, be part of the movement of history ‘from below’ as it sought to enfranchise, in their own words, those disinherited from their past: women, workers, people of colour. The seeds for this were laid not in the academy, but in my childhood memories of the impoverished industrial classes of England and the rough and tumble of their lives.

When my daughter and I returned in 1984, it had all changed. The grounds had gone, different standards of geriatric care prevailed. My daughter, a town kid too, never learned to love the countryside through the smuts of a city, or have her imagination filled with the memories from a bygone age.

I don’t know what the old men and women do, these days.