Sometimes a question comes out of thin air, no context, no cause.
Yesterday someone asked me: “Has anyone ever pointed a gun at you?”
I have no idea how that got into their mind.
And nor, I am told, do they.
I am a fairly placid person but the strange thing is, yes.
But not this century.
Albanian soldier, 1979
The first time was in 1979 when I was wandering in a wood on a hillside just outside Titograd (now Podgorica) in what was then Yugoslavia (now Montenegro). Or it might have been just outside Durrës in Albania.
The strange thing is I now can’t remember which country it was in.
I was just wandering through the wood – somewhere – when I heard a sharp CRCK-CRCK. It was the sound of a rifle being cocked; the sound, as I understand it, of the bullet going into the chamber.
I looked up, startled, and there was a young soldier sitting up on the branch of a tree by the trunk. He was equally startled, looking down, pointing the barrel of the rifle at me.
We stared at each other for maybe half a second, maybe a full second, then I continued walking and he continued to look at me as I passed.
I think maybe he had been dozing, half asleep in the tree, and he woke up, startled, when he heard me below. I have no idea why he was up in a tree.
Understated posters in Bible-intimidated Leningrad in 1985
The next time was at the airport in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1985. I had a beard at the time and someone surmised later that they thought I might be religious – the Orthodox Church and all that. The guy was just officious, I guess, trying to show he was enthusiastic in his duty of protecting the USSR against outside anti-Soviet Western pollution.
The officer had two obviously junior men in hats with him. They took their handguns out and vaguely waved them at me to shoo me into a back office. The Soviets never cared much about their PR image with tourists, but I never saw border guardy people waving guns around any other time. I think maybe they had watched too many American movies.
The officer got me to open my suitcase and, with pretty limited English, just kept asking me: “Books? Books? You have books?” All I could imagine afterwards was that he thought I was smuggling in Bibles to destroy Lenin’s Socialist Paradise.
Syrian checkpoint by a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beirut, 1993
The next time was in 1993 when I was in Beirut and the Syrian Army was still present there with roadblocks and sandbagged gun positions at intersections.
Some (again young and officious) soldiers took exception to me taking photographs on the coast and, with their AK47s and no English language, shepherded me into a building where a rather laid-back Syrian Intelligence officer was brought in – it seemed rather unwillingly – to ask me questions. ‘Interrogate’ seems too excessive a word to use.
He seemed to be unconvinced I was a major threat to Syrian military rule, soon realised I was not an Israeli spy and started chatting about the time he had spent in the United States, the frequency of Israeli jets flying over Southern Lebanon and the perceived though unlikely threat of an Israeli seaborne attack on Beirut.
With polite apologies, he confiscated the two rolls of film in my two cameras and I was left trying to remember if there were shots of Hezbollah flags and the Airport Road on them and/or what else.
I was mildly worried because, on that trip to Beirut, I had tried to get into Syria to see Palmyra and had been refused entry – it seemed because my passport said I was a writer. I had previously got into Albania in 1979 and North Korea in 1986 with “writer” so I was not quite sure why the Syrians had taken so agin it.
He had a bit of an attitude …
The fourth time I had a gun pointed at me was in South London round 1998 or 1999.
He said it was a joke, but I think it was more that he had a bit of an attitude problem and an inferiority complex.
What have I learned?
Always be aware what is in the trees in Balkan woods and forests.
South London can potentially be as dangerous as Beirut… but not really.
And I still can’t remember which actual bloody country that bloke in the tree was in.
Uncovering the past: my shoulder was pulverised in two places
In 1995 I wrote the autobiography of comedian Malcolm Hardee.
‘Ghosted’ seems such a strange word to use.
In 1997/1998 I almost wrote the autobiography of someone else: an Italian archaeologist.
His opinion was that archaeology and biography were very similar: both involved uncovering the past from fragments and sometimes having to simply guess what had really happened. Sometimes, he suggested, it is even the same with autobiographies.
Yesterday morning, I woke up with a pain in my lower back and hips and upper legs. I was hit by a truck in 1991. One long-term effect it has had on me is that the bottom of my spine is slightly damaged. The bones occasionally go slightly ‘out of alignment. What usually happens is that I get a pain on one or other side of my hips and, as it mends, the pain moves round my waist and ends up at the bottom of the spine – where the real trouble lies – and then it goes away.
Initially, the problem is perceived to be somewhere it is not. Normally it takes about three nights of sleeping on the floor for the pain to go away.
