I am a historian, writer and mother.
Those are the three things that really matter to me. I wear several hats. Wearing my historian hat, I write about the Cold War. But this means more to me than ‘just’ history. The Cold War is a part of my life, it is my personal history too.
I have written about many subjects over the years. One that has been with me for a long time now is the use of the death penalty, particularly in the USA. I wrote a book about that more than 25 years ago, about one young black man who was executed in Mississippi. His story continues today.
Then there is my role as a mother and, these days, grandmother as well. I write about that too, about loss, and have done so since my elder daughter died of cancer aged 32. It’s another part of my personal history and one which links me to all those who have lost loved ones and grieve.
Writing is an essential part of me. For most of my life, I have earned my living by writing in books, newspapers, magazines and journals. Now I am also writing through my website.
Controversial anniversaries of Dresden bombing
This week marks the 73rd anniversary of the British and US Second World War bombing raid on the German city of Dresden. The attack was controversial at the time and has remained so throughout the decades. Thousands of civilians died in a firestorm. There are questions about the morality of targeting civilians and about the need for the attack in February 1945 when the war was almost at an end. Soviet troops were only a few miles from the city which was crowded with refugees. The enormous firestorm in the heavily populated city centre killed thousands of men, women and children. Over the years, the precise number of people killed has been disputed, the current accepted figure being about 25,000 but at times it has been put as high as nearly a quarter of a million.
The figure varies depending, among other things, on the global political agenda. During the Cold War, there were those who wanted to talk up the tragedy, those who wanted to talk it down, and some who wanted to keep the whole thing under wraps. Indeed until the 1960s, most people in Britain were unaware that this attack had taken place.
What is interesting – as much as the fluctuating casualty figure – is the manner in which the anniversary has been marked over the decades in this country. As with the figure for those killed, it tells us something about political attitudes and agendas. A quick trawl through The Times archive for the relevant date in February shows the following:
1955 – Cold War propaganda
Ten years after the raid, the one brief news story in The Times focussed on Communist propaganda rather than the raid itself. Dresden lay behind the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet Union sphere of influence. The headline read Dresden Raids as Propaganda. The anniversary was seen in Britain as an opportunity ‘by the east German Government to repeat their attacks on the rearming of the Federal Republic … and to assert the peaceful complexion of the Communist world.’
1965 – dropped off the schedule
By 1965 the Dresden anniversary had all but dropped off the news schedule. The only reference in The Times came at the end of three paragraphs noting that the Mayor of West Berlin, Willi Brandt, was going to visit Coventry Cathedral later that year. The cathedral’s Provost, the piece said, had launched an appeal to help rebuild a Dresden hospital damaged during the raid.
1975 – Dresden the forgotten past?
There was no mention at all of Dresden in 1975. Why not? Perhaps we were preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War and had no time to think about previous conflicts.
1985 – the most unnecessary air raid of the pre-atomic age?
But by 1985 it was all change. There were four news stories and several other references to the Dresden raid in The Times which sent a journalist and a photographer to the city to cover the anniversary events taking place in the city. The first report by Alan Hamilton began:
Forty years ago tonight at ten minutes past ten in the chill dark, the air raid sirens wailed across the roof tops of the finest baroque city in northern Europe.
Dresden had always thought itself safe: the war was near its end, the city had no major military installations, and no civilised nation would bomb such a treasure store of art and architecture. Its population of 650,000 was swelled by half a million refugees fleeing before the advancing Red Army.
By dawn the jewel of Saxony had been pounded and burnt to rubble by the most devastating, and some say the most unnecessary, air raid of the pre-atomic age. Eight hundred RAF bombers dropped one incendiary for every man, woman and child in Dresden. It is today accepted that those buried, incinerated or suffocated in “The Night of the Devil’s Tinderbox” amounted to an estimated 135,000 Germans.
The report went on to note that a British group led by the Bishop of Coventry and the city’s Lord Mayor were in Dresden to mark the anniversary.
Meanwhile Channel 4 was running a documentary in which the official history of RAF Bomber Command defended the raid. Dresden had become controversial again.
