Joe Shea; 1924-2019

I’m not a historian. I don’t know the reasons people do things, except that sometimes they do things for reasons they don’t quite know themselves; for reasons they don’t acknowledge; for reasons they say. And sometimes just because. Because everyone else is doing it. Because it seemed like the right thing to do.

He was born in Texas but went to school in Iowa. His grandfather rode a horse up there from Texas and it took two weeks. His father took a train up there too; that took two days. In the 1940s Joe flew a jet the same distance in about two hours.

He was a pilot. He was a short, slight boy whose family had been doing pretty well with their jewellery store, putting every present you could wish for under the tree at Christmas until the Great Depression. Then there was pretty much nothing. And the small, short boy wasn’t Mr Popular any more.

When Pearl Harbour happened in 1941 he told people he wanted to be a pilot. He told me most folk laughed their asses off at that idea. But he did it. He got to England in January 1945, on a ship that had to hang around off Le Havre waiting for a U-Boat to be dealt with before landing in England; the airplane he hadn’t yet seen went to Liverpool, like every other P51D Mustang. He told me that when he went to the airpark there with a buddy it was dangerous just walking down the street, two US pilots in uniform and what seemed like thousands of women whose husbands, partners, lovers, sons had gone to the war.

I met him in 2006. He stayed at my house for ten days or so in 2009 and again in 2011, visiting England for the memorial service the Friends of Leiston Airfield held every May. He kept his room spotless and silent, so much so that one morning we were convinced he’d died in his sleep after a long night drinking and flying World War Two over Germany and Czechoslovakia. It opened my eyes. All I knew about military flying back then was based on Biggles and David Niven, 633 Squadron, the Dambusters, Twelve O’Clock High, The Night My Number Came Up and all the other plucky stiff-upper-lip Johnny Head In Air propaganda, where dashing American officer Gregory Peck always cops off with the local squire’s daughter and gets billeted in a house half the size of Kent. Joe told me it was a big day when they got a second stove to heat their eight-man wooden hut.

He told me other things too. The story of a local Suffolk girl he should have married, a girl he left behind when his squadron was sent to Germany. About the one and only time he dated a German girl there, and how when he kissed her gutten nacht someone emptied a magazine full of 9mm at him from a machine pistol when all he had was his service issue Colt, a nearby wood and fast legs. He told me about friends who died and friends who lived. He told me how the weather had changed from fog more days than not, winter into spring of 1945 and how we worked out together that it wasn’t fog, but coal fires. It’s hardly ever foggy here now.

And odder, darker things. He told me early one morning, drinking grappa at 2am, about a friend who couldn’t keep his airplane straight in a dive, practice bombing on the river Orwell; how his wings had folded back and come clean off. About friends who took off in a flight of three, pulled up through the clouds and found there were only two airplanes that came out of the top; the same thing happening to others setting-down through the cloud, with the North Sea waiting below. the flying over the coast coming home, looking for the river running parallel to the sea at Aldeburgh, flying up the coast from there until he found a radio tower at Minsmere, turning 210 degrees on the tower which would put you at the end of the main runway at Leiston, then putting-down through fog, cutting the engine at 50 feet over the place where two hedges met and hoping nobody had parked-up a jeep on the runway. It wouldn’t hurt for very long, he said.

He told me how the weather had killed more of his buddies than the Luftwaffe ever did. He told me about having to fly eight-hour missions, escorting thousand bomber raids, the escorts so much faster than the bombers that they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream and its ten mile vapour trails every few minutes in flights of four, the inside aircraft having to throttle way back and turn tight while the outside aircraft had to speed up and turn on the outside of the finger formation, then a few minutes later the same thing again, the other way around. Over and again, all the way to the target. He told me about B24s, Liberator bombers, which had a nasty habit of exploding when their bomb doors opened; and sitting, five miles high, watching the ten men inside fall to the ground.

And once, way deep into the bottle, when I said I wasn’t clear what happened in that story, he was almost across the table at me, angry, in my face, spitting ‘What do you mean? You were there.” And I wondered at that moment, not just who he thought I was from that time, but whether for a moment somehow I was, for him. Whether we’d called-up something that shouldn’t have been called after so long sleeping. The same thing happened to an American friend way back, visiting an abandoned 8th Airforce airfield one wet and boring Sunday afternoon, wearing an American leather flying jacket. He ordered his girlfriend a drink and almost choked on his own when an old man at the bar in an almost empty, strange pub in the middle of nowhere looked hard at him and said simply, ‘You’re back, then.”