This morning, at around 02.30am, I was lying on my bedroom floor unable to get to sleep because I could find no position to lie in that did not give me an awkward nerve-end-tingling pain.
For no particular reason at all – except that it came into my head – I decided to Google the phrase Maurizio Tosi death and this came up…
The obituary of Maurizio Tosi which I stumbled on
MAURIZIO TOSI (1944-2017)
February 26th, 2017
“A leading figure in Italian archaeology and Co-Director of the Italy Oman international research program studying the beginnings of navigation and long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean died at the age of 72 yesterday in Ravenna, Italy. The cremation ceremony will take place at Ravenna on this next Monday at 3.30 pm. Friend and colleagues are organizing a commemoration in Ravenna on March 5th at 3 pm.”
I had not thought about him for years. Today is Wednesday. It would seem he died on Saturday with his funeral two days ago and I haven’t thought about him for years. Strange that I looked him up.
We were both fascinated by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias which ends:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I never wrote Maurizio Tosi’s autobiography.
I had met him by accident at Ashgabat airport when we were both leaving Turkmenistan in 1995.
In 1997, in London and in Rome, we discussed the background to his autobiography.
In 1998, I travelled to Italy again to chat to him in Rome, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, Milan and on the island of Pantelleria.
Eventually, the project fell through because he tried to financially screw a friend of mine. His attitude to honesty was as variable as the wind in the deserts he often professionally frequented. He was a highly troubled man but also highly intelligent. Or, at least, well-read.
A younger Maurizio Tosi in one of the deserts he frequented
There were nine drafts of the book, some in the first person; some in the third; some in a mixture of both.
The book’s title was to have been Traveller.
When we had first discussed the idea of the book, he had e-mailed me:
“In archaeology, in history and in politics, the mistake that’s often made is looking at effects, not at primary causes. If you want to know why something developed, you have to look back in time before it existed: at what caused it to exist and develop in the way it did. It is the same with people and the same with me.”
Since childhood, he told me, the mind inside his skull had always felt it was in a darkened cave, looking out – frightened – at a world it did not understand.
When I had first suggested the title Traveller for his autobiography, he had reacted in a characteristically OTT way.
“Yes! yes!” he had cried dramatically (in an e-mail). “Traveller! It has so much meaning! I travel through time. I travel through different lands. I travel to escape from reality. I travel because the day-to-day details of everyday life are a problem for me. They always have been. It is all the little things that drive me to distraction – bills, banks, mortgages, paperwork, bureaucracy. I can’t live alone, but I can’t stay faithful to any woman with whom I live. I want stability, but I get bored by it when I have it. Traveller is the ideal title! It is so symbolic!”
It was like listening to someone impersonate an Italian.
“And you are also a fellow traveller,” I said.
One key point in his life had been in 1967.
2013 Le Monde article on “Maurizio Tosi, the archaeologist & ex-spy”
He was in communist East Germany when the Cold War between the Soviets and the West was at its height. Most of the people he had worked with in his Soviet-backed Network had already been caught – they had ‘disappeared’ – some had been captured by the West, some had been disposed of by the East. He was the last one left of those he knew.
He told me he had been in West Berlin and had been asked to deliver an envelope to a town in East Germany. He knew the envelope contained microfilm, because he had made the same delivery before. He had no overnight visa for East Germany, so he had to get a train back to East Berlin by 11.00pm and return through the Friedrichstrasse security checkpoint into West Berlin before midnight, otherwise he was in trouble.
He told me: “East German Security was separate from the police. Everything was separate. Everything was chaotic. There were so many different agencies all working separately from each other – sometimes in competition with each other. I didn’t have full coverage. It wasn’t as if I was officially working for the East German secret service. I was working for the Network but the complete implications of that were uncertain. I knew my network was handled by part of a section of East Germany’s security system and was linked to the Soviet Union, but things had changed. Everything had changed that year.
The East German politician Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’
“When the East German ‘Planning Minister’ Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’in 1965… when Apel was made to die in 1965… it sent a signal to all marginal people like me. Apel had been one of the masterminds and controllers of our subversion operation and when it was said he ‘shot himself due to depression’ it was clear something was changing very fundamentally.
“Our entire project of undermining and fighting American power in the Third World – and ultimately in Europe – was falling apart. Ché Guevara had already – and very clearly – been abandoned in Bolivia.”
