10 May 2010


You may call God love, you may call God goodness, 
But the best name for God is compassion.
Meister Eckhart

Gideon knelt on the bedroom windowsill. He could feel the edges of the dark brown tiles bite into his cold three year old legs and when he looked out into what should have been the night black sky, he was afraid. What, he asked, was the flickering red-gold light which had spread across the edge of the world. Out of the darkness his mother’s voice, sharpened by a terrible anxiety, replied that the light in the sky was London burning; German pilots were dropping fire bombs on the City.

The boy who had learned to be afraid the night the sky burned, now in the aftermath of war learned to hate the enemy who had captured his Jewish doctor father near Anzio and sent him back to Germany and the gas chambers of Dachau. This hatred survived university, Middle Temple and an increasingly successful legal career. In 1978 he was asked to advise the Home Office on the likelihood of successfully prosecuting a former Unterfeldwebel accused of the murder of four Russian Jews, P.O.Ws in the Sylt Concentration Camp on the Island of Alderney.

The evidence against the man was considered to be fairly slim, but there were those in government anxious to prove their wholehearted support for the State of Israel. Gideon accepted the offer, he told himself, as a duty - an almost sacred duty - and he was seized with a curious trembling excitement. He had dreamed for so long of somehow avenging his father’s death. He studied the prosecution papers, pondered various legal opinions and flew to Jersey to interview the suspect.

In a claustrophobic room, windowless and airless, with armed guards on every corner of the corridor outside, he watched the prisoner, grey pale from incarceration, soft voiced and still like a heron watching for fish. This then was his enemy; now was the longed-for time of retribution. He looked into the watery grey eyes and saw in them not the cruelty of the fanatic Nazi who had once perhaps strangled Jewish P.O.Ws, but a but a frail, weary, hopeless, shadow of a man seventy five years old - another pathetic victim of hatred and fear, rather like himself.

This was no blinding Damascene moment, no trumpets sounded in that bleak cell, just his own voice gentle now: “I shall recommend to the Home Secretary that you be sent back to Germany. I think you are not well, and I hope you will be allowed to return to your own folk for what is left of your life.” Gideon stood up, his own fear and hatred wonderfully purged, and he quietly clasped the old man’s hand. He walked out of the prison into the sharp air of a late December evening and shining in the north over the cliffs of Alderney he saw a great light. Not this time the reflection of a city on a fire, he thought, but the radiance of angels on a hillside proclaiming their eternal message: ‘Peace on earth to men of goodwill’.

09 May 2010


It seemed to me in the Autumn of 1985 that I was perhaps the bravest woman in East Kent. Oliver had given me the typescript of his new pamphlet for my “comments and corrections”. Can you imagine telling such an accomplished writer that his syntax was sometimes dodgy and his punctuation hilarious? In his eyes I read: “For God’s sake why did I ask her?” and “When is she going to crawl back into her cheese?” All he actually said was “Thank you my darling. I’ll look at it all very carefully.” He accepted about 80% of my corrections and comments, and thus set the pattern of our working together for the rest of his life. He wrote; I edited. Sometimes I wrote, but rarely showed him my text until after publication - it made for a more peaceful existence that way.

Oliver was an inventor with frugal habits. From various bits of old wood, some lengths of strong elastic, a couple of doorknobs and the battery from his power-drill he made an auxiliary motor for my manual wheelchair. It had been test driven with a sack of bricks for a passenger but now it was my turn. He pushed me down the long hill to Louisa Bay where we sat and admired the white lace surf rolling up the beach until it was time to go home for tea. Half way up the hill I smelled burning and saw tiny flames escaping from underneath my seat. I leaped out of the chair and told Oliver in succinct and palpably unladylike language exactly what I thought of him and all other mad inventors. He did not seem too bothered about me, but he was quite put out by the demise of his battery.