Joe Shea never shot anyone down, although he tried. He left the US Air Force after the war, went home and built a bathroom onto his parents’ house. Then things went a little sour. He told me that little guy had been nothing in that little town outside the airforce; he’d gone back, he said, to being nothing there again, so he re-enlisted. He stayed in the Air Force all the way to being Lt.Colonel, although he hated being called that. I never knew why. He was part of the team that had to find the atom bomb the USAF lost after a plane crash in Spain, wondering if they’d ever find it or whether someone knew exactly where it was while they looked.

And he told me about a time when his airplane just wasn’t making enough power taking off at Leiston airfleld, just down the road from where I sit on the edge of another Suffolk airfield. He switched off, ran over to a spare Mustang on the flight line and borrowed that to fly the mission. Except he was in a hurry to keep-up with everyone else taking off. He was short. And the usual pilot wasn’t, so when he powered down the runway his feet didn’t quite push the rudder bar as far to the right as they needed to, to counteract the torque of the engine pulling the airplane off the tarmac onto the wet mud it slewed onto. Slowing down would have meant that the wheels sank into the mud at about 120mph and cartwheeling across the airfield with full petrol tanks. It wouldn’t hurt for long but he kept the throttle open, the only thing that seemed sensible in that split second. He went straight through a hedge a few inches off the ground. There is still an airplane-sized gap in that hedgerow today.

On July 4th 2004 another Mustang went the same way in Durango, Colorado; once in the air the torque flipped it upside down. That one crashed. Joe’s machine inverted and he had the luck to push the control column instead of pulling it.

He nearly clipped the roof of one of the hangers before he finally, sweating, heart in mouth got the machine pointing the right way up and under control. The control tower laconically told him “You can put your wheels up now, Joe.”

His life for the past twenty years wasn’t easy. For a number of reasons he had to keep working and like anyone his age, while they say time loves a hero, illness and disease loves time, especially when it comes to human bodies and their frailties. Joe Shea died this year, one of a generation whose motivations and drivers, whose strength and resolve I can’t entirely fathom from here. He was not, he said, a hero. He did some things in that aircraft that didn’t help to win any war, that killed people who had done nothing to deserve killing. As people do in every war.

He could be abrasive, demanding and dismissive; he refused to help an old man in Yoxford re-visit a place where a young friend had blown himself up playing with a bomb dump by the side of the road. Apparently there were munitions dumps everywhere. He flatly refused to talk to a re-enactor who had spent thousands on a USAAF Military Police uniform at one memorial service; he told me he’d spent his war avoiding MPs and goosing his airplane up behind them riding motorcycles as they lead the Mustangs along the perimeter track around the airfield, so why the hell would he want to talk to someone pretending to be one now?

We drove him around some of the old sights he’d seen and helped him get some old pictures back home to a museum in America. We gave him a lot to drink and he told us stories he said he’d never shared with anyone before. Then we lost touch, moved house and life went on, the way it does. The way it’s supposed to. He died in his 90s. He felt bad for a long, long time, about the beauty of the colours of a German aircraft exploding in mid-air, this same man who when he saw a book cover with a photo of a crippled Me 110 said calmly it was on the correct course:

“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”

In a little lane near Leiston there’s a concrete memorial to the eighty-two pilots who died while they were stationed at the airfield there. An inscription on it is from the King James Bible, the one I always thought was the one true text not as a zealot but because I didn’t know any better, which is maybe the same definition.

They fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 23:5

Who knows? Maybe they did. I remember the fear and the shame and the horror in his voice when he described the beauty of the colour of another man’s life exploding in front of his eighteen year-old eyes, two miles up in the sky. I hope he found peace.

A long time ago a man in uniform said what I hope is true now, the way it was that wet, nearly final day in Spring, 1945 in a Suffolk field.

You can put your wheels up now, Joe.