Maurizio Tosi had been part of a network run by the East Germans for the Soviet Union. He had been trained partly in Europe, partly in Cuba, partly in South America. His job as an archaeologist meant that he could legitimately be in ‘fringe’ areas – Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. He was in Afghanistan when the Soviet tanks rolled in.
When we talked, it was mostly on tape.
“I dislike lies,” I warned him, early on.
“But ambiguity?” he had asked.
“Ah,” I replied slowly. “I’m fascinated by ambiguity. And by…..”
“Me too,” he had interrupted.
“…..and by amoral characters,” I had completed.
Maurizio Tosi in his 1998 office was “fascinated by ambiguity”
During one of our chats he told me, as we sat in his book-lined room in Rome: “One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman. The horseman is the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearsome eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. He becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.
“Of course! says the great Khan. Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!
“So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, arrives at the other city. Then he sees the dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:
“I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so very far away, I was worried that you would not reach here in time for our appointment.
“And the standard-bearer realises that the dark lady with the eyes that look right inside him is Death. I always feel I am running like the standard bearer, that there is never enough time and I know I will never complete what I should do.”
Me (aged 1) with father near home in Campbeltown, Scotland
Of course, my recent blogs from the Edinburgh Fringe just skimmed the surface. I was seeing around 6-8 shows per day for three-and-a-half weeks. I realised halfway through that I should, perhaps, have included a list of the shows I had seen with, perhaps, at least three adjectives on each.
Perhaps next year.
I had been going to blog today about Machete Hettie, one of the comedy acts who turned up at The Grouchy Club and who I went to see perform in Leith on Sunday. I wrote about her last year .
But I do not have the time today.
I have to go up to the Highlands and meet a man at a post code.
He – under the circumstances, quite reasonably – has not suggested a specific meeting place. Just a time and a post code which covers an area. And then we will find each other by chatting on mobile phones. I can see he might not want to say he will be at a specific place at a certain time, under the circumstances.
I am leaving Edinburgh around 8.15am (just before the draconian parking restrictions start at 8.30am).
This is earlier than I need to, which will leave me spare time.
I might go to Lossiemouth on the way up or the way back.
Lossiemouth in NE Scotland – the beaches are better than this
My eternally-un-named friend partly grew up in Lossiemouth… as well as Malta, Cyprus, West Germany, Northern Ireland etc. Her father was in the RAF. Lossiemouth was/is an RAF base. She remembers the idyllic sandy beaches at Lossiemouth – and also clothes freezing on the washing line in winter.
I grew up partly in Aberdeen, not too far away. I remember the idyllic sandy beaches and sand dunes when I was a child. We lived in Mastrick, a council estate on a hill where, in winter, my mother used to wear an overcoat when she made the beds on cold winter mornings.
My father ran away from his home in Wigtownshire to join the Royal Navy in 1936, just in time for the Spanish Civil War in which we allegedly took no official part, though he remembered his ship dropping off individual men near the coast of Spain who made their own solitary way to land.
He was a radio operator on Navy ships. He was based in Malta in World War Two and, after the War, he got a job with a company which supplied marine radar to fishing boats. The radar bounced off the sea bed and showed up any shoals of fish. He was originally based in Campbeltown, on the Kintyre Peninsula, where I was born.
My father in 1976 in retirement in Clacton, England
When I was three, he was moved to a bigger part of the same company, based in Aberdeen, where I went to school. My father serviced marine radar on the fishing boats in Aberdeen and along the coast to the west – including Lossiemouth – and further north up to Wick and Thurso.
At least, I think he serviced the fishing boats in Lossiemouth. He might have gone there later.
Because, later, he moved down to his company’s headquarters in London and he used to occasionally go out ‘on site’ to inspect the company’s on-shore radar and equipment on ‘sites’. This was during the Cold War. The sites were military bases and mostly defence bunkers. He had to have security clearance – ‘positive vetting’ – for that. I think he mentioned that they had gone way back to his childhood and had talked to his schoolteachers. He knew where the entrances to the bunkers were and their layout. It was a long time ago in another world.
Machete Hettie in a London street last year
Maybe he went to Lossiemouth in that incarnation of himself rather than the fishing boat incarnation.
I have never been to Lossiemouth. So I thought I might go today.
I might take photos of where my eternally-un-named friend used to live as a teenager. But she says she can see it on Google Streetview anyway.
The world changes every day.
And the story of Machete Hettie’s adventures in Bulgaria will have to wait for another day.