1995 – a sense of national guilt
Over the next ten years, a sense of national guilt about the Dresden air raid grew. The Cold War had come to an end in 1990. At the time of the 50th anniversary in 1995 The Times published around a dozen news stories relating to the Dresden anniversary, plus a leader, a feature by Simon Jenkins with the headline Ban airborne terrorism and another by the Bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington-Ward, headed Sharing in Dresden’s sorrow.
2005 – neo-Nazis capture the headlines
By 2005 the tone had changed again. The Times focussed its attentions on what it described as neo-Nazi attempts to hijack the commemorations in Dresden.
2015 – the morality of targeting civilians during war
In 2015, the morality of the air raid was once again on the agenda. Targeting civilians during war had become tragically relevant as conflict raged in Syria.
The last gasp of the Second World War or the first act of the Cold War?
Dresden is part of my personal story too. I went there in 1965 to help rebuild the hospital mentioned above. I have written about this in Communing with the Enemy and in Stepping Off the Map. I have argued that the bombing of Dresden was one of the first acts of the Cold War rather than the last gasp of the Second World War.
My books are more than just words on a page. They are the story of my life. And they have lives of their own. They make things happen. I will tell you more about that on other pages, about the impact of writing on the world around us.
The Cold War: A Beginner's Guide
We continue to talk about the Cold War, more than 25 years after it was supposed to have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But what exactly was the Cold War? How did it happen, why did it end and what has been its impact? This short book aimed at the general reader throws light on some Cold War myths created during a conflict in which propaganda and deception were powerful weapons. Understanding the Cold War will help us to understand the world we live in today.
Communing With The Enemy
In this book I examine the little known secret role of British and German Christians in the Cold War. I have delved through the Stasi archives in the former East Germany and talked to some of those involved. Religion was used as a tool of psychological warfare with Christians tunnelling their way beneath the ideological barriers of the Cold War in the name of reconciliation.
Stepping Off The Map
This is one of the hidden stories of the Cold War, one in which I was directly involved. Four years after the building of the Berlin Wall, a group of young British men and women crossed through the Iron Curtain. Their mission was to help rebuild a war bombed hospital in Dresden, East Germany. The project was organised by a man with a vision, the then Provost of Coventry Cathedral. I was one of those who took part. The book recalls the experiences of the young British volunteers and describes the way in which taking part in the project has influenced the rest of their lives.
Life On Death Row
Foreword by Clive Stafford Smith
This is the story of a young British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, and his fight to save the life of a young black man, Edward Johnson, in Mississippi. Edward was sentenced to death for killing a white law officer and was executed in 1987 after eight years on Death Row. Clive and many others believed Edward was innocent. Clive went on to defend others on Death Row in the USA. He is currently head of the human rights organisation Reprieve which he founded.
Wordsmith: The Gift of a Soul
My daughter Megan Young died from cancer aged 32. She was an equine veterinary surgeon and also a poet. In this book, I have used her poems to create an account of her life. Megan's poetry is powerful and profound. It speaks of those things that are common to us all - life and death, joy and pain, eternity and the soul. Her talent is to express these deep and complex thoughts in a language that is both beautiful and simple. Her writing is suffused with an awareness of the spirit yet it is grounded in the reality of her life as a scientist and equine vet.
Recent blog posts
Here are some blogs I have written recently. To see the complete collection of posts, see the blog .
This week marks the 73rd anniversary of the British and US Second World War bombing raid on the German city of Dresden. The attack was controversial at the time and has remained so throughout the decades. Thousands of civilians died in a firestorm. There are questions about the morality of targeting civilians and about the need for the attack in February 1945 when the war was almost at an end. Soviet troops were only a few miles from the city which was crowded with refugees.Read more ...
At first glance it seems to me that poetry and science make strange bedfellows. The latter demands accuracy and clarity, the former is open to the interpretation of the reader, revealing more than the mere words suggest.Read more ...
2018 – a year of anniversaries. Prague, Paris, Chicago, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. Names and places that resonate today. All of these will be talked about and read about this year, fifty years on from assassination and riots. For me, a year of personal memories.Read more ...
Some people seem to be scratching their heads, asking themselves why Coventry has been chosen as UK City of Culture 2021. British people that is. What doesn’t seem to be realised is that Coventry is an international city, its name resonating with people around the world. Its message of peace and reconciliation is heard by thousands in other countries and has done so since the building of the inspirational new cathedral consecrated in 1962.Read more ...