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The Bremen Town Musicians

I’d never heard of them until a German woman told me the story one day, the same as she told me another story, about her grandfather. He was from Bremen too.


In the story, four old animals, an ancient donkey worn-out from work, a dog too old to hunt, a cat too tired to catch mice any more and a cockerel too much of a cockerel, too loud in his crowing, all of them considered too old, too much of a burden to be any use any more. All of them destined to be killed or left to starve.

Being industrious northern Germans they thought they would do no such thing. After all said one of them, you can get anything better than death. The four ancient beasts team up, find a house in the deep woods and seeing it occupied by robbers, turn them out of doors by a trick. The robbers return but by then it’s night-time, dark, confusing. The cat goes berserk and scratches them, screaming, the dog bites them, the donkey kicks them, the cockerel crows and crows, not useless now at all.

The robbers run away, never to return. The four animals found a co-operative and live amicably in the old house ever after.

My friend’s grandfather came from the same place. When the war came he was a surgeon in the Wermacht, posted first to Norway, then to Romania, both a long way from home. One day early in 1945, fed-up and tired of stitching young men like himself back together only for them to fight again he made a joke about Hitler. His friend laughed.  And that was very nearly that. The joke was overheard. Both of them were sentenced to death.

As they were being taken out to be shot the kind of thing that happens in Hollywood movies happened. Partisans attacked. The surgeon looked at his friend and said one word: “Run!”

They ran. They walked, they hitched lifts, they avoided the patrols looking for deserters, they avoided the Russians, they avoided the death squads and somehow, months later, 900 kilometres later, having seen Dresden burn with his own eyes, the surgeon opened his own front door, intact, back in Bremen. His wife ran a bakery there. A day or two later he walked around the corner and surrendured to a Britsh patrol. They asked him where he lived. When he said ‘around the corner’ they told him to piss off home. So he did.

He lived to be over ninety, a prosperous doctor in West Germany who saw the wall come down before he died. I saw a photo of him once. He sat next to his grand-daughter, the woman I knew. She was about seventeen in the picture. Both of them blond, blue-eyed, with their high Saxon foreheads and something I never saw in my family, a fierce love bathing the two of them like fire. You could see it like an aura and feel the heat of it in the old man’s eyes, bask in the warmth of it in everything about her being. In the picture, while he was alive, anyway.

As the four musicians said in the fable, you can always find something better than dying. But you have to try for it.

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Among the ruined cities



Thomas Mair in a hat, who obviously had nothing to do with Britain First.
Thomas Mair in a hat, who obviously had nothing to do with Britain First.

Back in June a man called Thomas Mair shot MP Jo Cox.  He denies murder and everything else he’s been charged with, despite there being a dead woman, lots of witnesses and his words to the effect that ‘it’s me you’re looking for’ when he was arrested.

Witnesses  say he was screaming ‘Britain First,’ a fact that not one single MP has felt it necessary to mention let alone condemn. Just in case anyone was in any doubt that the attack was politically motived, in court Mr Mair announced that he was ‘a political activist.’

Today’s revelation in court was that Thomas Mair had quite a collection of books about Nazism. Which gave me pause for thought, because between you, me and the internet, so do I.

Last year I finally wrote a screenplay called Janni Schenk, a story about a very normal boy who had the misfortune to be born in Germany in 1930. I’d heard the story at first hand from the old man I always thought of as Janni, although that wasn’t his real name; now I very much doubt I’ll ever know what his real name was.

I heard the story about 20 years ago. He was old then. I didn’t know how to write it. I’m not sure I do now, but I gave it a go after 17 years of thinking I couldn’t do it. For two years I read everything I could find about then and there. I knew a German girl but despite her describing herself as ‘the third generation of the war’ naturally she didn’t have any first-hand knowledge; neither did her parents.

I read about what people ate, the clubs they joined, the clothes they wore, all of which I thought was probably more important than what battles were fought. Each week the shelf grew. Another week, another book with a hakencruz on the spine on the bookshelf.

It wasn’t something I was very happy about but I couldn’t see any other way to find out the things I needed to know. I don’t have any other Nazi stuff, apart from a cap I found for pennies that I needed for a photo-shoot.

                                         Shot last year, not 71 years ago. And only with a camera.