Max (right) with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You
If you want to see the heir of the late American comedian Bill Hicks performing, where do you look?
Not in British comedy clubs where Bill Hicks is the comedians’ comedian. Certainly not in America, where Bill Hicks only came to most people’s attention fairly recently.
Perhaps one place to look is a television programme transmitted three times a week on the RT channel (The channel used to be called Russia Today.) American presenter Max Keiser is RT’s economic guru; he fronts his own show: The Keiser Report.
Max (perhaps suitably on the extreme left) on 10 O’Clock Live
Last month, he was a guest on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was a guest on Channel 4’s comedy series 10 O’Clock Live, presented by Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell.
“Jimmy Carr came up to me after the show,” Max told me yesterday in Soho. “He was very nice and wanted to know more about my views on the economy. A few weeks later, I was having lunch over at his place – beautiful house, beautiful tennis court. He had me up there to talk about gold and silver. He said he was prepared to buy a ton – that’s 32,000 ounces – of silver. Since that lunch, the price has dropped about 50%. So that’s probably why I haven’t heard from Jimmy since then.”
“And you’re a fan of Bill Hicks,” I said.
“If anyone is a big fan of comedy and they watch my show on RT,” said Max. “they’ll recognise that I borrow heavily from him. I liked Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and that raw, unvarnished truthfulness is something we’ve always tried to strive for in The Keiser Report. It’s just very raw and sometimes it works not from having people’s funny bone tickled but because they are uncomfortable.”
Max presents Keiser Report next to Boris Johnson’s City Hall
“But The Keiser Report,” I said, “is a current affairs show – a news show covering business and finance – that is not normally a comic area.”
“At this point in time,” replied Max, “the financial world and the banks are so pathetically corrupt that it’s impossible to cover them without having, to some degree, a satirical view. Very few things which banks do, in this country at this point, are legal. Virtually 100% of everything all the Big Four banks do is illegal.”
“Could you be pushing this angle because you’re a presenter on the Russian government’s own TV channel?” I asked.
“Well, the show is produced by Associated Press,” said Max. “which is an American company. The show is recorded at a TV studio that’s part of London & Partners, which is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s public relations division. And we make other shows with Associated Press which are sold to other outlets. We sold a show to Press TV.”
“Thats worse!” I said. “That’s the Iranian government!. These are dodgy people we are talking about.”
“These are fine international news organisations,” said Max. “We’ve done a show for BBC World News. We did shows for Al Jazeera English.”
Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English, Doha
“Ah, now,” I said. “Al Jazeera English is a very, very good news channel, though I don’t know about the Arabic version.”
“When we were in Doha where Al Jazeera English is based,” said Max, “there was this famous car park with the Al Jazeera English building on one side and the Al Jazeera Arabic building on the other and they really did not get along. So there is a perpetual stand-off in Doha and occasionally executives would be taken out to the car park and…”
“Beheaded?” I suggested.
“…left to their own devices,” continued Max. “And that’s not easy to do, because you need an exit visa. So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.”
“What show did you make for them?” I asked.
“We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.”
“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?
“Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still seems to want to be fighting the Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the US, they still think it’s 1970. They don’t understand that Russia and the Russian economy has leapfrogged well beyond what was happening during the Cold War, well past the Soviet Union. They are very entrepreneurial in Russia and the TV network is very savvy. They have a bigger reach than the BBC – over 800 million. I think they’ve really taken the top position in the world right now as far as global international satellite and cable TV is concerned. And whatever we can do to support that, we’re happy to do. In this country, I would say the relationship with the Soviet Union is quite strained. Other countries have moved on from their Cold War perception.”
“You’ll get a Hero of the Soviet Union medal,” I told Max. “You’ve had other comedians on The Keiser Report, haven’t you?”
Frankie Boyle (left) interviewed on RT’s The Keiser Report
“Yes, we’ve had Frankie Boyle. I’m a big fan of his. A no-holds-barred comedian who’s willing to take big risks.”
“What were you talking about?”
“I think he and I talked about the state of the media.”
“But you’re a business show.”
“Yeah, but so much of business now is driven by perception and that perception is driven by the media. The Stock Market – whether it’s the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones – it’s a hologram driven by perception. There’s no actual equity in those markets; it’s completely a bubble puffed up on zero collateral.”
“What were you before being a TV presenter?” I asked.