A few weeks before Oliver died we talked about the modest funeral he wanted and the Broadstairs party I hoped to organise for his many friends. “Well,” he said, “ if you want to do that as well as the Funereals, my darling, by all means do so. But, I don’t expect that many people will bother to come.” Last April at the Pavilion on the Sands right beside the sea he loved so much I gave his big party, and very many people bothered to come. His family, his friends, colleagues from the BFI and Television, Richard the Gas and Pete the Shoes, Mandy who runs the Ramsgate Cat Charity of which Bagpuss is a Patron, Graham from the Romanian Hospice where Bagpuss with a little help from the brickies built the Children’s Wing, some of the wonderful ladies who cared for him during the last months of his life - they and a multitude of others were all there. So for once, dearest Oliver, you were wrong, and all of us who loved you and who will always love your work were glad about that.

I go down sometimes to the edge of the beach where last May I left Oliver’s ashes. I look at the golden carpet the sun unrolls across the water stretching from my feet into the infinite distance of the horizon where the sea at last took him, and I smile at my memories of that once-upon-a-time-giant of a man, vast of intellect, magnificent in spirit, so loving in heart.

As I sit there I imagine that, if there is indeed a Heaven, I can in my mind’s eye see the Management suffering a certain degree of disquietude. Challenged by Gabriel, Oliver points to the sack of feathers he has been collecting since the last seraphic moult and makes it quite clear that he, Oliver, will have no need for the services of the celestial wing-makers. He will design and make his own set of re-cycled wings, thank you very much. Meanwhile, if the Archangel will please excuse him, he has needles to make and a template to cut. Gabriel sighs and shrugs, carefully folds his magnificently tailored pinions, and exits stage left. It always takes a while to get to grips with real genius.


Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, ...
Shakespeare: Macbeth

As the four children pushed close up to the old wall, seven year old George felt the rough edges of the top railings rusty against his face and smelled the bittersweet odour of rotting vegetation where the flowers on the bank had succumbed to the heat of summer and the siling rains of last week’s storms. Silently he watched the group of children playing on the dusty lawn in front of the house. Boys in grey shirts and long shorts were kicking around an old rubber ball and three girls with pinafores over faded cotton dresses bent over a set of Five Stones, their hair - tawny, long blond and brown - mimicking the coat of the fat tabby cat sunning himself on the doorstep. These were the War Orphans, newly moved into the big empty house next door to the ugly red brick Church at the top of Chalk-pit Hill, and the four local children staring through the railings were fascinated by them.

All the children had been told they must be nice to the orphans whose fathers had been killed in the fighting. A few had lost their mothers as well, in homes blitzed flat like careless cockroaches under the angry boots of George’s dad. But when next day they saw the alien group standing together in the corner of the playground, motionless and mute songbirds caged in a foreign land, isolated in their difference, George and his friends suddenly hostile turned away, back to their own exclusive games. The Orphans, they felt, already got too much attention and fuss made of them.

Sixty years later George, sitting on a lounger in the sun bathed garden, wondered if Kate remembered the old orphanage. When the West Indian immigrants arrived and moved into the long tumbledown terrace in Albert Road, the orphans as a distinctive group disappeared and the playground hierarchies changed. Dark skinned, with voices rich and smooth as melting chocolate, laughing and singing in that strange patois of theirs, these latest incomers became the new strangers. ‘We didn’t play with them either.’ thought George. ‘The kids were the same with the Ugandan Asians, and when our Jenny announced she was going to marry Rajiv, I was afraid that we would lose her to strangers.’ He sighed.

“Oh, meant to tell you,” he said to his wife, “I saw off that BNP candidate. Told him what to do with his evil fascist ideas. And, by the way, I don’t like the grandkids’ Polish Plumber jokes. Their dad was an immigrant too.” She laughed. “Be patient,” she said, “they’ll learn, like most of us did. Remember Neville and Joan who adopted me. They were a lovely Mum and Dad and they welcomed everyone wherever they came from, however different or poor they were.” She laughed again. “Even you George.” “Yes,” he agreed, “they were good people. God bless them and everyone like them. They were especially kind when the penniless soldier boy from next door asked to marry their beautiful daughter. And she was the little girl with long blonde hair whom once I’d stared at through the railings, and whom I married in the ugly brick church on Chalk-Pit Hill.”
Illustration by Liz