Admittedly, I do have a stabby German knife my uncle gave me when I was fourteen. He thought it was a “Commando” dagger but it was far more interesting as well as older. Rather than being the Birmingham-made stilletto my uncle presumed, it turned out to be a recognised model of First War German trench knife instead. Nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism.


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Double Vision

In 1941 Hitler’s deputy, the man second in rank only to the Fuhrer himself, did quite a strange thing. He flew right to the end of the fuel in the tanks of a twin-engined plane he’d been flying, right over Germany, the North Sea and most of Scotland and parachuted out to land in a field near Hamilton.

He announced himself to the farmer who held him at bay with a pitchfork as Captain Albert Horn and said he’d come to talk to the king. The farmer’s exact words are not recorded.

In 1945 Hitler was so annoyed with Goering asking if he should act on the order Hitler had given him that he ordered that he should be rounded-up and shot, along with his whole family. So it was a little surprising that Hitler’s reprisals against the Hess family were nothing at all.

Sitting in the dock at the Nuremberg Trials, Goering fell about laughing at Hess sitting next to him. Hess, for his part, totally failed to recognise someone who had worked with him daily. His wife had trouble recognising him although his handwriting matched pre-war Hess papers. This was the man who designed the final solution. Goering was sentenced to death and killed himself with cyanide. Hess was imprisoned for life. Over forty years later and although crippled with arthritis, he officially hanged himself with a piece of electric flex suspended 1.4 metres off the ground. Not high, but high enough for a man who couldn’t raise his arms above shoulder height.

Fourteen years before this suicide a British Army doctor made a quite astonishing assertion. He claimed that in his professional opinion, as someone who had seen more than enough bullet wounds in a medical career in Northern Ireland, whoever was the last prisoner in Spandau jail definitely was not the same person who had been shot through the chest in 1917, the way the records said Hess was.

If he didn’t believe it to be true then it was an odd thing to say, given it would finish his career in the Army and any future one in medicine.

I don’t know what is true and what isn’t in this story. Captain Horn, who didn’t seem to exist, made great play on his flight plan, flying rectangles in the North Sea, but seemed vague on why he had. What was more certain was that Horn asked to see the Duke of Hamilton, who he seemed to think had access to a network of British aristocrats who would one way or another side with Hitler and bring the war to a close.

Not entirely surprisingly, Hess/Horn found himself bundled off first to Warwick Castle en route to Trent Park interrogation centre, then  to the tower of London, then to Spandau for the rest of his life. The very few people who ever saw him again had mixed reactions to him. His wife was surprised that his voice had got deeper. Not least that as men age their voices get higher. His interrogators worried that the prisoner was so unstable that he might well kill himself, which wouldn’t look good on their watch.

What was un-arguable was that there was a network of sympathisers with Hitler, which it didn’t suit anybody in England to be reminded of at the time. The Earl of Halifax, tipped for the Prime Minister’s job was a major figure arguing for an agreement with Mussolini. Prime Minister Chamberlain was instrumental in the annexation of Czechoslovakia. When Unity Mitford had a crush on Hitler and shot herself in Munich she magically and inexplicably to many turned up for treatment in hospital in England.   Her sister Diana was more successful, marrying Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Reading about Unity Mitford today, I found some odd similarities with what her family said about her after the shooting and what Hess’ family said about him, when eventually, after years, they were allowed to see him: “Not only was her appearance shocking, she was a stranger, someone we did not know.”

Her sister continued “We brought her back to England in an ambulance coach attached to a train.” As one does, in the middle of WW11. It happened all the time, obviously. If they’d just stuck an Enigma machine on the train as well then it would all have been over by Christmas.

Every word of that is true. Hardly any word of that is remembered in a world where every plucky Tommy had the backing of the whole country behind him.

Every time I read it I think of Johnny Rotten kneeling at the edge of the stage, somewhere in America on a tour he hated, sneering “Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?” I do. So it seems do the Pathe News archivists, who have put inverted commas around Hess name on their website.

In another, rare colour recording, Hess disconcertingly talks of what he would have wished if he had known he would meet ‘ a fiery death.’ The kind you might meet in an airplane for example. Which is odd, given he was never in the airforce at all.