“I started out as a stockbroker for Paine Webber on Wall Street in the early 1980s. Before that, I was at New York University and I was doing stand-up comedy. I made the transition from doing comedy to being a stockbroker at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period.”
“Because, surprisingly, being a stockbroker is not that much different from being a comedian. You’re telling stories to people, going through a lot of stories quite rapidly and you are essentially getting people not to laugh but to say: Give me 1,000 shares. To get to that moment, you use the same techniques as a comedian: pacing, word-choice, empathy.
“I was at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jerry Seinfeld was the MC. Rich Hall was doing improvisation down in the theatre district. Robin Williams was at Catch a Rising Star. On the West Coast, you had Steve Martin. It was the beginning of that huge new wave when comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and then TV shows came out of that.
“Watching Robin Williams work was pretty remarkable. During that time, before he went on stage, his ritual was to line up seven or eight Kamikaze cocktails. They’re extremely potent alcoholic concoctions. As the MC was about to introduce him, he’d just go Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang and down those suckers and then hit the stage with all that energy.
Max Keiser is into a post “Comedy is Rock ’n’ Roll” period
“Now we’re into a post Comedy is rock ’n’ roll period. I’m hoping we’re getting back to the more politicised comedy – the Lenny Bruce type of comedy – that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. A lot of people who do comedy here in London go to the United States and come back and tell me: It’s great; it’s all very funny; but it’s homogenised. They’re all doing the same kind of jokes, which is because of this huge thing called TV: the sitcoms. They’re looking for a certain type to fill a certain spot and there’s 10,000 comics trying to get that one spot and they’re all doing the same act.
“I love the comedy here in London, because it’s completely different. There’s a lot of political edginess to it. A lot of comedians here identify themselves as ‘left wing’. In America, there is no left wing. There’s only slightly right-of-centre and extreme right-of-centre and the fanatical right.”
“I would like to take a show up there though, if I do, I’d have to workshop it here in London beforehand. But I’ve already been doing my Stand-Up Rage show in cities around the world: Dublin, Los Angeles, London.
“People are fans of my rages on The Keiser Report and this is a 60-minute rage without any control whatsoever. I go into a fugue state in a white rage. Afterwards, I literally have no memory of what I’ve said. It’s a cathartic experience and the audience, in many cases, achieve a level of ecstasy.”
There was a slight pause.
“So you don’t have a script,” I asked. “You just go off on a rant?”
“I start off on one basic idea,” explained Max, “and I will refer to headlines and each usually triggers a good ten minutes of rage. Then, to catch my breath, I will maybe cut to a 20 second music or video blurb.”
“And you rage about politics?” I asked.
“It’s about the bankers and the banksters because, when you have this merging of the private banking interests and the political interests otherwise known as Fascism… I mean, London is the capital of financial terrorism. This is where the financial Jihadis congregate.”
“You do good headline,” I said.
“If you go down to the City of London,” continued Max, “they have the madrassas – otherwise known as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. These are the madrassas of banking fanaticism. They pursue market fundamentalism which says they can blow themselves up and others around them – not to seek THE Prophet but some profit.”
I received a comment from Berlin-based British entertainer Sonny Hayes saying:
“I love his take on Tristan und Isolde, “…it is like coitus interruptus without the coitus. This chord is never released – never”. We did an event in the 1970s where, for background, we combined bits of finales from Wagner, Richard Strauss et al, where the last note began the next finale and then we looped it – a never-arriving climax and very loud. It worked well, was very uncomfortable and one woman had a hysteric breakdown.”
“At the end of January, we go to Hawaii for ten months…”
“Lucky bastard,” I said.
“…which we’ve just found out is very radioactive,” continued Sonny. “The after-effect of the nuclear power plant exploding in Japan. It’s not safe to eat fish, which I was looking forward to.
“We’ve been working for some time on a solo theatre show called One For The Road which we premiered in Germany last month and we’ll be touring that after we finish our variety shows in Hawaii.”
“When did you move to Berlin?” I asked.
“In 2009, we came to work for a year at Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theatre, in a show called QI which was extended for a second year and then we decided we liked it here. Before that, we were living further south in Hessen.”
During the Cold War, Germany was divided into West and East Germany and Berlin was divided into West and East Berlin. The problem was that Berlin was deep within East Germany. So, to drive from West Germany proper to West Berlin, you had to travel along designated roads.
A publicity picture around the time of Sonny’s first Berlin visit
“We played in Helmstadt, the military police headquarters for policing the Berlin Corridor. The senior officer there was a Brigadier Gerrard, who was very impressive. I later saw him in the World at WarTV series. He gave us a briefing about what to expect when we went through. And everything he said did happen.