Hess’s story stuck in my mind for years. It’s just so odd, with so many loose ends, or apparently loose ends. Yesterday I decided, out of the blue, to write a version of it. The first two scenes are done, in a single afternoon’s work, even if that did turn out to be an eight-hour stretch.

It was and will be worth it. Writing it feels right. It’s about the only thing about the story that does.



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I’m not a racist but –

Thomas Mair looking to the right, just like the people who tried to pretend he had nothing to do with Britain First.
Thomas Mair looking to the right, just like the people who tried to pretend he had nothing to do with Britain First.

After the Referendum I’ve learned a number of things.

  1. The most important issue facing the UK today is how rubbish Jeremy Corbyn is. This is the major preoccupation of the UK media, so it must be true. The fact that the entire referendum was a squabble between entitled rich boys who will never, ever have to face any personal consequences of their actions is wholly and completely irrelevant. Especially when one of them is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to promote himself in the fiercely independent British press owned by people who aren’t British, but know much more about how to be it than people who actually live here.
  2. It was never about immigration. Oh, OK. Well, it certainly wasn’t about economics, was it?
  3. It was about democracy. Which is why there are no plans whatsoever to reform, let alone abolish the completely undemocratic House of Lords or the monarchy, and stand to attention when you type that word or you’ll learn to expect Britain First knocking on your door, too. Which now you might anyway, because Britain First are not to be condemned. And that’s official. After MP Jo Cox was shot dead by a Britain First supporter, who was also saying in the dock “I am a political activist,” just in case anyone was unclear what this murder was about, not a single MP condemned Britain First. Not one. That fact alone tells you pretty much all you need to know about racism in Britain today. You don’t need to approve of it. All you need to do is refuse to condemn the people doing it.

I’m quite British, as well as being of a certain age, so I’ll give you some British. We all like British, don’t we? I mean, not many other countries do now, but we’re really, utterly brilliant. It said so in all the tabloids and they don’t lie. Except about Hillsboro. Or Orgreave. Or Charles de Menezes. Or Stephen Waldorf. Or Freddie Starr eating my hamster. But apart from that they don’t, ever. So are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time in Bremen or thereabouts, a friend got talking to an old lady who used to live next door to some Jewish people a long time ago. One day they weren’t there. Their front door was open though, which most of the street found quite convenient when they needed to borrow household items like a piano, or a sofa, or some curtains, or in fact most of the contents of the house now it was obvious nobody with hair like that was coming back to ask for a cup of sugar, ever again.

“So,” my friend said, and with her hair like summer wheat and her cold blue eyes and the way she said “So!” when she was just being herself and trying to be friendly, it was always quite scary if you were brought up on a diet of Colditz and The Great Escape.

“So! Where did they go?” She wanted the old lady to say the words. Auschwitz. Dachau. Treblinka. Any one of the litany. Or even just: “I don’t know. ” But none of these words came.

“They just went,” the old lady said. My friend asked again.”But where?”

“Well,” a little more slowly this time, “They just went.”

Because the old lady knew the rule that my friend had never had to learn, thanks to the EU. You do not ask where people go when you know racists came and killed them. You do not ask where people from another race are taken when your name might go on the list, or anyone else’s. You do not call the police when the neighbours are taken away, especially when it was the police that took them. And when you have to face what has happened you don’t say “yes, but I got a new sofa out of it.” Except that’s essentially what some people are saying exactly, here in the UK, now.

Today I’ve heard ‘well, there are bound to be some casualties.’ So it’s ok that hundreds of billions have been wiped off the economy. It’s ok that the £ is plummeting against the euro which is supposed by Brexit to be such a failing currency. And it’s totally ok that a hundred racial attacks have been recorded in a couple of days, that a shop has been firebombed, that leaflets telling Poles they’re vermin have been posted through letterboxes.

Nice Mr and Mrs Brexit didn’t do it. They just voted shoulder to shoulder alongside the people who did. And when those different people go, once again, Mr and Mrs Brexit with their shiny principles and their Cross of Turkish St George and their reduced pension they voted for and their intact, laughable non-democratic government they wouldn’t change for all the tea in China, even if they could afford it any more, despite, or perhaps because that They’ve Got Principles, still won’t know where they went.

They just went.

Again. Funny how that happens. So if you’ll excuse me I’m not going to be singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me. I know all the words. And I know how it ends.

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Getting serious

Once upon a time I wrote this thing. This script, Janni Schenck. Then I re-wrote it and each time I learned something else I had to re-write it again. I’ve lost track of how many re-writes I’ve had to do.

Not a game. Not at all.
Not a game. Not at all.

For years I convinced myself I couldn’t write it. It’s about a German kid in a small rural village in 1945. I’m not German. I only went to Germany once and that was Hamburg, which nice though it is, isn’t any more like a rural village than Heathrow is like Keevil airfield. Exactly. Where I grew up. Where we used to ride mopeds. Where there was a huge WWII resettlement camp for Polish people. More irrelevancies; that was the point. There was always a reason not to write it, because I thought I couldn’t.

Then late last year I got pneumonia. It really wasn’t funny but one good thing came out of it: I wrote Janni Schenck in about ten days. That might explain why it needed so many re-writes, but on the plus side I only remember sitting down to write, with my laptop, on the sofa practically in the dark twice, for about ten minutes. It must have taken longer than that, but I honestly don’t remember.

So the update: when I wrote my first script it won the BBC Writers Room prize, which was going to pitch it to Cascade studios which I duly did and equally duly they didn’t option it, life being unfair. Later on, someone who works on scripts for a living told me ‘it’s not a script.’ She also told me that Cascade’s rejection of it on the basis that there was ‘a gap in the narrative arc,’ (unlike say, the millions of narrative gaps in Love Actually) was standard. As she said, ‘there always is.’

I sent it to Film Suffolk via an actor friend who liked it and sent it on to someone who might be in a position to produce it. He sent it back too, but for reasons I’d predicted. More than somewhat surprisingly he’d written a screenplay about a German kid of the same age, set at the end of WWII in a little German village near where my semi-invented German village was. Or wasn’t. I don’t know where the real Janni Schenck’s village was and I think he’s long dead given I met him nearly a quarter-century ago; I set it in the fictional village in Fall, which is a real place but these days is mostly under a reservoir. It caught my eye not for its name but for the story in the newspaper a while ago, about how the water was drying out. Fall was resurrecting.

They only live in old photos now.
They only live in old photos now.

I sent it to an American festival where screenplays they like are performed. They liked it but they didn’t perform it for a number of technical reasons, none of which were what I expected and all of which are fixable. There are three major things to do, one of which I’ve completed and the other two I’m wasting time not doing today, so by six o’clock or it won’t get done.

The reason Film Suffolk’s producer friend didn’t want to get involved was for the reason I’d predicted. Outside Germany it’s going to be hard to place. Germans in films are Bad. Everyone knows that. This is a world America saved, don’t forget. At the cinema, anyway. Band of Brothers had the 101st Airborne showing the Brits how to do it at Arnhem don’t forget, which is a pretty good trick given there were precisely no Americans at Arnhem at all. None. Zilch. Nada. It never happened. Except on TV.

So I need to find a German producer and one who’s worked in the genre, as we say, taking off our hand-crafted Persol shades and looking intent. And I might have found one, after only a very little research, if you can call Google and Wikipedia ‘research.’ But don’t start me on that.

Please step forward Herr Tom Tykwer. While I was teaching kids to shoot in America and driving my Chevrolet to Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn with a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean (no, I actually, tragically actually did all this stuff), Herr Tykwer, who I am going to be incredibly polite to before I’ve met him, was setting up a film company. And he made a film dealing with a similar theme.

Four Days In May is curious. It’s about a boy in the Hitler Youth, about the same age as Janni in 1945, set in the very last week of the war. The end of Janni’s war came about a fortnight earlier. But other than that, very similar.

I’ve just signed-up for the London Screenwriter’s Festival,  but first a weekend course on re-writing.

The course promises to transform it from good to world class. And so far, I know it’s good. When the only negative comment to date is “I’m not reading this again – it’s too upsetting. Sorry,” then although I hadn’t intended to upset my friend, it wasn’t the worst thing she could have said about it.