“He told me: A Russian guard will salute you, then walk round your car then salute you again. That did happen and I gave the guard a Boy Scout salute.
“The brigadier said: At the time of night you go through, they’re going to want to do some black marketing with you. Under no circumstances are you to involve yourself in this kind of thing… But, as he was saying this, he had his thumbs in his belt and I could see he was wearing a Russian belt.
A tale of two cities – and of two countries – in the Cold War
“You weren’t allowed to speak to anybody or to have any contact with anyone from East Germany. If you were in an accident, you weren’t allowed to get into a Russian or East German ambulance and you weren’t allowed to deal with the police.
“We were given a loose-leaf folder to take with us. If the police stopped you, you had to close the windows of your car, lock the doors and sit with your arms folded until they got really annoyed. Then you opened your folder on the first page and there was a Union Jack printed on it.
“Then you waited until they got really annoyed again and you turned to the second page where there was a smaller Union Jack and, written round it in three languages was We don’t accept you as a country. We don’t accept your authority – basically it said You don’t exist for us. We were told: You don’t speak to them unless they get a Russian officer and, unless you’ve killed someone, they are not going to get a Russian officer.”
“Did you have any problems?”
An East German GDR border scout
“Not really. They did want to exchange bits of military gear – badges and emblems and things – for Western goods. I think I traded some chocolate for some badges. They unscrewed light bulbs and there were things inside the lightbulbs and in the hems of the curtains.
“You had to go to a hut to hand your passport in for checking. There was a small hatch and a hand came out and you could see there was an East German uniform on the arm, but you couldn’t see any more than that.
“They gave you two hours to drive through to Berlin. You didn’t drive too fast because that would mean you were speeding and you didn’t drive too slow. If you didn’t arrive within two hours, they sent a convoy out to look for you.
“Brigadier Gerrard was a super interesting guy; just a regular kind of hero of that generation. I liked him very much. He just did things his way and only followed the rules he wanted to follow. He spent a lot of time with the Russian officers drinking. They would bring vodka and he would bring whisky, which they much preferred.”
“All this happened in the mid-1980s,” I said. “Maybe 1985 – and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – so it was quite near the end.”
“Yes” said Sonny. “I was there in 1990 with Circus Roncali and you still needed a passport to go through the wall from West Berlin to East Berlin. Circus fans would have a minibus and take a bunch of us out from the show and treat us to dinner in the East. It was very cheap to pay for things with West German marks.”
“Brigadier Gerrard sounds like a real character,” I said.
“Yes,” said Sonny. “He was in a tank regiment and drove his tank through the wire at Belsen.”
I saw the film footage of Belsen when I was about 11 years old: an impressionable age. I hope it remains the worst thing I ever see in my life. I think, in other concentrations camps, the film cameras did not go in with the first troops; they went in slightly later, so the scenes are slightly less horrific. At Belsen they filmed what the first troops first saw. I remember a pile of corpses like skeletons. Then one of them got up – just a skeleton with thin skin stretched between the bones – and started to stagger around like a newly-born zombie foal.
Former guards are made to load the bodies of dead prisoners onto a truck for burial after the liberation of Belsen in 1945
“We’d done a deal with the guards,” said Sonny, “that the guards would leave before the Brits came and took over the camp, though there were still a few people there: mostly Hitler Youth, as I understand it. Brigadier Gerrard had to shoot at least one of them.
“He said they didn’t really know what to do; they just contained the situation. Later the Americans came and they reacted a bit more emotionally. I think they released some of the remaining guards at the same time that they released the women and I believe the prisoners just tore the guards apart.
Nazi doctor Fritz Klein stands knee-deep in corpses at Mass Grave Number 3 in Belsen
“Brigadier Gerrard said they released some Poles who had been prisoners of war in the camp and they went out and started killing Germans at random so, in the end, he had to send out a detail to round them up.
“He told me that, on Friday nights, British soldiers used to go down and smash every window in the town. Every week they smashed the windows; every week they were repaired; the following week they were smashed again. By this time, Brigadier Gerrard was the High Sheriff of Bergen-Belsen and he said he found out about what was happening by accident so he called the mayor in and asked Why didn’t you tell me about this before? and the mayor just shrugged.
“It was extraordinary meeting someone who had been there and experienced history.”