There were serious reasons she’d been upset by it, but it’s a serious subject. When you’re thirteen you only know what you’re told. For some people, that goes on for the rest of their lives. The tragedy is that for some of those, that’s quite a short time-scale.

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Seventy-one years

By coincidence, because I don’t plan that well, the story of Janni Schenck ended and began almost exactly seventy-one years ago today. If he was fourteen then, he’s eighty-five now. Which is probably time to get something straightened out. It’s not his real name. I heard his story first-hand from him, but I never knew his name.


The key things in the Janni Schenck screenplay are true. There was a weapons bunker hidden outside a small village in Germany. People were bombed out of their homes by the USAAF and the RAF. Kids of thirteen had no choice when they were conscripted into the Hitler Youth.There was a key difference between being a member of the Hitler Youth and being a member of the Nazi Party.

There was an organisation called the Edelweiss Pirates. They loved Swing. They killed the mayor of Cologne before the Gestapo hunted them down.  People loved Swing music. It was never illegal as such, but if you played too much of it then it was. There was German Swing, manufactured parodies of mainstream Swing, written and played by the Party and broadcast specifically so that UK and US troops would hear it. The lyrics were not encouraging. Except when they encouraged distrust and suspicion. They were quite good at that.

A soldier made a joke about Hitler and when his friend laughed they were both sentenced to death. As the sentence was about to be carried out, partisans attacked and they ran. When they stopped running one of them walked 700 km home to Bremen, lit by the fires of German cities. All of these things are true.

The more I talk to people who have talked to older people about these stories then the more I hear that the ending of Janni Schenck was the ending for many other people too.

In late April 1945 the SS came to the little village where Janni lived. They gathered up all the boys in the Hitler Youth and marched them to a small wood near the village. From the bunker they uncovered in the wood they issued the boys with brand new factory-fresh machine guns and rifles, grenades, bullet belts, helmets, knives, anything and everything that they could carry.

The SS told the boys that the Americans would be in the village within half an hour. They told the boys that the village had to be defended to the last bullet. For the Fatherland. For the Hitler Youth. For Germany. For the future. For civilisation.

They told the boys they had to go now. They left for Switzerland.

The boys carried their new weapons back down to the village. On the way they met their schoolmaster in the lane. He was the head of the Hitler Youth troop in the village.

He beat them up. He made them throw all their guns in the ditch and sent them home, crying.

The Americans arrived less than half an hour later. They were ready to shoot the entire village if anything had started. Thanks to an unknown man long ago, those boys lived for the future. For civilisation. For an unbelievably better Germany.

Not everybody followed orders, whatever the television tells you. Not everybody at all.

So happy anniversary, Janni, wherever you are.  I wish I knew your name.


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Lost boys

IMG_0713When J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan first came out, grown men left the theatre sobbing. Not because it was rubbish and they’d been pulled away from an agreeable evening at the club to go and watch it with a wife they rarely saw, but because of the central theme. Peter’s merry band of boys weren’t all that merry. Like him, they’d never grown up because they lived in Neverland. They’d been sent to schools that ripped them away from their families. The part of them that would have grown in a family was lost forever. That part of them was dead.

Just a few years later the sons of these same men were sent to France to die in their hundreds of thousands. There was nothing metaphoric about their deaths. Twenty years later the survivors sent their own sons to be killed.

I found this picture in the effects of a Scottish soldier of the Second War. His daughter told me that he had had to shoot someone once and that it bothered him all the rest of his life. She told me too, that on his long trek from Normandy to Bremen they’d adopted a young German boy. I don’t know which of those two this boy was. I never will now. All I know is that his picture was taken in Ypres on 30th April 1943, the studio and the date stamped on the back.


I wanted to do something to remember not just him but all the boys like him, in every army, at any point in history. It doesn’t matter where you’re born or what uniform they make you wear. There is no difference in any of us.

All of them unknown.
All of them unknown.

Yes, I know perfectly well what uniform they’re wearing. I know what the flashes on their collars mean. And I know too that whatever badge they wore, or the shape of their hats, they didn’t want to end-up dead in a field in Belgium any more than anyone else ever did. The same way the girl standing like a small child, or the woman on the right or the sophisticated woman in the dark dress didn’t want to be bombed out of their house or raped by the Russian army.

It makes no difference. All of them are almost certainly dead. If you can know anything about Hans Hofmann that you didn’t get from Wikipedia (and no, this boy is not THAT Hans Hoffmann), if your name is Hofmann or you know anything else about these photos, please tell me and post it here. It might help somebody, somewhere.

It’s not much of a memorial, I know. But I’m going to use these photos for the production of my screenplay Janni Schenck. For all the lost boys, wherever they are then and now.

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I spent fifteen years telling myself I couldn’t do something. Which was stupid, because that always turns out to be true. To be accurate I spent thirteen years doing that and another two years thinking I had to do it but I didn’t know how. Then a year seriously thinking about how I was going to do it.

It was a story. The problem was it was true. The bigger problem was it happened in a Germany that has thankfully disappeared, which I knew next to nothing about. Not least as I didn’t speak German.

I didn’t want to be the sad bloke with shelves full of books with swastikas on the spine. Even after I learned they’re called hakencruzen. I read everything I could, buying books from boot-sales, second-hand shops, anywhere. What I didn’t want was military history. I needed to know how a village worked. What people had for breakfast in 1945. What the newspaper was called.

I had the story: I’d heard it first-hand. I needed the framework it happened in. And the reality of that wasn’t anything you’ve ever seen on TV. You think you know about it from the graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan or the extended buddy movie treatment of Band of Brothers. You don’t. Even Der Untergang doesn’t touch on what happened to ordinary people, the millions of people who just happened to be born at a place, at a time. Who could have been anybody. Who could have been you.

I hadn’t the first clue before I started this what had happened to ordinary people. I got my first clue talking to a German woman about her town. I’d asked her what’s it like?

Oh, quite new houses, like any other town in the north of Germany, she’d said. And the old town? Well, the RAF took care of the old town one night in late March 1945. Chiefly because they could. It shocked me. It still does. And before anyone jumps up and down screaming about the Blitz, yes. Awful. About 40,000 British people died from German bombing in the war. About 40,000 people died in three nights of bombing by the RAF in Hamburg. Something else they forgot to mention at my school, along with the whole idea of German resistance to Nazism which by its nature, was quite secretive and predictably and inevitably short-lived. It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?”

It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?” When the police take away everyone in the house next door, what are you going to do? Call the police? Maybe write to your MP? Fight them, the same way refugees are told they should, with sticks against rifles? And there’s always plenty more room on the truck. But some people stood up.

I turned it into a screenplay, Janni Schenk. One person refused to read it twice because it upset her so much the first time. It’s not graphic violence. The body count is very low and almost all of it happens out of shot. It’s a very simple story. Almost all of it is true.

An orphaned boy is betrayed by his country, his youth-group and his school-teacher before he saves his village from total destruction.

Except his youth-group was the Hitler Jugend. And the people about to destroy his village were the US Army. And for that reason alone I don’t think any film-maker outside Germany is going to touch it with gloves on. Certainly not an American film-maker. But let’s see. Maybe I’ll be wrong.

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Janni Schenck

It was a summer afternoon about 16 years ago and I had nothing much to do that wouldn’t wait. I walked across the fields, down the hill and over the canal and the little river, then up the hill the other side of the valley, to a pub nearly at the top, near the Rudolf Steiner school. An old man was in there, having a loud argument with a fat Enlighs skinhead.

I’d seen the old man before. The first time I noticed his white flowing hair and aquiline nose and said to my partner ‘Look, that’s Rudolf Steiner,” but she unsportingly didn’t laugh. He was getting louder this time. Then I heard the words “Hitler Youth,” which are not words you often hear in Home Counties pubs, even if there are fat skinheads there. I’d assumed it was the large, bald bloke. And I was wrong.

It was the old man who’d spoken about the Hitler Youth. They were great, he said. And he should know, because he was one. Or had been then. What had made him incandescent with anger was being called a Nazi. You had to join the Nazi Party, he shouted at the other man, who was probably not a skinhead really, just fat and bald with a London-diaspora voice. And sixteen million people had. But you didn’t get the choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You go a card on your thirteenth birthday, telling you that you were a member. Your choice what happened next.

I’ve always thought of him as Janni Schenck. I wrote his story.

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